History’s gifts

My painting, my Dreamtime, nobody own it for me, nobody can stop this history painting. When I die, young people gotta take it over. That’s why all over the world we meet up, talk together and give history to one another.

PFW*

It’s late at night in the first week of a Coursera/Duke MOOC on the future of higher education, and we’re rattling through a remake of Robert Darnton’s history of four great information ages. This big history marches forward with such conviction and pace that we leap over most of the 20th century in a single bound, from mechanised printing straight to the global internet. You might think the business histories of photography, radio, film and television would be models for the kind of education we have now, but it looks like literary history has it covered. OK, then.

Cathy Davidson calls this a “purposive and activist history”, learning from the past in order to change the future. I’m not sure who the “we” of this history might be, but I’m hearing “we” a lot. Sometimes it points at the people who share the political or industrial history of the US, or the slightly wider developed world; and sometimes we are all accommodated inside history’s generous marquee, because, you know, diversity.

And then suddenly there he is, on screen for less than a minute: an Aboriginal man in worn military uniform, a barefoot woman wrapped in a blanket sitting on rocks behind him, and grog bottles in a basket at his feet. The video is talking about “these ancient Aboriginal tribes in Australia”, to demonstrate something about oral cultures and their capacity to remember complex stories of kinship, which will later reattach to a thought about basketball fans and their ability to remember stats. I feel a kind of panic: wait, did we just go there? And sure enough, we’re right at the heart of the terrible history of empires built for trade behind a facade of civilising pedagogy, only now “we” seem to be re-enacting exactly the encounter that I’m looking at on my laptop screen.

There’s no sign in the end credits as to what this image is or why it’s there; and a question to the forums gets no response because, you know, forums.

So I ask again on Twitter, and this time Jade Davis who I follow and respect highly for her work on digital knowledge cultures, does her own search and finds it. It’s a 19th century etching of Bungaree, an Aboriginal man who was well known in and around Sydney during the early years of the colony. The image was made by travelling colonial artist Augustus Earle, who had finally made it to Sydney in 1825 after travelling through Europe (“sketching antiquities, Moorish ruins and batteries”), touring the US and South America, and being stranded for several months in Tristan da Cunha. The image doesn’t tell us much about Bungaree, his wives or the skilful mediation he practiced between the colonial administration around him and the other clans living around Sydney at that time, because Earle couldn’t have grasped the complexity of those things. But it probably gives a reasonable account of Earle himself, and his sense of what audiences in London and Sydney wanted to know: it’s touristic, entertaining, and prurient all at once, while keeping Bungaree, his ironic costuming and his confronting household arrangements at arm’s length.

Later I asked Cathy Davidson on Twitter how this image had been chosen to illustrate a point about communication among Aboriginal people in the pre-contact period when in every visible detail, it’s about the opposite: the cultural collision between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal institutions and expectations in the colonial era. In a long forum post she reflected on the purpose of the lecture itself, and said that as the image was “offensive” without contextual explanation, it would be removed. And then when pressed a bit, she explained how the mismatch had been set up in the first place.

Because Coursera is for-profit, the licensing of images is extremely strict because one needs Creative Commons images but for a for-profit company.   This was the only image those who were adding images were able to find. We added images because it was thought that those who were non-native speakers or not familiar with my American accent would find the lectures easier if proper names were spelled out and images were used to illustrate non-familiar material.

I respect this candour. But removing the image just confirms who gets to deploy authorial entitlement here: who decides, and who is decided for. Bungaree gets patched in to illustrate the non-familiar, and then in the name of cultural sensitivity gets deleted again. And I’m still curious about the process that went through several steps without anyone noticing anything odd. Finding this image, settling for it, not feeling any need to explain it: all this feels like a kind of hubris about world culture that isn’t exclusive to MOOCs, but is certainly something about powerful institutions that MOOCs have exposed to a wider audience.

Earle’s encounter with Bungaree is a good metaphor for what’s happening as higher education becomes more entrepreneurial. Like the other colonial artists vagabonding about in the tropical south at this time, Earle was using his professional skills and social position to sell a particular account of the world back to itself, on behalf of an imperial power scrambling for land in competition with others from the global north. However he conceived of himself as an artist, his work operated within a purposive, activist project that encouraged investment in further exploration, the exploitation of new resources, and ultimately the creation of new markets. He wasn’t particularly accurate or insightful about Bungaree, but he didn’t have to be—he simply needed to frame him in this way to support a simplistic view of the diversity that would become the operating system (literally, in terms of racialised labour) of the colony itself.

Humanities scholars who join the race for global audiences using MOOCs as their platform need to ask the hardest questions about repeating the patterns of colonising pedagogy as edtech philanthropy. At the moment I can’t see how LMS-style platforms that are instructor-led could make space for the sharing of history on equal terms that would genuinely change the way global education works—although they can certainly support a limited kind of crowdsourcing of content that could be mistaken for something bolder. Nor is there evidence that the CEOs currently talking up the philanthropic and democratising potential of MOOCs want to see even a thimbleful of critique of the way prestige operates in higher education.

But I agree with Laura Czerniewicz at the University of Cape Town that simply saying no to whatever we mean by MOOCs isn’t the best step for those of us in other places. We need to work together to understand how hype around online courses accelerated the pace of innovation, and now that everyone’s calming down, we need to look at the options this has given us all for talking together across national and regional boundaries, without waiting for the powerful to lead.

Two notes

The quote at the top of this post is from the Aboriginal cultural historian and artist whose work is the subject of a beautiful short film and cultural history lesson, Too Many Captain Cooks, made in 1988.

Professor Cathy Davidson took a great deal of time and care in considering these issues from her perspective in her Coursera forum post “Race, Racisim, Representation and Alternate Timelines”.  Jade Davis, PhD candidate and Duke participant in the class to which this MOOC is attached, found the image and did the same on Twitter.  I learned a lot from their responses, and I appreciated their willingness to take this criticism seriously.