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Re: <nettime> New Media Education and Its Discontent
t byfield on Mon, 6 Oct 2003 10:35:22 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> New Media Education and Its Discontent


treborscholz {AT} earthlink.net (Sat 10/04/03 at 04:32 PM -0400):

> New Media Education and Its Discontent

there's something hilarious about the proposition that, were it not
for andrew jackson -- author, they say, of the quintessentially
all-american 'OK' ('oll korekt!') -- this country would be more
inclined love its intellectuals. in the service of this theory,
examples are offered which assume that what's needed most in the
discursive prisoners who are our 'leaders' -- the figureheads who 
sit atop baroque administrative empires -- isn't 'personality' but,
rather, intellect. one needn't endorse the outcomes of recent or
current elections to be skeptical about that argument. reigning in
these vast apparatuses requires an 'unproblematized' attitude toward
exercising power, but over the last few decades american intellec-
tuals (such as they are) have devoted staggering amounts of energy to
'problematizing' power from every perspective -- and then they wonder
why they have so little of the damn stuff. hey, we've got to blame
*someone* for this sorry state of affairs, so let's pick on a dead
white autodidact autocrat who 'hated...Jews, homosexuals and immi-
grants'! uh, but he died twenty years before the civil war. 'yeah,
well, it *would* take a lot of time for his ideology to propagate,
wouldn't it?!'

the plaint that intellectuals don't get the respect they deserve
emanates, of course, from those who would 'be' intellectuals. i'm not
sure what that's supposed to entail (and it'd be hard to find a better
way to describe what i've been doing for the last decade and a half),
but in the specific context given (the classroom) the telltale signs
of anti-intellectualism were diagnosed as '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, [and] by dispassionately
condemning intellectual debate as "boring."' luckily, the obvious
response -- that in some very intellectual circles these signs would
be seen as a healthy disregard for the authoritarian hypocrisy of the
classroom -- was saved by the bell, as it were: a pious invocation of
bell hooks, untertheorist of self-consciously intellectual cant about
'sites of resistance.'

weirdly, though, in trebor's recount, the people doing all this 'res-
isting' in the classroom seem to be the teachers, not the students.
like many mysterious inversions of logic, the truth of this proposi-
tion is hidden in plain sight: in a classroom, students *do* rule --
directly, through sheer number, and indirectly, through procedures
such as teacher evaluations (which definitely weren't developed by
anti-intellectuals). and how, he asks, can teachers be 'courageous' 
when those darned students get to speak their mind out-of-band, as 
it were, by saying mean stuff about teach to the boss? faced with this 
plight, the teacher's 'resistance' consists in part, he suggests, of 
being 'transformed.' maybe i'm missing something, but none of the best 
teachers i ever had -- in studying quite classical disciplines -- were 
transformed in the course of a semester; they did, however, know ex-
actly what they were teaching. iirc, their personal odyssey didn't 
play a big part in the syllabus, which mainly focused on transforming 
students from people who didn't know something into people who did. 

trebor claims that 'Media Study Departments bring together the most
relevant sources of knowledge.' this may be so, but that assumption is
hardly the clearest basis for constructing a curriculum, let alone a
syllabus. those tasks are much more banal, involving as they do the
orderly presentation (and, over the years, repetition) of whatever
'knowledge' is being supposed to be imparted. a field founded on the
presumption that it's the bee's knees is likely to have a hard time
explaining in plain terms (which students do tend to appreciate) what
exactly is being taught. 'relevance'? 'sources of knowledge'? 'cult-
ural theory, and literature to technical skill, from the vocational to
the conceptual'? could it be that media studies, however 'relevant,'
doesn't constitute a coherent field, discipline, or object capable of
sustaining a disciplinary structure that supports sustained inquiries
into Intellectualism and Art? could it be that the students are res-
ponding sensibly to a lack of clarity? that their 'careerism' is less
'anti-intellectual' than a pragmatic and affirmative request for the
department to please explain how they're supposed to make a living
with all these high-minded values? the (old-school) answer could well
be, 'well, if you're smart enough to ask that question we trust that
you'll be smart enough do what you're going to have to do anyway,
namely, figure it out for yourselves.' that'd be honest; but then the
line of inquiry would shift very quickly from top-down Art and Intel-
lectualism to bottom-up What the F---?. which would be an excellent
start for a real transformation -- of departmental assumptions, for
starters.

personally -- and i just graduated from teaching in a TAZish graduate
'design and technology' department to running an established undergrad
design department -- i don't have much patience with the idea that
students are 'customers' who can fickly demand their money's worth in
some microcontextual controversy. however, i have boundless patience
with the idea that each new wave of students presents a new macro-
context that should force us to define once again the worth of what we
teach, according to variable variables ranging from 'first principles'
to the speculative State of Things they'll contend with when they
graduate. ymmv, but cultural theory, literature, technical skill, the
vocational, and the conceptual seem more like meta-evaluations of a
curriculum than a curriculum per se. i'd be very happy if, in a few
years, students came back and said 'you taught us cultural theory and
literature!' -- but i'd be less receptive to a proposal for a course
that focused on these things. that's hardly an anti-intellectual
stance. and we don't really need geert to tell us that we need (these
are trebor's words, i think) 'problematic, off-track courses [that] 
provide skills that last much longer than the software applications or 
programming languages of the day' -- as if the implied caricature ac-
curately described the aims of the departments and teachers in question.
after all, our american anti-intellectual tradition has conjured up a 
few oddities like horace mann, for example, who through sheer force of 
(gasp!) Individual Will impressed upon vast numbers the idea that edu-
cators should teach people the skills they need to teach themselves. 
(he died ~15 years after andrew jackson, btw, and left a much greater
theoretical and practical mark on american education than the presi-
dent ever could have.)

it isn't every day that i sympathize with rumsfeld, but trebor's
mini-essay did the trick -- but mainly because the dichotomy it set
up, between (european, one assumes) Art and Intellectualism, on the 
one hand, and the anti-intellectualism and careerism of (american)
students, on the other, more than merely smacked of a too-easy 
america-versus-old-europe debate. denouncing american 'anti-intel-
lectualism' on this list and its neighborhood is a snap. what's harder 
-- *much* harder -- is identifying the native genius of american 
thought in order to tailor one's teaching to, yes, Actual Students. 
talk about 'false localism' would be much more convincing if it ac-
tually attended to the messy details of *american* localism, rather 
than the convenient whipping boy of mass-mediated representations, 
which are to america what the BBC lady is to the british accent.

if you want to know about the origins of anti-intellectualism in
america, then get thee to a library and read a good book on the
subject -- say, t. j. jackson lears's _no place of grace: anti-
modernism and the trabsformation of american culture_ is a good place
to start (and it's cheaper now that it's gone back into print). but
lears is a southerner, so his take on 'america' doesn't quite line up
with yankee norms, which of course is what these discussions of
'america' are *really* about, n'est pas? not about the Deep South
where, according to yankee psycho-cartography, there be dragons; not
about the mysteriously ill-defined 'midwest' which we all know is just
one big picasso-like context-free cornfield peppered with the
occasional hick in overalls chewing on straw and mumbling 'yup...';
not about all that dry whatever Out West with its pesky suburban
cowboy philosophers; and not about those left-coast freaks who, like,
are *totally* intew fluidity, you know, like, with their ((hang|surf|
skate|wind|snow)(board|skate|glid|sail)ing) and TM (meditation?
equity? whoa, d00d!) 'n' stuff. but, like, if you'd rather do some
field ethnography than dusty archival reading, you can always do as
the romans do: road trip!!! rest assured, you'll find that americans
are a very philosophical lot. 'intellectual' maybe not, but philosoph-
ical yes. with a little luck, you'll also discover that combing america 
for Intellectuals is a bit like combing the trobriand islands for
painters in the style of hans memling. you won't find any, but that's
not their fault. and it definitely doesn't mean that they aren't
thinking, or that what they *are* thinking is in any way inferior to a
presumptuous nostalgia for Art and Intellectualism. 

the irony of this all is that most 'new media' programs -- as in the
ones suffering from discontents (and they certainly do, in large part
because their terrain is ageing 'in internet years') -- are more akin
to polytechnic programs than humanities departments. as such, they
*do* tend to be more practical than philosophical in their orientation.
but many among their faculty were weaned on new-economy expectations 
about their own careers and therefore tend to see themselves in terms
that are more philosophical than practical. as a result, i suspect that
many of the discontents diagnosed stem not from students but, rather, 
from the teachers for whom the faithless description 'training HTML 
slaves' seems downwardly mobile in a bitter and recursive way. how ex-
actly one expects to teach 'new media' without regard for such basic 
*crafts* is beyond me, just as it's hard to understand how one would 
expect to teach 'old media' without attending to the intimate details 
of typography, editorial design, printing, and their analogs in audio, 
video, object, space, wayfinding, and so on. it makes no sense to work
in such a field yet regard its fundamental practices with contempt.
that's why it's such a pleasure to deal with a 'mere' design department, 
for which philosophy would be -- had it not already been so for decades 
-- an ever-present step *up*, and one that students accustomed to *mak-
ing* things (within a very coherent discipline) appreciate. their phi-
losophizing may not be up to snuff with the state of the art in the 
humanities; but that's fine, because the state of the humanities in
the US is pretty pathetic -- a recursively reflexive business that has
yet to fully grok how the fact of its shrinking share of the overall 
the higher-ed graduate market is itself undermining the vigor and 'rel-
evance' of the work it produces. on the other side, the philosophies 
at play in design may be 'applied,' but only from the purist realm of 
Theory could 'applied' be a pejorative. if the 'elite' status of the 
non-applied made its proponents feel better (or 'whatever,' as us am-
ericans say), fine, but is it? when concerns about teaching in a par-
ticular mode or context lead to diagnoses of rampant anti-intellectu-
alism, my guess is that it isn't. 

cheers,
t

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