Tag Archives: education

Philosophers Online: Popularizing Ideas in a Digital Age

Who can forget the existential cat videos?


I was recently reading a book review in the Atlantic Monthly (online, of course) called “Playing with Plato.” This is a review of a new collection of ‘modern’ imagined dialogues between Plato and various characters of our time (a Google engineer, for example) in a book titled Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. The author of the review (philosophy professor Clancy Martin) reminds us that the sorts of questions that this book asks (What is progress? What is morality?) are the same questions that the ancient philosophers entertained and are the same questions that still motivate people—both philosophers and non-philosophers—to try and understand the world.

I was impressed with the review, in which Martin traces his own journey to the welcoming arms of philosophy, but I was dissatisfied with the end result. This is a review published in a digital magazine about a text that engages the engineers of modernity … and the book is printed as a physical book. There is a Kindle version and an audio version, of course, but like nearly every book published in print too, the digital version is a for-purchase, mimicry of the physical text.

Though philosophers often publish academic work like the rest of us in cumbersome, paper journals and university presses (tenure march!), many of them also pride themselves on the free dissemination of their ideas to students and the public through lectures, conversations, and small discussions. “The beauty of philosophy,” these scholars argue, “is the fact that anyone can—and should—engage in these important questions.”

“Surely philosophers can do better than this,” I complained to my own philosopher. “How can philosophy adapt these new forms of media to participate in the necessary exchange of questions and dialogue?”

I could hear the surprise in his voice, “Well, they already have.” Then he flooded my inbox with links to podcasts, videos, and blogs.

Some of these digital texts are extremely popular with  non-philosophers. Something like Philosophy Bitesa free podcast—has hundreds of thousands of hits. Further, philosophers have developed really creative videos which illustrate difficult concepts (and fun thought experiments) like David Harvey’s animated video “Crisis of Capitalism” and a video that my own philosopher uses to teach experimental philosophy in his own classes (“Experimental Philosophy”). Philosophers have also experimented with some very popular Yale Open Courses and Open University courses (one set of which sparked a large controversy). Also see The Partially Examined Life, which is terrifically awesome.

So many questions!

Question or Problem:
My essay will examine how philosophy has used digital media to further the public nature of the discipline (I am not interested in academic philosophy). I hope to explore what kinds of sources work well, identify the factors that are the most successful in these sources, and propose ways that philosophy can continue to be a presence in the public discourse. I hope that the information I compile and dissect will be useful for discussions about public humanities in the future.

I’m interested in this subject for many reasons, but the primary one is that there are lots of awesome ideas that the public would love to engage with so how do we make these ideas free and as accessible as possible?  Philosophy is doing this, therefore let’s look to philosophy.

Texts and Materials:
– Free philosophy sources (videos, podcasts, blogs, open courses) – if the sources are not free then they are not relevant to my study.
– I need to read sources about teaching philosophy, I think.
– Interviews with philosophers (including mine).

I’ve already created a Google website, which I imagine to be divided into pages in a creative way (not just by an exploration of different media, but by concept perhaps?). This will be a compilation of videos, links, posts, (hopefully) an experimental podcast/interview, and cats.

Text(s) to Imitate?:
I have no idea. I’ve seen nothing exactly like this, though I imagine that there is some sort of educational website in this format.

1. Do you think that a website is the appropriate medium?
2. I’m afraid that this might be lingering too much on the cusp of a study and less an argument. What do you think I should anticipate in order to keep this from being a “look, I have cool stuff” website?
3. As educators in the humanities, what sorts of questions/branches/side trails about this potential study are the most interesting or would be the most helpful for you?

The Mythical Read-Only Culture

While I was reading Lessig’s Remix, I realized something.

I have never seriously imagined myself to have inhabited an RO environment. In the same way, I’ve never even considered a desire for privacy, at least not as Lessig describes it (or RO media).

When it comes to privacy, perhaps the reasoning behind this is obvious: I’ve used Amazon forever, and so I’m not super creeped out (technical term) for its fairly on-point suggestions for my buying choices. I’ve never imagined that I wasn’t being monitored. Perhaps, in addition to my (apparent) digital nativity, my years at Catholic School panopticon and SEC-compliant businesses, my urban residence and only-child status created this.

I don't see any citation here.
Shakespeare’s estate did not get paid for this.

When it comes to content creation and consumption, then, it should not be surprising that I’ve tended (on some fundamental level) to view all content as “public.” When I started writing fiction as a kid, it started out (as Lessig notes on 81, via Jenkins) as an “apprenticeship” of remixing–not in the literal fanfiction sense, but in the archetypical sense. I copied works’ conventions in order to enact their genres, only gradually moving away from this obvious forms of appropriation to the more abstracted forms: the practice of genre and audience awareness, of rhetoric, of convention employment. All writing (and all creativity) is always remix, even if the remix is marked (as many are) by the refusal to pull content from the expected sources.

I first wrote fiction because I found the fiction I liked to be insufficient, and sought to practice creation in order to fill these gaps. I became a Literature Academic because it appeared, to me, that literature scholarship *really* needed my help. As egotistical as that sounds, I doubt anyone reading this isn’t nodding right now (if you’re the nodding type), or gesticulating in some way. You finish your BA in English out of a love of books, but what carries you through the apprenticeship of graduate programs (MA, MFA, PhD, whatever) is knowing that you need to fill a gap you’ve found.

Our greatest fear.
Our greatest fear.

I’m not really sure RO culture really exists outside the minds of a few people at the RIAA. I’m not even sure Lessig thinks it exists (or at least, in 2008, believed that it would survive the decade). For any of Remix‘s other flaws, the hybrid culture Lessig describes has a high degree of veracity.

This is (maybe?) a vindication of Chris and Callie’s insistence that Broadcast Media is not passive, at least in the Michael-verse, because I can’t for the life of me think of a time when I imagined something to be really read-only. Lessig’s notes on remix in education, too, seem obvious given my history of writing and my current pedagogical (and theoretical) tendencies to see conventions, genres, and appropriations as the backbone of a text, and the meaningful recombination of research data plus new observations from that recombination to be the height of professional writing (see: all instructions for academic writing ever).

I can only hope Lessig’s right about the law catching up to the culture—of ditching its enterprise to perpetuate/create the RO culture myth—since it never occurred to me prior to today that the AMVs I consumed avidly just 8 years ago were in some way potentially illegal. I always considered the arguments in favor of royalties in music and film to be predicated on an elitist belief that film and music, as less-accessible-therefore-less-pedestrian arts than writing, were therefore more worthy of reward. As more and more of our readings gesture towards it (however remotely), I begin to get the impression I was right–that digital means gradually break down access barriers to new forms, and threaten the cultural elite that benefits. Much of the drama around the Internet has to do with controlling access, with creating artificial scarcity—with inventing the myth that an RO culture ever truly existed, much in the same ways other reactionaries create nostalgic mythic pasts to defend.

Now You See It, Now I Don’t: How Schools are Failing Our Children

My fourth grade daughter reports that of each school day, she only enjoys 40 minutes. And surprisingly, it’s not lunch and recess.

For less than an hour, she and a handful of other “advanced” students leave the regular classroom and spend time in “enrichment” class. There, Evelyn and her cohort read (more) challenging texts, debate how to solve difficult word problems, and craft creative responses to writing prompts.

“Something I really like is when we break into groups and each group has a set of algebra problems to do,” says Evelyn. “I feel like I learn better that way because I have something that I can share with the other people, and seeing what other people did helps me too.”

As far as enrichment goes, Evelyn’s teacher requires nothing remarkably collaborative, challenging, or interdisciplinary. Yet compared to how learning happens in my daughter’s regular classroom, the approaches taken by her enrichment teacher look revolutionary.

When she goes back to class after enrichment, Evelyn must then make up the work she missed in class; she often brings home a stack of worksheets and worry about whether she will earn an NP (Nearing Proficiency), MP (Meeting Proficiency), or EP (Exceeding Proficiency) on her next standardized test. (How someone can *exceed* proficiency is beyond me, but that’s quibbling over semantics.)

In other words, the learning she and her friends do in enrichment isn’t seen as replacing or even extending the regular curriculum. She still must complete every worksheet in order to ensure solid results on the standardized test that Delaware requires she take three times a year, every year.

When I talked with my daughter about some of the classroom projects Cathy Davidson writes about in her book, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century, she expressed admiration and a tinge of jealousy. The process-based methods used by innovative teachers like those at Voyager Academy and Quest 2 Learn were both alien and appealing to her.

Mostly what she longs for is to learn in interesting ways. Nearly every subject–from science to social studies, language arts to math–has the potential to interest her and her classmates, but the perpetual testing cycle and limitations of time and focus discourage fun, curiosity, and questions.

The elementary-aged kids I talk to know that the system is broken; they know that standardized testing, at least in its current form, is a chain hanging around their teachers’ (and by proxy, their educations’) necks. But they’re trapped.

“Standardized tests just show what you wrote. They don’t show what you actually know,” explains Evelyn. “Something like a project can show how much a student cares about their work.”

Evelyn, limited by her formal school experiences as well as by her youth, would probably admire Davidson’s idea of an “exciting end-of-grade test” (130). Davidson proposes an end of year “synthesis” that students would create that would use what they had learned that year. The project would show “each child what he or she could do in the world,” and these ideas would be on display at an “idea sale” (130).

In my searching online for a video intersecting with Davidson’s theoretical concepts and my hopes for my children, I found a video made by a class of 7th graders in Joanna Sanders Bobiash’s Grade 7 class at École Wilfrid Walker School. The video, which won the 2009 “Best in Class” Best Buy Contest, grew out of a collaborative text written by the students based on their goals for the future and the impact of technology on their lives.

See the video here (I’m having trouble getting it to embed from tubechop).

Now, there are many other more polished videos available on Youtube, even those ostensibly made by middle schoolers. This one did not stand out to me because of its professionalism; the video footage and editing is fine and the audio quality is okay.

What moved me deeply was getting to hear the words and voices of young adolescents speaking their goals and dreams. Not by themselves in private. Not to a friend or family member. But as a team, to the world (and in two languages, no less!).

One young woman says, “I want to share my work with the world and learn from their feedback.”

That simultaneous confidence in reaching out and acknowledgement of what one has yet to learn, it seems to me, are at the heart of Davidson’s manifesto: “Confidence in your ability to learn is confidence in your ability to unlearn,” writes Davidson, “to switch assumptions or methods or partnerships in order to do better” (86).

Schools that encourage and reward that simultaneous confidence (learning) and awareness of personal shortcomings (unlearning): that’s what I want for my daughters and my son.

But when another thick packet of worksheets and workbook pages land on the kitchen counter, it’s hard to feel hope that a place like Ms. Bobiash’s 7th grade class and Q2L and Voyager Academy are more than rare mirages in an educational morass.