Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Chapter Twenty-Five: Stopping

Chapter Twenty-Four can be found here.

They made it past Tougon without problem.  Paul took them off the road again as they neared the town, slipping around so they could continue on to Dedougou without braving any stops… CDR, gendarmes, military.  Paul had had enough of them, and he was sure that Sam, too, could do without guns in his face.
At Gassan, they stopped.  Paul needed a break, and there was a bar that would have cooled beer—and he was needing gas.  Almost under the lone Marlboro umbrella, Paul shifted to neutral, put down his feet, switched off the motor, and waited for Sam to dismount behind him.  He pulled his goggles up onto his helmet, undid the strap and freed his head, draping the helmet atop one of his mirrors.  Still straddling the bike, he pulled off his gloves and laid them over the gas tank.  Then, pulling up the bandana that hung loose around his neck, he tried to wipe some of the dust from his face. 
Sam, too, standing by the bike, was ridding himself of helmet and gloves, and trying to clear away the worst of the dust.  Paul took the helmet from him and put it over the other mirror before kicking down the stand and swinging his leg over to dismount.  He flexed his fingers; they felt fixed into grip position around the handles, two fingers stretched out for clutch and brake.  Only with difficulty did he get all four on each hand to move in concert.  Undoing the bandana, he slipped it into a jacket pocket as he shrugged that off and lay it across the moto’s seat.  Sam tossed his jacket atop it and followed Paul to a seat under the umbrella. 
A barman came out and Paul ordered a beer for himself and, after a quick question and a surprising answer, another for Sam.  He asked if any food were available and was told there was half a chicken and some green beans.  Again after consultation with Sam, he ordered servings for both of them. 
“When we’re done,” he told Sam, “we’ll ask the barman to find us some gas, liter bottles of it, probably, for I doubt there’s a pump around.”
“Are we clear now?  Are we safe?”
“Dunno.  At least things seem somewhat normal around here.”
“No one seems particularly scared.  No more people fleeing.”
“Yeah.  There’s that, at least.”  The barman, having brought their bottles of beer, was now sitting on a bench, his back to a post, eyes closed.  Across the street, a young man in a bright white shirt was standing in the door of a small shop.  A woman was walking in front of him, on the other side of the narrow open sewer, a full bucket on her head.  Further along, two children were playing in the dirt with toys crafted from tin cans.  It was quiet, now, a different world from the one they had left so recently.
No cars or trucks went by while they ate, just a couple of bicycles and a Mobylette.  As Paul was filling his tank from bottles brought by a couple of kids, that Dutch pick-up they had seen back near Ouahigouya came by, now with only three people on back—the others, apparently, having decided they were far enough from the fighting as they entered town or even back in Tougan, had jumped off.  The two Dutchmen, looking exhausted, gave short waves as they went by.  Paul and Sam returned them.
Neither, as they donned jackets, bandannas, gloves, and helmets once more, felt much like getting back on the bike.  Reluctantly, Paul shifted it slightly forward, allowing the kickstand to fly up.  He got on, checked that the bike was in neutral, pulled in the clutch anyway, turned out the kick-starter, and stomped down, turning the gas handle as the engine started to catch.  It roared, and he signaled for Sam to climb on behind him.  Quickly, they were back on the road.
The first stop at Dedougou was upon them before Paul was aware of how close they were to the town.  It was a CDR stop, and the Dutch truck was already there, only the two men with it any longer, along with their cargo of metal chests, all of which now rested on the ground behind the pick-up’s lowered rear gate.  A few were open, young cadres rummaging through while an older man argued with the Dutchmen.
Paul had slowed, cursing, when he’d seen the armed youth standing in the middle of the road, motioning him to the side by the truck.  Sam, knowing why, didn’t say anything.  Paul killed the engine and, as soon as Sam hopped off, slapped down the kickstand, and pocketed the key.  With Sam behind him, he walked over to the table where the most important looking member of the group sat, an inkpad and stamp before him.  Not wanting to get involved with whatever problem the Dutchmen were having, Paul walked by without acknowledging them, but watched as he handed his and Sam’s passports to the seated man. 
The Dutchmen were arguing with a couple of young CDR cadres about two of the trunks, both locked.
“These contain medical records.  The doctor in Ouahigouya entrusted them to us.  They will be needed after the war.”
“Show us.”
“We can’t.  They are locked.  And we don’t want to damage them.”
“Break the locks.”
“Why?  The doctor is saving Burkinabe lives, even now.  Please respect his work.”
“Break the locks.”
“We can’t.  We don’t have anything to break them with.”
The younger of the armed boys placed the end of his barrel against the lock and said, “I’ll just shoot it.”
“No.”  The older one put his hand on his shoulder.  “Don’t.”  He turned to the Dutchmen.  “Give me your tire iron.”
One of the Dutchmen, realizing this was a battle he wasn’t going to win, pulled a toolkit out of the cab and rummaged around for the tire iron.  “He handed it to the Burkinabe, who inserted it between the hasp and the trunk and pulled, quickly and hard.  The hasp snapped off.  He stepped over to the second trunk and did the same.
“Now open them for us.”
The Dutchmen shrugged and threw open the lids.
Inside, instead of medical files, were layer after layer of home-recorded videocassettes.  The two Burkinabe immediately raised their guns, pointing them at the Dutchmen, who were staring at the tapes, confounded. 
“Medical files?”  Even in the middle of nowhere, VCR tapes were recognized for what they were.  Plus, the names of the movies were written on them in marker—and the older of the Burkinabe could clearly read.
“We… we… “ the Dutchman stuttered, clearly confused and frightened.  “We were told they were medical records.”
The man at the table pushed the passports back at Paul and laughed.  “Let them go.”  He raised his voice so that the two gunmen could hear him.
As Paul and Sam roared away towards the town of Dedougou, the two Dutchmen, glum faced, where hoisting the trunks back onto the bed of the pick-up.

Chapter Twenty-Six can be found here.

Paulo Freire and B. F. Skinner: A Slight Introduction

Paolo Freire’s ideas on education, especially his “banking model” from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, have long been misused.  Freire wrote about systemic oppression within the structures of education; pieces of his work cannot, given the nature of his argument, be applied as Band-Aids.  The “banking model,” a case in point, is described to clarify the problems of the system, not as a means for changing a few things for the better by pointing out small wrongs within a structure that is, itself, the real problem. 

Look at the “banking model.”  As Freire describes it:
Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.  This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.  (Freire 58)
This is a simplistic view of what goes on in many classrooms—simplistic for a reason.  Freire contrasts it to what he sees as real education:
Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.  (Freire 58)
What he doesn’t explore, and never intended to in this particular discussion, is where this “restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry” comes from.  That’s not his purpose.  Ultimately, he is not writing about the student here, or about how individuals learn, but about the educational systems that oppress them.  He was a real revolutionary… but his book is generally used, in the United States, only by reformers.

And that causes problems.

As an introduction to his discussion of the shortcomings of the “banking model,” Freire depicts traditional education as one-way, going from teacher to student:
A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character.  This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students).  The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified.  Education is suffering from narration sickness.  (Freire 57)
This is much the way that, until recently, most of us have seen media, with the audience as passive and receptive (at best—or so advertisers hope), not as grappling, testing, or deciding.  In neither case is the picture complete: students don’t just listen, no more than audiences simply absorb.  Both constantly make decisions; both are much more active than once they were seen.  This creates another problem with reliance on the “banking model” as what teachers should not do.  It sets a false contrast between “passive” audience and “active” participants.  It denies a place for the ‘sage on the stage,’ setting preference for ‘the guide by the side’ when, in fact, good education should provide both.

In fact, ‘the guide by the side’ alone is as ineffective as the ‘sage on the stage’ and the “banking model.”  It does not take into account needs of motivation, assuming that the students already desire to learn, desire to take guidance.  This, emphatically, is not always the case.  In addition, in an attempt to empower students, it entitles them—but only in a limited arena.  In effect, because the change is local rather than systemic, it lies to students, making them believe they have greater rights than, in fact, they possess—and greater ability to make decisions than is actually allowed them.  And this, of course, sets up conflict between them and the teachers, who are, after all, creatures of the system more than they are advocates for the students.

Recently, I have been re-reading B. F. Skinner’s The Technology of Teaching, a book contemporary to Freire’s.  Skinner describes three metaphors he sees as often used for education: growth or development, acquisition, and construction.  His “acquisition” sounds a little (though not completely) like the “banking model”:
The teacher plays the active role of transmitter.  He shares his experiences.  He gives and the student takes.  The energetic student grasps the structure of facts or ideas.  (Skinner 2)
Much more concerned with the act of education instead of the system of education (where Freire’s concentration lies), Skinner sees that an “energetic student” can gain even through this model, that it can serve Freire’s “restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful” students—though it is not the complete picture of a “good” education.  It is only one way of imagining what education, good and bad, is.

That’s not to say that Skinner is not concerned with systems as well, but his concentration certainly is with method:
The most widely publicized efforts to improve education show an extraordinary neglect of method.  Learning and teaching are not analyzed and almost no effort is made to improve teaching as such.  The aid which education is to receive usually means money, and the proposals for spending it follow a few familiar lines.  We should build more and better schools.  We should recruit more and better teachers.  We should search for better students and make sure that all competent students can go to school or college.  We should multiply teacher-student contacts with films and television.  We should design new curricula.  All this can be done without looking at teaching itself.  We need not ask how those better teachers are to teach those better students in those better schools, what kinds of contact are to be multiplied through mass media, or how new curricula are to be made effective.  (Skinner 93)
Freire might explore why it is we continue a system that doesn’t work; Skinner, in this view, is more concerned with making it work.

Of course, this is a simplistic take on either.

Though I do not know if Skinner and Freire ever had any contact with each other, it is possible that Fred Keller, whose Personalized System of Instruction owes a great deal to Skinner, knew Freire (or knew of him) when he worked in Brazil in the early 1960s.  It would be interesting to discover whether or not there was a connection, for the two books, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and The Technology of Teaching, paired together, offer a foundation for building a renewed educational structure.  They differ in more ways than I have indicated here, and each covers much more than I can talk about in a single blog post, but together they can focus our attention on the real needs and possibilities of education, moving us away from further rounds of half-hearted and half-baked reforms.

To that end, I will be writing more on the symbiosis possible through the two books over the coming weeks and months.  Freire’s work has been misunderstood and misused, Skinner’s merely forgotten.  Together, they are more a whole than simply the sum of their parts—and both need to be brought to new light in a milieu desperate for more than Band-Aids.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Chapter Twenty-Four: Passing

Chapter Twenty-Three can be found here.

Eric took Paul to meet the man who was running the American Cultural Center as soon as the fall semester started.  He told him, when they arrived, that Paul had been a teacher, conveniently ignoring that Paul had taught science, not language.  They desperately needed English teachers at the Center, so the Director took an immediate interest in Paul, though he recognized that Paul’s training might not be all that could be desired.  At least he was a native speaker.  He’d been working in out-of-the-way places long enough to recognize that you took what you could get.

“Give me a résumé.  We need someone to take over two courses.  Wife of the motor-pool head decamped.  If you get me something today, or soon, we might be able to work something out.”

“Thanks, and I will.”  They shook hands and Paul and Eric walked back out onto the street.

“That was quick.”  Paul was a little bit shocked that he suddenly seemed to have a job.

“Yeah.  It’s generally in knowing when to appear.  I’d heard they were going to be in trouble, but they might have turned you down, hoping to work something else out, had you come by earlier.”  They were walking just a block from the old central marketplace, now closed while a new building was constructed to replace it.

“Where,” Paul asked Eric as they headed back to where they had parked their motos, “am I going to find a typewriter, let alone a computer, to do a résumé on?”

Eric laughed.  “My house, of course.  After all, I am an academic.  No computer, but I do have a typewriter that should fit the bill.”

“Of course.”  Paul laughed.  “I should have known.  Got any cold beer there?”

“Of course.”

“Then, let’s go…  I’ve got work to do!”  He pointed over to where the motos were and stepped into the street.

“Hold on.”  Eric shouted and threw his arm out across Paul’s chest.  A light blue Peugeot 504 sped by them, just missing Paul.  It careened on, ignoring the single traffic light, the pedestrians, bicycles, and other cars.  The driver, a man whose light skin was speckled with large dark splotches, seemed oblivious.  People scrambled to get out of the way.

“Crazy…  “  Paul started to raise his fist.  Eric grabbed his arm and forced it down.

“Don’t.  You’re the one who’s crazy if you do anything.  That’s Pridi.  If you see him, keep out of the way.  And never, ever get into an argument with him.”

“Who’s Pridi?”

“Just Sankara’s assassin.”  Eric spoke through clenched teeth, sarcastic, almost hissing.  “He was part of the revolution.  Without him, Sankara might not even be in power.  No one knows how many people he has killed, but he does what he likes, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, so don’t even think it.  Watch for that car, and avoid it.”

“Damn.  Sometimes this place is just too weird.”

“That’s not the whole of it, believe me.”  Eric spoke louder now, with the tone of resignation and frustration that, Paul was finding, marked the expats who had been in Ouaga since before Sankara’s coup.  They unlocked their bikes.  “There are things going on here, undercurrents that have nothing to do with the people, things that are beyond belief, but that are not worth thinking about.”

“Like what?” asked Paul, but Eric had kick-started his moto and didn’t hear him.  “Or chose not to.”

Once they had arrived at Eric’s house and were opening bottles of beer, Paul repeated his question.

“There are people this government is helping…  ”  He stopped, paused.  “Look, we’d better not even talk about it.”

“Why not?”

“Probably no reason, but I don’t want to be kicked out of the country, and certainly don't want to be arrested here.  There are certain things, like I said that are just as well left alone.  Hey, it’s not important, best just ignored.”

Paul looked at Eric, annoyed, but aware that he now knew the researcher well enough to recognize the warning his voice, the warning not to push it.  The man had done too much for him, and continued to do so.  And would continue to do so.  Paul shrugged, “Well, tell me next time we’re in Togo.”

“That I’ll do.  The typewriter, by the way, is under that desk.”  He pointed.

Paul pulled out the old Olympia portable he found there, reached for a sheet of paper from a stack on a shelf right by, and typed up a simple résumé while drinking more of Eric’s beer.  Eric supplied him with a large envelope for it and, next morning, he delivered it to the Director.

Though the people at the Center weren’t happy that Paul had never taught English, their need, coupled with his Master’s degree, led to his immediate hiring.  The money wasn’t much, but it would be enough to get him through the school year quite comfortably.  He had checked with the airline, and found that his ticket would be good for at least another twelve months, which would be quite long enough, he was sure.

He liked Ouaga, he had found, but he didn’t want to spend his life there.  So he hid the ticket away in a locker at the Center (relieved not to have something so valuable in his room) and forgot about going home.  Or, he told himself, for a year.

As soon as he had known for sure that he had the job, he had ridden out to Michel’s shop to tell him the news.  Outside of Eric, Michel had become Paul’s best friend in Ouaga.  On those rare occasions when Paul found himself sick of the drinking life, Michel proved a wonderful companion, showing him around the city, introducing him to his own circle of friends, and getting him interested in the local soccer matches that seemed to take place every day in a wide number of locations.

“Hey, Michel!  I got a job.  Guess I’ll be staying around longer than you thought.”

“Does that mean you’ll move into a bigger place?”  Michel put down his soldering iron and stepped out from behind the counter.  Paul smiled and shook his head.  Everyone he knew, it seemed, thought he was demeaning himself by living in a simple room in a compound.  That wasn’t for someone like him, that was for a student or someone with no money at all.  But he was getting to know the other people rooming in the long building and had become comfortable there.  “Michel, I like it there.  I think I’ll stay.”

Michel shrugged.  “But it really isn’t right for you.  Still, I am glad you have a job.”

Living arrangements and work established, the following months blurred into a memory of one long drunk for Paul, broken only by mornings of an easy teaching load.  Ouagadougou, at that time, was a wide-open city, filled with refugees from the new regime in Ghana.  Almost anything could happen, and often did, despite the CDR kids forcing constant stops on the streets, occasional curfews, and a regime that talked of a new dawn of socialism.  It was an exciting, unknown city, especially for a certain kind of expat, the person who wanted a cheap life, unknown and without the responsibilities of a stable society.

For Paul, almost all of life there was accented, of course, with Mousa’s blend of reggae and rock, played through blown amplifiers at Don Camillo’s those nights when Mousa wasn’t resting in the Ouaga jail.

Paul felt that a lot of the craziness of Ouaga at that time had to come from the Ghanaians, forced out of their own country by its own political strife and the resultant economic downturn.  They were now living in a country of guns and political repression much worse, paradoxically, than the home they could not go back to—but with a better economy, thanks to the common francophone West Africa currency tied to the French franc.  There was a feeling among the Ghanaians of hopelessness with the lack of restraint that almost naturally follows.  Unable to use the skills they had developed at home in this new land where few of them spoke the language, they saw no future for themselves, so drank and debauched.  And the Burkinabe, more terrorized than anyone else (certainly more than the foreigners, including the Ghanaians) by the CDR cadres and the other arms of the new and repressive Burkinabe government, tried to keep low profiles, out of sight, unnoticed, waiting for the times to change.  So, they did little to try to control the growing wildness of the city.  If anything, some of them would join in, surreptitious, when they could.

The Europeans who stayed in Ouaga once the coup was over tended to be people willing to brave the frequent stops and the kids shoving guns in their faces—unless they were high enough placed in one embassy or another to have the low-number CD plates that allowed one to sail right on through.  Some thought living in a country teetering on the edge of mayhem made them tough; others just didn’t care.  The repression kept most other people away, and that, in their eyes, was good.  Their own reputations, however, got worse as the year wore on, as did the craziness they were involved in.  What had been long considered a hardship post by the various foreign services was on the verge of tipping into chaos.  And not simply because of the political situation.

One story he heard became emblematic, for Paul, of the strangeness of the time.  He hadn’t known any of the principals, but felt he could have.

A French expat, drunk, took home a Ghanaian prostitute.  There, he forced her, at gunpoint, to have sex with his dog.  The prostitute went to the police immediately after.  They raided the man’s house, shot the dog, and forced him on the first plane back to France.  They then drove the prostitute to the Ghana border and, basically, threw her across, telling the Ghanaians why.  Within a few hours, she had been killed, beaten to death by outraged Ghanaian border guards.

The story didn’t surprise anyone in Ouaga.  It was the type of thing that was happening, that’s all.
As the school year progressed to its end and the drinking picked up its pace (if that was possible), Paul began to face that he had to decide what he was going to do with himself.  Stay in Ouaga?  Though he loved it there, he, at least, had come to realize just how bad a place it was for him.  Hell, for anyone.  He couldn’t romanticize it, the way some did, imagining they were living dangerously.  Life, for an expat, was too easy, and he was too much the realist to imagine that he wasn’t in a charmed position, even among the dangers.

All he had to do was teach a couple of classes a week and drink—and show his American passport when he was stopped.  Yet what he saw as his own future in what was happening around him had become too crazy, even though the craziness was partially his own, and not just the country’s.  He was headed for personal disaster, he knew, if he kept on the way he was going.

It was taking a toll on him.  He could see that when he looked in a mirror.  Fifty pounds lighter than when he had arrived, he was now bearded, and his shaggy hair ran, in strings, to his shoulders.  He now wore cast-off jeans bought in the market, shirts of homespun African clothe, and sunglasses bought off street sellers for a few francs.  Besides, this certainly wasn’t what he had come to Africa for—rather, this wasn’t what he had decided to stay in Africa for.

He had to leave the party, to stop pretending his life had nowhere to go and that he was only along for the ride, anyhow.

Though he constantly told himself he would spend more time with the Burkinabe themselves, the friends he was making in Ouaga, continued to be mostly expats; they had become the center of his supposed African life.  Even most of the Africans he had gotten to know were from other countries, mainly from Ghana, but some from Côte d’Ivoire or Mali or Nigeria.  By the end of the school year, the only Burkinabe he could really call friends were Michel and the mask-maker Bakary, who had learned, at least, to put up with his presence.  Unlike the Ghanaians, who drank as much as the rest of the expats, Michel and Bakary weren’t much interested in alcohol, so he found he was spending less and less time even with them.

Bakary, Paul had eventually discovered, lived in a cinderblock neighborhood on the road to Bobo, in a house filled with art he either made, sold, or “antiqued.”  Paul developed a real fascination with him and with what he could do.

“You mean, you see nothing wrong with making something look old, even if it isn’t?”  They were sitting in Bakary’s parlor.  Paul had just contracted for him to make a mask, a copy of one that Paul had admired that hung in Bakary’s stall near the American embassy, but Paul had insisted he wanted his copy to look new, like the masks actually used in dancing—not antiqued, like the ones normally for sale.  His French, by now, was strong enough for him to confidently hold a conversation, even with Bakary, something that made him inordinately proud.

“Why not?”  Bakary shrugged.  “It’s what the collectors want.  They don’t want anything that looks new.  It’s you who are the strange one.”

“But when you make the real things, you make wonderful stuff.  Don’t you wish you could just make that?”

“What makes it so wonderful?  To the people who buy the other stuff, it’s the look of age that’s wonderful.  Many of them know that the stuff is fake, but they just like the way it will look on their walls.”  He paused.  “You know what’s funny, though: the ones who know my masks are fakes, they want to believe that I don’t know that they know.  That way, in the bargaining, they feel that have an advantage over me, knowing that I am lying to them.  But, because I know they know I’m lying, it is I who has the advantage!”

They both laughed—though Paul wasn’t completely sure what he was laughing at.  At himself probably, he finally figured.

Chapter Twenty-Five can be found here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Arriving in Brooklyn

On Veterans' Day, BLDG 92, the historical museum of the Brooklyn Navy Yard opened.  I haven't been there yet, but was reminded of one of the letters my great-grandmother saved that my grandfather sent home during World War I (all of them collected and presented, along with newspaper articles, documents I found in the National Archives, and much more, in a book I published myself called For My Foot Being Off).  It is a small, crumpled slip of paper wrapped in another:
738 Ten Eyct St.
Brooklyn, NY
Jan 19, 1919
Dear Mrs. Barlow,
The enclosed paper was thrown to me, from the boat on which this "War Hero" arrived.  He is well and happy and will write to you as soon as he reaches camp.
I am a member of the Mayor's Receiving Committee of New York and we meet all the incoming transports, ask Alfred about them.
Wishing him the best of luck.
--Anna Graife
The note inside reads:
Mrs. Eva Barlow1066 First Ave.Gallipolis O.
Arrived in New York today.  Wire Grace to look me up.--Alfred
Grace was his aunt, his mother's sister.

My grandfather would not be going home, not soon.  First would be months at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC: on the boat over, gangrene had reappeared in his leg and another few inches had been taken off.  In 1959, at my grandfather's funeral at Arlington, a man walked up to my father.  "I saw the notice in the paper," he said, "and I just had to come.  I remember him from the boat back.  I had to help hold him down.  There was no anesthetic, of course....  I never could forget that poor, pale, brave lieutenant."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Where Are We Going? Where Have We Been?

Cathy Davidson writes:
We are at a turning point, and leadership is required to prevent disaster. We need to take in what is happening and change course. It is not too late. University leaders across the nation need to step back, think about what is happening, and be on the side of justice and right and, in the end, on the side of education. That is what our students want, and we want that too.
From Mark Naison:
Teacher Activists must put forth a vision of Radical Democracy which envisions an education which empowers students as critical thinkers and agents of historical change, not just as obedient test takers and which envisions schools playing a central role in neighborhoods united and mobilized to get a fair share of the nation’s resources.
At the end of an article, "'Objectivity' As a Barrier to Education: Teaching Intellectual Responsibility and the Role of the Citizen," that I just sent off to the journal that wants it, I write:
Whatever the method used, education will never regain its strength it we do not actively pursue the school’s participation within the culture as a tool for improvement—not just of individuals but of the society as a whole. We teachers need to be aggressive in our agendas, and those need to extend well beyond the classroom. [John] Dewey writes [in "My Pedagogic Creed"]:

"I believe it is the business of every one interested in education to insist upon the school as the primary and most effective instrument of social progress and reform in order that society may be awakened to realize what the school stands for, and aroused to the necessity of endowing the educator with sufficient equipment properly to perform his task."

This is not objectivity—but it is education.
Yet what am I doing, but writing here?  Very little, so far.  I did go down to Occupy Wall Street and listened in on a discussion on education where, at least, I made a few contacts.  But that's not much.

We're in a weird situation right now, we left-overs from the 1960s.  This isn't our movement to lead, but we can provide a great deal of experience and information.  We also know a great deal of what needs to be done--those of us in education, certainly--but we haven't been doing it.  As a group, we've been doing nothing to improve things, and for decades.  We've let the bureaucrats of education set our agendas, tagging meekly along while winking to our "comrades."

We have failed, but that doesn't mean we have nothing to offer to the people who are on the brink of seizing the agenda.

Right now, we older educators, we who have had unfilled visions of what education could be, need to recognize that we aren't the leaders, aren't even the 'sages on the stages.'  At the same time, we must be more that 'guides on the sides,' for that is going to lead us into excuses for inaction.

Treading carefully and deliberately, we can contribute.  We must take care, at the same time, and hold back a bit, for this is not our movement, no matter how often we baby boomers have gone down to OWS or any other Occupy site.  Let the young lead, but provide the room and backing for their success.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Public Intellectual

Writing in the New York Times today, Michael Bérubé, professor at Penn State and once perhaps the preeminent academic blogger in the country (he has since turned to other activities), addresses the child rape scandal from the perspective of the faculty. In doing so, he faced a difficult task: as Paterno Family Professor of Literature, he is beholden in many ways to both Joe and Sue Paterno--and to an institution that he has been part of for a number of years now, and institution he has helped grow and improve, something made possible, in part, by the efforts of the Paternos and by former President Graham Spanier (who was fired with Paterno).

Of course, Bérubé didn't have to write at all. He could have put his head down, said it was none of his business, really, and continued on with his teaching and research. He could have done what the majority of the American professoriate does when an issue hits close to home: he could have put his head in the sand.

Oddly enough, just yesterday I finished writing an essay called "'Objectivity' As a Barrier to Education: Teaching Intellectual Responsibility and the Role of the Citizen" and sent it off to the journal that had requested it. In the article, I quote several times from Bérubé's book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, holding him (along with CUNY's own Ira Shor) up as an exemplar of what a professor should be--and discussing why.

One of my points is that we professors have a responsibility to academic freedom, not simply a right--and that we have a responsibility to our students to exemplify the behavior of contributing citizens of a democracy. This is nothing new--John Dewey expressed the same thing more than a century ago--but it is something we seem to have forgotten, for the most part. We have let our own responsibilities slip away, allowing college and university administrations to step into our place.

Bérubé writes:
Penn State has been an emphatically “top-down” university; decisions, even about academic programs, are made by the central administration, and faculty members are “consulted” afterward. Now Penn State will very likely lose its exemption from open records laws, and rightly so. But the administration must begin treating faculty members, and their elected representatives on the Faculty Senate, as equal partners in the institution. Perhaps if a faculty ethics committee had been informed about Mr. Sandusky in 2002, one of us could have advised administrators to inquire more aggressively into the case instead of circling the football program’s wagons.
This won't happen unless faculties demand it. And faculties, even when they do sometimes make a lot of noise, are not taken seriously. The administrations know that, when it comes right down to it, faculty members are going to do nothing that will jeopardize their positions. They have little respect for us.

When Chancellor Matthew Goldstein visited City Tech last month, he claimed that a new "Pathways" program was faculty driven. He had asked the provosts to name faculty members to a panel that would work on developing the program. We in the audience, faculty all, did not challenge him, did not say that naming pet professors to a panel does not make them equal partners in the activity. At best, as Bérubé says things are done at Penn State, it was a "consultation" after the fact of the decision. We grumbled, and our union postures about taking the system to court. But Pathways (which is probably a good idea--it's the process that is the problem) will go ahead as planned.

Yes, if the faculty were seriously consulted, a great deal could be done and with fewer problems. And possible future disasters, like the current Penn State scandal, might be avoided. But that will only happen when the faculty start showing a willingness to take risks.

Something woefully rare, today.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Commodification of Intellectuals

Some time back, I posted a few comments along with a quote from Jacques Barzun--including one factual error and, in the quote, a bit of mistyping.  Someone connected to the scholar quickly contacted me and corrected me.  I thanked him and made the changes; that kind of vigilance is useful to all of us.

But that sort of vigilance, I fear, is going to become more the exception than the rule.  The estates of scholars are becoming more concerned with protecting financial possibilities than with ensuring a continuing contribution to intellectual discussion.  Their work has become "intellectual property," widgets of no more intrinsic importance than any other items put up for sale.

In another instance, I mentioned in a post a different intellectual from the 20th century.  I won't mention his name--if I do, the sequence of events I am about to describe will likely be repeated (the automated part, that is).  Anyhow, the guardian of his work has established a 'bot seeking his name and leaving a canned comment with links to his site.  The comment, stripped of identification, reads like this:
We are a not-for-profit educational organization,... and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition... [the author] made a series of [videos].... For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.
Three hours....  A must for libraries and classroom teaching....
I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.
The comment was signed with the name of someone who had co-authored a book with the original scholar.

As I moderate comments on this blog, I was able to simply delete this one.  But the 'bot wasn't satisfied, and the comment was offered a second time.  Not wanting to continue the cycle, I wrote to the author, asking that this stop, writing "It doesn't help anyone."  He (or someone writing in his name--I came to think I was corresponding with an intern quite quickly) responded, "Sorry.  Nor hurt anyone, as it's a invaluable bit of learning."

He's right.  It doesn't hurt anyone, but it is an imposition, a stepping into the space of another.  I wrote back: "You can pinch someone and then excuse yourself by saying it doesn't hurt, but that really is the decision of the person being pinched."  He responded (and this is why I don't think I was corresponding with the named person, but a minor underling): "Your ignorance is exceeded only by your audacity!"


There's a quote from Robert Hutchins with the signature line of each email from this person:
Justice and freedom; discussion and criticism; intelligence and character--these are the indispensable ingredients of the democratic state.  We can be rich and powerful without them.  But not for long.
So true.  But when these become commodities themselves, as that last comment from the guardian shows us, we no longer have them.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

On the Appropriateness of Topics for Impromptu Writing Exams

When I expressed, to a group of others teaching developmental writing within the CUNY system, the complaints I had heard from students about the topics they has been asked to write about on the CUNY Assessment Test in Writing (CATW), I got two responses.  One was that the prompt, concerning whether or not amateurs should be continued to be allowed as entrants in the New York City Marathon, was a particular favorite.  The other was a shrug and a comment that students should be able to write in response to any prompt, no matter the topic.

I bit my tongue.  The gathering was collegial and I did not trust myself to be civil.

In terms of what students can do with them, not all prompts are created equal.  The Marathon may seem like a topic open to any writer, no matter their background--after all, running is something most people can do--but it really is not.  For writers from middle-class backgrounds, jogging is something they've seen around them since early childhood--and it is likely those writers have even known marathoners.  The races are a known part of life, and topics around them have been floating by since they first started listening to the conversations of adults.  Even the distinction between amateurs and professionals would be a known matter.

It is possible to keep something as a hobby, to the middle class, in a way that is not apparent to immigrants and the poor, to people who need to keep financial survival front and center.  The very idea of amateurism is somewhat foreign, unless one comes from a rather privileged background.  One would not put in the time necessary to get to the point of running a marathon simply for the satisfaction of doing it, were one not from the middle class.  The same goes for other motivations for jogging, including health benefits.  So, the very question posed by the prompt would be more foreign and less accessible to many poor and immigrant students taking the exam, placing a burden on them as writers that others lack.  The question contains a built-in inequity that the teacher who liked it (herself likely a runner, given her appearance) does not understand.

The other response, that students should be able to write on anything, presupposes an ability to engage in academic discourse that many students have never been exposed to, let alone have developed.  Being able to talk or write about anything one comes across results from years of training in language use and in observation.  It is not something brought to college, not by most students, certainly.  Expecting it privileges students from academic families or, at least, households with college-educated parents.

Both of these people were defending a testing regime that is indefensible, anyhow.  Arguing about the specific utility of parts of the test should be seen as beside the point--for the idea of the test itself, mandated by political forces onto CUNY, has no real foundation except as a means of exclusion.  The small, further exclusions within particular manifestations of the test don't matter much at all.

That said, we all have an obligation to our students to do all we can to prepare them to negotiate the CATW successfully.  It doesn't matter how we feel about the exam: the students' futures are on the line.  To help my students, I need to understand the problems they face in even entering into the type of topic they are likely to encounter on the test.  I should never defend the prompt; liking a particular prompt, or resorting to blanket "shoulds," doesn't help, but removes me further from being able to assist.  The two teachers who commented aren't starting where their students are, but (in the first case) where she, the particular teacher, is or (in the second case) from an ideal of what a student ought to be.

As teachers, none of us should be defending the prompts or the test as a concept or barrier.  We should not be invested in the test in any fashion.  Instead, we should be invested in our students, in making sure they are as prepared as we can possibly assist them in becoming by the time they take the exam again (they are in developmental classes for not having passed the last time).  Yet there are many of us, now, who have build careers around the test, and who now give it the priority instead of the student.

That is even more inappropriate than a prompt giving priority to the middle class.