A shift, not decay

As I am starting to prepare the written part of my Teaching Philosophy – as I think about what I want to be, in a classroom and beyond – I find it hard to reconcile two broad aspects of my thinking. Two parts of my personality, almost. Like everybody else in this age of transition or decay (these two already delineate the sides of the argument), I am struck and torn by new media technology and its impact.

I am sympathetic to both sides of the technology-will-change-everything-argument. On the one hand, I do recognize the marvellous chances for long-distance education, dynamic learning, and newly developed instruments of changing the world that new media, and especially the Internet offer. I am fully with Janet Murray in acknowledging that the new mode of spatial being carved out by such technologies – what Thomas Friedman has famously called the flat world – is not only here to stay, but also represents a revolution on par and perhaps surpassing Gutenberg’s.

If this were one hundred percent true, and no residuals remained, the task would be simple: rethink the book, upload it, crunch it, click it, zip it, format it (with apologies to Daft Punk); and teach students how to follow the flow – the flow of information, the flow of trade, and, of course, this flow. Wonderful, and perhaps even brave, new world of technological mediation.

But it’s not that simple. The other side of the equation, equally strong in my mind and doubtless in many others as well, is the haunting realization that media remain rooted in old-fashioned materiality. The Internet, for instance, is mainly a question of access (in this case, scroll down a little and consider the penetration rates – economic reasons, political censorship?) and a question of political liberty, among many other things. Can these be considered by simply endorsing the flow imaginary mentioned above? To play devil’s advocate here: is this simply a question of an opposition of inert nationalist politics against dynamic, international and global information flows? Clearly, we all know what marvellous things have been achieved thanks to global Internet connectivity. But the question remains: is that all? Is not perhaps the global impact of information flows more problematic than we thinknot because of the technological shape and form of information technology, but because of ownership issues, and the question of just what is being transmitted via new media technologies?

The question, posed by this and a myriad other problems, is once again that of the usage of media technology. For teaching purposes, it is slightly modified and presents itself to me like this: how do I make students aware that behind the shiny surface of complete mobility and marvellous transparency, inert and opaque relations of power and economic influence reside; how do I enable them to carve out these problems when new media technology constantly interrupts my attempts to do so by spoon-feeding the shiny surface to students? Put more bluntly: how do I challenge a student to leave a Fox News bubble – and how do I challenge a student to leave a completely politics-free, purely entertainment-driven bubble?

From this perspective, there seems to be less and less hope. New media technology, by reducing us to our own personalized universes, have cut down the public sphere, erased genuine communication, crippled the will to better social conditions, and ultimately blinded people with ideology so they do not perceive the erasure of their individual liberties. New media technology, to this part of my mind and of the public mind, is a means of furthering social alienation, making it increasingly hard – even impossible – to reach a broad audience for a meaningful critique. Or to reach students in classrooms.

As always, there is a middle ground between the first vision – unrestrained freedom in a global space of flow and mobility – and the second one – deeply penetrating alienation and erasure of sociality. I have come to realize that the new media technology may challenge the idea of critique, but does not force us to erase it. It poses new horizons of recognition, instead of just being an alienating force. Specifically for the issue of teaching, media technology, like all other technology, present a new mode of reality to us. I think the main mistake made by both sides of this debate is to treat media technology as a content rather than a form – as something imposing reality rather than shaping the way it presents itself to us. We have to rethink, that is, and not to erase, the book, the classroom, the teaching, the talking.

A concrete example. The issue of attention spans frequently oscillates between the two poles outlined above. Often, it is bemoaned that students are unable to pay attention to information over a sustained period of time; that they cannot focus and cannot think in depth. There may be truth to this, if the increases in ADD and ADHD medication are indicators (I do not think they are, but that is for another blog post). Likewise, it is demanded of teachers to adapt to the Internet age, to recognize this newly formed attention shortening and to turn classrooms into entertainment facilities, offering the same constant stream of short tidbits that the Internet offers 24/7. Consequently, we (the teachers) are told to either stick to the traditional methods because they represent the only means by which we can stem the tide of attention deficits; or we are told to unquestioningly succumb to the mere delivery of ever shorter, ever more attention-grabbing infotainment. You’ll note that both presuppose that something is irreducibly lost, and that students’ attention spans have indeed decreased.

Here’s my idea, however. What if we stop thinking about the issue of attention in terms of verticality, i.e., of concentration being a probing from a surface to a depth, and start thinking about it in terms of horizontality, i.e., of treating the ‘depth’ as just another piece of information, a different viewpoint, a different stratagem? Considering the depth, the careful analysis, more rewarding than surface phenomena is certainly true, and it does require sustained attention. There is more to be gained from a careful analysis of the BP oil spill coverage than from simply watching their apology. And I suspect students would see it the same way. But we need to present it to them such that they find out themselves. Presenting all information – or whatever selection we make – to them on a lateral basis, i.e., as differences rather than hierarchies or sediments of information, will inevitably instill cognitive dissonance. If I approach students by showing them Tony’s awkward apology and then lecturing them about how it is contradicted, reinscribed, or confirmed by other sources, they will, ideally, walk away with three results: a) the information I delivered, b) that I clearly have an agenda, and c) that I incessantly talked about the same thing (the BP spill) from that agenda’s point of view. In acting as if we were talking about vertical layers of information, I have alienated students because they thought I was talking about the same thing over and over again. If I present the same complex, however, in a horizontal way: show them several contradicting pieces of information, or lecture in contradicting ways without guiding them explicitly, there will be a cognitive dissonance – a sense of unease or even frustration. There will be a discussion.

Students attention must be grabbed indeed – which is not a problem of a shortened attention span, but rather a problem that has been with education since it began – but it must only be artifically sustained if I treat information as vertical, not horizontal. Students’ attention span is not shorter than it used to be, it is different: they are very good at following a stream of information. If the analysis I want to get at is presented (in this case implicitly via cognitive dissonance, which makes the experience even more rewarding for both sides) as a part of such a stream, I do not see why there should be a lack of attention. Students follow flows of information – if I insert the depth I want to get at into such a flow, I can reach them – and teach them.

One can see that this requires a lot of fine-tuning. The issue of approaching books based on this idea is a complex one, and I will doubtless have much fun and frustration finding out how to deal with it. Likewise, this idea is clearly restricted to the specific issue at hand (attention spans), and we must continually come up with ways to deal with loss of public spheres, and economic and political problems of various natures.

But I think something else came out equally strongly. This way of thinking about students and teaching is neither an enthusiastic uncritical endorsement of technological mediation, nor a rigid old-fashioned lament of the inevitable decay of attention, publicity, and politicality. Old forms of critique must neither be discarded nor rigidly upheld. Critique must be rethought, reinvented, and remolded. There is no reason why there should not be an immanent critique to new media technology and the mode in which it presents reality.

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