Industrial Education in the Information Age

“And when science proposes to art besides that peace-full sea
I’ll be that cat with a ring on a pillow shouting finally”

Aesop Rock – “Water

Seth Godin’s clarion call for education reform recognizes the need to create students who are knowledge-able and not simply regurgitors of the status quo. His critique of the standard education in k-12 and beyond in the United States adopts a global perspective concerning the status of US education next to other developed competitors. Sitting next to Dan Edelstein’s article concerning innovation and the liberal arts, it’s clear that the death of our collective power to innovate and adapt in the next fifty years is inscribed in our inability to understand the role of the liberal arts as the foundation of technical and social knowledge. Simply stated, the inability to reason beyond “given” and not “natural” structures is stymied by a myopic view of technical knowledge as the only goal of education. STEM education threatens the ability of the liberal arts to exist thus destabilizing a cornerstone of democracy by transforming educational systems into productive mechanisms narrowly focused on economic applicability. Ironically, the loss of the liberal arts and humanities within the vision of education is supported by broader philosophical initiatives to make the study of philosophy a luxury of the rich at best and a waste of time for the poor at worst.

Parker Palmer  grapples with ethical issues involved in collective action problems in an institutional context. The growth of massive bureaucracies as tools of governance in private and public sectors signals the need for understanding the individual in relation to the collective and the ethical problems that may arise from this social arrangement. Palmer calls for more students to develop an ethical sensibility that they can carry into their work lives as they assume positions within larger organizations that harness the collective power of individuals for larger purposes. The modern firm, however, has the power to reshape the globe through its reach and requires those working for it to understand their place and responsibility within it. This sensibility is best cultivated by a liberal arts education that stresses open-ended inquiry. Creating an ethical and philosophical sensibility is difficult. It does not fit well on multiple choice exams, it’s not easy to quantify and ethical questions are rarely “answered” full stop.

Philosophy, for example, is not full of “facts” that one can put on a test and the skills developed in a philosophical education require the close attention of skilled teachers who push and challenge students to think harder about the basics of their existence. While these skills aren’t the best for building widgets, they are part and parcel of humanistic education that develops a well-rounded reasoner and community participant. Philosophical inquiry requires creativity and carefully articulated views that promote innovative thinking.

Technical, widget-centric education has its place but the delivery method is outdated. Rote memorization, standardized testing, and sage on the stage lecturing does not engage the fundamental skills required to be knowledge-able and thus deprives students of the practice needed to connect the dots. The writing is on the wall. The labor market itself is changing as we escape the mental cage constructed by an education system designed to stamp out compliant and quiescent industrial workers. Employers are seeing the strength of a liberal arts education as automation threatens those with market-reactive, technical degrees. The power to innovate comes from an ability to understand the status quo and improve upon existing information to bring something new into the world.

Global New Class culture is ill-equipped to understand the power of ideas favoring instead a materialistic vision of innovation through gadgets predicated on an economic normative contellation governed by efficiency. Smaller, faster, more accessible and more arms on the information age Swiss Army Knife conforms to the techno-utopian desire to be free from bondage and inconvenience. But are we actually better off with each successive technological advancement? Innovation seen in this way does not advance the human race beyond its immaterial confines that draw the limits of our collective understanding. We’re little more than apes with gadgets and this presents a dangerous situation as we fail to understand the ramifications of our technological advancement and the further extension of the “human” into the “environment”. The middle of the 20th century saw humanity invent the possibility of our collective destruction and we huberistically proclaimed that we had mastered the atom. Today, we can pluck information out of the air and communicate at light speed through a global network. This new capability brings new responsibilities and we need to first understand our selves in relation to our technology before we crack on toward the next new thing. This understanding will require the careful cultivation of students who have outgrown the sage on the stage classroom.

We cannot continue to rob children of the opportunity to buck the status quo by asking why one study is more useful than another. Technical knowledge needs to be interpreted and contextualized. The liberal arts are up to this task. The reverse is also true: the liberal arts need to understand the impact technology has on the world if we’re going to understand the advancement of our social being. Students can and should specialize and become excellent at one thing or another. Conceptually, however, the well rounded student will have a foundation in both the arts and sciences. The segmentation and funneling of students into vocational education that ignores the arts while touting itself as higher education is a farce. We cannot let one vision obliterate the other and say that our view is stereoscopic.

Power and Google

Jason Farman’s brief genealogy of the distrust between humans and their own inventions is a telling illustration of how special our time is. We are witnessing the adoption of new modalities of being social as the fusion of physical and digital is completed within our relationships to the internet. The capacity to pluck information from the air at will has, as Nicholas Carr notes, forced those in the information age society to consider the ramification of living with technology and coming to grips with the changes in social organization it can produce. Websites like Second Life and Gaia Online offer new ways of existing as a social being through the extension of the internet. Carr recognizes that the Net is a medium of mediums comprising textual, visual and auditory ways of accessing and decoding information that are different from the unitary communications channels of the television. The ability to interact and ‘be social’ through the digital medium is aided by the introduction of a dialogic communication loop through which users can influence each other in real time spread across the larger informational ecology of the web. The potential to influence the lives, emotions and well being of users is roughly evenly distributed across information networks as users can converse and interact through social media sites.

The formation of a digital identity is aided largely by the habits of users and the algorithms within the void that track the movements of physical persons through the digital network. Largely the product of information gathering activities by commercial interests, the websites, clicks and keystrokes help define notions of persons by reducing them to an image of information that exists through the digital. The emergence of the digital self and the increasing anxiety about one’s privacy and life information recursively influences user behavior adding to the emotional and affective connection to the digital self by the physical self.  The establishment of the digital self effectively augments our understandings of who we are in the face of technology.  Exporting our memories to social media outlets, and the digital paper trail of blogging, emailing and posting helps define the self in terms of memory and action that is always-already accessible to other users. Our histories are more than our browser histories.

The connection between human and internet reshapes our notions of possibility opening new expectations for being social. Redefining productivity is aided by the prevalence of the physical infrastructure necessary for interaction such as smartphones and other portable devices. The possibility of reaching any one, tracking their movements and evaluating their trustworthiness is now easier through tapping portable digital infrastructure. Augmenting the possible and refining the productive allow us to place new expectations on labor, friendships and romantic relationships while we are constantly bombarded with information that needs to be sorted quickly. Glancing at your phone’s email notifications is a precursor to the urgency of the moment with each successive buzz or ping as another user reaches through the digital to touch and move the physical.

The question is how the power to move and influence the physical through the digital will be used as we discover more about our selves as social beings. What should be on everyone’s mind with each successive triumph of the techno-utopians is whether we define technology, or if technology defines us? Each time we advance into a new technological epoch, we must concern ourselves with how we should relate to each other rather than how we can relate to each other. The nuclear age brought new relationships between people and states. The digital age is bringing the same.


Against the Neocons: Industrial Knowledge Production and the New Workforce

I start every semester, regardless of the class I’m facilitating with an announcement. The reason I teach is to help produce people capable of handling the responsibilities of democratic citizenship. Democracy is based on notions of self-rule, the citizen as the reservoir of sovereignty, and egalitarian principles of equality balanced by liberty. Citizens must be capable of critically reflecting on their environment (informational, social, political, cultural, and etc.,.) in order to flesh out demands ideally reflective of their desires that then populate a deliberative process aimed at creating a community bound by the rule of law. The deliberative process is critical in creating a just society and is an extension of the deliberative capacities of  the parties involved. The United States has a long history of excluding groups from the deliberative arena. Some tactics have been a denial of voting rights, Jim Crow voting regulations, poll taxes, exclusive spaces in which political discussions took place, and the regulation and control of education. The most recent example of the latter is a discourse advanced by the American right that higher education should be responsible for workforce training and only workforce training as the country transitions into the new informational economy.

The information economy requires knowledge workers – people who are technically trained in producing and handling information products such as patents, and infrastructural technicians who can further and optimize the expanding technical infrastructure necessary for the dissemination and de-centralized production of knowledge products. Subsequently, this shift from the industrial production of physical products (such as cars) to the industrial production of knowledge products requires an expansion of higher education and an influx of students who will serve in emerging industries associated with knowledge production. The millennial generation is now the most highly educated (in terms of years spent in formal education) generation in US history because of the demands for knowledge workers in the new economy. This scares the hell out of top ranking neoconservatives.

The neocon ideology emerged out of the tumultuous student demonstrations of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Many of it’s founding members, such as Irving Kristol, were disturbed by the flurry of student action resisting the Vietnam War. The US “defeat” in Vietnam was not determined by personnel losses or even tactical military mistakes but by a defeat suffered at home. Vietnam Syndrome  as a fear, has haunted neoconservative circles since the realization that the US suffered its first major military loss since the war of 1812 because the American public was not willing to engage in strong, imperial military interventionism. Lefty-commie sympathizers bore the blame for spreading seditious ideology through university campuses that mobilized students to fight against the imperial ambitions of hawkish politicians, and for the civil rights of African-Americans and women. The memory of the defeat at home has had such lingering effects that George H.W. Bush, at the threshold of the first Gulf War assured his audience that “this will not be another Vietnam.” Bush spoke to both the neocon architects of that war and to an American public who had since seen no direct military commitment against a foreign nation apart from the discourse of Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and the subsequent campaigns against Colombia, Nicaragua and Chile.

Between Vietnam and the Gulf War neoconservative ideology hit its stride and crystallized from diffuse network of like-minded scholars, to a fully articulated and politically enfranchised movement. Neoconservative thinkers founded think-tanks and educational apparatuses parallel to places of higher learning while also assuming positions within prestigious private universities.  Leo Strauss is one of the more enigmatic contributors to neoconservative ideology and helped train cadre after cadre of powerful apparatchiks who advanced neoconservative agendas through the Republican party (Paul Wolfowitz being one of his more illustrious students). Part of the neoconservative ideology calls for the training of elite, well-to-do young men in the fine arts of government while harboring a general distrust for mass political enfranchisement. Part of the necon mission is to guide the nation in a paternalistic (ideally benevolent) fashion that molds both economy and civic morality. Above all, the public are not to be informed of matters of state, especially foreign policy, unless absolutely necessary for maintaining social control. The wisdom of the neoconservative disciple is derived from their specialization in the higher truths of government through a robust liberal arts education while supported through elite networks that assure their seat at the table. Elitism is a foundational element of neoconservative thought.

In a rare slip-up, the Texas Republican party announced in 2012 that critical thinking should not be included within the public school curriculum. More recently, GOP lawmakers have linked higher education to a discourse of workforce development while pundits, activists and talking heads have repeatedly attacked higher education as fake and universities as controlled by social justice warriors who indoctrinate students under the guise of offering an education. Vocational training has become part of the discourse around higher education as the nation looks to universities for the American dream of upward social mobility. This discursive shift has deep affinities with neoconservative ideology as workforce training narrowly focuses the mission of higher education away from producing democratic citizens broadly educated in the liberal arts to a labor market demanding specialized workers capable of producing and sustaining industrialized knowledge production.  Shifts away from producing democratic citizens capable of critically handling information to workers capable of handling critical information furthers the neocon ideological project by industrializing the production of human capital almost exclusively concerned with competing in a labor market. University doors are now things one passes through to receive workforce accreditation and the educational process has been trivialized as a credentialing performance.

Viewing education merely as something one goes through on the way to a job harms the body politic as easily quantifiable markers dominate administrative metrics of student success and return on investment. Uni-dimensional visions of what a “successful” student is reinforce the banking theory of education as measurement is dominated by GPA and post-graduation income. The banking theory of pedagogy offers an easy view of the student as an empty vessel receptive to knowledge rather than an active participant in its construction. The construction of knowledge requires a critical and innovative handling of information similar to the ideal deliberative process of mass democracy. The environment that conditions the demands placed on higher education, with its narrow focus on productivity and immediate workplace application of technical skills, myopically defines knowledge in terms of usefulness to a given industrial purpose. Industrial interests and trends within markets thus direct the development and dissemination of knowledge without recognizing the democratic potential of education in the fullest sense of fostering the development of citizens.

Freire’s recognition that the banking theory reinforces an existing and unquestioned ontology of knowledge about the relationship of knower to known is repeated in the discourse of workforce training and higher education as the student is alienated further from the process of handling information. The relationships of student-to-teacher, teacher-to-information and information-to-student within the banking model impose an understanding of how to handle information that casts the student as receiver and teacher as transmitter. The call and response evaluative metrics of standardized testing and closed right-and-wrong questions frame information as dead and in need of careful preservation thus promoting an inflexible relationship between the student and knowledge. Credentialing grounded in rote memorization of facts echos industrial applications of knowledge in terms of problem-and-answer mentalities that rarely question the system in which the problem arises. The uni-dimensional view of education advanced by the banking theory promotes neither innovative thinking about technical problems, nor advanced critical thinking about the broader informational ecology of democratic society.  As the US transitions from an industrial economy to modes of decentralized industrial knowledge production, we cannot sacrifice the democratic identity of higher education for the uni-dimensional mentality of the market. The banking theory of pedagogy must be dispensed with – even if it upsets the apple cart of some still stuck in mentalities of centralized industrial society. Above all, we must worry about what a society populated by automota that serve only their machines will become when democratic identity is lost.

Fun and Learning

I have been wrestling with how best to sum up my approach to teaching, why I teach and what the social impact of teaching can be. I want my students to appreciate their education and not simply see it as a way to a job. I think an instrumentalist understanding of education is poisonous to democracy and doesn’t inspire creativity or innovation. Fun allows learners to access content and curiosity within a safe environment. By contrast, workforce training education and instrumentalist thinking gear student attitudes to a stressful compliance with drudgery. I never want my students to think of our class as drudgery but I do want to inspire them to work through the material and grapple with advancing their existing abilities. Fun allows students to relax a little and advance in ways they may not recognize in the moment. The greatest challenge for me has been incorporating fun within the typical humdrum classroom environment of Introduction to US Government and Politics. I’ve tried using stand up comedy or other multimedia, and these have been nice little teaching aids but they only work for so long. A larger, more creative change was needed to drive up student engagement this semester.

One of the major impediments in my class this semester has been the physical environment. We began the semester with 40 students squeezed into one of those windowless rooms in McBryde. The second floor of McBryde contains rooms better suited for brainwashing than learning. There are a few exceptions, but I was unable to secure a room of suitable size that has a more fluid seating plan. I favor the Socratic method which allows students to construct the class dialogue while I facilitate discussion through asking targeted questions about the readings designed to stimulate critical thinking and student engagement. The typical grid formation of desks in the room does not lend itself well to this method primarily because the students can’t look at each other and attention is directed to the podium at the front. The whole physical environment seems to communicate obedience to the sage on the stage with the PowerPoint and, I think, favors the regurgitative model of learning.  We tried it for the first week or two but the sleepy faces and disengaged students forced me to reconsider how our environment would facilitate learning. We first tried breaking up into groups to answer a few broad questions about the text. This isn’t a bad reorganization, by any means, and it got them talking to their neighbors but I found that a lot of the weren’t moving their desks to face each other. I typically float around and check in with the groups to see how they’re getting on and I would move a desk or two to sit with them, but they weren’t pick up on how strange it was to be working in a group with your back to someone.  But, at least they were talking to each other and getting excited about the ideas in the text.

I try to vary class organization to keep from being too predictable. I find a little bit of spontaneity in the day-to-day stuff helps break up the monotony of what can easily turn into a grind. We have a 5 pm Tuesday and Thursday class so they’re always tired and burnt when the come in. I’ve tried to communicate to them that it’s not my class, but our class and they are to exercise some agency in it and its content.  The group thing was working for a while but the discussions were becoming unfocused as the temptation to talk about the weekend or whatever else is far more attractive than Sheldon Wolin and managed democracy. I came in a little early one day and asked the few students there to arrange the desks in a circle and then left the room. I don’t know if it was just getting up and moving around, making eye contact with each other or that I was now sitting with all of them on the same level, but student engagement seemed up. The discussion started ping-ponging around the room and students who don’t regularly speak got into the conversation.

Last Thursday we got a bit more daring. I had assigned a dreadfully boring – though forgivingly short – chapter in Wolin. The class environment was healthy but I wasn’t sure if they were really getting the text. Wolin is usually assigned in upper division and graduate courses but I thought him accessible and stimulating enough for an intro class. I didn’t want to bore them with this latest installment but I did want a no-pressure diagnostic of their understanding. I gave them all chalk, asked them to split into work groups and then asked them to draw his main argument to date. I put on some music and let them get to it. They’ve never smiled so much. It looked like they were having a genuinely good time going through the intricacies of Wolin’s argument. I noticed that they supported one another and complimented each other’s skills. Some remembered the argument better, others had stronger organizational skills and others did the drawing. After 30 or 40 minutes we did a debrief. I told them why I had asked them to do this. What I had hoped they learned and that their pictures didn’t need to be perfect. Each group then had a turn discussing their picture with a short Q&A. I was blown away by what they had retained and the multiple ways they had represented the argument. They had not only learned from each other in their groups but also created an environment during the debrief in which they taught each other.

They have a collaborative essay due in a few weeks and I’m excited to see what they turn up and how they organize their information. I’m hoping that these next few weeks will support their writing it, but I may have to get a little more creative with the class environment and exercises. I want them to feel a deeper enfranchisement in constructing the class and working through the material but I’m not sure if they feel like they own the class yet. I’ll have to experiment a little more.


Grand Theft Education

The readings this week extended our notion of learning environment. Jean Lacoste’s teaching statement shifts the focus from a generic one-size-fits-all approach to a customizable learning experience that uses the Web as a part of the classroom infrastructure. I was struck by how his teaching philosophy attempts to create personalized experiences within large-lecture classrooms. My worry is that his video lectures nullify the need of face-to-face interactions if his classroom management style is still heavily reliant on lecturing. If his lectures were to be more about Q&A, then he’d  still be doing the work of video lecturing but without the feedback of a live audience.

Talbert recognizes that the lecture format may have outlived its place in the classroom as a method of content delivery. I couldn’t help but notice that the context setting function of lectures is still critical for guiding students through lessons and plays an important role in the learning process. The PBS video highlighted how learning can be “smuggled in” through games and reorganizes the classroom through student-produced content. Following Paul Gee’s chapter, I wonder if games themselves can be used as instruments for facilitating learning without the need to set context. Learners may be better able to to determine what the game means to them without being guided through a context setting lecture. If Gee’s optimism is to be taken seriously, then lecturing might be detrimental to learners because the context in which the information is presented and interpreted is still largely set by the professor which limits how much ambiguity is involved in the initial process of meaning-making. Carnes, however,  focuses the conversation on the power that games can have to carry the classroom into other spaces. Games can inspire when used correctly and if we’re supposed to foster the creative spark in each individual, the pedagogical potential of games cannot be overestimated.

Reflecting on my own experiences, it’s clear that the games that grabbed me as a kid told me something about myself. Mathblaster and Simcity at FEA summer camp just didn’t get their hooks in me quite like Deus Ex or Way of the Samurai. Maybe I should’ve known that I would study politics and not engineering because the games I loved reflected the open-ended nature of the questions I’d become interested in as I got older. Maybe the hours spent in front of the screen playing Fallout before it was an FPS or the openness of Bethesda Studio’s digital worlds indicated something I already knew about myself.  Maybe I can tell my folks that those hours of Tony Hawk’s Pro-skater were hours spent in the classroom as it challenged me to have better timing and put together more fantastic combinations against the tyranny of the clock. Or maybe education should focus on developing the interests and talents that students already hold rather than stamping out another basic unit to be yoked to the industrial process. But will the Boomers who still won’t get the hell out of politics understand that? Will we be stuck waiting for an enlightened Gen Xer to grasp the nature of learning outside of the factory education? Or is it going to take someone from the digital generation before we see any real change?

I’ve Never Been a Good Student

If you’d have told me ten years ago that I would be pursuing a PhD, I’d have laughed in your face.  I hated school. I graduated high school a semester early to get away from it and went to college immediately as part of a bargain with my parents. I was a “B” student and graduated with an Advanced Regents diploma – meaning that I passed all of the standardized New York state exams. I was a great test-taker but I never did my homework so I was branded lazy by the faculty and my parents. My graduating class size was around 700 students and it was pretty easy to fly under the radar while maintaining good standing with the hall monitors as I’d routinely fetch soft pretzels from the cafeteria for my physics teacher during our labs. I was graduating early and always contributed during the lecture sessions so Mr, Spira didn’t care if I roamed around aimlessly in the halls or visited other teachers on their breaks.

My interests in politics, culture, and philosophy were extra-curricular activities. Wikipedia was up and running by the time I was in junior high and the events following 9/11, including the passage of the Patriot Act, spurred my interest in political theory as I tried to make sense of the world I’d inherited. I’d spend hours surfing through their pages instead of doing my homework. Why bother writing my labs for whatever science class I was taking if I aced the test every time? To me it was meaningless repetition that ultimately wasted my time. Being under the spotlight because I wasn’t turning in my homework was uncomfortable initially. However, with time I assumed my “lazy” identity at school , took the tongue lashings at home and continued my after school activities later supplementing my Wiki sessions with Travel, and Discovery Channel binges – Bourdain was my favorite.

Around the age of 15 I started taking martial arts classes. Ninjutsu and Jujutsu would become my life until I left for college at 18. I was at the dojo every day that I could be. It was a very small branch of very large school spread across Long Island. We had 2,500 students in total but the Port Jefferson branch of which I was a part had four to six adult students attending regularly. I was my sensei’s favorite practice dummy and I advanced quickly because I received so much individual attention. My love of teaching started there and I volunteered to help teach the kids classes as sempai. At 16 I was selected along with six other students to train with our grandmaster in Japan for two weeks in August. Our training sessions in Saitama were twice a day for an hour and half each session with a thirty minute bike ride along the rice paddies each way in the Japanese summer heat.

SUNY Brockport was my girlfriend’s choice. She was a year older than me and left Long Island in my senior year of high school. Neither of my parents had gone to college in the US so I didn’t get the college talk or really any guidance concerning what university would be the right fit. Following Julia to upstate New York seemed like an attractive option so I graduated from high school early and enrolled at Brockport in January of 2006. We broke up that March and she exmatriculated two weeks later. I can’t claim that I was the whole reason she left. She’d had a hard time finding her way through the college bureaucracy after being rejected by the dance program. Her brother, Simon, was brilliant but as smart as she was, Julia felt she wasn’t cut out for school and our break up was the final nail in the coffin for SUNY Brockport. I stayed but I didn’t have any close friends because I’d come a semester late and mainly hung out with Julia for the first few months.

Living for the weekend can make the weeks feel very long. Luckily, at a snowy commuter college, the weekend starts on Wednesday. I started going to any party I could find just to socialize and quickly fell into my old high school habits of never doing homework. I was still crushing tests in my introductory courses and didn’t see much point in attending classes. My grades were decent enough my first semester but I was placed on academic probation by my second semester for never attending class. Philosophy and political theory were the only classes I’d show up for. The general education classes didn’t challenge me and I was tutoring (unofficially, of course) some peers in my 3000 level communications course on rhetoric without reading the assignments or attending class. Pounding whiskey, talking politics and playing video games became more attractive options than adhering to someone else’s standards. I could write a B+ essay in under two hours and go research something that I was more interested in or focus on something physical. I had joined the rugby team by that time and rugby soon became my social outlet. It was short lived though because I was kicked out of Brockport after my third semester. I appealed the decision as I had dealt with some nightmare roommates, one of which involved a Title IX violation that the college tried to sweep under the rug and the other involved a roommate who went off her rage and bipolar medication. Funding from home was revoked after three semesters of poor grades anyway and I returned to Long Island to enroll at Suffolk Community College. My parents were not going to fund my educational fuck-ups anymore so I had to take out loans and start working.

I didn’t attend my classes at Suffolk either. My funding was revoked after my first semester as the federal government deemed me too much of a risk to loan money. Suffolk was still affordable even without federal loans and I was able to hide my failure from my parents by getting a credit card with HSBC before the financial crisis. I financed my second semester at community college by working for a local winery at $7.15 an hour which paid the credit card bill and for some books. I continued to hide my grades from my parents even though they were improving. The whole ordeal had convinced me that grades couldn’t measure anything but whether a student is living up to some norm – whether they could regurgitate some “fact” they had been told or whether they regularly maintained a pulse at a specific location at a specific time. Two professors at Suffolk slapped the taste out of my mouth.

My English composition professor graded to the student. I earned a D+ on my first essay. My pride was hurt and I stormed to his desk at my first chance. He calmly explained that he knew I wasn’t putting in any effort and showed me how I could do better. Posner knew that I was coasting and he gave me something to aim for in myself and not in the classroom. Grades suddenly transformed into a reward for self-discipline and not a punishment for not meeting expectations. Competition with myself was more exciting than competing against others. I still remember his lessons…or is it “remember his lessons still?”

One of the most daunting questions anyone can ask a college student is “What are you going to do after school?” Some student have it easier than others and seem to have a map given to them by their majors. Philosophy majors do not. I took two classes with Bill Fink who was adjuncting at Suffolk. His classes were chaos. We never had assigned readings, I never saw him read from a lesson plan but I loved the debates and the topics. Ethics, politics, society, the good life, the Socratic quest for knowledge, these were topics I could get into and I wanted to attend class. There were no “right” answers just better arguments and Bill challenged us to be better every session. I was studying to be a personal trainer my second semester but one day I woke up. The thought hit me in Bill’s class and I sat straight up in my chair. I wanted to do what he was doing. I wanted to be a philosophy professor.

My pride was still hurt. Brockport had thrown me out not because I wasn’t living up to their academic standards but because they thought I was a bad student. I was determined to prove them wrong and enrolled there again in January. Going to anywhere in the Rochester area during winter is a mistake. I quickly took advantage of Brockport’s study abroad program and left for Scotland in the Fall of 2009. No one cared if you attended class at Stirling University but if you showed up to Peter Sullivan’s seminar on Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason, you had better not be dead weight. I had to develop good study habits to pass the exams and I finished second in my class. Stirling had a grading scale that consisted of 21 different gradations as opposed to the 13 at most American colleges. What would have been considered “A” work at any American institution was broken into five subdivisions: 1A-1F. The guy who was top of the class earned a 1F. I earned the grade lower – 2B. Brockport translated this mark as “B.”

I was fighting against the tide. I had been reinstated at Brockport with credits from my first year and a half there. That got me closer to graduation but none of the good grades I had earned at Suffolk would travel to Brockport stating institutional differences even though Suffolk was considered a SUNY school. I couldn’t believe that my grades from Stirling translated back from a society that holds different notions of academic achievement (students can receive 40 points out of 100 and pass a class) but a college within the same state system was suspect in their grading scheme. When I matriculated again, Brockport started me at a 2.0 GPA by cobbling together classes that fulfilled the most general education requirements rather than the best grades. I would try to dig myself out of this hole for the next three years never falling below a 3.8 each semester. I calculated the numbers and realized that I would never make cum laude and this fact became anti-motivational as I realized that the institutional chips were stacked against me. Philosophy, as a discipline, is highly competitive and loves pedigree. I was coming from a small college that no one had heard of with letters from faculty the majority of whom weren’t publishing and my grades looked terrible.

Winter in western New York can be very depressing. A lot of snow, a lot of cold, a lot of dark, no mountains and a school of under 7,000 students can produce a malarial feeling. When you have worked hard for four years after having the wind taken out of your sails more than a few times and you’re not receiving any graduate school acceptances after pouring resources into a perfect coffee shop major, it can make you maudlin. And I was. My first acceptance didn’t come until late April after the deadline for acceptances and rejections. I didn’t hear from Virginia Tech until early May due to some administrative SNAFU. Virginia Tech offered one of the best terminal MA degrees in the country and I was blown away by the news. I didn’t care if they couldn’t offer me funding because I didn’t fit their model of a “good student” I was going to get to do what I thought I loved. I came South hoping to use my two years to jump into a top twenty PhD program in philosophy.

I graduated from Virginia Tech with two MA degrees with three years worth of coursework over four years of enrollment. I had to leave school twice because of serious medical issues. It was the second time I left when it dawned on me that the reasons I had loved philosophy and pursued it were nowhere to be found in the rarefied atmosphere of serious analytic philosophy. I had fallen flat on my face again. Years in school were spent pursuing a career dead end. My love for the debates had died and the spark lit at Suffolk had been extinguished by an institution far larger than me or any one school. I don’t regret a moment of the time I spent learning philosophy nor any of the time or money spent pursuing it. It equipped me with something larger than knowledge, larger than a career path or any one skill set. Philosophy helped me understand learning as process and equipped me with a universal skills applicable to any field of study. The jump from a corner stone of the humanities to the social sciences was more of a wide step as I settled into the interdisciplinary waters of the School of Public and International Affairs again with no clear plan for what to do in “the real world.” It wasn’t until my second semester in my Master’s of Public and International Affairs that I got my taste of teaching at the university level. Edward Weisband, in Political Science, placed a tremendous amount of trust in me when he took me on as a TA and left me to teach fifty of his students during weekly recitations. I was hooked.

Oddly enough, I take attendance and participation as central to student development. Poor attendance won’t earn any student an ‘F’ in my classes, but I did learn that just showing up and grinding out is central to any success that isn’t simply given. My pedagogical practices make students earn their grades but I try to place as little emphasis on the shallow exchange in the student-work-teacher classroom economy. The exchange value of work-for-grade alienates learner from material reflection on the process. I have felt alienated many times in my career and I think many of us feel that crushing weight of “what the hell am I doing here,” more times than we’re ready to admit.

A mentor of mine, Joe Pitt, told me that enlightenment starts from a place of confusion. I took this as teaching advice and regularly asked my students to help un-confuse me. This technique worked for Weisband’s recitations as we moved through text after text looking for clarity rather than just the right answers. I keep this trick in my back pocket as I now begin every one of my classes with “who’s confused by the reading?” Lucky for me I am teaching American politics this semester so I can ask simply “who’s confused,” and I know we’ll get the conversation going.

A Mixed Bag: Academic Capitalism, Social Media and the Public Intellectual

Published in 2016, “Networked Learning as Experiential Learning” begins by noting the shifting role of higher education in the United States and globally. The trends noticed by numerous researchers of higher education have lead to disagreements concerning the role of professors within the changing environment of the university conditioned by external demands and expectations of policy makers and society writ large. The shift in higher education suppressed the old understanding of the pursuit of knowledge as its own good and lauded ideas of higher education as the key to career and monetary gain. Reimagining higher education as a content delivery platform that imbues students with practical skills immediately applicable to the workplace necessitates new relationships between: university and faculty; university and student; and faculty and student. In short, expectations external to the university conditioned the relationships within to meet market demands.

The above shift is part of a larger process termed by some as the neoliberalization, or the corporatization of the university. Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades in Academic Capitalism and the New Economy identify the changes in higher education as enabled by the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980 which extended intellectual property rights to inventions made with federal money including research conducted at public universities. Bayh-Dole anticipated the advent of an information-age economy in which intellectual property would replace industrial products as primary economic drivers. Universities scrambled to get a piece of the action and massive expansions of intellectual property offices, government relations staff, and research centers followed from an internal envisioning of turning places of higher learning into places of higher profit. Facing state funding cuts and the expansion of federal grants programs, faculty at state universities were transformed into entrepreneurs seeking external revenue for both research and university. Administrators became more concerned with the proper management of monetary streams deemed essential to university expansion rather than the university as a public or community service. The role of faculty as intellectual was dispensed with and replaced by faculty-as-entrepreneur.

Tim Hichcock, like many others, discusses the “crisis of the humanities” as resulting from the insular conversations had by academics. He recognizes both governmental bench-marking of British academics and the demands of big publishing as conditioning an environment hostile to academics concerned with their modular specializations understandable only to those who specialized for the sake of academic pursuit. Those in the humanities must not only recognize their disciplines as threatened by larger developments within the university – notably, the marketability of those disciplines – but also by an insularity endemic to academics of different stripes. Recognizing the passion one must posses to devote ones life to something that few people care about, he turns to social media as a possible solution for breaking the non-publicity in the life of the intellectual. Blogging, for Hichcock, not only forces the intellectual into a public space – the World Wide Web – but also links together other interested parties outside the academic world. His writing reflects sentiments felt across communities concerning the transformative potential of the internet within the information age economy. This attitude, however, perpetuates the idea of the academic as entrepreneur or, as Tom Peters commented concerning blogging “It’s the best damn marketing tool by an order of magnitude that I’ve ever had.” Is this an appropriate response to the call for an entrepreneurial faculty? Will the publicity of the internet allow for a new age in public intellectualism? I won’t answer these questions here but if blogging is a new medium for the public intellectual, then they must understand the needs of their audiences.

Michael Wesch believes that the maturation of the internet and the ascendance of the generation who grew up with it means that education and pedagogical praxis have the potential to change. Praxis, for Wesch, must change from the professor-centric model of lecturing to newer inclusive and interactive models of classroom design to foster student engagement. The internet now holds a treasure-trove of information accessible by fingertips at speeds unmatched by previous information networks such as your local library.  Media have the potential to change human relationships and Wesch recognizes that social media and the information they carry, are distinct from the one-sided conversations had between television and viewer. They are more interactive, more networked, and more public. The powers of the spectator have changed from influencing broad general opinion polls, or viewer ratings, to commenting on real-time debates or feeling a closer connection to disembodied personae of individuals or AI.  Persons and their identities have been augmented by the internet to now include digital identities that manufacture digital artifacts subject to intellectual property rights regimes. The Internet itself offers nearly limitless potential for linking individuals together through the use of social media. The classroom, for Wesch, is not insulated from the broader social environment of the internet. Pedagogical practice should incorporate the collaborative potential of the internet and allow for a more participatory classroom.

Our learning potential from social media, however, is overstated by Wesch, Cambell, and Hichcock. They are grandly optimistic that our new social network will spread diverse viewpoints by a natural curiosity on the part of users and the nearly limitless amount of information thrown at them through the internet. Barack Obama – one of the first presidents to understand the power of internet social media – warned of the growing insularity in online communities during his farewell address. His sentiment concerning our digital selves is echoed in Adam Curtis’s “Hypernormalization” that points out that complex algorithms determine the advertisements, websites and products shown to us through the new medium. Our growing isolation from “real” interactions and the historical determinism of digital identities may keep us in an informational stasis because of larger market forces. We may continue to have the same insular conversations in pockets of the internet isolated from the larger public stage merely based on the interest of others. The transformative effects of the internet should not be mistaken for a technodeterministic view of enlightenment. It is hard, after all, for any liberal democracy to call white nationalists, such as the alt-right, enlightened but their insular conversations and global reach have allowed them to become a political phenomenon efficacious inside and out of the Web. As we come to understand the blurred division of virtual and real formed by the fusion of the digital and, I’ll call it, analogue environments we must pay attention to the structural forces that drive it. Utopian visions need not apply.