Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Roads to Nowhere?

'If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there.' Baseball great Yogi Berra famously gave directions to his home: “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” Supposedly, either way, you'd get to the house. Sometimes any road will take you where you want to go. This, of course, is one of the beauties of the Internet: there are always multiple pathways from any one place to any other. No road is irrevocably wrong. Still, what Chirstine Borgman, in Scholarship in the Digital Age, calls “a complex environment of social, technical, economic, and political trends” gets more and more so every day, we do need to continue to try to understand it, to map it--though today, much more than ever in the past, any map we make is flawed or worse.

In The Tyranny of Words, Stuart Chase discussed this problem of the relation between map, mapped, and user on the eve of World War II:

Confusions persist and increase because we have no true picture of the world outside, and so cannot talk to one another about how to stop them. Again and again I come back to the image of the map. How can we arrive at a given destination by following a grossly inaccurate map, especially when each adventurer has a map with different inaccuracies? Better language can clear away many nonexistent locations which clutter the maps we now carry. It will help us talk sensibly with one another as to where we are, why we are here, and what we must do to get there. If the characteristics of people and groups are in fact different from the characteristics our charts and theories ascribe to them, the charts are dangerous, and we run into reefs instead of sailing through open channels. If people do not in fact behave as our ideas of “fascism” expect them to behave, we are rendered helpless in dealing with the happenings which go under that label.

The faith in language Chase describes (if it is just 'better') seems touchingly naïve today. The problem with this confidence in 'better language' (today it would be 'better technology'), is that improvement also expands things, creating new problems even as the refinements and developments solve old ones. We may have defeated fascism, but another totalitarian system threatened soon after. Today, that system has collapsed, but the world seems even less mappable and understandable (and less controllable—a map, of course, being a symbol of control as well as understanding) than ever before.

Overwhelmed by increasingly complex entities around them, people (tea-partiers, for example) long for an imagined past of simplicity, of knowledge they can believe in—much more passionately than others supported Barack Obama's “change we can believe in.” The problem is, however, as Neil Postman describes it in his talk “Informing Ourselves to Death,” that we live “in a world without spiritual or intellectual order, nothing is unbelievable; nothing is predictable, and therefore, nothing comes as a particular surprise.” Not even change is believable. But neither is the imagined past of the new conservatives.

In information terms, the Internet, we are finding, has two clear and immediate uses, depending on the mindset of the user: it can validate prior belief or it can open the door to relativism. In this, it is not that different from the intellectual tools long available to us. However, if it is used primarily for the former (as is occurring in tea-party parts of American culture), the Web may become an agent of cultural calcification, helping close in cultures as certainly as China was closed in, two hundred and some years ago, when it refused to face (culturally speaking) the challenge of the newly technological West. Or, if the cultural mindset is expansive, willing to accept risk and challenge, it could lead to surprising and positive results, as may be happening today in Africa where cellular communications technology is meeting cultural needs and opening up possibilities for cultures that have felt stymied in the modern world for decades. Like the bicycle a century ago and the moped more recently, the cell phone is proving to be something that Africans can embrace and make use of on their own, perhaps even breaking the grip of 'underdevelopment.' As in China, though, as in the United States, competing forces of cultural conservatism and cultural change will certainly affect the speed and the extent of the influence of the new technology even there. I just hope the calcification doesn't block any of us completely, leaving us maps to possibilities but roads to nowhere.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Wrong Standards

The very idea of standards is backward looking--even when standards are necessary. It cannot be otherwise: It's impossible to measure the future, and standards are based on measurement; that is, they can take advantage only of the things that can be measured—things that are, not things that might be. Speculation cannot be utilized, for it is inherently variable and, therefore, non-standard. The same is true of personal judgment. Standards, with the false sense of stability they necessarily provide, present the image of a rigid, unchanging world, one of absolutes, of truth, of certainty.

A world unlike the one we experience, or even the one that we find on the Web.

And our attitudes towards standards, our acceptance of them, are inherently conservative, too, especially when we talk of the raising of them as a goal for education. Not only do any standards we propose reflect an immediately out-of-date perception of the world, but they reinforce it. Through the standardized testing at the heart of our contemporary quest for standards, we create the idea that answers exist as as things, as veins of gold in territory student must explore. Answers become part of the countable, part of the world, and part of the past.

In terms of education and the digital age, there's a problem with this. In the future (even in the present), unlike on standardized tests—or on any multiple-choice tests—there is no guarantee that a correct answer exists. There is no guiding intelligence setting up correct answers behind a Google search, merely an algorithm blindly executed by the search program. Oddly, in the outward form of a search, there's a correspondence to the multiple-choice question. We may create the question, but we also choose the answer, just as on the test. Unfortunately, though, the search engines, for all of their advertised claims, do not provide answers, only correspondences. Turning those into answers is up to the user. That very task, however, is missing from a multiple-choice test, where the job is one of identification, and in specified and preset conditions only.

The mindset created by the testing environment is antithetical, at the very least, to competent usage of the World Wide Web; the attitude towards information we are now developing in the minds of American children will only hamper them when they turn to the Internet as adults. Though search-engine results may look like a menu of possible answers, the task simply being identification of the correct one, the similarity is only skin deep.

Though we may believe we are creating new and higher standards, all we are doing through our reliance on standardized testing is making it more and more difficult for students to meet the standards they will encounter in the future.

Everyone knows all this.

Why, then, do we continue our fascination with quantifiable standards?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

We Can Have (and Believe in) Both!

In the Preface to Androcles and the Lion, George Bernard Shaw notes the ability of people to hold contradictory ideas as true at once:

As the gospels stand, St. Matthew and St. Luke give genealogies (the two are different) establishing the descent of Jesus through Joseph from the royal house of David, and yet declare that not Joseph but the Holy Ghost was the father of Jesus. It is therefore now held that the story of the Holy Ghost is a later interpolation borrowed from the Greek and Roman imperial tradition. But experience shows that simultaneous faith in the descent from David and the conception by the Holy Ghost is possible. Such double beliefs are entertained by the human mind without uneasiness or consciousness of the contradiction involved.... It is quite possible that Matthew and Luke may have been unconscious of the contradiction: indeed the interpolation theory does not remove the difficulty, as the interpolators themselves must have been unconscious of it. A better ground for suspecting interpolation is that St. Paul knew nothing of the divine birth, and taught that Jesus came into the world at his birth as the son of Joseph, but rose from the dead after three days as the son of God. Here again, few notice the discrepancy: the three views are accepted simultaneously without intellectual discomfort. We can provisionally entertain half a dozen contradictory version of an event if we feel either that it does not greatly matter, or that there is a category attainable in which the contradictions are reconciled.

Perhaps this is the basis for the ease with which Americans manage to believe, today, in so many things that patently contradict each other. After all, in mathematics, if you are willing to accept that something can be divided by zero, you can prove any proposition. Just so, if you are willing to believe in one set of contradictory ideas, moving on to acceptance of others could not be too difficult.

Lewis Carroll probably understood best the mental gyrations making this possible. In Through the Looking Glass, he presents this exchange between Humpty Dumpty and Alice:

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master -- that's all.'

Logic, and consistency, are subsumed in human desire to control the world, to be the master—of our surroundings and of our thoughts. If we want to believe something, we will. Most of the time, we are tethered strongly enough to earth to keep or desires from getting out of hand. But not always—and therein, of course, lies the danger. George Orwell writes in his short essay “In Front of Your Nose”:

we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.

And there, of course, is where it gets most dangerous, and where the cords attaching us to reality and consistency most easily snap. Where we can find ourselves fighting for peace, for example, or falling in line for freedom. Where we find ourselves believing the propaganda that keeps us struggling (for good or for bad).

This only works, however, when we want to believe the propaganda. As Eric Hoffer writes in The True Believer:

The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. It penetrates only into minds already open, and rather than instill opinion it articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients.

This happens most easily when that mind is already primed to accept contradictory ideas. If you already believe that war is peace, then you can wrap your mind around just about anything, if you so desire.

In America, these days, we're getting to the fanciful point of believing, as they say, that we can have our cake and eat it, too. Tea Partiers want government spending cut, but increased for them. We're no longer acting rationally, having divided by zero so many times that even our metaphors have come untethered. In The Public Philosophy, Walter Lippmann wrote:

A rational man acting in the real world may be defined as one who decides where he will strike a balance between what he desires and what can be done. It is only in imaginary worlds that we can do whatever we wish. In the real world there are always equations which have to be adjusted between the possible and the desired. Within limits, a man can make a free choice as to where he will strike the balance. If he makes his living by doing piece-work, he can choose to work harder and to spend more. He can also choose to work less and spend less. Bu he cannot spend more and work less.

Except, we no longer believe that.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Keller Method, Updated: One Possible Way for Improving Higher Education

How might universities and colleges be structured to reflect the needs of the 21st century?

Nothing I could suggest is going to be perfect, or even practical. But change is needed. Our present system was designed for an age that has slipped away. If we don't begin to try, at least, to find means of educating that reflect the changing needs of students and society, the United States is going to further slip behind in an evolving world.

What I want to suggest, first, is that we find new ways of approaching the core curriculum. This is a little easier than looking at the needs of more advanced students, for all students take most of the core courses, making coordination simpler.

First, I would change our department structures, leaving them responsibilities for hiring, renewal, promotion, and tenure—and for oversight of majors—but taking from them direct oversight of the core. This would become the responsibility of a separate structure composed out of faculty directly involved in the core. I am not going to worry right now about how that structure would look... after all, this is only a dream, and a rather tentative one, at that. The point is that it be multi-disciplinary.

Faculty involved in the core program would work in teams of five, each team responsible for a group of 125 students. Every other week, each of the team would give a fifty-minute lecture related to their specialty and the work the students are engaged in, a lecture prepared with awareness of what they others are lecturing on and with motivation being at least one purpose. That means these lectures would be expected to be entertaining as well as informational and would deal with the more sweeping aspects of the particular fields and their places within the world.

Lecture halls that could hold upwards of 125 students and staff would have to be crafted, but there would be no necessity of the traditional, smaller classroom. Space once devoted to them could be used for screening rooms, conference rooms (with space for up to a dozen to work together), study carrels with complete Web access, and more. The purpose will be to have created a flexible environment where work individually and in teams can be initiated and completed as need be.

The role of the teacher, in this environment, would be heavily bureaucratic—developing curricula, coordinating with other instructors, monitoring progress, etc. But there would also be more chance for substantial time working with particular students and groups of students on specific projects. In ”Good-bye, Teacher,”, Fred Keller outlines the basic role of the instructor:
The instructor will have as his principal responsibilities: (a) the selection of all study material used in the course: (b) the organization and the mode of presenting this material; (c) the construction of tests and examinations; and (d) the final evaluation of each student's progress. It will be his duty, also, to provide lectures, demonstrations, and discussion opportunities for all students who have earned the privilege; to act as a clearing-house for requests and complaints; and to arbitrate in any case of disagreement between students and proctors or assistants.

Heavy emphasis would be placed on student responsibility, one to each other, ability to progress being tied to performance of tasks of assistance to other students.

In a particular day, a student might start by checking the scheduling program and choosing a lecture to attend, attendance monitored through PDAs. The student, needing work on an area of weakness, might seek out a group signaling interest in that area and attend an impromptu workshop. At another point in the day, the student might check in with others working on a particular group project, might work through individualized readings or instruction of another sort, might tutor another student or receive individualized tutoring... all of this monitored through PDAs. Teachers and students would frequently communicate, both in person and through the Web.

Keller provides a list of the distinct aspects of the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) or 'Keller Method' or 'Mastery' on which I would base this program:
(1) The go-at-your-own-pace feature, which permits a student to move through the course at a speed commensurate with his ability and other demands upon his time.
(2) The unit-perfection requirement for advance, which lets the student go ahead to new material only after demonstrating mastery of that which preceded.
(3) The use of lectures and demonstrations as vehicles of motivation, rather than sources of critical information.
(4) The related stress upon the written word in teacher-student communication; and, finally:
(5) The use of proctors, which permits repeated testing, immediate scoring, almost unavoidable tutoring, and a marked enhancement of the personal-social aspect of the educational process.

This type of program was first introduced more than fifty years ago, though within the discipline of Psychology and not across the curriculum. It also stems, in this particular, from the 'learning communities' concept, but with more strength than the generally anemic LCs that I have so often seen in operation. Though it is still used at times (it is one of the sparks behind the ongoing Peer Led Team Learning program that originated at City College and that we are working on using as an aid to writing classes at my own New York City College of Technology, a sister CUNY campus), PSI has pretty much disappeared over the past thirty years, as colleges have regressed into a more static model of teaching and the classroom.

There's a great deal more to this than I have outlined here. What I am doing right now is expressing what could be one way of restructuring a part of our college and university learning environments in a way that could make students more active in their learning while breaking down some of the walls that we have constructed within our institutions.

Something of this nature could even be used without shaking our structures too terribly much. It would allow students to gain experience working in teams, designing their own program (I have not gone into that here, but it could even include a 'stretch' feature allowing students to take more than a single semester to complete certain work), working with digital possibilities as aids to their education, and much more.

My point isn't that this is the way to go, simply that there are ways of releasing our colleges and universities from the clutches of ways of thinking about education that no longer meet the needs of students or society. We need to be exploring them.

Even the pathways that prove to be dead ends will provide more to the students than does the system that we have in place right now. After all, one learns from failure as much as one does from success.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Can We Educate Ourselves to Educate?

David Horowitz rails against the 'indoctrination' of American students by radical leftist professors. He isn't the only one—it's quite common to hear how universities are subverting the beliefs of youth. Problem is, it ain't happening; even if some try it (debatable), they have proven incompetent. The radical professors have been in place since the sixties. If, in fifty years, they haven't managed to shift America to the left, they aren't going to manage it now.

That doesn't mean that our universities are shining examples of learning and productivity. Or that they are preparing American youth to effectively draw on the best of its past for a stronger future. They have their weaknesses. It's just that they aren't the ones Horowitz manufactures.

In his Times piece the other day, Stanley Fish unwittingly pointed out one of the core problems: We're turning to the Enlightenment of the 18th century for our vision of education and not to the needs and possibilities of our own age. This is as useful as it would have been in 1720 to look to the University of Paris of 1400 for guidance on how to structure the newly renamed and changing Yale College. Sure, there's always something to learn from the past, but the new world sparked by Gutenberg and vigorous European exploration and by resurgent science and philosophy (not to mention looming industrialization) were changing not only the needs to be met by education but the very nature of the pupil.

Even then, there were plenty of people who looked back to a style of education that had outlived its usefulness. It would take at least another century and a half, really (in America, at least), for the 'modern' university to emerge—but it did, and it reflected new possibilities and possessed new vigor.

Whatever their remaining strengths, contemporary universities have lost that vigor, and they explore new possibilities only insofar as they relate to the business models of the private sector. If they look back to Kant, as Fish claims, they also stare admiringly at old structures of consumption, equating what they are doing with the way products were once made for choices in the marketplace, education becoming something bought and sold, the student merely consumer.

Even in this, they are behind the curve. The economic model they are using for redesign is rapidly being cast off today, as savvy corporations are realizing that the money's no longer in the simple transactions of buying and selling, but in development of connectivities that might even include constantly giving product away or involving consumers themselves in product design or working with consumers to educate both seller and buyer towards creation and utilization of a more effective product. These are not new concepts, of course, but they have become many times more powerful as a result of digital possibilities than ever they were before. The irony is that the new models require that consumers be educated before they participate—educated broadly, not narrowly.

The developing model of the marketplace has moved away from the smorgasbord, from the menu of discrete items. Look at Google: what it has created is a new place for interaction, for buying and selling, taking the older television, radio, and even print-media advertising model (offering something for 'free' or for little cost, supporting it by piggy-backing advertising) and making it much more pliable in customer hands. Instead of building it and hoping they would come, Google has gone to where they are and has built something with them.

Colleges and universities have yet to understand what this change can mean for them, still seeing their offerings as the one way. They continue to embrace the old image of the customer as simply a chooser and consumer just as that model is falling out of favor in the business community.

Not that the model ever worked for education: if the idea of the rational and educated consumer was nonsense in the marketplace (as it is, as most of our advertising proves), it is ludicrous in education, where the whole point is that the student doesn't yet know. Yet there are still plenty of educational institutions operating on the principle that students can make educated choices even before they are educated enough to make those choices.

At the core of what is going on in the marketplace is a shift towards a new type of interaction between business and consumer, one that puts much more emphasis not on choice (though that's what the colleges and universities seem to imagine it is) but on flexibility. And on involvement. When I say I start my classes where my students are, I am reflecting something of today's business attitude, especially when I then tailor the semester to the specific needs the students and I identify. Instead of proceeding solely along lines laid out in advance on a syllabus, I re-draw the lines as we go.

None of what I do is new, any more than what is happening in the marketplace. In both instances, we are responding to new possibilities to make actual what has long been latent. The advantage that a businessperson has, today, is that the old, rigid structures of business have been cut back enough to allow for experimentation and success. We've seen the toppling to those that can't change (Chrysler and GM) and their restructuring so that they can face a new environment. Nothing like that has happened in education. It just gets more top-heavy and more committed to ways of doing things long ago shown in need of replacement.

Fred Keller's Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) and Mastery have been around for decades. They are proven effective and perfectly adaptable now that we have the flexibility of the Web and the breadth of digital possibilities. And there are other models, just as ignored and just as good. But we stick with our old models for teaching, instead, models based on limit, not expansion.

Even our online teaching works in heavily guarded silos rather than in the expansive universe we've been creating these past twenty years. Our classrooms remain walled off and the kingdoms of the individual instructors. Fields of study are narrow and jealously guarded. In all, we are acting like businesses before World War I, and not like the forward-looking institutions we imagine ourselves to be.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there were a number of attempts to re-envision higher education. They've all now faded into insignificance as our colleges and universities have retreated into models that would surprise no one of the 1930s.

If we want to create higher education that will be of value to the 21st century and not the 19th, we are going to have to scrap, first, our physical and bureaucratic structures. The classroom may have worked 100 years ago; it doesn't, today. The discrete course might fit with Victorian ideas of the divisions of knowledge (and the units of knowledge), but it can't contain any body of knowledge today.

In ”Good-bye, Teacher," Keller describes a situation that centers on the student, but within a structured environment of classrooms, labs, study areas, and more, where the student moves from one to the other at his or her own pace, setting his or her own agenda—though within the confines established by the course designers. The student also becomes responsible for assisting in the learning of other students and, ultimately, for the continuing evolution of the course itself.

PSI, or Mastery, as it came to be known, has proven effectiveness. The problem is, it does not fit within traditional educational structures. It can, however, work well within new digital environments, as long as they are yoked to physical environments as well (though not necessarily to the traditional classroom), for face-to-face interaction is necessary to effective education, as necessary as any other resource.

Today, we don't need the older structures, yet we are wedded to them more securely than even GM was. If it took bankruptcy and a bailout to move GM even a little, it may take even more to change education—and our universities are not structured so that the wake-up-call of bankruptcy can be used to get them going.

I want to teach my students. But I don't want to simply teach them “content” (which is what Horowitz wants us to concentrate on). I want to teach them to learn, to adapt, to use the new possibilities that arise around them. This gets more and more difficult in institutions that are rigid, that have learned nothing themselves in a century, that have not adapted to a changing world, and that use nothing but what they've used before (for they do nothing but what they've done before).

There are two things we need to be doing that we, in higher education, have not been doing enough of. First, we need to start educating ourselves for the future rather than assuming that what we've done in the past will work just as well in the future. Second, we really must start involving our students more directly in their education--not as consumers and simply as actors in planned exercises, but as vibrant participators in their own education, interacting with us not as 'guides on the side' or 'sages on the stage' (to use the stale images of a generation ago) but as teachers--something different from either guides or sages. Teachers don't show; they help students make knowledge their own.

Which is what 'starting where the student is' is all about. Which is what education should be all about.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Don't Include Me in Your We, Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish has noticed that both David Horowitz and Ward Churchill (and Norman Finkelstein and Cornell West, among others) are conservatives when it comes to education.

Well, yes. This has been one of the sources of my anger at the faculty of American institutions of higher education for years—and one of my sources of respect for David Horowitz (respect, not admiration). Though they dress themselves up in leftist clothing, even the most “radical” of American academics live lives of conservative protectionism. Horowitz, at least, had the courage to admit that his radicalism was a sham, that he is, at heart, of a most conservative nature.

Now that I am an academic myself, having abandoned my life as a retailer and cafe owner, having achieved tenure and having committed to an academic career for as long, I hope, as I am able to work, I have quite conflicted views on my fellows. On the one hand, I tend to look down on those who espouse revolution from their cozy chambers. They don't have the courage of their convictions, nor have many of them ever experienced the insecurity of lives either in small business entrepreneurship or at the lower end of the economic chain—nor have any of them really gotten to know anyone who has. On the other hand, I have found that I'm quite happy to join them without shedding my own rather radical beliefs—which makes me more than a little uncomfortable.

One of the most influential books on my young life was George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. At the time, I did not understand the support system he had that allowed him to 'tramp' as he did—any more than I understood why I was able and willing to do my own 'tramping' (I, too, had a family to turn to, were things to get too nasty). But, like Orwell, I learned a great deal. Not only did I learn that I could shovel all kinds of things for a living, clean toilets and dishes, pump gas, stock shelves, and do a variety of other tasks, but I got to know the people who were stuck in that sort of life. Like Orwell, I could (and did) get out. Like him, I have retained the radicalism confirmed by my experiences in the lower reaches of employment.

The greatest lesson I learned is that there is creativity—and intelligence—everywhere. The abilities spread amongst the employees of a supermarket are no less than those of a super university. This is why I will have a problem, if I ever leave New York City College of Technology for a school with a better reputation: my students are just discovering they are smart, having been told by society for all their lives that they aren't as good as the rest. Students at “better” schools have been among Garrison Keillor's “above average” since preschool.

When one's life is spent cocooned in the self-congratulatory atmosphere of most academic institutions, one necessarily develops a sense of entitlement, an entitlement of extremely conservative nature. Change of any sort threatens it—which is why even the most “radical” of academics tend to be stalwart supporters of tenure, a system conservative by nature. They justify their support of it by claiming it protects outsider opinions, but that's never really been the case, the system of achieving tenure being such that only the most timid achieve it (one of the reasons I am not as proud of my new status as I would like to be). The real revolutionaries, politically or within academic fields, have long since been tossed out.

Yes, some (like Churchill and Finkelstein) become victims of tenure and review systems (one deservedly, the other not—one who had actually been granted tenure, the other not), but the desire, generally, is to get back inside—not to establish another, more radical, more egalitarian, more revolutionary system.

Though Horowitz believes that the radical professors are indoctrinating students in philosophies that undermine the relatively conservative American system, even this is not the case. Though leftist lines may be spouted, the example provided by these “radicals” is extremely conservative. They have bought into a system that is quite hierarchical, quite rigid, and quite reactionary. Nothing about our academic institutions promotes change, but rewards sticking to pattern—even grades do this.

The irony of Horowitz's battle against American academics is that they really are his allies. On one level, he retains an anger against them as insiders (he never achieved the academic credentials that they have, having earned only an MA degree) protecting themselves against challenge from those who (like he) have rejected their alliance. But that's an emotional response, not a rational one. On another, he sees them as the perfect foil, their hypocrisy allowing him to pick them off at leisure while pretending to his own 'conservative revolutionary' stance. He can fight them with confidence that he will never lose: should they “succeed,” nothing will change; should he “succeed,” nothing will change. They are all invested in protecting the same systems, ones that, in my radical view, should be completely dismantled—but that the 'radical professors' want to retain just as much as Horowitz does.

Fish sees both Horowitz and 'the professors' fighting for the same thing, a Kantian view of the university as a place for increased enlightenment. He writes:
To be sure, there are some things to fear, but their names are not West or Chomsky or Horowitz. The forces — call them neoliberal, call them corporate capitalism, call them political indoctrination — that have in different ways turned the university away from the emancipatory project Kant called us to (and every one of these authors celebrates) are enemy enough. We don’t have to demonize each other.

My response comes from the hoary joke, where the Lone Ranger asks Tonto, when they are surrounded by Indians and out of bullets, “What do we do now?” Tonto replies, “What do you mean 'we,' white man?” To me, Horowitz, Fish, West, Chomsky, and all the others are part of the problem. Maybe I am, too, as a tenured professor now myself.

But maybe, like Tonto, I can see the writing on the wall and change sides.

I hope so. The last thing we need is more people protecting a system of education that is not doing its job. That actually opens the way for neoliberal forces, for corporate capitalism, and even for political indoctrination—for its own destruction. By circling the wagons and protecting the so-called 'emancipatory project' we imagine, we are assuring our own destruction. The cracks in the system will only widen as time moves on.

What we should be doing is rebuilding, reworking education from the ground up, creating something that can respond to 21st century needs, not to those of the 18th century Enlightenment, as Fish would have us continue to do. As Horowitz wants, as do all those 'radical professors.'

In a time of radical change worldwide, we need to be opening up our minds and our institutions, not closing them in, as much of what we do these days leads to.

When was the last time there was a really revolutionary attempt to strike out from traditional higher education?

The question I ask myself, and can't answer, is this: Would I be willing to be a part of it, should it arise? Could I join Tonto and the "Indians"?

I hope so, but I don't know so.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Secrecy Is Not Privacy

And discretion isn't either one.

We're mixing discussion, these days (though when did we not?). Wikileaks seems to be bringing a lot of fears into the open... both real and imagined. But we do need to keep our discussions to their topics.

We've also a lot of unexamined assumptions running around: "Governments need secrecy." "Privacy is a right." Well, maybe, but explain to me just why governments need secrecy; tell me exactly where this right of privacy beings and ends.

Though people have told me that Wikileaks has caused a great deal of damage by making mincemeat of government privacy, no one has yet to show me where. Though I can point to a Constitutional right protecting against unreasonable search (something of a right to privacy), I am uncertain whether the publishing of a picture of me taken on the street invades my privacy (in law, it does not).

It may prove that Wikileaks' greatest impact will be in forcing governments to examine their secrecy policies, moving to something a little more sensible and with an emphasis on discretion, not wholesale protection of information. It may prove that privacy will prove to be, in large part, the responsibility of the individual, with discretion on his or her part providing its limits and the law governing only invasive acts.

I don't know. I don't know if it will prove to be the case that Wikileaks has exposed nothing that those directly concerned didn't already know. If Wikileaks really is causing damage, hysteria will likely lead to increased "protection" of government documents from the public. Let's hope not. I don't know if it will prove to be the case that each of us, individually, spends enough time considering it to decide just where our individual privacy needs begin and end. If we rely only on government, we will end up further compromising our privacy instead of protecting it. Let's hope not.

Both of these topics deserve much more consideration that I am giving them here, of course. My point is simply that they are different. One deals with groups and the wide sweep of society. The other deals with individuals and walls against the wide sweep of society.

Let's keep our considerations of them separate.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Muddling with Privacy

Two things I have read over the last couple of days are rattling against each other in my head, though there's no overt connection. The first, from a CNN series on ”The End of Privacy”, presents a putative new way of being:

Like some tech early-adopters these days, [Louis] Gray thinks privacy is a dying concept.... "I think we need to plan for all of our activities to be discoverable and indexable -- forever," he said. "Facebook is being very aggressive in terms of making things public that aren't previously public. Then you combine that with the deep archives of search engines."

People should act as if they're being watched, he said, and enjoy the benefits of having access to such a rich trove of personal information on the internet.

The second, from The New York Times, concerns the suicide of Mark Madoff—complete with a mention that:

His wife, Stephanie, had applied to the court this year to have the last name of her and her two children changed to “Morgan.”

He killed himself on the second anniversary of the date he and his brother turned their father Bernie over to the authorities.

Somehow, I don't think he was 'enjoying the benefits' of the 'rich trove of personal information' available about him.

We have walls and window blinds for a reason—just as we prefer to be alone to perform certain bodily functions. We need a sense of safety to be able to lick our wounds, to recover and prepare ourselves for the battles of the world. We need, also, to be able to clean ourselves—alone. Retreat into privacy is as necessary as sleep—is related to sleep. We cannot survive without either.

It's amazing to me that there continue to be those who don't get this—though I'll bet they still pull the cloak of privacy over parts of their lives—who argue that we should just learn to enjoy the 'openness' that the Web is thrusting upon us.

Too much openness may kill us as certainly as too much secrecy.

Is there, somewhere, someone fighting as hard for privacy as Julian Assange is for openness through his Wikileaks?

Maybe the Assange case will prove to be an argument for both, openness and privacy. Sweden, after all, wants to extradite him from England for crimes generally cloaked in privacy. This fact is known (and the extradition desired) solely because of his activity for openness.

We've a lot to learn about this world we're expanding in digital directions, and how to deal with the need for privacy is but one unclear aspect of that.

The answer, unfortunately, is not going to lie in public policy (it can't: privacy is its anathema). Nor will it lie in the direction that 'early-adopter' is heading—nor in Mark Madoff's. It's going to lie in each of us, as we learn enough to be able to protect ourselves and to accept limitation enough to stop ourselves from peeping in virtual windows.

Few of us, even if we wouldn't get caught, would sneak up to houses and look inside—and we turn away when we accidentally catch someone urinating or even picking their nose. One day, maybe, we'll extend that ethic to the Web.

Until we manage that, or develop some other personal means of respecting the privacy of others, openness and privacy will both elude us.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Make Motivation First

There's only one thing wrong with testing—and that is that testing alone cannot improve education.

It's that simple, really. And we've all heard it said. Yet it seems to be the one thing that Shael Polakow-Suransky, soon to be Cathie Black's number two in the New York City School system, doesn't understand. Yes, better testing improves the information available to educators and, yes, “'Until we start seeing assessments that ask kids to write research papers, ask them to solve unfamiliar problems, ask them to defend their ideas, ask them to engage with both fiction and nonfiction texts; until those kinds of assessments are our state assessments, all we’re measuring are basic skills.'” But none of this will improve education by itself.

Not even if it is used as a tool to weed out bad teachers will testing improve education. It's not bad teachers, after all, who are holding our students down—for all the anti-union people would like to believe. Firing teachers doesn't raise test scores (even assuming that test scores are an adequate rating of education).

At best, test scores can help identify problems. They can't solve them.

The problems we face in education don't come from low test scores, and won't go away even if scores go through the roof. The problems come from attitudes in our society towards education, problems created and/or exacerbated by politicians, parents, and school administrators. Oh, and by our continued divisions of race and class (but that's another story). The problems come from society's failure to motivate its students.

We have turned education into a commodity, something that can be improved by imposition of standards, as though education were a car that needs to meet certain requirements to be allowed on the road. And we have turned the student into a consumer, into the person buying that car. Or, at least, into the person who will be driving it.

Oddly, our concentration on the car forgets the driver. The education (the product) needs to meet standards, but the student (as a person, not as a test-taker) does not. It's as though we believed that, if the car is safe enough, we don't have to worry about the driver.

Standardized assessment ends up focusing on the product, the car. It's as though we're giving driving tests to thousands of people at once, then blame the auto manufacturers for the resulting demolition derby.

To improve education, we need to stop focusing on the vehicle and to pay attention to the individual driver, to the student. To each student. In particular, we must focus on those things that can motivate individual students to succeed in school.

If students are not motivated to learn, they will not learn. You can provide the best schools and the best teachers, and still the education will fail.

As a society, we seem to have decided that the only motivation is economic. A good job at the end—isn't that motivation enough? Well, no. Education is much more than job training; the motivation needs to be more, too.

Talking about motivation leads one to talk too much in generalities, but motivation is different in each individual case. So it becomes extremely difficult to identify factors leading to student motivation to learn. Impossible, in fact—unless we look to the individual student, and not to the aggregate.

And how do we do that?

First, we stop focusing so on the product, the education itself, and expand our vision to include the family and the neighborhood. The family is where motivation begins, and where the individual is best understood—and the neighborhood provides an important first milieu, the place where attitudes are developed, confirmed, and amplified.

Until we stop thinking that we can improve education through a focus on evaluation of schools and teachers, one that relies heavily on standardized tests, we will never see American education get better—not even if, as Polakow-Suransky would like, we improve our tests to the point where they evaluate something beyond basic skills.

A motivated student will learn, no matter what the situation—look at Frederick Douglass. Look at Malcolm X. An unmotivated student will always fail.

In terms of education, our job (as Americans) is to see that means of motivating students are in place—and only then that our schools provide the best possible means for education, making sure that future students won't have to educate themselves on their own, but can do so with the assistance of competent teachers and adequate schools.

No amount of testing will accomplish this.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Return of Discretion?

Discretion: avoiding offense and protecting privacy. Discretion, or rather lack of it, is at the heart of the Wikileaks free-for-all. And, against what one might expect, it's not the discretion of Julian Assange that's in question. (In fact, the whole Assange to-do is more of a sideshow than anything else: if it hadn't been he, it would have been someone else.)

Though it's difficult to pin down a number (it being so large), it's possible that even a million or more people had access to much of the information Wikileaks has been making available. As Mike Vizard writes, “you can’t help but wonder how things might be a little different if the federal government had an effective access management system in place that gave people access to information based on who really needed to know what.” If the government had shown the least bit of discretion.

The problem, here, isn't Wikileaks. With that many people having access to classified information, you know the information had gotten into the hands of Chinese intelligence, Russian, Iranian, Israeli... was known to governments all over the world. David Rieff asks “Does anyone seriously think the Iranians don’t know about the Saudi king lobbying Washington to bomb Natanz and the other nuclear facilities, or that the Pakistani Taliban don’t know about American moves with regard to Islamabad’s nuclear program? It would be idiotic to imagine our enemies are so badly informed that the Wikileaks information is news to them.”

The focus of this information-saturation story should not be on Assange or on Wikileaks or Anonymous, but should be on the failure of governments—particularly the US government—to adequately deal with information, to deal with how it is generated, how it is processed, how it is stored, and how it is protected.

Confident in its understanding of the way things were, the US government has failed to understand the extent of the changes in the way information “interacts” with the world today—fails to understand the way things are.

If it is going to protect what it knows, the government needs to go back to the beginning, asking just what information it needs and just how it should be stored and accessed. Stamping something “secret” or classifying it in some other way isn't the answer—obviously. That's a holdover from days of file cabinets and locks and keys and identity cards.

The change, if there is going to be one, needs to start with those who generate the information. In the past, as parts of a gigantic bureaucratic machine, it has been their job to produce as many documents as they could, providing paper trails and justifications for future decisions.

For diplomats in particular, the changes needed, whatever they prove to be, will bring back an emphasis on discretion. Instead of covering their asses by dumping as much information as possible into the files, they need to start relying on themselves, being confident in those responsible to them and those they are responsible to—confident without the constant checking and second-guessing that an over-abundance of information allows. If the Wikileaks documents show nothing else, they prove that American diplomats are reasonably competent (even if their leaders are not). The system needs to have confidence in them, reducing the need to constantly check up on them through documentation.

Or, if such checking is needed, the system needs to find another way of monitoring.

Such a way can certainly be developed. I hope it will be, though I have little confidence that an overblown bureaucracy can change.

Still, I hope the US government is already responding, quietly and carefully, away from all the ruckus and, instead of blaming others for what has happened, looking to itself.

Discretely.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

While my Guitar Wikileaks

In honor of Julian Assange's bail. I don't like him all that much, but I love Wikileaks. This is to the tune of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Some of the lyrics are still George Harrison's, but I suspect he wouldn't want credit for what I've done:

I hope that you all see the docs I’m dispersing
Which my guitar Wikileaks.
I love diplomats the best when they’re cursing
So my guitar Wikileaks.

I don't know why nobody told you
how to protect yourself;
I don't know how someone controlled you
they bought and sold you.

I look at the world and I notice it still turning
Though my guitar Wikileaks.
With every mistake we must surely be learning
So we can learn from Wikileaks.

I don't know how you were diverted
you were perverted too
I don't know how you were inverted
no one alerted you.

I look for your docs while you are sleeping
for guitar's Wikileaks.
I look for you all;
while my guitar Wikileaks.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Flâneurs and Surfers

The Internet is the siren call of the voyeur—witness the importance of pornography to its financial success—much as the city was, with Paris the exemplar, to the 19th century. And the reservoir of energy one can tap into through the Web is certainly proving transformative. “In a similar style to the Flâneur, a web surfer hopes to gain novel experiences by following links that arouse his curiosity. Thus freed from the demands of targeted search, his navigation and reading of the material is not directed or tainted by expectations. Rather than judging information by preconceived criteria, he finds joy in assessing the material for its own merit” (Mercedes Paulini and Marc Aurel Schnabel, “Surfing the City: Towards Context-Aware Mobile Exploration,” 385). Soon, that 'joy' exceeds its 'own merit,' creating new goals and pathways, new organizations of information. Robert Luke describes a permutation, “the phoneur, the cell phone sporting, incessantly talking, e-urbanite whose identity is articulated within the mediated space of the mobile phone and the ensuing enculturation processes of the wireless web” (Robert Luke, “The Phoneur,” 187). Such people have brought the Web down from the ether and into life, another clear transforming action. As Andy Clark writes, “the iPhones, Blackberries, laptops and organizers... transform and extend the reach of bare biological processing in so many ways. These blobs of less-celebrated activity may sometimes be best seen, myself and others have argued, as bio-external elements in an extended cognitive process: one that now criss-crosses the conventional boundaries of skin and skull” (Andy Clark, “Out of Our Brains,”). Extraordinary as these changes may prove to be, however, they present only limited visions of the flâneur, and also of the Web surfer or netizen. Something more, another level of perception and knowledge, is also needed.

In 1863, at the beginning of “The Painter of Modern Life,” Charles Baudelaire described the visitor to a museum who stops only at the most known works, then believes they know the museum. He uses this as a lead-in, as:
an excellent opportunity to establish a rational and historical theory of beauty; to show that beauty is always and inevitably of a double composition, although the impression that it produces is single—for the fact that it is difficult to discern the variable elements of beauty within the unity of the impression invalidates in no way the necessity of variety in its composition. Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions. (Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, London: Phaidon Press, 1995, 3).
This last element requires knowledge and active engagement on the part of the viewer. The flâneur who cannot engage in this way, ingesting both aspect of beauty, but who only sees one or the other of the two can never appreciate the full extent of beauty—or of knowledge or of the Web and its possibilities. There are, then, two flâneurs, one who can comprehend and combine, and one who simply observes. The former “is not wandering aimlessly, but rather assembles 'raw materials' for the production of culture and identity. So, if early users of the initial incarnations of the web were more 'alienated' and passive, the active users of the Web 2.0 might reflect a desire to take control of the 'alienating space' by 'aestheticising' and 'colonising' it” (Simon Lindgren, “From Flâneur to Web Surfer,”), a far cry from passive observation or simple utilization.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Turning Back, Turning Point: Fiction

The bustle of Ouahigouya had gone. Even the hurrying soldiers had disappeared. The shops, so busy so recently, were shuttered, the marché vacant. No youths peddled cigarettes on the wide, empty streets or lounged in the doorways, no women sold soap from hand-made stands in front of family compounds. No children peeped out from entranceways.

They walked, quiet, spooked by the emptiness, angling toward the middle of the street as they headed back, trying to look unconcerned to unseen eyes. The only things moving were vultures circling against the pale blue sky, wings beating occasionally. The bleakness pushed them back towards the side where they could walk under the trees lining the road.

Paul led away from the main street, taking them down broad, silent avenues lined with banco buildings, then threading them through narrower streets toward the compound where they'd slept the night before, walking quickly, hesitating at every vacant corner. He said nothing to Sam.

No one came out of the compound when Paul clapped softly. They stepped through the open gate towards the open-air stove, moving a little off to the side, unconsciously trying to reduce their visibility from the road. Across from them, the cloth hanging over a doorway at the back of the restaurant moved aside and a hand and face appeared.

“Venez.” Come. Almost silent, more motion than words. An older man, one of Yusef’s uncles, ushered them into a dark room. “Come in. Quickly. It is not safe to be out there.” He sounded angry, but relieved when he was able to let the cloth back down. “Yusef is not here.”

Paul asked the uncle what was going on as both Americans shrugged off their packs and sat on low stools. The uncle looked away, the lines deepening his face, a deflating balloon. Finally, he spoke, keeping his words simple.

"La guerre. War." Reluctant, expressionless. His eyes averted, accusing. "Weren't you in town? Thought I saw you walk that way. You should know. Mali bombed us. Hit the cattle marché. Killed some children." He walked deeper into the darkness of the restaurant reached through the other side of the room before returning to them empty-handed and sitting with them.

Paul paused before translating. He had never believed it would come. It never had before, not while he had been in this part of Africa, at least. Certainly, there had been chances. Certainly, there was strife, and conflict, but all-out war took money, and few of these countries had enough of that. War required either desperation or greed, and he had never believed that the countries around had reached the required pitch of either.

There were conflict. The Tuaregs in Mali and Niger were armed and sometimes fought the governments, as did other groups. The various coups—including the recent ones here in Burkina Faso—could be bloody. But the worst of the quarrels, the Biafran War in Nigeria, had ended long ago. He hadn’t believed days of warfare would start again. There was too little to fight over, too little to gain.

So, he spoke again to the uncle, in French: "Do you have any other news? Who attacked first? Where do things stand now? Anything? Have you heard anything?"

"No."

"Is there fighting around here? Were other places bombed? How serious do you think it is?"

"I don't know."

"Well, what do you know? Tell me."

Not much. He had seen little more than Paul and Sam. He had been trying to open the restaurant when soldiers came by, yelling at everyone to get off the streets. So, he had pulled the shutters and had waited in the dark.

Paul turned to Sam, starting out by telling him that they would still try to leave as soon as possible. If they had to, though, they would sleep there in the Sawadogo compound once more, and leave in the morning. Things should be quieter by then, he was sure.

“But it is war,” he said, speaking quietly, lessening the impact of his words, “and we may be right in the middle of it.”

Sam stared at him.

“I’m sorry,” Paul continued, “I should have told you to stay in Mopti. Nothing would happen to you there.”

Sam continued looking at Paul, his eyes shaded. “It’s not your fault,” Sam said, finally. “I’m the one who decided to go with you. And I couldn’t stay there, anyway.”

“But you shouldn’t have to face this.”

“None of us should.” Sam stared over Paul’s head at the vague shapes in the darkened restaurant. He was scared, but he had been scared before. Fear wasn't the threat. And he wasn’t responsible; the situation was beyond his control. There was relief in that.

He had made the choice to accompany Paul rather than waiting for someone else to get him out of Mopti. He’d been stranded by language barriers, bureaucratic errors, and antagonistic police. Now, he had an ally, something he had lacked back in Mali, where there had been no one he could really talk to or plan with, not at the hotel, not anywhere in town. Almost all Europeans had left at the first sign of trouble. No, it was better to have left with him than to sit in Mopti.

Though Yusef’s uncle refused to speculate, Paul and Sam willingly did, once they had moved into the darkened restaurant. Once the uncle had gotten up and disappeared. It broke the tension and passed the time. They tried to decide what they should do if they were even able to get out of the compound. It just did not make sense to stay any longer than necessary. As soon as they had some idea of what was going on, they would leave. Neither country could possibly be equipped for a war reaching much beyond the common border. Paul was sure of that, and explained to Sam. Paul figured that it shouldn't take long to get out of the problem area, especially on a motorcycle like his Yamaha, the bike he had shown Sam the night before, that he had planned on leaving in Ouahigouya. A good, strong dirt bike, 250cc, it could take them across the countryside. They could leave next morning.

Sam argued that they should wait. The uncle, on one of his short stints sitting with them, agreed (Paul translating). Paul was surprised; he assumed that the family would be better off with the Americans gone.

That they were only a few kilometers from the border decided the issue. Paul and Sam were aliens, immediately suspect to any scared soldier or gendarme who might come across them. No matter what they did, someone would soon point them out. And someone would come for them.

Shortly after dusk, after a long day of waiting, eating only cold food, and venturing no further than the compound entrance, Yusef appeared, sneaking into the courtyard over the wall from next door. He told them he had spent the day at the house of another uncle, until finally deciding it was dark enough to make his way home, avoiding the streets as much as he could. He had seen nothing on the way, no soldiers, no one. Everything was quiet. Maybe the one bombing was all that would happen.

Paul wanted cigarettes, and Yusef knew one of the youths across the street who usually sold them. They pushed through the curtain and walked quickly to the compound entranceway and peeked out. Two children, the first people they’d seen on the street since the bombing, saw them and ran up to them. Silently, they held out pieces of twisted metal, bits of the bomb that had fallen that morning. Would the nasara (white) like to buy them?

“No.” Both Yusef and Paul shook their heads quickly. "No." They decided to forget the cigarettes and stay put for the night.

It was an odd feeling, next morning, again looking around at emptiness where normally life should thrive. They stared at the street where, every day of any other year, vehicles—cars, trucks, bicycles, mopeds, donkey carts—were constantly passing, where people sat in doorways watching and waiting, others walking through selling fruits and vegetables, and even chickens. Not even the dust, so normal in Burkina Faso, hovered in the air. Everything had settled; all was still. Yusef and Paul walked slowly back into the restaurant, having successfully bought cigarettes this time, a chill seeming to shiver the heat around them.

They had spent most of the previous night in the shuttered restaurant, Paul doing most of the talking and drinking, buying beer from the uncle (though neither Sam nor the uncle drank), the doors and windows pulled tight around them, a hurricane lamp turned low tfor light. At one point they had stepped outside, just to look about. The town was black. Silent. They tried to sleep in the restaurant on cushions Yusef dragged from somewhere, the stillness keeping them awake.

A few window shutters had been thrown back and, here and there, drying laundry fluttered. Paul wondered at the incongruity.

Paul and Yusef opened the restaurant’s front door and were standing on the verandah that served, normally, as the main dining room. They turned back inside, leaving the door open to throw a little light on the stacked tables and chairs against the wall. Sam joined them. They decided that it would be best for the Americans to try to leave as soon as possible, perhaps pushing the motorcycle until they were out of town. The soldiers were sure to be jumpy.

Paul, now, didn’t seem quite so sure. Staying in the known might be better. Yusef pushed for leaving. The military was scared and itchy, he said. He had seen that as he made his way home. And so were the cadres of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, those kids with automatic rifles. Paul and Sam, he argued, did not want to deal with them. And, Paul was sure (as he had felt before), Yusef was worried that having two strangers around was endangering the Sawadogo family. He couldn’t blame him for that.

Heeding Yusef, Paul and Sam finally hauled out their packs and tied them to the moto’s rebar rack on the back, atop Paul's tool kit. After thanking Yusef for all his help and advice, Paul, began pushing the bike to the entranceway.

A pop. It could be barely heard, but all three noticed it. They looked up. A burst of black opened above them. More pops, a little louder. More black clouds. Then the scream of a jet, and an explosion, loud, close enough to shake the ground under them, the walls near them. Paul wheeled the moto quickly back into the compound. Yusef and Sam ran before him into the restaurant, Sam pushing himself as far into the darkness as possible, into a chair among the stacked tables, Paul and Yusef following.

Silence. Yusef and Paul crept to the still-open doorway, stopping on opposite sides of it. Both moved their heads, hoping to peek out. But small-arms fire erupted, the first they had heard. They scurried back and sat with Sam. The three of them waited in silence as the shooting continued, occasionally dying down, leaving them in silence for a moment or two, then picking up again.

Eventually the shooting quieted for longer periods, then stopped altogether.

On unheard command, people were running, filling the empty street, silent but panicked and clearly intent on getting as far away from town as possible. There were more and more of them.

But gunfire began again, clearing the streets once more.

Other lulls followed, each culminating in a rush of people, each ending in renewed shooting. From where they sat, the three could see just a slice of the street, frustrating their desire to learn what was going on around them. Once in a while, one or the other of the three would creep over to the doorway and look out—only to scurry back when the shooting got too close.

Yusef’s uncle joined them, from somewhere. After a time, astonishingly, he asked them if they would like something to eat.

Paul stared at him. He said he had a fire going, so why not? When Paul translated, Sam, to Paul’s additional surprise, nodded. The uncle disappeared, returning some minutes later with a tray of bread, coffee, and eggs. Paul and Yusef watched, amazed, as Sam made himself a sandwich, cutting bread with a fat Swiss army knife. Shrugging, the others eventually did the same. They continued to watch the activity outside, sometimes now even daring to stand in the doorway, ducking again back, as was becoming habit, when the shooting started to get too close.

They didn’t talk much, but each noticed that time was tansforming their fears. No longer did they want to burrow and hide, though none seemed quite ready to venture into the street. The uncle had again disappeared.

It was Yusef who made the first joke. Paul ducked his head to laugh as Yusef giggled. He wasn’t sure he should translate it for Sam, but decided he had to.

“Yusef says he’s just learned the new Burkina national anthem. He hopes he doesn’t have to start on the Malian one now.”

Sam looked at them both for a moment, then laughed, too, setting the others off again. It was a stupid joke, yes, but…. Other jokes followed, all as bad, but they laughed anyway.

Every once in a while, something would sober them up again, usually gunfire, unusually close. A couple of times it was the sound of jets again, though no more explosions followed.

Yusef’s uncle reappeared. He watched with them for a while. When firing had died down for a longer period, twenty minutes or so, he announced he would ride his Mobylette the short distance down to where the bomb had fallen—when they went to the door and craned to the left, they had seen the black smoke of fires it had started—and find out what had happened, how many had been hurt, or killed. Part of his wife’s family lived down there, he explained. He had to go.

Back, he told them that at least nine were dead, many more hurt, most missing limbs. From the description, Sam told them that it must have been some sort of anti-personnel bomb. Its fragments had torn through the mud walls of the compounds.

He had only been allowed in the area, the uncle said, because he was known to the military who were taking care of first aid and transportation of the wounded.

Most of the injured and all of the dead were either very old or very young.

And by the way, he said, there were no Malian troops around. They were safely on the other side of the border.

Though the sound of AK-47’s still recurred, it rarely sounded close enough to startle. Some nervous soldier, they told each other, accidentally firing off a few rounds. Others would hear, and shoot, too. It continued around the town, rising in one place and eventually dying out somewhere far away. Some time later, it would start again, from someplace else, and circle around the town again.

More people seemed to be taking the chance, during each lull, to run towards the bush, to escape town, the gunfire, and the chance of more bombs. In those relative silences, the street was packed with men, women, and children, all scurrying from town, on foot, on bicycle, occasionally on moped or motorcycle, in car, on truck. More, and then many more. More than Sam thought could have possibly lived in the town. As their numbers grew, the noise they made began to compete in level with the gunfire, though when firing would start, all would disappear.

Most carried hurriedly-packed parcels. All were so intent that it was almost a shock when a motorized vehicle moved among them, scattering them. Some lugged chickens or other valuable household items. Many pulled children after them, or carried them. Again, as firing started, they disappeared, leaving Sam again wondering where so many could have gone so quickly, until the road filled once more as the guns went silent.

Far down the street, just in sight as they stood on the restaurant’s porch, cars and trucks had started lining up—back around the block and out of sight—waiting for gas from the BP station. Every five minutes or so, some armed official vehicle or other would roar past the others to the station, certain to demand its prerogative, leaving those in the waiting vehicles, Paul imagined, angry but necessarily silent. Most, when the line moved, pushed their cars forward, rather than starting them and wasting gas.

Though the crowds leaving were huge, many were staying, doing nothing but watching like the trio in the restaurant, heads popping from windows and around doors. A few others now came into the restaurant or onto the verandah, purchasing cups of coffee from Yusef’s uncle. One or two were sitting on the curb in front of the restaurant, now that the gunfire seemed to be less and less frequent. After a while, Paul, Yusef, and Sam joined them, sitting with their own little plastic cups in hand.

Soon, in a thunder of starters and accelerators, the vehicles waiting for fuel raced and roared away, speeding in every possible direction, each driver seeking to beat the others to a place where fuel could be found—for the BP station had run out of gas.

“Have you experienced anything like this before?” Sam was clutching his coffee cup and staring down the road, empty for the moment, a round of shooting having just died down. No one had told a joke for some time, or talked at all. Watching the intensity, the single-mindedness, on the faces of those fleeing had taken away the remnants of humor.

“No. The worst I have been through was a coup attempt. That was crazy, and pretty scary, but it was nothing like this.” That one had merely been military trucks roaring up and down Ouagadougou streets. No shooting where he was, no flight.

“Doesn’t it bother you? I mean, you just seem to keep on like you were before.”

“Nothing else to do, I suppose. I mean, what can we do? But, yes, it bothers me. I guess you just get to a point, around here, well beyond surprise.”

He set down his cup and walked back into the restaurant.

Both the flight and the gunfire finally began to slow. Yusef and Paul decided the streets were now safe enough and clear enough for the Americans to follow. They pushed the moto onto the street. Paul, astride the bike, jumped and came down on the kick-starter, the roar of the engine breaking the new silence dominating the neighborhood. He motioned for Sam, just strapping on a helmet, to get on behind him, gunning the engine a bit to smooth the idle. Over the roar, Sam asked if the Sawadogos were all staying. Paul answered that most of the family had already left. Those staying remained, like Yusef, only because they had been delegated to protect family property.

“Did they volunteer to stay?”

“I doubt it. I’m sure Yusef’s grandfather made the decision. Now, hold on to me. We really do have to get out of here.”

They waved back at Yusef. He stared after them, not moving.

After the first turn, they were stopped by a group from the CDR, not one of them more than twelve, all armed with automatic rifles. Paul slowed as they came running out of a building, forming a cordon across the street, guns pointed at the Americans. Carefully, he pulled to a stop in front of them. They asked who they were and what they were doing, shouting in high, belligerent voices. Paul and Sam held their passports out to them.

Normally, CDR kids were swanky, proud of their status and their guns. These were scared. They wanted to get back inside, where they might be safe from the Malians, more than they wanted to deal with Paul and Sam. They spent little time over the papers before scurrying back to the safety of their comic books.

Paul and Sam soon caught up with the crowd heading south. First they passed ones and twos, then larger groups, then found themselves riding at the side of a gigantic, slow-moving worm of people. Paul took the motorcycle off the road, for they could move faster over the fields. He kept them close to the road; the crowd, he hoped, would make a skittish gunman hesitate. With the weight of another person behind him, plus bags and tool kit, the motorcycle was extremely difficult to manipulate at slow speeds. So Paul found what paths he could where he could move with some speed, though, close to the road, well within sight of it.

Most of the column of refugees ignored them as they passed, zigging nearer for a stretch and then zagging away again.

The sun glared; Paul stopped for a moment and put his feet down so that he could fit his sunglasses behind his goggles. His hands were shaking and numb from the work of keeping the moto up and sweat was dripping down his arms and into his gloves. Sam was doing what he had been told, staying still on back of the bike, uncomplaining.

Aside from the noises of engines, Paul realized, the day was still and quiet.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Just Another Wikileaks Blog Post

The neat thing about all of the Wikileaks stuff this past week is that everyone has an opinion.

Everyone knows what's right about it, and what's wrong.

Not that anyone agrees with anyone.

Or will agree with me:

Though the attempts at “cyberwarfare” (how grandiose!) by the group Anonymous look childish and, quite frankly, technologically unsophisticated (clogging up the sites? Is that the best they can do?), the charges against Julian Assange, whether for the leaks or for his sexual transgressions, have led to nothing, so far, but his detention—something that may not last very long. Though he has become the center of a second Wikileaks frenzy (the first being the leaked documents themselves), the Assange story is quite frankly, trumped up—on all sides.

As is the Wikileaks story itself.

Yes, we've now access to information, making a great deal public that its authors would prefer remained private. But nothing has been revealed, I am sure, that all parties directly involved didn't already know. The problem, for any of the principals, is that “everyone” now knows how others (particularly American diplomats) think of them. The world of diplomacy being what it is (filled with its own, private leaks), all sides knew all this stuff anyway—not probably, but certainly, or none of the intelligence services anywhere is worth a plugged nickel.

Personally, I like the Wikileaks releases for a number of reasons. First, a democracy functions best when the populace knows what its leaders are doing. Second, more information (if we can process it) is axiomatically better than less. Third, this is a good lesson for our diplomats and top leaders: keep your cards close—someone is always trying to take a peek. Fourth, much to my surprise, American diplomats have come off looking like the 'adults in the room.' As an American, that pleases me.

Do I care about the trials and tribulations of Julian Assange himself? Not really. I'd much prefer him in a novel than in real life. In a novel, I could be convinced to sympathize with him. As it is, I simply find him a trainwreck that I shouldn't be watching and have no way of preventing.

If we are careful and consider what we are discovering through the actions of Wikileaks and through the information released, we are liable to learn a great deal about ourselves, the Web, and our world. Good. If we continue to simply watch the soap opera around Assange, we may end up with less than we had before—a more restrictive world and Web. Bad.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Flexibility

Some years ago, I taught a few online courses for one of the for-profit online universities. Afterward, I felt a little sorry for the students, for I didn't think they were getting their money's worth—a local community college would have been cheaper, and the students would have had much more direct interaction with their teacher—and the teacher would have been in more control of the course, able to meet unusual needs or take an unscheduled detour when needed. With the same group of students in a 'traditional' environment, I am sure I could have aided the students much more than I did online.

That doesn't mean that I condemn online learning—or even that it is second-rate compared to classroom situations. The problem, in this instant (and, unfortunately, in most for-profit online situations), is that the school is attempting to mass-produce its courses. It is trying to make teachers identical cogs in the machine of education, replaceable at will.

That doesn't work.

When I agreed to teach online, I didn't realize how limited my options as a teacher would be—or that I would be overseen by people not as qualified in my field as I was and whose specialty was teaching methodology. Wedded to a particular mindset by training, they and the school were further constrained by the design of the program used for class interaction, a program built on certain assumptions about learning, about students, and about teachers and constructed inflexibly, as though these assumptions were truths.

Though I have sometimes taught via use-specific educational programs since, I now gravitate away from them, for all of them force the teacher into specific patterns of instruction, though I doubt that is often their intent. The people who have built the programs have their own ideas on what effective learning is—and what good teaching is—and, quite naturally, construct their platforms for online teaching along those lines. They aren't as interested in flexibility as in ease of use in a pattern they have accepted.

They also tend to center on the needs of the teacher and not so much on those of the learner—but I'll deal with that another time.

What I am interested in at the moment is the assumption that there is one way of teaching, and that it works best for everyone in all situations.

This just isn't true. Different students learn different subjects in different ways at different times. Different teachers, also, teach effectively for different students at different times and, again, in different ways. Flexibility is at the heart of good education. The two basic requirements for effective teaching are flexibility and the ability to find ways to motivate students. This is the basis, if an unconscious one, of our systems of multiple teachers at any one time—once students get past grammar school. Students are exposed to a number of teaching styles, and they start to find the ways of learning that work best for them, and start to learn to be able to adapt even to situations which are less than perfect for the particular individual. The students, ideally and in addition to the content of each course, learn flexibility, and also learn what motivates them.

When I've added an online component to my courses over the past few years, I've avoided things like Blackboard, using freely available wikis and blogs, creating what I need out of the Web—or asking students to do it (even better). This provides flexibility and keeps me from relying on the ideas of others about how education should unfold. It also means I can change things at will, dropping the blog if it isn't working well—or adding something that might, given the particular class. That's a little more difficult in the closed environments of most online-learning situations.

They are closed in another way: the entire class generally “exists” within the confines of the program. I'm moving to a place where I don't see that as such a good idea. If anything, I want my classes to be “hybrid,” taking advantage both of the Internet and the classroom. Giving me, again, flexibility, and allowing me another platform for motivating the students. And broadening the student's learning experience.

The pattern I'm following towards an expansive learning environment is the pattern I spoke of in my last post, followed by the people who had been involved in programmed instruction in the 1950s. They realized that programmed instruction—or programmed learning—works best when simply one component of any particular course, and that it works best for mastering facts. They realized that a teacher should not rely on any one technique or methodology, but should develop situations promoting variety in student activities, in learning processes, and in presentations by the teachers themselves.

When I say I want to start where the student is, I also want it assumed that I understand that there are a number of pathways between that point and the goal at course's end. And that those paths aren't mutually exclusive. Until they can provide the variety I need, I don't believe I will ever be satisfied with the proprietary educational systems for online instruction that are now—or that will be—available.

Until flexibility and multiple ways to motivate are build into online courses, I don't think students in them will ever be getting their money's worth. And I don't think I shall be using them again. Not alone, at least.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Broadening Teaching

Oh, how I wish I'd paid attention!

But I was only seven or eight years old.

My father, John A. Barlow, was an experimental psychologist. Friends and colleagues I remember include B. F. Skinner, Fred Keller, Charles Ferster, and Tom Gilbert. Dad was particularly interested in teaching machines: he was a paid consultant for Field Enterprises (which did a lot of the commercial work on teaching machines and programmed instruction) and wrote the entry on the subject for their World Book Encyclopedia.

By the mid-1960s, my father and almost everyone else involved with teaching machines and programmed instruction had given them up. Under the influence of Keller and his Personalized System of Instruction (PSI), first publicized in his 1968 article “Goodbye Teacher,” PSI—or “Mastery,” as my father preferred to call it—became my father's passion.

By the end of the decade, like all of the others who had been so involved with teaching machines, my father had abandoned them completely.

Like the others, he had discovered that effective teaching cannot be done by machines—or, more accurately, not by machines alone or through programmed learning systems. Teachers are needed, as is interaction. As are faces, the faces of people—right in front of the student.

Yes, some people can learn under any circumstances, as long as the information is available to them. For most, though, it takes something more.

It takes motivation.

The teaching-machine people realized that teaching cannot focus on technology, or on any one thing. A good education is based on lectures, on discussions, on reading, on writing, on labs, on getting outside of the classroom (or away from the computer) and just exploring. PSI isn't a formula for education, but one tool a teacher can use—should use—among many.

Good teaching requires two things: the ability to motivate and flexibility, the ability to switch from tool to tool given the demands of the particular situation. Something that worked with one group of students may not work with the next. The good teacher needs to have had enough experience with a variety of teaching methods so that she or he can easily switch from one to another when the situation requires it.

What interests me most about the history of programmed instruction is that its lessons have been largely forgotten. Today, we are so star-struck by digital technology that we forget that nothing is new, really, that we can find things in the past that can inform what we are doing now.

What my father learned was to focus on students, not on teaching aids. He learned to use the aids, but to abandon them, too, when that was warranted. He learned to keep his options open.

What worries me about today's online instruction is that it provides no options, making instruction a packaged whole. That, unfortunately, will only work for a few students, and not every time.

Had I paid more attention to what my father and the others were doing in the 1960s, I might not now be having to try to reconstruct what they learned. Like the rest of us, I have been too caught up in the future. Now, I want to learn more from the past.

Too bad I didn't listen. Could have saved myself some work.

I'll be writing more on this over the next weeks, exploring the ways PSI and Programmed Learning can be integrated into a broad approach to teaching, and explaining my doubts about the way online courses are generally structured today.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Try a Little Tenderness

While editing a chapter of the book I'm completing, Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and Its Children (with Robert Leston, for Praeger—making this the third in my 'blogosphere' series), I am stewing about writing:

Why is it I have to relearn to write each time I'm halfway through a book or an article? Why do all the skills I gained last time vanish once the work is out of my hands? The problems with the draft I am correcting are so elementary that I am embarrassed I did not catch them as I was writing.

I know: the process I use is one of dump-then-craft, getting everything I've thought (or found through my research) onto the page so that I can see what I've got. I know I should have no expectation that any of it, at that point, should be consistent, elegant, witty, or intelligent. It's simply clay—the clay that I need, if I am to produce anything at all. I know that.

But I would think that my brain and fingers would retain enough from the past to avoid the stilted phrases, the unnecessary connectors, the cliches, and the generally 'outright barbarous' (to use George Orwell's phrase).

They don't.

It's bad enough that my published works contain errors (things do slip through) and phrasings that I would still like to correct. But these are to be expected: no book or article I have ever seen is perfect. What I hate is that I see that I make the same stylistic mistakes over and over again—and have to waste time correcting them.

Writing a book differs from blogging. Not only can I go back and correct things here (even years later), but expectations are of a different kind of prose, more relaxed, more informal, with the reader being more forgiving of error. In a book, you're supposed to get it right. So I go over and again the same passages, shuddering over my unwieldy attempts at elegance.

To make matters worse, I often make matters worse—as Yogi Berra might say. Rewriting isn't always an improvement, though constant rewriting does, at least, remove the most egregious of the errors.

When we who teach writing grade our students' papers, we might remember this: very few people write well, first draft—and our students, for all we try to teach it to them, have very little skill at revision. That's something one learns by constant repetition—and something one has to relearn each time, just as one has to constantly relearn to write.

We can beat up on ourselves. Goodness knows, I do. But we should reserve a little kindness for our students.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Here We Go Again!

What's this fascination we've got with teachers? Why do we concentrate on them so much, when we talk about education, and on rating them, and so little on learning?

There's an article in today's The New York Times about claims that education will actually get better if we have more evaluation of teachers. That, by itself, is as silly as the now-discredited claim behind No Child Life Behind that more standardized testing will improve schools.

But that's where we're heading:

There are advantages for teacher evaluations, too, Dr. [Thomas J.] Kane said.

With videos, for instance, several professionals, rather than just one principal, could rate the same classroom performance, making ratings less subjective, he said.

“It potentially creates a cottage industry for retired principals, or even expert teachers, to moonlight on weekends scoring classroom observations,” he said.

An Internet-based approach to teacher evaluation could also alleviate some pressures on school districts. New laws in many states, after all, are requiring more frequent observations of teachers.

A new evaluation system in Washington, D.C., for example, requires five observations each year, compared with the previous systems that required one or two at most, and in many cases none at all. Starting next fall, a Tennessee law will require at least four observations a year, rather than one every five years.


I once visited a college in Virginia that had grown from a boarding school whose main building had been built around the principal's office, so that he or she could peek into each classroom without leaving the desk. It sounds like we're now moving back to the same idea.

Instead of just being forced to teach to the test, teachers will now have to also teach to the camera.

And this 'cottage industry'? It will require new rubrics, new methods of quantification. More numbers, more gobbledegook. What it won't require (or lead to) is better learning.

When I think of those sitting, watching the videos and scoring (paid piece-rate, I am sure), I remember the VP at a company I worked for in the 1970s. The brother of the founder of the firm, he would stand behind my desk and watch me working over spreadsheets with two calculators and piles of data. He would nod, grunt “uh-huh,” pat me on the shoulder, and say, “good job.” He hadn't a clue what I was doing.

These evaluators will have no better idea of the learning going on in the classrooms than that VP did about the orders, shipments and returns I was charting. They can't, for the camera will be on the teacher, not on the learners—and a great deal of what any teacher does is in direct response to what that teacher sees amongst the students.

When I evaluate a colleague, I spend as much time watching the faces of the students in the class as I do watching the teacher. And I concentrate on the interaction, on whether or not the students appear to be gaining from the instruction. Only then do I turn to other factors. Unless there are cameras on each student (not even then, actually), the dynamics of the classroom cannot be captured or evaluated via video.

Evaluation of teachers, like standardized testing, is a red-herring distracting us from reform that can lead to better learning. For that, we have to address questions of poverty first of all. Next, we ought to break down our industrial model of the school (and of progress through it), replacing it with a more flexible framework allowing for variety and change. Then we should work on teacher training, making sure we bring to the classroom only teachers who understand that education can only work when the student is motivated to learn and who know how to find any glimmer of it and make that motivation grow.

More evaluations will help us towards that about as little as more standardized testing has.