Friday, August 1, 2008
There are times when the threads of your thoughts become tangled together in the dryer of your mind, usually wrapped around an unsuspecting button or strap of an innocent piece of clothing. (How is that for a tortured metaphor?) This is one of those messy times. And every blog I read, twists those threads into a tighter tangle.
I have been working on my Distance Learning course. Mostly trying to make myself feel better about its existence. My journey down the technology inroads to achieving this goal has frustrated me no end.
I blame the Africanist in me. I first went to Tanzania in 1985 just prior to IMF restructuring. The country had pretty much ground to a halt. No petrol, no wheat flour, no electricity, uncertain water supply--this in the capital city. Life in the villages was, obviously, much more difficult. Crops couldn't get to market and life was very, very localized. (In some cases, this made things better but that is a different discussion.) I returned again in 1986-87 for my full dissertation research during a time of IMF restructuring. And then in 1994, I returned, again, this time picking up a consultancy job with USAID and the International Red Cross conducting a "rapid assessment survey" of the condition of children orphaned by the HIV/AIDS virus. It was a transformative experience as all fieldwork experience should be. Dealing with the daily poverty and the pain and guilt it induced in me was, in many respects, more than I could handle. I came to recognize that the only way I could hope to make a difference was to teach. And so I do.
And when I teach, I believe it is my responsibility to convey the reality of a world where there are other ways of thinking and other ways of doing. In an effort to achieve that goal, I will with great happiness and gusto deconstuct American popular culture with my students to try to tease out our meanings and ways of being. But in the end, I want them to move beyond our world and embrace "the other". I want them to come to terms with a global economy which impoverishes Tanzanians. I want them to understand the frustrations of the 20 million people in the Niger Delta. I want them to understand the dangers of assuming a free election will produce a "democracy" in a country that has only know the rule of a cold-war dictator.
So, as I review the great move toward technological innovation in the classroom. I find, myself recoiling in horror. I just don't get it. Michael Wesch's youtube of his oh so forlorn students who don't read and can only become excited when engaging with their own methods of discourse drove me crazy. So many problems brought up by the brief glimpses you get of his work. I get the idea that they need motivation. But what is the line between motivation and pandering?
One of Wesch's assertions is that you can learn more by "doing" than by studying/reading/attending lecture? I certainly can't agree with that. I was barely ready for participant observation after an intensive undergraduate experience and three years of graduate course work. I can't tell if these students view participant observation as just an excuse to have a good time or they actually come to understand that its ultimate purpose is analytical. You don't learn from an experiential moment, unless, you have done the ground work. Wesch, clearly, gets it when he discusses digital ethnography but then he has done his ground work, hasn't he? What, exactly, do the students learn about anthropology? (I've seen the world sim stuff--let's let that go for now. I only have so much energy for my rant. I can tackle that one later.)
Seems I might not be the only one lamenting the loss of an expectation students put in the time to read and reflect. The Atlantic Magazine this month has a summary article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, (thanks to The World's Hottest Poli Sci Prof for the shout-out on that one), which discusses the changes to our brain when we abandon "deep reading" in favor of "power browsing". Students should be encouraged to do some deep thinking and not "pancake" processing.
Do some deep reading of Gramschi and fight the hegemonization of a capitalist agenda for education. The crime here seems to be expecting any faculty member to teach a class of 200-400 with 10 undergraduate T.A.'s. We faculty, as a collective group, should not be helping any administrator or member of the public to believe that is acceptable. I teach classes of 30. My students aren't surfing the web when we are in class. Major universities can do better and should.
And then, the Africanist in me rears its ugly head again. How many Tanzanians would, quite literally, give their right arm to be in that lecture hall? Any guesses on how much of their time would be spent on Facebook and how much time spent reading? And more: when will those American students come to understand Tanzanians? You won't find most Tanzanians posting on youtube. You are only likely to find missionaries posting videos of adorable children singing praises to God. Isn't the purpose of anthropology to expose these inequalities not reinforce a world of our own making? And youtube may be a global phenomenon but only for those in a global elite. The majority of the humans who people this planet cannot afford the luxury.
And when we turn our back on our long history of engagement with those who cannot afford youtube and when we loose the desire to engage, respectfully, with the lived experiences of all of humanity, we are losing the central focus and ethics of our discipline. I have always felt anthropology was far more than a collection of methods. I can remember being told upon declaring my undergraduate major that you became an anthropologist because of the type of person you were. My last post was about Evan-Pritchard because as I struggled with these issues, I was reminded of the ways he made that real for me. Nuer Religion (which I actually did deeply read as an undergraduate) humbled me. I no longer felt I had all the answers. Maybe "the other" had some ideas, as well. This gift of an idea led me through my fieldwork and informs every moment of my teaching practice.
Savage Minds and Open Anthropology have been crackling with the scary picture of an anthropology devoid of this focus, devoid of the ethics of respect for the other. At the same time, over at Ethnography. com , we learn that according to Foreign Policy Magazine, we are the most left-leaning academic discipline. Of course, David Horowitz has been arguing that for years. Just to annoy him further, it makes you wish Chomsky was an anthropologist--not just the linguist we anthropologists must understand.
Anyway, I say, if embracing the perspective that the lived experiences of all humans have legitimacy and deserve our compassionate understanding makes me "left" and wanting my students to come away with deeper thoughts than can be contained in a 3 minute youtube snippet makes me a dinosaur. Then I am a left-leaning dinosaur.