Hydroponic Studio

We have understood content delivery in two ways—literally, as in conveying information aggregated, framed, interpreted, or otherwise packaged by an expert, or processually, as a process of inquiry modeled in a lecture that poses and answers a question, or as discussion (ranging in degree of control from socratic to freeform). In either case, you have Teacher at the head of a class, and that’s “class” as in “class system.” I don’t imagine that the respect due a working scholar is going to vaporize, but I do hope it will realign itself as one of the range of resources students have available to them, and I would hope faculty could realize what it is that we really want students able to do: to practice their own versions of research, our questioning of  the issues and the arguments offered our generation, and our efforts to rearticulate for our generation how to understand something carefully, insightfully, profoundly.

Needless to say, our methods have changed somewhat. We like our electronic databases, our citation software, our word processors, and our outsourced memory for factual data. It does beat card catalogs, 3x5s, the typewriter, and corrasible bond. But we still do the same analog-modeled research we did forty years ago, and we teach pretty much the way we were taught—though we like our laptop media players plugged into projectors, our powerpoints insuring a base level of adequacy in student note-taking, and the course management systems that relieve us from hand-carrying carbon-paper triplicate gradesheets, carrying books for short-term checkout to the reserve disk, and ferrying sheaves of precious articles to Kinko’s course packet desk. We’ve used digital to make the same old things easier and quicker and cheaper, but not different. Not much. And certainly not fundamentally.

Meanwhile, in analog land, people are enamored of “flipping,” so that  encountering “texts” and some version of professorial commentary (recorded? powerpointed? tourguided?) happens outside of class so that class time can be used for discussion or group work. But it’s still an isolated sliver of the day, it’s still a flow of curated contacts with material and curated responses to same, and classtime is still like the old ideal of a stone-built campus’s special, remote, and distinct place apart from the furor, craziness, and mongrelized attention that degrades, we like to think, ordinary daily life.

Wrong, wrong, wrong: these extraordinary young people are continuously immersed in multiple flows wherever they go, they navigate among them and mix them and learn from their “accidental” resonances as surely as John Cage was exhilarated by the inflow of all sounds in 4’33” and his other (relatively) more familiar-sounding works, or as street thespians or cable channel surfers or participants in 60s “happenings” or attendees at massive public events all are thrilled and thoughtful about the intensity of multifarious experience set free from artificial constraints of genre or occasion or protocol or what have you. If we really believe in lifetime learning, as opposed to the occasional vacation at Club Mod (chic university without walls) or the Ted Talks’ random infusion method of feeling up to date, we should practice life-in-time learning right now in our classrooms.

Because: the digital world’s continuousness and ubiquitousness means student skills in surfing and tagging and posting and mashing-up are all available right now, trainable right now, amenable to becoming their scholarly peripatetic philosopher selves right now. So consider these examples of reconceiving “class” time as something more akin to Studio than Lecture Hall:

• my students read John Richardson’s explanation of a “system dynamics” model for understanding how Sri Lanka went from poster child for development’s infinite potential to 35 years of violent revolutions. And come to class, and hear me talk about it, finally understand it, then forget it. Next year, they will read about it, see my engagingly witty blog about its sexiness, and then come in and work it like a wood working shop full of tools: all the pieces identified in his detailed model become “heuristics” they must answer in terms of another of our case histories with which they’re more familiar, the U.S. By the time they’ve worked through the model’s application, stage by stage over several hours, they “get it” viscerally, not abstractly. It has become part of the “society media” for recognizing the implications of this distortion, that change, or simply the total absence of Richardson’s key factors, feedback loops, and interacting factors. That’s very 21st century, as is the public sharing of what they produce—and far less insipid than what we hear from empty talking heads and soundbite bloggers rehashing hashtags.

• my students read Ashis Nandy’s The Intimate Enemy to learn how the British and Indian psyches coped, one way or another, with colonialism and its aftermath. He gives them many good thinking machines we can cite and exemplify in class. But what if, instead, they’d already read my blog to “get the main point,” and then came to class and worked together culling the thinking machines and using them on other cases, other problems, other phenomena? And shared publicly, and…

• my students read the marvelously iconoclastic work of James C Scott, an anthropologist turned guerilla warrior against conventional formulaic received standard versions of all things. “That’s interesting, I didn’t know that.” I don’t mind that response, but how does that change the way students think, work, live? On the other hand, when Scott shows them why development officers, trained for “seeing like the state,” therefore make a mess out of their aid projects, what if in Studio (where you make things instead of being classic or classified) they used his model on other Experts (Dis)Solving Problems? Case histories of how some can do no other than get everything wrong? Antidotes to acquiescence in the culture of failure and cynicism? Prescriptions for how to change absolutely everything? Like the nomadic cultures he studies in The Art of Not Being Governed? How would non-statist living translate to 21st century Americans? How would NOT being interpellated as “the kind of subjectivity linked to the state,” in Foucault’s rousing phrase, change the kind of being you thought you had and the kind of life you therefore lived?

You get the idea. Studio repurposes f2f time the way email and Course FAQs save it for something better than mere information. If we’re to teach people how to find and weave and blend and critique information and rethink how to pose the questions around which data buzzes like clouds of airborne nanobots replaceing the analog world of moths around a candle—then it’s time to have students immerse themselves 24/7 with their everywhere device in Blacksburg, Rabat, Istanbul, and the barely cooled down battlefields of Sri Lanka, let the talents of their social computing cross-fertilize their talents in thinking and learning and forge from that conjunction a truly 21st century form of education.

McCloudy Day Thoughts

As I read Scott McCloud’s chapter, a welcome return to a book spirited away from me by a student who “forgot” to return it (alas), I found myself thinking of John Cayley’s work. He started public life as a dealer in antiquities, a translator of ancient Buddhist texts, and a participant in avant garde poetic practice with literal art, and, then became, whew!, a practitioner of “programmable” art. He has interesting essays about the difference between Code (addressed to a processor) and Text (addressed to a reader who’s implicitly asked to accept it as “natural language”), among many other topics.

Like McCloud, Cayley is interested in the experiential dimension of digital literature (not his term)—its presentation to a reader, and its responses to a reader’s actions, and its temporal dimension in presentation, all call for a more complex Rhetoric than classic pomes on the page. Here’s a sample of a bulleted point from one of his ruminations (you’ll need to remember that “signifier” is the physical pointer to the “signified” that is its culturally determined content):

The emergent materiality of the signifier – flickering, time-based – creates a new relationship between media and content. Programming the signifier itself, as it were, brings transactive mediation to the scene of writing at the very moment of meaning creation. Mediation can no longer be characterised as subsidiary or peripheral; it becomes text rather than paratext.

Early hypertext writers were drunk on the way that hyperlinks made visible the call and response between the manifest text and its latent allusions to all kinds of cultural content, not to mention the rest of the work in hand, all affected by the attention span and proactive quotient in the reader’s participation. In going beyond such early enthusiasms, Cayley thinks about how, in the digital environment, mediation both connects and conditions contacts that fan out in many dimensions, in many registers of meaning, in many experiential dynamics as someone encounters a carefully wrought Code/Text.

What McCloud shows you by widening the x-axis of a comix frame, and what he dramatizes by the variations in lettering style and motion lines and (in other chapters) permutations among frame shapes on a page—well, it rhymes in a way with what people like Cayley think about when they program the Cave at Brown (a 3D immersive virtual environment: we have one!).

We’ve classically contrasted the experiential dimension of print literature and performances (theatre and music) and visual art and film/video: the Programmable Arts seem to be on the verge of an exponentiation from mashing up all of these at once. Instead of contrasting, as if different arts appealed to different sectors of the neuroscience of the brain or to different sensibilities or to different faculties in an individeual, programmability equips an artist to deploy all of these in ways that exploit their materiality for designed effects. Harder to repress the materiality of the canvas when you’re in it; harder to repress the physicality of language when you have to face it and work it; harder to valorize the conceptual over the aural or the haptic if feedback mechanisms engage all five of your senses. It all has a lovely potential to dash to bits the less imaginative aesthetic theories still treading the halls like ghosts of Artworlds Past.

Musing on a rainy day.