The title sort of sums it up. A certain time, age, history. Looking backwards as much as at now. Generational difference, wearisomeness, frustration. It isn’t about Gen Y rubbish, that’s just my generation blaming the youngsters for the world we made for them.
I have stepped in to coordinate a first year compulsory media subject known as ‘network media‘. The original curriculum I wrote probably eight years ago, taught it once or twice back in the day, and returning to it though in a rather outsider, hands off sort of way. Except turns out lectures weren’t factored in, and everyone (except me) thought I’d be doing them. So I’ve proposed that we ditch lectures, and no, they’re not that flipped nonsense (flipped is a nice idea but if students won’t come to a lecture because they can’t see the use, why on earth are they going to watch, read, do something else in their own time, and I like lectures, but that’s another story), but symposia. There are three teachers, and me, so I said we’d sit at the front each week, and talk. In other words, be academics. This hit a bump as a key staff member had to be away for the first three weeks, so week one was me saying all the cool things we’d be doing. Then, as my colleague still had more urgent matters to deal with, week two became a crowd sourced lecture. We distributed sheets of paper, students wrote questions, my two younger colleagues curated and I responded. Yes, it was a default lecture style, but we were making do, which is sort of one of the key themes of the subject (indirectly).
So, one question arrives:
“Why should we come if the content of the lectures is completely irrelevant?”
It was set aside. I collected them all and took them back to my office. But this one, this one sat by my computer on that pile of stuff to be done one day, and gnawed away at me. Yes, it hit a nerve. Yes, it made me squirm, and yes, it made me angry. It was just the smug paucity of the position. So, the following week, after some prefatory material, I warned them it would be a lecture, for most of the time. (We’ve since had our staff member return, held our first unsymposium, to general acclaim from the students.) This is it.
The Reptilian Brain
Fight or flight. There is deep primitive part of the brain that is instinctual, that we don’t control, and if anything it controls us. It is what, when confronted with risk, danger, or something threatening, triggers the deep urge to run, or if running is not much of a viable option, to fight. Some of the posts in your blogs fall into this sort of category, so that when you’re confronted with a subject that refuses to be ‘normal’ and is explicitly describing and asking questions about your learning, your education, the university, and along the way, media and the network, while some are excited by the possibilities, others have lashed out.
The method here in this subject is not better than other subjects, but it is different and rewards and encourages some other things. Some of you will struggle. The fault is not with the system and processes being used, for just as some struggle with highly defined and what I think of as rigid systems (“you didn’t answer the question, though it is great work”, “you introduced a really good idea at the end but it isn’t in the introduction”, “you used ‘I’”, “you used Wikipedia as a source”, and so on) where there are very explicit assessment criteria, and so on) and so have done less well than they are capable of, here they will shine. In other words if you like highly ordered, sequential, defined pathways, (for example your recent experience of VCE where, because it is assessed across the state then for reasons of equity, risk minimisation, standardisation, and being able to accommodate diverse resources, teachers, cohorts, locations and so on, every criteria is very precisely described, and defined and so becomes relatively straight forward to teach to – hence VCE becomes the intense work of drilling) then you might find what we are asking you to do in this subject uncomfortable.
Two things. 1. Learn if this unsettles you now, so you don’t make the mistake of thinking you can work in risky, innovation creative roles in your career as these jobs don’t provide such explicit and clear criteria up front. 2. Realise what you’re strengths are, and please recognise they’re yours, and that because they are now being challenged it does not follow that what is doing the challenging is at fault. If you’re good at order and structure, then, for example, this is what producing requires. And you’re probably the ideal person on a creative team to keep that team on track, and finishing stuff, instead of following their crazy ideas after the next shiny bright thing that passes.
(Here I inserted a bit of a side story about Basil Bernstein’s sociolinguistic work on student access to university in Britain and that free education didn’t much change who got in, simply because the values that the university selects for, the cognitive skill set, are those defined and legitimated by the middle class.)
Another anecdote. Modern education theory is what we call constructivist. This means we understand that knowledge is built, and that learning requires the learner, the student, to do the building. Constructing knowledge means our own contexts, personal, intellectual, social, come to bear and inform our learning and knowledge making. There is no primary or high school teacher who has taught you who has not been trained in constructivist assumptions. This is not the same as having an opinion and that is that. At university you make arguments that are evidence based, and we have rules about what things count as evidence.
Two things should immediately jump out. Knowledge is constructed. You do the constructing. This means knowledge is different to information, and information is really just about all I can give you, in a lecture if I don’t want to risk rich ambiguity, complexity, and saying things that realistically will only sit with those of you that already ‘get’ theory. But we can, here, in this ‘lecture’ model and perform what it is to negotiate, construct, make and work with knowledge. On my side I am in the business, right now, in speaking like this, of constructing knowledge, warts and all, and you get to see it.
The other big consequence of constructivism is that if knowledge is constructed then it varies, it cannot be communicated in a single direction from me or anyone else to you, and so not only is delivering information the wrong way to teach and learn, but the information that could be delivered isn’t actually knowledge as knowledge has to be information transformed, and the transforming needs to be done by you. This is what being a student is. Now, if the personal informs how we construct knowledge then that applies equally to me as to you. In my case it dramatically informs my approach to teaching.
I value knowledge and ideas, that is one of the reasons I work in a university. I regard the university as a knowledge institution, not a trade school. In my family, and here I include cousins, second cousins, uncles, aunties, (I have had 13 uncles and aunties so that is rather a lot of cousins), nieces, nephews and so on, I am the only person, in my family’s entire known history, to have gone to university. As far as I know, I’m the only one to have finished high school. My father, who wanted to be a primary school teacher, was educated to grade six. My mother completed first term of first form as it was known then (year 7).
To me, university is a privilege, not an automatic right. To teach, and to have a career that is premised on the freedom to explore, investigate, and contribute ideas is, for me, an even greater privilege.
This question from last week. Thank you for asking it. It has stayed with me, like a shadow all week. I imagine it was thought to be brave to ask. From your blogs most seem to be figuring out answers to this question, but I think if one person asked it, then there are at least ten wondering it. I am not going to answer this question directly, but I am going to talk to it, which is what this lecture is.
Imagine (speculate, if you like) a job interview. A real job, one you want. You’re short listed because you’ve got outstanding results. You are nervous, anxious, and excited, all at once. You sit opposite an interview panel, almost certainly made up of people who have been to university. You’re asked about this subject, and what you did in it. You explain that in the second lecture everyone had the opportunity to ask a question, any question, and it could be answered. One interviewer, who has been to university too, is a bit shocked. “You mean the lecturer let you ask questions, any questions?” You answer “yep”. “And this lecturer, they’re like a real expert in this stuff?” “So”, says your interviewer, “what did you ask?”. “Oh”, you reply, “I asked why come to the lectures if they’re irrelevant.”
Now, at this moment you should understand that it is unlikely that you will get this job. It won’t really matter what else happens or you say. The interviewer may not ask more about it, but will think about the initiative, imagination, responsibility, respect, vision, and creativity that your question shows. They might ask, in case they’re trying to help you join the dots, “why didn’t you ask a question that made it relevant?”, but they will know if they ask that then you’ll know you’re not getting the job.
Now, I thought that this was what hung around me about this question, why it troubled me so much. How it became an idea–worm squirrelling its way into how I think about the subject and what we, as teachers, are trying to do with you. That we’re not mucking up the model for the sake of it, but to recast how you conceive of yourselves as learners, and to raise the significance of the agency you need to bring, and have responsibility for, as students. But it wasn’t really this that troubled me. It was something more.
I could call this double loop learning, for me [this was a reading from the previous week], as I thought more about where a question like this might come from. I wanted to find the assumptions it relied upon, contained, deep inside. I wanted to bring these to light. No, not even that. I needed to bring them to light.
The question assumes, grants itself, the assumption that you are here to receive and I to give. That if it is not obviously or explicitly ‘relevant’ then it is my responsibility, as a teacher, to ‘fix’ this. That as the teacher I (magically) know what you don’t, so can say just the right things, to all 138 of you, in the same moment, to achieve relevance. (Think about that for a moment. This model can only work where you are all being assessed the same way and things will be standardised. But if the criteria is not that, but to learn, then how on earth do I know what should be said, in a lecture? In other words, what happens if we take learning as our key aim, and not meeting a standardised set of metrics? What to teach, then?) Here your responsibility as a student begins and ends with attending and listening, and when given the opportunity to offer this complaint dressed up as a question. This, in turn, treats what you learn as a one way exchange of my expertise to you, that you’re more or less empty vessels awaiting filling. This is an understanding of learning that disappeared in about 1970, when constructivism came along. It is a model of you, as a student, where you surrender your agency, even as you think you are exercising it, where your point of view of learning reduces the dialogue of knowledge to the spectacle of education as consumption.
This question contains and is the rhetoric of commodity consumption, of the sales assistant and the customer, where “the shoes don’t fit properly so another pair please” (and the shop assistant notes to self that the problem isn’t the shoes, its your feet). So this relation, between me and you, becomes one of passivity on your behalf, where you see yourself as client, or customer, and I’m now some sort of customer service officer as the public ‘face’ of a service institution. In this moment, in this question, your understanding of education, and the university, has turned it into a merely retail transaction. I don’t mean it is about money, I mean the logic of the question, and its assumptions, is retail. Mercantile.
I am not your shop assistant. This is not a mall. You are not my customers.
This confusion isn’t surprising, and isn’t really your fault. It is how most of your high school’s have framed education for you, and quite a lot of you, or your parents, have paid a lot of money to ensure a suitable ATAR score, and in spite of all the rhetoric of high school’s about learning and so on, it is the VCE results that every high school, state and private, is judged by. As a result we are all carefully nurtured and helped in every possible way to maximise those results. Results in exams where every variability (remember model 1?) is precisely defined and governed by detailed and explicit assessment criteria (that runs to tens of pages for examiners and teachers). So in that experience we really are clients or customers, and is certainly how we are treated.
It is also, now, the rhetoric of universities, where you are increasingly defined and regarded as clients, not students, and so as an institution we develop and provide ‘services’ that support you as clients, and in the process diminish your agency and responsibility. (For example, having pages of explanation about plagiarism in every course guide, we pretend it is being student centred and ‘teaching’ you about plagiarism, but it is actually there as risk mitigation so you can’t say ‘I didn’t know’, and we can’t say “we didn’t tell you”. If we were serious about plagiarism we wouldn’t invest in detection platforms, we’d spend time in a first year subject teaching you about academic ethics, professional ethics, and invest in staff development so that the sorts of things we asked and assessed you for don’t really accommodate plagiarism, it isn’t actually that hard.)
(As an aside, obviously, you are all also contributing some of the cost (in most cases about a quarter) of your education through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). However, most of the cost of your education is paid for by the rest of society, because as a society it is considered a good idea to invest in you, as the future of us. To me this means that if you want to play the “I am paying for my education so I am the customer” card then since the rest of country, including those who are excluded from university, are footing most of your bill, you need to acknowledge your obligation to them.)
Though, I don’t think this retail ‘theatre’ is what really has stuck to me about the question. It is that unstated in here, not only is there a passivity and the idea of consumption and some sort of pedagogical unit that is a commodity that can be identified and exchanged – where my job is to provide and you to receive. What troubles me, ethically, is the assumption in the question that this one way transaction is an agreement that we’ve apparently already agreed upon, and the premise for such an assumption is the granting of this right to define relevance, legitimacy, and my labour, to yourself, as an inherent right. That you have the right to receive, to have it packaged in way that doesn’t trouble (is obviously ‘relevant’) and if you feel like you haven’t received, haven’t been given to in the dutifully relevant way, then the obligation, the only obligation, lies with me. Here education and learning (remember constructivism, remember the ambiguous complexity of the world and media that you want to enter?) has been confused not only with a mercantile transaction but with neoliberalism writ large into the small moment of a lecture theatre. The institution of the university, the project of critical thinking, of engagement, of the labour of the academic in knowledge, is made mute and trite because your individual freedom to be the unproblematised student consumer is mistakenly thought to trump the historical institutional episteme of knowledge as a vocation. In this moment, in this understanding, it, my job as a teacher and an academic, the university as a particular sort of institution, and your responsibility as a learner, has become the same thing as that BMW to be purchased.
Education is an experience, not a commodity. Learning is an experience, it is an experience that you have to have, therefore it is not something I have any capacity to give. I can facilitate, help nudge things along, but I can’t flick your neuronal switches to make it happen. You do that. To think otherwise is to confuse going to a club, or joining a dating site, with falling in love. If anything is for sale, it is the possibility for this experience, but an experience is not something I can or will package (for that becomes simply education as entertainment).
You do not buy this and the right you have granted yourself is a right I will not recognise. To be here is a privilege, and it involves reciprocal obligation. These are earned and because they are earned they are respected.
This question is not yet, enough, to earn that privilege.
As teachers what will we do? Instead of lists of specific content we can help you learn where to find these things. More usefully, we can help you to learn how to ask better questions, which generally lead to more useful answers. When reading difficult things rather than us teachers just telling you what it then means why not let us start to teach what to do, when confronted by something we don’t understand?
I’ll wrap this up with one example. This is from one of your blogs, and I apologise if I embarrass you:
This Tuesday morning I had decided that I wasn’t intelligent enough for the University degree that I was enrolled in, (Professional Communication). I had spent the first few hours of my day crying, convinced I would never reach my dream career aspirations. That was it, I was going to head into the city and seek an appointment with a professional in dealing with students that change their minds. I was going to become a primary school teacher instead. Im great with kids!
But then I realised, ok not straight away but the next day, that this was Mode 1. *Lightbulb* I was AFRAID OF ERROR.I thought the easiest way to deal with this problem would be to CHANGE THE QUESTION. I was not going to challenge myself to find a new, better and more efficient way of doing something, I was just going to give up. I can admit to high levels of anxiety and stress … I will stress about the potential of failing before even starting something. But I eventually just sit myself down and get it done… I’m going to continue my degree. If I feel the same way in a year and a half, I can look into teaching, Im sure there will be a good post-grad program out there right?
For me as a teacher I can’t tell you how fantastic that is. No, it isn’t about the network, media, or networked media. It isn’t, say, repeating what I may have said about Internet Protocols and IP numbers and packets and how that is the technical backbone of the internet. That’s on Wikipedia. And will be forgotten except for those that it might matter to (who probably know it already). But this is something that has been learned, will never be forgotten, and will slowly change a lot for this person. They are learning how to be something. This has happened for this person in two weeks, this subject is about learning how to be on, in, a part of a network. A network that is about flow, dialogue, exchange, and reciprocation. All the way down. It’s already happening, in your blogs, in your classes, and in your choosing to come here, but it is only the third week, you do have to let it grow.