Those holdout freaks I talked about? The teen whose phone battery I assumed had died? Or the older millennial I assumed was downloading a video? They were the ones not using their phones. They had the strongest immunity to the devices’ pull. It was the older people, the over-40s like me, and those way older, who couldn’t escape the tiny gravity of connection constantly yanking us out of existence.

Patton Oswalt, TIME

This is very similar to danah boyd’s observation in her great book about teens and media, It’s Complicated, that when she went to large-scale teen-oriented events like football games, it was the adults who were staring at their phones. The teens used the phones more intuitively to pass notes to one another, usually to do things like figure out where a friend was sitting. But none of them, according to her observations, were “glued” like the parents were.

The chattel slavery of Africans and African Americans, the historian David Brion Davis writes, had the “great virtue, as an ideal model, of being clear-cut,” compressing and condensing into an exceptionally grotesque, brutal, and visible institution more diffuse forms of human bondage. The horror was so clear-cut, in fact, that it “tended to set slavery off from other species of barbarity and oppression,” including both the mechanisms by which former slaves were “virtually re-enslaved” after the Civil War as well as more subtle “interpersonal knots and invisible webs of ensnarement.” These invisible traps, Davis writes, are so much a part of the psychopathology of our everyday lives that they have been apparent only to a few poets novelists and exceptionally perceptive psychiatrists.

Herman Melville called them “whale-lines,” and he thought that they could hook nations as well as people.

Greg Grandin, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World

I’m glad I was able to get through the epilogue before returning this one to the library — the final paragraph (above) is a doozy, just like the rest of the book. Highly recommended.

I couldn’t help but connect the “invisible traps” to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ongoing writing on reparations (and his inspirations here, here, and here). This particular book was recommended by Cory Robin at Crooked Timber — he also recommends (and in fact apparently set Grandin on the path of reading) the “source text,” Melville’s Benito Cereno. This book, among other things, has provided my strongest impetus yet to really grapple with Melville, whom I’ve casually avoided. (The historical context for “the sperm chapter” alone had me interested to revisit Moby-Dick after a few failed attempts, but Cereno will come first, I think.)

With few exceptions, the curriculum was characterized by a narrow interpretation of state standards at the expense of all other material. Students rarely learned local history or current events. Instead, science and social studies were relegated to ancillary classes in the elementary school and reduced to the accumulation of vocabulary and lists of facts at the middle school. Teachers stopped introducing new material a month prior to state assessments in order to begin review.

This curriculum was delivered almost exclusively through direct instruction — what TFA corps members refer to as the “five step lesson plan,” and educator and philosopher Paulo Freire calls “banking education,” wherein students are treated as passive and empty receptacles into which information can be deposited. In nearly every lesson Sondel observed, teachers stood in front of students to introduce new content or an isolated skill, after which students were asked to parrot, practice, and then perform their newly acquired knowledge on worksheets and multiple-choice assessments. There were no student debates, projects, or science experiments.

In a literacy lesson, for example, a teacher started by reviewing the definitions of figurative language. The teacher then projected on the Smartboard sentence after sentence, poem after poem, and, finally, a short story while students raised their hands and waited to be called on to identify idioms, similes, and personification.

After this series of questions and answers, the students sat silently at their desks, read four short passages, and identified figurative language on multiple-choice questions. The students were not asked to read the poem, analyze the story, or discuss the purpose of metaphors. After the lesson, upon being asked if students practice this skill in their independent reading or writing activities, the teacher responded, “You know the problem with that is then they have a difficult time identifying metaphors on the test.”

Via Jacobin. The description of “charterization” after Katrina in the far more even-handed Between Private and Public still provides an insidious subtext to the move in New Orleans, which, as the book notes, was in motion before Katrina and merely used the disaster as an opportunity to launch charterization at a city-wide social experiment level.

Still, I’m skeptical that the pedagogy described here is really all that different from how many schools — public or charter — operate. I’ve seen comparable lessons in most schools I’ve ever visited, especially “in the month before the test,” which is a lost month for what I assume are the majority of public and charter schools.

The SLANT model and, more importantly, the more extreme behavioral control at these charters is something that does seem unique to (some) charter systems, though, and these practices should be seen as nothing less than cruel and unusual punishment in most cases. Using writing as punishment is something that sends me into total apoplexy, while bathroom-based “classroom management” simply triggers my “there oughta be a law” reflex.

Like Wiesel’s study [of the effects of covering a cat’s eye from birth to observe developmental impact on vision], the research on stimulating environments [for rats] is often cited by advocates of early schooling or of the optimal stimulation of three-year-olds. I myself suspect that the rats’ enriched environment is more like the habitat of a wild rat. If this is so, the results should be interpreted as the effect not of stimulation but of negligence contra a normal upbringing. It is thus more like a parallel to the impairments observed in the children from the Romanian orphanages [detailed earlier in the chapter as an example of deprivation in early childhood — especially between six months and two years], not what can be expected of children placed in hyperstimulating preschools. The effects of early childhood environment are analogous to those of some vitamins: a lack of vitamin C leads to scurvy, but taking three times the recommended daily dose has no extra benefits as the surplus is merely excreted in the urine. In fact, some vitamins can even be harmful in excess amounts. The validity of this analogy remains an open question; and even if it did hold, we would still have no idea what the recommended daily dose of stimulation would be.

(Emphases mine.) This is a passage from Torkel Klingberg’s The Learning Brain: Memory and Brain Development in Children. It’s a very accessible (and very simple, which isn’t to say simplistic) overview on children’s cognitive and other mental development, with a bias toward the impact of working memory (the author’s area of study).

I’ll add something about his thoughts about AD(H)D and its connection to working memory in a subsequent post, but for now this is just one of those metaphors that blindsides with its seeming obviousness after the fact, especially since many assumptions about childhood brain and cognitive development are (necessarily) drawn from controlled animal studies. Another area where this has been really fascinating is the account of flaws in “inborn gender characteristic” research in the seemingly essential (but unfinished by me before it was due back to the library) Brain Storm by Rebecca Jordan-Young. This book, like Brain Storm finds no gender differences in most of its explorations of working memory and other brain and cognitive research.

To get back to the “deprivation” vs. “stimulation” debate, it’s interesting that much of the original research in this book was done in Sweden, where issues like childhood poverty aren’t nearly as much of a problem as they are in the States. (Later in the book, he very directly discusses studies of American poverty that show how poverty conditions increase stress levels and reduce working memory and cognitive function, etc.) It’s instructive to think of how institutionalized poverty creates a de facto deprivation environment for so many children born into it. I’m reminded again of the conceptual inability to consider poor families meaningfully alongside working class and middle class ones in Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods (with its theories of “accomplishment of natural growth,” among working class kids, and “concerted cultivation,” among middle class kids) — Lareau boggles at the cruelty of life in poverty without “theorizing” much about it.

Facebook Breaks The Fourth Wall


People know Facebook is dodgy - it is not an especially well trusted brand, it rarely gets the benefit of the doubt. But people imagined they knew fairly well the ways in which it was dodgy: it spies on you to sell ads, and it is constantly trying to get those ads in front of you. This is tangible dodginess, dodginess you can counter or at least feel superior to - look at this dumb shit Facebook thinks I’m into! Knowing about it gives you the same feeling knowing about supermarket tricks and tips - bread smells near the deli and so on - does: you might not like this trickery, but you can get wise to it.

Read More

A great post from Tom about his own surprise, as a market researcher, that this was the scandal that really got traction from lay-users re: Facebook and privacy.

This particular point underscores something I’ve noticed about teaching something like “advertising literacy,” as absorbed from c. 90s critical media literacy traditions, to college students — their cynicism about how eyeballs are sold to advertisers is so pervasive that they seem genuinely surprised when I talk more about how sophisticated (and omnipresent) data collection really is. Everyone knows how they feel about product placement, commercials, and (to a lesser degree) targeted advertising. But bring up data aggregation and the profiling of people from disparate streams of information and faces are blank and mildly horrified. The most I really got in a discussion about privacy with undergrads last semester was a strong but inchoate anger about it; so when it came time to formulate an argument or opinion they had a lot more work to do just to figure out not only where they stood, but what “standing” even was.

This is clearly the new frontier for media literacy education; I suppose my question is how this direction squares with or complements or even vaguely opposes previous iterations of media deconstruction.

(Reblogged from blackbeardblog)
It is incredibly easy for these new instructional approaches to look good on paper or to work well in pilot classrooms in the hands of highly skilled experts,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, “and then to turn into mushy, lazy confusing goop as it spreads out to classrooms and textbooks.

Here is the only tweet-length treatment of how educational reform fails that I’ve ever seen (via).

I actually like the new math approach from what I’ve seen of it. It’s taken me years of doing taxes and calculating bills and tips to unlearn the hidden machinery of the math algorithms we memorize (at a very young age) — at the expense of doing things like counting change. But it’s a heavy lift for the millions who learned math in ways that, in hindsight, are quite cumbersome and ineffective.

Teaching as Emotional Labor

I’m enjoying, though that isn’t the right word, Simon Head’s Mindless, which despite its stupid post-Gladwellian subtitle (“Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans”) is mostly about the “working class-ization” of white collar and service work via Computer Business Systems (CBS’s), and the eroding of protections in traditionally blue-collar work via those same systems. Anyone who thinks of Amazon as a progressive company should learn more about their abominable labor practices, which often veer into cruelty and systemic abuse.

But I thought more about teaching when I got to his chapter on “emotional labor,” the term coined by Arlie Hochschild to refer to the performance of self necessary for service positions, and the accompanying psychic damage that constant performances can wreak on service workers. Head draws a line between Hochschild’s critique of this practice (she discusses how Reagan-era deregulation of the airlines pressed flight attendants toward a break between the job they had to get done and a cheerful disposition while doing it) and Orwellian HR scholarship that tries to determine the best ways to encourage employees to “emotionally labor” more effectively and efficiently.

Usually, the way HR imagines coping with the emotional stress of service work is to simply put on a performance — in other words, to fake it. But the HR literature also notes that faking it leads to rapid burn-out, often precipitated by a meltdown in the course of doing work, which in turn reflects poorly on the company. The question for the HR specialists becomes, how do we prevent burnout and (ideally) get employees to stop “faking it?”

The two main lines of thought in the HR literature both revolve around changing the mindset of the employee, either through distraction or by re-framing their perception of their work. (Each of these strategies have a cumbersome jargon-y name that I won’t bother reproducing here.) In the former strategy, a cashier might be encouraged to hum opera arias to take his or her mind off of unpleasant thoughts at work (distraction). In the latter strategy, a flight attendant might imagine his or her passengers to be “wayward children” in need of parental care (re-framing).

Head’s critique, informed by Hochschild, is that these two strategies for the management of one’s emotions on the job can lead to workplace harassment (consequences for strategies of distraction) or alternatively can warp an employee’s sense of the work they do, and, e.g., the kinds of abuse from customers that should be acceptable in the workplace (Head points out, from the real example of the “wayward children,” that a first-class passenger, with a strong motive to report all slights to corporate management, is not a child!). The word “brainwashing” appears, eventually.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the work of teaching while reading these passages, because so much of teaching is a negotiation between needs of self and needs of the job. “Emotional labor” is a useful lens through which to think about the basic work of teaching, with the added twist that the “customer-service worker” relationship is indirect. Usually parents, not children, are the “customers” of education, to the extent that there are customers at all. (This becomes truer the closer education services get to “concierge services,” in private and independent settings, where demands of parents are likely far more intense than the administrative pressures, which tend to be more acute than parental pressure for public school employees.)

In this framework, when teachers “fake it” — when they experience a split between their own personality or values and what is expected of them in the work they do — they’re prone to burnout. And I wonder what, in this analogy, the equivalent of distraction and re-framing strategies are. The distractions may fall under what Mary Kennedy calls a need for an “aura of tranquility” — classroom rituals that primarily serve to center and calm the teacher, whether or not they include students. And in terms of re-framing, I can’t help but think immediately of disciplinary strategies used in some schools that treat students as kinds of proto-prisoners, presumed to be on thin ice upon entry and hyper-regulated to prevent getting out of line (and here, students themselves are being taught how to cope with the emotional labor of being a student, with the “no excuses” model mirroring the HR literature in unnatural strategies for denying students opportunities to express their messy, authentic selves).

Head’s solution (of sorts) is simply to note the ease with which workers in concierge service environments manage to navigate their public and private identities, because they are paid well, are given space to rest, are given opportunities for professional development, and because — ironically — it turns out that when these material conditions are in place there is no need to dramatically repress one’s “real” attitude to competently complete one’s work. That is, better material conditions for service work don’t require service workers to “cope” with their work. They just do their work.

koganbot said: I once read a brief paperback overview of the Cultural Studies field and noticed the lack of any mention of people like Lester Bangs and Tom Wolfe; not only weren't they in the canon, they weren't even in view. Seems wrong to leave people who do a good job of studying culture out of ones idea of Cultural Studies. What about media literacy? Although those two didn't write about how to teach kids about media, they sure were the ones, when I was young'un, teaching *me* about media. Thoughts?

Media literacy is pretty wildly interdisciplinary, and there’s not really a set “canon” of thinkers in it, though lots of names reoccur, from pedagogy theorists (John Dewey, Paolo Friere) to media theorists (Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman) to the large field of currently-publishing folks. A colleague of mine is working on a “Media Literacy Grandparents” project that runs the gamut from community and local access media production to Wittgenstein.

But more generally I would say that ML is a field where a lot of people mingle, but few consider it a “home base” discipline. You’ll find rock critics in it — I already know a bunch of people I would consider in the orbit of ML that assign Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion book, say — but you wouldn’t necessarily say that “Carl Wilson is part of the media literacy field.” In my mind, rock criticism as a “field” has some of the same benefits and challenges of ML — there are a lot of important figures in it that aren’t hemmed in by academic jargon and norms, but also it’s not always taken seriously by self-identifying academic fields and seems to fall between the cracks of different disciplines. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if people who teach cultural studies do read/assign/use rock critics. But there’s never really been a place where rock critics are obviously “part of the team” — they come in as needed, and aren’t wrapped into the foundations. Certainly rock criticism is part of my intellectual foundation, but I’ve never figured out where it “fits” in terms of the intellectual foundations of entire fields of study. Media literacy has its own intellectual foundations and is its own field, but it sits uncomfortably in the foundations of other related disciplines. 

EDIT: The one exception I can think of here, actually is Simon Frith, who coincidentally (or not) is as close to the media literacy community (by way of cultural studies) as any critic I can think of.