The Lost Origin and Displacing Information in the Classroom

As I’m currently steeped in thinking about the theory-practice paradigm, what strikes me about The Lost Origin (Matilde Asensi, 2013) is that it straddles the line – or perhaps attempts to – between the popular press and academic or technical writing. I’m speaking conceptually rather than narratively: the book is obviously out to tell us something, as all books are, but what it has to say sits beside the narrative. Displacement, in fact, becomes the theme of the text, in the way that Arnau is perhaps displaced (in South America) or is in the process of displacement (his relationship to technology elaborated on in the beginning). Displacement, also, in its insistence on a kind of displaced reality.

the lost origin

Knowing only little about the author, I hope I might still make some conjectures based on the book itself. The Lost Origin reads like an academic attempting to write fiction (whether it’s a success in its attempt is almost irrelevant). I think there is something to be learned from displacing real-world information – the “nonfiction” studies of the sciences – into a fictional setting, just as the arts and its “fiction” studies (and I’m gesturing toward film studies) operate within the codes of operational reality. The Lost Origin‘s use of deep description and what verges on educational diatribe pack nonfictive epistemes on top of fictive forms, much like well-researched historical fiction. [One could argue that all epistemes are nonfictive – let’s not today.] This might operate in an undergraduate class whose subject is far from literature or fiction-focused fields in a number of ways, or at least a few come to mind: 1) It might inject some real-world critical thinking into the process of media consumption, i.e. the novel works within fiction or on the border of fiction to delineate that border in the way that media literacy requires an understanding of the production and interpretation of media as different. Recognizing the uncanny valley between operational reality and the fictional sum of its parts that becomes a book like The Lost Origin is a lesson in critical discovery – it’s an abstracting force that pressures us in to a critical examination of what’s being said. 2) As I eluded to above, the book might also abstract the hard sciences (i.e. computer science) just enough to generate some creativity on the part of the reader. It can either make accessible what wouldn’t be otherwise (/make consumable some otherwise dry material) or allow for re-imaginations on the part of more advanced readers. 3) Finally, related to the other uses I just outlined, The Lost Origin can be a lesson in storytelling – not its storytelling, per se, but storytelling in general. Say anything about the book, it re•minds us of the power of narrative, the rhetorical significance a narrative can have “[i]n all that sea of useless information” (Asensi, location 1246 in kindle edition).

Education of Ethics::Ethics of Education (Cheating Lessons II)

Two major themes emerge early on in Part II of James Lang’s Cheating Lessons, themes that either complement or contradict each other depending on how one views it. In discussing Ken Bain’s research and the lessons that can be derived from it (What the Best College Teachers Do), the author pauses to stress the importance of asking “big questions” in class. Teachers and students alike share in the drive to answer life’s grandest conundrums – as Lang puts it, questions of “money and sex and morality” (63). These “big questions” are the impetus of every class no matter the subject, they are the driving force behind much of human pursuit and it’s the teacher’s responsibility to contextualize their subject in relation to this existential inquiry. Lang then piggyback’s on this proposal to declare, “…we have to first help students see the ways in which our course material connects meaningfully to our lives, or can help us solve problems or enrich our lives” (Lang 70). I interpret this to mean that on top of rooting the material in the grander philosophical debate on the phenomena of existence the teacher should also narrow the focus of the material’s aims to address the student’s present and future every day lives. The latter task constitutes the “’applied’ nature of our disciplines,” whereas the former task serves their unapplied, or inapplicable, characteristics (Lang 72). There is a distinct difference between these two “themes” – of a teacher’s obligation to speak to either the student’s existential yearning or his/her need for practical knowledge – and yet it seems one begets the other. Lang is tracing the learning curve from the “big questions,” through our disciplines and teaching material, and into the life-practice of every day. Erase the center step and we simply have an apt definition of ethics. What the author is so skillfully mapping out is both an education of ethics and an ethics of education. From the recognition of self and our existence in the world we gain the will to act in that world. Our disciplines act as the filters and flavors of this flow. In being reminded of this, we should also be reminded of the ethical nature of education, or rather that education plays such an integral role in the ethical process that they quickly become synonymous.

Oppositional Education: Cheating as Rational Response

The beginning chapters of James Lang’s Cheating Lessons are subtle in their cultural critique. Lang’s approach is exacting – if steeped in the rhetoric of “dispositional” vs. “contextual” factors of cheating – in that he addresses the elusive source causes of cheating instead of blindly taking aim in its direction. No, cheating is not the enemy, but rather the culturally rooted individual (“dispositional”) and environmental (“contextual”) causes of cheating become Lang’s target. If I had to critique these opening pages for anything it would be that the author refuses to come right out and say it: the problem with cheating is the problem with any educational apparatus when it’s mapped onto a highly classist and ethically confused society. It’s an issue of where we place our value as much as it is about our intersubjective evaluation.

Rational Cheating?

Where Lang really hits the nail on the head is in his deconstruction of this process of evaluation… evaluation not on the part of the teacher but the learner. The author places himself in the shoes of a rational student (students are, too, rational beings), one who, when faced with a task or is assigned one, evaluates the situation as it compares to what he knows to be “appropriate” to him and his environment – how appropriate is the difficulty, the expectations, the outcome, the recompense. In this way the student’s perception of what is “realistic” factors in, his/her self-efficacy – a socially, as much as individually, defined conception – leading toward ‘rational behaviors,’ not worst of which might be to cheat (Lang 48-49). Lang takes the case of an instructor who is perceived to be unfair: “Cheating becomes a logical response to such a situation” (49, my emphasis). The reason I stress the terms “logical” and “rational” is to highlight how students, given the right dispositional and contextual factors as well as teaching environment, naturalize cheating in reaction to what are often arbitrary (or at least poorly explained) and sometimes domineering requirements. As Lang’s examination of how a student’s peers – his/her immediate social surroundings – influence cheating rates indicates, there is a culture of cheating that behaves much like an oppositional force, political or otherwise, except it’s on a slightly smaller scale. Cheating can be both “rational” and defiant, the logical reaction to inequality for which the school and, too often, the teacher, stand.

Dennis Baron and the Denaturalization of Literacy Technology

Some of the insights raised in Dennis Baron’s “From Pencil to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technology” explain well a recent phenomenon that I only noticed earlier this year: students are beginning to take pictures of slides and videos of videos in class. This seems a peculiar, yet logical, extension of the turn toward “writing with pictures,” even if the wording gets reversed to “pictures with writing.” Baron suggests that although there may be a new semiotic layer (or layers) added in the process of abstracting the origin and originary process of writing (writer → computer processor → digital slide projection → digital photograph → reader), the fact of their nature as denaturalized and thus technologically/culturally determined sets these tools of language on semi-even footing. It’s a good example of how language itself plays “control” to the experiments of media; technology may evolve rapidly but language and, more specifically, literacy, tend to lag behind. This may mean that those students who prefer to take pictures of slides instead of write down their information either by hand or in a computer processor will suffer the cognitive slippage between record(ing) and comprehension, the technology outstripping their ability to register completely its uses and effects. But that slippage, Baron goes on, might only equate to that that occurs/ed between handwriting and computer processing, a gap that one might argue has been more than made up for over the course of only a few decades, if that.

Writing with images::images with writing

This phenomenon becomes an even better example when paired with Baron’s later discussion of “digitization,” which also might be understood as “computerization” or even “imagization.” The process of digitization, as he describes it, is often the process of denaturalizing the text object, removing it from its basis in imprinted fact. With digitization comes the loss of complete trust in the text or image; any thought of “originality” is instantly corrupted given the possibility of invisible alterations or edits. In other words, it can be difficult to take the digital text/image as is without wondering over its history of production. Fraud looms over every representation. Here, I believe, is where Baron hits on a potentially liberating theorization of digitization and digital media (it being only the latest technological transformation language has undergone): a mode of writing whose form self-scrutinizes in its very being, challenging its rhetorical conception and the method by which we make meaning. Such epistemological confrontations are hardwired into language itself, but it’s only through the newest literacy technologies that these roots are revealed – once a writing technology is “naturalized” (perhaps the way Thoreau “naturalized” the pencil), its seams disappear. Deep historical materialism like Baron’s illuminates this cyclical tendency to naturalize writing technologies; the question it leaves open-ended is how to best combat this trend, or rather harness it in the aims to develop a more savvy literacy.