February 18, 2013

Teaching, The Internet, & Me

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I taught from 1992-2008 — at UC Berkeley, mostly, and for a few years at the SF Art Institute. Unlike private universities, Cal — that’s what they call UC Berkeley which, being from New York, confused the hell out of me — anyway, Cal doesn’t pay its graduate students (at least not in the humanities and at least not if you’re me). So grad students in Rhetoric survive by teaching university required composition classes (why hire faculty when you can pay grad students less?). Then, when I finished my degree in ’98, I continued teaching for another 10 years as adjunct faculty.

I loved it. Even as a grad student instructor, a GSI, I had free reign over my syllabus. I taught insane classes in which I only assigned books I loved — Nietzsche, Barthes, Burroughs, Nicholson Baker. After grad school, I began teaching the introductory lecture to the major as well as upper division electives with course titles such as “Joy & Complexity,” “Bring on the Strange,” “Seeing Seeing.” We watched David Lynch, Cassavetes, Godard and read Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, Deleuze. It was exquisitely delirious.

But over the 16 years I taught, there was a marked change in the students. I mean, there were always peckerheads. Just as there were always astounding, brilliant, bizarre, curious students. Indeed, the proportions probably stayed the same. Such is life: take any group of 100 people — regardless of geography, gender, class, race — and 90 of them will be peckerheads, six will be ok, two will be awesome, and the last two will be ridiculously excellent.

Of course, among those 90 peckerheads, there’s a lot of differentiation — there are assholes, dicks, fuckwads, douchebags, the insane, stupid, precocious, etc. By the time I left in 2008, the peckerheads at Cal were preodminantly self-entitled shitheads who always asked — no joke — “Is this on the test?” (I didn’t give tests.) Students who felt it was my obligation to make sure they understood rather than it being their obligation to learn (well, it’s both of our obligations). Students who would interrupt my lecture because they’d left a sweater in the room and did I mind if she looked around— during my lecture! Wait until the class is over, you little fuckstick. Students who’d write on their evaluations of me that I was conceited. Well, yeah, I think I know more than you, shitbird. I’m your fucking professor. I began to feel like I was there for their amusement, another channel on the infinity of cable, another app to fiddle with, another post to proffer casually cruel “comments” (see RateMyProfessor, the Yelp of teachers).

And this entitlement was institutionalized. One time, I had an over enrolled class and so required an initial paper to gain entry. One shithead didn’t do it and so I told him I was going to drop him. The problem was I didn’t officially drop him until it was too late and I was shut out of the system — which meant he had to pay a $10 late drop fee. All right, my bad — I was happy to pay the $10. But then he complained to the chair of my department who told me, and I quote, “Students are clients.” I will never believe that nor will I ever teach as if that were true.

My point is this: I loved teaching — I loved it in my bones — but I began to be annoyed. And then, the semester before I stopped teaching, I was approached by the university’s IT department and asked if I’d be willing to have my lectures podcast. Sure, why not? I had no idea what the repercussions would be once my madness was broadcast for all to hear. (I assumed I’d be arrested — partly my paranoia, partly the self-entitled shithead students and the general will to litigate.)

Now, as I was adjunct, I had a professional life outside of teaching. I had a start up that, in our own words, leveraged the computational to forge ever new relationships between information (in the arts, specifically). I was an information architect and had helped build a breadth of sites. But it wasn’t until my lectures were podcast that I began to understand the internet.

First of all, because my lectures were online, students felt like they didn’t need to attend class. Which was fantastic. It meant the only students in attendance actually wanted to be there. No more peckerheads! No self-entitled shitbirds! Oh, what a luxury! To teach to a class of solely interested, engaged students! This is how I’d always imagined teaching. It took the internet to filter out the douchewads and realize this pedagogic Eden.

And then something else happened: I started getting emails from people all over the world. Oddly enough, this had never occurred to me. For some reason, I assumed only my students would be listening. But nope. I got emails from an Argentine minster of education; a philosophy student in Turkey (she knows who she is); a high school student in Alabama; a retired NASA scientist in Kansas; a would-be media mogul in New England. I received dozens of emails a week from curious, interested, engaged people. I’d lost the peckerheads and gained the world.

Suddenly, I was living the power of instant broadcasting. I felt — in the parlance of such things — connected. Which felt strange. The things I read and thought about left me socially alienated (willingly! even gleefully!). My wife wouldn’t even listen to me. And my students, well, they had to listen. But now I was ranting and raving about circumstantial propriety and people who didn’t have to listen were listening, eagerly. And they wanted more.

Eventually, I had to leave teaching for financial reasons (it’s hard to make a living in the ridiculous city of San Francisco). But, thanks to those podcasts, I left like I could leave without leaving, if you will, as now I had the most excellent classroom of only interested students who could teach me things, too.

And I learned something about the internet, something I’m still learning but which began with those fateful podcasts. I’d always been attracted to the figure of the network — interconnected threads with nodes of differing intensity. Yet I was experiencing something else. This was not a network per se. What I sensed was happening, what I glimpsed operating within the network structure, was something else entirely: community.

Facebook and Twitter are networks, each member a node that feeds the feeds. Structurally, they cannot be a community. They can organize a community elsewhere but can’t maintain it (Facebook is trying, perhaps, with groups and pages). There is no collectivity as we are each left, finally, as nodes. Now, I do not mean this pejoratively. In fact, communities make me nervous. I like being a node.

And yet I see how being a node within a network fosters the very self-entitlement that drove me out of the classroom. Look at me! I’m getting jiggy with my bros! This is my breakfast. Yum!  That’s not community; that’s individuals shouting into the commons from afar.

Most of the talk around internet teaching focuses on how efficient it can be. If a classroom teaches 140 students, an internet course can teach 140,000!  Maybe. But I’m not so sure about that, at least when it comes to the humanities. That kind of learning takes something different than scale and efficiency. It takes something different than a center with more and more nodes around it. It takes the engagement of community.

And this is what I learned from those podcasts — that lurking within the peckerwoods of internet self-entitlement is the beautiful possibility of a community of learners. TC mark

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