Teaching is an act of radical care. Our teaching influences the students we work with, the institutions we work within, and the communities we live in. It reflects on the past and considers the present to change the future. Teaching that values and supports individuals within networks of learners builds confidence, connection, and collaboration. To put it more bluntly, teaching that values students as individuals helps them construct their own knowledge and hold agency in their learning.
Letting students create their own view of the world may at first blush sound like neoliberal calls for individualized learning, so it’s worth pausing to differentiate these ideas. Today’s promise of “individualized” or “personalized” learning is tomorrow’s algorithmically determined learning path that buries a student’s agency under a mountain of code. That’s not what learning looks like, and it’s far from personal. When algorithms decide what, how, and when students should learn, those algorithms essentially program the students, as Seymour Papert observes, and school itself becomes “a machine to perform laid-down procedures” (p. 60). Treating students like predictable, procedural machines deprives them of agency, independence, and the opportunity to learn vital skills related to digital literacy and identity. Students who learn how knowledge builds on observations and critical thinking and reliable information can use their skills to understand the world around them and differentiate truthfulness and deceit.
Edward Snowden, reflecting on how he learned to program by himself after schooling generally failed to challenge him, noted that “a computer would wait forever to receive my command but would process it the very moment I hit Enter, no questions asked. No teacher had ever been so patient, yet so responsive. Nowhere else—certainly not at school, and not even at home—had I ever felt so in control.” How much control do students exert over their own learning? Do they let curiosity lead them, or does a program expect them to respond to a series of predetermined prompts? When we teach, we make assertions about control and who should have it. When we dictate what students should and should not learn, we dismiss the significance of discovery. And when we let computers chart a path for students, we imply that the programmers know best how to teach. But programming isn’t teaching. It’s encoding. And that’s not what we want done to students.
Nor is it what we want done to society. In “We’re Never Going Back to the 1950s,” Derek Thompson highlights the growth of niche partitioning of our information sources. He points out that “news—that is, sources of new information, of varying truthiness” has exploded in recent years, creating what he calls “a phalanx of news publishers” at the same time that “Google and Facebook duopolized digital advertising, creating a situation where publishers were multiplying as advertising declined.” Our news has become hyper-targeted out of both intention and economic necessity.
Back in the 1950s, it was generally assumed that all of America gathered around the television to watch evening news on abc, cbs, or nbc—for those were the only options for same-day news updates. Having only the “big three” media outlets meant it was harder for a single political mindset to take over a large segment of the population. Harder, because each news outlet had to appeal to a broad segment of society. Today, that scenario feels so distant as to sound counter-intuitive. But at the time, the media existed to vet information, process events, and help people understand what was what. The search for truth-with-a-capital-T gave journalists somewhat of a higher calling.
But today, the “democratization” of media has led not to the freedom of information, but to the populism of news sources. Political forces understand that they no longer need to subject themselves to the scrutiny of journalists charged with representing the people and keeping them informed. Instead, political forces now can create their own media outlets with their own standards for “vetting,” thus doing the equivalent with news and information as poisoning a well, ensuring all water coming from the tap is contaminated.
Democratization of the media happened rapidly and generally without the attention, critique, or objection of public or higher education. While others created novel and disturbing ways to capitalize on the attention economy, filter bubbles, and echo chambers, we were off building resource lists and learning modules, teaching one-off classes about Information Fluency with far too little attention paid to ethics beyond copyright rules. (Remember those days?) By focusing on the information, rather than the people, we turned a brewing knowledge crisis into little more than an academic exercise, complete with rote exercises and badges of completion. The one line of defense society has against just this sort of news-media crisis—education—was caught unawares and incapable of protecting itself—or its students, and therefore the public and future society—against the problem.
We need to find new tools to combat the rapid, persistent move toward extreme-conservative presentations of news, media, and truth. And as Kurt Andersen explains, those who seek to entrench the will of the rich at the expense of an informed public and engaged citizenry have been playing “such a long game” (p. 274). We must reorient our approach to hybrid teaching away from technology and toward humanity. We must start seeing hybrid education, blended learning, e-learning, distance education—or any of the other myriad names applied to the combination of a student and technology—as opportunities to build community and care for one another.
Caring for others has never been so vital.
It’s clear by now that threats to a liberating and empowering education are nothing new. It’s equally clear that concerns over the public’s relative inability to defend itself politically did not start with the latest election, coup, referendum, or summit. Many of the articles included in this book debuted before recent key watershed moments. Yet they all have a relevance to our present moment, suggesting our current conditions have plenty in common with our past. Like Jesse Stommel, Sean Michael Morris, and I said in our introduction to Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Collection, material in this current volume “feels just as timely now as it did when it was written (and even more prescient)” when revisited after time has passed (p. 1). The concerns of critical pedagogy prove persistently relevant.
Through my work with Hybrid Pedagogy over the past five years, I have seen a remarkable (and at times dizzying) variety of approaches to the scholarship of teaching. For some, the scholarship of teaching and learning serves as a chance merely to market themselves and their classroom practices without an attempt to engage and challenge readers. For others, it’s an opportunity to share how students have inspired them. And for others, writing about teaching becomes poetic, philosophical, nearly spiritual. I have seen through this variety the many shapes teaching takes and the many ways people come to this work we all share.
This book reflects that variety by avoiding any single point of entry, consistent tone, or uniform approach. The chapters, like their authors, and like our shared pedagogy, promote a more diverse and democratic approach to teaching, learning, and reading. Some authors sound distinctly hopeful and playful—see Brito and Fink, Burtis, Nelson, Morini, and Koh for example. Others challenge us through more somber approaches—see Derk, Goode, Inoue, Bali, and Amidon. Still others allow weariness to stand resolute alongside their optimism—here I think of Morris, Spelic, Melo, Literat, Zeller, and Lockley. Yes, that’s a long list of weary authors. But each of those authors presents a heart-felt challenge: We know the work of teaching is difficult; we know our world is challenging; we know the political forces at play work against us. But it is precisely those obstacles which validate the critical importance of our work.
I wish it were in my power to publish a book early in 2021 that could erase the frustrations and hopelessness that spread globally throughout 2020. I wish I could present chapters announcing the fall of black-box algorithms that control the way we shape the minds of future generations. I wish I could point to decisions that protect minority lives and economic futures through the use of classroom technology and critical pedagogy. That, of course, is impossible, and we must continue our unrelenting push forward. So instead, I have included these challenging chapters in the hopes of saying, “I see you. Let’s work on this together.”
And togetherness, really, is the core of this book. Its three sections—pedagogy, people, and politics—each presume the existence of human connection, that commodity we acutely value after calamity rarifies it. If the pandemic taught us anything, it is the value of human connection and its distinction from technological connectivity. This book gathers together its authors to offer conversational sustenance: wisdom, insight, challenge, and care.
This volume, in ways serving as part three of a series, extends the work of An Urgency of Teachers and Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Collection by preserving a focus on critical digital pedagogy but here applying it more directly and deliberately toward efforts of resistance and discomfort.
Opening with pedagogy as Part 1, this book perhaps starts in expected territory. But the twist presented by the first chapter (Sean’s claim that “technology is not pedagogy” when many of us have spent months hearing that Zoom is the shape of modern education) foreshadows the unsettling nature of much of the work that follows. Sean draws our attention to what’s important—not the tools, not the tech, but the teaching. And by separating the wheat from the chaff, Sean provides necessary clarity to carry us through the book. Part 1 continues with a balance between efforts to make meaning as educators and warnings of the dangers/threats pedagogy can pose to students. It is energized by the work of Sherri Spelic, who in the early days of a president’s administration highlighted the importance of meaning-making within a senseless society surrounded by political upheaval. Her observations remain helpful years later, as we continue to struggle with public perception of the media. In the subsequent chapter, Martha Fay Burtis presents her concerns for education’s technological shortsightedness with her trademark wit, mixing lighthearted optimism with both wonder and worry. Then, Maggie Melo shares an intimate story of erasure that reasserts the urgency of critical pedagogy.
Maggie’s chapter leads us perfectly into Part 2, focusing on people. It begins with a challenge: Jesse Stommel discusses the need for trust in education, mostly by pointing out how elusive it can be. Balancing critique with optimism, Amy A. Hasinoff talks about trust and rebuilds connections among learners of all stripes. The discomfort deepens with a lament over contingent labor, with Fisher, Literat, and Kraft each showing us with beauty and grace—and also a bit of snark—the devastating effect academia has on both its students and its faculty. Then, Amanda Licastro shows how deeply vital compassion is and how difficult it can be to nurture in even the most engaged classes. And finally, Asao B. Inoue closes Part 2 by discussing ways our efforts in the classroom might actually contribute to a less-violent world.
Part 3, on politics, opens with a lament from Jessica Zeller that helps us find our ethical and pedagogical centers and continues the momentum established in earlier chapters. Reminding us of the porous boundaries between classroom and politics, Maha Bali, Lee Skallerup Bessette, and Chris Gilliard show us the intricate connections between socio-political situations and educational policies in stark, concrete terms, with attention to race and legislation taking center stage. While keeping a solid theoretical grounding, we next turn to matters usually seen as less-than-serious. Adeline Koh explores the value of play, and Luca Morini looks at forms of learning often labeled “useless”; each in turn sheds light on ways entrenched academics preserve political power. From there, Pat Lockley shares a melancholic lament over bureaucratic decision-making that echoes frustrations from earlier chapters. Pat directs blame toward systemic problems—the same problems then addressed head-on in Audrey Watters’ insistent tour de force. Her final chapter leaves us both hyper-aware of problems in today’s education system and energized to find better solutions.
The need for better solutions to political problems in education becomes critical—in each of the word’s meanings—when the entire enterprise is expected to “pivot” online, as it did in early 2020 due to a global health crisis. Using the word “pivot”—which suggests merely the turn of a stationary object—overlooks the sense of direction, movement, and in-process-ness essential to teaching and learning. Classes suddenly required digital tools, home Internet connections, and personal devices to access what previously involved public transportation, lecture halls, and state-subsidized lunches. Suddenly, thoughts of using educational technology went from options to mandates. Nearly overnight, distance education was the only education available. Zoom became ubiquitous. Institutions turned wholesale away from personal connection and exploratory learning toward the use of problematic, dehumanizing delivery models. Calling those changes a “pivot” downplays the disruption they created, both to learning and to living.
Ed-tech often promises pre-packaged solutions and quick fixes to massive challenges—problems like delivering a class online or checking for plagiarism or monitoring attention during testing now have ready-made solutions, we are told, that our institutions can purchase and implement without the involvement—or consent—of teachers and students. These so-called “solutions” strip away the human element from teaching and learning and take control out of the hands of those doing the work of education and place it squarely in the hands (and pocketbooks) of proprietary systems belonging to companies more interested in ownership than in empowerment. We must oppose and resist the widespread, uncritical, high-pressure adoption of educational technology. To make that resistance possible, it helps to have context, perspective, and direction, which together help us better understand the situation’s complexity and the shape our response should take.
Addressing complex, dynamic problems requires broad, possibly slow, approaches. When complex problems reach an inflection point, breadth and deliberation can seem irresponsible, adding pressure for rash decisions that sound easy. In this regard, education and politics share challenges as they work to improve people’s quality of life, particularly through crisis. And as Barack Obama observes in a reflection on holding office, “in a crisis people needed a story that made sense of their hardships and spoke to their emotions—a morality tale with clear good guys and bad guys and a plot they could easily follow” (ch. 22). In today’s political climate, divisive morality tales have sharpened focus on the perceived line between good and bad. The same can be said of today’s educational climate, with a line between progressive educators working to improve student autonomy and agency and cutting-edge technologists working to improve automation and student processing. What, then, happened to progressive educators’ “story that made sense of their hardships and spoke to their emotions”? What kinds of stories have we told ourselves?
The stories we tell matter. Obama adds: “I found myself wondering whether we’d somehow turned a virtue into a vice; whether, trapped in my own high-mindedness, I’d failed to tell the American people a story they could believe in” (ch. 22). As progressive educators, we can too easily get trapped in our collective high-mindedness, becoming our own vices. Indeed, as Donald Macedo notes in his introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “educators who misinterpret Freire’s notion of dialogical teaching also refuse to link experiences to the politics of culture and critical democracy, thus reducing their pedagogy to a form of middle-class narcissism” (p. 18). In this moment, we must consider the social and political implications of our praxis. We must examine the effects of our work outside our classrooms, both on and offline. Whether education uses technology as a tool of oppression or teachers as a tool for liberation is a conscious choice that we and our institutions must make. Because teaching is always political.
This book was born out of a critical moment in the story of educational technology. That story helps us make sense of how pedagogy, people, and politics influence each other. We see how educators have a responsibility to the people we teach, how education has a responsibility to those who do the teaching, and how teaching itself holds a responsibility to society. That responsibility goes beyond traditional ideas of a civics education or the creation of an “informed citizenry” and into protecting that citizenry. Because as we so vividly saw in 2020, ed-tech, educational institutions, and online platforms will not save us. There’s too much inertia carrying us away from agency. Instead, this book aims to unsettle its readers; perhaps some unsettling will do us some good. Because, at the heart of it, education has the power to reinforce or even amplify democracy. By helping students see themselves as empowered members of a larger society, we can do the critical, consciousness-raising work that Paulo Freire calls us to do. Because, as he says, “There is no such thing as a neutral educational process” (p. 219).
Over the past four years—or four decades, as Andersen asserts—we have seen the results of unrestrained and calculated greed running rampant across our society and into our education system. But the impulse to dominate others for selfish gain has no place in a democratic education. Indeed, as he reflected on the outcomes of his first term in office, Obama saw the essential need for:
government policies that raised living standards and improved education enough to temper humanity’s baser impulses. Except now I found myself asking whether those impulses—of violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance, the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and mortality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others—were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain. (ch. 24)
This one book will not “fix” education any more than one head of state can preserve democracy. Nor will this book solve your institution’s problems or even show you how to teach an ethical, democratic, inspiring, liberating class next week. But it can challenge thinking, inspire creativity, focus attention, and provide a sense of hope. Hope that, by attending to the challenges of education and the needs of students, we can chart a path forward that allows education to defy surveillance and authority while empowering students to define their world—and then change it.
Individual chapters from the collection are available from across the open web. The complete book is available now in print and ebook editions from Amazon and available in March as a screen- or print-ready, pay-what-you-will PDF. Proceeds from the book help continue the mission of Hybrid Pedagogy Inc.
Part 1 — Pedagogy
- Technology is Not Pedagogy by Sean Michael Morris
- Building Castles in the Air by Stephen R. Barnard
- Pedagogy, Prophecy, Disruption by Ian Derk
- Slow Interdisciplinarity by Abby Goode
- The Process of Becoming by Marisol Brito and Alexander Fink
- Learning to Let Go by Chris Friend
- Seeking Patterns, Making Meaning by Sherri Spelic
- Messy and Chaotic Learning by Martha Fay Burtis
- Pedagogical Violence and Language Dominance by Maggie Melo
Part 2 — People
- Trust, Agency, and Learning by Jesse Stommel
- Confessions of a Subversive Student by Leif Nelson
- Do You Trust Your Students? by Amy A. Hasinoff
- On Silence by Audrey Watters
- A Soliloquy on Contingency by Joseph P. Fisher
- N=1: Inquiry into Happiness and Academic Labor by Ioana Literat
- From Ph.D. to Poverty by Tiffany Kraft
- When One Class is Not Enough by Amanda Licastro [Exclusive chapter]
- Assessing so That People Stop Killing Each Other by Asao B. Inoue
Part 3 — Politics
- Pedagogy as Protest by Jessica Zeller
- Critical Citizenship for Critical Times by Maha Bali / مها بال
- Interrogating the Digital Divide by Lee Skallerup Bessette
- Pedagogy and the Logic of Platforms by Chris Gilliard
- (dis)Owning Tech by Timothy R. Amidon
- Education as Bulwark of Uselessness by Luca Morini
- The Political Power of Play by Adeline Koh
- Ghost Towns of the Public Good by Pat Lockley
- Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump by Audrey Watters