authority, technology and teaching

[pardon my slow return from the woods, I returned home to find my motherboard had fried – I’ll have limited connectivity for a week or two]

It’s easy to get excited about incorporating new communication technologies in the classroom, but it’s not always so easy and the benefits are not always clear. Pamthropologist discusses her resistance to teaching strategies advocated by Michael Wesch, arguing that theres a line between motivating, and pampering – and that her initial reaction has been to retreat to tradition:

“So, as I review the great move toward technological innovation in the classroom. I find, myself recoiling in horror. I just don’t get it. Michael Wesch’s youtube of his oh so forlorn students who don’t read and can only become excited when engaging with their own methods of discourse drove me crazy.”

In her discussion she brings up the difference between “deep reading” and “power browsing”, and the idea that online communication technologies are a students “own method of discourse”. I have trouble with this idea that deep reading being associated with a particular medium or style – reading with Google offers the opportunity to quickly access related information. Googling, and wikipedia are helping people read deeper by helping them get to more relevant material.

Many disagree however, as shown in the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” which Pamthropologist references:

“As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

I think theres something to be said for how one participates online. Yes, many people skip along the surface, but I believe the community nature of the blogsphere, with its direct and personal interactions between authors, is allowing for a much deeper kind of communication. There are numerous ways to use the internet and Google is only one part of it. The above quote misses the depth of learning that occurs through online engagement [their study is blinded by the position that reading online leads to “disengagement”… see below]

The article cites a few studies that show how online researchers would jump from site to site, rarely taking the whole thing in. One study concluded “It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”  According to another researcher, Maryanne Wolf:

“When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.”

I’m not sure how these studies were done or with what kind of researchers, but I have an alternate take. Academic essays in anthropology almost always include numerous jumps to other related essays – making it impossible to decode any single anthropological essay without conferring with numerous others. Let’s not get into the fact that much of the very same material is available offline and online, and that the researchers are actively choosing to filter through the material to get at better sources of information which would not have been available otherwise. But what do I know, I am struggling with Bourdieu 🙂     [Also see Enkerli’s discussion of online literacy in his response to a previous post.]

Michael Wesch responds to Pamthropologist, arguing that his strategies work to build personal connections to the material. He argues that the bottom up design empowers students to “… make real contributions to the class.” Of course, this isn’t just new communication technologies being discussed, but rather new teaching methods that happen to benefit from them.

It’s a fascinating and passionate discussion which really brings up interesting angles and perspectives relating to teaching strategies and to some extent new communication technologies. I tend to side with Wesch since I’m a huge fan of his anti-teaching essay, but Pamthropologist makes some good arguments supporting a more traditional style. It’s interesting to look at this discussion in terms of the social reproduction and education (I have been reading Bourdieu afterall).

Discussing the way authority manifested itself in academia, Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) chose the term “symbolic violence” to describe how particular styles of speech, writing, discussion and behaving worked to legitimate ideas and meanings that were then passed down or internalized by successive generations. [ala social reproduction]

Here is Bourdieu and Passeron’s description of a traditional lecture –

“The lecturer finds in the particularities of the space which the traditional institution arranges for him (the platform, the professorial chair at the focal point on which all gazes converge) material and symbolic conditions which enable him to keep the students at a respectful distance and would oblige him to do so even if he did not wish to. Elevated and enclosed in the space which crowns him orator, seperated from his audience, if numbers permit, by a few empty rows which materially mark the distance the laity fearfully keep before the mana of the Word and which at all events are only ever occupied by the most seasoned zealots, pious ministers of the material utterance, the professor, remote and intangible, shrouded in vague and terrifying rumour, is condemned to theatrical monologue and virtuoso exhibition by a necessity of position far more coercive than the most imperious regulations.” (Bourdieu and Passeron. 1977)

Interestingly the above passage comes from a prestigious academic publication but it still carries all the bias and attitude of a great blog post.

Pamthropologist, with her open and honest discussion shows another side to the traditional lecture hall – and maybe its not that bad afterall. She writes

“Anyway my bias is: I love lecture. I loved it throughout undergraduate and graduate school. I was interested and involved because of lecture. I read because of lecture. I think it works well is small classes. I think it can work in large classes.”

So we have resistance Wesch’s anti-teaching strategies and so maybe its fair to call it a revolutionary approach. At the same time, its easy to jump on the revolutionary bandwagon, and thinking about how Bourdieu and Passeron discuss the reproduction of society and culture in education perhaps it helps to avoid such simple categorizations.

Is it really revolutionary? Wesch describes himself as a manager within the classroom, so there are still traditional forms of authority being imposed and “inculcated” [ie. professional distance between teacher and student]. I’ll be thinking much more about this, and thanks to Pamthropologist and Michael Wesch for a fascinating discussion!

[some random notes:

Inspiring learning seems to be a common theme, with disagreement as to how best motivate it. Relationships with broader community vs teacher -> student.

There are different kinds of authority – “teacher/student” is too simple. Authority to select readings, choose problems.

Studies of online research techniques have ignored broader online participation, focusing too much on “reading” instead of “communicating”.

In what ways is it revolutionary? Teacher/student roles maintained -> authority of teacher, authority of sources, ways to filter information. Project management skills, working in a team,

Being engaged with material vs. engaged with a question   -> source of inspiration, higher motivation, -> deeper reading.   [Wesch arguing for bottom up approach to motivate engagement, Pamthropologist arguing that traditional lectures can also inspire (Wesch agreeing).   Different styles.

And lets not get carried away with oppositions – new communication styles/strategies/technologies can also promote long ass lectures ala  or see Academhack’s recent post on video lectures.



10 responses to this post.

  1. I happen to agree with Pam on the whole. Personally, I was really put off the “world simulation” video in a bad way — I had to stop watching at a certain point, it became irritating to see kids playing a game, a kind of Monopoly meets Risk meets Charades, and a great deal of it did not seem to simulate any world history. I really hope that video was not a reflection of what was taught in class, for even as an application or imaginative envisioning, I think it fails.


  2. One more little observation, and hopefully with fewer missing words. I worry about substance. If I am taking a course offered by a scholar that I deeply respect and I know has made a tremendous mark internationally … then don’t dare put any distractions in the way of the lecture, no YouTube videos, no Facebook, etc. I have had classes with such figures, and even their use of the chalk board was limited — many years later, I remember most of every lecture given. I think that Pam raised a mass of excellent points and they need to be taken seriously, rather than sidelined.


  3. It may not be a fantastic history lesson in the end [can’t tell from the video], but as Wesch points out, success or failure isn’t a problem when the process behind the project motivates student engagement the way it seems to do [and as Wesch states a few times, the failure makes for a great discussion]. It’s not so much about swapping text books for youtube videos but rather the way the team uses the media to think about and produce knowledge.

    [ie, not just watching a youtube video, but finding a topic, researching it, and making a video for the public].

    And your lectures are fantastic, even with the odd youtube video 🙂 Other teachers struggle much more with long lectures however, so I think Wesch’s point is fair too!

    Other ideas I’ve been thinking about: Often teachers assign over five articles to read per class session. This makes deep reading impossible, and it leads to the same kind of “jumping from site to site” argument found in the article Pamthropologist linked to. Mostly I am arguing against the idea that online research leads to “skimming”, and library research leads to “deep reading”.

    I don’t think anyone was arguing against the value of lectures!


  4. Thanks for this great post and discussion. Let’s see if I can blop some thoughts out here that don’t require the disciplines of the weighty tome to unpack…

    *These questions only come up when education is ‘democratized’. So this is a ‘modern’ problem. If it’s a.) OK to shed underachievers or b.) OK to ruthlessly discipline them or c.) education is just a socializing formality for elites there’s very little need to think about pedagogy and motivation. Many of our colleagues are nostalgic for those days, although few now are old enough to have actually experienced them (this is one of those imagined traditions). We are all products of an inclusive, permissive modern educational system.

    *I mostly agree with Pam too, and I also mostly agree with Wesch. What I don’t think is that any single technique or technology is the magical solution to the various challenges of education, especially since we’re still far from consensus about what education is for (reproduction? social leveling? functionalist training? transformative humanization? yadayada).

    *The ‘reproduction’ dilemma is that if you teach in the old ways you teach to the students who have been pre-scholastically disciplined in the learning modalities of the elite. So Pam supplies some data but hardly furthers the analysis by saying she loved lecture. Well right, in any given class two or three students will be properly disciplined to register interest, absorb information, and ‘think along’ with that style of teaching. If all we want is a next generation of teachers who cluelessly reproduce themselves by teaching in the particular way that they learned best as a result of their habitus, excluding the others, rock on with that.

    That being said, there are good lecturers and bad ones. The good ones should probably make sure to do some lecturing, because it’s an incredibly efficient way to present information and model thought. (Dewey was himself a lecturer and I note that Wesch lectured his way through the famous video, albeit with flashy but largely uninspiring visual aids). The bad ones really need to notice this about themselves and try something else. Maybe they have a talent for stimulating and managing discussion, or for designing rich learning games. Or if they’re stuck lecturing maybe they can find a way to be less of a wanker about it.

    *I’m a decent lecturer, but I happen to have a talent for running open discussions without a net. Really challenging students, pushing them, drawing them out and then questioning their premises, all that. It’s very involving and inclusive if done right; it can look like what education ought to be. In the old days I was pretty snippy and missionary about that, just like this young Wesch fella. I’ve mellowed and backed off considerably, however, because I’ve inspired a few people to try my style and when they get it wrong, because they don’t have the feel or disposition for it and go tromping around on students’ feelings or can’t make connections on the fly from the crazy thing a student just said to a more substantive point that’s a little more like it, it can go very badly. Really the last thing I want is for the highly situated thing I know how to do well to get routinized into a set of procrustean rules or procedures for everyone to follow. Wesch is a smart guy, he’ll figure this out eventually.

    *In democratized teaching the critical variable is passionate engagement. Anything you do will work for more than the usual share of students if you can involve them in your sense of excitement and wonder about ethnography or carburetor repair or circumcision techniques or whatever. Every class is a ritual of inclusion and exclusion, a rite of passage into a ‘higher’ community.

    That feeling of special doesn’t happen if we make it too easy for them, but we do have to draw them in and show them the way, whatever way we do that. So I very much agree with Pam about standards and pandering. I also agree with her that there’s a limit to how much we can use the students’ own interests or sense of the ‘real world’ to leverage their deficity attention. Their interests and worlds are narrow and it’s our job to expand them. As in millenia past the real world will teach them all by itself, they don’t need college for that. The ability to bracket our interests and attend to the ‘other’ without immediate material or emotional reward is
    the special discipline that should separate college graduates from ordinary smart, effective people out in the real world.

    Hmm, weighty tome after all. Hope there’s something intelligible in there.


  5. Tomorrow is my birthday so right now I am full of dinner, red wine and cake from my friends. Don’t expect too much coherence. I have been working in my own mind on these issues before and since Wesch’s and my discussion and I expect a future blog post with more but let me throw out some thoughts.

    1. I largely stayed away from the World Sim but I am with Max on this one. I, really, have problems with it. Empirically its problematic. I am not sure the value of a kind of “historical renactment”. I cover Wallerstein and theory of underdevelopment and world history in a two part lecture with quotes and stories from my own fieldwork and reference to role of cotton in British/African (and American) economic development. I do it within the third and fourth week of class. Without that understanding they continue to believe in a kind of Morgan/Tylor unilineal theory of evolution view of progress which seems reinforced by the World Sim. Check out the second chapter of Richard Robbin’s intro text. It is what and how they need to know it. There is something creepy in watching students conquer and dominate each other. As Max says, its like playing Risk or Kingmaker or Junta. I don’t learn anything about world history, the war of the roses or banana republic coups from those games.

    Thinking of the details of the Sim really disturbs me, as well. I can’t imagine allowing students to create an ethnicity. I spend a couple of hours using examples like Rwanda to discuss the historical complexity and fluidity of ethnic identification. I hate to see it reduced to You Tube video and a secret hand shake as an ethnic marker. And that is just the first step. I would think each succeeding one would be fairly stereotyped and choreographed not the real, lived experiences of humans. Anthropology is about lived experience not simulation.

    Off the Sim topic: I am really concerned with a couple of other issues which, others have very rightly pointed out that I have polarized by using the term “lecture” to cover a lot of ground. I am sticking only with his Intro course as that is my concern area and , yes, I will end up retreating to my same polemic defense of lecture, I suspect:

    1. One way Wesch chooses to engage his students with technology is to create a Wiki with his review sheet. I would think a lot of less-motivated students would simply wait for the bulk of the work to be done, skip lecture and read the Wiki to prepare for the test. Maybe there is a control for this by forcing a Wiki participation grade? I suppose this would be just fine–they learn by reading the Wiki–but….(follow me to number 2)

    #2. I have spent hours and hours on the net and, honestly, the information is pretty poor quality for Anthropology. Try finding one decent explanation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, for example. You can find a small You Tube clip from the movie Amistad–its a byte of information you could add to a Wiki but hardly deep thought. Education should be teaching students how to not waste time with quantity but engage with quality. Wesch states there is more bytes of info on the web than at the Library of Congress. Shall we compare the two for quality? I think we should. Thousands of You Tubes won’t make up for one cover to cover reading of Marx, Capital Vol I, or Malinowski. One of his clips shows his students annotating a review page of Wallerstein. How about they read Wallerstein, instead? That is what I meant by deep reading and thinking versus pancake thinking. This isn’t anything new. This is the same thing as every English teacher complaining about student’s reading Cliff Notes and not the text. If they read the text and then the Cliff Notes that’s fine but, what I see in the video is students posting “Cliff Notes” on to Wiki’s. If I saw page references to a text and shared discussions of theories based on, actually, reading them, I would feel better. I don’t want to see student faces grow bigger because of more and more posts, as he shows in one of his videos. I want to see quality engagement.

    I urge you to look at the response of Socet at his blog when I asked him how he planned to grade his Wiki. He understands the dangers of quantitative posting. Socet is at
    I am curious if it will work and I am, absolutely, open to the possibility that it will.

    My students are low-income community college students and Kansas State is a big state school. 200-400 students self-motivated to read texts and post thoughtful comments seems unlikely, particularly, when they indicate they don’t read. I don’t see any indication that their behavior changes. Are they reading more? Are they thinking more? Or do they just surf, find something and post it? Points earned.

    I think we need to stop reifying technology. Its only as good as the mind behind it. And whatever the method, we need to teach students how to have a mind.

    Throwing another coal on the fire doesn’t get the fire built. You might feel good about the action but you don’t learn how to start the fire from the ground up. One of the elders needs to show you the way to arrange the coals so the oxygen can flow through.

    Finally, I used myself as an example about “loving lecture” because I don’t believe I am unique. How many people watched the “last lecture” of Randy Pausch? Were they only engaged because they were used to that form of engagement? Was that only an act of reproduction or was it something more? Something basic and fundamental about human interaction and they way we learn and experience the process of sharing and growth? I don’t want to pick lecture versus Wiki’s. I am here looking for any way to reach my students. But neither do I want my beloved classroom depicted as a site of dominance and authoritative control. Not fair. I don’t participate in bitch fests about students like so many of my colleagues do–they are not all alike, you know. So, let’s not generate ones about our classrooms, professors, and lectures. And maybe, just maybe we shouldn’t encourage our students to do so, either.


  6. thank you all for all this input and discussion. I am using an iPod touch to enter this, (computers in the shop ) so I quickly wanted to say,

    Happy birthday pamthropologist!!


  7. I enjoyed Wesch’s Manitoba presentation more than this LoC one, but I’m glad that the popularity of that video is getting some people to think about anthropology in a new way. Despite my own (personal) reactions to Wesch’s teaching methods.


  8. I think there are some problematic assumptions attached to criticisms of “the lecture”. First, the question of elitism: what makes it an elite practice? Is it the form? Is elitism about style? If by elitism we mean some power differential rooted in hierarchy, then the university works to ensure that regardless of one’s pop, hip, inclusive and dialogical style, and that will be true as long as there are teachers, and grades. The other problem, well sorted out and effectively analyzed by Pam, is one that I would call the problem of volatility and impatience, and you see it in the jerky, impatient way that some make YouTube videos — no patience for reality to unfold itself, lots of on the spot in camera editing, fast zooming, moving like a drunken mosquito, can’t wait for the punch line. There is a lot to be said for stillness, for letting the message stand clearly and without clutter, for the power of the word. A good calypsonian knows that, and there is nothing less elitist than calypso. So let’s not let the dogs loose just to see them bark up the wrong tree. The more basic problem is what some of my colleagues call catering to a culturally induced attention deficit disorder, by playing along with it, and reinforcing it. University should be about learning something new, and in the context of North American society’s reigning habitus of mass and fast consumption, the stillness of the message is truly something “new” and to be appreciated. What that does then is force the lecturer to reach for substance, and not the easy slogan — for example, when at the LoC Wesch shows a global bunch of kids in their individual prison cells (bedrooms) mimicking and dancing to the same video, and he calls it “empowerment.” Really? How so? That’s where the discussion and the attention needs to be focused, and not at all the happy bouncing around. Finally, while the current orthodoxy is that technology brings people together, I wish there would be more questioning concerning how technology also keeps people apart, and drives them apart.


  9. Well, Max you did notice that both your first and last points got lost in the discussion. Posting purple prose and visualizations of the supposed elitism of a classroom is smoke and mirrors to the real elitism. Metaphorically, Dorothy needs to leave Kansas and go to Oz. There’s a whole other world out there and it doesn’t have Web 2.0. and YouTube.


  10. Posted by socect on August 16, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    Great discussion. IMHO just about everybody’s comments (incl. the implied presence of Wesch) is right. I like the idea of his World Sim. To me, it is a method for getting students to “do” World Systems theory rather than just read about it. (I have a couple much smaller exercises on kinship and exchange that require the students to “get up, move around” and interact. The students have fun and best I can tell, they do learn a lot (e.g. by “doing” !Kung kinship rather than just reading about it). I’ve always had an uneasy feeling about ‘edutainment’; but students do learn better when awake (at least I think so… perhaps there is a way to empirically test that; haha). But Pam and others all have good points. I think there probably is a very deep connection between media (oral history and myth; printing press; YouTube) and the way in which human thought is organized, expressed and conveyed. I have a feeling that concepts and ideas of an oral culture vs print culture vs YouTube culture are deeply qualitatively different. (But let’s be good cultural relativists about this – they are different, not necessarily better or worse.) Most important (or at least of most immediate relevance), each of us is probably better at some things than others as Carl pointed out (how I WISH I had that knack for parlaying innane student comments into interesting discussion!!). Perhaps the great thing about the interactions we can have via the Web is that it allows us to see examples (good, bad, ugly or otherwise) of teaching practice to then adopt, adapt (or reject) as we see fit. Think about the fact that after grad school (my bet is) most university lecturers very rarely spend time seeing others lecture (at least at the undergrad level); so we are working off a very thin (and increasingly dated) set of models from what we experienced as undergrad or grad students. So kudos to Wesch for showing us a new dance… even if not everybody likes the steps.


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