Derrida

Benoît Peeters, Derrida: A Biography

“Does a philosopher have a life? Can you write a philosopher’s biography?” So opens Benoît Peeters’s book on Jacques Derrida, a figure about whom a biographer has particular reason to be circumspect, not least because of all the ways in which Derrida’s work problematizes our notions of the relationship between writing and experience, or between language and being. Peeters answers his own questions in the affirmative by proceeding to give us almost six hundred pages on Derrida’s journey from Algerian childhood as the son of a travelling salesman to his death in Paris as perhaps the most famous (and the most controversial) thinker of the past fifty years. He also, however, finds solace in his task from some of Derrida’s own comments on the importance of “put[ting] philosophers’ biographies back in the picture” (qtd. 1). Indeed, this is probably as close to an “authorized” biography of Derrida as we are likely to get: Peeters thanks Derrida’s widow, Marguerite, for “placing her confidence” in him, and has talked to many members of the philosopher’s family as well as to schoolfriends, colleagues, collaborators, and others who knew him well. So while this is far from being a “Derridean” biography, for Peeters argues that “mimicry, in this respect as in many others, does not seem the best way of serving him today” (6), and while it is not exactly devoid of criticism, it is undoubtedly a work that aims to “serve” Derrida. So then the question becomes: how well does this biography serve him?

Derrida: A Biography does little to explain very well why its subject was important. It is particularly uneven when it comes to explicating the key points of his thought, or their contribution to the philosophical tradition. Peeters avers that he “will not be seeking to provide an introduction to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida” (3). But absent that, and given that (frankly) the life of a philosopher is not all that interesting in itself, what we are left with are what can otherwise seem to be rather petty struggles for advancement within the academic institution and/or rather excessive, even fawning, expressions of loyalty and partisanship. We are left, in short, with friendships and enmities whose basis or whose stakes are almost impossible to determine or judge. Derrida comes to seem important simply because others thought that he was–although it also becomes clear that there is nobody who has a higher regard for his work than Derrida himself. In one of his few critical moments, Peeters notes the consensus, even among the man’s friends, about his narcissism, adding the peculiar comment that “Derrida practiced it to excess, thereby questioning the boundaries of narcissism and turning it into a philosophical gesture” (421). But what were the terms of this gesture? On what grounds, if any, was it made? On this Peeters is, almost stubbornly, silent.

Meanwhile, about the life itself: I have said that it was not all that interesting, but it was not completely uneventful, either. This is a tale of quite dramatic social mobility in the context of one of the more violent episodes of twentieth-century decolonization. It is also the story of a quite unconventional family life, including an illegitimate son whom Derrida officially recognized but essentially never met, and who was adopted by a man who went on to be Prime Minister of France. Yet, perhaps because of the semi-authorized nature of this biography, Peeters shows no great desire to probe: he indulges in neither gossip nor speculation, instead allowing Derrida’s own, often exceedingly elliptical, words to stand almost on their own. For instance, on paternity: “The father is someone who recognizes his child; the mother recognizes her child. And not only in a legal sense. The obscurity of the question lies entirely in this ‘experience’ that is so hastily called ‘recognition’” (qtd. 357). In similar fashion, Peeters repeatedly calls attention to Derrida’s profound sense of anxiety, and though this was presumably in part the other face of the too-obvious narcissism, he never really describes or stops to ponder these anxieties at any length. The biography thus falls between several stools: it is far from being a rigorous account of its subject’s intellectual development and theoretical work; but it also stops short of either titillation on the one hand or anything resembling an analysis of the psyche on the other.

If anything, this is then a political biography, in the rather limited sense (drawn from Carl Schmitt) of the political as founded on the distinction between friend and enemy. This is true as much of the academic politics (the blocked career advancements; the quarrels and reconciliations with colleagues and competitors) as of the increasingly evident commitments to political causes such as human rights or anti-racism. Perhaps particularly for Parisian intellectuals, these two forms of the political go almost hand in glove: Derrida is repeatedly moving between publishers or journals, for instance, based on his assessment of their political line, or theirs of his. Moreover, the same themes (as Peeters puts it, “justice, witness, hospitality, forgiveness, lying” [486]) loom large in both arenas. And though he often portrayed himself (sometimes justifiably) as a victim, especially of the official French university system, it becomes clear that Derrida himself was fully invested in the complex maneuvers that are often described in alarmingly martial manner. Here, for instance, is Jean-Luc Nancy’s take on Derrida in the USA: “He always saw battles to be fought, fortresses to be taken and alliances to be made or consolidated. [. . .] It was important for him to maintain links with certain potential allies, even if they weren’t intellectually all of the first order. He knew he needed a lot of people to pass on the torch for deconstruction” (459-60). Nancy is a friend–one of Derrida’s oldest and most loyal–but his is a surprisingly cynical account of deconstruction’s transatlantic success. True, Nancy may equally be aiming a swipe at America and Americans, but for one Frenchman to call another “a kind of Prussian general” (qtd. 459) is hardly a compliment at the best of times.

Above all, the impression we get from this biography is of Derrida’s remarkable energy. In the first place, the man was a writing machine, producing endless books, essays, and talks. And the talks themselves were increasingly of almost frightening length: two hours, three hours, or more; of a paper in July 1997, he himself reports “I inflicted a twelve-hour lecture on them!” (qtd. 484). At the same time, he was perpetually teaching (the concept of a sabbatical seems to have been foreign to him), not just in his home institution but also at up to three others each year. He jetted in and out of conferences and speaking engagements around the globe. And apparently he was still available to students and others for casual conversation, as well as having time to keep up a prolix personal correspondence and running up what must have been a formidable international phone bill. No wonder Peeters should make the otherwise odd observation that “he had the heart rate of a sports cyclist or marathon runner, less than fifty beats per minute” (420). Again, however, I wonder how much this truly “serves” Derrida. After all, one of the criticisms of deconstruction is the way in which, among Derrida’s followers if not for the man himself, it too soon became the almost robotic application of a voracious new set of techniques for reading. Or to put this another way: if Peeters’s aim is to humanize Jacques Derrida, I’m not sure he’s done such a good job.

But perhaps, on the contrary, the problem here is that Peeters hasn’t gone far enough in giving us a truly inhuman or posthuman Derrida. He provides glimpses of the machine, without really showing us its workings. For it may be that a philosopher doesn’t have a life so much as he or she puts together (and becomes part of) a machinic apparatus. What we’re really waiting for, then, is less a biography than a machinography of an always excessive system, which encompassed but went beyond the proper names of (to take Peeters’s section titles) “Jackie,” “Derrida,” and “Jacques Derrida,” to recast and reformulate many of the fundamental propositions of academic writing and conduct, beyond the pseudo-hegemonic (and frankly banal) campaigns of alliance and filiation to which this book too often reduces its subject.

Adrianne Wadewitz

Adrianne Wadewitz

“Awadewit hates us,” murmured one of a small group of students as they shuffled into my office. I was teaching a course on the Latin American dictator novel, a course that I had given the title “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem.” One of the assignments asked students to write or edit Wikipedia articles. And as part of this project, we had come into contact with numerous Wikipedia editors, who often went by strange monikers such as EyeSerene, Wrad, Karanacs, and Geometry Guy. One of the editors who stood out and had helped the most went by the name of Awadewit. And Awadewit had bad news for my students: large parts of their contributions to the article they were editing, about the classic nineteenth-century text Facundo, were plagiarized. Hence this meeting to discuss what felt like a crisis.

Awadewit was firm but absolutely fair with my students. There was no tolerance for plagiarism, and the relevant sections were cut from the article forthwith. But there was no demonization, either. The students were well-intentioned, but hazy as to how to deal properly with sources. This was a wake-up call, and a sharp but surely effective way to learn what plagiarism was and why it was significant. This was a lesson they were not going to forget. Where they were fortunate was in that there was still time to fix the problem. And indeed, after plenty more work from the students as well as other Wikipedia volunteers, “Facundo” went on to pass peer review and be declared one of the very few (0.5%) of the online encyclopedia’s entries that are deemed “good articles.”

What was extraordinary, however, was the effort and care with which Awadewit had reviewed the article and my students’ contributions. Tracking down the plagiarism, for instance, had required reading some of the relevant books and scholarly articles that the students had used as sources. This effort was well above and beyond what was expected of these pseudonymous and anonymous editors we had been learning to work with in this assignment. It was no wonder that Awadewit had won deserved renown on Wikipedia not only as a prolific writer of so-called “featured articles” (the 0.01% of entries that are a cut above even “good articles”), particularly in the field of British Romanticism, but also as a careful and conscientious, but very supportive, copy-editor and mentor to other editors whatever their interests or expertise.

At some point, Awadewit and I started exchanging emails, from which I discovered that behind the moniker was Adrianne Wadewitz, a PhD student in English at Indiana University. We had a series of conversations I consistently found illuminating and inspiring, not least because this was someone from a similar background with similar goals. But she was much more familiar with Wikipedia than I was, and had been thinking longer about some of the issues involved in using it in the classroom. She was above all passionate about opening up scholarship beyond the Ivory Tower, and about writing articles on (particularly) women authors such as the eighteenth-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Wikipedia offered space and scope for introducing such figures to a new audience, while retaining scholarly standards and rigor. At the same time, she and I were dissatisfied in similar ways with the current state of the encyclopedia, not least the limited and constricting ways in which (particularly) literary topics were treated. She was unsure about how exactly to bridge the gap between Wikipedia and the academy, or how to calm the mutual suspicions on both sides, which was in part why she still adopted a pseudonym online, albeit one that retrospectively seems relatively transparent.

As time went on, and as academic or pedagogical use of Wikipedia and other online digital resources came to seem more respectable, if still often experimental and cutting edge, Adrianne felt more comfortable with her dual role, and even began assuming a leadership role. She changed her Wikipedia username to Wadewitz, and organized or was invited to seminars and workshops in the burgeoning field of the “Digital Humanities” around the country. A few years ago, she invited me to participate in a panel she organized in Bloomington for a conference on “Writing Across the Curriculum,” and at last I had the chance to meet her in person. It was a delight. She was as smart, charming yet serious, thoughtful but good humoured, as I had expected; if anything, more so. We chatted about her work (she was on the job market by then) and it was clear she had a bright future.

Over the years, we have sporadically been in touch via email and Facebook, as well as on Wikipedia. In the wake of the Bloomington conference we co-wrote an article. Adrianne moved to Los Angeles, where she had a postdoctoral fellowship at Occidental College, learned to drive (in LA, quite a feat), and took up a new activity, rock-climbing, about which she began writing articles (especially about women climbers) on Wikipedia. She became involved in HASTAC, the pioneering “Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory,” and she asked me to write the Wikipedia article on FemTechNet, a feminist project to rectify online bias, not least on sites such as Wikipedia. She wrote frequent and insightful blog posts on issues such as gender representation online, and reflections on pedagogy and teaching. All in all, Adrianne was becoming an authority, and also an inspiration and mentor to others. She was interviewed and quoted by the Huffington Post and the BBC.

Most recently, she and I had been discussing the Wiki Education Foundation, a new entity spun off by the Wikimedia Foundation to run their educational programs in the US and Canada. I had proposed that Adrianne join their board, and I was happy when the WEF took up the suggestion with some alacrity. She was a perfect match for them, and I hoped that she would help reinvigorate and give direction to the fledgling organization. At the end of February, I happened to be going to LA for a talk, and got in touch to see if she had time for a coffee or the like. In the end, she drove across town to have lunch with me, and on a beautiful Southern California spring day, we spent an hour or so chatting about the WEF but also about the next chapter of her life: her recent job interviews, and the prospect of perhaps moving across the country to the East Coast. Again, it was lovely to see her, and it was good to see her happy and excited about the future.

Last week came the dreadful news that Adrianne had died, following a climbing accident in Joshua Tree National Park.

Adrianne’s death is a profound loss. She was a leader in Digital Humanities and in Open Education, and one of the most insightful and knowledgeable commenters on Wikipedia, pedagogy, and gender. She affected many lives, perhaps more than she herself would have suspected, such as those of my students whom she guided and inspired. A couple of times in the past few years, Adrianne suggested that we co-write an article that she proposed calling something like “The Professor and the Wikipedian.” The sad thing is that now she will never take up her rightful place as professor herself. But on the other hand, she already played both roles for so many people. Indeed, she was professor, Wikipedian, activist, feminist, critic, writer, editor, scholar, as well as pianist, climber, daughter, and so on. Awadewit, Wadewitz, Adrianne had so much impact on so many people. Her memory and her legacy will endure.

Demanding Deconstruction

A position paper that is my contribution to the conference “The Marrano Spirit: Derrida and Hispanism” at the University of Southern California…

Jacques Derrida, Rogues (cover)

“Demanding Deconstruction: A Rogue’s Take or Offering”

What does deconstruction offer? Does it–should it–offer anything at all? Is this very question impertinent, unduly utilitarian? Or to put this another way: what can or should we ask or even demand of deconstruction? And how does this relate to whatever deconstruction might, in turn, ask of us? What can or should deconstruction demand of us? What do we have to offer, if indeed we should think of ourselves as offering anything at all? What can we take from it? What does it take from us? What do we have to offer to this conference, to deconstruction, to Hispanism, or to any other party, interested or otherwise: for instance the people, the subaltern, or the state? What, in turn, do we have the right to demand of Hispanism or of the people, the subaltern, and so on, and what do they have the right to demand of us? How much are we, or should we, be accountable to them? And how might deconstruction contribute to our offering, help us to respond to whatever demands are made of us, or help us think differently about the very notion of demand?

Read more… (.pdf file)

Warwick University Ltd

Warwick University Ltd coverE P Thompson was well-known as one of Britain’s foremost twentieth-century historians, certainly (alongside Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and perhaps Raphael Samuel) one of the country’s foremost radical historians. He was a mainstay of the New Left in the 1950s (and a founder of the New Left Review) and also a major figure in the rise of cultural studies: his classic study The Making of the English Working Class is usually cited as one of the field’s seminal texts, along with Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society and Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy.

In the 1970s, however, Thompson took issue with the turn within cultural studies towards structuralist and post-structuralist theory: his essay on “The Poverty of Theory” is an empassioned attack on Louis Althusser and a defence of socialist humanism. At the same time, he found himself increasingly uncomfortable within a university system whose priorities seemed to him to put profits over people, and to favor managerial control over democracy and intellectual debate. He therefore spent the last two decades of his career as a freelance writer (and peace activist), unaffiliated with any particular institution.

The nature of Thompson’s discontent with the university is best seen in a short and rather odd book, Warwick University Ltd: Industry, Management, and the Universities, which was written (in a week!) and published in 1970, in a climate of student protest and public outrage.

The facts of the matter are simple enough. In the late 1960s, Warwick was still a very young university: it had been established in 1965 as a state institution but with strong input and influence from the leaders of the manufacturing industries in near-by Coventry. Their plan was to seek ways in which academic expertise could feed in to industrial research and development. Fully twenty per cent of the students were to be in Engineering, and among the problems they were set to tackle (and the firms they were designed to benefit) were “metal fatigue (Massey-Ferguson), fuel injection system (Rover Company), vehicle instrumentation (Rootes and Ford Motor Company), fatigue in tyres (Dunlop)” (72) and so on. But the issues to be resolved were not merely technical: money was also supplied to set up an Institute of Directors’ Professorship of Business Studies, a Pressed Steel Professorship of Industrial Relations, and a Clarkson Professorship of Marketing, etc., all of which were to be housed in a “School of Industrial and Business Studies” whose “austere academic concerns” (as Thompson sardonically puts it) were to include “the choice of finance, the new issue market, institutional leaders, leasing, capital gearing and the cost of capital, taxation and company policies, take-overs, long-term financial planning” (75).

But the industrialists didn’t have everything their own way. Not enough engineers or would-be plutocrats applied, and the Arts and Social Studies “took up the slack and expanded more rapidly than had been intended” (71). Among those hired in these disciplines was Thompson himself (who had previously worked at the margins of academia, teaching adults in “extra-mural” classes at Leeds). And as the university expanded, the question of new building became a point of contention. The students wanted a Students’ Union, with a bar and space to socialize on what was a rural campus some distance from any major town. The Administration preferred to allocate space to staff and to come up with real estate that could be easily rented out for conferences during the vacations. The matter bounced around various committees for some time until, fed up, the students decided to occupy the University Registry. It was what they accidentally found while they were there that led to the subsequent storm:

At about eight o’clock that evening, one of the students (in an office next to the Vice-Chancellor’s) began thumbing through a file marked “Student-University Relations,” which had not been locked away. Amongst other things the file contained a report from a certain Mr Catchpole on a meeting addressed by Dr David Montgomery, an American Labour Historian who had been visiting the University the previous year. The student thought that perhaps Edward Thompson, who had been a colleague of Montgomery’s, might be interested in hearing the contents of the report. (51)

And interested E P Thompson indeed was. In the specific case of David Montgomery, the Director of Legal Affairs from Rootes Motors had been sent to a Labour Party meeting at which the visiting lecturer had been invited to talk, to see if there were grounds for his “prosecution under the 1919 Aliens Restriction Act” (107). Finding no such evidence, a Director from Rootes wrote to the Warwick Vice-Chancellor in any case, to report back. But this was the tip of an iceberg: for what was revealed (as students then steadily worked their way through the files available to them) was systematic collusion between the university and political and industrial interests to spy and report on student and staff activities outside the university. Essentially, the co-penetration of industrial with academic interests had corrupted the university, whose officials all too eagerly cooperated in petty policing and willful obstruction of free thought and discussion.

What follows is much careful consideration of what are often the minutiae of dissatisfaction at this one particular institution, though there is plenty to learn from even now. For one, the book is beautifully written, and often rather funny. Thompson takes a historian’s delight in this peek into the archives of the present. As he says,

It is my trade to open files, but the authors of the correspondence have always been long dead. One of the difficulties in writing “contemporary history” is that, until the files have been opened, the actual thoughts and the motives of the actors may be difficult to determine because of their public image. But here, for a moment, the actuality and the image co-existed, giving a sense of double vision; and even when the inertia of institutional routine reasserted itself, there lingered the sense of a new dimension to its reality–what the institution wished to be taken for set alongside one’s new knowledge of what it actually was. (157)

He admits that this double vision may be uncomfortable for those concerned: “Of course no correspondent likes the idea of militant youth going through his confidential letters” (157). But it is in this generalized crisis that the university finally gets to grip with what it could be, as well as with what it is. As Thompson says of a mass meeting called to discuss the concerns that arose from the occupation, “If ever there was a moment of birth of Warwick University, it was at that meeting. A University is not born when the Privy Council grants it a charter; it is born when its members come to realize that they have common interests and a common identity” (53).

Or as he puts it later, the scandal and the revealed corruption enabled a new sense of the university’s values. For beyond the details of who did and said what to whom, “The students began to realize that these were not the real issues at all, but were merely symptoms. What was wrong was the whole concept and structure of the university. The ideals of academic excellence and the pursuit of knowledge had to be reasserted over the aims of the ‘Business University.’” (59). Ultimately, “the University of Warwick only began to find its identity in a time of crisis” (59).

Likewise, for those of us who observe that the contemporary university is now (in Bill Reading’s phrase) “in ruins”, we might similarly hope that a rebirth might be possible in the face of the crisis occasioned by today’s MOOC fever, the increasingly rapid encroachment of commercial interests, the shallow-minded enthusiasm for short-term fixes, and the obsession with the university’s “business model” over any sense of its values. At least we can hope.

Warwick University Ltd ends leaving the largest issue open:

Is it inevitable that the university will be reduced to the function of providing, with increasingly authoritarian efficiency, pre-packed intellectual commodities which meet the requirements of management? Or can we by our efforts transform it into a centre of free discussion and action, tolerating and even encouraging “subversive” thought and activity, for a dynamic renewal of the whole society in which it operates? (166)

Thompson’s own answer to these questions presumably came when he resigned his post and dedicated himself to writing and working outside the academy and, increasingly, to activism in the peace movement. For those of us who are in the institution now–and not least but not only the students who are once again in occupation at the University of Warwick, over the latest attempts to turn public good into tradeable commodity–let us hope that these questions remain open. Let us return to the issue of what the university is for, understanding that the balance between dystopian threat and utopian promise is more finely poised than ever.

MOOCs and the Humanities

Watchmen ClockSo, there’s a lot of fuss about online and “flexible” learning, MOOCs, and the like these days. My posts on Eric Mazur and Coursera have drawn a fair amount of traffic to this otherwise rather neglected and sporadically updated blog. Welcome, new readers.

Another post on my blog

Let me make a couple of points clear:

1) I am not against technology, least of all online technology, in education. If anything I’m an early adopter. I’ve been using blogs in my courses for as long as I can remember. I was one of the first to use Wikipedia, in a rather successful project on the Latin American Dictator Novel. Indeed, a commenter over at “More or Less Bunk” very kindly said “The touchstone here is Jon Beasley-Murray’s Murder, Madness, and Mayhem class. In terms of exploiting the pedagogical potential of the web, nothing else even comes close.” He or she continues:

But MM&M did not turn Beasley-Murray into a global celebrity, nor has it inflamed the hearts of neoliberal university trustees–for the simple reason that, unlike the MOOC, it doesn’t feed into the techno-utopian fantasy of automating higher education and driving its price to zero.

Indeed. It is not technology that is at issue or at fault here. It is the shallow, decontextualized, and unthinking way in which it is presented and equally thoughtlessly lapped up by an institution that has apparently lost its way.

2) I’m not even particularly against MOOCs. In fact, I’m so not against MOOCs that I have spent much of this past year helping to start something that may turn out to be something of a DIY, home-grown MOOC. We’re calling it Arts One Digital.

But the challenge in all my experiments with technology in the classroom, and perhaps above all with Arts One Digital, is how to use it effectively in the Arts and Humanities.

Here at my institution, at least, the discussion (such as it is) about flexible learning and MOOCs has been dominated by the sciences. For instance, at the Coursera event, not one of the contributors to the debate came from the Arts or Humanities: not Koller herself, not the panel (which was chaired by the Dean of Sciences), not the introduction (by the Provost, a Chemist). All the questions from the floor were also by scientists, bar one from a member of the Faculty of Education (who asked about Coursera’s business model; subsequent discussion was quickly shut down). Concluding remarks came from a Vice President who is in the Arts, but an Economist (that “dismal science”). Even so, quite bizarrely, at one point the moderator felt the need to “put in a word for the sciences”! Yet most people I know in the Humanities weren’t even aware of the event, or the subsequent talk by Eric Mazur (a Physicist), introduced by the Academic Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Technology (also a Physicist).

Perhaps the oddest thing is that the Faculty of Education itself is barely present and certainly not officially represented on my university’s Flexible Learning Leadership Team or its Implementation Team (which comprises an Economist, a Physicist, a Zoologist, a Management Consultant, a Geologist, and yet another Management Consultant). If I were a member of that Faculty, I would be livid at the lack of faith the university places in the people it pays to be its experts on education. It’s astonishing. This strange marginalization of the real experts explains in part the shallowness of the thinking and knowledge on pedagogy that is repeatedly on display. At the end of the video of his talk, as he is taking off his microphone, you can hear Eric Mazur turning to the session chair and asking him if he had ever heard of Paulo Freire’s classic text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Sadly, we don’t hear the chair’s response.

What are the consequences of this sidelining of the Arts and Humanities? This has been discussed at length elsewhere, but I want to note a couple of points…

1) The model for online student learning and assessment is almost completely derived from the Sciences, particularly its dependence on multiple-choice tests. This has been perhaps the focus of critique of MOOCs from the Humanities, but it’s obvious enough that the kinds of thinking and response expected in the Humanities is very poorly assessed by multiple choice. There are alternatives, particularly peer grading, but these bring with them their own problems as anyone who has ever incorporated peer feedback into a Humanities course knows.

2) The model for conventional teaching practice is likewise completely derived from the Sciences, particularly its dependence on lectures. I was surprised by Mazur’s contention that we are subject to the “tyranny of the lecture” as though that were the only medium of instruction in the contemporary university. In my nine years at my current job, I have only ever given four formal lectures–all of which, incidentally, I gave in the past year. At least in my corner of the Humanities, we teach almost exclusively in a seminar format (and I never use a textbook). This doesn’t mean that my classes are tiny–this is a large state institution, and numbers range from about 15 to 50. My general rule of thumb for a seminar is that if the professor talks for more than ten minutes consecutively at any one time, then something is going wrong. I do break this rule, sometimes deliberately and sometimes because something is indeed going wrong. But I bear it in mind constantly. If that’s a “flipped classroom,” we have it already.

3) The model for the course curriculum is also, in turn, completely derived from the Sciences, particularly its basic continuity from year to year. My eyebrows were raised at Koller’s contention that lecturing was “easy” because all you do is dust down last year’s notes. Of the four lectures I have given at UBC, none had been given before; and I don’t expect ever to give them again. This is in large part precisely why I wanted them to be recorded and put on line. (See me lecture on Robinson Crusoe here and here. You won’t have another chance!) More generally (and I recognize that I may be slightly unusual here), I very seldom teach the same course twice, and when I do I try to avoid if at all possible setting the same texts again. The range of what I am paid to teach–generally, Latin American literature and culture–is so wide that I feel I should try to do as much justice as I can to that breadth and diversity. Equally importantly, I do not want to be stuck teaching (say) Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende for the rest of my days. Even when I return to García Márquez, for instance, we’ll read a different one of his novels every year.

All of this is in addition to the fact that, when the Arts and Humanities are left out as they have been, almost all sense of history, politics, and culture is also elided. This is not to say that Science is apolitical (far from it) or that scientists are not political animals. It is merely to point out that some of us in the Arts and Humanities are paid (by the university) to teach and think about issues such as the history of education and educational reform, the politics of the institution and previous missions civilisatrices, and/or the cultural differences that a company such as Coursera wants so blandly to homogenize. So, for instance, I am paid to know a little about Latin America, which is why Koller’s unthinking condescension about Peru and Peruvians jumped out at me. But there are many other voices missing from the debate–so much so that it is barely even a debate, as any dissent is stifled in the name of efficiency and in the face of bewildered enthusiasm for what is (supposedly) new and shiny.

The Arts and Humanities should have a vital role, critical and self-reflexive, that would complicate current discussion of technology in the classroom, and more broadly enhance our understanding of the university’s many challenges and possibilities in a global, wired world. But what we get instead is kneejerk enthusiasm and self-defeating short-termism. This is not the fault of the Sciences themselves–they should clearly and obviously be part of the conversation, too. It is, rather, the fault of an administration and senior management that has for some reason lost faith in its own mission and its own values, and in the people that it itself employs to think about and even question that mission and those values.

Coursera Condescension

Daphne KollerYesterday I watched the video of Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, speaking at UBC a couple of weeks ago. After her presentation, three UBC professors who have taught or are currently teaching a Coursera MOOC contributed to a panel discussion.

In many ways, neither the talk nor the discussion were particularly illuminating. Koller gave a talk that, I understand, she has been giving for some time. It’s the basic schtick for Coursera: “The Online Revolution: Learning without Limits.” It begins with the mathematical sublime, stunning us with the sheer numbers who register or show initial interest in Coursera offerings. And it transitions smoothly through the prestige of the universities who have signed up so far (“30 of the top 60 universities worldwide,” represented by their logos) to the pathos of individual cases.

For the first of three “vignettes” that she provides, we dwell on Raúl Coaguila, a Peruvian who won a Fulbright, we are told, thanks to his Coursera expertise. Because the fact is, Koller informs us, there is “not very much computer education to be had in Peru.” Only Coursera could give him this opportunity, dedicated as the company is to “people whose lives have been transformed by education that they would never otherwise have had.”

As soon as I heard this, I wanted to call bullshit. Because I’ve been to Lima (and Cuzco and Trujillo and Huamanga…) and pretty much all you see are endless adverts for computer courses at the multitude of local colleges and universities. Try for instance, the Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas or the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería. Or even the venerable Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, which has been teaching computing for over seventy years. Heck, this October you could take part in the V Congreso Internacional de Computación y Telecomunicación, hosted at the Universidad Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.

What, did Koller think they live in mud huts down there?

In fact, if this is the same Raúl Coaguila whose user page you can find on the Coursera site (and it’s likely: 24 year old male from Lima, Peru, with a strong interest in computing), then in fact he did his BA in software engineering at (precisely) the aforesaid Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas. Indeed, his LinkedIn profile suggests that he has been teaching there for the past three years.

Now, none of this is to say that putting Coursera on his CV didn’t help Raúl in his Fulbright application. Nor that he isn’t a Coursera fan. On the contrary: he’s clearly heavily involved in the site, listing 21 courses from “Machine Learning” to “Introduction to Guitar.” (It’s not clear how many–if any–of these he’s completed.) And he’s satisfied with his experience enough to encourage his followers on Twitter to vote for the company as “Best Education Startup” in the 2012 Crunchie Awards. Sadly for Raúl, they only came second, losing out to Codecademy. But he’s also a fan of sky-diving (hardly a regular past-time of Lima’s urban poor), and who knows if that influenced his Fulbright assessors just as much, if not more, than his application’s mention of Coursera.

Let me stress that in no way do I want to suggest that Raúl Coaguila is an undeserving recipient of a Fulbright. I wish him well in his future studies (and hope he takes care with his sky-diving).

But I do object to the romanticized pathos invoked by Koller (here and increasingly as her talk goes on): the conceit that Coursera’s object is to lift up the impoverished in Latin America, Africa, and the Third World more generally. Or the notion that North American universities’ participation with her company is the best way to make up for lack of educational capacity in the global South. Beyond the immense condescension and ignorance that it betrays on her part, I bet she isn’t spinning this line to her venture-capital investors. And I’d rather she didn’t spin it to us.

Eric Mazur and the Suppression of a Utopian Past

Eric MazurThe past few days my institution has been hosting Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has made a name for himself in the world of “flexible learning” for his tweaks to the university lecture format to create what is sometimes called a “flipped classroom.”

His visit was much hyped by the university, and drew a large crowd. As he himself tells us, it was his fourth lecture in as many countries and as many days. Mazur is a big shot.

Essentially, his pedagogical tweaks involve the use of technology to incorporate student feedback and discussion. His technique is for the lecturer to introduce a concept, then pose a question. After responses to the question have been gathered, students discuss their answers among themselves before answering the question again; the lecturer goes over the correct answer and moves on. The point is that ideally students will have taught each other during the discussion phase, as will be demonstrated by their improved responses the second time they answer the same question. Not a bad idea per se, but hardly earth-shattering.

In short, Mazur argues for the inclusion of brief bouts of so-called formative assessment in what is otherwise a rather traditional teaching model. Mazur calls this “peer instruction.” He has a book on the topic. These days, more importantly, he also has a website he’d like to sell you. And so the product pitch is on.

Because otherwise there was little of any substance to his presentation. Yesterday, Mazur spent the first third of his uninterrupted two-hour spiel with some fairly jokey and anecdotal critique of the lecture format as a vehicle for student learning. The second third was devoted to selling us on the peer instruction technique. And the final third was a pitch for the product itself.

Pedagogy of the OppressedMazur’s thoughts on pedagogical theory were astonishingly superficial and, frankly, uninformed. Early on in the lecture, in response to a question, someone in the audience mentioned Paulo Freire’s “banking model”. For this indeed was precisely what Mazur was saying, that (in Freire’s words) in the conventional system:

Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques 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 students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.

But Mazur had patently never heard of Freire. Nor, it seems, was he aware of any other aspect of educational theory from the past fifty years.

It is not that one cannot criticize Freire (not least for a somewhat simplistic view of how banking works). But such criticism and dialogue with the past is impossible from Mazur’s position of total ignorance. An entire body of knowledge is being forgotten or suppressed. And this is rather convenient for the bevy of people who are trying to sell us their latest tweaks and gadgets.

For the point is that Freire was against the banking model in part because he was against banks: his argument is a radical critique of a hierarchical social structure and its economic underpinnings. His is a “pedagogy of the oppressed” because he believes that the current educational system perpetuates inequality, and he wants to do something about it.

Mazur’s aims are precisely the opposite: he wants to benefit from social stratification (leveraging his Harvard credentials) to make financial profit. A few weeks ago he sold his technology start-up to the corporate giant Pearson for somewhere between five and ten million dollars in hard cash (though he retains a position as consultant). For a company that’s less than two years old, that’s a quick buck indeed.

It is insulting on many levels to sit through a presentation such as Mazur’s: insulting to anyone who has spent any time reading and thinking about education; and insulting to be treated only as potential customers for a hard sell. But the broader issues are more concerning still.

For this is where we are at, with the current fuss about flexible education and the like. The radical educational proposals of the 1960s and 1970s are being rediscovered, now that their promise is finally realizable thanks to technological innovation. But their utopian thrust has been lost, their politics have been gutted, and everything has to be “monetized” as part of a massive round of enclosures in which for-profit start-ups and mega-corporations colonize the captive educational market.

The tragedy and the scandal is that universities such as my own allow this to happen. Driven by a desire to do what Harvard (and Stanford and the like) do, they lay down the red carpet, this week to Mazur’s shallow shill, last week to the founder of Coursera. They turn their backs on a whole field of educational theory and enquiry, in favour of the latest huckster with a fancy website. And they forget entirely what the university is supposed to be about, or what in the 1960s and 1970s we thought it could be about.

We have the means to make a previous generation’s utopian dreams real. But we have forgotten their vision, and want only to buy and sell the means as though it were an end of its own.

From Discipline and Discovery to Place & Promise

UBCIn a marvellous essay of a couple of years ago on the gutting of British academia, Stefan Collini compares the British Government’s White Paper Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System with the celebrated Robbins Report on higher education, which was published in 1963. (He had already reviewed the Browne Report, which lay behind much of the White Paper.) As Collini points out, the 2011 White Paper cites Robbins, but

It may have been unwise for the drafting team at [the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills] to remind their readers of the cadence of Robbins’s prose, since it seems bound to provoke some thinking about how far we have travelled from the assumptions expressed by that prose, how that has happened, and whether something valuable may not have been lost along the way.

Quoting at length from the 1963 Report, Collini observes that

what such passages display, and what the White Paper so lamentably lacks, is a considered understanding of the character of intellectual inquiry and of the conditions needed to sustain it successfully across a wide range of subjects and across many generations. Universities cannot be glibly said to exist ‘to serve students’: that neglects precisely ‘the element of partnership between teacher and taught in a common pursuit of knowledge and understanding’ which Robbins identifies. The language of these passages is well informed and accurate: teaching at this level is not simply the ‘patient recapitulation and explanation of the known’; university teachers ‘need time for reflection and personal study’ if they are to ‘keep abreast of new developments in their subjects’, and so on. Such phrases would stick out in current HiEdspeak precisely because they are modest yet confident, not all outer bluster and inner defensiveness.

It is not, Collini continues, that we should “indulge a nostalgic desire to return to the far smaller and more selective higher education system of 30 or 40 years ago.” Rather, he concludes:

To the contrary, we should be seeking to ensure that those now entering universities in still increasing numbers are not cheated of their entitlement to an education, not palmed off, in the name of ‘meeting the needs of employers’, with a narrow training that is thought by right-wing policy-formers to be ‘good enough for the likes of them’, while the children of the privileged classes continue to attend properly resourced universities that can continue to boast of their standing in global league tables. There is nothing fanciful or irresponsible in believing that this great public good of expanded education can and should be largely publicly funded. This White Paper and the legislation already enacted are not about finding ‘fairer’ ways to pay for higher education or, in any meaningful sense, about putting ‘students at the heart of the system’. Rather, they represent the latest instalment in the campaign to replace the assumptions of Robbins’s world with those of McKinsey’s.

Similar conclusions can be reached, if on a smaller scale, by comparing the language and arguments employed within my own institution to describe its educational ambitions (or lack thereof) in two key documents: first, from 1963, Discipline and Discovery: A Proposal to the Faculty of Arts of the University of British Columbia; and, from 2011, A Place & Promise for Arts: UBC Faculty of ARTS Strategic Plan, Fall 2011.

The point of such comparison, however, is neither nostalgia nor critique for the sake of critique. It might, by contrast, help prepare us better for the challenge we currently face. That challenge has only become more acute over the two years since the UK White Paper and the UBC Strategic Plan were published, as the dramatic expansion of the commons promised above all by digital and online technology is met by a ferocious drive towards enclosure and “monetization” on the part of for-profit enterprises from Blackboard to Elsevier, Taylor and Francis to (most recently and most insidiously) Coursera.

More, anon.

Herb Blau

Herb Blau

I did my MA in English, in the 1990s, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The English Department occupied a couple of floors in an undistinguished 1970s concrete tower block called Curtin Hall. Though the building offered nice enough views over Lake Michigan from the upper stories, for the most part it comprised a series of windowless corridors and linoleum floors lit by fluorescent lights, lined with identikit pine doors leading to faculty and grad student offices. Many of my classes took place in the same non-descript seminar room at the end of one of these corridors. I believe that the room number was Curtin 466.

The only distinguishing feature of Curtin 466, which might draw your attention if class discussion seemed to be going nowhere in particular, was a dent in one of the walls, near the door. It was a fairly deep dent, which had broken the surface of the wall, revealing the hollowness within, and it was about the size and shape of a human fist. Rumor had it that the dent’s author was none other than one of the department’s more distinguished professors: Herb Blau. It was said that, perhaps in precisely one of those lulls, to invigorate things he had punched the wall with his bare hand.

I have no idea if that story was true, but it might well have been. For Herb, who died on Friday at the age of 87, wasn’t someone to let the little matter of a plasterboard wall get in the way of a robust exchange of ideas. And despite first appearances–by the time I knew him, he was already close to retirement age; short, balding, mild-mannered–he would soon remind you that his training was on and around the stage. He was a performer, or rather, he wanted to point out that we are all always called upon to perform when the spotlight, perhaps suddenly, comes our way. The only doubt is whether we are going to be up to the task. In class, he liked to draw attention to one of us in a quick instant that showed the way in which he was constantly thinking like a director: he put us on stage and challenged us to respond.

I took a course with him in that same seminar room with the fist-sized dent in the wall that could be read as a promise or threat of what we might expect in the Herb Blau classroom. The course was on fashion, slightly incongruously as I suspect that neither Herb nor I, in our different ways, have ever been accused of being particularly fashionable. But Herb was interested in fashion as performance, as a system of display that we could never simply evade. He was keen on the intricate play of gazes and (admiring or condescending) looks that constitutes a fashion system. We read an eclectic mix of texts, on topics from Renaissance cross-dressing to Coco Chanel, from Pirandello to pop.

Herb had an oblique relationship to academic fashion, too. I gleaned that he was very important in a field, performance studies, that he had in some ways invented. Indeed, he often told us directly or indirectly, through anecdote or declaration, of his own importance. But we young bucks were perhaps tempted to see Herb as something of a holdover or anachronism, in part precisely because of his stories of hanging out with Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter. In what was still the heyday of high theory, the notion of performance or performativity was associated with figures such as the poststructuralist feminist Judith Butler and a whole other series of references from Louis Althusser to Michel Foucault. Herb, though he read voraciously and was no foe of Theory, was perhaps too eclectic, or even too grounded, to be hip.

But Herb grew on you, and I grew to be a little less superficial in my judgments. He was extraordinarily generous with his advice and time, and in talking to him you realized that he had been watching and listening to you carefully: sympathetically but not uncritically. I remember when he dissected some of the questions I had asked in the regular department seminar where we hosted visiting speakers. He reminded me that I had, after all, been performing, and that his was above all a consummate eye (and ear) for performance. And that by pointing this out, and so by revealing that there was something hollow in every academic fad or fashion, he wasn’t necessarily denigrating it. After all, Herb had long been in the business of performance; he wasn’t one to oppose it to some simple notion of authenticity.

As with the seminar-room wall, Herb would puncture performances; he would leave his mark and offer a glimpse of the mechanics and subterfuges that hold up the structures (social and cultural as well as architectural) that we inhabit. But he would also therefore give us a sense of the complexity of those structures, and perhaps leave us with admiration (however grudging) for all that had gone into the construction of something that we otherwise might take for granted. Ultimately, Herb’s critiques, his provocations and even his self-dramatizations were aimed at one end: to get us to think, and so to learn; to keep us on our toes, so that we could reach higher.

I saw Herb just a few months ago, after an interval of many years. I was giving a talk at the University of Washington, in Seattle, where he moved not long after I left Milwaukee, and where his wife Kathy Woodward directs the Simpson Centre for the Humanities. He was visibly older and frailer than he had been a decade previously, but he was undimmed and astute as ever. My talk was on affect, violence, and death. Afterwards, in the question-and-answer session, he made the point that we are all dying in front of each other, all the time. He looked unwaveringly at me and said: “As I watch, you are inching towards death.” I wondered how to respond, realizing that Herb had done it again: he had put me on the spot; he’d made me think, made me struggle to find words; and he’d reminded me of that dent in the seminar room, of that mark of decay and ruination that we all carry with us.

Herb Blau has now finished that movement towards death that we call life. But I can’t imagine him wanting to rest in peace; and he certainly wouldn’t want us to do so. I take his legacy as, in part, an injunction to recognize the challenge, the inevitability but also unpredictability, of the performances demanded of us even in the most non-descript of surroundings. For we can always enliven them with a well-thrown (and well-thought) punch.