The Broken Promise, Part 3: Have a seat. This one. Beside me.

As teachers with advanced academic degrees, we spent years living more in the past than in the present. We acquired a body of knowledge that came from the past and we reinvested it in our theses and our course plans; we acquired  a discipline of thinking that helped us identify and learn from a select few of the hundreds of voices that had ventured remarks on our area of expertise. Many of us entered the profession before or at the very beginning of the transformation into present-centeredness Strate identifies in his essay.

That we appear to think differently from our students is often painfully clear to us, although we tend to dismiss it as an attitude problem. When students won’t read detailed assignment instructions, or spend their class time on their phones or laptops, or populate their submitted work with the first three hits from a Google search, we bemoan their lack of self-discipline. We wonder why their priorities are so skewed, how they can possibly think they will get a job if they just surf their way through college with Cs and Ds.

I think the notion of present-centeredness gives us some insight into what is really going on here.

I don’t need your words, your slides, your help. Your assignment sheets look like something my grandmother did on her typewriter. Your slides are about as sophisticated as the cartoons my little brother watches all the time. Of course I’m surfing on my phone. That’s where the real stuff is. Besides, you won’t Like my paper, none of you ever has, so why shouldn’t I be looking at all the interesting and fun things others are doing while I’m stuck sitting here?  And skip the you’ll  need this to get a job crap. Ain’t true. It’s all about networks, and I bet you don’t have 800 friends on Facebook. I’ve already got two posts about summer work. I just got another email and that’s probably another job. You can’t promise me anything I don’t already have right here. You’re telling me about windows of opportunities? Get real.

Before you say, “That’s absurd,” remember that for many of the students you face each day their experience of the world at large has been visually mediated: the TV or movie screen, the laptop display, the smartphone touch screen. The world we struggle in, the world of academic and professional success, appears for granted there, sui generis without toil or effort. More importantly, the mechanism by which this world manifests itself before them appears to be in their control; it does not require our intervention.

In the infancy of the virtual society, with a black and white TV or AM radio as the only window, we knew little about the “outside,” and our access was controlled by others. But with a tablet in our hands, the world is ours. As Slate put it, we can create our own history as we create our own news feeds or virtual selves on line. The three are, of course, interrelated: I am what I have experienced, and what I have experienced affects how I see where I have been and what I take as ‘news’ rather than noise.

We all, and always, create ourselves and our history. The difference between a linear physical creativity and its virtual counterpart is the speed of creation and the power we can wield.  It is no surprise then that researchers analyzing internet behavior measure participants’ sense of self-efficacy and autonomy now that we have far faster, more pervasive, and more eclectic materials from which to create our selves. In the beginning was the click, and the click was god. I click, therefore I am.

Fortunately, it does not stop there. Even our most internet addicted students are not the alpha and omegas of their worlds. Every page or song or post or comment or video they encounter can be shared. Intrinsic to the isolated experience of the now is the invitation to Like, Link, Tweet, that experience. Virtual space is at once isolating and congenial: there are empty seats in our train car and we can invite others to sit and share the view.

That may be a clue to teaching the denizens of the now: invite them along for the ride.

I know that in my own academic training I more often learned the most in semester-long projects intended to solve, or at least illuminate, problems posed by the professor. In the latter case, the words weren’t boring, they were a means to an end. The graphically primitive slides were mind maps not finished products. The help was more like coaching – go out and do your best for the team. We are all depending on you, not just we your classmates but we who have to deal with this problem. There were few ground rules for we were (or at least we believed we were) breaking ground.

Courses such as these invite students along for the ride. The professor morphs from Purveyor of Knowledge to the blogger inviting comments from her readers; the topic becomes a dynamic, emergent topography of comments and ideas and notes and questions and complaints and dead ends and maybe if you’re lucky a middle of the night post on the course LMS blog entitled LOOK WHAT I FOUND!

That title is an invitation to take a seat. It is also a promise – but unlike the self-depleting promise that is the reportorial or appreciative email, text, or post, this promise does reassure the future, it reveals progress, it urges us to care, and it gives us something to do, some insight we can work with and build on.

This, or something akin to it, is what I meant by turning topography into communion.

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The Broken Promise, Part 2: Educating Those Drowning in Now

For several years, I have asked students in my classes to keep personal logs of internet use or assigned them to do surveys of other people’s internet activities. The results often surprise them. They discover that they or others spend as much as 60% of their waking hours consuming digital “content” of no practical value. They are surprised to find that they or others lose hundreds of minutes daily to what we used to call “interruptions” – for example, pulling out your phone to make a call but instead spending ten minutes responding to the text messages that have accumulated in your absence from hyperspace. In his essay, Strate suggests social interaction in our ever-accessible, instantaneous, and ubiquitous digital culture has created a profane time, a uniform 24/7/365 continuum without end (terminus or telos). Likening our loss of time to the entropic “heat death” of the universe, Strate believes that our inability to reflect on and to appreciate our present moments as a revitalization of the past portends “the time death of humanity.”

Are we then doomed to lose both past and future in a vast, cold universe populated with irretrievably isolated humanoid galaxies, themselves mere coincidences of millions of undifferentiated nows? Strate does not think so, or at least he masks his pessimism well when later in his essay he challenges us to teach historically, contextualizing present data as the “progress and the backtracking, the discoveries and the errors.” At first glance, Strate seems to be calling for what many of us already do: teach from the perspective of the history of ideas. I am not convinced that is enough: it does not slow the train, it simply shows that the terrain outside the window is itself moving. Furthermore, it overlooks the fact that we educators are, whether we like it or not, also along for the ride.

In all the empirical studies showing that there are physiological, cognitive, and behavioral changes that come with web use, I have never heard anyone claim that teachers had special immunity. Indeed, research shows that both professionals and academics, when faced with internet re-search, no longer are quite as disciplined and fastidious as they once were. The academic ideal of the comprehensive and compelling “contribution” may well be slipping away from our grasp as quickly as the journal article and conference paper announcements arrive in our RSS feeds. Consider as well that some job seekers now record on their resumes the number of Facebook or Linked In contacts they have, and number-of-times-cited is used to measure a tenure-seeking professor’s work. These are symptomatic of a shift in value, from the intrinsic to the topographical, from the thing itself to the number and dispersion of times it has been clicked in some network.

I doubt click counts and topography will become the gold standard of the virtual tribal village, and replacing Truth with Transactions certainly will not sit well with many in the academy. How all this plays out is anyone’s guess. We are, frustrating as it may be, in medias res. What is clear is that we will have to spend more time sitting in the seat across the aisle from our students, watching ourselves watch the vistas pass by, before we know how best to instill in our students an appreciation for the effort that is understanding. We may have to stop teaching things and instead teach evolution, dynamics rather than dates, the topography of what was Liked and by whom and for what reason.

There is something to be said for valuing dynamics and dispersion. Knowledge becomes knowing, acquiring knowledge becomes a deliberate act of making connections; passive consumption is replaced by inquisitiveness. That may be the way to mend the broken promise, requite the stifled anticipation, and from a mere topography of clicks create communion.

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The Broken Promise: Lance Strate, Social Network Immersion, and Education, Part 1

Among the many profound observations Lance Strate made in “On the Binding Biases of Time,” his discussion of our present-centeredness has kept me pacing back and forth the longest. What follows is an attempt to collect in one place the artifacts collected on the trek so far.

Part I: The Present-Centered Mind

Strate calls us “present-centered” – immersed in the momentary presence of news headlines, Facebook posts, emails, Tweets, etc. He believes that, unlike pre-digital era cultures, we  have lost the guidance and constraint of narrative, the linear and textual accounts of our history that give us a sense of place in the flow of historical time, that bestow meaning and significance on our personal present (and presence) in a social and cultural context. Instead, said Strate, we have the digital database, a hodge-podge of discrete files and images, “lacking in coherent order, context, or explanations, let alone detailed chronology.” History itself – anyone’s history, mine, yours, our culture’s – becomes “a matter of personal opinion. We can individually construct the past as we see fit, just as we can construct our own personal newsfeeds and readers and newspapers on the Web….”

The “present” Strate refers to is both our current moment in history and the immediate moment of now. There are differences between those two, and Strate’s concern is primarily with the historical present: whether and how our exposure to digital media has changed the way we apprehend our place in human, cultural time. Of course, we come to know that cultural present by building it from our myriad, immediate present experiences, and that is where digital and virtual communication has most significantly changed “us.”

I am always physically situated elsewhere from the locus of my attention, and that locus is ever changing. I am a passenger in a high-speed train, staring out not one but dozens of windows at what passes by, able perhaps to control which window I next will gaze through but not what I will see there, perhaps not even how long I will be able to watch the blurred images in its vista. I am never at rest, never situated; the world outside my senses, the world I use to define and describe and instantiate who I am, is simply an endless stream of seen-ery.

Perhaps our felt-sense of self remains unaltered by the virtual worlds we inhabit, but as social entities created in communication with other entities, “we” have changed radically now that we also have a presence and a present in multiple virtual worlds. For many of us, the records of our “past” exist only in online archives – the Facebook posts, the blog, the email folder, our score and possessions in the game. On the other hand, my virtual presences appear to give me unprecedented freedom and power. With a laptop or smartphone I can surf anywhere and for anything, create as many virtual personalities as I wish, and shift between worlds and selves with a tap of my finger.

But the means by which I access my worlds and selves and your worlds and selves is interrupt-driven, multi-streamed, hyperlinked and always virtual. This prevents me or at least impedes me from understanding it, from participating in it.

In the onslaught of digitally delivered novelty, I lose intimacy with the passage of time. I don’t feel it pass over my fingers as I reach out and try in vain to hold it back, it just scrolls down the page as new messages arrive. Nor can I savor the present, for novelty urges me forward to something else, something new. Better or worse, it does not matter: when all is expectation rather than participation, nothing can be momentous because all is momentary. Nothing need endure when there’s always something new to replace it; nothing can endure because I cannot pass beyond the window, I cannot stop the scroll.

I Like but do not love, I am linked in but not conjoined, pinterested but not committed. I visit and view and chat, but I cannot embrace.

Assuming that the human need for communion has not changed, this becomes a vicious cycle. The new text, the new post or Tweet, is at once a reassurance of the future, and its depletion. It promises novelty or opportunity or reward, but it merely records someone else’s lost moment. Its arrival makes us real because we are there to receive it, because it tells us someone is out there who wishes to say something to us. Yet what we receive seldom nurtures us or nourishes us or makes us somehow different than we were the moment we checked our phone. The promise is broken.

I am orphaned in, and orphaned by, the very moment in which I seek to be immersed, left with the constantly refreshed but never refreshing now.


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When those who might, can’t

Passing by my wife’s computer at breakfast I noticed it was already set for the live radar feed for Oklahoma from the National Weather Service.  “Old habits die hard, I guess,” she said without a smile.

Before we moved to Maine, we lived in Tornado Alley, tornado spotting from a house on high ground in a sea of corn and soybeans dotted with high-risk communities. We knew that ours might be the first and only warning some people had, that even a few seconds could make a difference in the death toll.  For two years, day or night, for hours at a time, my wife scanned the radar imagery while my son and I scanned the skies, desperately trying to predict the unpredictable. We were out to do the impossible – to beat the odds – because we had to.

She was good. She could predict high risk areas hours in advance of NWS severe weather warnings. After a while, she could give me 15 minutes warning for when and where to expect funnel clouds. She was seldom wrong.

She stayed on the computer all day, watching what to her must have seemed the inevitable play out in the suburbs of Oklahoma City. My sixteen year old son returned from Search and Rescue training not long after the Plaza Towers effort switched to recovery, went into his room and shut his door. My wife said nothing to me as she went to bed later than usual, having watched the live news stream well into the night. I have roused her from two nightmares already, and I know my son is still awake even though it’s 3:00 AM. There’s no use telling him to go to bed. There will be no sleep here, no rest. Not tonight.

We all remember Parkersburg. We were covering counties to the south.

The restless vigil we hold here will pull no survivors from the rubble, it cannot comfort the children who have forever lost a sense of safety most of us take for granted. It cannot rebuild homes and restore lives. It is, I guess, an apology and a penance: we were not on the high ground, at the right time, to make a difference.

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Higher-EduBusiness: Can we have it both ways for very long?

Colleges and universities have used adjunct staffing for decades, whether the adjunct staff were graduate Teaching Assistants or professionals and consultants from industry wishing to teach a course now and then. In either of those forms, the relationship was one of convenience – the administration got cheap labor and the laborers got tick marks for their resumes. Unfortunately, the success of the model in those two cases has become the justification for staffing entire programs with external, contingent help.

One can argue that when a college decides to reserve the senior level courses for the full time faculty and use contractors to teach the lower levels, the college has sacrificed quality for operating margins. But if educational institutions are in fact businesses, then that is not a convincing argument: such trade-offs are as ubiquitous as Post-Its in the corporate world. The more significant objection to that practice, one more likely to matter to those provosts and division chairs who have the savvy and the fortitude to look beyond this semester’s bottom line, is that the solution is not sustainable.

Adjuncts have been instrumental in helping institutions mange enrollment spikes and low skill levels in incoming freshmen classes. Both cases are completely consistent with the goals of contingent staffing: addressing a short term need that is outside of established business operational goals and yet represents a risk to those goals. It’s a short term expense with a nonbinding commitment by all parties to address a surmountable obstacle to long term profits and program viability. In more standardized arenas – project management, engineering, administrative positions, etc. – the trade-off between consistency and quality of work and availability of competent resources is manageable.

However, individual college courses and entire college curricula are anything but a standardized environment. Most colleges allow adjuncts great freedom in course content and design. Lower division courses taught by contingent staff may meet the abstract program objectives, but content mastery and skill mastery can vary widely from student to student and section to section. The financial and the educational goals of contingent program staffing make sense:  apply expensive senior faculty where their expertise is best invested – in  upper division courses. But if the students arrive at those courses ill-prepared, the educational goal cannot be met.

Even if a college tries to mitigate that risk by standardizing its lower division offerings, it faces another challenge: dwindling resources. While there are many people willing to take a part time job as adjunct instructors of one or two Composition or entry-level Anatomy and Physiology courses, there are far fewer individuals available and qualified to teach multiple upper division courses in a discipline. (There may be many of them still in the population at large, but they long ago found real teaching posts or took other employment to escape poverty.) When help is hard to find, you pay more for those you do find; so on this scenario, the educational goals of program contingent staffing can be met only at the expense of the financial goals.

Add in decreasing enrollments due to both economic pressure and demographics, and you have the makings of the classic unsustainable business model – cost reductions that impair efficiency coupled with decreased revenue.  If the 4-year schools naively implement the contingent staffing model, I fear that the only institutions that will survive will be the ones that understand how to acquire, qualify, and manage a fully contingent resource pool and are willing to decommit from the traditional academic objectives of comprehensive, coherent, and cross-disciplinary education.

Perhaps sometime in 2015 we’ll see the Harvard Business Review publish an article by a once tenured professor of business at a recently bankrupt major university, one of 400 adjuncts at the University of Phoenix all competing for three spring contracts, entitled “Rising from the Ashes: Why Phoenix  Ate Your School’s Lunch”.

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Turning Our Back on Students

The animosity towards teachers – primarily secondary educators but increasingly also higher ed folks – is puzzling. It’s not as if educators are paid millions of dollars in raw salaries and drift away on golden parachutes from the companies they have ruined due to their incompetence. They don’t require government bailouts, they don’t spill millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. But outnumbered 40:1 in the classroom they are a primary cause of fiscal instability at the state budget level, and at a real-wage of about $15 per hour compared to $25 each for three-person-minimum road maintenance crews they epitomize the waste of labor-unionized, state-worker jobs?

The charges brought against educators for Crimes against Productivity are just one more instance of our collective unwillingness to take responsibility. We have Wars on Poverty, on Crime, on Terror. Such militaristic rhetoric and the mindsets behind it only save the day, ignoring the complex inter-dependencies, the misjudgments and the prejudices, the whole history of what brought the opposing forces to the battle field on that day. Ignore those, and the day is lost before it dawns.

What would it say of our collective consciousness if we had labeled these “Restitution for” programs?

But here we are again, for better or worse facing the newest campaign. Let us keep with the agenda and call it the War on Teachers. The cynical might argue that the willingness of the “Average American” to believe the scapegoating hype (on either side of any issue) is itself a perfect example of how educators have failed to raise the “Average Student” above the intellectual capacity of beef cattle. Someone more generous might observe that for educators the current situation is a backhanded compliment: people are frustrated with our collective inability to solve our problems, and the Source of All Correct Answers at the Head of the Classroom has obviously let us down.

One way or another we educators must shoulder some blame.

We never HAD the Correct Answers. We had answers to a specific set of test questions. We had models for responses to writing prompts. We had quicker recall of dates and names than our students did (sans mobile phone access to Wikipedia, that is). But answers to questions about right and wrong, solutions to problems of the magnitude students face as citizens, ethical human beings, or even as organisms needing food and a place to get out of the rain … we never offered those. Or at least we shouldn’t have appeared to.

It is indeed a matter of responsibility, this precipitous drop over the last few decades in skill levels of incoming students and capability of outbound, employment seeking graduates. Where we failed was in not instilling in our students a sense of responsibility for their own learning and for their own intellectual freedom in a complicated, competitive, and sometimes hostile social, economic, and political system.

But responsibility is shared across all those who interact with the student, from the parents who shunted the real education of their children onto the classroom content teachers, to the government officials who substituted cost and predictability for the real issues of capability and acumen, and to a host of others.

In the War on Teachers the enemy forces number in the tens of millions, and he is us. We have all turned our backs on the students. What matters now is whether we raise our hands to surrender, or to volunteer in the restitution.

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A Darker Shade of Green

Long before the news stations announced that the apples might be ready early this year, I saw the over achievers spring up in the makeshift landscapes of the Farmers Market stalls, bold and firm in their pristine sacks swaggeringly red and white amongst the splintering brown crates of club sized wizened carrots and rot speckled tomatoes too long off the vine. The contrast is as striking as that between local and tourist at these affairs. The locals trudge away with a handful of yellow beans or some cukes in the paper sacks they brought with them. The tourists linger between the stalls, their arms full of plastic bagged breads and veggies and herbs, chatting with local artisans in the ambience of hand-made soap scents.

There’s more time to be green when you don’t have to punch in for your twice-a-week, 6pm to 6am shift at the fish packing plant.

This Saturday the residents of orchard country will shut their windows against the dust and noise as hoards of SUVs full of suburban bargain hunters rumble by on their way to yet another organic event: apple picking. Feet accustomed to smooth concrete will stumble over roots and grass clumps while foraging instincts numbed by years of supermarket bins full of glossy Macs will seize the ready to hand, spur and all if need be. Some of the pick will be tossed aside immediately for slight imperfections, while much of the rest, untouched after a week, will end its days in a trash can buried under layer after layer of microwave entrée packaging while the postings about the event slide further down the Facebook pages.

The toll is higher than just a few Cortlands. Vending green isn’t exactly idyllic, either.

At the end of the day, the orchard owners will tally the day’s take and ready the peck and bushel sacks for the morrow, all the while bemoaning the carelessness and callousness of their patrons. This love-hate relationship is played out every day in every shop and tavern and inn across the region, against a backdrop of LL Bean ads and Kinkade prints on the one hand and dilapidated mobile homes flanked by rust-pitted cars on the other. The locals in the lakes region complain vociferously, often rightly so, about “Summer Complaints” – intestinal distress caused not by pathogens in the water but by the people from “away” with their condescending attitudes and callous, sometimes even overtly hostile behavior. But they are also quick to sell the tourists damaged furniture as antiques, charge them extra for gas and groceries, and rent them their moldy houses as lake view cottages at exorbitant prices.

It is a sad, precarious situation even in good times. But as the national economy has worsened, to get by more and more of them have had to take on two part-time jobs or resort to stealing scrap metal from abandoned farms or woodlots to sell off at the local recycling center, filling the hours between mowing lawns and grading driveways for celebrities and Fortune 500 executives who now stop in to visit their million dollar summer homes only once or twice a year. The residents call this – the grounds work, that is – honest pay for an honest day’s work. The slogan ennobles the struggle to get by in a crushingly limited and fragile economy just long enough to see your children join the Guard or go into debt at community colleges in order to compete for a mere handful of minwage retiree- or tourism-dependent  service jobs.

If those who disparage the Summer Complaints sometimes appear to be no better behaved than those on the other side of the cash register, it is to be expected. People treat as they are treated and this seasonal tourist economy is inherently opportunistic, a delicately balanced, cyclic ecosystem of disposable income, disposable natural and transient human resources, and (on both sides of the register) the desire for novelty and escape.

But once stressed, an ecosystem either adapts or fails.

In better times, probably the little things would go unnoticed. Yet now I cannot help but wonder, as the sun sets and the patrons abandon the Market stalls for the inn or for the warehouse floor, trampling as they go the shadow darkened grass, whether the look of disappointment on everybody’s face is just part of the cycle, or the beginning of its end.

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