Doing Critique in K-12: Kim Fortun on Ethnography, Environment, and the EcoEd Research Group

November 17th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

By Beth Reddy and Kim Fortun

Since 2012, the EcoEd Research Group (http://sustainabilityresearch.wp.rpi.edu/k-12-resources/eco-ed-program/) has run over thirty workshops in New York. The group brings faculty and college students (mostly from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) together with K-12 students in collaborative environmental education. EcoEd workshops have focused on green building, environmental photography, and county-level sustainability assessments, among other topics – engaging both the environment and education in new ways.

Dr. Kim Fortun is an anthropologist and professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at RPI, and has been a key participant in the development of EcoEd. I sent her a few simple questions about what EcoEd is up to and how she’s thinking about this kind of work. Her responses, below, touch on issues that won’t be unfamiliar to many CASTAC readers: experiments in ethnography and in the classroom that engage with what Fortun calls “late industrialism” in creative and critical ways.

Fortun: We think through what we have learned about environmental problems – how they play out, the conceptual and cultural challenges they pose – and then try to observe, read about and think through how environmental problems are out of synch with the education and thinking of U.S. kids – so that we can design and deliver K-12 curriculum that speaks to both. It is one way to make ethnographic knowledge “relevant;” it is one of many possible forms of activism.
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Speed-Bump, Meet Knee Defender

October 13th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

Bruno Latour’s Science in Action remains an unparalleled introduction to science studies because of its conversational style and clever use of the conventions of the “how-to” genre. And Latour has other shorter, more pedagogical, articles that show wonderfully how non-living objects are deeply embedded in complex social relations. But I sometimes wonder if his examples–the door-closer, the speed-bump, or sometimes, even the gun — are too simple. I worry about teaching these examples to savvy undergraduates in an introductory STS class. Will they just laugh it off dismissing it as obvious? Will they look at it as philosophy, as a conceptual case, rather than as anthropology? Could there be a more immediate example where the politics is not abstract, but more concrete? Where the students can use the immediacy of their own experience, but also where the stakes are higher?
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Facing the Selfie

June 24th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

Last weekend I had the pleasure of participating in the symposium entitled Face It: Photography, Ethics, and Identity in the Age of the Selfie, which was held at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). The program featured an eclectic mix of voices representing artists and scholars interested in exploring how photographic images blur or highlight the distinctions between authenticity and enactment of identity on social media sites. Of particular interest was exploring the political and ethical obligations and ramifications of a seemingly unabated proliferation of images. « Read the rest of this entry »

What Educates in DIYbio?

May 27th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

The Pedagogical Paradox

Two human inventions can be regarded as the most difficult, — namely, the art of government and that of education; and yet we are still contending among ourselves as to their fundamental nature.

– Immanuel Kant

Kant here is referring to the pedagogical paradox presented by education. This paradox of moral authority most often occurs in the context of schooling: How does education, in the sense of external regulation), lead to the internally regulated autonomy of thought and action? Stated more generally, the pedagogical paradox is assuming the existence of something for which education is the precondition. For example, can someone declare oneself to be a biologist and launch an independent course of inquiry without recognized credentials? The pedagogical paradox is also a question of legitimate knowledge; in this case, who may speak the truth of biology? « Read the rest of this entry »

Hopeful Anthropology

June 4th, 2013, by § 1 Comment

Years ago a colleague commented that the AAA meetings were becoming, well, a bit predictable. There would probably be scores of papers on social injustice expressed through ethnicity, race, gender, nationalism, class, and other familiar socio-cultural variables. I have spoken in my own work about how we must begin including, in a more systematic way, notions of injustices based on technological affiliations and values. But even if our recognizable list were expanded further, it still leaves anthropology operating within a particular paradigm of investigation. This paradigm might be conceptualized, as Lyon-Callo (2013) puts it, as a project of “critical thinking,” in which anthropologists as educators engage in “critically [problematizing] common sense things like race, class, gender, sexuality, family structures, migration and trade policies.” He writes quite insightfully about these patterns in his article, “Teaching for Hope?” which appeared in Anthropology News (January/February, 2013). I will extrapolate on these ideas and refer to this model as the “critical thinking paradigm.” (If you don’t like the word “paradigm” you can substitute the word, “orientation”).

Lyon-Callo argues that the critical thinking paradigm in pedagogy comes close to presuming ignorance of these issues on the part of all students. In anthropology, this paradigm is often treated as a form of “secret knowledge” that only we as experts can see. It is up to us to reveal this knowledge as well as the cultural and political conditions under which it becomes hidden. However, he argues that today’s students are different. Many of them are personally familiar with injustices such as class exploitation and racism. In the western Michigan area where Lyon-Callo teaches, students have direct experience with class and poverty issues. Even when the critical thinking paradigm remains powerful, Lyon-Callo observes many students leaving his classroom with a sense of hopelessness and a “what do we do now?” feeling. Lyon-Callo is concerned that this orientation will just produce a legion of pessimists.

This article obviously made an impact on me, as my colleague and I also observed anthropology’s patterned pessimism. Certainly many studies show that if you seek negative patterns you will find them—and only them. Books such as The Happiness Advantage (2010), which one of my students recommended, argue that it is important to seek out positive ideas and messages, even if they are not immediately visible. The exercise should not be done in a vacuous, Pollyanna way, but in a way that helps create tangible change, instead of focusing one’s entire lens on problems that initially feel intractable.

Similarly, Lyon-Callo looks to inspiration from JK Gibson Graham and Stephen Healy, who recommend rejecting the idea that exploitation is inevitable and “work instead toward producing a politics of possibilities.” Some might read in this the resurrection of an age-old debate between applied and basic research. Do we have the right to interfere in other people’s lives on this level? But the better question is, can we continue to morally ignore all the things we might do to help people move beyond their situation?

For Lyon-Callo’s students at Western Michigan University, ideas about exploitation and the failure of capitalism are all too real. Do they really need a continued stream of pedagogy filled with the attitude adjustment of critical thinking? Maybe some do, but many others are experiencing it first hand. For many students, problems are so chronic that, according to Lyon-Callo, “The fantasy of the American Dream has been replaced with a fantasy of the loss of the middle class as inevitable.” There is really no need to upend these students’ common sense—they are not the children of privilege that need a new world view. In response, he has turned his pedagogical focus toward imagining tangible change in his students’ lives through creative solutions, such as cooperativism, and other problem-solving, novel approaches.

I like the way he advocates for a “politics of possibilities,” and I too am interested in how imagination and visions of the future might pave the way for alternative approaches to doing anthropology. The vision described here goes beyond the simple debate about applied versus basic anthropology. At their core, these ideas speak more broadly to the orientation of an entire discipline, one which advocates moving beyond observing problems to turn its lens toward collecting data about what is going right in the world.

Could it be that my colleague and I recognized the pessimistic panels at AAA because that is what we were primed to see? We are quite well aware that anthropology is a huge discipline with many projects that are obviously complex and involve more than reiterating a list of patterned injustices. But it feels as though there are, at least, “hot buttons” that tend to get pressed more than others on particular topics when viewed through an anthropological lens. Perhaps it is time to change the paradigm away from only “critical thinking” and analysis.

The idea is not that we are abandoning basic research on social injustice; clearly these projects will and must continue. Just because people are sensitive to one thing, such as economic injustices, does not mean they understand all the other means of discrimination. The economically oppressed, for example, may not understand issues of sex and gender, or what it might mean to feel prejudice as a transgendered individual. Anthropology deals with an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of issues. Further, injustices continue to happen all over the world in places that dominant populations continue to ignore.

Critical thinking and exposure of hidden problems are not going away. Nevertheless, the suggestion here is that it is time also to embrace and incorporate a new orientation toward a future that hasn’t yet occurred—and doesn’t have to. It is time to turn our orientation in part toward a future anthropology that is a hopeful anthropology.

I look forward to having my own orientation expanded through the stories and research projects that will hopefully appear on The CASTAC Blog in the coming months.

Teaching with Warez: Korsakow and the Database Documentary

May 20th, 2013, by § 1 Comment

For the last three years, I have used Korsakow, an open-source application for making database films (K-films) and other types of non-linear, interactive narrative, in classes with both undergraduate digital art students and graduate students in visual anthropology. I expect visual anthropologists will have the most interest, but these reflections also have broader relevance to the anthropology of technology and computing.

I heard about Korsakow in Jan or Feb 2010 from Steve Anderson at USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy. At that time I was teaching video production in a newly launched MA program in visual anthropology at USC and was also a lecturer in Studio Art at UC Irvine where I taught visual culture and the foundation series in digital art. In spring 2010, I got assigned a class I hadn’t taught before, “Interdisciplinary Digital,” an intermediate projects course focused on the art-making affordances, imaginaries, and practices of networked, digital media. I decided to have the students make K-Films for their first project so I could learn Korsakow alongside them. While it may seem risky to teach a system one is also learning, this is actually the best way to model the process of trying out new software–something that comes up again and again for anyone working in this territory.

Using Korsakow, students can make a database of video clips, thumbnail images, and text, and set up relationships among the clips, or SNUs (smallest narrative units), to create structured pathways through their material without any programming expertise. Readings I have paired with Korsakow assignments include:

Lectures and discussion focus on sequence, structure, and narrative and I talk about Manovich’s conception of database and narrative as primary cultural forms in contemporary media culture.

Korsakow is a free download (both Mac and PC) with excellent documentation and a strong showcase of examples. Students can download and install it on their own computers. This option presents some valuable challenges that I’ll discuss shortly. For less intensive engagement with the technology, installing Korsakow (and making sure Flash is up-to-date) on lab computers is the way to go.

Through this initial experience, I found the value of the Korsakow assignment lies as much or more in the process as the product. That was certainly true for the many students who chose to download and install Korsakow to their own laptops and PCs. These students ran in to all sorts of technical difficulties on many different combinations of platform/OS/browser/Flash version, both with K-film builds and the display of finished projects. This gave me the idea and opportunity to add bug reporting and beta testing to the assignment. Both activities, by the way, that benefit from and hone observational and note taking skills so central to ethnography.

Most of the students had never before downloaded and installed an app like Korsakow and had never used non-commercial, free/open source software (F/OSS). The experience of troubleshooting on their own computers, learning to write meaningful bug reports, and in some cases, posting these to the Korsakow.org forum and getting help, was tremendously valuable. I was able to explain how software like Korsakow is developed, and talk about the difficulties of cross-platform development with a budget and user base far, far smaller than the Adobe and Microsoft suites they’re more familiar with. They come to see the similarity between software development (of Korsakow) and their own work as artists who want to explore digital, code, and networked art. Both involve interface, usability, cross-platform accessibility, and require backend structures and processes that don’t exist in quite the same way in the plastic arts (sculpture, painting, etc.).

For digital arts students, I push the lesson of cross-platform complexity and inter-operability even further by extending it to consumption (distribution and display) of their K-films. This is a highly effective way to demonstrate the many social conventions and shared protocols required to make media technologies work. Students were required to post their films online by the due date and, over the next few days, view and post feedback on all peer projects, including detailed bug reports on projects they could not view, had missing images, or other errors. I provided a template for them to fill-in system information on hardware/software they were using to view. After the project was done and graded, we wrote up a comprehensive report and posted it back to the Korsakow forum. The whole experience was a valuable initiation into testing and bug reporting as vital parts of the production process.

After this I wanted to use Korsakow with my ethnographic film students at USC, but our MVA program is cinema-centric, with the thesis requirement a 20- to 30-minute video. My strategy for introducing these students to non-linear, interactive media is to schedule the K-film assignment late in the second semester of my yearlong production seminar. At this point students have already spent time analyzing narrative structures and developing treatments for their thesis. They’ve all shot interviews and other video, logged footage, transcribed interviews, and learned paper-edit techniques, such as making index cards for all selected clips and playing with arrangements. I introduce Korsakow and the genre of the database documentary, showing pieces like Planet Galata: A bridge in Istanbul and The Border Between Us. I point out that the stacks of index cards representing interview clips and other sequences selected for potential inclusion in a film is a database of material through which there are many possible paths. The K-film assignment is an opportunity to get a fresh perspective on their material, explore some possible paths, and discover new relations among clips. Even if they have no interest in making this type of new media, I argue that the K-film is an exercise that gives them an opportunity to play and take a break from the heavy and serious burden that all thesis projects become after 9-months work.

This year’s MVA cohort, a remarkable group, produced some fine work in the 3 weeks they had for the assignment and the 2013 MVA K-Films demonstrate the possibilities of the database documentary for ethnographic representation. In using Korsakow, I bring my own research on new forms and social imaginaries of media production and consumption into my teaching of ethnographic filmmaking. My argument is that, while cinema remains a dominant and relevant cultural form, it exists today within an entirely new media ecology that radically alters both production and consumption processes and contexts. My students will need to thrive in this ecology and I believe having both hands-on and theoretical understandings of it will be a great benefit.

Though they write about new media, both Weinbren (1997) and Manovich (2001) privilege cinema and make their arguments in cinematic terms, which goes over well with my MVA students, young ethnographic filmmakers embarked on their first serious missions. The fact that Manovich devotes his prologue to Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, a film they study in depth as a formative influence on documentary and ethnographic cinema, only furthers their connection and sense that, however great their devotion to cinema, it is always already part of a much wider cultural sphere. Theorizing the practice of cine-ethnography within this sphere is the book on which I’m currently working.

Inside MOOCs: A First-Hand Account, Part 2

March 19th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

On a personal note, I’ve noticed that a medical event is not as devastating to progress in a semester when the class is online as it might be in a regular classroom. I may be behind, but I’m not missing the lectures. This is a real boon for students who have chronic or recurring illnesses, and a true benefit of a MOOC (massive open online course).

But I’m also behind in my MOOC diary which I started several weeks ago, and I hope the reader will forgive me for that. Now, onward.

A friend pointed me to this quote:

“And, finally, the organization of popular education will pass into the hands of Radio. The Supreme Soviet of Sciences will broadcast lessons and lectures to all schools of the country—higher institutions as well as lower.

“The teacher will become merely a monitor while these lectures are in progress. The daily transmission of lessons and textbooks through the sky into country schools of the nation, the unification of its consciousness into a single will.

“Thus will Radio forge continuous links in the universal soul and mold mankind into a single entity.”

(Velimir Khlebnikov, “Radio of the Future” [1921], trans. Paul Schmidt)

Seems to me that every new version of mass media has attempted to find a way to spread education to the masses, since the advent of the printing press. I remember old language records from childhood. Radio was seen as a potential pedagogical tool, and TV too, of course. NPR and PBS have maintained some success in this, of course, but pity all the cable channels that had their eyes on edification and now rely almost entirely on reality shows about child beauty pageants and weapons freaks.

There have certainly been some success in educational software. Rosetta Stone, for example, has taught me more French than I’d have gathered in the classroom, with less self-consciousness about learning to speak with a vaguely reasonable accent.

So it’s not surprising there are multiple outlets online for cobbling together an education online. The first real hit out of the ballpark was probably Khan Academy (khanacademy.org), which is a phenomenon of its own. But online learning is nothing new. A lot of schools had been partnering their classroom experiences with online content. My nephew in medical school tells me that there are many classes that people need not attend in person, because it’s pretty much all online.

So what makes a MOOC so different?

In my short experience — and with just the one MOOC course to go by — the significant difference for me has been the rather high production-value style of one-on-one professor-to-student experience in the presentation of the course material. However, some students in the forums have said that they wish the course at least occasionally showed us the classroom experience, as students take the course in the standard way, with the professor in the lecture hall, which is apparently going on concurrently at the University of Virginia (UVa). This, as one student said, would allow the online participants to have a sense of the classroom discussion. The desire to be in a classroom, debating controversial topics, stems from what appears to have become a rather intense conversation about Western vs. non-Western views of world history, and whether our professor is complicit in exacerbating a Eurocentric perspective that is too keenly felt, especially by the non-Western students, of which there are perhaps thousands in this MOOC.

The topic of the Eurocentric version of history is, of course, massive in itself. What I’m interested in at the moment, though, is that certain students believe that experiencing the physical classroom via video will provide them more insight than a large and diverse collection of discussion fora online.

I have pondered this for awhile. As you know, a large introductory lecture class is not usually the best site for deep discussion of controversial topics. And, in my experience as a TA, neither is a discussion section. There may be sections in which the occasional TA is able to elicit an exciting debate, but I can only imagine what disappointment the home scholar would feel as the camera pans the room, waiting for some student to tentatively let a comment fly. The presence of the camera might add an additional level of daunt to the proceedings, in fact.

Furthermore, this led me to recall my initial idea of the graduate seminar as an arena in which educated minds could meet and work out Big Ideas in a collegial yet challenging environment. Ah, the romance of the fledgling graduate student, prior to the realization that the seminar is made up of people who are competing for the attention of the professor and those who are trying to make it through a few hours without letting it slip that they hadn’t read the book.

Are we better off in the classroom than in the MOOC, where forum discussions are rampant and only somewhat moderated? In a discussion section, TAs can hope that their students will have learned their names by the end of the term. In the MOOC, the TAs may be completely invisible. Either way, many students will never meet their professor. With a MOOC, you’re welcome to join other locals at a Meet-Up — if there are other locals. Forums often lead to rather unexpurgated, sometimes crass interactions, of course, and we may miss the interactions with our in-person peers. But I continue to think that the college classroom and the MOOC are, and are likely to continue to be, two very different audiences. The presence of the MOOC does not signal the end of traditional college learning, at least not in the near future, from what I can see now.

The Power of Metaphors

February 12th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

Metaphors are important elements of science and technology practice and pedagogy. They influence how knowledge is produced, interpreted, and represented. Many courses in science and technology studies introduce students to how metaphors inspire and orient investigations into the unknown. Sometimes, metaphors do not introduce new knowledge so much as overlay what we think we know onto interpretations about how the world works. As educators, it is instructive to find and share materials that help our students understand the power of metaphors, and how they influence our very perceptions.

Over the years, I’ve benefitted from educators who have generously shared their teaching materials online. This blog post is an attempt to pay it forward, and share an exercise that I’ve developed for my class on anthropology and technology at California College of the Arts. This exercise is meant to inspire discussion on how metaphors influence our thinking in daily life, as well as how they shape design and use of technological products and systems.

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) long ago noted that metaphors are things that help us understand and experience one kind of thing in terms of another. Words and images from one realm of experience may be used to structure not only action, but our thinking. Metaphors tend to spawn or are accompanied by whole families of associated expressions. Saying that “argument is war” for example, brings to mind other expressions such as “demolishing” or “attacking” a position, or using argumentative “strategies” that are “right on target.”

In addition, metaphors exhibit certain entailments, or assumptions or consequences that result from the use of particular metaphors. For example, saying that “argument is war” entails a winner and a loser. Such entailments structure perceptions of our choices and possible courses of action. Lakoff and Johnson invite the reader to reconsider their metaphors. They ask us to imagine what it might be like to envision a culture where arguing is not equivalent to war. In this alternate universe, “winning” is not the desired outcome of verbal conflict; rather participants strive for empathy and mutual understanding.

The exercise below invites students to consider the entailments and potential impact of metaphors that are used in daily life. Such an exercise might be paired with many classic readings on metaphors in science and technology, such as Cohn’s (1987), “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” or Martin’s (1991), “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” A more recent work by Rene Almeling, winner of the 2012 Diana Forsythe prize, has also discussed how sex cell donations are gendered through metaphorical concepts. Men are encouraged to consider donating sperm as a “job,” while women are invited to see their contribution of eggs as a “gift.”

But use of metaphors is not limited to biology or defense industries. They are part of everyday life. The following exercise, which might be useful as a homework assignment or a classroom exercise, provides a list of metaphors that are used today and exhibit particular entailments that influence our options in terms of understanding complicated processes, solving complex problems, protecting our identities and security, or conducting new quests for knowledge.

In preparing this exercise, I combed the web for contemporary metaphors that might spark productive discussion. Please feel free to share other metaphors that might be useful for similar discussions about science and technology. Students are also encouraged to explore their own technological metaphors that bring new perspective and insight to this conversation. Educators are invited to discuss how this exercise may be adapted to various contexts or subject areas.

Let us know what you think!

Exercise in Exploring Science and Technology Metaphors
For the following metaphors, list as many entailments as you can. How do these metaphors influence thinking on a particular subject? How do they influence choices people might make? How do they privilege certain solutions or worldviews over others? What steps might people take to overcome the limitations of particular metaphors, or of metaphorical representations in general?

#1 Battling cancer

#2 Surgical strike (an attack without warning on a planned target)

#3 War on drugs

#4 Astronaut (star sailor)

#5 Cloud computing (the practice of using a network of remote servers on the Internet to host, store, and process data)

#6 Desktop computing

#7 Information highway

#8 Cyberspace

#9 The universe is a clockwork

#10 The mind is a printing press

#11 [Insert your metaphor here]

If this exercise was interesting or useful, let us know!

References

Almeling, Rene. 2011. Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cohn, Carol. 1987. Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.
Signs 12(4): 687-718.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Martin, Emily. 1991. The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles. Signs 16(31): 485-501.

Inside MOOCs: A First Hand Account, Part 1

January 28th, 2013, by § 1 Comment

As MOOCs are all the rage these days, I thought I should take one for a spin to see what the experience was like, from the standpoint of a student. I find the pedagogical implications of MOOCs, or “massive open online courses” to be intriguing, and I am always interested in furthering my education. I’m drawn to the ethnographic possibilities in any situation, so when Patricia Lange suggested that I might do an ethno diary of my MOOCing experience, I jumped at the chance. This is the first of the diary entries, with initial impressions of the first week of class. I intend to add additional entries during the semester.

I haven’t seen the inside of a classroom, either as a student or teacher, for some years, having had to concede my part-time lecturing to the pressing need for health insurance. Currently I work on behalf of others’ research in a field not my own, but it’s steady work and I can now afford to see a doctor. The struggle to find a teaching position for an MA/ABD scholar in anthropology is particularly difficult, as anyone who has a PhD and a resume on the move might well appreciate. But this has not dampened my enthusiasm for education, and so I’m always up for immersion in new forms.

I signed up for an undergraduate-level course on the history of the modern world, taught by a University of Virginia prof with an impressive CV. While I can lay claim to an expensive graduate education, I was missing a good overview of world history, and I was especially interested in getting a good chronology of the birth and growth of modernism, so this seemed an ideal course.  After signing up, I received a few emails reminding me when the course would start, with some hints as to what to expect, and with the startling information that approximately 40,000 people had also signed up for the same course. (I’ve since learned that upwards of 100,000 people for a course is not unheard of.) After that, I received no new information until the first day of “class.”

Some initial impressions and take-aways:

When there are 40,000 people in your class, you should order your books as early as possible. In this course, in fact, there is an online textbook that one can “rent” for about $25 for the semester. There is also a recommended reading list, with at least one book that shows up in the syllabus frequently, that one can backorder online. Presumably my copy will show up during the semester. None of these readings, by the way, are required for the course, but are recommended if you want to go beyond the PowerPoint. I assume that a great many people are purchasing or leasing a license to read the textbook. (Non-American students apparently are having trouble accessing the textbook.)

The forums for the course are active. If you’ve spent a modicum of time in social networks, this is comfortable territory, and the first forum established is the standard “Who are you people and where are you from?” query. So far, about 800 people have responded to the question, and from a brief look at the replies, I see that the majority of students are not logging in from the US; there seem to be a substantial number from China, Ukraine, Brazil, Australia, Canada, the UK, Spain, and the Philippines. There is at least one student from Mozambique, and many other countries as far-flung as one can imagine from UVA.

Issues of scale are, of course, immediately evident. Early numbers seem to indicate that one can expect a course to end with 7 to 9 percent of its original student body. That’s still an impressive number of people. And, of course, I’m the student body; it’s just me at my desk. Me and my professor, who seems quite charming.

The professor, of course, is talking to me on my computer, in much the same way that the host of a PBS program is talking to me on my TV. It’s a comfortable space to be in; it’s recognizably cozy. I can fix my gaze and memorize expressions and gestures, without embarrassment. And then I can go to the forum, where the fans are gathering to discuss which catch phrases and expressions are generating buzz. “Make yourself comfortable,” the professor tells us at the beginning of each video session (and there are several of these each week), except when he doesn’t say it. “He didn’t tell me to make myself comfortable at the start of section 2.4! I had to make myself comfortable without being reminded.” A joke, but telling of the significance of a repeated phrase of welcome. An active forum describes how delightful his smile is when he tells us that he’ll see us next time. Charming and witty! People are loving our professor.

There are people working behind the scenes; they are the MOOC team. I presume that these are TAs and RAs. I want to find out more about this team, but so far they seem to be working on glitches with grading and swiftly rewriting quiz questions into a multiple-choice format, as the forums are alight with disgruntled quiz-takers, especially those for whom English is not the first language.

And who are the students? Are we assuming an audience that is of undergraduate age, more or less, people who are not well-served by or without access to the current American undergraduate system? A cursory look at the forum replies about why people are taking the class shows that — at least among those who are self-selecting to answer the question — many of the students are retired and want to exercise their intellects; others are Americans living overseas, or are new mothers who need some stimulation. Many are people who already have college educations but want to add something to their educational resumes.

It’s early days with MOOCs, of course, and with my personal experience, but I’m seeing some intriguing patterns that may not fit with the expectations of those who are eyeing the platform with pedagogical suspicion or with hope for a radical disruption of the current model for college education.

Comments regarding my MOOC diary entries are most enthusiastically welcome!

MOOCs in the Machine, Part II

January 3rd, 2013, by § 2 Comments

In Part I, I asked how MOOCs (massive online open courses) are potentially poised to “disrupt” academia thanks to broader structural and economic shifts that need to be addressed independently, while still considering the value of online education. In this second half, I turn towards ways to rethink graduate education as a consequence of changes in academia and the academic job market.

—-

While MOOCs have become a popular topic of discussion, less attention has been paid to those rethinking the structure of graduate education, to address related issues (including restructuring humanities dissertations  and shortening the length of doctoral programs). Notably, Stanford has been moving forward with an initiative to cut the time-to-degree for humanities programs to five years, by soliciting concrete plans from individual departments in exchange for year-round grad student funding. I can’t speak to whether five years is a reasonable length for humanities Ph.D. programs, but it does seem that many additional years some spend in grad school don’t confer greater benefit. In anthropology, it’s hard to imagine completing a doctorate in under six years, assuming at least a year of field research, on top of course work, qualifying exams, and writing up (plus, of course, going on the job market). But according to Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik, the Stanford initiative is premised on numerous reasons that slow progress on the Ph.D. benefits neither students nor institutions, quoting the proposal request: “Extended time to degree can represent a significant drain on institutional resources as well as major costs to students, both in the form of indebtedness and postponed entry onto a career path. We ask programs to examine the current structure of degree requirements in order to determine what reforms might expedite degree completion.” As the RFP points out, long years in grad school often increase students’ debt burden while delaying their ability to begin post-Ph.D. careers (and earnings), in or out of academia.

This touches on a larger debate about graduate education, which I don’t want to get into here. Instead, I want to call attention to the link between critiques of graduate education and changes in the structure of academia more broadly, the same changes fueling much of the debate about how technology will “disrupt” higher education. One commenter on  Jaschik’s piece, for example, points out that many doctoral students delay graduating precisely because of the abysmal job market, while in fields with greater job opportunities (both in and out of academia), students finish much more quickly owing to better incentives. In a similar vein, one professor at Stanford, Jennifer Summit, is quoted as saying that elite institutions often prepare their students insufficiently for teaching at inclusive public institutions, even though most faculty work in such settings: “She was thinking of assessment and digital teaching tools and using analytics. ‘At Research I’s, we like to think we invented online teaching and learning, but the comprehensive publics and community colleges have been doing this for a long time.’”

A more productive response to the changing landscape of education and the economy, then, entails considering what changes make sense and how we can re-imagine some aspects of graduate training and undergraduate teaching without conceding the inevitable decline of public education. What should be the role of faculty at “non-elite” (and elite) institutions with the advent of MOOCs? How can we benefit from online resources, to share syllabi and lectures and teach more effectively? Presumably, this requires better ways to evaluate teaching and learning, beyond the “audit culture” norms of surveying student satisfaction. I think Stanford is right to identify student funding as a crucial piece of reforming graduate education. At UC Irvine, for example, most anthropology grad students are funded by TAships, with limited internal fellowship support available (and nearly none for research abroad). On one hand, I found TA training and experience invaluable exposure to teaching, running sections, grading, and academic time management, but these benefits wane after the first few terms. After that, TAing mostly takes away from time spent studying or completing the dissertation and does not offer the same preparation as teaching as the instructor of record. Moreover, TAs provide relatively inexperienced teaching assistance to universities, often by grad students in the early stages of their careers.

What if doctoral programs reorganized grad student labor instead, shifting teaching obligations from TAships that delay graduation to short-term post-Ph.D. positions? In exchange for full fellowship funding and a shorter time to degree (with perhaps one or two terms of TAing for experience), doctoral students could agree to stay on for one to two years of full-time teaching at their degree-granting institution, for a modest salary (more than a TAship but perhaps less than many postdocs). This would benefit graduate students in numerous ways, including by completing their doctoral degrees more quickly and receiving better teaching preparation, while waiting to go on the job market until the dissertation is finished. Universities would benefit by replacing large lectures (around 400 students at my doctoral alma mater, UC Irvine), with smaller courses taught by their own recent Ph.D.s, instead of relying on grad student TAs as heavily — similar to how many schools already rely extensively on lecturers and adjuncts, but with the benefit of having students complete their degrees more quickly.

Of course, this proposal does not address the more fundamental problem of reduced budgets or neoliberal academic restructuring, but could still improve some aspects of graduate education. I offer this more as an illustration of ways we could begin rethinking the structure of academia broadly. Defunding education may not be inevitable as Shirky implies, but is linked to broader processes that are endemic to late liberalism. What are constructive ways we can reorganize higher education and research without succumbing to these shifts?

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Discuss new approaches you are trying or issues related to teaching that you are concerned about. Email plange@cca.edu