Message in a Floating Bottle

. . . A Writing Teacher’s Considerations about Cross-Border Education

I found a plastic bottle floating on the Atlantic at the south shore of Long Island some time ago. It was a warm summer day, and I was playing with my five and three year old children on the beach. As soon as I noticed a piece of paper inside the bottle, my curiosity was piqued and I took it out and read the message. It said: “Come here around this time tomorrow and we’ll talk about our plan further.”

The first thing that came to my mind was: “Gosh, is this message somehow intended for me?” I wondered who the sender of the message may be. Come? That is called an indexical in linguistics: it needs to have a point of reference, that of the speaker’s location, to which the other person is being asked to move. I would need to know who the addresser and addressee are.

Here? The bottle was floating on the ocean so I didn’t know where it came from. Did it come from the other side of the Atlantic, so this second indexical term means a place that’s thousands of miles away? Or was a Long Island inhabitant just referring to a local location?

What about tomorrow? Tomorrow of what day? And what about this time? The writer seemed to refer to a full 24 hour into the future from whenever the message was delivered/left, but I didn’t know the original point of reference in time. Oh, and, by the way, why the heck should I think about joining that meeting and discussion if I don’t even know if the message was intended for me? I thought: What plan, what further, who we? Leave me alone! I put the piece of paper back in the bottle, put the bottle in my bag, just as a curious collection, and went on with the rest of my day —

Okay, time to tell you the truth. The message in a bottle floating on the ocean is a metaphor.* The message in the bottle was also a prop that I used for a session that I presented along with my colleague, Mike Murphy, at the Collaborative Online International Learning annual conference (organized by SUNY COIL) in New York City last week. Virtually presenting from Indianapolis, I used the metaphor of the message in a floating bottle in order to highlight that a course designed and delivered from one particular place but intended for any and all learners around the world may often be no better than the message in the bottle for many learners/participants in different parts of the world. Regardless of the good intentions of the teacher, especially when the teacher is unconsciously parochial and convinced about the universality of her or his system of education, the course may be radically decontextualized, vague, complex, meaningless. The course may even seen like an amazing opportunity to many learners around the world but it could still be irrelevant in real-world terms. This concern was the focus of my presentation, while my co-presenter covered some fundamental issues about the influence of money, politics, and power on the development of online education across borders.

Grand but misguided visions are not new to our time, but the current trends in online education seem to make the illusions of access, opportunity, and inclusion grander than ever before! Like a poem that an author assumes will always have “universal” value but readers may not see that value the same way (if at all), like the conceited attitude of a missionary who is out there to save the world but unwilling to respect other societies’ spiritual systems on their own terms, like the message in the bottle that is largely meaningless when decoupled from its context . . . a lot of today’s celebrated developments in online education are empty in their ability to help the majority of participants from the global periphery  to truly participate and learn.

Serious, responsible teachers always think about real students, onsite or online. We take into consideration what is known as the “entry level knowledge or behavior” when designing a course (did I insult any too forward-looking educator here?–trust me, I’m no less forward-looking than you). We design and implement assignments and activities while closely following up and joining students in the process of reading, discussing, critical thinking, generating and sharing new ideas, and expanding their intellectual horizons.

At least in my field of teaching academic writing, the above are essential to good teaching. Without them, we will be sending messages in water bottles floating on the ocean to a more or less significant degree. As we explore the affordances of new applications, new modes of communication and teaching/learning, writing teachers do not forget the fundamentals of our discipline, of our profession.

Those who may like to paint us as resistant to “innovation” and “advancement” might say that the message is a message is a message, wherever it is floating and found, or they may say that I chose a particularly unanchored message that must be put in a very specific context to make any sense in order to make it seem like no communication is possible across contexts (or when context is not fully defined). I know. I was a professor of British literature and English Studies in my previous life, as I call it, before I switched to rhetoric and writing studies. I don’t want to get started on the universality of William Wordsworth’s poem titled “Daffodil” and how, like many other people around the world for more than two centuries now, had to wonder what the heck the flowers look like and yet was supposed to fully appreciate the poem in order to be smart and educated.

Instead, let me set this straight: yes, a lot of what we teach in our classrooms “is” anchored in our own local educational systems/cultures, we assume a lot about what students already know, and we take the time to recalibrate our teaching at macro and micro levels all the time. We don’t deliver lectures and leave. We don’t take exams. We cannot as yet envision machines being able to provide meaningful feedback. We cannot imagine our students’ work being graded by teaching assistants somewhere else. Well, let me deliver the real punch in the knee for those who think we are backward: we are some of the most sophisticated users of emerging technologies in our classrooms, but we don’t even use teaching assistants to help us “grade” our students’ papers, because it makes little sense to not provide our expert feedback as trained writing teachers on our students’ writing, which is what we call grading.

In fact, in any discipline and any classroom, good teachers define their terms and concepts; they explicate their assumptions and assess the educational backgrounds of their students; they take time to clarify their expectations and the epistemological world views underlying the teaching and learning that happens in their classroom. This is why it takes more time and energy to teach online courses where interactive, in-person discussions are impossible or only have ineffective alternatives. Teachers don’t just say, “Hey, look, I am a star teacher from a prestigious university in Boston, so it should be all clear to anyone anywhere.” They don’t make the learner feel stupid when they don’t  understand what they’re being taught. (Nothing against Boston, by the way).

Honest and professionally dedicated teachers don’t start asking how they may be able to eliminate context-specific message/teaching and deliver bland and universal pieces of information in the name of education. They don’t stop directly engaging students. They too are concerned about cost, access, opportunity, and quality in relation to one another, but they don’t give up doing the time- and labor-intensive work of educating their students. In case I am vague, let me put it bluntly: those who are trying too hard to let technology do the hard, human part of teaching are likely to be dishonest or deluded. Moreover, teachers who are too easily easily swayed by the flimsy arguments of non-pedagogical, non-professional, non-ethical agents and forces from the outside are also, in my assessment, unprofessional and unworthy of respect as genuine educators.

[Here, Mike Murphy, my co-presenter shared a few powerful arguments with stunning evidence about different outside forces that are shaping a lot of today’s developments in global higher education.]

Returning to the metaphor of message in the bottle and to discuss it from a less critical, more positive perspective, I then highlighted that in spite of the hypes about technological panacea, external forces that are harmful to teaching and learning, and the pitfalls of technologies as they are now (and the things that they may never be able to do what we wish they could), we should NOT reject, resist, or refuse to explore emerging technologies and pedagogies that their affordances allow. I emphasized that when arguments about “reinventing” higher education are coming at us from radically unpedagogical, unethical, unprofessional places, we must dare to ask tough questions– even while we are also engaged in experimenting, adapting, and improving the means to serve and advance our ends and to improve education. We are the teaches and we are likely to know about teaching much better than computer engineers who design the applications; we are usually far better at thinking about education as a public good than are most venture capitalists and corporations; and those of us who prioritize effectiveness over efficiency have better visions about education than our colleagues who have turned into awkward allies and advocates of outside agencies that tell us that the same methods of teaching will work the same way across cultures and contexts, disciplines and subjects.

With that in mind, let me now share a positive, productive, exciting experience that I recently had as an example of how emerging technologies can add powerful affordances to our teaching while it cannot and will never replace how we teach our students in our classrooms and, for those who can afford the time and resource, how we support our students one-on-one in our offices. The context was an upper division course on “writing in the professions”–designed to help students translate their academic writing skills and explore professional writing skills in their anticipated professions or disciplines. After some discussion, my students decided to organize a Twitter Chat by inviting a teacher at the American University of Cairo in Egypt, Maha Bali, whose teaching interests overlap with mine. Maha suggested and invited other colleagues, and we eventually had teachers (and their students) from Australia, New Zealand, Guyana, and other places.

In the run up to the international Twitter Summit, Maha asked me to provide her some preliminary questions, so my students and I drafted some and I shared them with her. Interestingly, she responded by saying that the topic of the proposed discussion didn’t make very clear sense to her (the questions seemed to make even less sense to her students). My students and I had crafted these questions to be as context-flexible and open as possible; yet, in response to Maha’s questions (and also some other comments by other guests), we tried our best to further adapt them. Throughout the whole process, it seemed to me that the very title of my course here in New York didn’t make a lot of sense to participants joining from other places around the world.

The summit itself was a roaring success in terms of student engagement, exchange of ideas among the participating scholars, and in showcasing the amazing powers of synchronous, text-based, resource-rich, and multilateral conversation from a classroom across the world. We were all blown away.

However, the cross-border conversation wasn’t a substitute for what I did in place of it last year (and am planning to do later this semester): a conversation with an American scholar of writing in the disciplines and professions, Professor David Russell of Iowa State University, with whom my students discussed issues that came directly and specifically out of the course objective. The international Twitter chat was amazing but it was “a different thing” in many ways.

I could also sense that the conversation was not the same for Maha’s students in Egypt. In spite of them being from the American university of Cairo, I thought the students there could’t participate very actively simply because they were not studying “writing studies” and they weren’t very familiar to this discipline as practiced/studied in North America. The conversation was happening on our terms here, and we would be as lost if we were virtually entering their classroom where they were studying something else. If this happens right next door in the same university building, even within the same department, we wouldn’t expect any magic on the web! We tried our best to make the basic questions accessible to our guests, but we found that the conversations “beyond” our questions (and unrelated to the questions) were better than what we planned. The unplanned, the unexpected, the unpredictable was the best outcome of the networking, the exciting conversation across contexts.

It was not just the scholar-guests–which included Maha and Mark McGuire, Kate Bowles, Lenandlar Singh, Iswari Pandey, Michelle Rodems, Praveen Yadav, Yadu Pokhrel, and many more–who took the conversation in a variety of productive directions. Even my own students were running in all kinds of wonderful directions! The original agenda for discussing “writing in the profession” as I and my students defined and prepared for didn’t seem very clear to anyone, which was both hilarious and thought-provoking! We loved the discussion not because it accomplished what we thought it would but because it flowed naturally and unpredictably into interesting and differently meaningful, often utterly confusing, directions. My students and I were not trying to show how the Twitter Summit works but how and even whether it would help us have a focused conversation on a topic. Unlike those who are speaking from both ends of their mouths to say that new forms of online learning can (where it benefits them) and cannot (where it benefits them!) replace onsite learning, we were willing to see where one side might fit within the other and how it would, if at all. We had a wonderful class going on, and by taking one hour out of it to test a new mode of learning, we added a lot of value to our class.

The conversation via Twitter added incredibly useful new dimensions to conversations in class–participants from around the world, perspectives from many professions, connection with new people, etc. But that was a different kind of conversation, one that was not anchored in a context; it wasn’t able to engage participants on the original topic very well.

If you look at the record of some of that conversation here, you will see that the conversation is both fascinating and confusing. To some extent, even such a prepared, organized, and focused conversation was like trying to understand the message inside a bottle that was floating on the ocean. In other ways, it was like having a real conversation at a party–and in the words of one participant, like talking to a bunch of people in the kitchen at a party.

What I took away from the event is that it is very, very important that we don’t pretend that new prospects and possibilities brought about by new technologies will or should replace the foundational professional practices of higher education in or across contexts. And that is precisely why I believe that new developments in cross-border higher education must be built upon the foundations of established practices.

As teachers of writing and rhetoric, we share the values undergirding pedagogies that attempt to “better prepare students to thrive in cross-cultural academic and professional environments” (as noted in the CFP of the conference we were presenting at). We realize that through the increase of access to information, the promotion of educational practices emphasizing global awareness, and  the rising number of cross-border knowledge workers, we are better able to foster cross-cultural communication, networking, and learning. An increasing number of us also seek to connect to individuals and communities across the world in order to help our students (and ourselves) benefit intellectually, socioculturally, and professionally from collaboration and sharing. However, we are also keenly aware that the rapidly growing influence of the global higher education “industry,” particularly in the form of transnational MOOCs, is severely undermining the educational and professional values that sustain the kind of teaching/learning through which teachers in disciplines like ours strive to promote intercultural communication and understanding.

So, while we explore the affordances and adapt them to our needs in the classroom and in online versions of our teaching, we must resist the increasing influence of external forces on established academic cultures and pedagogical practices that writing teachers use for fostering critical thinking, cultural awareness, and global perspectives. Scaled instruction that is being presented as an “alternative” to established or carefully adapted teaching practices can be dangerous for our students, and writing teachers can see those dangers more quickly and easily than their colleagues in many other disciplines.

Students participating in online spaces from across vastly different contexts need the exposure to terms, concepts, perspectives, and issues that those who design and deliver courses–or even an hour-long virtual conversation like the one we did–may assume as givens. In a discipline like writing and rhetoric, the use of conventions, assumptions/expectations, genres, assignments, and mediums that are native  to a limited local academic culture should never blind teachers into forgetting that these are local (and not at all universal) educational constructs.

In short, meaningful teaching and learning across contexts can only be the result of designing and implementing curricula and pedagogies with an understanding of the difference in academic practices, the uniqueness of rhetorical and communicative conventions, the significance ascribed to issues in contexts within and across borders, and even an understanding of geopolitical power differentials among participants.


*The “message in the bottle” was a metaphor used in a linguistics textbook that I read about twenty years ago, which I can’t remember to cite here. But it turns out that the metaphor is quite common, as seen in this Wikipedia entry.

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  1. Loved the bottle metaphor, Shyam! Wonderfully done. And the dramatic effect of pretending it really happened to you (using your kids as props haha) was wonderful. It sucked me into this blog post really fast!
    I don’t actually have much else to say, except I’ll probably be linking back to this blogpost of yours in an upcoming post of mine as I reflect further 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on Reflecting Allowed and commented:
    You know what – I’m re-blogging this entire blog post as is because I love the whole thing.

  3. Thank you very much. That was quite flattering, and I hope your readers will find the time to skim this long post, as well as find it worth that time.

  4. The message in a bottle is an apt metaphor, although I often worry about the connections and education that never get found — by those students outside of privilege, or outside of access, or whatever the barriers might be. In some ways as teachers, we must be the navigators to help all of our kids find those messages floating in the world.

    • Kevin, That is a very thoughtful and useful idea about our role as teachers. I absolutely agree that we should help students navigate the increasingly complex waters of learning and living in a globalized world. It is the ideas/attempts to make teachers/guidance irrelevant that bothers me. My students know that the magic of their education happens when they can establish intimate relationship with me and get personalized guidance, feedback, critique… If our close attention to our students is in any way inefficient, then that is a challenge we need to address. But someone in India or Brazil is not going to genuinely engage and educate my students by video-lecturing and quizzing them– nor can that happen from me to students in India and Brazil. What we can do across border is going to be a supplement to what we do in person at least for a long time to come. At least that is the nature of my particular discipline. Thanks again for your comment.

  5. The role of the teacher is becoming more challenging, more essential and more diversified as we face up to dealing with exploding our own assumptions. We are having to admit that we have been ill-equipped for working with people from multiple contexts (our own students).

    The MOOC fantasy of remote controlled ‘global drone education’ is no more fantasy than the educational model which has been the norm in many institutions for years.

    The term Learning Management System or Virtual Learning Environment has always been a hilarious idea for me….

    The frightening thing is that many, many people buy and even believe this crap. The bottle might be used more effectively to bash some of them over the head with 😉

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