The production of passion in passion-based learning

By now, John Seely Brown's notion of "passion-based learning" is familiar, particularly among the DIY education crowd. Will Richardson has a recent post on this, as does Alan Levine. Gardner Campbell wrote recently about Brown's talk at the NMC conference (video). It is a little curious how educational movements toward intrinsic motivation, curiosity, creativity, and such run along the same path as instructional technology, but that's a post for another time. I've been invested in these concepts/values for a while, but at the same time, I find them opening whole new sets of questions.

I often find myself thinking about a line in Lester Faigley's Fragments of Rationality, one of the first rhet/comp books I read as a grad student, where he observes that many of the disagreements among rhet/comp pedagogies boiled down to the different subject positions we wanted students to occupy. That is, to a large extent, a pedagogy is a function of three interrelated things:

  1. your theory of how subjectivity is produced;
  2. your understanding of student subjectivity coming in the door; and
  3. your goal for the students' subjective end state.

Perhaps it seems unethical to see pedagogy as a manipulation of subjectivity, but what would be the point of education if it didn't change people? Only in the most unreflective notion of free will would one imagine that education is the depositing of knowledge in the brain where it can be referenced without effecting any other change. The notion of a DIY, passion-based learning, in a related fashion, valorizes students' existing desires, but as Will and Alan ask, can we really count on student desires to carry them through the long, often difficult, path of education? 

I suppose the answer is both yes and no. Likely the students who succeed in our existing system connect their desires and subjectivity with institutionalized learning. I was never much of a grade-hound, and I can't say, on a personal level, that I understand how one would find grades particularly motivating. However it does seem that some people are able to connect grades with some internal motivation. Other successful learners are more like me and find other reasons to push through the difficulties and obstacles to learn new things. But is certainly true that many, many students do not find such things. They respond to external motivations/obligations for attending school, but that never carries one very far. And we've all experienced that to some degree. We've all been required to take some course or workshop or something where we didn't want to be.

To return to Faigley then, we are still describing a subjective state that we wish students to occupy. We should not mistake it for a "natural" state, even though we often talk about students losing their sense of creativity and curiosity at an early age. Neither should we imagine creativity/curiosity is a single thing that one either has or doesn't have along a single line of intensity. If instead we think of creativity/curiosity as emergent affective states, then the pedagogic task isn't about id-ing natural creativity but rather about generating passion around the intellectual hurdles that we want students to traverse.

We should also keep in mind that there is nothing particularly more moral or ethical about this creative professional subjective state that we wish to inculcate than the "organization man" of Fordist America. Just as literary studies took 19th century bourgeois aesthetic experiences and tried to naturalize them as the aesthetic, literary sensibilities of civilization that all students should feel (e.g. everyone should love Shakespeare), today we are suggesting that everyone should have a particular subjective-desiring position that is "natural" and is, not surprisingly, commensurate with the new economy.

In his talk, Brown mentions the now-familiar, shrinking half-life of education: the skills we teach seem to be quickly outmoded. Perhaps, but that's the great value of the humanities then. The less directly practical an education is, the longer it is useful. The reason we can still productively discuss Socrates is that many of the thoughts and questions raised there are still relevant. Perhaps what students need is the ability to analyze on a meta-level their own educational path. Of course I'm not sure how many will desire to learn that. It would mean becoming passionate about learning itself.

Is that the subjective state I want students to occupy? Maybe. However, I try to insulate my pedagogy from such drives by trying to devise non-deterministic pedagogies that teach without outcomes. (not that such a thing could ever be institutionally acceptable.)

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