Brats

Foucault sweater polo

Rod Macdonald was a brilliant mind, a warm, often generous mentor, and a charming man. One of the things he taught me is that, when you are smart, well-educated, charming in your own way—and, I suppose, if we are to be honest with our typology, when you are a man—avoiding hagiography, and by the same lights, preventing admiration from turning into discipleship, required finding ways to keep people at a distance, ways to compensate for the charm.

It seems to me that Foucault’s strategy was the same as Rod’s: if you want to ensure that the enfant terrible is not appointed under protest as leader of a movement, one can simply be childish. If you want people to take your seriously, but not too seriously, act like a brat. Viz (translation in hover text):

Je voudrais que mes livres soient une sorte de tool-box dans lequel les autres puissent aller fouiller pour y trouver un outil avec lequel ils pourraient faire ce que bon leur semble, dans leur domaine. L’ Histoire de la folie, je l’ai écrite un peu à l’aveuglette, dans une sorte de lyrisme dû à des expériences personnelles. Je suis attaché à ce livre, bien sûr, parce que je l’ai écrit, mais aussi parce qu’il a servi de tool-box à des personnes différentes les unes des autres, comme les psychiatres de l’antipsychiatrie britannique, comme Szasz aux États-Unis, comme les sociologues en France : ils l’ont fouillé, ont trouvé un chapitre, une forme d’analyse, quelque chose qui leur a servi ultérieurement.

Les Mots et les Choses, au fond, est un livre qui est beaucoup lu, mais peu compris. Il s’adressait aux historiens des sciences et aux scientifiques, c’était un livre pour deux mille personnes. Il a été lu par beaucoup plus de gens, tant pis. Mais, à certains scientifiques, comme Jacob, le biologiste prix Nobel, il a servi. Jacob a écrit La Logique du vivant; il y avait des chapitres sur l ‘histoire de la biologie, sur le fonctionnement du discours biologique, sur la pratique biologique, et il m’a dit qu’il s’est servi de mon livre. Le petit volume que je voudrais écrire sur les systèmes disciplinaires, j’aimerais qu’il puisse servir à un éducateur, à un gardien, à un magistrat, à un objecteur de conscience. Je n’écris pas pour un public, j’écris pour des utilisateurs, non pas pour des lecteurs.

This short quotation, of course, provides a delicious example of his strategy (“Il a été lu par beaucoup plus de gens, tant pis”–what an asshole! what a brat!), while demonstrating, if one takes its key thrust about how he hoped his work on discipline and governance might be put to use and holds it up to the light of most the literature that subsequently drew on his work, just how unsuccessful that strategy was.

Learning and Meta-Learning

Over at Tomorrow’s Professor, an excerpt from a book on ePortfolios (for the unnaturally curious, the book is Documenting Learning with ePortfolios: A Guide for College Instructors):

ePortfolios…allow learners to make connections among varied learning experiences and transfer knowledge and skills to new contexts and situations. This approach, particularly when it capitalizes on the features of ePortfolios together with a culture of folio thinking, can promote deep and integrative learning. For students, however, the value of ePortfolios and folio thinking may be unclear. Students may initially assume that the use of ePortfolios in a course or program is simply a new and faddish approach to teaching and learning. Indeed, without effectively communicating the purpose of ePortfolios and the benefits that ePortfolios are intended to produce for them, students may resist the approach, thereby making it challenging for them to really capitalize on those benefits.

This is a challenging issue. In my experience of the university setting, students often come to learning experiences with preconceptions both about what they are supposed to be learning, and about how they should best be taught those things. The solution presented here is to show your cards: make pedagogical methods explicit.

The difficulty of framing is that an entire level of learning gets lost. It may be true that students who are told how something will add to their knowledge-base or skill-set will overcome their “resistance” and allow them to “capitalize” on a learning technique. Yet being so explicit allows them to be smug in their presumption that they know how learning works, and how teachers should teach, informed, more often than not, by what Paul Freire called the banking model of education.”

Freire’s point, in his critique of this model, was partially that one should not view the teacher and the student as polar opposites, with the student as an empty vessel and the teacher as a the holder of knowledge with gets ‘desposited’ in the learners. On a substantive level, his argument implied that both teacher and students are learners, that both have knowledge to share, that education should aim to combine that knowledge in a mutual learning process. Fine: but if I want to learn Portoguese, then its likely that I am going to find a teacher who has more relevant knowledge than I do.

His criticism also has an implication about the process of learning. Education is not a mechanical process; I cannot, in fact, put my knowledge directly into your brain, techno-utopian fantasy notwithstanding. Rather, learning is necessarily active. I can tell you something – say, the definition of GDP – but your ability to remember it will depend on what you do when I tell you; on whether you are writing it down when I am talking; on what you are using to write it down; on how soon you return to it after first hearing it. My sense is that the best way to really learn the definition of GDP is to be forced to use it in practice, or to reflect on its meaning: why is it defined this way? Why does the result of this calculation matter? What would be wrong with other calculations? How else might we have tried to capture this information? How do we measure this aggregate in practice? I would argue, even further, that the definition of GDP only becomes useful once a person can provide answers to these questions. Memorizing the definition might get you marks on a test; only your ability to think about it in context will make you a better economist.

Telling someone how a process or technique is supposed to aid their learning treats becoming a better learner (“meta-learning”) as a passive, rather than an active process. Learning itself is a skill, and like all skills, it is only sharpened and refined through practice. Telling students what contribution ePortfolios might make to learning therefore ignores both elements of Freire’s insight: first, it assumes that the teacher knows exactly what contribution the process might make to the student’s competence as a learner and that this knowledge is simply transferred to the student; second, it does not require students to use this knowledge, and is almost sure to be ineffective at making them better learners. In other words, it may convince students to use ePortfolios, but it will not make them better learners.

The reality is, the best way to increase student learning competence is for them to be reflectively engaged in the learning process; to constantly push them to think about how they learn best, to consider what they might learn from a given experience, to adopt practices which maximize their own learning, to experiment with alternatives, to ask better questions. In other words, it requires departing from a simple image of education as a service that universities provide to students, and recognize that education is work which requires creativity, thought, engagement and participation by students.

Demystifying “Digital Literacy”

Over at her New York Times blog, Virginia Heffernan quotes some pretty hyperbolic claims about the future of work in the United States, inter alia, that 65% of jobs which will be held by today’s grade-school kids will be unrecognizable to us – though admittedly, the claim may turn on what how exacting a standard of ‘recognizable’ we apply. Any exaggeration is due to from Cathy Davidson, a Duke scholar who research focuses include the impact of technology on learning and higher education, whose new book, Now You See It turns on questions of attention and technology in learning.

What’s most hopeful, and surprising, about the collection of findings Heffernan cribs from Now You See It:

Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.

That finding has now been quoted hundreds of times by bloggers, some presumably delighted that their particular medium, often the target of neo-luddite laments regarding the prospects for digital-age literacy, shows real promise as a mode of written communication (at least, it should be noted, among engaged top-tier undergrads).

The implications are more complex. A friend, now completing her PhD in rhetoric at the University of Waterloo, had intended to investigate the process by which students learn academic practices related to the use of sources. Yet one of the key lessons of her research is just how poorly most undergraduate assignments are designed. At best, such assignments – generally in the form of the poorly defined ‘review paper’ – require students to practice skills which will be useful to them neither in “the real world” nor in the academic practice of the professor who is teaching the class.

At first, Heffernan uses these and other results drawn from Davidson’s book to take somewhat arbitrary potshots at Tom Pynchon and Michael Ritchie’s film The Candidate. Of course, attacking the content of critique and analysis in the undergraduate classroom is, of course, somewhat beside the point. Luckily, at the end of her post, Heffernan gets back on point, suggesting that higher education should be tied into the task of improving, not deriding, digital literacy. What my friend’s research highlights is that this is not simply a matter of insufficient room for collaboration, “web accountability” or multimedia savvy: instead, improving learning outcomes may be simply a matter of designing assignments which allow students to write in a register which seems – and is – relevant: like writing a blog post.