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Against Counteranthropomorphism: The Human Future of Education

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In Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, Stanley Milgram coined the term “counteranthropomorphism” — the tendency we have to remove the humanity of people we can’t see. These may be people on the other side of a wall, as in Milgram’s famous (or infamous) experiments, or people mediated by technology in a virtual classroom. Our turn to digital solutionism has frustrated our attempts at imagining a humane future for higher education. The less we understand our tools, the more we are beholden to them. The more we imagine our tools as transparent or invisible, the less able we are to take ownership of them. It is essential that we consider our tools carefully and critically—that we empty all our LEGOs onto the table and sift through them before we start building. Some tools are decidedly less innocuous than others. And some tools can never be hacked to good use. Remote proctoring tools can’t ensure that students will not cheat. Turnitin won’t make students better writers. The LMS can’t ensure that students will learn. All will, however, ensure that students feel more thoroughly policed. All will ensure that students (and teachers) are more compliant.


Ultimately, the future of education is humans not tools, and our efforts at hacking, forking, and remixing education should all be aimed at making and guarding space for students and teachers. If there is a better sort of mechanism that we need for the work of digital pedagogy, it is a machine, an algorithm, a platform tuned not for delivering and assessing content, but for helping all of us listen better to students. But we can’t get to a place of listening to students if they don’t show up to the conversation because we’ve already excluded their voice in advance by creating environments hostile to them and their work.

Published in: Education

Against Counteranthropomorphism: The Human Future of Education

  1. 1. Against Counteranthropomorphism The Human Future of Education
  2. 2. Jesse Stommel @Jessifer
  3. 3. A year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post responding to a series of student-shaming articles published at the Chronicle of Higher Education.
  4. 4. In that piece, I argued everyone working anywhere even near to education needs to: • Treat the least privileged among us with the most respect. • Recognize the job of a teacher is to advocate for students, especially in an educational system currently under direct threat at almost every turn. • Laugh at ourselves and not at those we and our system have made most vulnerable. • Rant up, not down.
  5. 5. My blog post was read by over 45,000 people and spawned more than two dozen blog responses and hundreds of comments, some from the darker corners of the web.
  6. 6. The Dear Student articles weren’t the first published at the Chronicle to demean students. And they weren’t the last. The first sentence of an article published there just last month: “My students can’t write a clear sentence to save their lives.”
  7. 7. The Chronicle profits by encouraging a culture that pits vulnerable students and teachers against each other. Nobody wins. Not students. Not teachers. Not education in the eyes of its detractors.
  8. 8. Who in our educational system is most vulnerable?
  9. 9. A system of standards, outcomes, and measurement (in which assessment drives learning) is well-served by adjunctification, casualization, and corporatization, making the work of teaching increasingly precarious.
  10. 10. Intersectionality is important when talking about power and hierarchies. Teacher / student is a binary that needs deconstructing but never at the expense of the other identities in play (race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.). No binary exists in a vacuum.
  11. 11. d What I listened to intently during the aftermath of Dear Chronicle were student voices, some of whom commented anonymously: • “Part of the reason why I never asked for help was because I saw what my professors thought of those who did.” • “I dropped out of college, in large part due to the hoops I had to jump through to get my disabilities recognized. I was always so tired of having to justify myself and I didn’t want to have to argue ‘but I’m not like those students’ because then I’d be no better than the people judging me.” • “It’s a lot easier to stay motivated when you’re not made to feel like you’re stupid or a liar. It’s a lot easier to focus on studying when you’re not focused on having to justify yourself.”
  12. 12. This is where the conversation starts. By listening seriously to the voices of students and recognizing that students can be drivers of the conversation about the future of education.
  13. 13. In the 1915 book Schools of To-Morrow, John Dewey wrote: “Unless the mass of workers are to be blind cogs and pinions in the apparatus they employ, they must have some understanding of the physical and social facts behind and ahead of the material and appliances with which they are dealing.”
  14. 14. Digital pedagogy demands we think critically about our tools, demands we reflect actively upon our own practice. So, digital pedagogy means not just drinking the Kool-Aid, but putting the Kool-Aid under a microscope.
  15. 15. The less we understand our tools, the more we are beholden to them. The more we imagine our tools as transparent or invisible, the less able we are to take ownership of them.
  16. 16. In the Milgram experiment, Stanley Milgram asked a “teacher” (the subject of the experiment) to shock a “learner” (an actor) for getting wrong answers on a simple test. An “experimenter” (working with Milgram) would order the teacher to give increasingly powerful shocks, and more often than not, the teacher complied. The study is not without baggage.
  17. 17. Milgram himself describes the device that administered the shocks as “an impressive shock generator. Its main feature is a horizontal line of thirty switches, ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts, in 15-volt increments. There are also verbal designations which range from SLIGHT SHOCK to DANGER-SEVERE SHOCK.” I sense glee in the language Milgram uses (“impressive”), something theatrical in the excess (“thirty switches”), and a fastidiousness in his attention to detail in reporting all this.
  18. 18. The subtler and more intricate or inscrutable the mechanism, the more compliance it generates—because the human brain fails to bend adequately around it.
  19. 19. Tools are made by people, and most (or even all) educational technologies have pedagogies hard-coded into them in advance. This is why it is so essential we consider them carefully and critically —that we empty all our LEGOs onto the table and sift through them before we start building. Some tools are decidedly less innocuous than others. And some tools can never be hacked to good use.
  20. 20. Remote proctoring tools can’t ensure that students will not cheat. Turnitin won’t make students better writers. The LMS can’t ensure that students will learn. All will, however, ensure that students feel more thoroughly policed. All will ensure that students (and teachers) are more compliant.
  21. 21. In his book Obedience to Authority, Stanley Milgram coins the term “counteranthropomorphism”—the tendency we have to remove the humanity of people we can’t see. These may be people on the other side of a wall, as in Milgram’s experiment, or people mediated by technology in a virtual classroom.
  22. 22. Students are not undifferentiated masses of positivity. Each of them is unique and worth acknowledging and engaging individually and respectfully. Some of those interactions are difficult. None are easy. We have to approach these interactions from a place of care.
  23. 23. Photo by flickr user mirando Treating students with respect doesn’t start by comparing them to insects.
  24. 24. We can’t get to a place of listening to students if they don’t show up to the conversation because we’ve excluded their voice in advance by creating environments hostile to them and their work.
  25. 25. Sean Michael Morris writes, “At some point, we need to stop blaming students for the state of education. If, after so many years of controlling student behavior, analyzing their data to understand and curtail that behavior, we are still unhappy with their performance, perhaps it’s time we turn education over to them.”
  26. 26. The work of educating from a place of care might seem abstract, but if our goal is truly to resist the rude standardization of education, we must recognize the ways our failure to acknowledge students as full agents in their learning is a process that runs immediately parallel to the failure to acknowledge teachers as full agents in the classroom. The process that makes teachers increasingly adjunct is the same process that has made students into customers. And the gear that makes this system go depends on the pitting of students and teachers against one another.
  27. 27. The gear that makes this system go is obedience — mere compliance at the expense of critical engagement and complex human understanding.
  28. 28. When our LMSs report how many minutes students have spent accessing a course, what do we do with that information? What will we do with the information when we also know the heart rate of students as they’re accessing (or not accessing) a course? How can teachers begin to see courses as more than just a series of tasks and to see students as more than just rows in a spreadsheet?
  29. 29. Photo by flickr userVictoria Pickering Why do we attempt so often to resolve this...
  30. 30. Photo by flickr userVictoria Pickering Into this?
  31. 31. The bureaucracies of education — seat time, accreditation, grades, credentialing, standards, norming, ranking — are an abuse aimed at making students and teachers into more obedient subjects.
  32. 32. When do we decide that a tool isn’t working, and how can we work together to set it down en masse?
  33. 33. If there is a better sort of mechanism that we need for the work of digital pedagogy, it is a machine, an algorithm, a platform tuned not for delivering and assessing content, but for helping all of us listen better to students.
  34. 34. Photo by flickr user Lorrie McClanahan And, by “listen,” I decidedly do not mean “surveil.” The former implies an invitation to open dialogue, whereas the latter implies a hierarchical relationship through which learners are made into mere data points. My call, then, is for more emphasis on the tools that help us fully and genuinely inhabit digital environments, tools like ears, eyes, or fingers.
  35. 35. Photo by flickr user Fio For education to work, there can be no divide between teachers and students. There must be what Paulo Freire calls “teacher- students.” Specifically, he writes, “no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught.” So, “teacher” becomes a role that shifts, and learning depends upon a community of teacher-students. Any authority within the space must be aimed at fostering agency in all the members of the community. And this depends on a recognition of the power dynamics and hierarchies that this kind of learning environment must actively and continuously work against.
  36. 36. “We often ignore the best resource for informed change, one that is right in front of our noses every day — our students, for whom the most is at stake.” ~ Martin Bickman

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