Computers, Pianos, and Cultural Capital

Along with standardized testing and back-to-basics reforms, computers have contributed to the trivializing of the content of the curriculum and the work of teachers in ensuring the quality of the substance of schooling. We need to examine current digital pedagogy in terms of unarticulated and implicit models of labor and the job prospects that students, parents, and teachers imagine computer skills will lead them to. There are clear benefits that access to technology can bring to disheartened and disenfranchised student populations. Computers can be a hook to do more sustained academic work for working-class students of color. Yet, the process of education cannot be made more cost effective through technology, and computers cannot teacher-proof the classroom. The enthusiasm among school board members and local business communities for high technology in public education was based on a desire to teacher-proof the classroom.

Practicing at Home: Computers, Pianos, and Cultural Capital, Ellen Seiter

As an online teacher, I’ve long been interested in the too-rarely noted connections among proprietary education, computer technology, and the rise of adjunct labor, particularly in composition. Corporations alway use technology to disrupt worker organization, of course, as the current writer’s strike illustrates. It’s not surprising, then, that the same thing has been happening even among the privileged halls of academia.

Seiter uses an unlikely but effective analogy with the history of the piano to emphasize one of the ironies of teaching with computers that recalls the now dashed hope for the paperless office: “Teaching with computers requires a smaller teacher-to-student ratio than conventional classrooms.” And, as she notes, now that the dot-com boom is a distant memory– and the recession looming– it is working class and poor districts that are least able to provide the low ratios or maintain equipment.

So computers further evolve into an effective tool for class management, in the economic as well as the pedagogic sense. Seiter goes on to list several other reasons why, as she says, it’s so difficult for working-class students to achieve that “cool job” in new media. Among the main reasons she includes “a reliance on public computers, a lack of access to “prestigious educational credentials,” as well to “the social networks crucial to employment in the “new” economy.”

In a strong sense, the dot-com boom in higher education has lasted nearly a decade longer than the speculative economic bubble which burst in the late 1990s. Administrators, though, seem to realize that while a teacherless classroom was unlikely, computers could be introduced alongside an increased reliance on adjuncts and graduate students. It’s not as cheap as automation, but its much cheaper than using full professors. The close fit between these two impulses is still not well understood.

Seiter’s research represents an important step in the ongoing deflation of the idea that the mere presence of computers can ameliorate the injustices of class. “The time for technological utopianism is past,” she writes, and the use of technology in the schools has to be rethought, “in the context of a realistic assessment of the labor market and widening class divides, struggles for fair employment in both technology industries and other job sectors, and the pressing need to empower students as citizens who can participate actively in a democracy.”

Class Tells

One of the many things we find hard to talk about — not only here in Princeton, but nationally — is class. That helps to explain why we do such a bad job when we try to talk about the social mission of elite universities. Take Drew Faust — the excellent historian who recently became president of Harvard. As a scholar and a writer, Faust uses words with great skill and care — so well that her most recent book was published by Alfred Knopf in New York, one of the few remaining bastions of quality in the trade. But when Harvard announced its new financial aid policy, aimed at students whose families earn between $120,000 and $180,000 a year, President Faust declared that by showing that higher education remains an “engine of opportunity,” it would help a “middle-income group.” In this case, her language was not its usual crisp and accurate self — and the fault is not hers alone, but one shared with most members of the chattering classes.

Anthony Grafton, The Daily Princetonian

In a sense this is pretty-self explanatory. You can also use ZipCodeStatistics to verify that the median income of Princeton, New Jersey, is $90,000. Just as Grafton suggests, in this sector of education, people who make $100,000 are ‘middle class.’

They are also 77% white, 4.3% Hispanic/Latin, 11.3% Asian and 1.8% ‘multiracial’ More than 70% of the population has either a bachelor’s degree or is a graduate from a graduate or professional program. Not a representative bunch at all.

In fact, Grafton estimates that the new program is geared towards people wealthier than “95 percent or 96 percent of American households.” Why focus on the ‘chattering classes’– aka the media? Not that the media covers these sorts of issues well.

It would nice, though, if more precise language were used, as Grafton suggests, and these programs were described as aid for the wealthy. It would be even nicer if Historians of Grafton’s stature began to question the entire superstructure of material and social privilege on which institutions like Princeton rests.

His Gaze Has Been So Worn / By the Procession of Bars That He No Longer Sees

His gaze has been so worn by the procession
Of bars that he no longer sees.

— “The Panther,” Rainer Maria Rilke

“The essayist is at his most profound when his intentions are most modest,” declares Joseph Epstein, the editor of “The Norton Book of Personal Essays” and the author of nearly two dozen books of autobiographical essays. The essay is a “miniaturist” genre, intones another anthologist; it is “in love with littleness.” Sound ingratiating? Sweet? Self-deprecating? It is. But it is also—as anyone who has spent time with these volumes knows—eye-crossingly dull. The essay that is considered “literature” in our day is not an ambitious or impassioned (if sometimes foolhardy) analysis of human nature. It is not an argument, or a polemic. It is not a gun-blazing attack on a social trend, a film, a book, or a library of books. Those sorts of pieces, sniff the anthologists, are mere journalism.

Cristina Nehring on What’s Wrong With the American Essay, On Truth Dig,

Here’s a another piece that I was prepared to dislike and then, well, liked. I honestly thought it was going to be another lament about shortened attention spans and television and… It’s the sort of argument that drives me batty becuase it never seems to quite connect to the realities of the general work speed up of the last twenty or thirty years. Reading is in some sense an artifact from an earlier economic epoch.

What’s more, we are living in an kind of renaissance of traditional writing forms, both epistolary in email and instant messaging, and essayistic in the web log. I think there is more of everything than there was before the Internet, including junk, but the rough outlines of the genres remain dominant. Which is simply a longish way of saying that I would think the essay– in its more narrowly defined form, or in its modern incarnation, the “creative non-fiction” essay, would be thriving.

It’s not Nehring says, if you judge the essays collected in the last several ” The Best of the American Essays” collections. The problem, she argues, is not just that the essayiets are inevitably upper middle class, “Educated at Harvard,” she says of their collective persona, “he or she has spent significant time at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference.” They are also quirky in an oddly homogeneous way. “Chances are good she’s a doting dog owner who has done such things as lace her pet’s dinner with “Prozac, Buspar, Elavil, Effexor, Xanax, and Clomicalm.”

All that’s true, but its not the crux of the problem. It is a genre, says Nehring, dominated by a kind of institutionalized cowardice, an unwillingness to risk; a tone she calls, “Slow-moving. Soft-hitting. Nostalgic. Self-satisfied.” There’s no larger purpose, “no effort to make their experience relevant or useful to anyone else, with no effort to extract from it any generalizable insight into the human condition.” She quotes E.B. White’s description of writers who are “pedantically taking down their own experience simply because it is their own.”

Nehring ends with a hilarious but sad citation from an essayist who favorably compares her work to a cow. “Not any old cow, mind you,” she says, “but a plastic cow—a transparent cow—that [editor Susan] Orlean has spotted in a store.” We need quite another animal, Nehring concludes, “not Orlean’s incarcerated cow… but Rilke’s panther breaking the bars of his cage.” I am less confident than Nehring that the old-fashioned book can hold such a beast, but her essay’s proof enough that it exists.

A History of the Social Web

This is a cross-cultural, critical history of social life on the Internet. It captures technical, cultural, and political events that influenced the evolution of computer-assisted person-to-person communication via the net. In difference to other historical accounts, this essay acknowledges the role of grassroots movements and does not solely focus on mainstream culture with all its mergers, acquisitions, sales and markets, and the (mostly male) geeks, engineers, scientists, and garage entrepreneurs who implemented their dreams in hardware and software. This is a critical history as it traces the changing nature of labor and typologies of those who create value online as much as it searches for changing approaches toward control, privacy, and intellectual property. It shows strategies for direct social change based on the technologies and practices which already exist.

Scholz, Trebor. “A History of the Social Web (draft).”

Some mornings I just have nothing to say, so I’ll let this piece stand in for me. It’s an exhaustive and detailed study and for some reason it reminded me that more and more of my spam seems to be coming from Germany and China. The Chinese spam is short, usually only a brief sentence and a link. Most of the German spam I get is for furniture, which I find particularly strange.

These new kinds of spam don’t yet outnumber the pharmacy or Viagra ads– all of which seem to come from (American) English sources– but they are at least as common as the African/Nigerian email letters asking for my help processing money. This has got to be at least some measure of the increasing internationality of the web, if a less happy one than what Trebor suggests.