“Do you remember that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, “How well he spoke,” but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, “Let us march.” Adlai Stevenson, introducing John F. Kennedy in 1960, as quoted in Adlai Stevenson and The World: The Life of Adlai E. Stevenson‎ (1977) by John Bartlow Martin, p. 549

I’m at a personal crossroads that has gotten me out of bed at 3 in the morning.
From the time that DIY U debuted at South by Southwest Interactive in March, and I went to lunch with Aaron Marshall, Sands Fish and Glenn Platt , people have been saying to me, essentially: nice book. What are you going to do about it?

But I didn’t set out to reinvent higher education, I’ve protested. I’m a journalist. I want to sit next to the guys who are reinventing higher education, and study them.

Now, there are people who don’t really respect or understand the role of the Fourth Estate, compromised as it may be these days. “Groom and I are just as much writers and journalists as she is,” said Stephen Downes about DIY U. Well, yes, you’re a writer in the sense that you communicate via the written word, but no, you’re not a journalist. You write a newsletter and a blog about a field in which you yourself are employed. It’s entirely partisan and entirely for insiders–you have no obligation to ever speak to anyone who disagrees with your basic premises, nor to make your writing intelligible or interesting to anyone outside that inside circle. More of a journaler than a journalist. Likewise, I made fun of Alan Levine on Twitter for taking issue with the fact that I physically described people in the book.

But that’s neither here nor there. On the whole the edupunks have been unbelievably generous with me, even if their take on the book (Cf Scott Leslie’s recent nice post ) can be summed up as, “Ok job. But you didn’t pay enough attention to edupunk!”

The point I’m trying to make is that even when people scoff, I’m proud of being a journalist, a social critic, even, in my most pretentious moments, a public intellectual. I think it’s a noble aspiration and a necessary role in society. And I’m in a pretty unique spot for making my living without a university appointment and without any commercial affiliations. And it’s a fine living. I don’t need any more money.

The issue that faces me now is this. I have a couple of offers on the table from “merchants” with plans to reinvent higher education through for-profit startups. Both of them have aspects to their projects that I find interesting, even groundbreaking. I also have some more nebulous offers, or really, requests for help, from an artisan and a couple of monks who are doing extremely cool things, and if I were spending 100% of my time on DIY U-related stuff I would have time to help them out.

What all these are pointing me toward would be a shift in my role from describing what’s going on to backing particular horses. I don’t know if I could write for the magazine anymore–certainly not about education. I could still write books, but I could no longer consider myself a journalist.

And that’s what’s keeping me up this late.

UPDATE: I can’t thank the commenters enough. Y’all have given me some really valuable feedback and not snarked on me, which would be easy to do. I am going to continue to think and pray about this over the holiday weekend but I really am leaning towards staying on this side of the line for now.

11 Responses to “Skin in the Game”

  1. bob bradley says:

    follow your bliss….with your chops and intention, you can’t/won’t go wrong.

    with thanks for all you contribute to this serious game of networking education’s re-bundling.

  2. Would you consider a followup book on education? Perhaps seeing what developed over a couple of years, or focusing on some key issues, or answering critics…?

  3. brett says:

    Two sentences stand out:

    “I want to sit next to the guys who are reinventing higher education, and study them” and “I don’t need any more money”.

    Sounds like an easy decision to me.

  4. I’d be very wary of going to work for an educational startup founded on the premise of “reinventing education.”

    At what point do business imperatives (aka, make a profit for investors) overtake sound, sustainable educational practice? From my experience and observation, it’s pretty early in the game, and once that happens, the re-inventors become the perpetuators of the status quo (although with better marketing copy).

    I’d second Bryan Alexander’s suggestion: a follow up book.



  5. “For profits” can easily write a biz plan with ‘ground breaking’ elements, but when the chips are down, they may just want to use your cred to boost their image – how much real input would you have?

    Then again, you can watch it, and regret not making it better, or you can get in the game and at least say you did your best to make it happen, either with the for profits or the monks. Bill Gates is not a technology journalist, neither is Steve Jobs.

    Being in the game does not prevent you from writing a followup book (worst case being a book about how hard it was to change the system?)

    If you have a vision and you are the one on the top of the wave, then you should wax up the board and ride it. Most people only get one shot at that.

    (and the rest of us just peddle the most appaling sequences of cliches in blog comments:-) )


  6. Henry says:

    I’ve worked in higher education for over 10 years. I can attest to the fact that there is no shortage of frustrated professors, disillusioned administrators, and passionate students who are more than eager press for a change in the status quo. What there is a dire shortage of is competent mapmakers; someone reliable who can help direct all that angst and energy.
    Your book can and will inspire action; it doesn’t have to be action you undertake in order to be valid. You have a unique position–rather than be a extra set of hands working on a groundbreaking initiative, you have the ability to steer countless hands towards one.
    My personal advice–put some skin in the game only if it seems like it would be more fun than what you’re currently doing. But don’t do it out of any sense of obligation–you are already serving the cause in a way that few could (and doing a damn fine job of it).
    PS. I enjoyed the physical descriptions and many non-fiction writers could take a clue from your style. Also, was that a Waiting for Guffman reference cloaked in your post?

  7. admin says:

    Henry–Nice catch on the Waiting for Guffman! :) And thanks for the support, as always!

  8. Mark Notess says:

    What Brett said.

  9. Brian Kung says:


    As much as I would follow whatever you do, I have to agree with your inclination to stay where you are.

    I feel as though no single solution is going to overhaul the entire system…in fact, that’s not what we want at all. A diversity in options and experiences is for the best, both for learners and the educational ecosystem. Choosing to side with one for-profit over another removes you from the position we all treasure you for; the ability to oversee the educational landscape…the eduscape?…as a whole.

    It’s been terribly generous of you to report what you see. I hope you keep it up.

    Brian Kung

  10. Randy Proto says:

    I just read your book.

    I have been in for-profit education for 32 years in diverse roles at many types of institutions.

    I may be late to the party, but I agree with Henry’s comments. Regardless of your choice, you have and will most certainly continue to positively impact higher education. Do what you think you will enjoy most.

    And if it helps, once in a lifetime opportunities usually come more than once in a lifetime. Particularly for Do It Yourselfers.

  11. Nate says:

    I agree whole-heartedly w/ Henry’s comments and your leanings towards studying and analyzing the movement. You stand out as a clear voice in the wilderness, keep it up. As a fan and social entrepreneurially-oriented young mind w/ some new (old) ideas for the future of education, I see your talents best utilized not only in a journalist role, but as a Gladwellian Connector for the DIY Edu social entrepreneur community. Hackerspaces are where the magic will happen. Listen and help connect those w/ ideas & passion to those investors w/ slow $$, open-minds and experience. Only then will we be who we think we are ;)

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