The open WPA: Dancing around in open land

WPA is not an acronym for Works Progress Administration (later the Work Projects Administration)–which some folks have suggested when I casually mention, at fancy dress-up cocktail parties, that I’m a WPA. WPA means Writing Program Administrator. But I can understand the confusion. WPAs often do a lot of progressive work (and projects from now until the 12th of forever), things that mean forward movement, going places, building programs, and such.

Though FDR’s WPA is an fairly old entity that was part of the New Deal, I’m okay with the comparison. The work the WPA did was needed and good (millions of Americans found work through that agency for eight years from 1935-1943), and benefited, I’m sure, my own antecedents. So. I’m not at all offended by anyone thinking I might be affiliated with such an important movement/agency/group/organization, though I do usually end up explaining what my WPAness means. Sometimes I just say I’m a writer. It’s easier than saying I’m a WPA and a lot less stressful than saying I’m an English teacher (so many people look aghast, and breathlessly say, as they back away from me, that they were awful in English: “Oh, look there’s Sam and Lena, I really must go say hello, excuse me, won’t you?” To Sam and Lena: “Ugh, Elizabeth teaches English–stay away–or least don’t say something stupid.”). Saying I’m an English professor is worse, and a Victorian literature professor, why, that’s even more catastrophic, I’m sad to say. The Victorians were sort of judge-y.

However, my point in this post is not about how hard it is to say what my professional life is or isn’t. My point is to write about how I’ve gotten to be such an open person, specifically an open writing program administrator. To be perfectly honest, it’s a thing that bleeds into my personal life in more than one way. I don’t think I could be an open person at work and then be closed at home. I had to re-think my own existence, to be slightly dramatic about it, and all that might mean in the last year. I’ve become open to new things, new ways of working, new friends, new sights, new sites, new language, new everything and open everything. Lately, since August last year actually, I’ve been engaged with what feels like very progressive projects by embracing all things open. I’ve read several books about open (with a few more to go), hefty articles (from law review journals even), light and fun articles (in some casual blogs and magazines), serious work from rhetoric and composition scholars (in academic journals in print and online and in blogs)–all about open things.

What baffles me most about this reading is that I lived parallel to the history I’m reading about now. I’m not really riveted by 20th/21st century history or events. Usually I read 19th century history/literature and that feeds my Victorian literature teaching, or I read happening-right-now works on teaching writing. The whole open thing was going on while I was an adult, and I never really learned much about it while it was happening. But I have friends now who were IN it. I had friends who were in it then, but I had no idea what they were talking about while they were talking about it. In the 1990s I was doing something very different with my life than the open advocates. Which is all to say: it was as it should be. No regrets. If I’d gotten it then, I’d be a different person than I am now–and that wouldn’t be good. I’m good just how I am. Right. Now.

But I’m deeply profoundly madly serious when I say: right now, open is the thing that will make me happy for a long time to come. I do cycle through intellectual and physical fads some (in 2009/10, I read every Michael Chabon book; I took karate classes like I was the next Bruce Lee until I had to hit people and mean it), but open is, as I explore it more, an undercurrent running with the river of my life, not against it. It’s always been there, I just never called it what it is.

I used to joke about being a scholar of liberation studies because everything I read or did with my mind was always about freedom–mine, specifically, but if I could support anyone else’s freedom, I was on board with that, too. I felt like the one thing I could do, and do well, was read, and persuade others of the wonder of reading, and that the one thing no one could ever take from me was what I learned, and that learning should always be liberatory (I mean, really, how could it be otherwise?). I was completely drawn to writers who were politically aware and somehow actively trying to change the world: Byron, Shelley, Barrett Browning, Dickens, Gaskell. In the 20th century, the one genre I was driven to read was spy fiction–all about spies who worked for governments who sought freedoms for its people. Sure, there was betrayal, but it was so scintillating and scrumptious when the good spies won (they didn’t always).

Occasionally, in the 20th century, I’d be hooked into other genres: I started reading Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent series when I was in 7th grade and finished when he finished (a great series that mirrors a lot of political change from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s). I cared about the way politics worked and how freedoms mattered to a people and how a people might give a lot to ensure freedom for all, risking life and limb in battles here and over there. (“Over There” is a song my grandmother, Blanche Kennedy, used to sing to me when I was little–she used to also sing, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”; I think my early interest in geography is explained by my grandfather’s involvement in WWI, his globe with little x’s on each country he’d been in, and my grandmother’s singing to me the songs of the Great War). My life was surrounded by the political. Home life was infused by the political; voting was one of the biggest events of each year; every man in my family, and some women, served in a branch of the military until my generation.

And OER is political. I want to extricate myself from political things these days, mostly, but this isn’t one I can ignore. The underlying freedom from cost to students and other teachers inherent in OER means something to those in poverty. Education is liberation. Free textbooks (online) or books published inexpensively to meet local needs (OER can often be remixed and reused to suit a particular educational situation)–this enables education. I’m a WPA at a school where poverty is an issue. Alabama is not the wealthiest state–we’re 42nd for income per capita. We’re ranked 9th for the number of folks living below the poverty level (below the poverty level–didn’t find anything about everyone living around and just above the poverty level). It makes sense that the condition of not having enough food, adequate shelter or clothing would have an impact on one’s education. When text could be provided to schools for less than the current outrageous spending for textbooks–what could that savings be spent on: computers, wi-fi, printers? It’s naive for me to think that a savings in one area of education would automatically beget largesse in another, but I have hope. Always hope. Being involved in open and working on OER (editing, writing, advocating) is, for me, nothing short of my duty as an educator and a citizen of the world.

That sounds high and mighty, doesn’t it? Well, it is. It’s a high and mighty thing.

Recently, I was on a panel about OER at the Computers & Writing conference. One colleague, Craig Hulst, talked about whether we had an ethical obligation to create OER when we could and when it was right (when it’s right was the focus of Charlie Lowe’s talk, my other colleague on the panel)–all of us are involved with Writing Spaces, an open educational resource. The answer to Craig’s question–did we or didn’t we?–was “Yes, we did. We are ethically bound to share our knowledge.” Of course, I believe this. I have said before, here and just about anytime anyone asks me about being open: if you attain ninja rank and you do not teach and share what you know, you risk losing your ninja membership card. Or you could burn in hell.

The right path is clear, isn’t it? (Or was I just over-the-top again? Ah well. If you’re not living on the edge, how can you see the view?) If I’m going to be a WPA, and I’m going to be for some time to come, I hope, then I need to be an open WPA. Or I could lose my ninja card. That would totally suck.

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Filed under Open Everything, Open All the Time, Reading & Writing

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