Indie Teaching

The Indie Teaching Manifesto

I believe:

  1. Teachers and professors are creative professionals like other artists.
  2. Like other creative professionals, professors and teachers are prevented from sharing their creations by institutional gatekeepers from colleges and publishers who control who gets to teach and what they get to teach.
  3. The Internet provides a platform for teachers and professors to become independent creative professionals and engage their audience directly.

Teachers as Creative Artists

Two of my favorite books I listened to last year on Audible were by musicians.

First was Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking. Palmer started as a performance artist on the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Eventually her performing career evolved into music, and she was the front woman and founder of the Dresden Dolls. I had heard of her but not her music before listening to her narrate her book. I was interested in the idea…how do we ask for things? Palmer was able to land a recording deal with a major label. Then she managed to get herself intentionally fired from the deal. She found that her art and the business of her art could be best accomplished as an independent artist. Her Kickstarter to fund production of her album was the most successful Kickstarter for an album at the time. Palmer asked her fans to pledge money to provide the money in advance so she could go into the studio and create the album.

The book operates on many levels. It is a portrait of the artist as a young woman, It is a story of using the Internet and social media to develop and maintain a relationship with an audience. It is also a love story. The key theme here is how Palmer found success outside of the traditional music industry. She also suffered some backlash for being an artist who asked for money. In many artistic circles, asking for money for art ruins the art. Art should be pursued only for the sake of the art. A central theme of Palmer’s story is who can you ask for what. Her husband is the famous author Neil Gaiman, yet she feels that she cannot ask him for money. Her independence draws on her ability to be supported by fans who in return are receiving something of value in return for their support.

The other book is Questlove’s Creative Quest. Questlove (aka Ahmir Khalib Thompson) is a second-generation professional musician. He is co-founder and drummer of the hip hop group The Roots, famous as the house band for The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Kimmel. Questlove is also a professor at NYU. Creative Quest is his attempt to shed light on the creative process, both his and other artists. He explores a variety of topics and has some strong points of view about how influences from other artists serve as both a starting point and a point of departure for new creative work. He also brings in scientific research on creativity and the creative process. Questlove also sometimes works as a DJ, and in that context, he talks about the role of curation in creativity. 

While I found many parts of the book fascinating, curation was one of the most important to me. At the time, I had been thinking about what a teacher does and why we can’t simply learn everything we need to know online on our own. Curation is one of the particular services that professors are other teachers provide. On the Internet, there is no shortage of information. The challenge is often finding the specific piece of information you need when you need it, and of course being able to validate that it is correct. In designing a course or writing a book, a significant portion of what we do is curate both outcomes and content. What does a learner need to know on a topic? What is the best way to learn this topic? What sequence should the pieces be presented to facilitate learning? A professor goes beyond selecting and arranging existing content.

We also create new content whether it is written, spoken, or captured on video.  Short story long, professors and teachers are artists. Most professors think of themselves as scientists first, which is a result of our grad school training in research and scientific inquiry. It also reflects the artificial separation that we make in The West between art and science. Teaching is a creative process that requires many choices about design in creating a product to be consumed if not enjoyed by an audience. 

Who gets to be a teacher?

The daughter of a friend is an actress with credits on Disney Channel and as part of touring companies for musicals. While I enjoy her acting, I think her singing is awesome. I have encouraged her Dad to encourage her to pursue music so I could listen to more of her stuff. She has a few cover songs on YouTube, and a few tracks on Spotify. He told me that today to break into the recording business you need an already established audience before the labels will even talk to you. An audience that she does not have, despite her resume in the entertainment business. Last I heard, she was majoring in worship music, and I guess I will need to wait until she graduates to attend whatever church lands her to be their music director.

When we accept the idea of professor as artist, it is easy to make the connection to the problems that other artists face creating within institutional constraints. Independent musicians like Laura Palmer create and distribute music outside of the recording labels. In writing, publishers of magazines and books have long controlled who gets published as an author. Self-publishing online and through Amazon have allowed a legion of authors to bypass these gatekeepers.

In film, independent movies are created outside the studio system. Did you know that The Terminator was an independent film? I did not until I was just now researching independent films. James Cameron, like many independent film makers, went onto bigger and better things (in his case Titanic and Avatar). 

My bachelor’s degree is in sociology, and my studies focused on social movements and social change. The idea of how ideas influence individuals and groups has been a consistent stream in studies and work. One of the founding parents of sociology was Max Weber. One of his areas of study was the idea of bureaucracy. Weber described the “iron cage” that results from bureaucratic systems that limit individual freedom. When institutions control creation and distribution of creative work, we naturally see a movement towards conformity and sameness. Bureaucratic systems avoid risk and innovation. A music label, publisher, or film studio only want to make what appear to be as safe bets on creations that are derivative from what has worked in the past. That way when things can go wrong, the failure can be defended.

Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball is a story of how these ideas play out in professional sports. Where arts will always be subjective in regard to quality, sports has a clear way of determining winners and losers. Yet in sports like the arts, institutional practices tend to reinforce past practice. Lewis quotes Michael Palmer of the New England Patriots that “Managers tend to pick a strategy that is least likely to fail rather than pick a strategy that is most efficient. The pain of looking bad is worse than the gain of making the best move.” 

A couple of years ago, I surveyed professors for advice for those who wanted to become a professor. At least half of respondents described the challenges in finding teaching positions. Another significant group expressed frustrations with the culture of higher education and how faculty were often marginalized by institutions. I see these struggles akin to other artists who are blocked by institutions from being able to share their creative work with an audience.

Much like these other artists, I also see the Internet as providing new opportunities for taking creative work directly to one’s audience. Between grad school and my own career in higher education in the early and mid-1990s, I worked in information technology. My focus was on how to use emerging Internet technologies including the newly born World Wide Web to provide access to data and information. One of the papers I worked on with a colleague was on the democratization of information. In the years since, the technology has become even more accessible and powerful. Today one person can accomplish as much as I could do back then with a team of programmers and content experts with much lower expenditures in time and money.

The Internet Changes Everything

My kids, like most kids today, watch a lot of YouTube…and since I have 10 kids (ages 2-18), my exposure to second-hand YouTube is significant. This morning my 5-year-old was watching a video with a young couple that I had not seen before. They looked like your typical college students. He had on a hoodie branded with his YouTube channel and a baseball hat (backwards of course). She was wearing a long sleeve t-shirt with her hair pulled back in a pony tail. I was too far away to listen in, so as I hate my breakfast, I reflected on the images, and how these too young people looked and acted like kids next door. This made me think about how traditional network television and film studios would probably not give these two a platform. Of the successful YouTubers who make a generous living from the platform, only a few have cross over to traditional media. YouTube as a platform that anyone can publish too eliminates the filter of the establishment for who gets to perform and who does not.

Professors and other teachers have a new opportunity to become independent creators and take their message directly to their audiences. This requires a new mindset that does not include curriculum committees and peer review editorial boards. Publishing in this new world is not about prestige within academic circles, but impact for an audience outside of academia. Teaching is not for a semi-captive audience of college students working to meet degree requirements but for an audience interested in learning. For most faculty, the freedoms and responsibility that come with this opportunity will be too alien and risky to be worth pursuing. Like professional sports managers, they will pursue the conventional strategy that appears to have the least chance of making them look bad versus the strategy that offers a solution to the institutional barriers that prevent them from sharing their thoughts and ideas with the world.

I created the Indie Teaching project as a resource for teachers and professors to learn how to teach and share what they know independent of the controls of schools and publishers. In March 2019, I published an article on the Babb Group site What is an Indie Teacher? 

This article is part of the Guide to Indie Teaching