the threat of the network

Will Richardson shares his recent pessimism for his ongoing efforts to bring technology into the public schools. Will will be at Cortland on Tuesday (at noon in the library, open to the public). Anyway, I understand Will’s frustrations having spent the last few years (including this semester) trying to teach H.S. teachers to use technology. I have noticed a change in that time. Today, I’d say that the large majority of teacher-students I work with recognize that we are in the midst of a significant technocultural shift. They can see the explosion of media and networks, and they understand that their students will need a "literacy" that will enable them to live and work in this context. To a lesser extent, they realize that English is the classroom site where this literacy will be developed.

However, I think they don’t realize the implications of this, particularly looking ten years or more down the road.

They still imagine themselve teaching literature, teaching To Kill a Mockingbird for six weeks. Their adaption is to consider that they might have a class blog for discussing the novel or maybe the students will make a video related to the novel. Perhaps they will devise a way to use a wiki to teach vocabularly words or identify parts of speech.

In other words, they continue to view their profession as one that will be founded on a discrete, unchanging body of information that they will acquire before graduating. We might all deride the notion of the teacher/professor reciting the same lectures and lessons plans year after year, but somehow this does not alter this belief that a degree will certify us once and for all as authorities. Sure, all these teacher-students recognize that they will gain experience as teachers, learn helpful tips along the way, and become better practitioners. But this development of practice is separated from the acquisition of authoritative knowledge.

And this faith exists in both  K-12 and  college faculty. 

The threat of the network is the dissolution of this authority. The ongoing development of media and networks requires us to keep moving. It doesn’t mean that what we’ve learned has no value; it means that it cannot establish us as authorities. We cannot imagine the classroom as resting upon a core body of knowledge. We are engaged in a technocultural shift that shakes the very foundations of epistemology: what began as a philosophical critique in theory now becomes a material condition (Hayles makes this argument, citing the birth of Netscape as the end of the "postmodern" era and the beginning of something new).

I understand Will’s pessimism as I don’t see how educational institutions will manage to make these changes. I know public school teachers often cite the limitations of testing requirements as a roadblock to innovation. However I think the limitation is more fundamental than that, closer to their own sense of professional identity. As much as the tests may limit teachers, they also secure them within a defined space of authority. I know my students and colleagues view me as an "expert" in new media, but how could I be an expert in something I did for the first time only a few months ago, something that may not have even existed a year ago?

I’m just keeping ahead of the curve, my "expertise" coming from my ability to tap into a network of information. In other words, my expertise doesn’t come from inside, from my authority, but from outside, from my intersection with the network.

The cold reality, as we all know, is that school has never been about educating people anyway. It’s about child care and warehousing labor. It’s about hailing children into subject positions, about defining us all and placing us in a hierarchy. And maybe it’s about measuring us and slotting us into different functions. After all that, maybe, maybe, it’s about learning something. So maybe it isn’t a big deal that the so-called education schools offer will continue to lose relevance.

My only real concern with that is the increasing social divide that will result. When the publicly available education becomes increasingly devalued, we will all look to other places to learn and those with the material resources will be able to provide a better genuine education for their kids online.

Is that pessmistic enough for you? No? Then try this. When my kids go to college in 10 years or so, a state university education at SUNY will cost you six figures. Am I really going to lay down $125G to have my daughter subjected to an education that is completely disconnected from the world in which she’ll be working and living? I mean the tension between academia and the mainstream culture is heavy enough as it is based strictly on ideological differences. What happens when academics continue to insist on providing an increasingly irrelevant education and charging more and more for the privilege?


5 replies on “the threat of the network”

Some interesting ideas here, it seems to me that anybody who know a little more than the others is considered an expert. I am fighting an uphill battle to get people to positively challenge ideas rather than accept them because they are the “voice of the expert”.


New Media vs. Disciplinary Authority

In many ways, I agree with all that Alex wrote, especially on the disconnect between formal education and the real world. Still, some points need to be clarified with respect to technological expertise and disciplinary expertise.


I agree with my colleague in this venture we call ENG 506 that high school Eng. teachers see their discipline as essentially fixed– unchanged and unchanging in any material way.
Oh, they may introduce a new “book,” even a young adult novel into their classroom. They may open up the range of “projects” (sigh!) kids do on the books they read. By the way, when was the last time you did on a “project” on a book you read???? Aside from perhaps reviewing it for a journal.
They may even support some of the media work that Alex references, but still in the service of the primary objective–to teach certain canonical or, in the case of hip Eng. teachers, non-canonical texts TO kids.
When you ask an Eng. teacher what he/she is “doing” at any point in the school year, 9 times out of 10 the answer will be “The Great Gatsby,” or any other book title–that is, that teacher sees students’ reading of a particular book, a book deemed a classic, as the curricular objective. We continue to support a very limited notion of what it means to be literate–as reader or writer.
Or, the teacher may say, “we’re doing the research paper,” or writing an essay, too often that miserable ‘critical lens” essay students must write on the 11th grade Regents.
There’s nothing wrong with students’ writing an essay prompted by a sage quotation, although of course, once again, it’s about privileging “the book,” but writing them for three years, several a year?! What is that about? In my experience teaching in The Writing Program at Syracuse for many years, univ. freshmen/women almost NEVER were able to cite anything they had written in h.s. as “important” to them.
At my own recent Syracuse defense, an English/Comp/Rhet professor wondered out loud why it is that Eng. teachers, especially, as a body are so conservative?
Interestingly, in the h.s. disciplinary area where one would expect the most change due to evolving notions of what consitutes literacy and/or the dissolution of authority attributable to the internet that Alex writes about, the most conservative curricula remain firmly in place.
One of our students recently commented that (I’m paraphrasing) while video production would be good for kids to do, it would take so/too long. How would a teacher be able to do it in “an Eng. class that wasn’t an elective?”
Students still know that the main event is “The Great Gatsby,” the importance of the symbolism of the green light at the end of that oft-referenced dock (poor F Scott–I wonder what he would think of the attention he’s now paid in h.s. Eng. classrooms?), the showing of the Robt. Redford movie (miserable), and the test at the end.
Video production? How would you fit that in? Karen Stearns


The Threat of the Network

Articulate. Director of Professional Writing. Meet Alex Reid, Digital Digs, An Archeology of the Future. Great Blogger. And unfortunately, I think he is accurate in his analysis. In The Threat of the Network, Reid shares Will Richardsons recen…


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