Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, Jan 17, 2015

I've covered work by Audrey Watters a dozen times or more now and she's never had a problem with it - at least, none that ever made it into a column about my coverage.

This week, though, I said there was "a certain cynicism" in a recent list of articles by her and suddenly became one of those people.

She writes:

I’m always fascinated to see how my work in ed-tech is deemed “emotional” or dismissed as merely “cultural analysis” – gendered descriptions of what I do (subtly, overtly) perhaps. I don’t know if cynicism counts as “emotional,” but I'm sure I'll hear explanations of why or why not. Men will explain cyncisim to me.

I think that in the course of my coverage I typically dismissed her work as in one way or another 'emotional' then the criticism might be well founded. But given that I do not, I would say that rather than being influenced by gender, as she suggests, my choice of words was based on the fact that the list of articles actually expressed a certain cynicism.

She doesn't like my other word choices either:

More interestingly in Downes' summary of my ed-tech trends series (which I have to interject here involves a lot of hard work; it's not a "list".

So  how fair was my choice of the word 'list'? We could look at the way I presented the links in my post here, or on her post here. Either way, my choice of words stands: it's a list. I don't doubt that it took a lot of hard work. But that doesn't make it something other than a list, especially when it is presented, well, as a list.

She continues, in the same paragraph:

Am I defensive? Emotional? How conventient...): the implication that I only “cover the field,” and I don’t “build."

Again, I refer to my previous coverage of her work to suggest that my response would not be that the is "defensive" or "emotional". I am not that guy, whomever it is she is responding to here.

But yes, I would say that my observation is that what she does is to, as she says, "cover the field." That's why I wrote in my original post as follows:

“There’s a certain cynicism informing this list, which I think is unavoidable if you stay in the business of covering the field long enough. This, I think, is where my role is different: I not only cover the field, but I’m deeply engaged in building as well

I believe there is a difference between what I does and what she does, and I believe that "I’m deeply engaged in building as well" is a good way of expressing it. She doesn't. OK. Here's her argument:

At first, I admit, I wanted to respond to Downes that I do build things. I’d point to my writing, websites, my GitHub repos, my open source code and content. I’m building analysis. I’m building criticism. I’m building a history of what’s lost and forgotten about education technology. I’m building repositories of data about ed-tech funding. I talk to educators, via social media, every day about all of this.

Let's allow that to be writing about something is to be engaged in building. It nonetheless does not follow that writing about something is the same thing as doing that thing. What she is providing is content, news, analysis, repositiories, etc., about the field. It's not the same as building something in the field.

She is free to disagree with me, of course. She wouldn't be anywhere near the first to disagree with me on something like this.

But I think it's unfair to disagree with me on the basis that I've given "gendered descriptions of what I do" or am "mansplaining" or that "Men build, we're reminded. Women chatter." Once again, I am not that guy. Perhaps this is addressed to someone else. Perhaps I'm being captured in a stereotype. I don't care. I mean none of those things when I write, not even unconsciously, because I pay attention to these things when I write.

She continues:

perhaps he’s right: I’m not a builder. But it’s not because I’m a destroyer. (The opposite of “constructive criticism” is always this unspoken “destructive criticism,” isn’t it.) It’s because I’m doing something else entirely, unrecognizable I guess in a certain paradigm about "what counts" as professional work online, what counts as "building." 

I would say that this work is very recognizable, it is what I would characterize as "journalism" (perhaps also: commentary, critique, punditry, and a range of related concepts, but I think of it foremost as journalism).

I don't see this as any type of diminutive (I've spent a lot of my own life in the same endeavour). In any given day I read the work of a dozen journalists. They each have their strengths and their foci - but one thing that separates them all from me, men or women: they don't do what I do. That's not a criticism of them, that's a fact.

Over the years I've built dozens of online courses, a learning management system, a learning and resources community, a college website, an online virtual environment, a podcasting system, a resource aggregator, a collaborative content development workflow system, another learning management system, and more. And I continue to be engaged in this work, in addition to whatever punditry I pursue, to this day. Audrey Watters doesn't.

This is no slight on her, no reflection of her gender good or bad, it is no reflection on the value of her work, no reflection on her professionalism, and no other manner of deep evil she may imagine lurks within my mind. It's simply a statement that I do something that she doesn't, and this gives me a different perspective on the subject.

She writes,

Is one of my sites viewed as more gendered because it has a woman’s name attached to the URL? Or are all my sites marked as such, by virtue of my authorship? What does this “markedness” mean for how my work is interpreted? What does it mean, more broadly (and I think this gets to the core of some of the issues Frances raises) for how we view “work” in ed-tech, in academia?


I can't speak for what others think. I am not them. My own words speak for what I think. If I think someone's work, or someone's identity, is somehow "marked" or "gendered" or whatever, I'll tell them. But for now, I think I'm just being lumped in with a bunch of other people I don't even know. I'm not sure what good is served by this, and think, probably, none is.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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