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<nettime> New Media Education and Its Discontent
trebor scholz on Sun, 5 Oct 2003 07:06:55 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> New Media Education and Its Discontent


New Media Education and Its Discontent
 
³Š home are the people for whom I take responsibility.²
--------------Vilem Flusser in ³The Freedom of the Migrant²

The Brazilian philosopher Vilem Flusser wrote much about the exile freely
taking responsibility. I am in the fortunate position to enjoy teaching in a
technology-based university department in the United States. I chose to take
responsibility for the (new media) education of my students. And yet I
experience conflicts among which student anti-intellectualism ranks first.

 A few anecdotal examples: one student reports how her high school teachers
incessantly lied to her in their "interpretation" of world history and how
that stirred up suspicion of "the intellectual." Another student claims that
because of the availability of material online he feels less inclined to
study the conclusions that other people draw from these texts as he himself
can make up his mind. A graduate student recounts experiences he had as a
critical technical practitioner in the early 90s when intellectuals applied
the knowledge in their field to what he calls his own and quickly received a
lot of visibility while not really understanding the issues due to a lack of
technical insight. Students ask what it means to be intelligent and raise
concerns that the class overlooks the type of knowledge that their
grandmothers have, a very local and emotional insight. Maybe not
surprisingly most distrust intellectuals in this country, calling them
elitist, out of touch with this world, and view them as irrelevant.
Completely quiet until then, one graduate student suddenly erupts in a
candid impromptu lecture about the history of anti-intellectualism in the
United States (he surely was trained to defend his position throughout his
high school years). He traces it back to President Andrew Jackson, who
received "sporadic education," wiped out Indian tribes and did not hesitate
to shoot verbal contenders. Jackson hated people who knew more than he did.
Coincidentally they were the Jews, homosexuals and immigrants of the time.
John Quincy Adams, the sixth US president said of Jackson that he "cannot
spell more than one word in four." The brave student then linked Jackson's
presidency to the history of the extreme right in the United States and the
prevalence of anti-intellectualism in this country up to this day. The
California recall-election is a good example in which the candidate with the
most ³personality² may win over those with intellect and experience in
politics. The last presidential elections also proved this point.

The debate about anti-intellectualism has become more vocal in classrooms
across America for the past 10 years.  "Anti-intellectualism," in my
encyclopedia, is described as "hostility towards, or a mistrust of
intellectuals, and their intellectual pursuits. This may be expressed in
various ways, such as an attack on the merits of science, education, or
literature.² The definition continues: "In another sense,
anti-intellectualism reflects an attitude that simply takes
'intellectualism' with a grain of salt--inasmuch as intellectuals may be
vain or narcissistic in their self-image, so too may they be understood by
Œcommon people.¹² And let's add some more from this source (leaving aside
how problematic the term Œcommon people¹ obviously is):
"Anti-intellectualism is found in every nation on earth, but has become
associated in particular with the United States of America. It existed in
the US before the nation itself; the New England Puritan writer John Cotton
wrote in 1642 that ŒThe more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act
for Satan will you bee.¹ Anti-intellectual folklore values the self-reliant
and Œself-made man,¹ schooled by society and by experience, over the
intellectual whose learning was acquired through books and formal study."

Concretely, anti-intellectualism manifests itself in the class room by not
reading assignments, not contributing to class discussion, complaining about
a high work load, skipping class, giving low evaluations to instructors with
high standards, not bothering to do extra work, by dispassionately
condemning intellectual debate as "boring." Incidents of racism and
xenophobia in the classroom can be seen as part of the same problem.

 bell hooks describes the "pleasure of teaching" as an "act of resistance
countering the overwhelming boredom, uninterest, and apathyŠ" In her book,
"Teaching to Transgress," hooks describes teaching as a site for resistance,
a place where the teacher must practice being vulnerable, and wholly
present. I agree with her- the teacher¹s vulnerability brings a sense of a
real, conflictual person to the classroom that encourages students to
develop a similarly genuine expression of their position, free of sarcasm
and false irony. This approach is more about learning than teaching- it is a
process full of productive conflict in which the instructor is also
transformed. Isn't it more fulfilling to be skilled than unskilled, to know
than to not know, to inquire than to be self-satisfied, to strive than to be
apathetic? What does learning mean? What does it mean to be in a place like
a university where you have the opportunity of knowledge being presented to
you, and time to reflect and navigate your own orientation?

 Media Study Departments bring together the most relevant sources of
knowledge-- from cultural theory, and literature to technical skill, from
the vocational to the conceptual. It is important to create an understanding
of the importance of conceptual work in students.  New media education faces
other issues like the apparent tension between teaching theory and
production, between those who ³think for a living² and others who are on the
³cutting edge² of technological innovation.  In my classroom I experience
much careerism, which I see both, as a result and a cause of student
anti-intellectualism. Increasingly, career-minded students see college as an
imposition between high school and the good life. The focus for many
undergraduate students is on acquiring software and programming skills,
which they value as the only stepping-stones to a corporate job. At the same
time new media educators all over the country find it increasingly painful
to prepare the next generation for their career as HTML slaves. In this
³tech prep² atmosphere, emphasizing employability, art becomes increasingly
³applied art.² On the other hand, there is a severe problem for those
talented graduates who decide not to seek shelter in the ³industry.² They
become new media artists and apart from hard-to-get positions in academia
there are few places that will finance them. In the North of Europe the
situation differs somewhat as grants may cover the new media artist's
livelihood.

Career-minded students often think that the cutting edge medium will get
them ³that job,² with the "new and hip" constantly being in transition. "I
don't know why we look at work in the Internet- it is already 10 years old."
Students make similar demands of texts: "I don't know why we read this, it¹s
written in 1995- that's dated now." And universities often buy into this
perceived industry standard instead of focusing on general skills such as
independent critical thinking that get students much further.

  How could we develop a curiosity for (art) history that then leads to, for
example- web based art or graphics programming? The pure application of
software programs or programming creates the most boring people says John
Hopkins, quoted by Geert Lovink in his recent book "My First Recession"--
"it's like amateur photo-club members comparing the length of their
telephoto lensesŠ² Many in the programming communities are distrustful of
the humanities because in their view they have little to contribute to their
field. In addition it is an almost impossible challenge for a single human
being to keep up with the development of all those tools. Lovink writes,
"universities still consider the computer/ new media industries as somehow
emulating a film-industry model, with a stable set of skills each person
goes out into the world with after graduation.² He suggests that instead,
the most important task is to loosen up to a transient world of employment/
work/ play and disabusing students of the notion that there is an
³industry.² It needs problematic, off-track courses, Lovink argues, because
they usually provide skills that last much longer than the software
applications or programming languages of the day. What is in the long-term
interest of students may not be immediately clear to them and it takes
courage on the side of the instructor to insist on their vision.

 I have been asked about the difference between European and US American
academia. Comparing teaching at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany with my
teaching in American universities I see indeed vast differences. The German
educational system is heavily based on student¹s initiative. In Britain,
where I studied for an M.F.A., most of learning took place within the
student group. English tutors contributed inspiring cross-disciplinary
anecdotes and encouraged a spirit of self-criticism. I taught art history,
new media art practices and critical theory at universities in the North and
South West of the United States and now on the East Coast. I experienced
American students as often not willing to overcome the initial hindrances
that are needed to make discourse joyful.

Reading a text is like entering a room of people talking and unless we learn
about their previous exchanges we will never be in the know but instead get
frustrated. Knowledge is nothing innate, nothing we are born with or which
we inherited. Often mistakenly introduced into this debate are the likes of
Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison who had little schooling yet high
intellectual achievements.

 All too often students judge texts based on their unwillingness to do the
initial work that is necessary to enjoy theory. Rather than talking about
building self-esteem (enough already) we need to talk about hard work and
discipline (even if that may sound Protestant). How useful are Paulo
Freire¹s notions of a pedagogy of dialogue and informal teaching in the
context of today¹s US new media education that already is quite informal and
horizontal? I see the disinterest in study caused by a widespread
delegitimization of reading and print culture, and partially by popular
culture that glorifies triviality, and mindlessness. Stanley Aranowitz in
"Education and Cultural Studies" (ed. Henry A. Giroux) writes: "School
should be a place where the virtues of learning are extolled (a) for their
own sake and (b) for the purpose of helping students to become more active
participants in the civic life of their neighborhoods, their cities, and the
larger world." It is hard to bring everyday political events home, to make
students realize how deeply linked our lives are to those of the people at
the other side of town, or in Rwanda, Kosovo, Srebrenica, Afghanistan or
Iraq. The trivial, localized focus of TV news reporting certainly does not
help in internationalizing students, in opening up their views to a larger
horizon. This false localism stops students from aiming with their artworks
at larger international (new media) art audiences. By the same token this
localism or regionalism should not prevent new media departments from
developing international relationships.

 In the American consumer-driven educational system, mainly part time or
untenured faculty¹s academic careers rely on student evaluations, which is
where the system in itself is deeply at fault. How can an instructor be
courageous under these constraints? The meaning of teaching can be found in
the Latin word "professio,² which means declaration. To be a professor means
to declare your beliefs, which may not by any means go down well with
students. This stance purposefully creates tension, which comprises true
learning, a friction that makes it clearer for a student where s/he stands.
Teaching, in the sense of Edward Said's notion of the public intellectual,
cannot mean to please, it cannot aim at consumer sovereignty, and it cannot
mean that the customer is easily and completely satisfied. The consumer
model implies that the university offers "services." Courses are shaped to
satisfy students who think of themselves as consumers who conveniently with
next to no effort (as in shopping), graduate. If this is what teaching is
about, it fails its mission. Students should open themselves up to
successful learning. And the ³success² in ³successful learning,² according
to Bertold Brecht stands for being educational, creating change in the real
live world. Students should get "electrified" by the widely unexplored field
of new media.

Trebor Scholz

 ---
Net Cultures: Art, Politics, and the Everyday
http://molodiez.org/net/syllabus.html

Fibre Culture New Media Education
http://www.fibreculture.org/newmediaed/index.html

Geert Lovink ³The Battle over New Media Art Education. Experiences and
Models.² in ³My First Recession. Critical Internet Culture in Transition²
V2_/NAi Publishers, 2003


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