Alienation 101

I never thought I’d feel this way, but thank god I went to college in the 1980s. Every day when I pick up the newspaper (and yes, I am one of those fossils who reads it in pulp form), it has some new story about how even the most enjoyable educational experiences have become yet more soul-sucking means to derive profit and manage time efficiently. College is becoming more and more homogenized, corporatized and, frankly, stupefying.

Last week I read about how due to budget considerations, even many private universities are placing video cameras in the classroom so that courses in everything from physics to philosophy can be broadcast online to hundreds, or even thousands, of students sitting in their dorm rooms wearing jammies.

I’m all for online classes for those who choose to continue their schooling while working or who live far from a campus. But forcing online classes on those scrimping and working to pay full fare while living on or near campus is a rip off for both faculty and students. Even the stats say so.

According to the Sloan Survey of Online Learning that appeared in the New York Times, “online education is exploding: 4.6 million students took a college-level online course during fall 2008, up 17 percent from a year earlier… . A large majority — about three million — were simultaneously enrolled in face-to-face courses.” Not surprisingly, students who have to sit and stare at a screen on their own not only do worse, but they also let unwatched classes pile up till the last minute.

Today, we can add remote-control clickers to cyberschooling—a concept that is so vile and alienating that I broke into a rant about it with a total stranger on the subway. The student sitting next to me practically wept describing his own classroom clicker tale of woe. These little remote-control nods to scientific management are either sold to students ($40–$60 each) or loaned to them, and each one is set to a student’s unique frequency that records when he or she enters the classroom, like punching a time clock.

Some professors, including one tweedy tool who teaches at my own alma mater, Northwestern University, uses clickers to give yes/no pop quizzes one minute after class is scheduled to begin. How mind-numbing. Clickers can also track whether students are grasping a concept. I suppose having a student raise her hand and ask a question is now outmoded, after all, why engage in human interaction when technology can relieve us of those pesky group conversations.

One aspect of alienation that Marx described was the way tools that humans design come to take over our lives, and instead of easing our labors they enslave us and drain away joy and creativity. Marx wrote about it quite eloquently: “Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour, we behold starving and overworking it. The new-fangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by loss of character.”

Marx, meet the classroom clicker.

I loved being a college student in the 1980s. It’s where my worldview evolved from loosey-goosey liberalism to socialism; where I interacted with people from all over. Some became famous, like my freshman roommate, the world-renowned composer, Augusta Read Thomas—she was Gusty when we shared a bunk bed; and Stephen Colbert, who was flamboyantly funny with his rainbow scarf and theatrical demeanor.

Most went on to quieter lives and I admire them intensely. Some write and edit socialist papers, books and magazines—Elizabeth, Alan, Lee, Lance and others who are super smart and insightful and they were really the ones who educated me about how to break out of my narrow existence and learn to grasp the world from other perspectives.

Day-to-day human interaction with professors, who, unlike today’s army of adjuncts, were financially compensated to allow them the opportunity to explain ancient Greek declensions and argue about Reconstruction, may not have fit neatly into some Fordist time management efficiency scheme, but they did enrich my life. No doubt, the Greek lessons played some role in my snagging a decent editorial job, and Black history led me to help mobilize my classmates against apartheid South Africa then and the death penalty now.

I’m not making an appeal to luddism. I’ve come to appreciate the joys of my Mac over my Smith Corona—even though I managed to score one with a nifty correction-ribbon. It’s that in any sane and healthy society, human interaction and conversation aren’t luxuries, they’re necessities. You can’t Tweet, text, click or Facebook a real democratic discussion and debate. Nothing will ever replace humans sitting around in real time having conversations, debating and learning from each other.

Perhaps that’s the point of all these scientific management principles applied to education—to eliminate the means for democracy.

My next talk will be on What’s Behind the Rise of the Right and What Can We Do to Stop it, NYC at the LGBT Center, Sat., Nov. 20, 7PM, click here for details.

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7 responses to “Alienation 101

  1. With our clickers we never have to leave our cells. Never have to interact with people who don’t look ,pray,screw,or think like us.Our world becomes our monitors ,pc and tv.So now we sit alone,afraid, our humanity gone.A distopian America within our reach.

  2. Amen, and I say that coming from the teaching side. On top of the whole Taylorization of learning, there’s also a sponsored army of “education” researchers within academia whose main task to is justify it all.

    I am convinced that the main point of it all is to accelerate the hiring of adjuncts, whose wages are shit and benefits zero. And, again, I am an adjunct.

    Depressing, as is just about every trend in this madhouse society.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with what you have posted here, Sherry. I’m an adjunct instructor who teaches online because it is easier to work that around my day job and family responsibilities than it was to maintain those responsibilities and a face-to-face teaching schedule. Alas, this also means that I don’t give my class or my students nearly the attention that they deserve. (One of the many consequences of being a zero-benefits, semester-by-semester adjunct with too many “streams of income.”) While many of my colleagues will tell you how wonderful online education is, and even cite studies to prove it, I know in my bones that higher administration isn’t pushing this because it is good for professors and students. At best, they simply want to keep up with trends, and at worst, the see that online courses are a cheap way to sell educational “product.” If I had known twenty years ago that this is what the academy would be about, I think I would have followed in my dad’s footsteps and become a skilled laborer.

  4. “It’s that in any sane and healthy society, human interaction and conversation aren’t luxuries, they’re necessities. You can’t Tweet, text, click or Facebook a real democratic discussion and debate. Nothing will ever replace humans sitting around in real time having conversations, debating and learning from each other.”

    Perhaps why progressive goals are still so far out of reach?? As long as we click on links, instead of sharing a pint at the local watering hole, I don’t think much will change.

  5. Sherry,

    I wholeheartedly agree with your criticisms of online classes, and as an instructor I resisted that trend as much as I could. Every time our administration would make some new push to increase online offerings you could see the dollar signs flashing in their eyes. I could rant on that for a long time…

    However, I think your criticism of clickers, while it is accurate in many scenarios, misses some of the potential of clickers to ameliorate tough situations. Clickers can be used terribly and add financial stress to students, but their original development and use was mostly to decrease student alienation. As a physics lecturer I was an early user of these devices, which helped us transform our large-enrollment courses from intellectually dead spaces where students silently struggled to decipher dry lectures, terrified to raise their hands, to spaces where introspection and debate among students was commonplace. We had students use the clickers to anonymously answer thought-provoking conceptual questions and then we could instantly post a bar graph of results for them, helping them to see they were not alone in whatever stance they were taking, giving them more confidence to discuss their reasoning in the small group discussions that would follow the initial poll, and then the full class discussion that would follow that.

    Of course, when I had the chance the following years to teach small classes where the students and I had the freedom to choose the content and pace of the course, and where I could ease the atmosphere of pressure by avoiding tests and grading almost completely, using clickers to foster debate would have been absurd.

    So I’ve always been opposed to large-lecture courses, especially courses where the students come in utterly terrified to speak or do anything else they feel may jeopardize their passing grades and thus their chances to be a doctor or whatever they have their hearts set on. However, at present these courses exist, and in some cases, clickers can, if used well, make these courses more engaging and more helpful for these young people. As with most technology, the issue is how it’s used, and that is usually driven by who is making those decisions, under what circumstances, and in whose interest.

  6. Sherry, I am an educational technology consultant (and also a Northwestern alum). In my previous life I was a university instructor, first as a graduate student and then visiting faculty, and taught courses on media representations of race and gender. While I agree that too often students are alienated in the classroom, I don’t believe it’s a function of the technology itself.

    As you yourself point out, a large part of the problem is that universities now rely largely on underpaid adjuncts and graduate students to teach. That system degrades the educational experience in many ways. While those underpaid instructors are skilled and dedicated, they are also overworked. And as precarious labor, they often can’t take the risk of engaging students too much lest they receive poor evaluations and lose their jobs. On a related note, students are treated as, and often think of themselves as consumers. These issues precede widespread use of educational technology.

    When it comes to uses of educational technology, I see that many problems arise from instructional design models and teaching philosophies rather than the technology itself. There are instructional design models that can lead to the McDonaldization of education and are too often employed to meet demand while keeping costs down. But there are alternatives. In the case of clickers, they can be used as a starting point for discussion rather than as an end in themselves. Clickers also provide instant feedback–the teacher can find out if students don’t quite understand something and proceed accordingly. I wish I had them in the large lecture courses I taught in the past. I would’ve loved to know what my students were thinking and if they needed a little extra help to understand. And while Twitter is no substitute for thoughtful reflection, it’s a great way to create a backchannel for students without disrupting the class. A forthcoming study on Twitter finds that students were more engaged because they could chat with other students online, and tweeting helped them focus more on the material. And while calling on students might be an alternative, clickers and Twitter provide the advantage of aggregation. For example, it is very helpful to learn that more than one student has the same question.

    And fwiw, while conversations in person can be enriching and exciting, they’re not always the best way to have a thoughtful discussion. For example, as I write up my comments here, I can take time to reflect on what others have written. I can compose a careful response. I don’t have to wait for more assertive speakers to give me a turn to speak. And while clicking on links doesn’t involve discussion, I may find articles and other resources I wouldn’t have found otherwise, like this blog. :)

  7. Your ranting is pathetic and you haven’t stepped into a classroom in a few years. You are a product of the 80s who hasn’t kept up with the times. I don’t see much “pulp” in your writing. You need to do some research and talk to your clients…

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