What does it mean to convert teaching into assembly of discussion forums plus creation and delivery of content within these forums within a piece of university-administered “classroom management” software? When do we get back to in-person gatherings of students and teachers? How under such circumstances does one practice a pedagogy of hope? Do we become video friends? Do we record little lectures, each of us seated before the camera-eye atop our laptops and smart phones, prisoners in a new kind of panopticon prison? But who knows? With a little practice, we can launch a jailbreak, a prison strike, a riot. Unless perhaps we use this as a moment to build ourselves up. I suppose it’s fitting that I started my career as a teacher, back all those years ago during training, with a short videotaped lecture on the panopticon. For that is what they’ve built around us with the camera atop the devices from which we work, now that our teaching is to be done online. These conditions have been imposed by fiat down a command chain, regional accrediting bodies the ones cracking the whip. Time to get to it.
Epidemiology, scares, containment narratives. This is what the authoritarian state uses against those who would live joyfully upon the earth. But even under rough trades, we can care for each other. Exercise compassion. Release birds from cages, shake rattles. Maintain a vibrant village. Keep each other well-housed and well-fed. Meanwhile news everywhere of schools migrating online, education conducted remotely for the remainder of the semester. These are unprecedented times.
It’s been several weeks since I last sat before the window for morning meditation in the room above the garage, facing outward, to the street to the trees to the sky. Meditation has instead become a yoga integrated into everyday life. This is election season, wealthy billionaire politicians throwing their money around to fill the air with lame signage as our cars and bodies zip around through outer space. Enough is enough! The time has come for change. Jerry Farber spells it out, tells it plain in his essay “The Student and Society: An Annotated Manifesto.” “Students can change things it they want to,” he writes, “because they have the power to say ‘no.’ When you go to school, you’re doing society a favor. And when you say ‘no,’ you withhold much more than your attendance. You deny continuity to the dying society; you put the future on strike. Students can have the kind of school they want — or even something else entirely if they want — because there isn’t going to be any school at all without them” (17). The problem, however, is that students lack consciousness of themselves as a class. They’re divided. Some of them continue to see school as a privilege. Hence the need for teachers — those outside voices who, like the character in Socrates’s cave allegory, return to the cave to free the others. If only I could assign Theodore Roszak’s book Sources, described in its subtitle as “An anthology of contemporary materials useful for preserving personal sanity while braving the great technological wilderness.” Roszak’s introduction points the reader back to Dwight MacDonald’s earlier book The Root is Man. These are important works within a largely forgotten strain of postwar thought: a kind of radical Marxist Humanism.
If my government were a channel, I’d grab the controller and change it. Out with this immiserating, sadistic, Walking Dead bullshit. Enough already. I work full-time as a college professor, I live modestly, and yet because of student debt, here I am on the 23rd of the month, bank account overdrawn, savings nonexistent. This system is unworkable.
Life unfolds in installments of day and night. For work I review the documentary Berkeley in the Sixties, a film I’ve watched and taught many times over the years. The first section of the film is titled “Confronting the University.” Berkeley President Clark Kerr appears before an audience attempting to rebrand the public university as an appendage of the “knowledge industry” and a focal point of fiscal growth for the state economy. Against him rise students like Jack Weinberg and Jackie Goldberg, young people who arrived to the university looking for truth and meaning. The university came to operate for them and for the other members of the Free Speech movement as a site for live, immediate, direct, hands-on transformation of society. As viewers we watch with some surprise as the movement succeeds in growing and repeatedly mobilizing a large coalition of members. The “children of affluence,” the future managers of the society realize in the thousands that their education has been designed to ruin them. The battle over free speech evolves into something more generalizable, something much more meaningful and appealing: a battle against dehumanization. The war of humanity against unchecked bureaucracy. Students at Berkeley made the radical choice to live, to revolt, to actively push back and participate in co-creation of the future through occupation of buildings. They gather in the agora of the auditorium and laugh and boo at and surround and confront the bald head of the head of the university, President Kerr. They talk about sitting down together and re-planning the whole structure of the university with a new conception of the purpose of education. They realize that the mechanisms that the Free Speech movement attempted to change are mechanisms operating throughout the society. As audience members, we realize the same is true today. Their story thus confronts us with the question, “What would WE say, how would WE behave, if we abolished hierarchy and suspended authority? What if we did that, here and now, in our classrooms?”
I should breathe and meditate and practice a yoga of writing, I tell myself. Work on centering. Like M.C. Richards, I should try in the first meetings of my classes this semester to develop with students “a sense of fellowship and mutual service” (Centering, p. 108). How do I encourage these strangers to speak directly to one another? Help them recognize the interrelation of each other’s temperaments. Richards captures this sense of interrelation through an “ecosystem” metaphor. “A class with different levels of aptitude and many kinds of response may bloom like a garden, full of color and texture. Every one has something to give the others. Every one may learn to receive from others. An atmosphere of helpfulness and realism may flourish” (108). Above all, I need to approach education as a craft. Be warm and trusting. Behave with loving kindness. Practice metamorphosis. Learn to serve the world. Richards’s book is the best statement on pedagogy I’ve ever read. “Let us teach in our classes,” she recommends, “the connection between who we think man is on the inside and what the atmosphere is like on the outside” (113). What do all of these slogans equate to, however, in terms of technique? Let us be supple enough to yield to the invasion of a new reality, and let us grow. Let there be dialogue. Let students share in the labors of community. As Richards notes, this is the demonstration of the value of the mode of pedagogy explored and practiced during her time teaching at Black Mountain College: “After attending such a school, no young adult is surprised to learn that food has to be provided, dishes done, sheets laundered, cows milked, milk skimmed and cooled, floors mopped, roads maintained, roofs repaired, children loved, guests housed, crises met, books mended, windows caulked, solitude respected, differences enjoyed, cooperation required, spontaneity used, judgments made and revised, help given by all to all, patience won” (121). I have to build into my course opportunities for students to engage in acts of making. “In making,” Richards writes, “we develop a feel for materials, for the play between purpose and accident and inspiration, for gestalt, for instrument, for becoming, for death as physical process essential to creation; and we are filled with wonder” (122).
Westworld’s second season serves as a staging ground for consideration of the VR / neural net escape plan. The show pursues one flight of fancy, my thoughts another. “If we want to be heroes,” the show says, “we mustn’t sacrifice ourselves for the merchandise.” Hear in that word “merchandise” a term of contempt for the lackluster NPCs (golf management bros, exercise scientists, arbitragers-in-waiting) outputted yearly by the neoliberal academy. “Sacrificial toil” versus “whatever happens happens”: these are the sides in the conflict I stage each semester in my classes. “Why the grotesqueries of capitalism,” I thunder, “why this miserable global monoculture, US military bases and McDonald’s franchises loosed like a plague across the whole of creation?” At the very least, I offer them tools with which they may think if they so choose along their journey.