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Pedagogy, Prophecy, and Disruption

 Published on September 18, 2014 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Chris Friend and Sean Michael Morris /  “itself” by Hannah Law; CC BY-NC 2.0 /  1

Critical Digital Pedagogy

This article is part of a series working to define Critical Digital Pedagogy. The goal is to map (or represent) the terrain of the field, while considering questions of authority, roles, and agency. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

This article is a response submitted for our series about critical digital pedagogy. See the original CFP for details.

Without consideration of its past, present, or future, critical digital pedagogy may become irrelevant before it begins in earnest. The forces of neoliberalism that critical pedagogues hoped to expose and remove have become extremely adept at moving into digital spaces. Online institutions run by for-profit companies attract students from vulnerable populations —  the very populations that critical pedagogues aspire to help. For-profit institutions are often a mixed bag, at best, for these students, but more public and nonprofit institutions model their online offerings to compete with for-profit models. While some professors and academics have resisted changes, the classes they’ve protected were upper-division seminars rather than developmental or basic courses. Educational experiences that create common ground rather than career or academic tracks have migrated into spaces for efficiency, thus reducing traditional liberal arts and sciences to more closely resemble for-profit colleges’ career-focused format.

The rise of the for-profit online classroom is well documented, and the expansion of for-profit education, in part, is the result of various decisions made by higher education institutions. While elite institutions were mostly preserved, public schools, especially community colleges, were hurt by the expansion of online education. Spaces for critical, engaged learning in communities gave way to large digital spaces driven by profit motivations. Some of these institutions are starting to falter, and the space for these failures allow for a critical digital pedagogy to enter online spaces. However, critical digital pedagogues need to consider how they can make critical pedagogy resonate with the public, and use critical theory to examine digital tools and new methods.

But the digital and the critical each face crises of their own. Elizabeth Losh claims that many people engaged in “hacking the academy” express little interest in the outside world and advocate for open-publishing and sharing more out of self-interest rather than shared interest. The argument Losh advances claims that digital humanists fail the call of The Turtlenecked Hairshirt. A lack of engagement with current conditions is also a problem that advocates of critical pedagogy have failed to address in many areas, especially the K-12 education that most Americans encounter. As models and philosophies of personalized learning emerge, with some hopes for co-creation admired by critical pedagogies, these models remain driven by market forces and stand distinct from earlier critical pedagogies of the 1960s and ‘70s. Models of personalized learning, while changing the dynamic between teacher and student, treat education as another commodity rather than experience.

Critical pedagogy, in some of its forms, focuses on education as the tool to reframe society and challenge market logic. However, critical pedagogy’s lack of substantive reaction to the commodification of education has made me question the vitality of critical pedagogy. I discussed with a colleague once whether or not critical pedagogy was dead. He argued that critical pedagogy is relatively new, and a lack of major results was no indication that critical pedagogy had failed. I would say that critical pedagogy has not done enough in the digital age because critical pedagogues have failed to capture or negotiate against the prophetic ethos.

In Scientists as Prophets, Lynda Walsh argues for the a particular relationship between a prophetic ethos and scientific research. “Ethos,” in her reading, means something akin to “stance” or “role” rather than ethics or credibility. The prophetic ethos is a rhetorical stance with particular motivations, but the most important concept for our purposes is clarification prophecy, or the ability to motivate political decision making. When a deliberative body needed help making a decision, and the future was uncertain, a member of the deliberative body would petition the prophet to access certain (often secret) knowledge that would assist in decision-making. The prophet would deliver a message, but not all prophecies were instructions. Walsh uses Herodotus’ description of prophecy and its deliberative interpretation to illustrate the function of prophecy within decision-making. The delegation sent someone to ask for a reading of signs, and (after the first reading signaled nothing but destruction and the delegation asked for a second reading), the prophet said the city would be saved by a “wooden wall.” Some took the sign literally, saying Athens needed to create a wall constructed of wood, while others argued the prophecy referred to the Athenian navy. Few recorded responses expressed doubt on the prophecy, nor did they claim the prophecy was irrelevant. The delegation wanted certainty and clarification, which the prophecy delivered by focusing the debate on the “wooden wall,” but only the body could translate the cryptic words into action. Because, according to Walsh, prophets often read signs (an act that balances concealment with revelation), the prophetic ethos might clarify some direction for debate, but it allows for ambiguity while reducing uncertainty for a deliberative body.

Because the prophetic ethos is a rhetorical stance, it is only possible when the prophet speaks to the values of the polity. Expansions into online environments serve desires for convenience, access, and educating a wide variety of people. Some online systems claim to personalize an experience and adapt to students, thus speaking to a desire for flexible, accessible educational content. These learning-management systems recommend tasks and material for students based on the data of previous students in a manner proponents describe as “similar to Facebook.” However, some adaptive learning-management systems hide their construction and selection of material without exposing the options or allowing for negotiation. When someone browses other algorithmic systems, like Netflix, there is an option to see the entire catalogue (or at least a great deal of it) by turning off the suggestions. The ability to see all, or at least some, of the possible academic paths in a class would help students retain some agency. Adaptive systems for introductory courses help students with challenging concepts, but deterministic learning in introductory courses could impact a student’s future coursework by recommending algorithmically-selected concepts rather than concepts likely to appear in a student’s future coursework. Students selected by adaptive systems might enter upper-division coursework with variable skills and preparation, meaning adaptive systems replicate the problems of traditional systems through a less transparent process.

Beyond the individual course, there are some institutions that plan to create entire degrees with adaptive learning, perhaps allowing hidden agents to chart the course of a student’s entire education. A student who could see the whole catalogue of tutoring and help options (and using these options as supplements rather than instructors) could avoid the funnelling effect of an adaptive course, but adaptation through hiding choices makes the directive aspects of a learning management system obscure.

Critical pedagogy challenges the notion of inaccessible decision-makers determining the course of education, but algorithmic agents both duplicate and hide the traditional, inaccessible decision-making processes. A hidden algorithm replicates the worst parts of old, cloistered methods of course construction while the statements surrounding the use of algorithms claim to empower the student. The traditional human agent has motives, but the assumption the digital agent lacks motives is wrong, for the algorithm is programmed by a person or organization with motives. Those motives might be unconscious, but they still have consequences when programmed into a system. Adaptation might work by helping students prioritize or avoid redundant or unnecessary work, but students should know how the system chooses and have the ability to see all the lessons.

Prophets served as types of experts, who were eventually replaced by mechanical experts who use data sets, spreadsheets, and other tools under a cloak of objectivity. These data-driven people made claims that they thought were clear, value-neutral, and simple. However, Walsh claims,

Rather than serving as classical evidence in a public debate, the techniques of mechanical objectivity have often proved as legible as a pile of oracle bones on the floor or the ravings of the Pythia; they amount to another confirming sign of the charismatic authority of the science advisers. (92)

Drives toward data sets in educational practices, complex digital scholarship, and esoteric tool development share many similarities to the mechanical expert. Education and digital technology often fall into prophetic spaces because the public knows little about them, and not enough people attempt to interpret those processes for the public and decision-makers. Groups developing digital technology create products that simplify and personalize rather than challenge or examine. The filtering of information limits the ability of people to interpret and understand the world, for they might assume that the information presented is the only information available, rather than an algorithmic guess. If critical digital pedagogues are uncomfortable with the role of prophet, they need to be bold enough explain the connection between technology and work.

Digital technology, to some extent, has disrupted the daily routines of people in personal and professional spheres. The space between someone’s private and professional life is shrinking, and maintaining a private sphere divided from work requires an active commitment and employee agency. The syntax and grammar of “work” changes with the addition of technology, and some people enter a post-industrial work environment where work is more efficient because it lacks the constraints of physical space, commuting, or office distractions.

The benefits of post-industrial disruptions have not spread evenly, which means the inequalities that came during industrialization may remain. And people must remember the industrialized system we see today was not inevitable; the history of scientific management reminds us that technology and practice work together. How people view technology in their lives altered its use, and “efficiency” became beneficial to profit rather than beneficial to all. A critical digital pedagogy needs to start with a critique of disruption, not simply as a critique of itself but to speak to a larger world.

It might be wise to reconsider disruption “as a swear word, in the sense of being potent and rarely used.” Disruptions cause damage, and the most vulnerable populations may feel that damage the most. There are lots of discussions about disruption, but precious few interrogate the consequences. The demands for immediate, radical change hurt previous critical pedagogy movements, and critical digital pedagogy should avoid pretending it outsmarted history by changing the terms. Disruption sometimes favors the entrenched and powerful, meaning those wishing to disrupt should plan ahead. A simple archive of interventions, shared in digital spaces, may help.

Critical pedagogies of the past often failed to archive intermediate steps and conflicts. David Tyack and William Tobin wrote in 1994 that literature surrounding challenges to the grammar of schools had initial verve and fire, but most literature surrounding those early reforms fell apart. Excitement about the ability to disrupt educational grammar fizzled and movements were lost. Each person trying to critically reform education had less history, and many people likely made the same mistakes. A long, deep archive of critical pedagogical practices, accessible and shared, might help. There are places that provide decent on-ramps for critical pedagogy (for a fee), but we also need concrete, tangible ideas to create first-order change. While existing technologies have their agendas, critical digital pedagogues need to work within them to create change and make contacts. The choices of certain tools may involve uncomfortable compromise, but digital spaces will change before new tools are developed. The deep question for the critical digital pedagogue is, “Can I take the prophetic ethos?”

Critical digital pedagogy is uncomfortable with the prophetic ethos because it allows for abuse, but a critical digital pedagogue must not be afraid to challenge those who offer solutions and obfuscations. Critical digital pedagogues need to take the prophetic ethos because our current system is not ready, but they should demystify critical educational practices and digital technology as well. A stronger network between critical digital pedagogues, decision-makers, and school stakeholders, built over time and carefully, could eventually demystify and change the need for hierarchy. The critical digital pedagogue must help people grapple with uncertainty not by providing direction but by helping them understand structures, but she must speak the language of people. She should change schools with the help of people, not disrupt them for the sake of disruption. Others wishing to disrupt schooling have particular agendas, and they have no problem taking the prophetic ethos.

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1 Response
  1. The idea of the prophetic ethos is interesting. Two bits of feedback:

    1. To be honest, this particular reader found it unclear as it applies to the current situation in education. It would have been nice to have the entire piece drill all the way down to the bottom of what that idea is getting at. On the one hand, you seem to be saying (are you?) that critical pedagogy needs its Ken Robinson to really get the ball rolling. But on the other hand, you suggest we should have nothing to do with the hierarchy and leadership (“not giving direction,” you say) which are intrinsic to the role occupied by the likes of Sir Ken (whose rightbrainsare.us team prides itself on having discovered the #1 leadership trait).

    “Can I take the prophetic ethos?” ?

    “…she must speak the language of people…” Surely: Although the prophet ultimately has to connect with the understanding of people, the prophet is someone who challenges the received unwisdom that makes up the current language of the people. You mention the desert in your bio. The prophet is someone who leaves the chattering tribe for the desert, and in his sublime and silent isolation receives a vision of how things ought to be otherwise – a “re-evaluation of values,” as the prophet Zarathustra put it. Then there is the felt need to return and tweet about the Good News so that people can appreciate this radically new view of things. Your version makes it sound as if the People is the prophet, and the pedagogue merely interprets what it is saying. In which case, the question would be: “Can the people be enabled to understand that they are the Prophet”?

    There is a lot more that needs to be said here about online tribalism and the desert, and how it is possible to tweet about the profound lessons of the desert so that people who have had no contact with it (people sadly unconnected to it because they are connected to the wrong things) might be able to understand the enigmatic voice of the desert.

    By an odd coincidence, we have just posted a piece that touches on the issue of the desert and other sublime landscapes in relation to education: http://bit.ly/1uTobOo

    2. You highlight the importance of helping people to understand structures in your closing sentences. Earlier on in the piece you say this: “the digital agent lacks motives is wrong, for the algorithm is programmed by a person or organization with motives.” You are right that everyone involved has their motives, but as critical theorists we also need to highlight the way that the structure has a life of its own. In our work with students we insist that everyone watch the nice video of the Stanford Prison Experiment by Zimbardo and then discuss the bizarre life of the institution and its ability to turn nice young people into brutes, so that when we discuss bestiality, we appreciate how important it is to grasp the bestiality of the structure itself. Surely the system to which the algorithms belong has a similar (bestial?) life of its own – its own teleology – its own prophetic ethos, perhaps, so that people like Sir Ken Robinson are like the ancient Athenians trying to read the signs in the entrails of that system, so we can know what it wants and how best we can serve it, and people rise in applause from their plush seats when it suddenly seems absolutely clear what the system is calling upon us to do (cf. Otto Scharmer). And if that is what the prophetic ethos has become, critical pedagogy surely needs to be its antithesis.

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