In Deep Water With Audrey and Tressie

As an educator there are plenty of reasons to be on Twitter or to engage on other social media platforms. I’m a PE teacher finishing up a year’s hiatus from the classroom and looking forward to getting back into the routine of working with real children.

That said, my intellectual excursions this year have taken me far beyond my classroom and the practice of teaching. Through extensive and very eclectic reading I’ve ventured into territories that may or may not have to do with education directly. What has happened is that my choices have become more political. In the opinions I seek, the analyses I read, the topics addressed reflect a deliberately more politicized interest. So when I do read about K-12 classroom practice or recent trends in ed-tech for instance, a filter I have added is political perspective – where is the author coming from? What factors may be contributing to this person’s take on the subject? How might this person’s perspective change and influence mine? What I have found is that reading in areas where I feel to some extent “out of my depth” has worked wonders in allowing me to zero in on what my core beliefs and concerns are when it comes to education.

Two authors who regularly challenge me to start treading in the deep end of my beliefs about education are Audrey Watters and Tressie McMillan Cottam. This week they appear to have double teamed on the intersecting topics of technology, education, markets and privacy.
First, Audrey goes to town with this talk given at a panel at the International Society of Technology and Education (ISTE) conference last week: Is It Time To Give Up On Computers in Schools?
Provocative? Yes, quite and by design. Her talk was published on hybridpedagogy.com. She says:

Sure, there are subversive features of the computer; but I think the computer’s features also involve neoliberalism, late stage capitalism, imperialism, libertarianism, and environmental destruction. They now involve high stakes investment by the global 1% — it’s going to be a $60 billion market by 2018, we’re told. Computers involve the systematic de-funding and dismantling of a public school system and a devaluation of human labor. They involve the consolidation of corporate and governmental power. They are designed by white men for white men. They involve scientific management. They involve widespread surveillance and, for many students, a more efficient school-to-prison pipeline —

Further she suggests:

We gaze glassy-eyed at the new features in the latest hardware and software — it’s always about the latest app, and yet we know there’s nothing new there; instead we must stare critically at the belief systems that are embedded in these tools.

It happens often when I read Audrey’s work that I am called to attention in a visceral way. Her tone is not alarmist, yet her message is alarming if you dare to sit with the implications of all that she is saying. She speaks to a much deeper question than “should I use Firefox instead of Chrome?” (Which is where many K-12 tech conversations are happening) Rather, she asserts that our homegrown brands of social and economic inequalities are not only baked into the tools we use but likely reinforce and exacerbate them.

If we want schools to be democratizing, then we need to stop and consider how computers are likely to entrench the very opposite. Unless we stop them.

Then I came across Tressie McMillan Cottam’s remarks prepared for a recently held panel discussion: “New Topics in Social Computing: Data and Education.”
Tressie is a sociologist who, in my mind, has moved mountains in the area of public scholarship. Her high profile Twitter account has helped promote the visibility of accessible scholarly writing happening both within and outside the academy. Delving into the broad area of “Data and Education” she asks the reader to get clear with what we mean by “privacy” in this context:

What if privacy is euphemism for individualism, the politically correct cousin of rational actor theories that drive markets that is fundamentally at odds with even the idea of school as a public good? If that is possible (and, I of course, think it is not only possible but the case at hand), then how can we talk about students’ privacy while preserving the integrity of data to observe and measure inequality? I suppose that is where I am on current debates about privacy and data in K-12: are we talking about everyone’s privacy or are we talking about new ways to mask injustice? Do you get to a Brown v. Board when schools that are also businesses own school data? I suspect not, because the rules governing data are different in markets than they are in public trusts.

To grasp what we are dealing with means that we will have to unpack our firmly held beliefs about what is at stake:

I question the assumptions about privacy that seem to be the only way we currently have to talk about how deeply enmeshed schools are in markets. Can we talk about privacy in a way that is about justice rather than individualism? If we cannot then privacy may be as big a threat to students as data mining because they are two heads of the same beast.

In agreeing with Audrey’s call to rid our schools of computers she remarks:

I would add: give up on computers and get up on politics. Computers can be fine. Computers are politics. Personalized learning may be fine. Personalized learning is politics. Apps are fine. Apps are politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics. Unless and until that is the conversation, then tech is most likely a politics at odd with my own.

So there’s that political thing: connecting the things I do, use, and promote to their effect on me, on others, our our collective existence and making decisions about my actions based on the outcomes I say I want. If I say I want a more just world, what am I doing to support and promote that? How does it show in my voting behavior, in my media consumption, in the way I choose to raise and educate my children, in the friends I keep, in the organizations I endorse and those I decry? Those are political questions, just as they can be deeply existential questions. The choices I make as an individual do not happen in a vacuum. They occur and have implications in and for my surroundings and also express views and beliefs that relate to those surroundings. This why reading Audrey Watters and Tressie McMillan Cottam has become so important for me. Both point to intersection after intersection where individual decisions collide or overlap with societal assumptions and outcomes.

It’s dizzying and disorienting to do this kind of reading on a regular basis. Feeling “out of my depth” comes at a price. I finally understand that smh is shorthand for ‘shaking my head’, but often I am too bewildered to do even that. Being confronted with how much I don’t know is not nearly as trying and uncomfortable as recognizing how little thought I have given to some very central facets of my daily existence. Tressie and Audrey take me there and what I choose to do with these fresh insights is entirely up to me. I feel like I may be getting a little wiser, gaining a bit more nuance in my political views, stretching my critical thinking muscles a little further.

Tressie’s concluding sentences trigger a peculiar response in me: I think about weightlifting:

 I believe education is a human right when education is broadly defined as the right to know and be. Period. I believe schooling can still do education but it cannot do it and be a market. Information symmetry is at odds with most market relationships and schools have to be about information symmetrically produced, accessed and imagined. Schools can be valuable to markets without becoming them. I believe there is such a thing as a social category that subsumes markets to societies. I believe those are political choices and only effected by social action. 

“Schools can be valuable to markets without becoming them.” That feels to me as though a weight has been lifted – off of my shoulders, somehow. There’s that blessed moment of recognition: “yeah, that’s what I wanted to say.” So there’s some comfort.

At the same time, “schooling can still do education but it cannot do it and be a market” which is where so much neoliberal rhetoric and policy is leading us: to education systems as markets -There’s the weight bearing down on me, on us; the likelihood of freeing ourselves shrinking before our eyes. Unless of course we wake up and see that we in fact have choices. We can lift the weight. We needn’t simply succumb to it because it’s heavy and makes us incredibly drowsy.

Audrey and Tressie are here to wake us up. And K-12 educators, this is a conversation we need to be in on. Not only listening but dialoguing. This is how we build critical thinking into our curricula and lesson plans: we do it ourselves. Regularly. We wade into the deep waters and have our beliefs challenged. Readings like these provide necessary starting points.

9 thoughts on “In Deep Water With Audrey and Tressie

  1. professorjvg says:

    Thanks for this (and I’m mightily impressed by how quickly you pulled this together after these complex essays came out. I’d read both and was trying to pull together my thoughts as I attended to too many other things. Now I have your piece to add to the mix.

    I think so much about bringing more K-12 educators into these conversations. How does that happen, do you think?

    • Some k-12 educators are already here and engaging mightily. Others will come but I see the dilemma that I had and probably will face again soon: prioritizing for all the spaces we inhabit: the classroom, office, kitchen and back yard. I do think that school leaders who are brave can encourage conversation around such topics in small doses. I understand how challenging it is to ask teachers to do one more thing. I think those of us who love this stuff need to improve our invitation skills and realize that good conversation does not require a crowd. A handful of folks gathered together sharing an article or post is the start of something meaningful.
      I also think on Twitter in particular time is needed to get familiar, to develop more specific interests and the relationships to go with that, then it becomes easier to branch out. We all need patience for that. Telling teachers one more “should” is no help at all.
      Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate them.

  2. Anna says:

    This is a great piece. I am a parent and PTA member and think about this stuff a lot (mostly fuzzily). Would love to hear from you and others about how to take these critiques out of twitterverse and into real school world.

    • Thanks, Anna. I’m glad this piece resonated. As mentioned in my reply above, I think it’s important to invite people, whatever their roles, into the conversation. Who among your circle of fellow parents might be up for chatting about some of these things? Informal pathways seem to be underrated. Not every substantive conversations requires a facilitator. Have dinner, start a face to face edchat group. And fuzzy thinking, by the way, is a great start for sharing the load. Good luck with it! More is often possible than we perhaps realize.

  3. Good post overall, but I don’t think you should say you’re in over your head and bewildered when you’re not. It’s a rhetorical tactic, and to my mind, not a very good one.

  4. […] While reading Black Box Society I was frequently reminded of an essay by sociologist,  Tressie McMillam Cottam whom I quoted in a previous blog post: […]

  5. […] In Deep Water With Audrey and Tressie https://edifiedlistener.wordpress.com/2015/07/02/in-deep-water-with-audrey-and-tressie/ […]

  6. […] necessary context. If you have followed this blog for a while you will know that @AudreyWatters and @TressieMcPhD have rocked my intellectual world in significant ways over the last 3 years. You will have heard me […]

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