Love’s Labor: The Long View in Education

for Katie, who brought me this essay

My relationship with students has changed dramatically over time and is determined less by my knowledge of disciplines and more by how sensitive I am to their emotional and psychological needs.

Students have changed over time, as our culture has changed, requiring that I rely more on my intuition, my sense of things, keeping faith that my ongoing study can be conjured instantly and give me the knowledge of content I need at a moment’s notice. This requires constant preparation on my part. I taught before the Internet, and now with it; I taught when it was only paper and pencil, and I teach now when technology is ubiquitous, sometimes even distracting. And, let’s not forget that in these last 28 years, we’ve experienced huge socioeconomic, global shifts that have affected students and teachers, as well higher education itself.

My relationship with students is determined less by the constraints of a 12 week semester (Middlebury has a 12 week term, with a January “J”term) and more by my sense of the long view; that is, my relationship with 18 – 22 year olds is defined by how well I foster the sense that what we’re developing together in the classroom and in my office is long term and made to last because we need to face the world together. It’s too harrowing to do otherwise. I see this as the essence of the liberal arts education, the most vital responsibility for today’s professor. Anything else is window dressing – the business of education, not teaching meaningfully.

We have crossed over to a different time, forced upon us by how students and their families are reacting to the confusing stresses of our times: globalization and the compression of time and space, and the narrowing of opportunity; the breakdown of institutions that we were accustomed to relying on, including education; the cracks and falsehoods of ideologies; the ongoing secularization of society; the dysfunction of governments – and fundamentalism running amuck; climate change and the challenges to our environment that, consequently, raise concerns about food and health care. These are all huge pressures that make everyone that is even remotely paying attention anxious; students, more so, since they are all experiencing incredibly complex forms of vulnerability.

Students are demanding a different academic experience, something that is more complete and holistic, and determined less by the recklessness of departmentalization and the privileging of idiosyncrasies that have lead to overspecialization and underemployment, our current problem. Students are demanding acknowledgement; they demand to be seen and heard – and to be understood. Students need to have their anxieties taken seriously – and for the curriculum to react and change accordingly. Thus, the word relevant has become a measure: is this course relevant? is this school? this technology? this pedagogy?

In other words, students are challenging what has been a rather passive approach to education, particularly among colleges and universities, not least of which are the elites with tuition approximating 60K a year. What is the relevance? You can hear students and families asking.

Students, families, teachers – all of us share a desire to learn, and to do so actively. It’s ironic, actually, that today’s conditions have forced us academics to move towards more active representations of knowledge, pushing us, even unwittingly, towards Paulo Freire, Maxine Greene and bell hooks, just to name a few who have advocated a deeper, richer meaning for the teaching and learning experience. These are the thinkers that have always believed that the process of learning is a mutual experience, a creative exchange between students, teachers, the institution and its place in society.

So I smiled the other day when a student with which I have a very long standing relationship with – as well as with her older sister and her family – sent me a passionate text about Vijay Govindarajan, the Earl C. Daum 1924 Professor of International Business at the Tuck School at Dartmouth. She attended Tuck and she was beside herself after Govindarajan’s talk. “We have to bring him to Middlebury,” she texted. His central idea, found in Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere, is simply that “reverse innovation is any innovation that is adopted first in the developing world. Surprisingly often, these innovations defy gravity and flow uphill.” Thus the developing world benefits, as then does the world from which, traditionally, innovation occurs first because of wealth and technology. Creativity and innovation flow upward, from the poorest countries to the riches; this is new, says Govindarajan, because rich countries can afford to innovate – they demand it and people have grown to expect it. But what works for the rich doesn’t necessarily work for the developing. (What works for the classically trained, elite professor, doesn’t necessarily work for even the best of students in today’s world.) This is creating huge adjustments in the world of innovation, technology and business.

There are several reasons for my smile, my glee, when I got this text and launched into my reading of Reverse Innovation:

  1. A student reached out – she took the time – and taught me something; her view of learning is active, new, fresh, believing that we – she and I – can and must learn together;
  2. She’s trusting that I will move forward with this; in turn, this means that in the two years we’ve shared, and the time we have together at Middlebury, she can rely on me, trust me – I in her. This is monumental in the development of the long view, and she has it; she’s looking for deep, abiding meaning and significance; she’s looking to push aside anxieties about the future by creating a view for herself, a way through;
  3. Reverse innovation is unique to business, which she understands; however, it should not be new to her since she’s been deeply engaged in education issues, working with me on these Freirean ideas: “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(italics mine);
  4. We always learn from each other and, today, the point is to acknowledge this reality – and for teachers to open up to student innovation, a kind of reverse innovation, which sounds counterintuitive but, as Govindarajan would argue, defies gravity. We know this to be true since this student’s experience with me has been exactly Govindarajan’s definition of reverse innovation. She, in fact, motivated this small essay, my first acknowledgement that, professionally and intimately, I hear her, I see her and I care for what she has to say. She is teaching me.

Govindarajan’s Reverse Innovation may be new to business; it’s not new to educators that have been working assiduously, to use bell hooks here, to teach to transgress. As engaged education thinkers say, education is, indeed, the practice of freedom. Govindarajan, in reverse innovation, sees, in business, a practice to freedom as well.

The tragic irony is that as globalization and new markets see this need – innovation floating uphill, rather then the more intuitive downhill – education is moving in the opposite direction, working to eliminate innovation, squash creativity, and squelch the very important relationship that must exist between a teacher and a student; this relationship defies standardization, rather it requires that more time be given close, innovative, encounters that can begin to define – and design – meaningful pathways through the complexities we find today. For me, these gateways happen in the classroom, during long hours in my office, and online. Academics must learn to use all the tools available to us so as to create the sense that education is wed to a long view held together by deep relationships where empathy, understanding and love are the guiding lights.

Life in the PRISM: We Asked for It — or the Illusion that Technology is Neutral

The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s PRISM program, whereby the U.S. intelligence community can gain access to the servers of nine Internet companies for a wide range of digital data, is not that this was granted by federal judges working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and congress went along; it’s not even that Big Brother has been here — and now it’s here to stay.

The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s surveillance program is what it says about us, the citizens of the U.S. that are wired, interconnected, splashing ourselves across social media, using all kinds of devices and moving ever so quickly — and quietly and blindly and accepting — into a more nuanced programmed world, a reality, as suggested by Bill Wasik in his Wired article, Welcome to the Programmable World, where “houses, cars, and factories, [are] surrounded by tiny, intelligent devices that capture data about how we live and what we do” — and they’re starting to talk to one another, and us.

The NSA has an infinite number of entry points into our private lives.

And the most disconcerting aspect to all this is that we’ve gotten here without much fanfare, not much noise. It arrived — along with the surveillance.

We live in 3 worlds:

  • The 1st World is highly visible and physical. It’s life and death, birthdays, weddings and funerals. We experience it getting food out of a refrigerator, opening doors, smiling at people, getting on planes, and so on. In this magical world, we’re assisted by the 2nd World.
  • The 2nd World is the device world: automated doors, automated tellers and accounts of all sorts at our finger tips, cell phones and bluetooth devices, computers, and computer chips, the magic of the Internet we don’t see but have grown to expect, even anticipate to such a degree that if at anytime it should go down, it would be accompanied by massive withdrawal and anxiety. Here we’ve grown to depend on our social networks – Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, WordPress, and so on. All of it, the identities we try to extend online. This leads us to the 3rd World, the most dangerous of all.
  • The 3rd World is inhabited by the programmer — engineers socializing us through their dreamy programming that comes to us via cool hardware. Cool has seduced us into a blind acceptance of programming. It is this world that ties everything together; it is this world that pre-figures our actions, even our motivations, and synthesizes all this with the needs, will and plans of some of the most powerful forces, nation-states and multinational corporations. We’re pawns here.

We’re under a spell, mediated into believing we have voice and a modicum of control.

Program: a plan or schedule of activities, procedures, etc., to be followed.

An insidious but vital part of the programmer’s responsibility is — and has been — to make everything we experience easy, fluid, dynamic; this is what keeps us from wondering where we’re going — and why. And this is the most disconcerting aspect of where we find ourselves today with this Big Brother-like surveillance program.

Most of us that enjoy technology, and many who pontificate about the wonders of technology, have zero knowledge of how and why our states of being changed so drastically — though there have been warnings. We could argue that this has been a problem about educating ourselves. But how can we educate ourselves when we’re so complascent with the way things are, going along as if nothing is happening, quite able and eager to surrender control? This is what technology is — a surrender to the programmer’s imagination.

This is not technophobia. I use technology. I teach with it. I find great pleasure in working with technology — but not at the expense of not knowing.

The first warning came from Martin Heidegger, in The Question Concerning Technology. This essay is contained in two of Heidegger’s works, Die Technik und die Kehre (1962) and Vortröge und Aufsätze (1954). I mention this because the dates matter — a lot. The atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaky, conducted by the U.S., occured in the late stages of World War II, in 1945. Heidegger speaks on the heels of this monumental human event that changed our relationship to technology forever. By 1962, the air was filled with a sense of revolution, change, a desire to unmask authority world-wide. In-between these global events, Hiedegger warns us about technology. From this vantage point it’s easy to see the arc to our current day:

Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to the technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

In the traditional sense, Heidegger regards essence — the German noun Wesen — as not simply meaning what something is, but that it means the way in which something pursues its course, the way in which it remains through time as what it is. Thus, he means here a “coming to presence.”

As technology has come to presence — to be present in our lives — Heidegger suggests that we’ve merely create what is technical — data, programs, hardware, etc. — and push on without much thinking. We “put up with” technology’s requirements — iPhone 1 – 5, hardware and software that can’t be updated because it’s obsolete, the new mantra for everything we must have, the glitches.

We also put up with what we don’t see, such as the NSA’s surveillance program. Drones for attack, drones for surveillance. This is why Heidegger suggests we remain “unfree and chained to technology”; it’s the point of no return. We’ve gone over the edge. Never have we been so reliant on technology – and never have we been so vulnerable. Even the Ludites are vulnerable.

We’ve gotten to this point because we regard technology as something that exists outside of our lives; that it’s not us. But a closer look demonstrates that the technological world we have is the technological society we’ve fostered, from cell phones to drones.

Another author that is seldom studied and discussed along these lines is Jacques Ellul who, in The Technological Society, prophetically first published in 1954, then again in the U.S. in 1964, also warns us:

Whenever we see the word technology or technique, we automatically think of machines. Indeed, we commonly think of our wrold as a world of machines…It arises from the fact that the machine is the most obvious, massive, and impressive example of technique, and historically the first. What is called the history of technique usually accounts to no more than a history of the machine; this very formulation is an example of the habit of intellectuals of regarding forms of the present as identical with those of the past.

Subsequently, “…technique is nothing more than means and the ensemble of means. This, of course, does not lessen the importance of the problem. Our civilization is first and foremost a civilization of means; in the reality of modern life, the means, it would seem, are more important then the ends. Any other assessment of the situation is mere idealism.”

There we have it. If we conflate Heidegger — technology is neutral — and Ellul — technology is a means, and this is more important then ends — we have our world.

What is our world?

As overt examples of authoritarian regimes crumble and fight to stay alive, the power of the microchip has risen. Simultaneously, as governments and corporations experience our crowd sourcing and learn, a different form of totalitarianism is rising under the auspices of capitalism, the threat of terrorism, and a government eager to demonstrate its benevolence by arguing for our protection. The invertion of power is now complete, the corporation — Google, Verizon, Apple, AT&T, etc — legitimize massive control by becoming open partners with their foil, government, and thus power is effectively removed from the hands of citizens and sits only in the hands of the few.

Adaptation One. Hands.

for Heather and Cheswayo

He said it just like this: “Yo, brother Hector, why don’t you take me under your wing?”

He said it just like that at the end of one of our final classes of the semester. He reached over with his right hand and placed it in mine, and swung his left arm over and embraced me — we embraced.

“Yeah, brother Hector. Mentor me,” he insisted softly. “Mentor me. Why don’t you mentor me? Yeah, I’m serious. Take me under your wing,” he said with a pleasant, endearing grin.

Mentor — having the form of an agent. Latin, monitor — to remember, think, counsel. The name of the Ithacan noble whose disguise the goddess Athene assumed in order to act as the guide and adviser of the young Telemachus; allusively, one who fulfills the office which the supposed Mentor fulfilled towards Telemachus — hence a common noun: An experienced and trusted counselor. Thank you OED.

I’ve been grappling with this word ever since I first heard it in conjunction with my name. The weight of it — the history, the expectations. Homer‘s Odyssey, for god’s sake. How do you fit into those shoes? Kids don’t know the gravity of their questions, the load.

The most difficult challenge for me has been taking jurisdiction over myself and moving my entire being — my sense of self — into feeling that I fit in, anywhere, any time and under any circumstance. Why don’t you take me under your wing? clung to my conscience, a hallowed white wing, outstretched, soft, protective. And I’m looking down on it, spread out over the student’s head, carefully drawing him in, just a wing, an allusive one at that, referencing something implied, as in a life, your life, the student’s life.

Adaptation One. Hands. It was -13 C (9F) the other morning when I did chores — moving sheep from one paddock to the next to continue grazing on fresh grasses even in December, feeding chickens and cleaning their coop, and bottle feeding Sandy, the two-month old Jersey steer, cleaning the barn, leveling the water. They depend on me, I on them. If their lives are good, mine will be too.

If the lives of my students are good, fulfilling, creative lives full of promise — mine will be too. It’s a law of the universe, unspoken but true. This kind of interdependence feeds adaptation, nurtures it. Adaptation requires abandonment, letting go of some aspect of yourself; it’s essential for evolution, for evolving.

Sunlight was barely pushing through weighty blue-gray clouds that morning. The still visible full moon waned. It was going to stay cold. All the signs were there.

I pulled open the barn door, Sandy’s bottle cradled in my left arm. Steam rose from my nostrils when I got out a push and my back creaked a bit down my left side to my waist; a stiffness in a shoulder. The chickens fluttered, jumping off bales of hay. The roosters that sounded off at 4:30 that morning and made me stir turned and faced me with dignified, proud looks, heads raised. I knew exactly where I was, what things would be like on this day because of the way things felt in the barn. I keep time with these creatures– they give me time. It’s a better idea, a better feeling to know where you are, what you need to do and why.

I set out across a tough earth for the paddock gate to move the sheep. An Arctic wind kicked up. It made me tear.

When I got to the fence, I noticed that the earth’s shift to freezing had leaned into a post and the top hinge of the gate had come off its back plate. The gate looked wounded, tired. It snowed a bit the night before, barely a cover — but what had fallen near the gate had seized the bottom rung. The gate was frozen.

The sheep took two steps towards me. I faced them and they took two steps back. I pulled off my gloves so that I could get a better grip on the frozen fence and yanked until it broke lose and I could maneuver the hinge back on the back plate, holding the fence up with one hand, helping the hinge with the other. I had to bare knuckle whack the hinge a few times and in a couple of minutes I had the fence back on. I was winded. Nose running. A finger and a knuckle bled only a tiny bit and I knew, after I licked them, that in a few seconds my system — and the cold — would seal the cuts.

Would there be scars, a record of this event? I wondered.

I noticed my hands. Who is this performing these tasks? Who — or what — is the I in the I? Am I me or some aspect of me that is a part of the spectacle? Perhaps both. Who — or what — will give testimony to my being here? Hands move between reality and fiction, like phantoms.

Philosophers have spoken about the hands. In the documentary, derrida, Jacques Derrida says that what interests him about the eyes is that it’s the part of the body that doesn’t age. “In other words,” says the French Philosopher, “if one looks for one’s childhood, across the signs of aging in the body … one can find one’s childhood in the look of the eyes…Hegel says that the eyes are the manifestation of the soul…But I translate this thought as follows: That one’s act of looking has no age.”

As for the hand, “There is a history of the hand,” says Derrida, “the evolution of man, what we call the hominization of the animal, occurs via the transformation of the hand. I think that it’s not the body of the hand that stays the same, the hand changes from childhood to old age. It is the eye and the hands that are the sights of recognition, the signs through which one identifies the Other. To return to the question of narcissism, they are, paradoxically, the parts that we see the least easily. We can look in a mirror and see ourselves and have a reasonably accurate sense of what we look like. But it’s very difficult to have an image of our own act of looking or to have a true image of our hands as they are moving. It’s the Other who knows what our hands and eyes are like.”

I look at hands, intensely, fascinated by them because they say a lot about a person’s life, his or her beliefs. The phalanges of both my hands are bent in different directions, particularly the ring finger of my left hand — and I can’t tell you how this happened; the index finger of my right hand won’t close all the way; and I have what’s called a “boxer’s break” in the carpal behind the pinky of my right hand, which happened when I was kneeling before my 6 month old warm blood and he took a step towards me and my pinky jammed up in his powerful chest and he broke it as I tried to hold him back. It’s a break that often happens to boxers. I have what looks like a burn on my left hand, but it was really a saw I use to cut metal that brushed me; and I have a “V” scar there too, beneath it a steal pin holding my wrist together (this came from sports, not farming, another story).

The academic’s hands have always intrigued me because they pose a problem: these soft, subtle hands, meant for turning pages, not digging ditches, have turned civilizations on their heads, named things, classified others, and in fact define what is evolving and how; they label progress; they determine right and wrong; they convict. Pardon. And they wash their hands of things they don’t want to see. Such soft hands have so much authority. This troubles me. Can delicate hands teach?

Can a mentor have soft hands? Easy to mould, cut, compress?

Have we left the hand behind in our cultural adaptations? Those among us using their hands at ground level — this is where the hands live, after all, where they’re necessary — how can we understand You, the Other, without become You, entering Your I as our own and abandoning the spectacle that is us? How do I speak to You if I’m not You, You who uses Your hands?

My journey: from what am I going to do with myself ? to the teacher and now to mentor, it’s been impossible for me to feel good about the answers to these questions where and when I’ve been involved. I could have done better.

The other day, I received an email from a young colleague and friend I respect immensely. She wrote to me about her family’s venture, a Wisconsin experiment with 50 grape vines. The family has been winterizing them over a few months, Thanksgiving closing off the project. They use chicken wire around the base and fill these with leaves. The chicken wire has to be strung around each of the 50 vines. She tells me that the “scratches and cuts are beginning to fade on my hands.” I immediately fell totally in love with the “scratches and cuts,” that beautiful image that eventually will “fade.” Irresistible. I don’t want them to “fade” — like an old photograph, a node in life’s road. Her hands would be so lovely, I thought, with a hint of a few scars that named a passage about love and family and growth and beauty. And that, in its course, touched me with such melancholy, brushed against me like that and I ached at the thought of it fading. I had the same feeling when I first read John Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale and came to Forlorn! the very word is like a bell/To toll me back from thee to my sole self! And then Keats says, Adieu!, which he repeats soon thereafter, Adieu! adieu! they plaintive anthem fades/Past the near meadows, over the still stream,/Up the hill-side …

Fade, the scars fade but never really go away, do they? Do we all fade like this?

Hands tell us our approximation to love, to life itself. Hands are better then pictures. Van Gogh’s Two Hands. We learn nothing from Facebook, not really, because we leave the hands out. We leave hands out a lot these days — and most of the hands we see are either killing or keeping someone from harms way, embracing an Other who is suffering, distraught.  Follow the hands (where they’re pictured, that is) in the 45 most powerful images of 2011 and tell me, what do you see hands doing? What do these hands say about our struggle to Be.

I remember my grandmother’s hands. Worn, working hands. My hands have been compared to hers: round, strong, used — not the hands one associates with turning pages of a book. The problem of the hand is that it resides at ground-level — where hands actually work. Knowledge, economies of scale and technology have created an upside down model where the consumer economy is privileged over all else. Hominization without hands — or is it with unseen hands, unacknowledged hands, hands we don’t want to see? We believe that we are evolving differently and that the hand is somehow secondary. Soft hands have drawn this conclusion. Round and round soft hands go into carefully orchestrated meetings to discuss threats from different epistemologies. We meet to discuss how not to use our hands. We don’t like dirt. We don’t want to get our hands dirty.

Why don’t you take me under your wing? Is this the right question, my brother student? For me to enter the I that is you, we need to be in each other’s hands, spreading our wings together. This is adaptation.

Was it a vision, or a waking dream? We ultimately ask ourselves along with Keats. Fled is that music: — Do I wake or sleep?   Hands always know the answer.

Obama and Romney Win, the American People Lose

The real winners of Wednesday night’s first Presidential Debate were President Obama and former Governor Romney. I have to say that. They win — a tie. And we lose. Last night’s debate is a perfect mirror of who we are, what we’ve become.

And in this America, defined for us last night, we, the people, were left wondering what’s going on? Where are we? Where exactly are we going? We’re still left wondering who these people are and, given our challenges, how are we going to approach an equitable future where everyone has their shoulders to this daunting wheel we need to push up this steep hill?

Obama and Romney, no matter who is president, will forever be absolutely fine, sailing a prosperous wind to posterity. The rest of us, as it’s been made clear by both Obama and Romney, will hold them up — as we’ll hold up others, too, that have their grip on the socioeconomic reins that pave our future and may deny our dreams.

In the middle of this circus, adding to the confusion, the media insisted on covering the debate as if we were watching the NFL or a boxing match, looking for zingers — body blows, as one commentator called them. Mark Shields, on PBS, actually went as far as using boxing terminology — who won what round — to bring the debate’s substance to light. Who’s ahead now? What will the polls say? The sports metaphors — all of which are place holders for a confused American masculinity — abound, but without substance; these metaphors are kept alive only to bolster a narrative that is not about us, the American people, but about them. The debate was a splendid picture of a divided America — one that’s confused, even desperate and longing, the other that demands, confines, privileges.

History could have a lot to say about this, but it’s being left out as a framing device that’s essential for us to to be able to contextualize what each man is — and is not — saying about the role of government. This, after all, is at the heart of the election, at the heart of ideologies that are always warring in America. How much government do we need? For those that need a hand, those that are struggling, how big should that hand be? And how should it be applied? Who will determine when enough is enough?

The debate about the government’s role began with the Federalist Papers, a document that is the foundation of this country but which no American has actually ever read — unless you’ve studied American Government in college or gone to law school or graduate school in political science. This magnificent document is left solely to those people that have to read it. Yet, America’s current ideological struggles begin and end with the Federalist Papers, a sweeping work that defines our character, our principles — and not our ideologies.

Ideologies have come about because of bipartisan rancor; they come about when politicians need to conceal the true engine of government — money and who controls the purse strings. In our case, the purse strings are not held by politicians we elect; rather, they’re held, in a broken system, by those that fund the careers of politicians and demand that they receive something in return. This is why, when we need to know what’s going on, we get two adults that don’t know how to speak the truth.

The end result is the debate we just witnessed — a listless encounter between two men that are nearly saying the same thing. The difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is but a sliver; the difference, defined by the extreme right, is being made more evident solely by misguided social concerns that, when you think about it, is the most egregious infiltration by government into our private lives. Nowhere in the Federalist Papers do we see such a desire — and need — to enter into the private lives of citizens, yet extremist fundamentalists want it this way. Go figure.

Both men will use government to cut taxes (Romney and Obama) and create some revenue (Obama); both men will use government to regulate, differing only by degrees; both men agree that health care is a problem, and in last night’s debate Obamacare became Romneycare; both men also agree that education has challenges, Romney opting for vouchers and charters, Obama for bolstering public education and charters — both plans disastrous and failing to see some real urgent problems, such as ridiculously bogus teachers, a lack of resources, standardization, and the effects (this data from science and medical research) of poverty on the minds of children; and, both men agree that a strong military is essential, particularly as demands in the world continue to challenge our readiness in cyberspace, clandestine operations and special forces. We’re nowhere new.

So where are we?

We’re in the same Bush-Cheney era, showing us how damaging it is to follow this uncreative path: drone strikes will continue, as will clandestine operations, as will the support of Israel, even when hawks rule this policy; poverty will increase as either man’s broad, even ambiguous statements pursue a line that’s been always ongoing, business first, the rest will just have to come along, picking ourselves up by our bootstraps — sink or swim; education’s achievement gap will widen, as some kids will have better access to better teachers and creative uses of technology, others will whither; health care costs will increase as America continues to increase its girth, beers in hand, pop corn on the lap, chips flying into our wide open mouths, watching the NFL, which is far more important to us (witness the outcry during the referee strike) then how we’re going to get along, move forward, and provide a future that is healthy, safe and creative.

Prevention, whether its preventive health practices, a preventive, inclusive educational system that conflates socioeconomic needs, the environment and health care with self-actualization, an energy policy that prevents further deterioration and that doesn’t sustain us, because that’s now impossible, but rather begins to learn how to live with the disasters we’ve created, offering up creative, technologically rich solutions, is out of the question. Not even on the radar for Obama and Romney. Frankly, it’s disgusting.

Both men failed at describing, concretely, how we’re going to pay for the mess we’re in — except to say that the middle class is going to be burdened, either way; we’re the ones who will lose footing, while some, granted, will gain something or other, though very little and will always be looking over their shoulders wondering when it’s all going to cave in. But it’s safe to say, in either man’s rather nebulous picture of the American Future, the ideological lines of demarcation will be greater, the fallout more dramatic, the result being two, maybe even three unrecognizable Americas. Nothing like this was foreshadowed in the Federalist Papers. Nothing. A selfish ambition, rather then ambition tempered by ambition, which is what Hamilton said, is killing us.

We don’t know where we are, in then end, nor where we’re going, except that it looks bleak.

Through The Personal Lens: Reconceiving Language and Education


Scenarios for Teaching Writing is a one semester long (12 wks) course in the Education Studies Program at Middlebury. It is supported by Middlebury’s Education in Action, The Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Dean of the College. It is also supported by Middlebury alumni and parents of current Middlebury students, all of whom reside in New York and provide housing for Middlebury students.  And it’s supported by Media and Communications High School.  What makes this collaboration possible is the idea that education requires responsibility; that what we learn and how we learn have to be shared, particularly with K-12 partners; and that education has to be thought of as a K-16 continuum since the challenges we face as a society – early education, on one end, and an ongoing commitment to continue an education, on the other – have to guide us towards creative solutions.  Scenarios for Teaching Writing is one small step in this direction, modeling a living classroom struggling to create byways for self-actualization.

The Chicago Teacher’s Strike: Solutions for a New World in Education

The Chicago Teachers’ Strike is a perfect storm without solutions: teachers are unhappy about stringent evaluation methods that rely solely on data, the Board of Education wants to determine the best qualified teachers by linking teacher performance to student (tested) performance, and politicians, realizing that American education is, at best, woeful, are feeling the pinch and want to increase standards, particularly given the rising cost of education. Not sure how to do this, politicians hammer at collective bargaining. And all this is agitated by a media hell bent on reporting on the process, unable to locate the right questions that will get us to the origins of the problem. Caught in the middle of this tempest, students and their families, many of whom are from the poorest communities, are left alone in a dinghy of despair and confusion, the sole concern being how are the kids going to spend their day. Thus, the perfect storm — but there is a solution, a simple one.

The strike is a sign of unprecedented frustration. There are no solutions, from any side, that make sense because everywhere we look, solutions look like methods of discipline and punish. We’re proceeding on shaky footing. There is one truth, though: there will be more suffering, more confusion and, most importantly, no learning. Unable to ask the right questions, we’re destined to repeat what we’ve done in the past, ensuring a continuing decline in education and a further separation of socioeconomic classes. We will then fall further behind in this transition period where we’re moving towards a more science oriented, technological society.

Chris Ware, The New Yorker, Sept 12, 2012

The frustration all sides feel is caused by perspectives that still follow an analog view of the world. We’re looking for solutions that look back to the old brick and mortar school house: kids in neat classrooms, a tired curriculum, standardized, high-stakes testing; and the teacher still standing in the front of the classroom talking at students, rather than working with students. It’s a static view of a dynamic, always changing world outside the school house, captured beautifully by the graphic novelist, Chris Ware, in the September 12 issue of The New Yorker: Students enter a dark, ominous school, the last young girl in the line looking sad eyed at the parents who have turned their backs on their kids and are enjoying their bikes and lattes while texting, chatting merrily away from their dejected children. Parents have not asked the right questions either.

We are in a digital world, yet we remain mired in the muck of analog solutions. Today, education approaches learning hierarchically,when we can only change — and better — the system by thinking horizontally, the promise of technology used creatively. The world is flat, as Thomas Friedman informs us constantly, but education doesn’t seem to see it that way.

Elite higher education institutions understand that the world has changed. Stanford University, Harvard, Columbia, Duke, MIT — have all launched online systems for free in the hopes of attracting people from all walks of life. This will allow these schools to corner a market while learning a lot about those who participate. It’s an effective way to keep their respective brands at the top of a vertical educational system, while also pushing education forward.

In this very interesting online experiment there is a solution that can literally alter education for some time to come — but it takes courage and some doing, with little money. All that’s needed is will and fortitude, imagination and a desire, a real desire to do what’s best for kids — the bottom line.

Here’s how it can be done:

  1. Lectures, interactions, critiques, assessments, student work, etc, is online, constantly being tweaked, re-assessed, revised and re-delivered. In the meantime, knowledge is being built in unprecedented ways. This is knowledge about how students learn, as well as content specific knowledge. It’s too vital to dismiss; it’s also a tragedy if we leave this learning only in the hands of elite institutions, though these schools are open to all comers.
  2. Elite universities and colleges have incredible programs for incredibly talented students. I know, I teach in one. I know what these students can do — and I’ve tested what I’m saying here. For 3 consecutive years I’ve been teaching a course, Scenarios for Teaching Writing. This is a course for kids in education or for kids interested in teaching at some point. And for 3 years we’ve been working with the Media & Communications High School in Washington Heights, NY. We do the work face-to-face (we visit the campus), and we then work online, using a simple tool — Google docs. Students submit work and Middlebury students guide, mentor and tutor the kids in Washington Heights. Middlebury students follow the theoretical frameworks of composition theory that they learn in class; they have to present, day in and day out, their work to the class, justifying their approaches. My role is to help them; it is also to work with the principal of the high school and the teachers involved. Everyone wins. The most important aspect of this is that the model is highly scalable and cheap. The technology — thanks to Google — is free. (Community Works Institute will publish an article about our work in an upcoming publication.)
  3. The what if: What if, as a way of proving what these students are learning, college students in, say, History 101, take their lessons — from online and in class — and tweak these lessons with a partner in a public school — a teacher and her staff — to fit the needs of her students?
  4. What if these lessons — the revised lessons meant for students in the public school setting — are piped through the same online tools used by elite institutions, delivered straight to their classrooms, their homes, their communities? Automatically, the school day — and year — is extended.
  5. And what if the students in our colleges and universities, as part of their curriculum, work together with their respective education studies programs, psychology and sociology departments that know about “how children learn and succeed,” and use this knowledge to tutor and mentor the younger kids in public education?

This is not rocket science and very easy to do. Within two to three years of launching this process, literally all public education would change in America. In fact, education K-16 would change as well.

What are the outcomes of this model?

  1. Students in public schools spend more time learning, though not necessarily in the school; the “longer school day” isn’t more busy time, more brick and mortar thinking, more traditional high-stakes testing, rather, education is fluid and dynamic, inspirational and meaningful, meeting the student where she lives and how she lives: knowledge applied to real world learning to solve real world challenges.
  2. Students in public education are then assessed dynamically because technology enables an easy flow for assessment; it is a natural piece of the learning — and immediate, which is vital to learning, the red line appearing the minute a word is misspelled in a document. That’s how easy assessment is done on the fly.
  3. Technology, as we now realize, requires face-to-face interactions that are intense and focused on what has evolved online.  My Scenarios for Teaching Writing students learned this.  For public school students, this means that demonstrating what they know, in face-to-face interactions moves away from the standardized test or rote learning, engaging them in more meaningful and realistic ways.
  4. Likewise, it means that all of us can more critically and creatively work on non-cognitive skills, in person, such as the building of character, as recently shown by Paul Tough in How Children SucceedFor the very first time, by partnering with technology, we can educate the whole person.
  5. The college/university student is engaged in community service, able to fully realize how and why theoretical frameworks actually work — or not. And the college student, along with her professor, are immediately assessing and adjusting, fine tuning lessons to suit individual students, another characteristic of technology.
  6. The college/university student serves as mentor and teacher, collaborating and cooperating with her university teacher and with the public school teacher, becoming the bridge for life-long learning.
  7. Public school teachers receive ongoing, dynamic development, guided by the university curriculum, enhancing content knowledge, pedagogy, and a new understanding of what it is to work side-by-side with machines — the future.
  8. And, perhaps the most impressive result, is learning how to build a community that is focused on (a) gaining new knowledge, in different ways, (b) realizing that this brave new world requires very different approaches to solving problems, and, (c), come to understand that engaging diverse minds will lead to better results.

This is not pie in the sky thinking, not romanticism; rather, this is how this new scientific-technological world works. At the end of my Scenarios for Teaching Writing, literally all students did presentations using Prezi, responding to a singular question: given your experience in this course, and your students in Washington Heights, what do you know and what do you see? The students in the Scenarios class have become even more committed to education writ large; many are education minors and see education as a future. Don’t we want more of this from our college students?

This work begins to solve problems: all teachers, whether in public schools or the university, working together, building  models for life-long learning, a pre-requisite for the “good life” in the coming century; the assessment tension is removed since it’s ongoing, fluid and dynamic, always present and performed per task, per endeavor; these endeavors are rich in inquiry and what we’re looking at are the solutions, the varied applications to problems, be these social, economic, pedagogical and scientific – technological.  Thus we are engaged in a process of building new systems to address yet unforeseen challenges in economics, society, the environment.

The mentoring public school children need, particularly if they’re from socio-economically challenged backgrounds, is always ongoing; the move from high school to college, would be fluid, seamless — and inspired early on. And if the child decides to work and go to college online, that’s also available. All options are on the table and students and their families are free to choose. The point is that education is, here, available at all times and able to fit different types of learning needs and goals — all assessable.

If we continue to search for solutions by simply saying that children aren’t learning and that unions are obstructionist and politicians are only focused on getting re-elected — the old way of thinking today — we won’t get anywhere. The tit-for-tat world we find ourselves in isn’t working. We need a fresh start — or, rather, we need a start using what we’re already doing in select circles, Stanford, et al. Political will, clean universal design where everyone benefits and a desire to also change how college students go to school, giving them more responsibility for the way we actually live, is a great leap forward to solving our problems. It’s not hard, but this approach, if we can all put our shoulders to the wheel, will change the face of education and begin to address the many problems we face.

Let’s get to work — but let’s do it creatively. Nothing else is working: we know that.

Some Resources

The Vermont Virtual Learning Community

The National Writing Project

National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE)


The Art of MATLAB

Community Works Institute

Other Articles

The Elements of Teaching

Under the Hood of Education: A View of the Classroom

Defining the Liberal Arts in America, in 3 Parts

The Emotional Lives of Teachers

Education and Its Discontents

Higher Education and Education Reform: the Uncanny Stranglehold on Change

Hope Spring Eternal Amidst Decline: the Bard College Model

Pass or Get Out of the Way: Defining the Future for Our Students

Newark’s South Ward: The Miller Street School and the American Paradox

An Education Revolution = A Revolution in Our Communities

The Uncanny Convocation in an Upside Down World

The Last Human Freedoms and the University

Second Guesses and Learning From Students

Writing at the End of the World: Academic Writing and the Struggle to Define the Humanities

The Location of Technology and a Theory of the Present

The Elements of Teaching

for Shipnia, Brittany, Dane, Becca, Christine, Chris and Amanda and Taylor and Annie — and the countless other young souls that will call themselves new teachers

There is a lot of talk, politically and otherwise, about education reform, but there is little conversation about what teaching actually is — and who the teacher is. What are the elements of teaching?

There is a singular demand on education today, namely that it develop producers — students that will mature to be workers and consumers. This single demand is blind to the sources of this production model, the teachers, and the nature of human culture. Of course, citizens have to be productive, engaging the world creatively, we hope, but this is not the first criteria. There are other requirements. In order for education to be productive — produce productive individuals — it must preserve the health and welfare of teachers and, in so doing, it must sustain students in the process. For this to happen, teachers must know themselves well, must have a full understanding of their students, and, just as significant, teachers must have a complete understanding of the context in which the teaching and learning happens. Teachers must be well motivated, active learners that engage the environment in which students reside; likewise, teachers must also know the relationships that exist between their subjects, pedagogy and the environment in which s/he is teaching. What is the place of my knowledge in the context of our culture? This question teachers must ask themselves over and over. Then teachers must know how to use this knowledge well. Teaching cannot take place except in culture. We seem to be unaware of this vital fact.

The appropriate measure of teaching is the culture’s health. We can look around and realize that our culture is not healthy, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Education, we hear in the talk, is in trouble; it has broken down. It’s limping along, even declining, we hear. A central reason for this breakdown has to do with our lack of understanding concerning the elements of teaching. We recognize the potential — and place — of the teacher, but we have strapped the teacher down in a system that privileges competition rather than cooperation, homogeneity rather than diversity. We falsely believe, now, that a single test can determine excellence — for teachers and students. This is far too simple a standard because it’s focused solely on production; it enslaves those in the system — administrators, teachers and students. This is an economic standard that parallels the current economic standard that has taken our welfare to the brink of disaster. We are beginning to see — only in some circles — that this standard is very expensive and, while it has solved some immediate problems, it has, overall, failed on a consistent basis to address the ills of our culture. Education has worked by confinement, concentration and separation; this design has lead to the industrialization of human experience. We, who work in schools, have been responsible for this move towards the factory model of education. It’s synonymous with the factory model of agriculture, which has lead to making our food vulnerable that, in turn, makes all vulnerable to all sorts of problems and diseases.

This is to say, then, that we have to re-describe the elements of teaching so that we can create better, more meaningful measures that comply with the art of teaching. Many like to say that teaching is an art and a science. It is not. It’s only an art. The science — the data, the verifiable knowledge, etc — only exists in the disciplines — Mathematics, English, Literature, Geography, History, Philosophy, Foreign Languages, and so on. The application of these knowledge fields to excite a student’s imagination is not a science; the synthesis of discipline knowledge and pedagogy is an art. This is why current, high stakes testing cannot measure, with any meaningful results, the teacher’s practice. We need another way of doing this; these measures must be layered and multifaceted — observations, journals, video, dialog, and so on, along with tests. I say along with tests because by integrating a variety of diverse measures we will be able to (a) experience the rich and layered practice of a teacher, and describe it, and (b) come to understand the limitations of the factory model, high stakes test.

So let’s just talk about three elements of teaching (in the weeks to come, I’ll describe others). I want to do this to show what I mean by the need for diverse measures that defy the factory model of education.

The first element of teaching is love. A teacher must love. She must love herself, but more importantly, she must love experiencing herself as a node that engages others in the healthy creation of culture. Love requires that the teacher be healthy, personally and in her practice. Love, therefore, leads the teacher to care about the well being of her students; this measure — the health of students — leads to atonement between the teacher, her students, and the world they are engaging. It proposes conscious, careful recognition of the ecology of learning. It also demonstrates knowledge of the interdepence between the teacher, students, the institution and the culture. These interdependencies always exist; however, in our current factory model of education focused solely on production, we categorically reject these connections, begin separating, confining and concentrating on diffused knowledge that is without context, without purpose. Teachers love, first and foremost, because it is the only way to get to a student’s heart; without the heart, there is no learning that’s possible. We can measure this quite easily by simply walking into any school and observing disinterested students. Disinterest comes about because love is not practiced in the classroom. Either a teacher doesn’t love her discipline or she doesn’t love the conditions for learning or she doesn’t love her students because, perhaps, they represent insurmountable challenges that she imagines cannot be addressed.

Teachers that begin with love are easy to find in schools. They are the most exhausted. This is the direct result of a dictatorial or totalitarian form. The teacher is always fighting an uphill battle against political demands on her identity, measures that don’t make sense, dictates that come from “on high,” usually boards of education — the Federal Government included — that have no idea who the students are. On the other hand, this teacher knows that the right approach to teaching and learning is more consistent with a conversational model; it proceeds directly to serious thought — inquiry — about our condition and our predicament. In conversations you always reply — and here is where we can measure. If a teacher honors the other party, namely students and their identities, she thus becomes reliant on a secondary element of teaching faith. The teacher has faith that the other will reply, though sometimes not in expected ways or in ways that the teacher may like — but this is, in fact, a healthy environment that begs for a third element, freedom. The teacher must always transgress constraints and boundaries to expose the work required, by a citizen, to be free. The teaching and learning act is to inspire the quest for freedom, creatively, personally, politically. Transgressing boundaries for freedom excites the imagination, which can be measured in actual work — writing, calculations and their applications, art and music, and so on, right to the effective uses of languages to communicate deeply felt emotions to an Other. Faith that the Other will reply fosters the quest for freedom, which is the sole purpose of education.

Love, faith and freedom, we can rightly see — and imagine — are easily measured, in teachers and students, by closely examining their practice, not by standardized tests, but, rather, by observation, close examination of texts and testing; the multi-layered approach, as I mentioned above, enables us to distinguish between individuals, rather then assuming that all individuals are the same, one. It allows us to apply what we learn — and what we have learned about the factory system that has gotten us nowhere — to our culture. We can then, slowly, begin to measure whether our culture is moving towards healthier ways of being since, right now, we’re not.

For a long time, we have dreamt that our systems have been taking us towards some Edenic future; we’ve convinced ourselves that our constructions, completely reliant on human ingenuity, are the key to our health and happiness. Now we realize otherwise. We have forgotten that everything we do resides in Nature; that everything we do affects Culture. Nature and Culture are hurting. We can turn to science, technology, medicine, history and philosophy, as well as the Arts, and see that this is absolutely true. All these disciplines are pointing to our troubled ways– to the troubles we’re facing. Might it not be time to take what we’ve learned and turn this ship around?

Hyper-Interface Culture and the New Age of Education: A Critical Look Under the Hood of the Harvard – MIT Partnership

Since Harvard and MIT announced a partnership that will invest $60 million into a new platform to deliver free online courses, the academic world has been a flutter. But criticisms and critiques have it all wrong. The joint venture points to a narrower, more stringent future for higher education in America, the furthering of a class system that furtively divides and signals a crisis in education that we’re not debating, namely that our current (analog) models are unsustainable.edX

Comments and opinions about the Harvard – MIT venture range from those in the business of online education, best exemplified by George Siemens, of Athabasca University’s Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute, that sees the HarvardMIT partnership as merely the elites re-capturing an online presence in a growing and lucrative market, to David Brooks, of The New York Times, who, comparing this move to how newspapers and magazines retooled themselves around the web, worries about students that do not have “the intrinsic motivation to stay glued to their laptops hour after hour” but suggests that, likewise, “Online learning could extend the influence of American universities around the world,” though he is not won over by the partnership, wondering, as did Sven Birkerts 18 years ago in The Gutenberg Elegies, “Will fast online browsing replace deep reading?”

This is all wrong. We’re not seeing the obvious, the massive shift that’s already present in higher education.

The critiques of the Harvard-MIT venture assume that the world of technology exists — and grows — outside of ourselves, outside of who we are and, thus, as Martin Heidegger suggests in The Question of Technology (1954), we fail to understand technology as “human activity” This is something. I said, in 2008, at the MIT sponsored conference on Federating Resources Through Open Operability, the early stages of this move, on MIT’s part.

The Harvard-MIT venture is a sign that functions as a map of our current state in education, our American education crisis and as a distinct model for future power and control over delivery systems that, in turn, will certify one’s value in a world that’s constantly shifting beneath our feet, requiring that we re-tool on a continuous basis. Current education models cannot sustain the re-tooling of workers, at any level.

The Harvard-MIT partnership is an agreement to exert massive control over how education will be experienced in the near future — and who will gain. There are several reasons why this is viable — and why this has been brought on by the conditions in our culture.

In 1997, Steven Johnson, in Interface Culture, describing our relationship with technology, said that “we live in a society that is increasingly shaped by events in cyberspace, and yet cyberspace remains, for all practical purposes, invisible, outside our perceptual grasp.” This has created an ongoing drama as we try to (re)imagine — and understand — ourselves in this shifting cultural landscape propelled forward technologically and economically.

The great drama of the next few decades will unfold under the crossed stars of the analog and the digital. Like the chorus of Greek tragedy, information filters will guide us through this transition, translating the zeros and ones of digital language into the more familiar, analog images of every day life. These metaforms, these bitmappings will come to occupy nearly every facet of modern society: work, play, romance, family, high art, pop culture, politics. But the form itself will be the same, despite its many guises, laboring away in that strange new zone between medium and message. That zone is what we call the interface.

Interface, for Johnson, is where the old, analog world is transformed into the message; it comes with culture–altering methods and processes, as we now see as we integrate Facebook and Twitter into our lives. There’s the iPad, the iPhone, the Android and the Kindle. The interface alters perceptions, yet as Johnson rightly asserts, “the form itself will be the same”; that is, the reasoning behind the nature of the interface is still analog, the same. It’s control.

The $60 million investment must be paid back; it must be profitable. Why, then, such a magnanimous offering from 2 of our most distinguished academic institutions?

Answer: it’s about the interface.

Harvard and MIT are offering a free online service, not because they’re investing in the romantic ideals of higher education, but rather because they will learn a tremendous amount about our interactions with their online interface, providing volumes of data about our likes and dislikes, our methods of engagement, the relationships between social networks and, now, academic ones. It’s a harsh economic strategy, winner take all.

Harvard and MIT will have a robust system, behind the scenes where we can’t see it, much as Amazon does when it suggests books to you, that will gather information about our behavior. In turn, this will help Harvard and MIT retool their tool because “clients” will not be able to keep away from the significance of this venture. In other words, given the label, Harvard-MIT, it’s expected that millions will access this portal; these millions will give Harvard and MIT the data they need to fashion a learning portal to fit our behavior.

Education has turned a corner; it’s a synthesis of old analog learning with market realities.

“The ability to rapidly form and reform intelligent communities will become the decisive weapon of regional skill centers competing within a globalized economic space,” says Pierre Lévy in Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (1997). “The emergence and constant redefinition of distributed identities,” says Lévy, “will not only take place within the institutional framework of business, but through cooperative interactions in an international cyberspace.”

Lévy said this 15 years ago. Some of us paid attention. Colleges and Universities did not — until now.

One of the greatest costs of running a university is technology. This is because higher education has had a distinct analog model they’ve been following, the kind of blindness Heidegger warned us about 63 years ago when he first lectured on The Question of Technology, in a series of 4 lectures, in the Club at Bremen. Heidegger talked about the “instrumental and anthropological definition of technology”; that is, the “means” and the “human activity.” In higher education we’ve always allowed both the means and the human activity to be determined by forces outside the academy — think Apple and Microsoft, for instance, both in terms of hardware and software. Then came the emergence of blogs and course management systems, for profit online universities — and education still following, never taking the bull by the horns, defining the uses of technology on its own terms. We’ve always tried to fit into whatever technologies were given to us at the highest cost, in the meantime enabling a change in higher education determined by software companies. The engineers that create the code have been our cultural and pedagogical gurus for the past twenty years. Until now, until Harvard and MIT have drawn attention to their aggressive attack on pedagogy and interface — or, perhaps better said, their definition of pedagogy gathered from data we provide for their interface that, in turn, will alter the face of higher education, propelling us into an unknown future.

But the high cost of technology is only part of the story, the other chapter is about the high cost of labor in higher education. Next to technology, labor is the biggest drain on colleges and universities. Talent, the professor, is handsomely paid; in public institutions, the professor earns less then at prestigious universities. Academia works on a star model — luminaries with crossover books get paid the best, appear on TED and on the PBS News Hour, Charlie Rose, and so on. Media tends to follow the most prized in an unforgiving system that talks a great deal about the need for excellent teaching but rewards the stars that bring notoriety to the campus, the company label. This system, as Harvard and MIT are aware, is not sustainable.

How much will families be willing to pay for a high – grade education? 60K? 100K? This is where we’re heading with our current analog model. It can’t happen — unless we change things around a bit. Most of the Ivies have changed their financial aid, accordingly; however, labor is still a number one concern: it’s too high. So what if we changed the model?

TED, for instance, is extraordinarily popular. The 15 minute lectures are almost de rigueur these days, having spawned TEDx across campuses. I find myself giving student TED lectures and things I find on YouTube, from lectures to appearances to animation and film clips to highlight ideas. I find myself giving students up – to – the – minute news from around the world, adding to the analog aspects of my syllabus. I correct all student work online. I use MOODLE and WordPress as course management tools. I have students create digital stories, when appropriate.

If a professor is working in these ways, already breaking the analog stranglehold, why not push a bit further and change the role of the professor to be more of a coach: if ready-made lectures, by luminaries, are delivered online and questions, essay prompts, designed work is likewise delivered, then the teacher can simply be one who urges, prods, encourages, and gives students more resources, online, to round off a given subject, which is pretty much what we’re doing these days anyway. Then the professor/teacher doesn’t need a PhD, of which there are too many anyhow. The system then doesn’t need things such as tenure. And the luminary professor doesn’t have to be paid $200K, but rather much less, the rest of his worth determined by “hits” and advertisements to a course, public appearances, digital books sold, etc. Then we really have a star system that mirrors all others in our economic system.

Most big universities, such as Harvard and MIT, have 100 + students attending lectures for approximately 2 years. We know from the analog model that we can deliver education one – to – many. Why not take this online? We can leave the last two years for residency, if we want, reducing energy costs and labor costs since, we also know, graduate students can critique work. We’re heading this way.

But of course this will make our education crisis worse because, already, way too many kids are being left behind in the analog model. These kids don’t have access to good teachers, technology and relevant books. For example, in one of my current courses we’re working with high school students in Washington Heights, New York City. These kids don’t have access to adequate technology, and what they do have access to is highly filtered. Teachers are not instructed on how to capitalize on the technology we have. In a survey I sent to these students, one of the kids said, “I really thank you for having me learn how to use Google.” Can you imagine? Expertise with Google is a sign of an education gap! Though many will have access to the Harvard – MIT online venture, ultimately, these institutions will reap all the rewards and bring along those that already gain from attending them. Nothing much will change unless we address the inadequacies of online learning K-16 and we, in education, start to take greater responsibility and control for what we’re charged to do.

The Emotional Life of Teachers

for Ronni, Sarah, the teachers at Media & Communications High School in the Heights, their students, and for the students in EDST0225(I love to say that, sounds so academic), and for the teachers who are yet to be and who will work to self-actualize

The other day I did what I always do at some point in the morning, black coffee in hand, the house quiet, I checked email. My day changed. There were two emails, one from a student I’ve known for over six years and is now in graduate school in California, the other from a colleague and friend that I’ve known for about 20 years.

From two ends of the teaching spectrum, both emails asked that I think about what I do and who I am. Both asked that I take responsibility for the place I hold in academia. And both emails tugged at my heart and my soul, asking that I voice what I know.

My former student’s subject line was this: “check out my women’s issue blog :)”. The first line of her email read: “Here is your shout out!” And I proceeded to read a copy of a document titled, SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY LIFELINE. She talks about her journey as a writer, early success, change in schooling, the humiliation of suddenly being seen as a poor writer, and the ensuing depression that came with these critiques of her work.

Then she met me. “Professor Vila loved my writing,” she writes. “He and I developed a special mentor relationship that still exists today, 6 years later. He was the first person in years who said that I could and should be a writer. With his belief in me, I pursued my dreams.” She moved to California, became a writer and is now pursuing a graduate degree in psychology

In the other email, my friend and colleague, during her Spring break, went out to Montauk, on Long Island, NY, and felt rejuvenated. I couldn’t help myself, so I asked: why do we need to leave our work to be rejuvenated?

The work of a teacher should rejuvenate her — it should rejuvenate all of us that are teachers. Teaching requires that one’s entire being be present. Roland Barthes, for instance, in his “Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers,” tells us that “…language is always a matter of force, to speak is to exercise a will for power; in the realm of speech there is no innocence, no safety.” The teacher, upon walking into the classroom, is well aware of this — no safety, no innocence. It is definitely a will for power.

How do we interpret power in the classroom? What is the location of power in this quite sensual, moving and intensely frightening sphere called the classroom?

To answer these questions, we have to deal with a subject no one in education likes to talk about, the emotional life of a teacher. It is the unspeakable in education — that which should not be named. Yet, if anything, to be a teacher means that you will work with your senses, as well as your mind. Teaching is a science, and an art. And here lies the problem.

It is a problem of power, its representation in the classroom, and how it affects the teacher’s emotional proximity to her students. In the case of my student, above, we “dove in” together, working hard, sometimes with tears, which came back to me when I read her note; and in the case of my friend and colleague, I, too, have jumped into the hard matters of the heart with her because I know for sure that the emotional life of teachers has no support, no avenues for the careful nurturing this needs.

So let’s look at power in the classroom — what it is and how we work with it, but more importantly, how it affects the emotional life of a teacher.

Institutional power, the power of the institution known as the Education System is always present, always a given; it speaks through the teacher and the teacher is it, always. A part of the teacher negotiates, psychologically, the demands of the institution, be it a public school setting, K-12, a public University or a private school. The teacher expends tremendous amounts of energy interpreting, diagnosing, and, ultimately, coming to terms with her role in the place she holds in the academy, a sphere that tries to direct and inspire, but also a sphere that asks for allegiance, subservience.

The teacher is constantly analyzing this role; it occupies a lot of her time. For this — and many other reasons — says Barthes, “every teacher occupies the position of a person in analysis.” That is to say, a teacher, in the act of performing (teaching is a performance — more later on this), falls into the position of the person on the couch before the psychiatrist — she is being analyzed and she must confess. Teaching is showing; it is to show. This requires that the teacher must expose herself in order to show. This is daunting.

Barthes also tells us that “…for the teacher, the student audience is still the exemplary Other in that it has an air of not speaking — and thus, from the bosom of its apparent flatness, speaks in you so much the louder: its implicit speech, which is mine, touches me all the more in that I am not encumbered by its discourse… Whether the teacher speaks or whether the listener urges the right to speak, in both cases we go straight to the analytic couch: the teaching relationship is nothing more than the transference it institutes; ‘science’, ‘method’, ‘knowledge’, ‘idea’ come indirectly, are given in addition — they are left-overs.”

Which means that what is left – over, what is assumed to be the implicit subject of a course or a lesson, is not, in fact, what is primarily going on in a classroom. What then is the primary act in the classroom? What’s going on?

If the teacher is the person on the couch being analyzed, the student is the analysant. Thus, the primary act of any classroom is to create an emotional space that is safe and sound because teachers and students must negotiate their interdependence at an emotional level. Teachers and students must sense that their emotional lives are growing, maturing, coming out, slowly. This is never obvious in tests, assessments, questions about a given equation or theme of a book, but rather, this emotive learning comes out in slight gestures — how a question is asked by a student, the silences and the reluctance to speak, how she raises her hand, where the student sits in proximity to the teacher and others, and so on.

But for the teacher, in her role as the speaker, there is a decision to be made: how close do I want to get to the student?  As the teacher analyzes her position in the academy, she is likewise forced to analyze her relationship to her students. This, too, is an ongoing analysis, an emotional inquiry into the self that asks the teacher to consider who she is and how she wants to represent the left-overs Barthes talks about — the science, the methods, knowledge and ideas. So the first challenge of the teacher is how to perform herself, who she is and what she stands for.

In popular culture, we have two distinct models for teachers, accurately represented in Dead Poets Society and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The first is made obvious by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society:

This is the teacher that has a deep social concern for the souls of students; this is the teacher that understands that self-actualization is why s/he is in teaching; and this is the teacher that understands that s/he must stand against the institution that exists to ensure that the conveyor belt to labor, and that the socioeconomic stratification of society, remains constant.

This romantic figure, a Quixote waving at the windmills of conformity, is reified but discarded; s/he is honored in song and story, but pushed aside and repressed, seen as dangerous to society’s appetite for the status quo.

In 1976, another romantic figure-teacher, Mina Shaughnessy, wrote the classic essay, “Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing.” In this essay, Shaughnessy says that when we speak about teaching, we already assume that the only person that has to do some moving in the classroom is the student; we assume that the teacher is stationary and doesn’t have to move anywhere, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. This assumption is dangerous and contradicts what Barthes suggests is the place of the teacher.

This gives us another figure of the teacher in popular culture, quite beautifully played by Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:

This teacher, according to Shaughnessy’s developmental scale for teachers — there are 4 stages — is stuck in what she calls GUARDING THE TOWER: the teacher is concentrating on protecting the tower, including himself / herself, from “outsiders, those who do not seem to belong in the community of learners.” Many teachers are stuck here, particularly those intent on following their Power Point presentations obsessively, even reading from them, making no contact with students:

In the second stage, CONVERTING THE NARRATIVE, the teacher, says Shaughnessy, wants to get closer to her students. But, unfortunately, the learner is seen as an “empty vessel.” Here, “Learning is thought of not so much as a constant and often troubling reformulation of the world so as to encompass new knowledge but as a steady flow of truth into a void.” Of course, this is extraordinarily damaging to the teacher-student relationship and there’s a greater void that’s maintained: the self, the teacher’s and the student’s, does not delve deeper into the profound human questions of our time — What? How? Where? When? Why?

But a sensitive teacher, upon realizing that students are not responding, baffled, says Shaughnessy, arrives at the third stage: SOUNDING THE DEPTHS. Here, the teacher not only turns to her students, but to himself as well, seeking a deeper understanding of his behavior. This a harrowing turn. It is deeply emotional because the teacher questions her motives, her intent, her reason for doing what she’s doing, from method to her purpose in the Education System.

After much frustration, existing in stages 1 and 2, Glenn Ford, working through stage 3, reaches his students in the classic Blackboard Jungle — and moves closer to Robin Williams’ representation of the teacher (stay with the clip, the pay-off is at the end):

Finally, stage 4, DIVING IN. This is the most taxing and the most dangerous because, as Shaughnessy suggests, the teacher must make a decision that “demands professional courage — the decision to remediate himself, to become a student of new disciplines and of his students themselves in order to perceive both their difficulties and their incipient excellence.” We see this at the end of the Blackboard Jungle as colleagues question Ford’s methods — but one volunteers to go down this road with him. The message is clear: DIVING IN can affect others in the community, as well.

But lurking close behind this image is still Dead Poets Society: Robin Williams is dismissed; in the interim, a boy commits suicide because he cannot do what he feels he needs to do. He is punished for having passion, for loving the arts, so he feels trapped, in a cell, which then doubles for the cell of the teacher and the claustrophobia students feel when they’re unable to pursue their imaginations. This is the message of Blackboard Jungle: stimulate the mind and the imagination will do the rest. Active use of the imagination can change a society because it changes people, one at a time. It’s infectious.

This is exhausting for the teacher. In other professions — medicine, the law, psychiatry — there are support groups for professionals. In the Education System, the teacher must seek solace on her own — in Montauk, perhaps, or an email to a colleague. There is no support, just more challenges, more obstacles, more demands — and we deny the emotional life of the teacher, supplanting it with regimentation, standardization, homogeneity. We, in fact, reject the notion that teachers have emotional lives, which means we reject the idea that students do too. We are comforted by looking at the student from the head up, not the whole person. We think we can teach by numbers. We forget that a teacher’s move from stage 1 to stage 4 is an emotional one. The repression of the teacher’s emotional needs suggests that education is not interested in educating the entire being, rather it is keen on stunting growth, evolution.

A teacher, as she enters the classroom to give it voice, needs students; this is an emotional journey towards mutual self-actualization that needs various forms of support — psychological and emotional, as well as professional, the art and the science of teaching. Institutionally, K-16, we reject the art, the sensual life of the teacher, which is why we’re in the state we’re in. In rejecting this side of the teacher’s life, we reject her students, too. Thus we educate by rejection, oppression and punishment.  Where are we going?

To teach, as I’ve said above, is to show; to show is not to indoctrinate, rather it’s to give information while also teaching methods by which to understand, analyze and question information. The aim of the teacher is to teach to think, to doubt, to ask questions. Don’t judge students by their answers, answers are not the truth. Students — and teachers — seek a truth that is relative. For this sensual classroom to blossom, the obstacles that currently exist that keep teachers from meaningful self-actualization have to be removed.

Impede the teacher, silence the students — and we have our world.

Is this really what we want?

The Location of Newark in the New World Order: Privatization and its Discontents

I. Newark and the New World Order

Newark is a microcosm of what’s happening across the United States. The city is being isolated by privatization efforts from the rest of America and people are struggling and suffering.  Politicians — Governor Christie and Newark Mayor Corey Booker, his foil — are merely mouthpieces for this effort, though they speak the language of inclusion. But Newark is being disseminated, nevertheless. In this Orwellian nightmare, the children — as they are in war — are the most vulnerable and suffering the most.

The unraveling of civil liberties and social justice is evident in the latest confusion — and fight — about the Facebook donation to Newark’s schools. This is an example of a long history of dissemination in Newark. It’s the same old story, one that Newark — and other cities like Newark — have experienced before. On one side of the equation, we have Booker telling Oprah that he’ll include Newark’s parents in the decision making process; on the other we have parents feeling alienated and concerned with Booker’s appointment of Chris Cerf as the a new acting state commissioner of Education, the top post. Cerf heads a commission to double the Zuckerberg donation (they’ve already raised $43 million). Cerf is also a founding partner of a consulting firm for school districts. This is what we use to call carpetbagging, a derogatory term, suggesting opportunism and exploitation from outsiders. The feeling in Newark is that Cerf’s approach appears to be a for-profit enterprise, particularly if we take a look at Cerf’s peers that include a venture capitalist and hedge fund managers. This follows a general trend, incorporated by Governor Christie, to put private firms in charge of under-performing schools in Camden, NJ.

What is happening in Newark around education — again a powerful example of inverted totalitarianismis the result of a history of neglect. This is a history replete with structural changes, some racist, some not, that have, nevertheless, resulted in the disenfranchisement and isolation of an entire city and its citizens. These structural forces run together with cultural forces that contribute to racial inequality. The latest confusion and battle about the Facebook donation to Newark’s schools is yet another example of how the structural and cultural forces that contribute to racial inequality are exploited for — and by — an elite few. Now, though, tragically so, this too involves black politicians that use race for personal gain. This is not new, but it has now taken on an extraordinarily powerful force — it is subtle and dastardly, it is, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva suggests in his book Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, a “strange enigma.”

II. From Newark’s Riots to the New World Order

People emigrated to Newark to find the Promised Land – Puerto Ricans, Italians, Albanians, Irish, Spaniards, Jamaicans, Haitians, Mexicans, West Africans, Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Trinidadians and Portuguese all came with hope looking for new horizons.

Newark is New Jersey’s largest and second-most diverse city, after neighboring Jersey City.  Just eight miles west of Manhattan and two miles north of Staten Island, Newark was founded in 1666 by Connecticut Puritans; it was a model American city until the end of World War II.

In 1922, the “Four Corners” – meaning the intersection of Market and Broad – was the busiest intersection in the United States.  It served as a regional center of retail commerce, anchored by four flourishing department stores: Hahne & Company, L. Bamberger and Company, L.S. Plaut and Company, and Kresge’s.  New skyscrapers were built every year, the two tallest being the 40-story Art Deco National Newark Building and the Lefcourt-Newark Building.  But then tax laws began rewarding the building of new factories in outlying areas rather than rehabilitating the city’s old factories – the allure of short term profit versus the benefits of long term thinking, a familiar American story.  Newark lost its sources of revenue, and it has not been the same since.

Several forces in America began reshaping the concentration of populations, adversely affecting African Americans by denying the opportunity to move from segregated inner-city neighborhoods, William Julius Wilson, the Harvard sociologist, tells us in More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City:

As separate political jurisdiction, suburbs [also] exercised a great deal of autonomy through covenants and deed restrictions. In the face of mounting pressure for integration in the 1960’s, ‘suburbs chose to diversify by race rather than by class. They retained zoning and other restrictions that allowed only affluent blacks (and in some instances Jews) to enter, thereby intensifying the concentration of the urban poor.’

As the population of blacks grew in the North, as did housing demands, there was more of an emphasis on keeping blacks out of communities. These were structural conditions setting up urban poverty. Adding to the housing problem economic forces were also at work. “In other words,” says Wilson, “the relationship between technology and international competition [has] eroded the basic institutions of the mass production system…These global economic transformations have adversely affected the competitive position of many US Rust Belt cities. For example, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh perform poorly on employment growth, an important traditional measure of economic performance.”

Jobs left Newark for suburban tax breaks. Historically — structurally speaking — racist housing practices, globalization (science and technology and the gravitation towards cheap labor) and the move out of the inner city of qualified workers gutted the infrastructure of Newark. Newark lost its tax base; its revenue flew to the suburbs where blacks were not allowed. This reality is most evident in the abandoned buildings and empty lots of Newark; it’s evident in the lack of infrastructure support — hospitals, competitive schools, playgrounds, the lack of police protection and the dismantling of city (and state) workers and their unions. This is ongoing, case in point is the Facebook conflict. Wilson is also instructive here:

Two of the most visible indicators of neighborhood decline are abandoned buildings and vacant lots. According to one recent report, there are 60,000 abandoned and vacant properties in Philadelphia, 40,000 in Detroit, and 26,000 in Baltimore. These inner-city properties have lost residents in the wake of the out-migration of more economically mobile families, and the relocation of many manufacturing industries.

In the seminal study, The New Geography, by Joel Kotkin, we learn that, “The more technology frees us from the tyranny of place and past affiliation, the greater the need for individual places to make themselves more attractive.” But this is an impossibility when there is no revenue. There is no reason to believe that cities, as we know them, will survive these changes — they may not (see also here).

By 1966, then, Newark had a black majority and was experiencing the fastest turnover than most other northern cities.

Evaluating the riots of 1967, Newark educator Nathan Wright, Jr., Episcopalian minister, scholar and poet, the author of 18 books, and a leading advocate of the black power movement said, “No typical American city has as yet experienced such a precipitous change from a white to a black majority.”

At the height of the civil rights movement, Nathan Wright, Jr., was working in the Department of Urban Work of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. In his Introduction to Ready to Riot, a sociological analysis of the conditions in black ghettos that led to the 1967 rebellions, Wright described the fear of his wife Barbara, a daycare worker, and their 17-year-old daughter, as they drove into central Newark on the second night of what he called “civic rebellion.”

“There was an air of expectancy but not of anger,” Reverend Wright tells us.  “Barbara and Bunky (his wife and daughter) locked themselves in the car and I stepped onto the sidewalk …Almost immediately there was chaos.  The liquor store was ransacked.  Men ran by with bottles of liquor in their hands and under their arms…With a sound of thunder the large plate-glass window of the bank, just a few feet from our car, was broken.  Mrs. Wright and Bunky were in near terror.”

It was July of 1967 and the disturbances spread quickly to other black urban areas.  The National Conference on Black Power was about to convene in Newark, with Dr. Wright as the organizer and chairperson. One of the first major undertakings of the black power movement, the conference brought 1,100 delegates to Newark from 42 cities and 197 black organizations. It called for blacks to build an economic power base with a “Buy Black” campaign, for the establishment of black national holidays and black universities, and broached the topic of black separatism. The conference marked a change in the civil rights movement from demanding individual rights to group solidarity. Dr. Wright was at the pinnacle of his political influence. (It’s also important to note that prior to 1967, Malcolm X, in the mid to late 50’s, as described in the new biography by Manning Marable, A Life of Reinvention, was already following a separatist agenda, advocating for black run businesses, schools, institutions).

The 1967 Newark riots – between July 12 and July 17, 1967 – were six days of rioting, looting and destruction.   Many African-Americans, especially younger community leaders, felt they had remained largely disenfranchised in Newark despite the fact that Newark became one of the first majority black cities in America alongside Washington, D.C..  “Seen as a society boxed into frustration,” Reverend Wright says in Ready to Riot, “the city as a whole may be said to have an ill-tempered tendency toward repression on the one hand and aggression on the other.”  Local African-American residents felt powerless and disenfranchised and felt they had been largely excluded from meaningful political representation and often suffered police brutality; unemployment, poverty, and concerns about low-quality housing contributed to the tinderbox.

“In the mind of the distraught black community there was a growing sense of frustration, brutality, and repression,” said Wright.  Are we at this point, again?

The riots are often cited as a major factor in the decline of Newark and its neighboring communities; however, the actual factors include decades of racial, economic, and political forces that generated inner city poverty, which helped spark race riots across America in the 1960s. By the 1960s and ’70s, as industry fled Newark, so did the white middle class, leaving behind a poor population.  During this same time, the population of many suburban communities in northern New Jersey expanded rapidly.

The remnants of legalized discrimination that brought about the riots have left their mark on Newark, the poor and the very poor, and the young people among them without a community to sustain them.   For sustainability to be successful, nourishment and the necessities of life are the ground floor – the peace President Obama spoke about in Oslo. “It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security,” said President Obama. “It is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive,” he said in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, December 11, 2009. But in Newark the self-destruction that accompanies the psychologically oppressive weight of poverty and hopelessness – unemployment twice as high as in white communities, higher crimes, mortgage defaults that tract higher, and the malaise and pessimism that only benefits liquor stores and drug dealers – holds people from below and drags them down.  This is not the path to freedom. It remains, as it did in 1967, a path to destruction.

“The dark ghettos are social, political, educational, and – above all – economic colonies,” wrote Kenneth Clark back in 1965 in his seminal work, Dark Ghetto.  “Their inhabitants are subject peoples,” he wrote, “victims of greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters.” Has anything changed?

III. Newark and the New World Order — Tomorrow’s Promises

The confusing dilemma around the Zuckerberg Facebook 100 million dollars to improve Newark schools is the result of this structural-cultural history. One of the most dastardly cultural results is that Governor Christie and Mayor Booker believe that the citizens of Newark — and the citizens of poor communities in New Jersey — cannot be trusted to re-build their communities. They are completely left out of the equation. If there is going to be rebuilding, it’s going to be outsourced. We see the reality of this already. This perspective and attitude figures largely in a myth about poverty and the inner-city.We must again turn to Wilson for a cogent explanation:

…there is a widespread notion in America that the problems plaguing people in the inner city have little to do with racial discrimination or the effects of living in segregated poverty. For many Americans, the individual and the family bear the main responsibility for their low social and economic achievement in society. If unchallenged, this view may suggest that cultural traits are the root of problems experienced by the ghetto poor.

We have to challenge this perspective. It’s held quite obviously by Christie and Booker — this is why we see the problem with the Facebook money; this is also why we see the complete dismantling of all services in Newark and New Jersey proper, if we look at the poorer communities. Don’t let color fool you, Booker is first a politician — and politicians are always about changing color.

Finally, Homi K. Bhabha, in his by now classic The Location of Culture, gives us a warning shot across the bow:

The recesses of the domestic space become sites for history’s most intricate invasions. In that displacement, the borders between home and world become confused; and, uncannily, the private and the public become part of each others, forcing upon us a vision that is as divided as it is disorienting.

That we are disoriented, is obvious. That we are also divided, this too is quite evident, particularly when black politicians further the alienation we sense. And the fact that the private and the public are one and the same, something that Cornel West has also argued long ago, further confuses our sense of place, our histories.

Who are we?  Who and what do we want to be?  Who decides?

We have us to blame in all this, the malaise we’re in, though we’re quick to blame political figures. We have us to blame because we don’t examine ourselves, locating ourselves in this history of oppression that is quite readily available to us for our critique. As I’ve said before, just the other day in a post, I’m merely one voice — among many, I believe — who see these things like, nevertheless, I relegated to  the shadows, the boundaries of culture, to use Bhabha, again,  marginalized and disenfranchised l, and thus speaking only into silences.