Computers, Pedagogy, and Priorities

Laptops are useless, technology is the devil, and computers make our students stupid.

Or at least that’s what the New York Times would have you think.

Alex Reid, Jenny Edbauer, and Will Richardson have all commented on the NYT’s recent piece of slack-jawed mouth-breathing idiocy, non sequiturs, and logical fallacies concerning technology in the classroom. They were rather more charitable than I’m inclined to be.

To be fair, reporter Winnie Hu makes slight attempts to offer balance and critical insight, observing the problems with “how technology is often embraced by philanthropists and political leaders as a quick fix, only to leave teachers flummoxed about how best to integrate the new gadgets into curriculums” — but the piece, overall, is a hatchet job; a slimy luddite screed that blames technology for the ways in which it’s used and inadvertently highlights just how stupid and reactionary teachers and administrators can be when it comes to computers. In her observation, Hu is quite right: schools throw money at technology, imagining it as a quick fix, without a thought to how it might be used. Unfortunately, the rest of her article completely buys into precisely that mode of thinking, lamenting the vast sums of money expended and the apparent negligible results. In a lame and myopic attempt to indict what she sees as the problems with teaching with laptops, she describes how “Northfield Mount Hermon School, a private boarding school in western Massachusetts, eliminated its five-year-old laptop program in 2002 after it found that more effort was being expended on repairing the laptops than on training teachers to teach with them.” Where, one might ask, does the problem with priorities lie?

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Of Possible Librarian Interest

The new issue of Kairos is out, and it’s a good one. Of particular interest to some of my librarian peers, for whom I have much respect and whose scholarship I wish my discipline would more fully engage in conversation, might be James Purdy and Joyce Walker’s remarkable and compelling essay, “Digital Breadcrumbs: Case Studies of Online Research.”

Good stuff from my perspective, and I’m curious to hear what those respected expert peers might say.

Paris and Me, Part 2

Digital reproducibility profoundly alters the relationships between production, consumption, the individual, and the economy. As Zuboff and Maxmin note, “the individuation of consumption [. . .] means that people no longer want to bend to the antiquated rule of business” but rather “want to be the subjects of a new commerce in which they are recognized as the origins of a new form of economic value [. . .] realized in individual space” (11). A careful reading of Raymond Williams, I think, gives considerable historical nuance to Foucault’s concerns with the nature of power (particularly in the economic sense), and while I’m certainly not enough of a new-economy fool as to dismiss Foucault’s work, I do think that context is important — and Foucault was writing in the context of an economy of mass production and consumption, when it was impossible to imagine any other situation. As a discipline, composition is in similar straits today: our big names, our super-scholars, are baby boomers. They grew up with three superpowers, three car manufacturers, and three TV networks. When Zuboff and Maxmin contend that “Rather than being diluted, the value of information can increase as it is distributed, allowing more people to do more with more, as it enables collaboration and coordination across space and time” via digital technologies (293), it’s genuinely startling to such scholars, turning the conventional economic wisdom, with its assumptions about scarcity and value, on its head.

Former Harvard president Derek Bok has observed, among others, that many academics seem to want to construct higher education as a space somehow outside of or immune to economic interests. This is rather foolish when we understand the economy as involving “making, holding, using, sharing, exchanging, and accumulating valued objects and services” (Gudeman 1), but perhaps not so foolish when we understand the widespread commonsensical notion that economics=money. Indeed, economist Colin Williams suggests in “A Critical Evaluation of the Commodification Thesis” that “The view that predominates is that the overwhelming trajectory of economic development is towards a commodified economy. Although the extent, pace and unevenness of this process is open to debate [. . .], the process of commodification itself is not” (527). Williams’s contention about the unquestionable trajectory towards commodification sounds very much like the transcendent and agentless power Gibson-Graham suggest contemporary views ascribe to the economy, as when they point out in “The Diverse Economy: Constructing a Language Politics” that there has been a “shift from an understanding of the economy as something that can be managed (by people, the state, the IMF) to something that governs society” and that this shift has relied upon “a hegemonic move through which representations of economy have slipped from their locations in discourse and landed ‘on the ground,’ in the ‘real,’ not just separate from, but outside of society” (1).

Bloggers and writing teachers know, not just in theory but in practice, that value is contextual and anything but monolithic.

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The Athlete’s Labor

I watched last night’s Orange Bowl rout, and I have to say, while it was hardly a suspenseful game, it was oddly enjoyable, in a head-shaking kind of way. I mean, my jaw dropped when Bradley tried to pick up that punt and go with it, and then when he got stripped, I just started laughing. And even without mistakes like that, Oklahoma was outplayed every step of the way. I’ll admit, as an aside, that while I certainly wasn’t rooting for U.S.C. (after Sam Walton’s grand-daughter graduated from there by buying every paper she turned in, the epithet “University of Spoiled Children” kinda stuck in my mind), I was definitely rooting against the Sooners, and I guess I got what I was hoping for.

But that isn’t really what I was wanting to talk about. UMass is Division 1AA for football, and in the midst of our recent budget cuts, there was some talk from the athletic program about spending a ridiculous sum to go Division 1A, with one of the rationales offered being that it would bring more money into the school. And, certainly, as Derek Bok and Murray Sperber point out, college athletics is a big, big busines: I’m sure the U.S.C. Trojans and the Oklahoma Sooners brought millions of dollars to their respective universities by going to the Orange Bowl.

So, with my recent focus on looking at student labor within the university as economic labor, how should we think about the labor of U.S.C. quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart? What sort of transaction does his labor constitute?

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Class Rehearsal

As a way of getting back into the post-holiday swing of things, I’m going to rehearse some of the things I’ve talked about in the past, and try and draw them together into something resembling a problem statement. This’ll probably go at the front of my Chapter 2, where I try to review the literature in composition on class. I’d be grateful for any pointing-out of elisions, fallacies, misrepresentations, gross over-generalizations, or other critical comments folks might offer.

The histories offered by Raymond Williams (in Culture and Society) and James Berlin (in Writing Instruction in Nineteenth Century Colleges, in Rhetoric and Reality, and in two chapters of Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures) illuminate the ways in which economic, cultural, and institutional change are profoundly interrelated. In fact, a discussion of class in the context of Williams’s and Berlin’s writings might define class as the armature by which culture is connected to economy in the figure of the individual (who, of course, inhabits a multiplicity of societal groups, said groups themselves being sometimes called ‘classes’). Williams illustrates how the economics of industrialized mass production made possible the refinement of taste which defined the nineteenth century ‘cultured’ individual (who was, in part, produced by the programs of writing instruction at Charles Eliot Norton’s Harvard and John Genung’s Amherst). Today, the conventional wisdom is that a similarly massive economic shift is already well underway; a shift from an economics of monolithic mass production to an economics of mass consumption and flexible production. That shift is driving a shift in our conceptions of culture and the individual similar to the one described by Berlin and Williams, although the shift is still underway and its implications imperfectly understood.

We are aware, however, that the shift is simultaneously making heightened demands on some classes of people (including, for example, those with full-time jobs who take online or community college courses in their own scant ‘leisure’ or evening time) while offering heightened opportunities to other classes of people (including, for example, the digerati who construct new forms of online art and hyptertext literature). Furthermore, we ought to understand that the writing work undertaken in our composition classrooms in this changing economic and cultural environment helps to constitute changing classes of student selves. I think there’s an obvious cultural progression from the nineteenth century Romantic individual to the unitary self of Peter Elbow’s expressivism; what seems less clear to me is where the cultural progression from the postmodern individual leads.

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Economics & Critical Pedagogy

In a recent entry, I asserted that composition has taken Paulo Freire and turned him on his head, substituting the neoclassical economist’s embedded-in-capitalism perspective for the Marxist’s economic analysis of capitalism, and asked: how did this happen? How did composition, in adopting critical pedagogies as its default models for instruction, come to decide that the economic aspects of such pedagogies were to be avoided? Part of this, I think, comes out of the work of one of the most prominent proponents of Freirean critical pedagogy. Composition, and the field of education in general, owes an immense debt to the theoretical work of Henry Giroux in translating Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy into educational applications for an American context: Giroux is a rigorous and prolific scholar (his curriculum vitae [PDF] goes to 75 pages), and one of the most prominent critical pedagogues working today. Interestingly, however, Giroux’s later work has done much to turn Freirean critical pedagogy away from economic concerns and towards cultural concerns: in a 1998 interview, Giroux notes that his recent ‘work gives less emphasis to class as a universal category of domination’ (142), and this seems to be because Giroux sees formulating cultural concerns in economic terms as problematic: "Reformulating social issues as strictly individual or economic issues, corporate culture functions largely to cancel out the democratic impulses and practices of civil society by either devaluing them or absorbing such impulses within a market logic. No longer a space for political struggle, culture in the corporate model becomes an all-encompassing horizon for producing market identities, values, and practices" (1.2)[i]. We can take from this contention that Giroux would prefer the opposite circumstance, by which one replaces political struggle in the economic sphere with political struggle in the cultural sphere.

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Composition’s Economic Silence

Our word “liberal” — as in the term “liberal education” — comes from the Latin root word for “free,” liber, via its derivative liberalis, meaning either generous or noble, or, more broadly, pertaining to or worthy of a free man. It is important to note, however, that the Roman class status of the free man (a citizen) was quite different from the class status of the freedman (a former slave). In literature, the most famous Roman freedman (libertinus) is the wealthy and hilariously vulgar Trimalchio of Petronius’s Satyricon, a character easily recognizable even today as embodying the most distasteful aspects of the nouveau riche: massive economic privilege combined with a complete lack of cultural sophistication. According to Harold Johnston’s 1903 The Private Lives of the Romans, “neither the freedman nor his son could attain true social equality with the free citizen,” despite the fact that

The free persons employed in the offices of the various magistrates were mostly libertini. They were paid by the State, and, though appointed nominally for a year only, they seem to have held their places practically during good behavior. This was largely due to the shortness of the term of the regular magistrates and the rarity of re-election. Having no experience themselves in conducting their offices, the magistrates would have all the greater need of thoroughly trained and experienced assistants. The highest class of these officials formed an ordo, the scribae, whose name gives no adequate notion of the extent and importance of their duties. All that is now done by cabinet officers, secretaries, department heads, bureau chiefs, auditors, comptrollers, recorders, and accountants, down to the work of the ordinary clerks and copyists, was done by these ‘scribes.’ (The “Civil Service”)

The libertini carried on the economic work of the Roman empire, and yet for that reason, they were considered not to have the quality of being “liberal”: according to Volume 1 of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia, “The expression artes liberales [. . .] does not mean arts as we understand the word at this present day, but [. . .] are called liberal [. . .] because they serve the purpose of training the free man, in contrast with the artes illiberales, which are pursued for economic purposes” (Knight, Lafort, Farley). Precisely because the liberal arts have no immediate practical or economic utility, they are considered appropriate for those fortunate enough to have been born of high (free) social status, and inappropriate for those who have attained social status via upward class mobility: they are declared to be somehow above economic concerns because of the very way in which they are embedded within economic concerns.

After two thousand years, we still use the word “liberal” in describing the “liberal arts education” offered by many elite colleges and universities. Clark Kerr quotes Cardinal Newman’s vision of a liberal arts university education that “aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspirations, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political powers, and refining the intercourse of private life” (3). According to Kerr, such an understanding came out of Newman’s experience at Oxford, and constituted the historically English model of the university dedicated to providing education for men of culture. At less elite colleges and universities, we understand — at institutions perhaps unable to rise above merely economic concerns — the liberal arts are referred to as the “humanities.” This is the term used by Sharon Crowley, who remarks that “The point of a humanist education, after all, is to become acquainted with the body of canonical texts that humanists envision as a repository of superior intellectual products of Western culture” (13), or Matthew Arnold’s “best that has been thought and said.” In these characterizations of a certain type of education, we see still the Romans’ strange tension of declaring something free from the scope of economic concerns because of its very relation to those concerns.

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Economics & 2-Year Colleges

I’m wondering tonight about connections between the changing face of the economy and the changing face of higher education. Howard Tinberg writes, “With a student body roughly split between those who intend to transfer to four-year institutions and those who plan to go directly into the workplace, and with a faculty whose background reflects both academic training and workplace experience, the community college cannot afford to ignore the critical question, What kinds of knowledge do we want our students to leave us with? [. . .] Am I endowing my students with insights into historical methods? Or am I providing them with more generalizable skills, appropriate for the workplace?” (I don’t have the page number handy, but I finished his book, and the stuff that actually deals with the specifics of community college education is fascinating, and somewhat more engaging than the stuff that rehearses composition’s understanding of itself as a field and a practice.) The workplace skills question is something I keep coming back to, perhaps because it’s the most obvious link between education and economy, and I want to firmly fix it in place in order to allow myself to navigate other perhaps more subtle links.

This is because I believe that our so-called information economy is far more dependent on education than any previous economic system, and also because there’s a growing inversion of roles, where economic concerns have an ever-increasing stake and involvement in the day-to-day practices of higher education. I’m well aware of the dangers of mistaking correlation for causation, but I think the way the economy is changing is deeply linked to the way education is changing — and I want to believe that, as an educator, my practices might help to make a difference (however small) in helping to lessen economic inequality. Here’s how Shosha Zuboff and James Maxmin view the changing economy: “managerial capitalism and its handmaiden, transaction economics, have sown a harvest they cannot reap. They helped to set into motion the large-scale historical forces of mass literacy, extended education, mass consumption, increased health, universal communication, and unlimited information access that propelled people toward lives of greater richness, diversity, longevity, and ultimately individuality” — however, “the enterprises of managerial capitalism could go no further. Their allegiance to the confining precepts of transaction economics, their pernicious inward focus, and their intractable contempt for individual end consumers render them institutionally incapable of reaping the new wealth that arises from this changing structure of consumption” (Zuboff 286). Zuboff teaches at Harvard, and I think the Ivies are going to be the last institutions to perceive the increasing effects that economic concerns have on higher education: they’re protected by massive endowments, and class privilege creates a certain willful blindness. From my own experience at a state university that has suffered immense budget cuts, however, I might argue that state-dependent public institutions, either two-year or four-year, are going to be the ones much more attuned to how economic concerns affect them.

So now I wonder: can the history of the two-year college tell us anything about economic change?
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Dime-Store Epiphanies

With my schedule this semester, I’m unfortunately again no longer able to burn through two or three hundred pages and write an extended response each night — so I’ll be grateful for what I can get. I’ve been continuing to read Howard Tinberg, and very much enjoying what I’m reading. He’s in Massachusetts, too, but in Fall River, in that far southeastern corner of the state, so that the only way he could be further away from Amherst would be to be in Provincetown or Nantucket. Still, with all the thought-provoking discussions Cindy and Joanna and John and others have offered in relation to his ideas, and with the way that graduate students really get no exposure to the concerns of two-year institutions, I’m thinking about talking to my program and department chair about asking Professor Tinberg to come a couple hours west and give a lecture. There’s one other graduate student in my program with an interest in class studies and community colleges, and for the rest of us, I think it would be a big eye-opener and an informative and provocative exchange.

In my further reading, I was a little tickled to see that my supermarkets-of-higher-education analogies from last time weren’t entirely misplaced. Tinberg writes that in the community college, “what we hope to accomplish in our classrooms must be bigger than a narrow shopping list of ‘what our students need to know'” (12). Of course, I would say that the same holds true for four-year institutions. But there’s a tension here between narrowness and breadth, specialization and generalization, job skills and liberal education, that seems to sometimes shift or contradict itself, and I’m not sure how to sort it all out.
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Reading Tinberg

At John’s recommendation, I’m (finally) starting to read Howard Tinberg’s Writing and Knowing in the Two-Year College. I look up to John, and his recommendation is certainly enough for me, but I was talking with a compositionist colleague in the computer lab today, and my colleague — with some puzzlement — asked me, “But why are you interested in community colleges?”

It gave me pause. My initial reaction would have been to say, “Well, with my interest in socioeconomic class, why would I not be?” But what does that mean, really? How might an interest in class incline a university-based graduate student towards an interest in community colleges?

John and Cindy and others have talked about this before, of course, but the institutional blindness that university-based compositionists maintain towards teaching practices in two-year colleges continues to amaze me. Here at UMass Amherst, almost all students (seem to) have the same goal: a four-year degree. Such homogeneity of purpose is at least somewhat useful to me in defining the relatively homogenous economic ends that four-year students see their degrees as serving, but also dangerous, in that it helps students and faculty see both their purposes and the purposes of higher education in general as serving a rather homogenous and unified capitalist market economy. (OK: that conclusion is a big leap, and I’ll leave it open for further interrogation.)

On the other hand, students at two-year institutions constitute a far more diverse population, who envision far more diverse purposes for their educations. Some are there for accreditation, some to earn transfer credits, some for continuing education and career purposes, some simply for financial reasons, and so on. These purposes seem to me to much more adequately fit with the paradigm of the diverse and not-necessarily-capitalist economy posited by J. K. Gibson-Graham. In the very first paragraph of his Introduction, Tinberg confirms both my hopes and my fears vis-a-vis perceptions of the purposes of two-year colleges, naming the two missions of such institutions as being “to provide vocational training and to prepare students for transfer to colleges and universities” (vii). That’s pretty grim: we’re either creating a worker class or pushing students into the fancier schools. Yes, Tinberg addresses schools’ diversity of purposes, but he also sets up (or, perhaps more properly, perpetuates) a scary binary.

But at least he’s explicit about it. University-based compositionists, by and large, seem to me to happily and entirely ignore the “vocational training” aspect, or else take it for granted, as something not worth mentioning. So: is that perhaps due to the relative homogeneity of our classes, as compared to those of community colleges? My dissertation-blinkered perspective makes me want to holler that all of this is so, so economic in nature, and I’d be really grateful for either a confirmation or a reality check.