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.


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.

14 Responses

  • I do not at all disagree with your analysis. One reason I’m running a MOOC is to learn these things in an essay this winter in Public Culture I decry the repositioning as the for-profit MOOC as a central source of knowledge exactly when Wikipedia and other sources (imperfectly) try to decenter knowledge. Of course the #toofew, FemTechNet, and Storming Wikipedia groups, as I also note in the essay, wisely show how much issues of gender, race, and sexuality, as well as colonialism and postcoloniality, also enter even into “decentralized” international histories. That is why we are running a #FutureEd Initiative on top of this–to try to add as many voices as possible..

    In defense of the people who found this image of Bugaree, I want to mention that I always work to inject non-white, non-Western examples into any discussion of “the brain.” In this case, I was referencing the astonishment of the British Royal Societies when they learned that the first-peoples of Australia had mental memory and recitation capacities that were thought to be “superhuman,” to excel by a very large magnitude the most acclaimed British aristocrats who were, by eugenicists, thought to have superior ability. However, even this “factual” counterexample about human capacities–that makes British aristocrats basically “average”–did nothing to dislodge Galton’s eugenics or mid-19th century ideas of White supremacy. I use this example to show how “facts” do not change prejudice.

    Native American studies is one of my subfields and some of my, now deceased, relatives are first people activists who, in Canada, helped to establish the first global indigeneous peoples electronic networks, for other activists. I honor they work they have done in the world by paying attention and making sure white narratives are complicated by other narratives, not just by examples (exceptionalist) but by constructs that challenge us to think about our constructs. I mention this because the image of Bungaree was used because those doing the visuals wanted to help the Coursera viewers through what is a quite complicated example, as they have done with visuals they have produced throughout the MOOC. When Jade and you brought it to my attention, I reviewed it and I did not think it was racist. If Bungaree had not been a real historical figure, it would have exemplified exactly what I was talking about. However, once I did a little research and discovered his history, it was not appropriate to include it in this more general allegory. So I removed it.

    Here is my problem with your critique–which I mostly agree with. At the same time that I did not feel as If this image should be used, I am very glad for the exchange we had because it played out before a very large audience how we all negotiate these complex issues of historicism, racism, and representation as well as issues of public disagreement. Also, quite frankly, I rarely attend large gatherings of cognitive neuroscientists where such counter examples to Western ideas of “the brain” are used. I’m glad to have introduced this to a wider audience than is usual. Are there tradeoffs and compromises? Absolutely. Are there always? Absolutely. I believe higher education in general is complicit in the creation of cultural attitudes, and not always good ones. In fact, the structure of my MOOC is quite de-constructive in that it lays bear assumptions about higher education that are rarely factored into the pat conversations about “innovation.”

    Thanks so much for this. Race, representation, and history are major issues and this conversation has taken us deeper into those territories. The role of MOOCs in those issues, as much as the issue of higher education’s more general assumptions (in Galton’s day or in our brain-obsessed and “evolutionary biology” era), is well worth our attention.

  • Cathy

    Again, I appreciate the time that you take to respond to these issues in detail. These are such serious matters, and I found this post very difficult to write precisely because I am trying to find a path that respects what you are aiming to do, while I still don’t find that it works for me.

    In a second post I will try to explain why this is, in personal terms as you have done here. But the short version is that I come from a family directly involved in colonial education, and colonial administration, in Kenya. And now I live on stolen ground in another part of the former British empire. These issues can never be less than personal, but at the same time they’re also systemic. For me, the politics of injecting in non-white stories is troubling, and I have spent a lot of time thinking this week about Friere’s critique of the false generosity of oppressors with a social conscience.

    Truly, what power are we giving up? What change do we want to see that will affect our own status as privileged educators in systems that are deeply implicated in the perpetuation of social injustice through the way that we rank and sort others and equip some for the future with much better resources than others?

    MOOCs might be making some people feel better about sharing their privileges at the moment, but I am less sure that we are doing anything other than this. And I am very unsure indeed that we can borrow the apparatus from companies like Coursera, given the way that they are wielding arguments about global educational philanthropy, as these are deserving of our strongest critique.


  • The other thing that continues to trouble me about all this is that MOOCs generated in the US increasingly seem to be trying to deploy internationalism to do two quite different things: to address the parochialism of US educational systems, while at the same time spreading the benefits of this parochial view to other places. That’s an issue for the rest of us, because this is exactly how we will continue to see misrepresented versions of our own cultures propagated, where local knowledge would have helped.

    I think this is why when Aboriginal culture is injected in either as illustration or disruption, and is defined as the “non-familiar”, a tiny question is raised: familiar or not familiar to who? This is really the test of who is included in the “we” to whom these points are being addressed. Bluntly, at this moment it may not include those in the illustration itself. This isn’t a novelty that MOOCs have thrown up, but it really limits the claim of MOOCs to be trying to rethink how the privilege of narration works.

  • No arguments with any of these comments, Kate. I look forward to hearing your alternative. I’m not doing a MOOC because I believe in the form. As I’ve said a hundred times, I’m doing a MOOC to learn it inside and out so my critique is not superficial and defensive and kneejerk–but informed. Thanks again for bringing such attention to this issue. On the issue of whether to present counter examples or not, well, there we will have to agree to disagree. i will always–always–work to make sure dominant narratives are deconstructed and that there are other voices. Of course I’ve spent a good part of my intellectual life critiquing all the various positions of critique. None is holy. None is pure. None is adequate. Structurally, the flaw is inherent. So, as scholars, we have to make our bargains, hedge our bets, do our best. I am repeatedly reminded of the great Angela Davis who, when someone starts even at the opposite even racist pole from her own radical anti-racist ideas, is willing to applaud them if they come even an inch closer to anti-racism. I asked her how she has such patience. Her answer, in effect: You build and have solidarity one step at a time. It’s never perfect and it’s never fast. And you never stop building bridges. Inspiring, isn’t it? Take care and thanks again for this engaged conversation.

  • I twitter shared and tagged the post link to Maha Bali in #rhizo14 ~ who also writes about HE in Egypt ~ started an interesting thread about a project for Arabic MOOCs that took colonization turn (among others along the way) …not sure I could where it started, turned or is now — all over the place. Rhizomes, I gather, are like that.

    You don’t FB but in case you can and would like a look

    I also think you and Maha would like each other, even if that’s just me wanting virtual friends to meet,

  • Kate, I am so glad Vanessa shared this. (Btw I am also doing FutureEd and having aide conversations with Cathy on Twitter, in my case critiquing the structure of the course)
    I truly appreciate the way you have analyzed this and Cathy’s response. I am trying now to connect how you’ve thought about this with the potentials of an Arab MOOC for taking an anticolonial stance and truly giving voice to people in the Arab region. I wrote earlier about how MOOCs could be peretuating Western superiority, and th privilege of the Westenrnized:

    and few MOOCs dispell that notion… You have given a clear example of how attempts to be inclusive can actually be more like Freire’s “false generosity of oppressors”. I will keep all this in mind as we move forward so i can continue t critique the Arab MOOC while trying to make it better (I am not directly involved btw, but feel responsbile to chip in!). Thanks again

  • Hi, it’s lovely to have you both here. Vanessa, you’re right that I skipped FB entirely, but thanks to my daughters I can, so I will.

    Something which is consistently underestimated in the way MOOCs focus on the “best professor in the world” brand status of those leading courses is the skilful work done by people like Vanessa in conveying content and ideas across different MOOCs. I’ve been co-following #FutureEd and #rhizo14 and thinking a bit about why I find them so different. I’d be really interested to know more about what others think about this as I’m still finding my way.

    But in the meantime, I’d like to know more about the Arab MOOC you mention. Part of the discourse that bothers me a bit about MOOCs as cultural diplomacy is the focus to this point on how this diplomacy will simultaneously promote and educate the US. Several people have raised on Twitter whether the Francophone MOOCs will change this, and I think they might.

    I’m looking forward to reading more about your work, and thanks again Vanessa for making this connection.

  • Hi Kate, v. interesting cross-references going on here, and another great conversation, thanks for this… reading of that injudicious use of image referred to in your post, and the conversation going on around it here, took me back to conversations about the politics of representation in public museums, as the role some moocs seem keen to occupy in telling a sweeping narrative of human history seems not dissimilar, and it’s got me reflecting on how my own bias towards a linguistic approach to analysing the culture who speaks is re-emerging…. from where it was located a decade or two ago [eg to the possibilities these days for analysing digital text at far larger scale… am thinking, while I’m watching FutureEd with much interest, that the now freely available tools of corpus linguistics offer the type of practical stance that’s both Freirean and MOO… a literacy tool that helps deconstruct the culture that speaks….

    been meaning to reply Maha in the FB thread, but got sidetracked with work (fancy that) and a broken toe, so went missing from action, but am following your discussion about an Arab mooc with great interest (and poised to tell sojourning research writers at my institution about such developments in the coming weeks in the courses I’m teaching for international students).

    really appreciate Cathy’s engagement here also – extraordinary.. and want to note that at least that example misappropriated from early colonial Australia wasn’t as gobsmacking as a comment made about indigenous cultural practice in an interview in week one of Michael Roth’s grandiose ‘How to change the world’ mooc…. good grief… I just dropped out quietly at that point and left it to the Americans to save the world in their inimicable fashion while I got on with more important business….

    …like enjoying conversations in random other learning spaces, like blogs of esteemed colleagues, and the festivals of ideas represented by the likes of rhizo14 🙂

    • Hi Em

      There’s a lot to take in here and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit. Yes, I also appreciate Cathy’s direct engagement here and I think this has been a more valuable conversation because here and on the Coursera forums she has given a direct account of how the image was chosen, then not spotted, and then removed. In itself this is a really valuable insight into how big MOOCs get made, and what priorities guide content choices — what gets high levels of attention in the production process, and what is treated as a fairly insignificant thing until it causes a problem. So I think about what would have happened if this momentary image flicker from another culture didn’t get picked up, as I think a lot of people do watch MOOC videos just by listening, while secretly cruising some other tab. I know I do.

      If you get a moment, I’d really like to know more about “now freely available tools of corpus linguistics offer the type of practical stance that’s both Freirean and MOO… a literacy tool that helps deconstruct the culture that speaks….” as this isn’t my area of expertise at all, and I know it’s yours.

      Thanks for this really useful set of comments and thoughts.

      • yes it is ‘open’ in the very best sense 🙂

        sorry I just noticed that link I gave before goes nowhere (metonymous moment o my life) – try this one the whole involvement I had back then with Australian Studies in Germany was a very interesting story on the politics of representation (and a UOW student was coincidentally starting to write about the very thing when I met her in a thesis writing class we teach in LD! – here’s the result fyi Also, the lovely Frances Calvert [], who made a film about the positioning of Australian indigenous art in European museums (Cracks in the Mask), was a friend in Berlin at the time, and we talked and wrote about this stuff a lot. We even put on an Australian film festival in Berlin! gosh, those were fun days.

        Since the days where I did linguistic analysis by hand, corpus-based tools of the trade have become more freely available, and easier to incorporate into regular language teaching moments… I prefer the tools based in SFL, but the AntConc software that is the focus of another MOO course I’m doing just now is one we use in the PhD writing subject at UOW.. and I’d like to use it in LD for an institutional corpus building project, simply because it’s easy for folks to learn to use… I’m trying to find the odd moment to blog about that too –

        When you’re feeling better you might like to participate and help promote the project? We’d love buy in from all disciplines… but that’ll take a couple of years…. I like to start with a big vision and achieve it quietly and slowly behind the scenes, until, wham! the practice and policy landscape will suddenly start appearing quite different 🙂 I don’t mean to imply such tools in themselves are game changing – rather that informed users can do game changing things with them… nothing like having a telescopic and microscopic view of the evidence of language as the basis for developments in pedagogy and educational policy.

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