On literacy, in the age of misinformation

Around Christmastime, I had a small freak-out on Facebook. It was prompted by a comment left online in response to some public writing I had done elsewhere. The comment was not, strictly speaking, invalid, but it did do an impressive job of missing my point. It preferred to read my words superficially, filter them through a pre-existing axe, and then grind away, chips flying directly into my face.

Feeling misrepresented and misunderstood, I wrote the following on my FB page:

When I write for a public audience, I remember that most readers are barely literate. That is: they can read the words and understand the words. That is it.

Time for a radical humanities intervention, peeps. This is our year.

Harsh? Yes – as one of my colleagues (a totally sympathetic dude) pointed out. But, hey – it was to my friends, folks who know me. Besides, it got at what I had been feeling since early November: in a moment in which fake news = (alternative) “facts”, and pretty much everything that we encounter in the public sphere needs to be treated with exceptional care and more-than-usual levels of skepticism as a result, what exactly can be said to constitute civic literacy?

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I back-pedalled on FB, of course; I hardly wanted my friends and family to think I meant THEM. But I continued to stew about this question as the holidays gave way to the mid-winter doldrums. Then I met my (lovely) group of undergraduate students in Performance Theory. Smart? Sure. Engaged? More than most, I’d wager. But quickly it became apparent to me that not all of my cultural references were landing – and peeps, I keep up to date, rest assured.

What was going on?

This is when I learned – first from a colleague with an especially savvy and tuned in twenty-something daughter, then from the kids themselves – that our friends the millennials are not on Netflix; rather, they are hanging out on Youtube. So I decided to ask the class what was up. I asked them to tell me about how Youtube figured in their daily lives. They told me:

  • YT is free, which makes it a very compelling place to get both information and entertainment regularly and consistently;
  • it’s not uncommon for the students I’m teaching to spend significant amounts of time binge-watching extremely short Youtube videos on topics that range from applying make-up to the history of the 1960s;
  • the smart kids (IE: those in my classes) prefer Youtube to social media alternatives like Snapchat; it’s thought to be more “intellectual” (no, really).

I admit this caused another existential crisis in my brain. After all, the very idea that *intellectual* is now a competition between Youtube and Snapchat would, I think, make Willow Rosenberg turn in her electroshock hands and Buffy herself declare an unbeatable apocalypse. (OK, maybe not unbeatable… but up there with Glory, no doubt about it.)

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Where god, WHERE was Willow when we needed her?

OK. So I don’t actually think any of the students in my PT class would have voted for Agent Orange. But I also do not think the state of epistemological affairs they reported to me is unrelated to what happened last year in both Britain and the U.S. And note that I’m not suggesting that it’s the barrage of information we receive, across such a huge range of forums both free and paid, that’s the real problem here; I think of greatest import is the way that information is curated for us online, and the ease with which we are encouraged to accept curation as a kind of peer review by another (and less “elitist”) name.

Youtube queues up the next video it thinks I should watch, based on what I just watched, automatically; Facebook’s algorithms advertise to me in my newsfeed and encourage me to get into what my friends are into. Every website I visit links me to another website just like it. If I’m not careful about asking questions and remaining skeptical as I browse (a horrifyingly pacifying activity, btw), I can easily slide into consuming consensus tailor-made for me and my viewing habits by those who stand to benefit, monetarily and otherwise.

Youtube has something else important in common with The Donald and politicians like him (I’m glancing sidelong at both Rob Ford and Justin Trudeau, btw): it communicates a huge range of information with greater and lesser degrees of accuracy and fictional embellishment as unvarnished, as real, as just like (just for) YOU. It’s extremely easy to be seduced by its logic: that video is made by “real” people who want to share stuff that they know/that happened to them/that they do all the time; why shouldn’t we believe they know what they’re on about? Youtube as medium lends the messages of truthfulness and democratic access to every single thing posted there – that’s its power, but also the danger it poses to our ability to ask useful questions about how our infotainment is constructed, by whom and for whom, who pays, and who ultimately benefits from our willingness simply to believe in the truth of what we are seeing.

This, then, is the paradox of our social moment: perhaps more than ever before, we – the makers-cum-consumers of information, democratised – are in a position where we need to be critically tuned-in all the time, or else (we know what comes next). The problem is that now, more than ever before, we’re constantly, seamlessly, being encouraged to recognise our infotainment as real, authentic, simply “true” – and to accept the (curated) hunt for authenticity as itself an act of critical thinking.

Civic literacy resides inside this paradox – except that paradoxes are no longer considered valuable; they are complicated, so probably “fake”. The opposite of real, simple, true.

In a comment piece for the latest issue of TDR: The Drama Review, my friend and colleague at Northwestern University, Tracy C. Davis, examines this very terrain, and links it explicitly to questions about the state of public education:

I watched the Republican National Convention heartsore and with mouth agape. I felt for schoolteachers in conservative districts who, when classes resume, would have to swim upstream to explain plagiarism. I ached for the community organizers, religious leaders, and other civic-minded individuals who would try to counter the doctrine of hate, fear, and loathing that speakers urged upon the delegates and audiences at home. But more than anything, I wondered how a nation with compulsory education
in every state and where in 2015 the federal government appropriated more than $37 billion for K–12 education and $43.5 billion for post-secondary education could understand so little about logic.

(TDR is available here – note that Tracy’s article is free for download)

The problem of Trump (and of 2016) is a basic failure of education – of liberal arts education. It’s not a failure of educators in the liberal arts, please note, but rather of our ever-declining cultural investment in what that kind of an education means, should mean, and should do for us as a society.

The same voices that tell us, variously, that Hillary is crooked, that Obama wasn’t born in America, and that watching three videos on Youtube will prepare you to renovate your bathroom (or teach you all there is to know about the history of civil rights in America), are all heavily, financially as well as culturally, invested in making us think that there’s literally no “use value” in the arts, and that’s why going to university and taking a STEM degree is a smarter use of your time and money. These same voices insist loudly that universities make workers, or job candidates – not citizens – and that universities need to take in more and more students while also cutting programs and saving money (usually in the arts… because saving money is a public good, right?). Logic, as Tracy notes, fails utterly here – but the current of “common sense” is strong.

Tracy’s comment piece is, in the main, a reflection on her trip to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, last summer. She went because she wanted to understand how Christian, conservative Americans were being asked to think and absorb information by their cultural curators – by those who purported to share their affiliations and have their best interests at heart. This is how she ends the article:

The quaint evasion and equivocation of political doublespeak may be a thing of the past, for it has become acceptable to tackle questions head-on with fabrication, unrelated elements, and sheer flights of fancy. Instead of utilizing critical thinking to scrutinize arguments, critical thinking has become a synonym for identifying the paradox, complexity, or conundrum, and then resolving it by the least rigorous means.

What do we do about this? How do we reclaim the public, civic value of rigour, paradox, of asking questions and watching skeptically, after all we’ve just been through?

I don’t have an answer; I’ve been holding off writing this post in part because of that. But I have a hunch that if there is an answer, it has a lot to do with theatre and performance – and thus with those of us who teach performance, both as a practice and as a set of critical social tools.

Performance is not, after all, simply the means by which Mr. D. got elected… although it really is that. Performance is a means of receiving and communicating knowledge; it is a set of social codes enacted in the public sphere; it is a history of civic engagement that reaches all the way back to the Greek polis, for better and for worse. And it is, of course, at the very, very heart of what I describe above – the Youtube culture that expects all mediated entertainment to come glossed as somehow “more real”, believable, confidence-inspiring, than the stuff that goes on in the streets (inaugurations and rallies and marches on Washington).

Unpacking performance as central to what just happened, to how we live now and ever have lived, means thinking carefully about what it means to “be real”, about who counts (or does not count) as real, about who decides, and about how the paradigms of “realness” shift and change over time – and usually in the interests of the wealthiest and most powerful among us.

How can we, as theatre and performance educators, bring this message to a broader public in a world that looks, but isn’t really, culturally literate? What are the stakes of this game? If information has become “democratised” to our detriment, can we democratise the teaching of performance theory and practice to help salvage this situation?

I’d welcome your thoughts on all of the above. A number of my colleagues are doing great work in this direction already (check out the special “Views and Reviews” section of Canadian Theatre Review 161, winter 2015, for example), and I’ve just been invited to guest-edit a special issue of Research in Drama Education which will explore this stuff and more.

But, truly, I don’t have answers right now, and I’m scared – like many of us. We’re being told, more and more, that the arts deserve less and less (money, time, interest) – even as we know, just as I did back in December on Facebook, that this is THE moment when the world needs radical humanities intervention most.

How, god on earth my friends HOW, do we make such an intervention, and make it land?

Uncertainly,

Kim

Is it really about what you know?

About eight weeks ago I wrote an open letter to my colleagues at Western University as part of the alternative “100 Days of Listening” tour curated at noahconfidenze.tumblr.com in response to the controversy surrounding the compensation packet of our president, Amit Chakma. Noah liked my post, and asked me back; this time around – why? Maybe it’s the humid summer air! – I’m feeling optimistic, and the tone of my letter (addressed to Dr Chakma this time) is forward looking. Call me a naive optimist if you like, but I still believe we have the chance to shift the neoliberal juggernaut driving through the heart of liberal arts education in Canada. This letter, reproduced below with Noah’s kind permission, suggests an important reason why we need to keep pressing the point.

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Dear Amit,

I’m writing today as a colleague who also loves stories. During your brief meeting with my colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities back in April, you talked a bit about your personal library, and about how much you valued having not only engineering books on your shelves there. I found your description of your library inspiring; it was a heartfelt reminder that we all need stories in our lives, in part because stories are the raw material we use to live our lives: to look backward, forward, and all around us as we plot our routes through the world.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately, even more than usual. As I’m a professor in English and Writing Studies, stories are my stock-in-trade; further, as I’m one of the founding faculty members in Theatre Studies at Western, stories for me are more than words on paper or even oral narratives; they are embodied tales of the worlds we inhabit, built in intimate collaboration with the other bodies and narratives that surround us. So stories are a huge part of my life.

My mother, however, is struggling these days to retain her stories. She is living with dementia, and more and more the stories she remembers cling to her like spring water, feeding her from the rivers of her past as she copes with each new disappointment in each new day. My mom never got a lot of education, though she was bright and full of potential; WWII got in her way, and then followed the quotidian vagaries of making a living and helping to support a family in the new world to which she fled. But I know that, had she gone to university, she would have been filled up with stories. And she would have carried those stories with her like treasures through her life.

My mom was a math whiz; she would not have gone into English or even into Theatre Studies. But I have no doubt that she would have taken loads of liberal arts courses, given her lifelong love of storytelling. And that’s something I’ve learned from her as she navigates this difficult new chapter in her life: that stories are not just for the English-oriented liberal arts kids, far from it. In a new article called “Changing How We Think About the Goals of Higher Education,” Chad Hanson, a sociologist at Casper College, argues that the most important take-aways students receive at university have little to do with the specific content they absorb, and much more to do with how they absorb it, and with what the nature of their learning experience helps them to discover about themselves. Hanson is arguing for a much broader approach to assessing student learning than cognitive science and similar mechanisms can gather; he is insisting on the social, rather than the statistical, value of storytelling to the way we measure what students carry with them as they walk across our stages at convocation.

I can attest to the common sense of Hanson’s argument. When I think back to my own undergraduate career, in the English Department at the University of Alberta in the middle 1990s, it’s not the names and dates of novels and characters I remember; it’s the teaching styles of the instructors I had, and it’s especially the debates about our world, our nation, politics and culture the stories we read provoked. Thanks to those experiences I, long bent on a career as an architect, turned to graduate school in the humanities instead, and then to a PhD in theatre studies. And thanks to those experiences I found I had a built-in model for how to teach effectively: when time came for me to step in front of a class of my own, I brought the nuts and bolts of my favourite instructors’ group workshops to bear on my own teaching practice.

Hanson writes:

When we think of students as a human form of capital, the view potentially restricts our intellectual terrain. We run the risk of limiting ourselves to questions about what students know or how they perform prescribed tasks. We lose sight of the notion that schools allow people to forge new selves.

Amit, regardless of the specific departments or faculties our students choose as a base for their university educations, all seek stories to propel themselves future-ward. And they seek the means to tell those stories, to navigate the tales of others, and to fashion from the mix of emotions and events that make up their university educations the ability to shape themselves into citizens. Those of us who teach in the Arts and Humanities are the ones who help with these challenges, who shape our learners into not just employees but also citizens. Hanson again:

Knowledge and skills are not necessarily the most important factors when it comes to the question of whom a business will hire. Picture a typical job interview. Employers rarely conduct knowledge or skills tests as part of the hiring process. An interview is an exercise in storytelling. Candidates are asked to tell the story of themselves: who they are, what they are like, where they have been, and what their futures hold in store.

There are a lot of reasons for Western to value preciously its faculty in the Arts and Humanities. And stories are a big one.

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Yours with respect,

Kim Solga

On being in a panic and out of time

My first semester back at Western University ended yesterday; I’m now en route to London to see Jarret and Emma the dog. For the first time in several weeks I’m remembering what it feels like not to be always on the verge of late, of Not Finished, of out of time to do the million things my job requires of me. I do get it all done, though, and generally pretty well; I even finished a book manuscript, Theatre& Feminism, on Monday night. (It’s coming out in the excellent, student-centred, Theatre& series from Palgrave in 2015.) My friends say I get stuff done on on time and on spec because I’m amazingly productive; some of my peers, I know, would say I get stuff done on time and on spec because I don’t have kids (and they’d be absolutely right). My husband would say I get stuff done because I don’t mind being late for other stuff that isn’t so very important (he’d be right, too). I’d say, however, that it’s actually because I have a high tolerance for multitasking, and excellent time management skills. (The tardiness notwithstanding: I maintain modest tardiness is the price I pay for good productivity in an incredibly busy job and life.)

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I’ve been thinking about time management lately because this is the time of year when everyone who works or studies on a university campus feels their stress ramp up. All the deadlines crowd in, and the gods of Getting Stuff Done separate the steady-ons from the panicked. Everyone’s tired, and everyone has too much to do; students come to class with heavy eyelids and and giant cups of coffee. I preach the importance of rest, of drinking water, of moderate partying (or at the very least of drinking water while also partying), of proper nutrition. The students try not to fall asleep while I drone on about vegetables and protein. Then, later, they come to my office hours or email me: they are sick, they are overwhelmed, they are trying but failing to keep up. Could they have an extension? Could I authorise their request for clemency?

In fact, what they really need is some of my productivity stardust – which is to say they need some help with time management.

We teach a lot of soft skills at university – especially in the faculties of arts, humanities, and social sciences where I have always studied and taught. We teach students to think critically. We teach students to read with care. We teach students to think about contemporary social and political issues and help them develop strong citizenship skills. (I’ve talked before in this space about what I think needs to be a shift from a “critical thinking” discourse in the academy to one that emphasises training in active, involved, thoughtful citizenship; click here for the post.) We teach students to speak in public, to write coherently, to make arguments in a methodical, extended form in essays. We encourage respectful discussion. In my classes we learn the value of performance as research, and of performance as public activism; we also use performance as another tool through which to make arguments and develop critical viewpoints on urgent social matters.

What we don’t really teach, though, is time management – and arguably this is what students need from us most of all.

Of course, “time management” is one of the transferable skills we often tout as coming with the arts and humanities territory: have a bunch of essays to do, and thereby learn to juggle the doing of them. Take five reading-and-writing-heavy courses or modules, and thereby learn to manage your workload across them. Maybe we even build time management challenges into our existing assignments and in-class tasks; I did that this year by creating a very short timeline for the first performance response paper I assigned in my modern theatre class, encouraging students to “blitz” the paper, and then offering an entire month (over Christmas!) for the second one, with the added challenge of not spending too much time on what is really a short assignment. I hoped the contrast would demonstrate for students what happens when you have short vs long lead times to negotiate.

But are we really teaching time management – even when we explicitly think we are? My short vs long experiment has no outcomes associated with it other than the paper itself, and while we’ll have a chance to reflect on it in second semester, when we write a research paper with a “do-over” component, chances are the students will be so busy fretting about the “research” part of that task that I’ll forget to make enough time for the time-management bit.

The truth is, we mostly expect students to suck it up and figure it out when it comes to balancing their time. I suspect a lot of us forget how hard it was when we were younger and greener and did not yet have years of experience juggling essays, teaching, and other home and administrative commitments. We probably also didn’t have to work significant part- or full-time jobs alongside school; I know I benefitted from both modest tuition fees and excellent funding (not to mention a parental home to live in) while I was at the University of Alberta in the mid-1990s. It took me years of panicked last-minute essay writing to learn that there was a better, saner way if only I planned ahead. (I also know I’m only a prof because I have a gift for argumentation and clear first drafts; I would have failed my English classes if it had all been down to managing my time, slogging it out, and editing my work with care.) Although I hate to presume, I suspect I’m not alone among my academic peers in this slightly shameful personal history… so why do we expect our students to be the time management experts we never were, and without any direct instruction, or mentorship, from us?

Thinking seriously about students and time management, I’ve realised I don’t teach it partly because it’s not something that’s ever been on my pedagogical radar. And because it’s not something that’s ever been on that radar, it’s also something I honestly don’t know how to teach. (I also think I’d rather kvetch about my students than imagine I’m part of the problem. Isn’t that always the way?) So I did some sleuthing online this week (modest – this is not extensive research by any means) and discovered that parenting magazines and publications focused on students with disabilities are all over this topic. In a short article prepared for LD OnLine, a website focused on teaching and learning for students with ADHD and other learning disabilities, Patricia Newhall describes Task Analysis as one method for hands-on time management instruction. She writes:

A good place to begin teaching time management is task analysis. It provides one illustration of a skill that many students do not develop intuitively, yet it is an essential element to developing effective time management. …

Task analysis is the process of identifying what needs to get done to finish a given undertaking — whether it is a homework assignment or a long-term project like a research paper. To estimate time with any accuracy, students need to know the steps required to complete a task. Students sometimes do not recognize that a single homework assignment might have three parts. For instance, an assignment to read a chapter and define the vocabulary for a quiz the next day requires students to (a) read, (b) look up words in the dictionary, and (c) identify and remember information likely to be on the quiz. Students unpracticed at task analysis are likely to complete the first and second steps, then assume that the third step will happen on its own. They might do poorly on the quiz even though they believe they did their homework.

I can easily imagine scaling this simple strategy for a university research assignment. Instead of inviting students to create, say, an annotated bibliography, followed by a draft introduction, followed by the full paper, all in discrete parts (an example of what I already do in some classes), I might create a mandatory but ungraded meta-assignment, attached to the research paper, in which students do a task analysis and preliminary timeline for the paper in class – from initial library searching through to editing and proofreading – and then refine it as homework. They might then be required to post their timelines to our class blog, and to check in periodically to see whether or not they are on track with their time management predictions. Finally, along with their research papers, students could hand in a (brief) summary of how they did keeping up with their own schedules, and how they felt about organising their work this way. (I think it’d be particularly useful if they did NOT keep up well at all – failure makes for amazing instruction, especially if a task like this one is framed explicitly as an experiment, and not graded.)

Readership hive mind: have any of you done this, or tasks like this, to instruct students in time management? Do you offer TM mentorship? I’d live to hear your thoughts.

Chilling out now,

Kim

Fight back with your brain!

There’s a point in my favourite episode of Joss Whedon’s Firefly (it’s Objects in Space, connoisseurs) where River Tam, an exceptionally gifted and damaged young woman who, in this particular moment, is kicking the ass of a bounty hunter, says: “And also, I can kill you with my brain”. It’s always made me laugh. Mostly because it’s so true.

OK, maybe our brains don’t kill – not really. But the larger point River makes is absolutely unassailable: hard, directed, careful thinking is powerful stuff. As I noted in my last post, it’s also not stuff that’s all that well respected in our current neoliberal climate: too much thinking from us Plebeians is risky for the corporation-friendly powers that be. They rely on us not thinking too much about, say, why we just bought that book on Amazon given that Amazon is a massive tax avoider and committed small bookstore assassin, or what the production line tethering our iPhones to child soldiers in sub-Saharan Africa might actually look like. They count on the (generally well founded) assumption that we’ll buy their message that consumption is good, taxes are bad, and assume they’ve done the heavy thinking for us, because hey, why wouldn’t they? They’re smarter than us, right? Up there on those podiums? In other words, they hope and pray that we’ll choose not to use our killer brains – because, of course, at any time, we can choose otherwise.

The power of a well trained brain is my business, as a scholar in the humanities and the social sciences. My colleagues and I fret a lot – as you can imagine, since the powers that be are always reminding us how useless we are at training Drones for Good Jobs – about how to quantify what it is we do with and for students, and about how to articulate that doing to a larger public made terribly skeptical by neoliberalism’s anti-intellectual smoke and mirrors games. The default, for a long time, has been to claim that we are building “critical thinkers”; this is another way to say that we are helping students to develop their killer brains. It’s a bit of a tough sell, though; after all, those of us who have never thought of ourselves as especially “critical”, or for whom “critical” just means antagonistic, will likely not appreciate what scholars mean when they say “critical thinking”. Which, of course, is another way to say that, maybe, scholars need a different vocabulary – maybe a more direct, forceful, powerful vocabulary – for saying what it is that we do, and why it actually matters. A lot.

Here’s what I think I do in my classrooms. It’s what I try to do, anyway – because it’s about building a base of skills that is in fact in urgent need.

  • I teach students how to use their brains – their careful, sharp thinking, and clear, direct writing – to fight those who are trying to trick them into accepting less. Less good in the world. Less money and fewer resources for them and their families, and for their communities. Less community, less camaraderie. Less security. Less freedom.
  • I teach students what it means to become committed citizens: of their home towns and regions, of their adopted towns and regions, of their nations, of our shared world. Being a citizen requires a hell of a lot of hard, concentrated, careful thinking and active, courageous speech. And those skills don’t come from nowhere.
  • I teach students to think politically. 
  • I teach students to solve problems creatively.
  • I teach students to question the things I claim to be true, and to ask me to spell out how I know their truth, as practice for questioning all the truthy bullshit they are likely to encounter outside our classroom, on their way to demanding more and better for themselves and others.
  • I teach students to use all the gifts they bring into our classroom to fight better, and smarter, for their own and others’ human rights.

This is what I hope I do when I get up to teach everyday: I hope that I am training politically aware, creative, thoughtful, agile citizens, the future leaders of a much better world than we’re living in right now. I hope I am training killer brains, in the face of their endangerment.

How about you? How do you describe the work you do in your classroom? Please share, so that we can begin building that better, stronger vocabulary. “Critical Thinking” doesn’t really cut it anymore – and we’re about so much more than critical thinking, anyway.

Kim

PS: yesterday, the UK lost an exceptional citizen and a deadly sharp brain – polymath and political commentator Simon Hoggart. For this post, and for all it champions, he was an inspiration. Read his excellent Guardian obituary, with links to his writing, here.