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Archive for the ‘education’ Category

I am a member of the faculty at UC Davis, and my campus has been roiled these past few days by violent actions taken by the campus police, directed at non-violently protesting students. The video of campus police pepper-spraying students has been seen ’round the world, and letters of protest, outrage and demands have been blowing up my email inbox all weekend.

 

On Sunday, just as I was catching up on Friday’s events, I was also set to present at a panel at the American Academy of Religion Conference, in San Francisco.  The panel was convened by the good people behind Freq.uenci.es, a “collaborative genealogy of spirituality” and a website to which I’ve contributed.  I prepared some remarks, but I felt impelled to preface them by saying how weird it felt to talk about spirituality life on my campus — for my students, colleagues and friends — had changed irrevocably.  I opened with some comments about feeling that tension, and then went on with the show.  I explained that I was having a hard time reconciling these two things, but that I was okay to live with that unreconciled tension.

 

This morning, on my way to participate in the General Assembly at UC Davis, a friend told me about another video.  A second video – not of police and protesters, but of the Chancellor, Linda Katehi, being walked to her car, following an on campus meeting Saturday night.  In the video, you see Katehi walking down a road, flanked by hundreds of silent, standing students, making their protest as loudly as possible by not saying a thing. 

 

All you hear are her heels click-clacking on the asphalt.

That video, not the one of the cops, speaks to the power of these students that this community.  And the sound of her heels amidst the crowd of hundreds of students express perfectly the potential in this moment.  Potential that is political, and dare I say: spiritual, too.

 

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How did the humanities lose out to neuroscience in making culture seem interesting?

I’ve been listening to a lot of NPR and podcasts lately. I’ve given my historical favorites a little break (sorry, This American Life and Sound Opinions), and I’ve been listening more and more to Planet Money and Radiolab (as podcasts), and to the usual NPR fare that airs while I do dishes or cook dinner: All Things Considered, Marketplace, and of course: Fresh Air.

What I’ve noticed is how often scientists and economists show up on theses shows to talk about things I thought were the main interests of humanists and social scientists. Questions like the how restaurants work, whether or not race matters, why certain songs get stuck in our heads, how people calculate the value of things or make decisions they know are not in their best interests, and so on.

These are the questions to which I have long sought answers by looking at culture and its various expressions, and in which my field of American Studies has long been interested (albeit in different forms, over time).

Yet somehow, every time I turn on the radio, I find one or another neuroscientist (or, often enough, Jonah Lehrer) talking about precisely these same questions, and about how the pathways of neurons and synapses can answer questions art or love or whatever.

So here’s my question to my colleagues: how did we become so untouchable or so uninteresting to mainstream media? How come the good people at NPR (and, presumably, their listeners) find neuroscientists and economists more interesting and more capable of talking about these questions that we are? How did they become the go-to academics for understanding how and why people do what they do? Social scientists and humanists look at those phenomena, too, but somehow, we have become generally less interesting than our colleagues.

This is not the neuroscientists’ fault: they are good at what they do, and their creativity in asking profound questions that teeter on the line between culture and biology ought to be encouraged. Similarly, it’s not the fault of the radio programmers; they are looking for the most intelligent, engaging guests they can find. And they’re finding them in neuroscience and economics, not in the Humanities.

Why is everyone else talking about culture but us? Are we that boring? Have we grown so adept at gazing at our own navels that we can’t talk about other things? Does “the public” think that so-called “hard” science is really the only arbiter of actualities in the world?

How have we become so irrelevant even on topics that are ostensibly our areas of expertise and scholarly interest?

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Whenever someone (often on the internet, but not always) wants to emphasize how smart the collective masses are, or point to the effectiveness of the “hive mind,” they always end up looking at Wikipedia.

But why hold Wikipedia up as a bastion of either mass-generated wisdom or productivity? Why make Wikipedia the pinnacle of the possibilities of collective action?

Yes, its Wikipedia is both a tremendous source of information and an example of the possibilities of a kind of open-ended collaborative effort to tap the massive labors of folks around the world who would, historically, have been shut out of the process of knowledge production. And that opening-up of access is a good thing, generally speaking. However, the price of such opening-up might be a more generally accurate account, but its a less curious, less inspiring and ultimately, less informative product.

Wikipedia gives us information but beyond that, I’m not sure it gives us very much.

Pointing to Wikipedia or the Encyclopedia Britanica as the best of a culture’s intellectual output makes about as much sense as looking to sausage for the best of a culture’s protein sources. Both are collections of abstract and often reductive information — no matter how extensive that information is. Rendered, often, in the authoritative prose of clumsy journalism, both sources are and remain locations for fact checking and the collection of surface level information. They’re useful, and (to extend the sausage metaphor), they might even be a little useful, but they are hardly the finest examples of intellectual production to which we can point. Wikipedia is great for checking dates of major events or grabbing thumb-nail sketches of historical figures, but it is not a terribly productive location for fostering curiosity or encouraging complex intellectual investigation.

Wikipedia offers information at its most basic and banal. It does not signal the “death of the expert,” but its eternal life. And I don’t mean the good kind of expert, either. I mean the niggling, nit-picking kind of expert who treasures the firmness of facts over the flexibility or rigor of intellectual labor.

Wikipedia is great at presenting gross information, but it is much worse at presenting nuanced argument. Encyclopedia Britanica is not much better, for that matter, but what the continual stoking of the Wikipedia v. Britanica debate suggests not the triumph of the collective mind over the individual brain. Nor does it indicate the death of the expert. Instead, it illustrates the embrace of the middle by the mass — which doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, and which is exactly where Wikipedia belongs.

Coming Soon: The Death of the Death of the Expert

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Photo Credit: Associated Press

The teacher protests currently taking place in Wisconsin are clearly significant for a variety of political and educational reasons. The events unfolding in Madison have amplified ongoing debates about unionism, the crisis in U.S. education, and the politics of state budgeting. The protests arrive after several years of escalating public criticism of teachers. And the outcome will potentially impact the contours of our national debate about education policy. What is happening in Wisconsin is also significant for cultural reasons. It is important to remember just how rare it is for Americans to see photographs and television footage of tens of thousands of teachers gathered together in one place. The uncommon images coming out of Madison are profoundly disruptive to our common sense about teachers and schooling. From a cultural perspective, the portraits of teacher protest now circulating in the mass media are especially striking for the ways in which they challenge traditional representations of the teacher in American society.

Historically, the teacher has been depicted in American culture as one of three types: the schoolmarm, the bumbling pedagogue, or the lone hero. The schoolmarm is typically an older, unmarried, rural woman who dedicates her entire life to her pupils. She is the Miss Dove character, or the prairie schoolteacher, or the imagined head of the classroom in the little red schoolhouse of yore. The bumbling pedagogue is usually male, often effeminate, and either clownish, pedantic, or otherwise socially awkward.  He is the Ichabod Crane of our popular memory, the Mr. Kotter, the Scott Guber of Boston Public. Finally, the lone hero is the renegade who operates in isolation. He or she employs a nontraditional pedagogy—often in opposition to an unsupportive administrator—in an effort to educate the students everyone else has given up on. From Blackboard Jungle to Stand and Deliver to Dangerous Minds, the lone hero is a staple of many Hollywood films.

Throughout the years, these stock images have mostly served to denigrate the profession of teaching, depicting it as a lonely, all-consuming, non-specialized career.  These fictional teachers rarely if ever complain about wages, benefits, or the excessive demands placed on them. They seem to willingly sacrifice their personal lives for the sake of their students. And they are almost never imagined as members of a teacher union. Such popular depictions also tend to suggest that teaching requires little if any formal training; in fact, many of these iconic pedagogues become teachers because they can’t do anything else. Most importantly, these images have worked to normalize the idea that public schools are crisis-ridden environments in which teachers must act in solitude, as outsiders, if they hope to accomplish anything.

Interestingly enough, these three dominant representations of teachers have subsided from view in recent years, supplanted in the media by images of tough, pragmatic, business-minded reformers.  I am thinking in particular of Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of public schools in Washington D.C. For a while, Rhee became a media darling who was profiled in Newsweek and Time (where she was photographed holding a broom) and was featured in the pro-charter school documentary Waiting for Superman.  In a similar vein, business luminaries Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have been spotlighted as the new philanthropic saviors of U.S. education (the Facebook CEO recently donated $100 million to Newark public schools).  The media celebration of these corporate reformers has conveniently dovetailed with broader calls to privatize public schooling and introduce more business-inspired models of incentive pay and accountability into school systems.

At the same time that our iconography of school reform has been crowded with the likes of Michelle Rhee for the past few years, U.S. popular culture has propagated a more deviant image of the classroom teacher. Television shows in particular have featured teacher protagonists who presumably mean well but who must of necessity supplement their educator salaries with illegal activities.  Take, for example, the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who cooks and sells methamphetamine on Breaking Bad, or the history-teacher-turned-male-escort on Hung.  Just this past week, the trailer for the forthcoming film Bad Teacher, starring Cameron Diaz as an apathetic, pot-smoking, foul-mouthed schoolteacher, went viral (curious timing, to say the least). Teachers like these reinforce the perception that we need no-nonsense leaders like Michelle Rhee to sweep schools clean of them.

All of this explains why the images coming out of Madison are so culturally significant. First, these images show thousands of teachers united together in solidarity.  Here we see not one teacher working alone, but a mass of teachers, a community, working together toward a common end.  Second, these depictions of non-elite, everyday people taking to the streets in the name of public education contrast sharply with the lone power suit administrator or the billionaire philanthropist imposing top-down reforms on supposedly inept teachers.  To best illustrate this second point, I can’t help but compare the pictures of thousands of teachers protesting in Madison with the Time magazine cover of Rhee standing alone with a broom back in 2008.  The new imagery overwhelms the old, draining the Rhee photograph of its symbolic power.

Finally, these many iconic images of Wisconsin teachers project strength—not bumbling hesitancy, or shoulder shrugging resignation, but conviction and fortitude.

Without question, these cultural representations matter. As the editors of the 1994 book Schooling in the Light of Popular Culture remind us, education in the United States is “likely to be understood in ways that are at least in part beholden to popular images and ideas embodied in widely disseminated texts.”  The cultural stories we tell ourselves about schooling can shape how we discuss education, debate policy, and perceive teachers. Today, at least, the quaint faces of Ichabod Crane and the frontier schoolmarm have been replaced by a bold faculty of thousands. Long after the impasse in Wisconsin is resolved, the images emanating from there are sure to resonate in our popular imagination.

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