University of the Margins: Institutional Structures and Open Practice

This is my unkeynote address for the AMICAL Conference 2019 at the American University in Cairo.

Universities are, in many ways, centers. They are places of coherence, with focused (and often noble) missions related to learning and education. But as we develop these centers for knowledge exploration, we also develop margins; as we create insides that we hope will be welcoming and accessible, we also ironically create outsides that are distinctly not a part of our learning ecosystem.

Keynote addresses are interesting metaphors for this irony. A traditional keynote has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a main point, an argument delivered as monologue, and a locus of authority. A keynote address shares a lot of structural characteristics with our colleges and universities, with our courses and assignments. There is no room for margins in a keynote: it’s all flash, all power, all center.

I’m curious about open education, about making college more affordable, about how we can really listen to students and design opportunities based on what they truly need. But today, I also want to be curious about how we argue for what we want to change. I want to be less sure, more open, more questioning, and more radical in my desire to rethink learning. At the heart here is my love for the students we serve, and for the students whom we haven’t yet figured out how to serve. I started out by thinking of all of the students I’ve lost– in so many ways– over the years, as well as the students I’ve celebrated when they made it through by using every ounce of blood and sweat and luck they could muster. I started by thinking about what we all lost when we lost students, and what we gained when we found a way to support students who were scraping by. And there were too many stories to tell and none of them lined up into anything perfect. There was no keynote there, only the work of loving, the work of teaching.

But what I did find were a lot of impressions. Impressions and experiences and threads about learning on the edges, about learning in and around and under and just outside of the shiny colleges and universities that we advertise in our viewbooks, the ones that only exist for a small number of our learners and for a small number of us. Today’s un-keynote is a way for me to share these impressions with you. I am going to ask you two things:

First, don’t worry that these impressions don’t add up. They aren’t supposed to. They work together as a collage, not as a linear narrative, and they don’t have a point as much as they offer a collective of questions that are intended to be a respite from the solutionism that so often seduces and fails us in higher education.

And second, please participate. At points, I am going to stop and ask for you to reflect and share your impressions. Like mine, yours can be poetic, half-formed, inquisitive, messy, funny, tiny, vague, or fierce. You can share anonymously or with your name attached. If you choose to share, I’ll be building with what you share over the next couple of months in order to turn this un-keynote collage into a tapestry that we’ve all revised together. (Read some participant responses.)

To get started, I want to ask someone to choose a title below. You can choose them in any order you like. You can choose whichever you are most curious about. We might not get to go through them all, but that’s ok. You can read all of them later if you want, by going to You might want to go there now if you prefer to follow along with the transcript because of an accessibility issue. Otherwise, settle back, take out a pen and paper or an electronic device, and get ready to think along with me about what it might mean to build a university of the margins.

radical openness is a margin

the good, the bad, the ugly

hallway conversations

no margins, no mission

clearing the margins


learning about walls

frankenstein’s margins

what needs opening

frame of reference

margin of error in data-driven decisions

The slide deck that accompanies this presentation is available here.

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