How To Reclaim Pedagogy?

... Iuvenetus Summus! by Flickr user Poldavo (Alex)
"... Iuvenetus Summus!" by Flickr user Poldavo (Alex)

Andrea Jarrell drew my attention to a piece in yesterday’s Washington Post by former Howard Dean Internet wunderkind Zephyr Teachout.

Both newspapers and universities have traditionally relied on selling hard-to-come-by information. Newspapers touted advertising space next to breaking news, but now that advertisers find their customers on Craigslist and Cars.com, the main source of reporters’ pay is vanishing. Colleges also sell information, with a slightly different promise — a degree, a better job and access to brilliant minds. As with newspapers, some of these features are now available elsewhere. A student can already access videotaped lectures, full courses and openly available syllabuses online. And in five or 10 years, the curious 18- (or 54-) year-old will be able to find dozens of quality online classes, complete with take-it-yourself tests, a bulletin board populated by other “students,” and links to free academic literature. . . .

Because the current college system, like the newspaper industry, has built-in redundancies, new Internet efficiencies will lead to fewer researchers and professors. . . . [A]t noon on any given day, hundreds of university professors are teaching introductory Sociology 101. The Internet makes it harder to justify these redundancies. In the future, a handful of Soc. 101 lectures will be videotaped and taught across the United States. When this happens — be it in 10 years or 20 — we will see a structural disintegration in the academy akin to that in newspapers now. The typical 2030 faculty will likely be a collection of adjuncts alone in their apartments, using recycled syllabuses and administering multiple-choice tests from afar.

So how should we think about this? Students who would never have had access to great courses or minds are already able to find learning online that was unimaginable in the last century.

I reproduced a fair amount of the piece because I believe it is an important point to grasp fully. The institutional structures of academe are poised to undergo profound upheavals. This is due to a confluence of social forces, not the least of which is the general shift to a citizen-centric world in which people demand that institutions and organizations conform to their priorities and needs, not vice-versa.

Just as with the journalism world, we do not yet know exactly how this will play out, though we can sense the general contours. It’s possible that the education of the future will be deeply self-directed, as Teachout describes.

However, most of our prognostications are still rooted in what we believe people need or want from institutions. For instance, the above vision of college presupposes that people come to campus to seek “a degree, a better job and access to brilliant minds” from higher education. Certainly, people do seek those things.

However, like many institutions, there’s something more that people get that they sometimes do not realize they are getting. These elements often go overlooked in our talks about the future.

In the case of newspapers, it is (among other things) serendipity and an editorial eye: There are editors concerned with making sure I have the opportunity to see things I might not have seen otherwise, and overall ensuring there is consistent quality.

In the case of universities, the “more” may be a pedagogy rooted in a day-in, day-out experience. This is left out of many discussions of what higher education might “look like” as the future unfolds. Our conversations typically assume that a “student” is really a “consumer” of education.

But the pedagogy of campus does not just impart knowledge. It imparts practice, too. It forges habits of thought and attitude. It creates students. Many of the methods that higher education uses are ones that people might not seek out if they can pick and choose their program at will — just as an example, many core course requirements.

Where, then, will people seeking education find this pedagogy? Like many things that used to be taught earlier, maybe they’ll be taken to the workplace. For many people, their first encounter with someone telling them “no” is in their first job. Similarly, in a world where people create their own education, it may be that the first time people really learn how to organize their thoughts across subjects (which is the kind of thing many professional settings require) is in the workplace.

This suggests to me that the role of mentorship — or apprenticeship — will only grow in importance. Managers already know they often need to jump-start new employees. They may need to devote even more thought to first-year experiences.

But in what other ways can we convey habits that require practice over time, sometimes over the in-the-moment objections of our subjects? This has been one of the roles of some institutions in public life. With what will we replace them?

Memory Of 9/11, From A Distance

I recall I was at LAX, on my way home to Maine. Our flight was being held, no one on the plane knew why. Shortly it became clear that something terrible had happened. Air traffic was grounded for the ensuing week. So many were far more deeply affected than I was. Friends of mine lost loved ones, and they remember this day with emotions ranging from bitterness to hope. But this time has meaning to me, as well, because of my experiences while waiting in LA for a chance to get back home.

Westin Bonaventure Hotel by Flickr user AndrewGorden
“Westin Bonaventure Hotel” by Flickr user AndrewGorden

My Los Angeles hotel had been near the airport, but I moved downtown, as I reasoned that LAX might be a follow-up target. Many people were making similar calculations and changing plans. The Westin Bonaventure Hotel became a little outpost for a few days, as those of us who were stranded wandered the many lobbies, collecting around the televisions that had been set up strategically.

I worked for an organization with a weekly online newsletter. They asked me to talk to people to see how they were reacting, and I filed a report the next week.

Here’s an excerpt:

There was foreboding this week in Los Angeles. Three of the four hijacked planes were bound for Los Angeles International Airport. While that fact appeared to have nothing to do with Los Angeles specifically, there was almost a sense of guilt pervading the town. . . . It was hard not to find someone personally affected by the terrorist acts in some way. Yet the responses I heard were measured and thoughtful. In a town so intensely focused on presentation and image, where even the bail bondsmen have a keen marketing savvy (billboard downtown: “Bad Boy Bail Bonds: Because your mama wants you home”), even the anger had a quiet deliberation to it. . . .

I can remember once, shortly after the Persian Gulf War, I was listening to a talk radio station in Los Angeles, where I used to live. I was almost blown out of my seat by the extreme, angry words of one of the callers, who railed at the racial inferiority of Arabs, sprinkling his invective with creative epithets. The host let him go on at length. I lost my stamina before he did, switching stations. The intensity of the tirade had shaken me, and I feared for the state of the world — mostly because the host and nearly every caller were in complete agreement. I saw visions of government internment camps.

Some see that the role of government is to help us to be more than vigilantes. At a time when revenge can be foremost in the minds of citizens, some see a need for moral leadership from elected officials — to remind us of the values we share as humans, to remind us to avoid blanket condemnations and faith-based profiling. . . . Certainly justice will need to be done, and those responsible for the attack on the United States will need to be punished. But we will also need to take care to remember that the perpetrators are responsible for these acts because they are terrorists, not because they believe in the prophet Mohammed. Thankfully, in the midst of anger and the lust for revenge, there are those who seek understanding and balance.

Thank you to The Institute For Global Ethics, in 2001, for giving me the space to write this piece, which you can read in full here.

Trapped Girls Seek Rescue On Facebook

IMG_0420 bu Flickr user abbybatchelder
"IMG_0420" bu Flickr user abbybatchelder

Recently two Australian girls trapped in a storm drain in Adelaide chose to update their Facebook statuses with please for help rather than dial the local equivalent of 911. This has local officials worried, according to a spokesperson in the ABC News article:

“If they were able to access Facebook from their mobile phones, they could have called 000 [the local equivalent of 911], so the point being they could have called us directly and we could have got there quicker than relying on someone being online and replying to them and eventually having to call us via 000 anyway.”

This is a good example of what John Creighton and I see as a shift from an institution-centric world to a citizen-centric world. Public leaders can no longer expect citizens to act in ways that are convenient to instituions. Citizens instead expect institutions to conform to their needs.

However, not many public institutions have caught up to this fact. So, for example, the Adelaide, Australian emergency services office is “worried” that the girls did not use the right phone number.

It may be that, instead, citizens ought to be worried that the emergency services office has no way of monitoring a communications channel that is increasingly ubiquitous.

Indeed, the channel is so ubiquitous that citizens are forced to create workarounds to compensate for the failings of the official mechanism, as in this episode of which social media news site Mashable reminds us:

[I]n Atlanta, Georgia in May 2009, a councilman was concerned that his cellphone battery would be flat by the time a 911 call connected. Instead, he Tweeted: “Need a paramedic on corner of John Wesley Dobbs and Jackson st. Woman on the ground unconscious. Pls ReTweet”.

This is one example of room for improvement when it comes to public instituions. Instead of trying to “educate” citizens to use the “correct” means of calling for help, perhaps public leaders ought to devote efforts to making sure there is a listening mechanism set up across the spectrum of daily-use communications platforms, not just one.

Questions On The Occasion Of A Presidential Address

Just to be clear: I regard it as a glorious thing that the president plans to address students in schools directly. The controversy that has brewed over whether this is indoctrination seems ill-founded. President Obama is not trying to control the thoughts of our young ones. He’s using the bully pulpit to urge them to take their education seriously, and to stay in school. More presidents should take such steps.

However, a closer look at the hue and cry over the speech is in order. While it may be that the underlying driver for the folks who have called for a national keep-you-child-home-from-school day could be dislike of President Obama specifically, the initial flap was over lesson plans that the Department of Education distributed along with its announcement of the talk.

The pushback was so intense that new lesson plans were developed that were designed to settle any fears that teachers would use the classroom time to promote President Obama specifically (as opposed to the office of the President of the United States generally).

New Classroom by Flickr user Editor B
"New Classroom" by Flickr user Editor B

Curious, I took a look at the lesson plans (pdf). To be honest, I can see the critics’ point, even with the new version, which includes questions such as “Are we able to do what President Obama is asking of us?” The document overall reads as if it were written from a standpoint of adulation of this specific president — one is hard pressed to imagine a similar document being written if it were George W. Bush making the same address, or, for that matter, Bill Clinton.

I can overlook that, however, even while I understand the misgivings some people may have.

A Missed Civic Opportunity

What has the civic side of me hopping mad, however, is what a missed opportunity this is. The Department of Education, in creating a lesson plan that encourages students to think of “What is the president trying to tell me?” and “What is the president asking me to do?” is squandering the chance to create a collective moment in which students are asked to think civically and not personally.

Here are some questions I would rather our nation’s students consider, on the occasion of a presidential address to the classrooms of America:

  • In what ways is education important? Is it important for everybody or just for some people?
  • How are we doing throughout our community when it comes to young people and education?
  • How can we work together so everyone has the best chance to learn as much as they can? What would it take to do that?
  • What are some of the things a president could do to help everyone learn? What are some of the things we can do together? How about in families?

For most students across the nation, this will be a shared experience — something they all do at the same time. Why not take this time to focus on our obligations and bonds with one another, rather than inwardly on what I am supposed to do to maximize my success?