Education is a right

Just got home from teaching at City College, where I work with public school teachers developing their pedagogical practice and scholarship as grad students in the City University of New York, arguably the oldest public university system in the country (rivaled only by the University of California). I am a teaching fellow in the same system, and teach at City in exchange for my ability to do a PhD at no cost.

A rare thing to consider, nowadays: that education be considered something everyone should have a right to. Education is becoming increasingly commodified, rarified, costly, and competitive. This gets me down when I think about the pressure in the 21st century to value education solely as job preparation, not as a space for creativity, exploration, political inquiry, and inspiration. A banner on the wall at City reminded me that this was not always the case, at least not in New York City.

Here’s hoping the city that never sleeps continues to inspire and excite the imagination of the rest of the country.

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The intellectual’s desperate need for self-parody as a Professional Smarty Pants

After the inspiring first class of Introduction to Dialectics with Stanley Aronowitz this weekend among many seasoned thinkers and established intellectuals, I felt the need to reflect on the experience of being a Professional Smarty Pants and my socialization, for better or worse, into this motley group. I’m increasingly convinced that self-awareness is in desperate need in academic circles, by which I mean awareness of the fact that we have inherited a tradition of righteous soap-boxing that should, frankly, be laughed at now and again.

Here are two examples. First, an old comic short from Monty Python entitled Philosopher Football, in which the Germans play the Greeks and Confucius is the referee:

And second, a Vanity Fair video of Kate McKinnon, one of my favorite Saturday Night Live players, improvising a PowerPoint presentation to a rapt audience:

My takeaway: It’s okay – in fact, it’s probably good – to see what you’re doing as ridiculous now and then. It means that you know that all of this work as a Professional Smarty Pants is only a square on this huge Tron grid called life.

Learning with lions: public pedagogy in NYC

Recently, a friend of mine shared with me an amazing opportunity to join a reading group with Stanley Aronowitz, professor emeritus and world renowned public scholar in the fields of sociology, political science, and critical theory who taught at the Graduate Center for over 30 years. My advisor at UMass Boston had mentioned Aronowitz specifically by name as I was considering PhD programs, and he even went so far as to invite me to join them for dinner before I was accepted to the program. I believe I said three things at that dinner, two of which were, “no, thank you, I don’t need any more water at the moment.”

Fast-forward four years, and I found myself this afternoon sitting in a makeshift classroom with Aronowitz, a few of his colleagues, many admirers, and other curious and hopeful autodidacts from New York.


We listened to Aronowitz give a background to the course – an eight-week introduction to dialectics, through the writings of Lukács, Adorno, and LeFebvre – and then to each other as we explored our reasons for being there, our own work and intellectual journeys, and questions we hoped to answer in the coming weeks. What was truly wonderful was the fact that this course was nearly free: $100 suggested donation for sitting in a small room with one of the greatest living public thinkers today.

This learning with lions, as I playfully entitled this post, is something I espouse in my own work as a professor, which I adopted from the generous and committed work of my own advisor in my PhD program. I ran a public pedagogy reading group over the summer with several of my students from City College, where we discussed readings and videos and the events from the week. My advisor has just started something similar with me and several of her other students, which I think she hopes will become self-sustaining even when she can’t make it. Important to these kinds of groups is accessibility, and communal hope that learning in community is consequential, an event that has impact in all of our lives.

This is public pedagogy in body and spirit. What would be possible were we all to engage with this on a regular basis, learning and teaching and incarnating what “pedagogy” according to Lev Vygotsky truly meant? Vygotsky’s term was obuchenie, a concept that saw education as a co-constructed, dialectical (see, dialectics is everywhere!) process in which teachers and students experienced mutual transformation. This radically changes the top-down, unidirectional way we tend to enact education in public schooling today. It also challenges the ivory tower paradigm in which academia maintains the keys to the castle in terms of knowledge.

More is possible when the lions open their dens up for the rest of us to come in and warm ourselves by their fires!

Crisis → recovery → crisis → recovery, etc…and the alternative: Bakhtin’s/Tina Turner’s co-authored future

19 minutes ago, my phone lit up with a headline from the New York Times:

Top Stories: President Trump’s reckless threats could set the nation “on the path to World War III,” said Senator Bob Corker, an influential Republican

Headlines like this feel relatively common, a reminder that crisis upon crisis has become the status quo in 2017. We recover, barely, from bad news (not from the outcomes of Hurricane Maria, not even close), when new and horrible events replace the last news story. We’re having a terrible year, and this seems to be plaguing people’s health and mental capacity to maintain a sense of balance, a feeling of being able to find perspective in a world that seems bent on chasing all sanity down and devouring it.

I wonder if this is simply a bad year, or possibly also a series of events that may generate changes in our ability to imagine different possibilities. How does this cycle of crisis and recovery occupy our consciousness, our creativity? I’ve written about a Baudrillardian take on our world, in which we have come to exist in a hyperreal social existence in which we don’t participate but simply experience as consumers. We are becoming shellshocked by the devastation wreaked by tropical storms, mass shootings, cholera epidemics, an opioid crisis, violent suppression of secession movements – by the way, all of this has occurred since August 2017 – which we experience as both perceived as “what those poor people have to deal with,” and in some cases, what is happening in our own communities. We seem to be perpetually stuck to our phones, our screens, fearful of the latest takeover of our already limited attention spans with the latest chaotic and terrifying news. Is this our mindset now?

Mikhail Bakhtin, a 20th century Russian philosopher and literary theorist who is coming into fashion again in academic thought, might suggest that we are experiencing our worlds in a sort of crisis ⇒ recovery ⇒ crisis ⇒ recovery mindset, where we are in a perpetual state of reacting to the hardships of the world. I’m not suggesting that our reactions are in our heads, much less the crises we’ve been dealing with on environmental, political, military, and social levels. Rather, I am interrogating the mindset that such a cyclical obsession generates: a sense of being trapped, of losing sight of any version of the now, or the possible future, as something we can contribute to. Bakhtin suggested an alternative mindset to this, a way of perceiving ourselves as what he called unique and once-occurrent Beings, each of whom is authentic and valuable as an author of the world. To own this, to view ourselves as responsible for our worlds and for our moments in it, is politically conscious, active, and powerful.

Sounds pretty hokey, right? I definitely don’t know how to get to this alternative road, as I’m slipping around in the dusty rubble on the ground like everyone else, trying to find a sane existence in the ruins of what seemed like a long-gone reality. Yet to be nostalgic about “better times” is to deny the suffering of others in the past and present, as well as to remove ourselves from the position of participant, of stand-taker, in a time of rising injustice.

Tina Turner’s anthem from 1985 (yes, it’s also the theme song from Mad Max, Thunderdome) pops into my mind as I write this:

Out of the ruins, out from the wreckage
Can’t make the same mistakes this time
We are the children, the last generation
We are the ones they’ve left behind
And I wonder when we are ever gonna change?
Living under the fear, till nothing else remains

We don’t need another hero
We don’t need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 11.10.07 PM.png

Now, this was intended for a post apocalyptic action movie, but I believe there are elements of Turner’s triumphant call to action that are more timeless, resonating for all who feel hopeless in the face of crisis, of a future that seems lost. The only place Turner got it wrong (beyond the video with the bizarre outfit and the shirtless sax man) was the line where she called this “the last generation.” It’s not Fukuyama’s end of history, or the end of theory. Nevertheless, her lyrics put the key line forward: We don’t need any heroes. No one is coming for us. And trying to return home will doom us to repeat and recycle the same stories. Where we stand, right now, can also be the beginning, as long as we can imagine and remember that we are here, co-authoring our future together, with all of our voices.

“If we can think, feel, and move, we can dance”: Anna Halprin’s radical pedagogy

At Hunter College last week, I saw an installation which accompanied a dance performance taking place this fall on campus entitled Radical Bodies, which features the work of choreographer Anna Talprin. Halprin, whose experimental workshops took place on a beautiful outdoor stage, did work that “rejected the high style and codified technique of reigning modern-dance choreographers like Martha Graham in favor of improvisatory tasks and everyday activities.” (NYTimes, March 24, 2017)

Many of these images are featured at Hunter College in the North Building, along with a description of the commitments to community building, embodiment and moral philosophy, and the search for authenticity through “self-generated creativity” (from Halprin’s Manual of Dance, 1921). Beautifully, and rightly, the Hunter description describes Halprin’s work as a radical pedagogy that speaks to the pain and struggle of the individual in the present era: isolation, homogenization, commodification, and standardization collude to obscure and trample on the stirrings of soul and unexplained, nascent, vicious little visions and vitalities we all have buried deep within us.

Halprin’s work resonates with John Dewey and other educational philosophers who explored the relationship between art and experience, and emphasized the importance of an education premised upon experience, of interacting with one’s world to create new meanings and emerge into a more fully developed self.

A beautiful proposal, indeed, one that is rare nowadays but not, thankfully, gone from our pasts, or our futures.

Abstract art and the proceduralization of physicality

While the title of this post is ambiguous at best and horribly abstruse at worst (by the way, linguist’s nerdy moment: the word “abstruse,” which means “difficult to understand, obscure,” is in itself abstruse), I think it’s the best way to describe a piece of installation art by Jeff Kasper in an exhibit I saw at the Graduate Center of CUNY, where I study. The two images, shown here are scans of pages free to the public that accompanied videos playing on screens in the wall:

new doc 111_1

new doc 112_1

Both pages display what appear to be instructions, steps by which to engage with another person in a physically proximate walk with a partner (vol. 1), or to meet up with friends and go out as a repeated habit (vol. 2). The strange vagueness with which physicality is referred to (for example, vol. 2 states, “Touch each other. Support each other physically.”) is complemented by the uncertain, almost alien way in which the interpersonal content is referred to (in vol. 1, there is simply mention of one’s “walking partner,” leaving the intended audience to wonder whether these instructions are meant for use with close friends, lovers current or to-be, family members, someone else). What is particularly interesting – and unnerving, to me – is the step-by-step breakdown of such mundane experiences, which are as universal to people around the world as one can imagine and as expressive of how we unconsciously experience human physicality in public spaces.

But what if this piece is meant to signal just that, a shift in the universality of human physical interaction? We are already seeing it, in the ways in which screens – on which I am typing this, and on which someone might be reading it – draw our eyes away from each other, making even intimate spaces like elevators, subway cars, and seats at the dinner table experiences of great interpersonal distance. Perhaps the point is that human beings may lose a sense of what it means to interact with each other as physical beings that share common language, so to speak, about embodied sociality.

And then the twist came: What if I myself am not the intended audience, or rather, what if there is an audience for these instructions for whom I am a second audience? It seems that any typical human being would have had such experiences naturally, over the course of his/her life as a part of being socially physical. But what if these instructions are written…for those who have not had such experiences?

For better or worse, my sci-fi background (mostly TNG) provides me with broad, fantastical references to alternate possibilities and ways of perceiving our reality, much the way art can and should. It dawned on me that instead, the artist might instead be “speaking” to a non-human entity who might be learning to be human, perhaps through an instruction guide. The proceduralization, ugly and awkward as a guide for how to do laundry for a new college student, adds a particularly interesting dimension when considering the question of physicality. We rarely question our physical being, instead following them through our worlds as the mediators of engagement for socializing, labor, consumption, pleasure, transportation, rest, exercise, and so on as simply the natural aspect of our corporeal selves. But what if, like Scarlett Johansson’s well-played character in Under the Skin (which I would strongly recommend, by the way), the being reading this procedure was doing so for the first time? What might physical intimacy, careless and simple as it might sound to us, appear to look like as a subject of study?

Amazing how art, sudden, brazen, incisive art, can bring into one’s mind a powerful vision of the self that had not yet occurred. What else, might we wonder, could art teach us in a reality that seems completely out of our hands nowadays, a runaway train of lies and white supremacy and violence and androcentrism and horrible vanity in which we are desperate to have a stake? What assumptions might crumble at such a reckless and restless time?

Is this the Matrix?: Reality in the era of bots

/////////////////////NPR’s Tom Ashbrook hosts a show called On Point, which covers a multitude of topics ranging from schooling to online dating to genetics to The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Available as a podcast, On Point featured a story on August 9th about bots, which I listened to in curiosity and dismay, and not as much surprise as I wish I’d had. Bots are essentially automated software programs that run tasks on the Internet, and according to one of the experts on the show, they’ve been around as long as the World Wide Web has been. The show’s focus, however, was much more specific, targeting the use of bots by certain individuals, organizations, and political entities to disseminate propaganda and fake news, or “disinformation,” in order to meddle in electoral politics. The show’s guests discussed the ways in which bots originating in Russia were used during the 2016 election to influence the U.S. population’s view of the candidates, the issues being discussed, and the general political state of affairs of our country, to which an elected president theoretically would provide a resonating response. Apparently, these bots can generate commentary and content which is, at best, biased, and at worst, patently false.


By Ian McKellar from San Francisco, CA, USA – Elektro and Sparkotaken from: http://www.maser.org/k8rt/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18986910

This is clearly a new era we’re in, because though the use of propaganda is as old as human society itself – incidentally, propaganda means simply a form of communication intended to sway or persuade its audience in favor of or against a given individual or group – the bots are used in a curious way. Employed on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, bots create “news” content whose volume and relevance to one’s own opinions can persuade a reader to follow that opinion. They function cleverly, or rather are designed in a clever way, in that they are meant to emulate a real person by patterning off of language used by current participants, and further appear to confirm the views of the reader through the temptation of accepting information that appeals to our established beliefs, thus persuading us via confirmation bias. Given the magnitude of influence of these bots, whose presence appears to range in the thousands across popular social media sites, it may not be too much to suggest that our view of the world, at least the view which we draw from our screens and hear echoed in the mouths of our colleagues and loved ones, is not simply a wake-up-and-see-what’s-true-today process.

Or is it? I’m no technophobe, but I do come from a generation that was raised without the Internet, without screens (excepting only 1/2 hour of TV a day, for which I’m still grateful), and without that addition to my consciousness that I might at any time be missing out on something on a screen awaiting my attention. I remember rotary phones and the use of folded-up maps stuffed in the glove box. This is not intended to be simple nostalgia, however. I’m actually asking what we might do about something all of us as deeply smitten phone lovers are well aware of.


By Aditya19472001 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I suppose what I’m asking is, how did we develop critical literacy and media literacy in the past? How did we think about the information presented to us, sort through it, and determine what was of value not because it made us feel warm and safe but in fact because it presented us with what was happening in the world? The American poet T.S. Eliot apparently even distrusted newspapers, believing that those who read them were easily manipulated away from a true engagement with the world. I’m not suggesting not taking in any information from news sources, which we tend to read now online, but a return to the issue will ask where we get our “news” from. And this is really the key when we think about social media. Baudrillard’s hyperreality was one in which, as in The Matrix, individuals are completely enveloped by the worldview they consume as true (that is, my belief about my reality, is what is created and given to me outside of my own influence). Under this social logic, we are simple consumers of our reality, not participants. This is not unlike the consumer posture we are encouraged to/ take as we experience the ads and clickbait that accompany us as we look at photos of our cousin’s new baby. We may not realize that our reality, our political agency, is being slowly pushed back behind a curtain, and is being replaced by blurps and blips that confirm our perspectives and comfort us that we are right, that we are looking at what’s “real.” The battle, it seems, is a philosophical and a psychological one as well as a political and technological one.

To close with the questions Eliot asks in his famous modernist masterpiece, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock:

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”…
Do I dare…Disturb the universe?

Do we dare to do this? Do we dare to put the phone away, close the Twitter feed, log off of Facebook, even for a moment, a moment when we might miss something…a something which might be worse than taking in nothing at all?