Update: The Madisonian, a legal blog, weighs in.
Update II: Andrew of The Transcontinental weighs in.
These days, one of the more frustrating and tedious aspects of working in an institutional setting such as a secondary school, a college, or a highschool has been the shift to constant mechanisms of “quality control” that are implemented from year to year, semester to semester. What I have in mind are the constant calls to codify things such as student learning outcomes, assessment criteria, and curriculum across the body of educators. These mechanisms, in turn, lead to endless meetings, professional development seminars, and piles of paperwork that often have little or no connection to teaching or what really takes place in the classroom. At the end of the semester, for example, your department might be required to gather assignment samples from students in each professor’s class. Tenured faculty then review these copious materials, evaluating whether or not they meet the learning outcome criteria, put together a report and then send this report on to division deans, where these reports are further distilled and sent to the administration. At the end of each year I thus find myself beset by a weighty pile of papers from our adjunct and full time faculty that I must evaluate in terms of our student learning outcomes that we spent a year or so devising to meet state accreditation requirements. There, across the room, the books I have had to set aside gaze longingly at me, giving me their coy seductive looks, inviting me to read them, but I am awash in student papers that must be evaluated.
The galling part of this whole process is that it really has no impact on what we and our professors actually do in our classroom. Perhaps I should not say this publicly. The issue is not one of of being opposed to high standards. We already do have high standards. We believe strongly in pedagogy and teaching excellence. The issue is that the assumptions and thought process behind this sort of modeling is fundamentally wrong-headed, diminishing, rather than enhancing education. What we have in United States educational philosophies today is a shift towards a sort of “pedagogical Taylorism”, where it is assumed that education can be codified, instrumentalized, and quantified, such that assignments necessarily take on a generic and simplified structure– for this is what can easily be replicated –and where gradually these reforms have a morphogenetic effect that feeds back on the classroom, giving form to what is taught, how it is taught, and how assignments are structured. In short, these reforms are molarizing machines, designed to create regularities in the Brownian motion of students and faculty, insuring that there is little change or deviation from a pre-delineated form. All the while it is assumed that every discipline can be taught in the manner of the various sciences and branches of mathematics, or that students compose a “smooth space” that can be manipulated and moulded freely, without any singularities.
Unlike the secondary schools that have suffered under the No Child Left Behind Act, they have not yet begun to enforce these mechanisms at the level of colleges and universities. However, based on the committees I sit on, such enforcements are not far in the offing for state schools as very wealthy corporations specializing in educational software are increasingly placing pressure on state legislators throughout the country, singing their seductive song of enhanced performance and success, the “scientificity” of their learning techniques (apparently it wasn’t until the 21st century that we discovered sound pedagogical technique), and giving large contributions to political campaigns. From the other end, parents who never once thought to encourage their children to read, allowing them instead to spend endless amounts of time playing video games, watching television, and text messaging, and who put them in too many extracurricular activities, clamor angrily to legislators, blaming teachers for poor student performance, never once entertaining the possibility that perhaps the milieu in which Prince Johnny and Princess Amy developed cognitively has something to do with their inability to write a coherent sentence. Meanwhile, arrogant and self-absorbed professor types smugly bury themselves in their fascinating research projects, not bothering to read the Spellings Report (warning pdf) and learn that precisely the same proposals for No Child Left Behind are being made for the university level, and that arguments about “academic freedom” and the great Liberal Arts tradition will persuade administrators clamoring for state money not to make such changes and institute standardization of curriculum and mandatory testing. Apparently these professor types believe that high flying and exalted discussions of values trump, in the minds of legislators, the “minor” inducements of campaign contributions and votes. While professor types might like to talk a lot about politics, they don’t seem very good at engaging in it.
I suspect that the greatest tragedy in all of this is that these reforms, these “solutions”, are very likely themselves symptoms and based on a sort of cognitive dissonance regarding the real problem. If it is in fact true that student performance has diminished, it seems to me that the sort of solutions we’ve proposed to solve this problem 1) cover over the real issue, and 2) actually exacerbate the problem. Beyond the technological shifts U.S. culture has undergone such that we now live in a mediatized, networked culture characterized by very different developmental cognitive processes, a large part of the problem is that the colleges and universities have, in many respects, become factories. In referring to the schools as factories, I do not simply mean that they are designed and structured to produce a homogenized product as in the case of an auto factory producing cars that are all the same model. While this certainly seems to be the dream of the reform minded advocates of the molar-machines, the schools also function as factories in the sense that they are designed to extract surplus-value by minimizing production costs while maximizing profit. It seems that every two semesters or so I am asked whether or not it would be permissible to raise the number of seats in my classroom. I, of course, never see any additional income for these increases. At the community college level, the standard teaching load is five courses a semester, with the option to take on additional courses at adjunct pay. I know of professors that teach as many as 8 courses a semester, as well as additional online courses.
Given these circumstances, it is impossible that the manner in which the teaching load is structured not have a morphogenetic effect on the assignments given, the time spent with students, and the nature of the material taught. How, for example, can a composition teacher truly devote the time to carefully providing comments for each student paper when they give ten or more writing assignments to 150 or more students each semester? In the face of such daunting numbers there is no choice but to streamline assignments, grading techniques, and the material taught in order to promote maximal efficiency. Yet teaching, especially in the humanities, is an art, and as we all know arts are labor intensive due to the singularities of the material dealt with, and cannot easily be instrumentally streamlined. As a result, student performance gradually diminishes over time as all teachers, from secondary school on, have had to make this Faustian bargain, sacrificing labor intensive excellence in the face of the sheer numbers they’re forced to contend with.
What we get, as a consequence, is a compromise formation in discussions of how to enhance and improve student performance. The question of labor is never put on the table because the schools necessarily have to engage in their own version of the production of surplus-value. Indeed, the question is never even posed or articulated at all. At the same time, the problem of diminishing student performance is everywhere recognized. As a result, all sorts of fantasies begin to populate the discussion. Everywhere we look for quick fixes. At the secondary school level we begin to reason that if only teachers were better educated, they would teach students better. It thus becomes state law that a master’s degree is necessary to teach at the highschool and elementary school level. Of course, every teacher knows that knowledge and teaching are two very different things, and many know that education degrees are generally of very little worth for either. At the college level administrators implement all sorts of “professional development” requirements as a part of educator’s contracts, requiring them to go to endless seminars on pedagogy and pedagogical technique, and holding endless meetings on teaching, grading, and technique. Quality control mechanisms are put into place to gather information on student performance, generating endless paperwork. Of course, this paperwork is generally all “gamed”, designed to give a favorable picture for administrators to put on reports that are then given to legislators and various government functionaries. Everything is undertaken with the aim of giving the appearance that something is being done without doing anything. And so it goes.
All this pessimistic and incoherent ranting aside, what really perplexes me are those educators who really seem to get behind such initiatives, taking on an organizing role, calling for meetings to design learning outcomes and generate more paperwork rather than engaging in research that might enhance and enrich their own teaching by both stimulating them and by providing new stimulating material for their students. What, I wonder, is the psychology behind these people? What is it that drives people to believe in the efficacy of these sorts of things? Have they not ever observed the workshop of a master carpenter or a tattoo artist? Do they not recognize why people must go through apprenticeships in order to master these arts because the material worked with cannot be transmitted as a technique or a mathematical formula, but requires one to learn the singularities of the material, its potentials, all of which are always unique and different? Always there seems to be the belief that a new technique or method will save us, but when we talk of things like good writing, interpreting texts, working wood, swimming, philosophizing, etc., it is impossible to dispense with immersing oneself in the material so as to learn the irreplaceable singularities of that medium. As Protevi puts it in Political Physics, it is necessary to distinguish between architects and artisans, where the former conceives design in terms of top down models where a form is imposed on a passive matter, whereas the latter is led collaboratively by the singularities of the matter, its potentialities. For example, the unique knots in a piece of wood might become eyes in a carven face, the grain a beard.
We talk a lot about ideology, about the manner in which our attachment to certain social formations and political movements is determined through the discursive narratives and the structuration of the signifier. However, increasingly I have come to wonder whether this is the case. In Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari say that the masses were not duped by ideology, they weren’t tricked by the fascists, but rather they desired fascism, they wanted it. As Guattari crassly puts it, “it gave them a hard on”. They got off on the music, the parades, the uniforms, the burning torches, the flags, the angry leaders. In Kafka’s literature there’s never any ideology to be found. Instead you find the books of the law filled with pictures of pornography, elaborate filing systems, a scandalous pleasure taken in making people stand in line and obey certain formalities. And who can forget the run up to the Iraq War? I remember my very conservative uncle sending me a deck of special forces playing cards, the insignia of the special forces on the back against a dark black background with green trim, faces of terrorist leaders on the other side. Splashed across news shows and magazines were pictures of Bush, Rumsfeld, and Cheney standing in jeans on Bush’s Crawford ranch, like cowboys. Expressions like “smoke ’em out” and “dead or alive” were used, and our eyes were filled with the spectacle of cooler than thou military machines. There was an entire affective masculine based libidinal economy in these words, images, and accessories, designed to appeal to insecure men craving strength and virility, and women looking for strong men: “Where have all the cowboys gone?” was a popular song on the radio at the time.
I began writing around the age of eleven. My dream was to write books. I remember the pleasure I took in the scrawl of my script across the page. Indeed, this script was developed as an act of resistance to education. An English teacher had asked us to write an essay which I thought was ridiculous, so I devised the most atrocious handwriting I could possibly imagine, taking great delight in the thought of her tortured eyes and the flowing letters in blue ink on the page. I was shocked and disappointed when I received an “A” for the paper. The world no longer made sense. I remember the joy I felt when I found an old portable typewriter, and the enjoyment I found in the satisfying sound of the letters hitting the paper. When I would write essays for my English classes, I would use three staples along the right-hand side of the paper, as if to bind the paper like a book. Over time my writing became ever more elaborate and lengthy, always striving after that elusive goal. My point is that my writing wasn’t borne out of some set of Grand Ideas that I just had to get on paper– readers of Larval Subjects can attest to the fact that I lack such Ideas –but rather that my writing was undergirded by an entire libidinal economy pertaining to the “pleasures of the text” in the most literal sense of the term… Not the pleasures of content and meaning, but the jouissance of the smell of the paper, a stapled spine, blue ink, the heft of a lengthy paper in your hands, the way a paper opens when you staple long the spine, and so on… An assemblage of impressions without any meaning beyond that.
When confronted with a disciplining parent, boss, drill sergeant, or leader, there is a common experience– or maybe it’s unique to me –that the person dispensing the punishment sadistically enjoys what they’re doing. Isn’t this also the case in bureaucracy? Over and above any purpose that elaborate filing systems, endless complicated forms, paperwork, lines, meetings, and protocols might serve, there seems to be a jouissance, an assemblage of material objects (files, filing systems, forms, lines, desks, meetings, memos, etc) seems to embody that provides immense pleasure to a certain sort of subjectivity. There is nothing ideological here. Rather it’s the machinic-assemblage that provides its own raison d’etre. My question is from whence does this form of subjectivity, this subjectivity necessary for molarizing-machines, derive? What is the genesis of such a subjectivity? What is the “sense”, in Deleuze-Nietzsche’s sense of the word, that underlies this subjectivity? And what can be done to escape it?