From Here

A revised (mostly shortened) version of a paper that I gave at UBC in October. This version was presented at the Modern Languages Association, here in Vancouver a couple of days ago, for a panel on “Rhetoric of Crisis and the Politics of Cuts”.

“From Here: ‘Flexible Learning,’ the Specter of MOOCs,
and the University’s ‘New Business Model,’”

A few years ago my university rebranded itself, adopting the slogans “From Here” and “A Place of Mind.” The marketing whizzkids came out with a series of posters that consisted of full-colour photos of scenes from Vancouver and around the British Columbian mainland with the tag-line “From Here.” Few of these images illustrate the university campus or indeed any other recognizable academic premises. So, for instance, one poster depicts a solitary young woman in the middle of what is apparently verdant wilderness, looking out towards mountain peaks in the mid-distance. Printed prominently above her is the declaration “Human Rights Defended From Here.”

From Here

I used to pass this poster every Monday evening as I taught a class on “Human and Civil Rights in Latin America” at the university’s downtown campus, not in some solitary idyll but with a full complement of garrulous students. Each week, the purpose of the poster would bewilder me more. My students equally had no idea. If anything, it seemed (and seems) a bizarrely ethereal conception of the university as a place that (despite the slogan) has no actual physical location, and thus no need of material resources. Who needs buildings? Or even teachers? Or fellow students? A “place of mind” is not, apparently, a place in the real world of human interaction and sociability, even if is a vantage point from which (supposedly) pressing social issues such as human rights might be somehow addressed. A “place of mind” is an idea of the university emptied out. It is the endpoint of the process presciently described by Bill Readings in The University in Ruins when he argues that the university is now organized around a conception of “excellence” that “no longer has a specific content” (17). As Readings puts it, “what is crucial about terms like ‘culture’ and ‘excellence’ (and even ‘University’ at times)”–I would add, today especially “University”–“is that they no longer have specific referents; they no longer refer to a specific set of things or ideas” (17). Hence we are now have a “posthistorical University, the university without an idea” (118). And while it is worth criticizing this in itself–for what, in the end, is a university without ideas?–Readings also argues that this is part and parcel of the institution’s corporatization and its succumbing to the logic of the market. It is further worth pointing out that (for all its aspirations and claims) the university makes for a notably poor and inefficient corporation. Google or Facebook, let alone Ford or General Motors, have a much better sense of what they are about. The university as means without ends, means without meanings, is in no fit shape to compete with them.

from_here9

Enter the MOOC, or the “Massive Online Open Course,” which strangely mimics the ethereal nature of the “From Here” brand. The MOOC, a set of distributed classes independent of institutions, takes literally the suggestion that learning can take place anywhere. It says: who needs universities, anyway? In response, UBC’s provost, in his gushing introduction to a presentation by Daphne Koller, co-founder of MOOC provider Coursera, declared that “this fundamentally challenges the university’s business model.” Which is revealing not simply because it is above all business that occupies the provost’s mind. But because it is a recognition that in converting itself into a business, the university has done it wrong. No wonder that, despite the gush, the provost could be described as “spooked” by the coming of the MOOCs. And then perhaps on the principle (if indeed principles are at issue) of better the enemy you know than the enemy you don’t, the university quickly and enthusiastically, and with little in the way of consultation, signed up for a partnership with Coursera, this venture-capital upstart, and started throwing resources at what it calls “flexible learning” while withdrawing them from, for instance, the Faculty of Arts. Since then, however, like the most fickle of lovers, we learn (but not why) that we are ditching Coursera for EdX. But whoever the partner may be, MOOCs or something like them, we are breathlessly told, are the future. And the university, which for all its talk of innovation and “from here” is desperate to copy whatever Stanford or Harvard, McGraw-Hill or Pearson, are perceived as doing, and so to welcome what emphatically comes “from there,” has therefore jumped on this bandwagon with a vengeance.

The problem is this: MOOCs and the like can only be framed as the future by means of a shocking ignorance or amnesia about the past. For almost everything that this so-called revolution in learning claims to offer was promised, and indeed anxiously anticipated, by an earlier generation of theorists and critics of higher education, such as Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. We should, after all, hardly fear a challenge to the education system. The university has historically been challenged, and rightly so, on a whole series of counts. Massive Open education has been a radical dream for at least half a century. What is new with the MOOC is only its cooptation by capital, and the supine and superficial reaction it has provoked in university leaders who have forgotten the true purpose of education. Educational technologists Brian Lamb and Jim Groom argue that we have to “reclaim innovation,” for there is nothing innovative about “bringing things to market.” There is nothing innovative about selling things. Innovation has to be reclaimed from this banal reduction to the norms of the market. Similarly, we have to reclaim the MOOC. Rather than the lack of ambition inherent in the notion of responding to McGraw-Hill, our aim should be to continue the best traditions of the university, even and especially when they involve long-standing critiques of the university. And we can, and should, do it (really) “from here.”

Read this as a PDF document.

From Here: MOOCs and Higher Education

What follows is my contribution to a debate organized as part of “Open UBC,” itself the university’s contribution to “Open Access Week”. In the discussion that followed, another contributor to the debate characterized my talk as a series of “ad hominems” lacking substance and “besmirching” those who “stay up late to balance the university’s budget” and so ensure I am paid. I leave it to the reader to decide whether any of the argument is ad hominem, what substance it may have, and whether anyone is “besmirched.” But I do find it worrisome that disagreement and debate should be stifled in the name of civility or respect for senior administration.

UBC From Here

“From Here: MOOCs and Higher Education”

Let me begin by setting one thing straight. In the publicity for this debate, I am described as “a vocal critic of the current model of learning and assessment common in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), especially for the Humanities.” But I want to emphasize that I have nothing against MOOCs per se. More particularly, I have nothing against courses that are massive, open, and/or online. Most of the courses that I myself teach are both open and have a large online component, and some of them are also massive: Arts One Open, for instance, a course that I helped to pioneer (along with Christina Hendricks and others) has had over 65,000 views of its videos on YouTube alone. And we have achieved that kind of reach, let me add, without spending a single dollar of the many hundreds of thousands that UBC has lavished on MOOCs and the like as part of its so-called “flexible learning initiative.” We have shown, indeed, that something very much like a MOOC can be built and achieve enormous success by leveraging the talents and commitments of ordinary faculty even in the face of official indifference or outright discouragement.

So I am not someone who fears MOOCs. In fact, quite the reverse. This is true even when it comes to the mostly corporate, often for-profit ventures such as Coursera, EdX that have hi-jacked both the concept and the name of the MOOC from its home-grown, democratic, and open origins. While I have no doubts that the university (this university, the North American university, the university in general) has a thousand and one problems, as far as I am concerned the MOOC phenomenon doesn’t register even in the top hundred. Here of course (but not only here) is where I part company from much of this university’s senior administration. A year or so ago, as part of an extraordinarily fulsome introduction to a presentation by Daphe Koller, co-founder of Coursera, UBC Provost David Farrar declared that “this fundamentally challenges the university’s business model.” Again, the university can, and should, be challenged in many ways. But in itself the challenge of the MOOC is relatively insignificant. So why, then, talk and think about MOOCs at all? Well, in the first place, because any challenge to the university and its business model is welcome, even if the point of the challenge that I myself would want to make is quite different from that presented by Koller and her venture-capitalist partners. And second, because the university’s reaction to the MOOCs is so very revealing. It shows us how much is rotten in the institution and how far we still have to go before we achieve the vision of a truly open education.

Read more… (.pdf document)

The Purgatory Press / After the End

John Culbert, The Purgatory Press

Two slim books in one, Vancouver author John Culbert’s first collection of fiction is a small masterpiece, a double A-Side of breath-taking ingenuity and beauty.

The Purgatory Press presents itself as the catalogue of a defunct publishing house. But this is no ordinary catalogue–and no ordinary publisher. Each imaginary book is described at length with a delicate appreciation that aims less to sell us a product than to entice us into another world, a world glimpsed through the act of reading. Appropriately, many of the works described are critical appreciations or biographies of artists and writers who have for some reason been neglected or fallen out of favour after a brief moment in the sun. The critic’s task is to rescue them from what would otherwise be oblivion, from the condescension of ignorance or the judgement that these are merely aesthetic dead ends. Likewise, the catalogue aims to pique our interest in arcane research and lives devoted to perhaps useless erudition. But we know that this task has already failed: the Press is “ceasing operations.” Which leaves its authors and their books in the limbo of the backlist, an afterlife from which they may or may not be redeemed.

The aesthetic and intellectual experiments covered by the catalogue provide flashes of mystery and illumination: bizarre endeavours whose secret key may or may not be revealed by the texts that describe them, or which may or may not hide a secret at all.

They include a performance artist who drives cross-country with her “left-turn signal blinking for the entire trip.” We gain only the slightest glimpse of the rationale for this project, in a brief quotation from her book Left Turn (64pp.), which is a Kerouac-esque screed denouncing “’America’ the gluttonous, the insatiable, with endless black tongues of asphalt, every mile another neon sign touting precious ‘vacancy.’ And very minute another good citizen tells me I’m not turning left” (9). Then there is Eric Radiswill’s Masks of the Ceremony (244pp.), the biography of an anthropologist who, studying the potlatch ceremonies of the Northwest Coast, apparently sacrifices his own work in sympathy, making “a concerted effort to eradicate his history among the First Nations” (36). Secure in his tenured professorship, he appears to be nothing more than “academic dead wood, a seeming dilettante and amateur collector of native paintings, carvings, and artifacts.” Could it be that all the while he was lending “his support to the tribes’ covert ceremonies, about which he was sworn to secrecy” (40)? Meanwhile, we are told that Alice Mei Chen’s The Beaten Track (245 pp.) cuts up the prose of Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa to produce unsettling poetry in which, for instance, the story of the tracking and shooting of an antelope is transformed into a “childhood diary that recounts the death of a beloved pet” (49); would-be readers are advised that they “may wish to have Hemingway’s original text at hand to best appreciate the perspicacity of Chen’s work of creative citation” (51).

But this is a book in which the “original text” is never at hand. All we have are the traces of imagined books that in turn (we are told) claim no more than to read traces of traces. In their labyrinthine structure, their erudite mixture of fact and confabulation, their philosophical challenges, their interest in the creativity of (mis)reading, and not least in their wry, deadpan humour, these stories are more than a little reminiscent of the work of Jorge Luis Borges. And yet (ironically enough) they do not feel derivative in the slightest. Rather than dry exercises of homage or intellectual dexterity, each story is animated by a delight in the powers of imagination and the paradoxes of language, as well as gentle mockery towards those who set out to pin down meaning and arrest signification.

One story tells of the posthumously-published life’s work of literary scholar Harold Loomis (Legends of Memory; 383 pp.), whose painstaking close readings of Marcel Proust and Victor Hugo, James Joyce and Henry James, reveal in great detail the mundane contexts of these authors’ master texts: “Loomis claimed to know what Joyce has eaten the day he penned the final lines of ‘The Dead’” (46). Ultimately, however, he discovers (it is suggested), buried deep within the literature he is reading, “the figure of a future researcher [. . .] who Loomis recognized, probably too late, as the figure of his own self already contained in the texts he was reading” (47). Likewise, The Purgatory Press provides a mirror to the reader: as we scan its catalogue we imagine ourselves reading the books it describes, but because those books are missing we suddenly realize ourselves alone with only blurb for company.

After the End, the second book packaged within the same covers as The Purgatory Press, continues much of the same preoccupations with reading (and what cannot be read), with finitude (and what follows), and with loss (and what it leaves behind). The title story is suitably enough the penultimate, rather than the last one: there is of course always something to come after the end. So its conclusion should be understood to be provisional, temporary. But it is also quite beautiful:

Chances are, when you pick up a book you’re reading the words of the dead. Maybe that should be enough to strike a person dumb, but from what I gather it caused no trouble to our forbears. [. . .] A book expects no response, only our focus. So we pay close attention, with the result that, on this side of the hecatombs, all meanings have become inverted. We’ve become silent as books, while they chatter on in the face of our impassivity, often about requited love, the end of times, the realms of tranquility. It’s not for us to correct them, but we can at least crack a volume and put our face up to an open page. (144-5)

Culbert’s slim volume is well worth cracking, not so much to find resolution (in the sense of “cracking a case”), as to follow the cracks, the twists and turns of chatter and plot, the promise of meaning and its ironic inversion. This is a truly great book, which teaches us the virtues of close attention and the rewards of quiet focus on the pleasures of the text.

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.

About Academia

About AcademiaLast week I went to a panel discussion organized by the curators of Antoni Muntadas’s current exhibition at SFU’s Audain Gallery: “About Academia”. The show itself is interesting enough–though its aesthetic aspects are obscure at best–consisting as it does of a series of interviews with figures such as Carol Becker, Noam Chomsky, David Harvey, and Doris Sommer, academics mostly based in elite institutions in the US Northeast who are asked to reflect upon the politics of the university.

The purpose of the panel was, in like manner but with a focus on the Canadian and specifically the Vancouver context, to pay “critical attention to the structure and function of the university, and [investigate] the complicated, often contradictory relationship between the production of knowledge and economic power.”

But I have seldom seen a more incoherent and disjointed dialogue of the deaf. Panelists variously told personal anecdotes, spoke in broad platitudes, and/or simply outlined their own research interests with little or no attempt to address the supposed themes of the discussion. Especially given what a small and self-selecting subset of the university was actually represented–more or less left-leaning Humanities professors; nothing from, say, the Sciences or the student body–the fact that it seemed utterly impossible to generate any kind of conversation was little short of pathetic.

Ultimately, the person who came out best was the one representative of management–a UBC Associate Dean, whose perspective was limited but pragmatic. But again, what was most of concern is that there was no conception of the university as an institution for the production, exchange, and dissemination of ideas. We saw rather a display of single-minded specialization, disciplinary fragmentation, and speech that expected no audience or response.

If this is the state of academia today, then it deserves all (the neoliberal corporatization, public opprobrium or dismissal, withdrawal of state subsidy, and so on) that it gets.

MOOC

Arts One bannerThere’s been a lot of talk about so-called Massive Online Open Courses. According to the New York Times, 2012 was the year of the MOOC. Come 2013, some of the enthusiasm has died down a little, as people realize it may not be easy to make money out of these things. And there are plenty who are (rightly) critical of all the hoopla in the first place.

Anyhow, in the meantime here at UBC we’ve been putting together something like a MOOC that doesn’t depend upon Coursera or any other of the for-profit enterprises that are looking to capitalize upon the conjunction of education and the Internet. We’re constructing a DIY MOOC that piggy-banks upon an existing first-year course, Arts One.

Arts One is essentially a course in the Western Humanities: it covers “great books” from Genesis to Cormac McCarthy. This vast panorama is given focus by the choice of specific themes (currently, “Monster in the Mirror” and “Explorations and Encounters”) that change every couple of years.

The idea of the online version, Arts One Digital, is that people can follow along with the program as it is taught at UBC, or they can construct their own syllabus, using the ever-growing range of lectures and material that we are making available online. There are also a number of options for interactivity: Twitter conversations and hashtags, and the option to syndicate blog posts and comments.

We’ll be building this over the semester, so watch this space. Any feedback or suggestions would be most welcome at any time.

Derek

On a weeknight last year, my friend Alec and I found ourselves at the bar of Vancouver’s newly renovated Hotel Georgia. This small bar, in an out of the way corner, is quiet at the best of times and downright sleepy on a Tuesday night. It is a good place to talk and hear yourself think; it has no televisions, no piped music. We had some cocktails and vowed we would be back.

A week or so later we did indeed return, and once again sat up at the bar where we briefly chatted to the bartender about the cocktail scene in Vancouver, asking him for suggestions of any other places he thought we might like in the city. He mentioned a couple of names and we went back to our own conversation. But just as we were leaving, the barman presented us with a sheet of hotel notepaper. This turned out to be a list of fifteen bars and restaurants titled, with something of a flourish, “Derek’s Top Picks.” We thanked him and knew we had a mission.

Over the following months, we gradually made our way around all the establishments listed. When I proposed one of Derek’s picks as a place to meet, I would explain that “It’s on the list.”

We discovered that the list was fairly eclectic. Some places were high-end restaurants, others were dedicated cocktail lounges, while still others had few if any pretensions. Some were busy and full of hipsters; others were quiet and laid-back. Some specialized in classic cocktails, others advertised their creativeness with new recipes and bold combinations of flavours. But they all, without exception, made us some great drinks.

We often sat up at the bar and chatted to the barstaff. At first, we’d try to explain our mission and the fact that Derek had recommended them; everyone knew him, and bartenders often said they felt honoured to be included among his top picks. But we soon discovered we had no need to offer excuses. Cocktails are back in fashion these days, and a city like Vancouver has a vibrant community of increasingly knowledgeable mixers and consumers.

Finally, we finished our mission. We had tried all fifteen of Derek’s top picks. We had a hard time ranking them, but some favourites included The Diamond (all wood and brick on a second-floor in Gastown), the Clough Club (which we went past a couple of times before noticing its understated façade), and the Keefer Bar (if it weren’t for the live music that chased us away). But it was time to report back.

We made our way to the Hotel Georgia and asked after Derek. The guy serving at the bar said that Derek had moved on; he was no longer with the hotel. He was not exactly sure where he was now. We exchanged a few words about this somewhat strange circumstance, but left it at that. It was only when the bartender had to go elsewhere for a minute or two that the other punter sitting at the bar turned to us and said “They don’t want to say it, but Derek is dead. Nobody knows exactly how or why, but some say it was suicide.”

And so it turns out. Derek Vanderheide, the 36-year old bar manager at the 1927 Lobby Lounge, had died back in March, while we were still following the route set out in Derek’s Top Picks.

Naturally enough, there is now a cocktail in his honour: a mix of bourbon, rum, orgeat syrup, bitters, and Herbsaint anise liquor. But for Alec and myself, the legacy of our very brief encounter with Derek is his list, his knowledge of the local bar scene, and his passion for cocktails, which prompted us to experience the city in new ways.