week 12 summary

This week I’ve been thinking more about how posthumanism in particular relates to education. This has also been feeding into thoughts about my assignment topic, in which I’m going to critically narrate (in a blog) an interest-pursuing exercise to see if I can evaluate the feasibility of the de-centred, ‘consideration’ educational model.

Framing the assignment topic has been a bit tricky, as I want to keep an open mind about what my conclusions are going to be in the ‘meta’ criticism while also keeping an analytical outlook into the topic of interest… For the latter, I’m trying to find a reasonable balance between a narrowly focused, traditional approach and a genetically altered rhizome going wherever my fancy takes me! And in this, I‘m already conducting a tacit analysis of the interest-pursuit model–which will need to be included in my higher-level blog…

I’ve tried to come at these issues from some disparate starting places in hopes that I can clarify in my mind what I actually mean by interest-pursuit–or perhaps what people like Edwards mean. I think I’ll have to do some more old-fashioned research here!

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No guru, no method, no teacher

The following comment was awaiting my approval when I logged on the other day, and I promptly relegated it to the spam heap:

But then I started to think about its precepts regarding ‘Teachers’ and ‘Leaders’, and about some of the trends we’ve been discussing in education. I’ve made an odd sort of link between this and a small religious group…

The above verse was often used by a fundamentalist Christian faction known as the Plymouth Brethren to argue against the hierarchical structures of most other Christian denominations. They didn’t have priests, bishops, cardinals or even ‘pastors’. The minimised the use of symbols, imagery and ceremony. Their Sunday meetings involved sitting silently in a room until a congregation member decided to say, pray, read or sing something. This was all with the loftiest egalitarian aims, rooted in revulsion against the ecclesial aristocracy of the 19th century Church of England in particular (but obviously other denominations as well).

Anyone with a cynical bone in their body will probably know how this group progressed since its inception:

  • While arguing that everyone should interpret scripture themselves rather than listening to ‘teachers’ or ‘leaders’, John Nelson Darby‘s writings themselves became ‘scriptures’ (and he a revered figure) even outside of the Brethren.
  •  The meetings (not ‘communion services/eucharists’) were not as egalitarian as they may appear–only adult males who were members of the group (not ‘church’) were allowed to say anything. Women were silent had kept their heads covered.
  • Outside of these Sunday morning meetings, people (men) did give talks (not ‘sermons’). Women taught Sunday School and other women.
  • A great quantity of unwritten laws arose through practice (such as how to carry Bibles and hymnals, what types of prayers to offer when in the course of a meeting, women could not wear trousers to meeting–even in the mini-skirt era, etc.).

Why am I going on (and on and on) about this? Well, it seems to me that often educators can get stuck in the same muddle as the Brethren did. Wanting to make education as egalitarian as possible, and as organic as possible, we try to sidestep traditional educational pitfalls such as hierarchical structures, but oftentimes end up back where we started. I’ll give a few examples…

  • No teacher. The Brethren eschewed ‘priests’ (and the Roman Catholic ‘Father’), but had ‘Travelling Brothers’ who were funded by the Brethren to spend their lives speaking at different meetings, writing articles and books, etc… It doesn’t seem a million miles away from the ‘sage on the stage’ rebranding into ‘guide on the side’ (or ‘meddler in the middle’?!). I’m going to be rather traditionalist here and suggest that, while I think this is pertinent to how students learn (by doing rather than being talked at, for example), the who they are learning from is still important. They are a guide; they are there (ideally!) because they‘ve walked a road similar to this before. They’re not afraid of learning something new from the students, but in this context they do have a certain role.
  • No method. I don’t know much about psychology, but I think it’s safe to say that people like a degree of routine–especially in social situations. They generally feel more comfortable with norms of behaviour, whether their personal rituals or those of a group or society. Thus the many unwritten rules that arose to fill in the gaps in the early days of the Brethren (who had plenty of written rules to go on already) were never overthrown but became part of the culture. Likewise, I think educators sometimes take the rules away in order to give students more freedom, only to find that the students are constantly asking for boundaries to be set, or have misinterpreted a task in an unforeseeable way, or become frustrated by having to ‘guess’ at what they’re supposed to be doing. Not that this isn’t a very difficult balance to achieve–it takes experience and an understanding of a group of students. I guess the important part of this is that ‘open’ does not equal ‘unstructured’.
  • No guru. Another danger of letting students experiment, experience or interpret is that they will do so in a vacuum. In addition to an expert of some kind and a structure, students need to know the broader context–they need the object to be re-solidified. The Brethren, while claiming to rely on the bible alone, actually based their beliefs on other people’s interpretations of it; the most dangerous thing about this was that it was almost always unconscious: people actually thought that such-and-such a doctrine had come from their objective reading of scripture (not from Darby or Brother Smith or from what so-and-so said last week at meeting). The context existed, but was not recognised. I’d like to argue that this can happen in education as well (it was certainly apparent when I was studying literature as an undergrad): students can only form understanding based on the resources available to them–I could read TS Eliot with understanding, but how would this compare to my understanding after some historical background, reading contemporary and modern criticism, reading other poetry of the same era, discussing Eliot with people with different points of view and understandings… These resources existed, but it was seldom explicitly suggested that I go looking for them, that they would broaden my understanding, etc.

This is still all getting away from abstraction, categorisation and the subjective human (which is why I’m blogging about it now!) and I think shows in a different way how the teacher, while their role might have changed in the evolution of educational theory, still has an important (and certainly more nuanced, changeable and demanding) part to play in the student-inquiry-object-rhizome morphology.

Looking at this from a broader perspective, though, we may (like Edwards?) then ask what education is for anyway. But…that’s for another module.

Thanks to Van Morrison for the title.

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week 11 summary

I have to confess that I just this moment realised that we’re meant to continue our tumblogs through weeks 11 and 12. As we Americans say, d’oh.

But I’ll soldier on with a few things I was thinking about in week 11, although displayed post-humously…

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The Big Bang Theory, a show that I am compelled to watch by virtue of being married to a physicist, does virtual presence. Coincidentally enough, Sheldon chooses this manner of being present in the hopes that he will keep his body alive until his consciousness can be transferred into a computer and can thus be immortal. Of course the virtual presence is foiled in the end by virtue of Sheldon wanting Steve Wosniak to sign his vintage Apple. What struck me about this was that the attitude the other characters had (and thus the audience were expected to have?) was a long-suffering incredulity about Sheldon’s self-centredness and unquestioning belief in technology. It wasn’t anti-modernism (‘look what kind of trouble tech has gotten him into now!’) or anti-humanism (‘look at his vain attempt to beat death’), but rather a neutral view of tech and perhaps a reaction to humanism–at least centred around one person…Edwards’ subject?

An extreme example of the person becoming a machine is the cyberman, something else I’m required by holy matrimony to know all about. In recent years, these have been given a bit of a twist: in one of the revival episodes (10th doctor, series 2, 2006 if you’re a serious anorak), a regular character is turned into a cyberman, but remembers her life as a human. She sees it in a completely dispassionate way and can’t understand why the humans are so distraught. Is this opaquely suggesting the impossibility of Sheldon’s dream of moving an intact consciousness into a machine, devoid of physical presence not to mention bodily chemistry? Or is it just the emotion inhibitor? (And why is there an emotion inhibitor? Because if there wasn’t, the brain would be so appalled at what had happened to its…person…that it would die.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, separation of body and mind is seen as simply an inconvenience (this scene and Rimmer’s permanent hologramatic state):

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Or an technicality to be exploited:

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In both of these extremes, however, we find another dichotomy–not just body versus mind, but body versus [robot casing, hologram, killing machine]…or, translated into the debate that seems to really be going on, body versus [Facebook identity, avatar, discussion board moderator, wikipedia contributor...or equally: university alumni profile, letter to the editor, report on the main exports of Uruguay...] It’s not just a case of whether the mind (or personality, consciousness, identity, etc.) can be separated from the body, but what it [the mind/etc.] is if that separation occurs. Lister’s mind is saved onto a highly improbably disc and dropped into a cup of tea–is the disc Lister? Is the war machine Nixon?

Jumping ahead in the future a bit–this approaches my assignment topic at a bit of a tangent, in particular my investigation into fan fiction. In this situation, we have the mind of the original author; the original text; a character (if we can assume that the character is ‘greater than’ the text…which, it seems to me, is the premise that fan fiction is based on, although I won’t draw any conclusions yet…); the mind of the ff author; the text that the ff author writes; the reception of that text by others with intricate knowledge of the first three. Are they all separate entities, or do they all work to create a transtemporal posthuman…?

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Week 9 summary

I think I can best summarise my scattered thoughts over the past week with a quote from my undergrad Anthropology professor: ‘Invention is the mother of necessity’.

He was speaking in terms of biological evolution, but this concept quite nicely hints at a nexus joining those much maligned categorisations of the real, the ideal and the virtual.

To start with, the ‘natural’ state of humans is problematised biologically: evolution is all about adaptation to the outside world, regardless of whether is was created by ourselves or not, or whether we want to adapt or not. Moreover, it is driven by anomalies: ‘informational’ mistakes–accidental inventions–that eventually came to be necessary to survival, and necessary to be called human (and not neanderthal, etc.).

From this point of view, the ‘cyborg’ is as unremarkable as a grey moth in Birmingham. The invention process just added another step–there was the accident of a gene that made us capable of considering using animal skin to keep us warm; we just had to enact it. Ditto building shelters, fire, weapons, vehicles, farms, radios, Facebook (more or less). It’s just the complexity of the current invention system that tricks us into thinking that our latest adaptations are ‘unnatural’ or ‘abnormal’.

And the complexity can also be understood in ‘natural’ terms. Dawkin’s ‘meme’ seems to have had a cultural resurgence in helping to define social media phenomena, and is a pithy way of thinking about evolution in post-human terms as the adaptation of a complex [of anything] to inventions external to it (if anything is really external in this sense) and of its own making. Crucially, this is a completely dynamic complex; it doesn’t stop evolving, moving, changing.

I’m arguing here as if ‘post-human’ is a description of how things ‘really’ are, and we’re only just realising it now. I don’t think that’s quite right. First, I’m using the ‘nature’ argument mostly as a challenge to the mystification of the cyborg–not necessarily to say ‘whatever is, is right’. But I’m also aware that a self-satisfied ‘we’ve finally got it all figured out now’ is precisely what post-humanism is not. So I’ll just leave post-humanism as a potentially useful way to perceive…stuff…

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Information age

I certainly found Hayles more comprehensible than Haraway (which brought me much pleasure in itself…). I ‘ve just highlighted a few points that struck me:

  • The concept of information as disembodied. I’d never thought about this before, particularly to the extreme that Shannon suggested. I think if someone had presented me with this view outside of this context, there’s a 50-50 chance I would have completely accepted it (either in a simplistic way, because info isn’t tactile, or in a semantic way, because it’s only interpretation that makes the various 1s and 0s that form an Excel spreadsheet, for example, ‘informative’–which seems relevant to McKay’s argument); I could have rejected it just as easily on the grounds that Hayles discusses, or because I don’t know enough about neuroscience or computers to decide for myself whether ideas or data files are material or not…! And I think my ambiguity betrays a pervasive cultural attitude about information, whether it’s a both/and idea (sometimes information is material, sometimes it’s not), a typology (this type of information is material, that type is not) or, again, a semantic riddle (e.g. is it only ‘information’ when it is material, but something else when it’s not?).
  • The body as incidental to consciousness. This is of course connected to the first point, but is interesting as a possible link between humanism and posthumanism (p. 4); is Hayles implying toward the end that this is a skeuomorph–a strangely significant leftover from an older philosophy? It doesn’t seem to me that this disembodiment factors into Haraway’s cyborg or Pickering’s posthuman…rather the reverse…
  • The experience of an information/material duality is a culturally limited phenomenon. Hayles points this out clearly, and I think we could take it further to say that much information is only information (I know I’m playing the ‘meaning’ card again, but it seems to keep resurfacing) if it can be translated materially. Impoverished people could be given access to the world’s data on disease cures, agricultural techniques, manufacturing processes…insider stock market tips, my PIN and internet banking password, the PM’s private email address…but without the material objects to make use of this information, or to offer it to people who can, it really is just a collection of blots of ink, 0s and 1s, vibrations of air molecules.
  • But what does all this have to do with education? After blagging my way through an explanation of what I’d been reading this past week, I was confronted by this question. The answer that I pulled agilely out of the hat was that it gives pause to our usual ways of perceiving the entire learning process. To be fair, this goes back to IDEL discussions, and the example of Aristotle’s concern that writing things down spelled (so to speak) the end of good education. But what I pulled from Haraway, Hayles and Pickering was that not only does the typical education process artificially separate fields of study which are really all intertwined, but it presupposes that both these subjects and the students themselves are (as far as learning is concerned) disembodied–Platonic forms of information that can be exchanged and compared, decontextualised, to each other. Examples could range from a spelling test to an economics seminar discussion on stock market fluctuations. In the first case, the actual knowledge being tested is decontextualised, but a part of the cyborg (the dictionary or spell checker) has also been amputated. In the second case, the seminar leader may expect the students to look at socio-cultural factors, the psychology of traders, the history of market economies, etc.–but only in a distilled form in line with the learning outcomes of the course…and, in a live seminar situation, all from the students’ own heads. The simpler version of this is nothing new: would you rather have a doctor who was good at cramming for an exam, or who knew where to look for the latest information?
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