[iDC] Education

davin heckman davinheckman at gmail.com
Wed Jul 8 20:34:52 UTC 2009

Sorry for sending this twice....  I forgot to put it under a new heading.

Trebor asked me how some of the things we have been discussing might
become “teachable,” and I have been racking my brains thinking about
how such a discussion might go.  Many issues raised on the IDC list
are relevant to teaching from a pedagogical perspective, and they
certainly are important to work that I have been doing elsewhere

Rather than embark on a rambling discussion, I have decided to ground
my comments here specifically in last month’s activity on the forum
(And instead of a rambling discussion, I have written up several
rambling discussions).  In an attempt further constrain the
conversation, I want will break this discussion into three subheading:
1) issues of space and time (because I feel that these are the
particular areas where social media open up space for critical
consciousness about immaterial labour, playbour, the attention
economy, and the sorts of liminal social commodities under
consideration here); 2) the symbolic relevance of social media for
teaching and learning; and 3) the potential of interpersonal
exchanges.  These three categories could be mutually reinforcing.

To begin with, when I am speaking of “education,” I am referring
primarily to the type of formal teaching that I do: I am a professor
at a small liberal arts college in rural Michigan.  Most of my
students are first generation, working-class  young adults from the
region (some from cities, some from small towns).  While I am
reluctant to insist too heavily on an Enlightenment model of
education, I also reject the thinking which imagines that each student
should get some sort of “self-actualization” from their education,
that I am some kind of shaman helping them uncover their unique inner

For me, education must be oriented towards a community.  Beyond that,
students can and should explore their own interests, identify problems
themselves, and come up with clever ways to solve those problems.  At
the end of the day, I DO want my students to understand the way that
the world works so that they can intervene in it.  And I hope that
they will intervene in favor of the common good.

This orientation conflicts, obviously, with the general attitude
towards education in the United States: Education is an individualized
path to economic and social advancement.

1.  Issues of Space and Time

A key issue that has been discussed on this list in the last several
weeks has been the temporal component of social media.  Whether we
begin with Michael Goldharb’s discussion of the “Attention Economy,”
which asserts the economic value of active perception and the shift
this has introduced to traditional models of marketing or we begin
with the metaphor of the factory, where time is measured, regulated,
controlled, time is a critical part of this equation.  In a highly
saturated media environment, passive spectatorship is no longer
reliable (if it ever was), and thus there is an increased focus on
attracting and maintaining attention.  The obverse of this, of course,
is that the consumer now has “attention” to “pay,” presumably in
exchange for some good.

In the classroom, this translates into discipline:  To whom do
students “pay” attention and what do they get in exchange for it.  (At
the bottom of this email, I will provide links to bits of relevant
activity on this list that has focused on student attention).  Anne
Beffell commented that many of her students confess to feeling
“addicted” to websites like Facebook, and check them compulsively to
shore up feelings of social connectedness and validation.  While
Jeremy Hunsinger questioned the pervasiveness of such activity.
Meanwhile, Eric Gordon suggests that these technologies might be used
“to harness distraction as a means of producing more vibrant (and
dare I say focused) educational spaces.”

In the general problem of persuading students to focus on the course
materials resides an incredible opportunity to discuss the very
problems and potentials of new media itself.  Many of the discussions
of distraction focus on which practices to reward and which to punish.
 Obviously, expecting students to sit still and focus on you while you
lecture is to impose upon them a discipline.  On the other hand,
allowing them (or expecting them) to communicate on multiple platforms
with a variety of people is to respect another discipline (one which
is just as socially demanding).  Each disciplinary regime enables
different types of behavior which has different intrinsic strengths
and weaknesses.  In addition, each has its own context.

Opening up greater consciousness about techniques and technologies is
often simply a matter of pointing towards the students’ own
difficulties with reading and writing research papers.  Many of the
courses I teach require research papers.  Most students assume that
you are either born to read or write or you are not, and they are
simply part of an entire generation of people who are genetically
predisposed to watch Youtube, not craft arguments.  Many are surprised
to discover that they can write longer papers if they use certain
organizational techniques to help focus their consciousness.  Many are
very happy to discover that they can learn this discipline and use it
to improve their performance in a course.

The next step, of course, is to turn this technical discussion towards
a more relevant social knowledge.  Of course, there are obvious (and
glaring) disparities between, say, the skills taught in Detroit Public
Schools versus the skills taught in some of the more affluent suburbs…
 and this alone is something that many students are already aware of
(Some of my students graduated at the top of their class in high
school, and then show up to college and find themselves struggling to
pass basic courses).  But more abstract than this, are a host of
potential questions:  What is a person’s time is worth?  How is social
media able to yield economically valuable information?  What do credit
card companies do with your personal information?  Are there limits to
this?  Why are you compensated for one kind of work and not for
another?  How does decision-making improve or degrade over time?  Is a
hastily written paper better than one that was written in advance?
How much time do you spend revising?  These are all philosophical
questions that revolve around “the internet as factory”.  Of course,
students can come to their own conclusions about what their time is
worth and how they choose to spend it…  but I do think that one of the
critical purposes of education is make students aware of the way the
world works.  By simply provoking a little more self-consciousness
about communication and time, we can intervene quite practically in
the consideration of “immaterial labour.”  How social forms of labour
are considered determines how they are used.  Future historians,
presuming there are future historians, might tell the story of
consciousness the same way that school kids learn that Manhattan was
bought for a handful of glass beads—“They didn’t realize what the
Europeans meant when they said they wanted to ‘buy’ the island.”
Today, we are only beginning to survey the terrain of consciousness.
At this point, it seems like an inexhaustible resource that can be
traded repeatedly with little consequence.  Our attention works as a
commodity only insofar as we are indifferent to its expenditure.  A
critical self-awareness of the very significance of our consciousness
guards against dispossession, or at the very least, changes the
dynamics of the attention that we pay.  Paying attention to “Shell” is
economically good (for Shell, but bad for people) when they are trying
to sell you some kind of petroleum product, paying attention to
“Shell” while reading about Ken Saro-Wiwa is really good in a
radically different way (good for humanity, but really bad for Shell).

When we make the leap to a conscious awareness that our attention has
value, this opens up some additional opportunities for teachers.  A
common complaint that students have with writing long papers, versus
the short sort of missives that they tend to do better at, is “When
will I ever have to write a research paper in the ‘real world’?”  This
translates into two opportunities, one is the difference between the
University and the Real World.  The second is the temporality of
various forms of communication.   As Sean Cubbitt points out:

“The kind of change we bring about in education is rather longer term
than what can be achieved on Twitter. We have, admittedly, the luxury
of thinking forty years into the future -- the likely working life of
a student graduating today. That means we balance between the usual
corporate horizon of three to five years (like any other business) and
the longer term, which entrepreneurs and corporations cannot afford to
think about.”

That the university operates on a different time is absolutely crucial
to deconstructing the assumptions that implied in social media: Fast
information is better than slow information.  New information is
better than old information.  While these particular “truths” might be
relevant in select contexts, they are just that: relative.  They are
considered true because they are conducive to a certain kind of
decision-making and social interaction.  They mere awareness of other
decision-making processes and social interactions undercuts the
assumptions that tend to dominate at the cutting edge of capitalism.
The “luxury” of long term thinking (sad that it is a luxury, isn’t
it?) is something that we can carve out in a University.  Doing things
slowly sometimes is something we can insist upon as teachers.  Taking
time and attention, which are precious commodities, and wasting them
on silly and absurd notions, ones that might even fail in the “real
world,” are exactly the kinds of things that we can do.  The ultimate
goal of this is not to turn students towards or away from particular
technologies, rather, it is to use the diversity of forms to foster a
critical awareness that might lead to more expansive thinking.  Just
as the multilingual person tends to have a more acute awareness of the
effects of word choice on consciousness, so our multitude of platforms
can be harnessed, with a small bit of reflection, towards the similar

In his essay on “Guattari’s Schizoanalytic Cartographies,” Brian
Holmes points to the emancipatory potential of thinking multiply:

“What the book tries to show is not how behavior is structured in
adaptation to its context – because every discourse of power does that
– but instead, how people are able to leave their initial territories
and articulate original expressions in problematic interaction with
others on a multiplicity of grounds, so as to resist, create, propose
alternatives and also escape into their evolving singularities,
despite the normalizing forces that are continually brought to bear on
them by capitalist society.”

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