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New Media Education and Its Discontent
“… home are the people for whom I take responsibility.”
Vilem Flusser in “The Freedom of the Migrant”
The Brazilian philosopher Vilem Flusser wrote much about the exile freely taking responsibility. I am in the fortunate position to enjoy teaching in a technology-based university department in the United States. I chose to take responsibility for the (new media) education of my students. And yet I experience conflicts among which student anti-intellectualism ranks first.
A few anecdotal examples: one student reports how her high school teachers incessantly lied to her in their "interpretation" of world history and how that stirred up suspicion of "the intellectual." Another student claims that because of the availability of material online he feels less inclined to study the conclusions that other people draw from these texts as he himself can make up his mind. A graduate student recounts experiences he had as a critical technical practitioner in the early 90s when intellectuals applied the knowledge in their field to what he calls his own and quickly received a lot of visibility while not really understanding the issues due to a lack of technical insight. Students ask what it means to be intelligent and raise concerns that the class overlooks the type of knowledge that their grandmothers have, a very local and emotional insight. Maybe not surprisingly most distrust intellectuals in this country, calling them elitist, out of touch with this world, and view them as irrelevant. Completely quiet until then, one graduate student suddenly erupts in a candid impromptu lecture about the history of anti-intellectualism in the United States (he surely was trained to defend his position throughout his high school years). He traces it back to President Andrew Jackson, who received "sporadic education," wiped out Indian tribes and did not hesitate to shoot verbal contenders. Jackson hated people who knew more than he did. Coincidentally they were the Jews, homosexuals and immigrants of the time. John Quincy Adams, the sixth US president said of Jackson that he "cannot spell more than one word in four." The brave student then linked Jackson's presidency to the history of the extreme right in the United States and the prevalence of anti-intellectualism in this country up to this day. The California recall-election is a good example in which the candidate with the most “personality” may win over those with intellect and experience in politics. The last presidential elections also proved this point.
The debate about anti-intellectualism has become more vocal in classrooms across America for the past 10 years. "Anti-intellectualism," in my encyclopedia, is described as "hostility towards, or a mistrust of intellectuals, and their intellectual pursuits. This may be expressed in various ways, such as an attack on the merits of science, education, or literature.” The definition continues: "In another sense, anti-intellectualism reflects an attitude that simply takes 'intellectualism' with a grain of salt--inasmuch as intellectuals may be vain or narcissistic in their self-image, so too may they be understood by ‘common people.’” And let's add some more from this source (leaving aside how problematic the term ‘common people’ obviously is): "Anti-intellectualism is found in every nation on earth, but has become associated in particular with the United States of America. It existed in the US before the nation itself; the New England Puritan writer John Cotton wrote in 1642 that ‘The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee.’ Anti-intellectual folklore values the self-reliant and ‘self-made man,’ schooled by society and by experience, over the intellectual whose learning was acquired through books and formal study."
Concretely, anti-intellectualism manifests itself in the class room by not reading assignments, not contributing to class discussion, complaining about a high work load, skipping class, giving low evaluations to instructors with high standards, not bothering to do extra work, by dispassionately condemning intellectual debate as "boring." Incidents of racism and xenophobia in the classroom can be seen as part of the same problem.
bell hooks describes the "pleasure of teaching" as an "act of resistance countering the overwhelming boredom, uninterest, and apathy…" In her book, "Teaching to Transgress," hooks describes teaching as a site for resistance, a place where the teacher must practice being vulnerable, and wholly present. I agree with her- the teacher’s vulnerability brings a sense of a real, conflictual person to the classroom that encourages students to develop a similarly genuine expression of their position, free of sarcasm and false irony. This approach is more about learning than teaching- it is a process full of productive conflict in which the instructor is also transformed. Isn't it more fulfilling to be skilled than unskilled, to know than to not know, to inquire than to be self-satisfied, to strive than to be apathetic? What does learning mean? What does it mean to be in a place like a university where you have the opportunity of knowledge being presented to you, and time to reflect and navigate your own orientation?
Media Study Departments bring together the most relevant sources of knowledge-- from cultural theory, and literature to technical skill, from the vocational to the conceptual. It is important to create an understanding of the importance of conceptual work in students. New media education faces other issues like the apparent tension between teaching theory and production, between those who “think for a living” and others who are on the “cutting edge” of technological innovation. In my classroom I experience much careerism, which I see both, as a result and a cause of student anti-intellectualism. Increasingly, career-minded students see college as an imposition between high school and the good life. The focus for many undergraduate students is on acquiring software and programming skills, which they value as the only stepping-stones to a corporate job. At the same time new media educators all over the country find it increasingly painful to prepare the next generation for their career as HTML slaves. In this “tech prep” atmosphere, emphasizing employability, art becomes increasingly “applied art.” On the other hand, there is a severe problem for those talented graduates who decide not to seek shelter in the “industry.” They become new media artists and apart from hard-to-get positions in academia there are few places that will finance them. In the North of Europe the situation differs somewhat as grants may cover the new media artist's livelihood.
Career-minded students often think that the cutting edge medium will get them “that job,” with the "new and hip" constantly being in transition. "I don't know why we look at work in the Internet- it is already 10 years old." Students make similar demands of texts: "I don't know why we read this, it’s written in 1995- that's dated now." And universities often buy into this perceived industry standard instead of focusing on general skills such as independent critical thinking that get students much further.
How could we develop a curiosity for (art) history that then leads to, for example- web based art or graphics programming? The pure application of software programs or programming creates the most boring people says John Hopkins, quoted by Geert Lovink in his recent book "My First Recession"-- "it's like amateur photo-club members comparing the length of their telephoto lenses…” Many in the programming communities are distrustful of the humanities because in their view they have little to contribute to their field. In addition it is an almost impossible challenge for a single human being to keep up with the development of all those tools. Lovink writes, "universities still consider the computer/ new media industries as somehow emulating a film-industry model, with a stable set of skills each person goes out into the world with after graduation.” He suggests that instead, the most important task is to loosen up to a transient world of employment/ work/ play and disabusing students of the notion that there is an “industry.” It needs problematic, off-track courses, Lovink argues, because they usually provide skills that last much longer than the software applications or programming languages of the day. What is in the long-term interest of students may not be immediately clear to them and it takes courage on the side of the instructor to insist on their vision.
I have been asked about the difference between European and US American academia. Comparing teaching at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany with my teaching in American universities I see indeed vast differences. The German educational system is heavily based on student’s initiative. In Britain, where I studied for an M.F.A., most of learning took place within the student group. English tutors contributed inspiring cross-disciplinary anecdotes and encouraged a spirit of self-criticism. I taught art history, new media art practices and critical theory at universities in the North and South West of the United States and now on the East Coast. I experienced American students as often not willing to overcome the initial hindrances that are needed to make discourse joyful.
Reading a text is like entering a room of people talking and unless we learn about their previous exchanges we will never be in the know but instead get frustrated. Knowledge is nothing innate, nothing we are born with or which we inherited. Often mistakenly introduced into this debate are the likes of Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison who had little schooling yet high intellectual achievements.
All too often students judge texts based on their unwillingness to do the initial work that is necessary to enjoy theory. Rather than talking about building self-esteem (enough already) we need to talk about hard work and discipline (even if that may sound Protestant). How useful are Paulo Freire’s notions of a pedagogy of dialogue and informal teaching in the context of today’s US new media education that already is quite informal and horizontal? I see the disinterest in study caused by a widespread delegitimization of reading and print culture, and partially by popular culture that glorifies triviality, and mindlessness. Stanley Aranowitz in "Education and Cultural Studies" (ed. Henry A. Giroux) writes: "School should be a place where the virtues of learning are extolled (a) for their own sake and (b) for the purpose of helping students to become more active participants in the civic life of their neighborhoods, their cities, and the larger world." It is hard to bring everyday political events home, to make students realize how deeply linked our lives are to those of the people at the other side of town, or in Rwanda, Kosovo, Srebrenica, Afghanistan or Iraq. The trivial, localized focus of TV news reporting certainly does not help in internationalizing students, in opening up their views to a larger horizon. This false localism stops students from aiming with their artworks at larger international (new media) art audiences. By the same token this localism or regionalism should not prevent new media departments from developing international relationships.
In the American consumer-driven educational system, mainly part time or untenured faculty’s academic careers rely on student evaluations, which is where the system in itself is deeply at fault. How can an instructor be courageous under these constraints? The meaning of teaching can be found in the Latin word "professio,” which means declaration. To be a professor means to declare your beliefs, which may not by any means go down well with students. This stance purposefully creates tension, which comprises true learning, a friction that makes it clearer for a student where s/he stands. Teaching, in the sense of Edward Said's notion of the public intellectual, cannot mean to please, it cannot aim at consumer sovereignty, and it cannot mean that the customer is easily and completely satisfied. The consumer model implies that the university offers "services." Courses are shaped to satisfy students who think of themselves as consumers who conveniently with next to no effort (as in shopping), graduate. If this is what teaching is about, it fails its mission. Students should open themselves up to successful learning. And the “success” in “successful learning,” according to Bertold Brecht stands for being educational, creating change in the real live world. Students should get "electrified" by the widely unexplored field of new media.
Net Cultures: Art, Politics, and the Everyday
Department of Media Study, SUNY at Buffalo
Fibre Culture New Media Education
Geert Lovink “The Battle over New Media Art Education. Experiences and Models.” in “My First Recession. Critical Internet Culture in Transition”
V2_/NAi Publishers, 2003
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Submitted by TreborScholz
Posted on Sun Oct 5, 2003 at 11:59 PM EURODISCORDIA TIME