Saturday, February 28, 2015

Saturday morning blessings...

"Say you will never ever catch me, no, no, no"

Monday, February 23, 2015

Wendell Berry is a bad ass...

…and I love that Lang brings him and his Ludditism up at one point. If you don't believe me just read this:

Despite what my post from last week may seem to indicate, I’m all for utilizing and integrating some “teaching and learning technologies” in the courses that I teach. I do use a class wiki already—admittedly in a humble and rudimentary way, but it’s a foundation upon which I will continue to build. My students submit papers electronically and I comment on them and return them likewise, and I actually prefer this to paper copies (although I do believe in low-stakes in-class writings as well). Finally, I definitely plan on incorporating weekly blog posts into the courses I teach next fall—time and time again I’ve found them to be advantageous for a number of reasons that are included in our own syllabus in this course. 

Nevertheless, I will never pretend to not see the insidious and pervasive corporate presence that undergirds all of the technological stuff we as instructors seem to incessantly have forced upon us. And, to put it plainly, I refuse to have any of these conversations without this fact somewhere in sight. Period. 

In this regard—and before I go on—I’m going to bring Jonathan Crary into this one last time (for good measure) as regards the problem with perspectives (such as Davidson and Goldberg) that insist that the present is defined by a kind of technological adolescence and liminality which will inevitably lead to some terminus ad quem of technological maturity. 

“This pseudo-historical formulation of the present as a digital age,” Crary explains, “supposedly homologous with a ‘bronze age’ or ‘steam age,’ perpetuates the illusion of a unifying and durable coherence to the many incommensurable constituents of contemporary experience…One of the underpinnings of this assumption is the popular truism that today’s teenagers and younger children are all now harmoniously inhabiting the inclusive and seamless intelligibility of their technological worlds. This generational characterization supposedly confirms that, within another few decades or less, a transitional phase will have ended and there will be billions of individuals with a similar level of technological competence and basic intellectual assumptions. With a new paradigm fully in place, there will be innovation, but in this scenario it will occur within the stable and enduring conceptual and functional parameters of this ‘digital’ epoch. However, the very different actuality of our time is the calculated maintenance of an ongoing state of transition [my emphasis]. There never will be a ‘catching up’ on either a social or individual basis in relation to continually changing technological requirements. For the vast majority of people, our perceptual and cognitive relationship to communication and information technology will continue to be estranged and disempowered because the velocity at which new products emerge and at which arbitrary reconfigurations of entire systems take place. This intensified rhythm precludes the possibility of becoming familiar with any given arrangement” (37).

OK then, stepping back from the broader perspective of the technocratic juggernaut mentioned above—meaning getting back into the humble space of the classroom—I agree with James M. Lang that one of the best ways to approach balancing more traditional teaching/learning methods with new(er) technological methods is simply the same approach that makes for a proven formula when confronting many of life’s decisions: moderation. As Lang states in a previous chapter that we’ve read, “simply putting your lecture outlines and important information on a PowerPoint slide represents no great improvement from writing those same words on the blackboard or putting them into an over head” (77). It’s all about finding a comfortable, generative, and effective balance…I guess.

After the opening—and perhaps compulsory—anecdote with which Lang begins the chapter “Teaching with Technology,” he cites Don Madigan when he writes that “this generation of students is ‘used to multi-tasking’ in ways that are less familiar to us older types” (44). Lang claims his students have “clearly illustrated” this to him time and time again. I can also say that my own experiences with the younger, ostensibly tech-savvy generation(s)—in and out of the classroom—have also very “clearly illustrated” to me that the aforementioned “multi-tasking” simply does not work for many of them. In fact, it seems to often make a mess out of the simplest writing tasks.

On a final note, I would like to draw attention to the similarities between some of the ideas we had last week regarding how we would use technology to broaden and enhance our approaches to studying the spaces, places, and landscapes of the literature and films we teach and one of Jesse Stommel’s interesting ideas in “How to Build an Ethical Online Course.” When I first read, “The best online learning should engage us in an immediate and physical way,” I was instantly and skeptically thinking to myself that an online class could not be further from immediacy and physical presence—and I still feel that way I guess. The “shared sense of physical space” that Stommel claims is created by—for instance—his assignment that requires students to blog about Thoreau’s Walden and include photos of a hike they might go on, would be better shared in the actual space of the classroom. 

Still, the assignment he describes, and the ways in which he explains utilizing technology to display images is kind of what I was thinking of last week. For instance, while having students engage Charles Baudelaire’s poetic representations in Paris Spleen of the massive spatial upheavals caused by the “Haussmannization” of Paris, and the corresponding dislocation and marginalization of the poor of the city, students could accompany their writing (this could be via blogs or in-class presentations incidentally) with photos of analogous—and equally dislocating and marginalizing—spatial upheavals occurring in Detroit.

Perhaps the same could be done while having students engage and examine examples of "cities and memory, cities and desire, cities and designs, cities and the dead, cities and the sky, trading cities, [and] hidden cities," as envisioned in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

Or perhaps students could use actual images to help capture and think about the evolution of this country's distinct paradigm of suburban (and exurban) space, and all of the social and political impressions of it that are movingly rendered in D. J. Waldie's Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

let's break for a message from our sponsor

                                        "I call architecture frozen music."


Monday, February 16, 2015

I think this is my stop…

“In many places one still encounters the assertion that contemporary technological arrangements are essentially a neutral set of tools that can be used in many different ways, including in the service of an emancipatory politics…Those who continue to promote similar arguments are, for their part, the product of the media apparatus in which they are captured.

“Everywhere one encounters the complacent and preposterous assumption that these systemic patterns are ‘here to stay,’ and that such levels of technological consumption are extendable to a planetary population of seven going on ten billion. Many who celebrate the transformative potential of communication networks are oblivious to the oppressive forms of human labor and environmental ravages on which their fantasies…depend. Even among the plural voices affirming that ‘another world is possible,’ there is often the expedient misconception that economic justice, mitigation of climate change, and egalitarian social relations can somehow occur alongside the continued existence of corporations like Microsoft, Google, Apple, and General Electric [my emphasis]. Challenges to these delusions encounter intellectual policing of many kinds. There is an effective prohibition not only on the critique of mandatory technological consumption but also on the articulation of how existing technical capabilities and premises could be deployed in the service of human and social needs” (47-49).

24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep
—Jonathan Crary

There is so much in Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age that I have a problem with, that I’m not even going to start with it.

Since I first read it a year or so ago, I have continued to consider Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep to be one of the most important books out there. As a means of establishing a kind of political economy, Professor Barrett Watten brought it into our discussion in our Postmodernism seminar last winter, and I’ve read it again since. Among other things, it has made my perception of the society I fairly recently kind of caught up with, in a technological sense, far more acute. I’ve been vigilant in academia for examples of how the corporate-technocratic juggernaut which Crary discusses will look as it increasingly fouls the air in here. As far as I am concerned, Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s The Future of Thinking is, in this regard, a gold mine—or perhaps more aptly put, a steaming pile—as it were. 

The manic sense (and futility) of trying to keep up, the sheer inertial pervasiveness of the technocratic intrusion into any and every part of our lives, the incessant expressions of valuable time slipping away (or being wasted)—the whole dizzying sense of frenetic affect that Crary explores wrapped up in 83 pages on technology and teaching. And since every so many pages something Davidson and Goldberg were claiming or explaining brought Crary to mind, it is with Crary that I will at times respond to Davidson and Goldberg below.

Just as an initial, general kind of observation, there is something about the article—some kind of underlying tone I guess—that starts to seem like I’m reading something from people who are, more than anything else, simply terrified about losing their jobs. There is so much in The Future of Thinking that I will never buy into—so much


Throughout The Future of Thinking there is an almost manic sense of the present falling by the wayside, and frenetic instantaneity, and precious time slipping away, and incessant change. For instance, when claiming that educational institutions are changing far slower than, say, corporate culture is, Davidson and Goldberg write that this “slow pace of change makes us think we know what a learning institution is—or we think we do” (3). Or then again, Crary might say that the technocratic forces of change that some educational institutions are not keeping up with are elsewhere “facilitating the perpetuation of the same banal exercise of non-stop consumption, social isolation, and political powerlessness, rather than representing some historically significant turning point” (40). Of course, the blurring of the boundaries between learning and consumption comes up often in The Future of Thinking.

Davidson and Goldberg go on to explain that “New technologies make possible instantaneous revision, repositioning, reformulation” (9). They then—rather dismissively if you ask me—acknowledge that there may be drawbacks to this in that people "may not take the time to reflect" (9). They continue on to insist that “the moment [of change] is fresh enough that it is still visible to us” (9), but I would like to suggest another element of this moment of “freshness”—that the glare of shiny, new contraptions and the libidinal stimulation of technological novelty blinds some of us and keeps some of us in a perpetual state of technological arousal. In 24/7 Crary explains the above instantaneity that Davdison and Goldberg discuss like this:

“The only consistent factor connecting the otherwise desultory succession of consumer products and services is the intensifying integration of one’s time and activity into the parameters of electronic exchange. Billions of dollars are spent every year researching how to reduce decision-making time, how to eliminate the useless time of reflection and contemplation. This is the form of contemporary progress—the relentless capture and control of time and experience”

To the whole general debacle of academia not keeping up with all of the technological change, and the risks that Davidson and Goldberg present, I will respond here with Crary’s assertion that: “Submission to these arrangements is near irresistible because of the portent of social and economic failure—the fear of falling behind, of being deemed outdated. The rhythms of technological consumption are inseparable from the requirement of continual self-administration…The illusion of choice and autonomy is one of the foundations of this global system of auto-regulation” (44).


Davidson and Goldberg suggest that “New digital and collaborative modes of learning, writing, communicating, and publishing inevitably disturb traditional definitions” (31). Fair enough. Thus, they go on to explain, “in transitional moments such as the present one, assumptions become visible and also require serious rethinking” (31). The idea of standing at the precipice of technological change and “transition,” and of being at this pivotally liminal point where if decisions to change are not made, academia will become perilously outdated (outmoded?), seems like academia genuflecting to the engineered obsolescence that the rest of consumer society does. 

The “very different actuality of our time,” Crary correspondingly argues, “is the calculated maintenance of an ongoing state of transition. There never will be a ‘catching up’ on either a social or individual basis in relation to continually changing technological requirements. For the vast majority of people, our perceptual and cognitive relationship to communication and information technology will continue to be estranged and disempowered because the velocity at which new products emerge and at which arbitrary reconfigurations of entire systems take place. This intensified rhythm precludes the possibility of becoming familiar with any given arrangement” (37).


Could “The School of the Future” in Philadelphia be any fucking creepier? ‘Nuff said.

“You do not have to force a child who is interested in Pokémon to practice at the computer” (22). Oh, word? Of course not, total immersion in commercial culture and commodity fetishism has guaranteed that they’re hooked to the fucking gills already at that age. Davidson and Goldberg go on to explain that, “Technical skills, programming, literacy, social life, aesthetics and design, narrative-making, socializing, and fun are all woven together, and, for many preschoolers, the only brake is the parent who worries about the child spending too much time (or money) on Pokémon” (22). Thank god software’s been devised to “limit children’s time at the computer” (22), because the parents evidently are unable to do so. In “This multidisciplinary learning world,” Davidson and Goldberg go on to claim, “play and learning are inseparable” (22). I love how they leave out the fact that also inseparable from all of the “play” and “learning” is corporate ubiquity, insatiable consumption, and acute commodity fetishism of the worst kind—meaning the kind which focuses specifically on “five-year-olds.” 

I could go on, but I’m over it. 

Admittedly, I still have almost thirty pages of The Future of Thinking to read. Maybe something in those thirty pages will make me retract something from above—but I doubt it. 

Human beings in classrooms together… 

…there is something intellectually, socially, and—dare I say—spiritually invaluable about this scenario that, at least as far as I'm concerned, will never be outdated, outmoded, or obsolete…

Monday, February 9, 2015

"background knowledge"?

Since the syllabus outlines a fairly broad scope of ways in which to approach our blog posts, I want to think about the ongoing question of why we (and this can be the “royal We” or simply, I) teach, or want to teach literary and cultural studies in the first place, and how a particular section from Sheridan D. Blau’s The Literature Workshop corresponds and speaks to this question. I must first assert a bit of a caveat here at the beginning though—part of me worries that in what follows, I may be, to some degree, tangentially meandering away from the conversation that Blau is having. Hopefully not. Another concern that I might as well express here is that I’m a bit worried that what follows will make starkly manifest how lost and out-of-place I feel at times here in the Humanities. Oh well, full steam ahead.

There is quite a bit from our Blau reading that I potentially would like to discuss, but chapter four, “The Problem of Background knowledge,” is especially significant to me for a number of reasons. Primarily though, it was an interesting chapter because I realized while reading it that what Blau calls the “background knowledge” responsible for, surrounding, influencing, and determining the texts that we teach, is to me, actually as much of the point as the actual texts themselves. Put another way, I’m as interested in (if not more interested in) the world in which the texts are produced as I am in the texts' representations of this world. As I’ve stated before, I am interested in history, politics, society, and the landscapes in which the unfolding of these things occur and I'm here because I believe literature offers the most rewarding windows into these human phenomena, entities, and places. Whether it be the ways in which history, politics, society, and the spaces in which we live are reflected in the texts or the ways in which the former influence and determine the texts, my interest in all of this, is the world in which we live, and I simply believe that literary (and cinematic) texts have the potential to be the most genuine, important, revealing, and generative ways in which to engage with our world. 

The importance which I invest in the historical, political, social, and spatial “knowledge” that surrounds a given text makes it so that the “background,” in what Blau calls “background knowledge,” is a little troublesome to me. The secondary status of this kind of “knowledge” in relation to the texts, which is implicit in the above, is something with which I am still tussling. I know that Blau’s book and workshop model of teaching and facilitating literary and cultural scholarship is very much focused upon the execution of literary interpretation, and I'm not sure if any of the knowledge acquired and/or produced by this interpretation is meant to escape the confines of the classroom or of the seemingly hermetically sealed boundaries of the academy. I would not be here if I did not believe that if one wants and/or needs to get a genuine, stark understanding of what it is like to—for instance—live on the streets of a certain neighborhood, in a certain city, at a certain time, than the literature produced by human beings from those streets, that neighborhood, that city, and at that time is where one needs to look. 

To support this assertion, I’m not only going to draw from someone wholly outside of the humanities, but from someone outside of academia in general—Robert D. Kaplan. Part journalist, part consultant to the army, part “Senior Fellow” for think-tanks, part “geopolitical analyst,” etcetera, I appreciate Robert D. Kaplan for the same reason I appreciate someone like Mike Davis—when there is no apparent “light at the end of the tunnel” in a certain part of the world with which they are engaged (see for instance Davis’ Planet of Slums), and this truth must be acknowledged if anything is to be done to help the people living in said place, writers like Kaplan and Davis are willing to say so—to say that what’s being done or tried is not working.

OK, almost a digression, maybe, but I had to at least give a little context for the following passage from Kaplan. Oddly enough, in the middle of his massively influential, The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War, which is basically a collection of essays and articles (he’s written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Republic, The National Interest, Foreign Affairs, etc.), in chapter eight one comes across—of all things—a reading of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo.  Entitled, “Conrad’s Nostromo and the Third World,” and in a nutshell, Kaplan’s reading focuses upon the ways in which Conrad’s novel illustrates how the most genuine and realistic understanding of political actions can often be best derived by examining the personal motives behind these actions. Or something like that. Anyway, the below passage is the reason you’re reading this, as it is how Kaplan connects this to the “real world” circumstances that he covers and with which he tussles. Apologies ahead of time for quoting at length like this:

“A person raised in a middle- or upper-middle-class suburban environment, a place ruled by rationalism in the service of material progress, has difficulty imagining the psychological state of affairs in a society where there is little or no memory of hard work achieving its just reward, and where life inside a gang or a drafty army barracks constitutes an improvement in material and emotional security. Even to encounter firsthand such a society—whose instincts have yet to be refined by several generations of middle-class existence—is not enough in the way of an education, since the visitor tends to see it as a laboratory for his or her middle-class ideals, and thus immediately begins to find ‘evidence’ for ‘pragmatic’ solutions.

The problem is further compounded by the separation of literature from history and of both from political science in this age of academic specialization, creating policy makers ignorant of the very books that explain places like Haiti and Somalia far better than any social science ‘methodology.’ While the usefulness of history is accepted and needs no elaboration, the usefulness of literature is less so among the policy elite, even as Marco Diani, a senior researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, writes that, ‘The anguish of any society can be found in its literature, often earlier and more clearly revealed than in its social sciences.’ That is because the future lies inside the silences…” (157-158).

Once again, apologies for the length of the above quote, but I felt like it was necessary to fully contextualize the last paragraph, which is what is most important to me. 

Blau’s chapter on “Background Knowledge,” like much of his book, was terrific in a number of ways and provides some inspiring models with which to attempt to make sure that “our instruction does not exaggerate the gap between what we are able to do and what our students are able to do as readers and interpreters” (96) themselves. But also important to me in this chapter, was the way it deals with the importance of  “background knowledge,” because, as I state above, I consider the historical, political, social, personal, and spatial context and circumstances that produce the texts, as important as the texts themselves. What this means or looks like in action, in the classroom, is another whole conversation--which I will perhaps get a chance to explore this semester amongst you good people and with the syllabus I produce. What I will say here is that it definitely means bringing this "background knowledge" into the foreground alongside the texts themselves...

Monday, February 2, 2015

"the reality of the factory"

Between the values and meaning that we in the field of “English” like to consider the currency in which we trade and the increasingly career-focused priorities of the universities for whom we teach courses such as freshman composition, exists a seemingly irreconcilable tension. It comes up at one point towards the end of the section in Tim Blackmore’s essay entitled “Laying Down the Cards.” Blackmore cites Chandra Mohanty as arguing that “teaching practices must also combat the pressures of professionalization, normalization, and standardization, the very pressures of expectations that implicitly aim to manage and discipline pedagogies so the teacher behaviors are predictable (and perhaps controllable) across the board” (50). Much of this predictability and controllability may be fine with most of the rest of the university, but, once again, those of us in the Humanities in general, and in the field of “English” (not sure why I feel compelled to keep putting that in quotation marks) in particular, concerned as we are with values and meaning, are inevitably and in varying degrees unnerved by what Blackmore describes as the “increased expectation in the last two decades that universities will be job clinics [whose] main reason for existence is the professional school” (50). These are all circumstances that can be included in what Blackmore calls "the reality of the factory"—the strict “scientific management” once applied to industrial production, known as Taylorism, now applied to a university education. Gross.

The issue also comes up in James M. Lang’s section on “collaborative learning” as well. In fact, the job market is the first reason Lang lists in support of using small “collaborative” groups when teaching. Lang quotes Mara Sapon-Shevin as claiming: “It is hard to think of a single job today that doesn’t involve working with others at some level. We can ill afford to graduate students who are competent but uncommunicative, skilled but unable to share those skills, capable of doing but not of teaching what they know” (106). Aren’t these all  basically just characteristics of what hyenas like Dan Gilbert (spit) and predatory abominations like Quicken Loans (spit) would refer to as “synergy”? Gross. At least for now, I operate in the field of "English," with our preoccupations with nebulously troublesome concepts like values and meaning, so if you’re trying to convince me that group work—or “collaborative learning”—is a useful approach to teaching students to be, for instance, critical and engaged readers and writers, this is not the way to do it. I was waiting for Lang to qualify this at least a little bit, and he didn’t disappoint. “Assuming that at least part [my emphasis] of a college education is to prepare students to succeed in their career choices,” Lang explains, “we should take seriously the obligation not only to help them understand our disciplines and their related skills, but also to help them learn the communication and interaction skills they will need in their careers” (106). Simple enough, eh?

I have a natural repulsion towards entities like teams, crowds, and groups—I am hardwired for solitary work. I’ve grown up skating downtown in “crews” and everything, but that’s still different, because the act of skateboarding itself, is wholly individualistic—the “crews” we’d go out skating in when I was younger were mostly about watching out for cops, or having each other’s backs when we skated places like Northwestern High School. But I digress. Plain and simple, I have always felt that sustained and committed scholarly exploration is a wholly solitary endeavor. But of course, I do not project what I personally am here to do, and the best way I believe to do it, onto my students—at least I try not to. As difficult as it is to acknowledge sometimes, I am fully aware that preparing students to enter the job market is, as Lang writes, “at least part of” what we are all doing here. I know Lang goes on to list retention and the whole “knowledge as a consensus” theory for reasons why "collaborative learning" works, and these reasons are convincing enough in their own rights, but my best reason for continuing to incorporate plenty of group work in my course is simply because I have repeatedly had it confirmed to me in the classrooms which I have been fortunate enough to share with my students, that “collaborative learning”—whether it be peer reviewing drafts of papers or group work to facilitate discussions—is something that students enjoy (even if it’s reluctantly at first) and from which they clearly benefit. 

Incidentally, it’s funny to me that, in regard to Lang’s last reason mentioned above for utilizing “collaborative learning,” he writes that the “phenomenon of Wikipedia, perhaps more than anything else in our larger culture, has helped spread the idea that knowledge is a shared construction” (108). It was exactly Wikipedia that I initially thought of as an example of the potential problems with and hazards of the “shared construction” of knowledge when just anybody can get in and do what they want to it—especially considering how many of our students seem to unquestioningly take something like Wikipedia as “truth" when we first encounter them in our courses…at least until we've had time to insidiously corrupt their minds and warp them into aspiring leftist radicalism based on our staunch "teaching from political conviction and a sense of social justice" approach to pedagogy (hah, just joking, relax Cooper)...