WHY do we have to learn this…?!

…is the question many students ask themselves and few professors answer (well).

Via Kaye Sweetser’s blog, this NYU student asks the same, and more.

I’m posting below my comment on Kaye’s blog, which turned out to be long enough for a post:

I’m a bit late to this conversation, but can’t help but jump in.

The critical theorist in me is happy this is happening. Alana’s post is an example of tearing down the Golden Wall I wrote about some time back. It’s good that students have a voice. Education is by definition a power imbalance, where students pay to subject themselves to our authority and power. In theory, I say, bring it on!

The professor in me smiles a sad smile: I was once (not very long ago) young and arrogant and thought I knew it all. I hated classes that didn’t teach me real skills for the real world.

It took me years to get over myself and understand that the best classes are not the ones that teach me skills that will be dated in 2-3 years (though you need those, too, to get a job next year) but those that teach me how to think.

Here’s critical theory again: Students expect us to train them to be good employees, servants to the Corporation. They’re lost and disappointed when we teach them how to be free thinkers, free people. That’s called hegemony, I think.

A recent opinion article at Clemson ranked liberal arts courses as the worst, most useless ones. How sadly misguided. [Really, WHY should we have to learn about hegemony?! What a “useless” concept, right?]

Where we profs fail is that we don’t help students understand WHY we do what we do and how it WILL be more useful than teaching button-pushing.

As a prof, I try to teach students not only twitter, but also skills that will be relevant 10-20 years later. They can’t appreciate that now. They need help. They’re too young to think in that time frame. So I take time to explain.

See also my comment on Alana’s post.

[Update, 9/19/2008] Interesting development of NYU story: Professor attempts to ban students from blogging & twittering about class (from MediaShift, via Simon Owens. Excellent blogger relations, Mr. Owens!)

I’m afraid neither party is approaching this problem productively. Both Alana and prof. Quigley have a lot to learn from each other. If they could get over their fears (of each other, of old stuff, of new stuff, of having their egos threatened) and cooperate, the story would have a much happier ending.

This is the comment I posted on the follow-up story [cross-posted]:

This is what I see the big picture of this story to be:

Blogging (and much of social media) bring more transparency, empower the “masses” and threaten authority by bringing down the Golden Wall.

This is happening a lot in business. It’s scary for corporations, and empowering for consumers.

Why shouldn’t it also happen in education?

I am a college prof., I require students to blog and am planning to teach them to live-twitter the class next week.

Yes, I know it’s scary – for me. For the old idea of the “powerful, know-it-all” professor who taught critical thinking and thought it was OK as long as s/he wasn’t the subject of criticism.

I sometimes teach my students critical theory by exposing my own power & authority practices in the classroom.

The world has changed. The education model we use is the same as hundreds of years ago: The professor is the “master.”

Enough is enough. We don’t have to be masters and servants. We can help each other and learn together.

Alana and prof. Quigley have a lot to learn from each other. Why don’t they?

The Golden Wall

I’m reading The Discovery of Heaven, a novel of ideas by Dutch author Harry Mulisch. One of the main characters, Onno, after a stint in politics, meditates on the nature of power.

He claims that power exists because of the Golden Wall that separates the masses (the public) from decision makers. Government, in his example, is a mystery hidden behind this Golden Wall, regarded by the masses (the subject of power) in awe.

Once the Golden Wall falls (or becomes transparent), people see that behind it lies the same mess as outside it. There are people in there, too. Messy people, engaged in messy, imperfect decision making processes. The awe disappears. With it, the power.

What happens actually, with the fall of the Golden Wall, is higher accountability and a more equitable distribution of power. Oh, and the risk of anarchy.

But the Golden Wall must fall.

In the communication professions, social media is tearing huge holes in the Golden Wall. Just like in 1989 Europe, some are celebrating, others are paralyzed with fear.

In education, the Golden Wall stands. Secret meetings behind closed-door decide the curriculum, the professors’ yearly evaluations, tenure, lives, my life.

I talk to my students about squabbles in faculty meetings that result in curriculum changes. I want them to see behind the Golden Wall. To understand how decisions about their education are made. That we’re human, imperfect, and hopefully, possibly, subject to change. I haven’t seen undergraduate students involved in changing the curriculum. Nobody asks them. They don’t push. At Purdue, the Graduate Student Association had a representative sit in on faculty meetings. We did impact the curriculum. We were in, behind the Golden Wall.

In U.S. government, C-SPAN gets us glimpses behind the Golden Wall. But we don’t watch. We’re too busy. It’s too boring. (OK, there are exceptions.)

Look around you. Do you see Golden Walls? Tear them down.

Then come back here and tell the story in the comments section.