The Latin word is from PIE root *ten- “to stretch” (source also of Sanskrit tantram “loom,” tanoti “stretches, lasts;” Persian tar “string;” Lithuanian tankus“compact,” i.e. “tightened;” Greek teinein “to stretch,” tasis “a stretching, tension,” tenos “sinew,” tetanos “stiff, rigid,” tonos “string,” hence “sound, pitch;” Latin tendere “to stretch,” tenuis “thin, rare, fine;” Old Church Slavonic tento “cord;” Old English þynne “thin”). Connecting notion between “stretch” and “hold” is “cause to maintain.”


What are the things that we hold to be true? What are the tenets of our time that arouse conviction, that we stretch towards, that we grab hold of and hold dear?

Sometimes we hardly know what we believe. The state of the world is manipulated from a village in Macedonia. Everything is crooked, and rigged. The algorithm has misled us and continue to stumble. Powerful forces. What is trustable, if we don’t have faith to guide us? Like many unbelievers I’m in the world with a compass of secular hope. I trust in the safety offered me by others, and I accept the risk that this could end poorly. I know that the life in front of me, the face that is not mine, is part of the vast archive of human data that exists well beyond our capacity to track—all life, ever—and that is what defines me as separate, myself, mostly coherent in my sense of how to proceed.

Travelling round the world I realise there are also some practical things I take as being trustable: air traffic control; the safe interval programming of walk/don’t walk; subway maps. It’s how we function at all: we flourish because we know how to learn, trusting signs and faces and evidence, and making evidence based decisions.

Yesterday in the subway I was standing with my daughter when a tiny girl came by, just learning to walk, in that bowlegged tiptoeing way, holding her tiny arms above her head to the adult she was leading by the finger. They walked on together very slowly and intently, turned back and passed us again. The astonished delight on her face at seeing my daughter’s bright yellow coat—again!  right there where it was! —that’s how humans learn, by memorising it, walking it, storing it away, coming back to it.

We all laughed.

This is the life-defining skill that we are trying to hand over to computational learning. I think it’s both possible and probable that machines will get better at something that approximates to human thought. But I can’t care about this as much as I care about whether humans will inadvertently in the process deprive ourselves of the same capacity.

It is fundamental to the joy of being human that we learn how to process the data of our world, to recall and rearrange the evidence, to think.  I am here for this. I am here for the slowness of thinking, the cognitive complexity that inhabits every gesture that we make, for the greetings, the avoided glances, the votes, the clicks, the sentences that end properly, the thoughts that half fly up.


I’ve been thinking this while walking the streets of Brooklyn waiting for the marathon US election cycle to finish up at last. Yesterday, in bright Autumn sunshine, New Yorkers took a breather from it all to stand on their pavements and sit on their front steps and sing in gospel choirs and wave signs and hang out of windows yelling encouragement at the other kind of marathon, the one that involves actually running.

Sport is what it is: business being made out of the spectacular performance of the most exceptional and highly developed human bodies, that are pressing right up against the skin of what’s possible, turning time itself into something measured in shavings of seconds. But what’s so great about marathons is all the rest having a go: all ages, so many different bodies, running with help, barely running at all, costumed, underprepared. It’s a camino of sorts, a pilgrimage, a passage of faith.

#blacklivesmatter, taken by Kate Bowles in Brooklyn Nov 6 2016
#blacklivesmatter, taken by Kate Bowles in Brooklyn Nov 6 2016

We stumbled into it and stayed the course, buying cupcakes from bake sales and chatting in a neighbourly way to people from all over the world. And along with these complete strangers, we ended up cheering the strangers sweating past us. “Don’t give up! You’ve got this! Go Sweden!” Runners grinned, waved, jogged, slowed to a walk uphill. Wheelchair athletes, blind runners, runners for charity and for personal bests and for each other and for the sense of being in the spectacle and just getting to the end, in any shape.

We loved the man who shuffled by wearing a sign that said “34 finishes”. That’s not competition, it’s not even sport. It’s the project of being a person, showing up, making it to the finish of the thing, and coming back next year.


I’m in the US because I attended the OpenEd 16 conference in Richmond VA. It’s a conference that encourages warmth, commitment and solidarity among its regular participants. “Is this your first time?” I was asked (see Sundi Richard’s beautiful post on this). It was a little disconcerting, and describing it as a family reunion didn’t entirely help because, you know, families. But there is something important to the prospect of achieving change in higher education around the world that relationships of care grow and develop over time. And until now, conferences have been as obvious as marathons as a thing that people do to express their solidarity with this ideal.

But I’m worrying more and more about the carbon cost of this, and the food waste, and the endlessly discussed problem of conference schedules being stacked with presentations so that people can attend at all, when what we most need is time to confer. There are far better ways to encounter and process other people’s research, and I think those of us who are committed to openness as a tenet need to lead on this one.

What if we shifted the content of conferences into asynchronous distribution; and treat the opportunity be in place together as the discussion, as a literal practice of conferring? What if we took out all of the sessions, and made the corridors the central venues, as many do (and thanks to Alan Levine and Sean Michael Morris for so many thoughts on this.) What if we built in time to write together, to share quick thoughts with others, to use all our networks as a central platform for conferring on key ideas and questions, not a conference backchannel? (See this link for the “big ball of conversations around OpenEd16“.)

A few things would need to happen. First we would need to acknowledge that the nature of long-term friendships within communities make it easy for cliques to form, newcomers to be missed, and sameness to roll on. Northern hemisphere events and associations of this kind in education technology and open education have a whiteness problem and a gender problem, and we need to say it this plainly. (See posts by Martin Weller and Tomo Nagashima.)

Second, we can all take a step towards undoing the cult of community stars and heroes, of deciding who matters and who is marginal. Keynote stars, corridor celebrities: none of this makes education more open. Let’s focus on the ideas whoever has them, and celebrate all the runners with the same joy. We’re in it together.

Thirdly, those of us with institutional positions need to lobby hard against the hyphenation of conference presentation to research outcome to career uplift. This is doing enormous harm to the quality of thinking at environmentally costly events like academic conferences. (And don’t get me started on conferences doubling as hiring fairs. Stop with that.)

And finally, we really need to think about placedness. There is a real privilege of being in the same place as other people, but that’s not the only way to be with people. So this is a cheer to the tireless Virtually Connecting team. I’m not always on board with the way they select and promote their hallway conversations, as I’m concerned that this in itself is sustaining the prestige hierarchies that we most need to get shot of. But they have been really significant in reminding everyone that a professional conference can and should include those who don’t trash the planet to be in the room.

This really is a tenet—a stretch goal—that we can’t afford to avoid any longer.

More to read

There are many blogs coming out of this conference, and I will post the link to the David Kernohan’s archive when I find it. Update: OK, found it. What a resource this is: go there.  But if you have less time, please read this on the need to pause, from Autumm Caines, and this from Laura Gogia on stories as a way of being.

10 Responses

  • adamcroom

    Kate, this is quite refreshing/brilliantly succinct. Thus I’m going to attempt to write my comment in a similar fashion (the succinct part). First, I’m deeply sorry that we didn’t cross paths at the conference. I regret not taking advantage of the opportunity to tell you that you rule to your face. Second, your voice resonates like no other and you’re pitch perfect on multiple points per usual. Thanks for sharing this 🙂

    • Kate Bowles

      Hi Adam, lovely to see you here. I don’t think I’m a very succinct thinker, but writing is often better for me than speaking, where I’m often barely coherent. This is another reason why I’m drawn to asynchronous sharing of content, that gives everyone time to think, and those of us who stumble with thought time to write. I’m also very sorry that we didn’t meet.

  • francesbell

    I wasn’t at Opened16 but let me thank you for this post. Let me count the ways (imitating your cardinality and Shakespeare 🙂
    1. That the roots of tenet lie partially in the Old English phin, thin that connect me to the Icelandic P/Th that I have seen in Pingvellir a place that connects to an ancient parliament.
    2. That you celebrate the occasions off the network – loving the yellow coat story.
    3. That you worry about carbon cost of F2F attendance. Though I am for visiting places as life-affirming events and opportunities to be with lovely people. I want to visit and see Machu Pichu in all its glory but can engage with conferences online and face to face.
    4. Asynchronicity is a beautiful opportunity for reflection but one that can be appropriated by cliques whether they are aware of it or not – publicly or privately (and I am wincing a bit here).
    5. Placedness – brilliant ventures such as Virtually Connecting enable remote people to engage with conference attenders. But how is the balance between face to face and online attendance negotiated? It’s complicated.
    Thanks Kate – you make me think so much.

  • Kate Bowles

    You too, Frances, you too.

    The thing I want to pick up here is that just as we all did eventually realise we had to develop a pedagogy for online, we need to do the same for conferences. Just putting the current scheduled model online is essentially to create an essay catalogue. This doesn’t really address the issues that many people are concerned about with conferences (I’ve just read Rolin Moe’s beautiful post about this), which focus on the question: what should we do with our time together?

    Just as we have started to think about the disposal of time in online learning, we need to ask this of conferences. How should we spend time, if we come together? How should we spend time if we are not in the same place? What hardware is best for helping create a sense of presence for bodies not actually in the room?

    So for one thing, I’m surprised by academic conferences that don’t make the backchannel visible by projecting a tweet stream. This is so common in tech and vendor conferences, and it’s a small step that would enable “voices off” to be heard in the room.

    I shared the yellow coat story because I think everyone has one, if conferences involve travel. Other stories happen too. And it really was lovely.

    • What should we do with our time together indeed! (will check out Rolin’s post)

      This is such a beautiful post, Kate, and incidentally, we are proposing a conference presentation at OER17 about how Virtually Connecting could possibly be more equitable and inclusive. And less about stars (we may not tone down our hyper promo tho) We should ask you some more 🙂

      At the same time, I have been struggling with how to use my day and a bit in London at OER17 inshallah – because I want to make eye contact and touch people and hug them and make deep conversations… And to whisper. And huddle. But I am keynoting. Omigosh. Did I say “but” I am keynoting? I say that because I want to use every minute connecting with people rather than talking at them. And I want to figure out a way to do that in a keynote where I cannot possibly connect with every person or make eye contact with them but I want to. Sorry I just made this about me.
      Rest of this is going into a blogpost instead of taking up space here. Thank you again
      P.S. I always take a deep breath before reading a blogpost of yours because I know I will be transformed in some way.

  • francesbell

    Oh yes! what should we do with our time together?
    when we choose to connect online and
    when we magic the resources that enable us to hug and kiss and share experiences in Madge’s material world 🙂
    We should spend our time together carefully and joyfully I think.
    But in any case we are doing well!

  • Dear Kate,
    As you know, it makes perfect sense to me that you and your daughter would find yourselves in your room writing for a few hours instead of being out sightseeing in NYC. And now I am so glad you took the time to write this now and not at a later date, as it is all unfolding and all the connectedness of themes and topics here can reveal itself to anyone who cares to pause and really look.
    Yes, the election, the marathon, the OpenEd conference, the state of being away from home – all connected.
    One thought which is bubbling for me: ” what we most need is time to confer. ” Confer. A few days ago martin Weller and I exchanged a few thoughts on Twitter about conferences as learning spaces and I raised this question: “What kinds of learning do we enable or invite?” And your suggestions get at this. The notion of being able to confer with colleagues – to read and write and discuss and dialogue together- this resonates deeply with me. Especially as more of my online pursuits put me increasingly in the path of academic pursuits and pursuers, I am looking for more opportunities to *confer* and engage beyond 140 characters at a time.

    Your idea of stretch goal is also timely as I sort out my ideas about our odd (and perhaps outdated) notions of what professional development is and is not. Your post reminds me of how very personal our learning is and that development – as a process, such a human process – is that thing that happens just as you describe: “how humans learn, by memorising it, walking it, storing it away, coming back to it.” PD as it is often *delivered* time and again misses the mark and we try to make up for it at conferences by “stacking” the sessions. But we leave less time and space for that very personal, non linear, associative process that can meander of days, weeks, months when our true “take-aways” show themselves a bit at a time or in flurries or showers. Learning and development rarely adhere to carefully calculated schedules.
    Thank you, as always for the gift of your beautifully critical thinking.
    Happy to be asynchronous with you any time.

  • “What if we shifted the content of conferences into asynchronous distribution; and treat the opportunity be in place together as the discussion, as a literal practice of conferring?”

    Yes. Perhaps we could, as they say in Silicon Valley, “eat our own dog food” or in more traditional terms, practice what we preach. We emphasize the importance of dialogue and creating in the classroom and preach the importance of pushing the lecture-ish content transfer to the readings or videos. Yet we meet as academics and it’s sit and listen to lecture. Then return home to our blogs to post once and reply twice.

    Perhaps we need to “flip” conferences as well as “flip” classrooms.

    • The flipping was done at eMOOCs 2015. I don’t think people all watched the presentations beforehand (like students may not). However, I feel that when we are a community continually reading each other, when we meet f2f we already have lots to talk about, right?
      Problem is institutions that don’t fund people to travel unless they’re presenting…and of course others who can’t get funding at all regardless

      • Kate Bowles

        We keep falling back on this — what institutions won’t do. This is really why my focus is on making the case at institutional level for support for less traditional modes of research presentation, including funding to participate. We’re seeing these bloated schedules because everyone’s trying to get an airfare or a line on their resume, and the result is that we’re turning the scholarly conversation into part expo, part fan convention — neither of which are really good models for us. So I think you’re right Maha that this is the problem, and I really hope we can start thinking in practical ways about addressing it.


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