An Urgency of Teachers

"Teaching to Transgress" and "An Urgency of Teachers": The Individual and the Institutional Application of Critical Digital Pedagogy

I now see the value of first reading Teaching to Transgress before we came to An Urgency of Teachers. bell hooks’ journey is a private one (noted here). Her book reads as a memoir of her coming to theory as she made her way in the world of academia and beyond. For me, it was a good introduction to Critical Digital Pedagogy. Her journey became my journey

An Urgency of Teachers touches on the same material. But it provides a more comprehensive look at the topic. It addresses all its stakeholders - teachers, students, administrators, governments, and corporations. Doing so, it provides a glimpse at the immensity, not to mention the duration, of the project. Indeed, there is much work to do. But there is hope. In The Significance of Theory (cited here), Terry Eagleton notes the light at the end of the tunnel. The need for Critical Digital Pedagogy dissolves when it has nothing more to restore. When it doesn't have to ask itself, What’s the matter here?

hooks’ book implies what it means to be human; An Urgency of Teachers states it. It discusses the concept of slipperiness (This is the first time I’ve ever heard the word used as a virtue). Critical digital pedagogy is slippery for two reasons. It claims relevance within classroom walls. And its relevance extends (slips) beyond into the complicated practice of being human. Slipperiness makes Critical Digital Pedagogy an effective teaching tool. It also offers a way to look at a world foregrounded in technology. In other words, its application is manifold.

Pieces are fitting into place. An Urgency of Teachers features words designed to pose questions. We can find a correlation with hooks and Eagleton. They believe that that the best way to effect change is to revert to the questioning mode of a child. To use words designed to do work in the world. As hooks notes, theory is useless unless it’s accompanied by praxis. The same points reiterated in different places reinforces the salience of our reading.

I’m a big fan of collective nouns. They are witty; they are memorable; and, characteristic-wise, they are spot-on. (Please indulge me for citing some here):

  • Apes: a shrewdness
  • Badgers: a cete
  • Bats: a colony, cloud or camp
  • Bears: a sloth or sleuth
  • Bees: a swarm
  • Buffalo: a gang or obstinacy
  • Camels: a caravan
  • Cats: a clowder or glaring; Kittens: a litter or kindle; Wild cats: a destruction
  • Cobras: a quiver
  • Crocodiles: a bask
  • Crows: a murder
  • Dogs: a pack; Puppies: a litter
  • Donkeys: a drove
  • Eagles: a convocation
  • Elephants: a parade
  • Elk: a gang or a herd
  • Falcons: a cast
  • Ferrets: a business
  • Fish: a school
  • Flamingos: a stand
  • Foxes: a skulk or leash
  • Frogs: an army
  • Geese: a gaggle
  • Giraffes: a tower
  • Gorillas: a band
  • Hippopotami: a bloat
  • Hyenas: a cackle
  • Jaguars: a shadow
  • Jellyfish: a smack
  • Kangaroos: a troop or mob
  • Lemurs: a conspiracy
  • Leopards: a leap
  • Lions: a pride
  • Moles: a labor
  • Monkeys: a barrel or troop
  • Mules: a pack
  • Otters: a family
  • Oxen: a team or yoke
  • Owls: a parliament
  • Parrots: a pandemonium
  • Pigs: a drift or drove (younger pigs), or a sounder or team (older pigs)
  • Porcupines: a prickle
  • Rabbits: a herd
  • Rats: a colony
  • Ravens: an unkindness
  • Rhinoceroses: a crash
  • Shark: a shiver
  • Skunk: a stench
  • Snakes: a nest
  • Squirrels: a dray or scurry
  • Stingrays: a fever
  • Swans: a bevy or game (if in flight: a wedge)
  • Tigers: an ambush or streak
  • Toads: a knot
  • Turkeys: a gang or rafter
  • Turtles: a bale or nest
  • Weasels: a colony, gang or pack
  • Whales: a pod, school, or gam
  • Wolves: a pack
  • Zebras: a zeal

Consider what we’re doing here. The imperative work we do to impact the heart and mind by an education that is concerned with the human. Doesn’t this effort merit its own collective noun? An Urgency of Teachers, indeed!

An Urgency of Teachers: the Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel

Critical pedagogy is as a philosophy and education approach slippery enough to find its way into almost every conversation. And so this book includes tangents towards digital humanities, education technology, digital writing, social justice, plagiarism and academic integrity, instructional design, and more. It is in the slipperiness of critical digital pedagogy that we find its most valuable application (...) 

This is work increasingly difficult in a world where the possibility of "being human" is not equally distributed - a world where who we can be be, the education available to us, the resources which may support our curiosity, our intelligence, our imaginations, has become more and more dependent on the technologies our institutions deploy. It is this unevenness, this inequity, that critical digital pedagogy seeks to rout.

And thus, our title "an urgency of teachers" describes the necessary shift we must make toward valuing more the work - affective, flawed, nuanced, unfolding - that teachers (all of them) do online and in classrooms, and also the important work wrought upon the heart and mind by an education is concerned with the human.

In a digital culture shaped by algorithms that neither know nor accurately portray truth, teaching has an import (urgent) role to play.

The words here were never mean to just sit on a page. They were always designed to pose questions. They were always designed to do work in the world.



The Ecstasy and the Agony of EdTech: New Student Orientation, Fall 2020.

This past summer, I worked on the educational design of New Student Orientation. Our sudden veer to a 100% digital environment in the middle of Spring term challenged us. Remotely, we created a remote experience.
It was a triumph of technology. Forced to work from home, everyone and everything came together. We lived on two platforms: Zoom for communication, Blackboard for content. Colleges had their sessions; advisors had theirs. For the most part, everything came off without a hitch. It was an iterative process. Should we have to do it again - fingers crossed - we would do it even better. Soon we will return to a F2F student orientation. Still, I am confident we learned many lessons on the best use of technology.
One of the projects on which I worked was the Faculty Panel Videos. Tim Caron and Kim Costino conceived the project. It featured two sessions, four faculty members in one, three in the other. Tim asked the faculty to describe their student experiences. Their challenges, frustrations, and coping strategies. It was a fantastic idea that showed new students that their professors were once like them.
I remember thinking how I would respond to these questions were I on one of the Panels. One question in particular stuck with me. Based on your experience, what would you tell students so they could learn from your mistakes? My first response would have been, Get to know your professors during office hours. More than anything else, that will humanize your education.
I’d ask them to consider the various technologies they take for granted. Especially social media with its issues of privacy and the permanence of posts.
I’d conclude with an introduction to Turnitin. I would prefer they heard about it first in an informal talk during Orientation. I’d mention the five problems that “A Guide for Resisting EdTech: the Case Against Turnitin” lists:
  1. It undermines students’ authority over their own work
  2. It places students in a role of needing to be “policed.”
  3. It creates a hostile environment
  4. It supplants good teaching with use of inferior technology.
  5. And, last but not least, it violates student privacy.
I’d do so because it’s important that students don’t accept these technologies at face value. Educational technology plays a tug of war with student agency. Students need to know the costs as well as the benefits.

"Critical Pedagogy and Design," Sean Michael Morris

What lies at the heart of these literacies also forms the primary concern of critical digital pedagogy: that is, agency The agency to know, understand, and thereby be able to act upon, create, or resist one’s reality. For the student, this can mean anything from knowing how and why to read terms of service for a digital product or platform; recognizing the availability of networks and community in digital spaces, even in the LMS; understanding the multitude of ways that digital identity can be built, compromised, and protected; discovering methods for establishing presence and voice, and the wherewithal to reach out to others who are to discover the same.

Once Upon a Time in the Teaching of Art History

I had several expectations when I took this class. I wanted to revisit theory. I wanted to apply it to critical pedagogy. I wanted to share experiences with a like-minded community. And I wanted to revise my teaching philosophy statement.
So far, the class fulfilled my expectations. I worked through - and posted on - bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. I’m doing the same with An Urgency of Teachers. I am more comfortable with, more empowered by theory. (Also with art theory. To great profit, I’m taking an autodidact course on 20th century art theory. Already, it’s had a huge impact on my critical practice.) And I’m meeting monthly with - and reading weekly contributions by - a group of committed colleagues.
I can see how I can apply these lessons to my asynchronous and online introduction to art class. I have set hooks’ idea of play loose on the way I’m going to set things up for Fall 2021. I like her idea of comes off the throne to decenter authority granted there by droit du professeur. Of coming to voice with students, so that each class is a chorus (and here) and each term a performance. It’s going to be a fun summer.
As a result of this class, the structure of the class will alter to a great extent. So will the content. Introduction to art textbooks frustrate me. First, they cost too much. They’re not even coffee table books, of value after the term ends. I’m now part of the Immediate Access program here on campus. Enrollment in a class triggers an email from the publisher. Students have a prescribed amount of time to buy the book from a link within the email. It saves the bother of trundling off to campus to get a textbook. Better yet, the publisher finally got an eBook version that is readable on a tablet. Best of all, the price has gone down from $200 to $43. That last point alone is a huge selling point.
But there’s still the content. According to art critic Robert Hughes, pale penis people wrote textbook art history. This accounts for problems with exclusion. Publishers have addressed the issue but not, to my thinking, in a satisfactory way. Ham-fisted efforts to feature overlooked artists doesn't feel organic for a survey course. My goal is to write my own textbook, using relevant material available on the Web. But. That. Will. Take. More. Time. Than. I. Can. Currently. Afford. For now, it's a work in progress.
I had a problem with content that wasn’t inclusive, fair, or valid. And then it hit me. I had my evaluation three days ago. I discussed my goal to teach a comprehensive art history course. A class that would include everyone who, for any number of bad reasons, history had overlooked.
In the course of the conversation, the solution hit me. Structure and course and its content like a story.
Once upon a time there was a story of art. People who didn't know better called it THE story of art. It worked for awhile; but it didn't work well enough. There were a lot of artists who didn't fit the traditional demographic. A demographic determined by magisterial pale penis people. For that reason, history excluded them from THE story of art. Along came the Transgressive and Urgent Seventies. People of all ilks, persuasions, and enthusiasms said, Enough! We want a seat at the dinner party.
The content solution presented itself. (The structure solution is a joyous work in progress.) I will package the first half of the class as the Old Canon, white, Western, and withered. As in the problematic traditional textbooks. The second half will feature the New Canon. In the first class I’ll tell the story of how art history used to be. Then I’ll tell the story of how it should be. In that same first lecture, I’ll contextualize the story. I'll cite the whys and wherefores of the way it was, what the problems were. I’ll conclude with the whys and wherefores of why the old way was inadequate to present needs. No one gets knocked off their pedestal. Instead, I will increase the number of pedestals.
I will divide this restructured content into two parts. The Old and the burgeoning New Canon(s). Old Canon, until the midterm. New Canon, for the rest of the class. We will compare and contrast the two Canons. Students will see how art historians is write, codify, and revise the story of art. That empirical knowledge and qualitative assessments are dynamic, not static. That, as with any means of production, the study of cultural activity is relative. Not the production itself, but the way it’s considered. How a comprehensive of art means a fair history of art.
Thanks, bell hooks, I appreciate your inspiration, passion, and insight.

We Don't Need Your Algorithm: A Failure of Educational Technology


"We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time."

—from Little Gidding by T.S. Eliot

bell hooks warns how computers could become more important than people. In my post You Say You Want a Revolution? Okay, But It Won’t Happen Overnight, I wrote:

She raised a tangential issue in “A Revolution of Values'' that interested me. The relationship between people and technology. She quotes Martin Luther King (bold face mine):

When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered. 

Why is that highlight significant? Digital platforms and productivity apps could overrun the practice of teaching. We don’t need to adapt to computers; we need to adapt computers to us. Blackboard is a tool, an extension of our pedagogy. It must serve our needs.


You may be an early adapter to a current hardware or app. You may be curious. Either way, it’s easy to get caught up in technological zeal, educational and otherwise. Such zeal is not new. In 1933, psychologist Sidney Pressey created one of the first teaching machines. It looked like this:

Pressey teaching machine

By today’s standards, it wasn’t much. A clunky way to take multiple choice exams. They claim to relieve teachers of mechanical grading. They claim to make education more efficient, cheaper, and faster. Not to mention more responsive and engaging. I could see the benefit in one instance. If it did free up teachers so they could focus on responding to and engaging with their students.

Was Pressey's machine successful? If we gauge success by the quantity of work students did, then yes, it was. If quality is your measure, though, not so much. Especially his machines' promised responsiveness and engagement. Making rote learning easier doesn’t mean that rote learning is appropriate. There's his appalling excuse for this scientific and objective (read: male) technology. The ranks of subjective, emotional, and untrained (read: female) teachers. Don't. Get. Me. Started.

Fast forward 88 years. EdTech is in full throttle, long before the Coronavirus pandemic mandated virtual learning. The problem of responsiveness and engagement remains. Clicking is not the same thing as engaging. Clicking creates data; it doesn’t correlate to learning.

Audrey Watters warns us of EdTech’s misguided priorities. A focus on scores (grades), not on playing the game well (a student’s minds, bodies, and lives). She reminds us that educational technology is not a neutral, ahistorical, apolitical utility. It’s also a system and a practice; it’s a mindset embedded in schools.

If we’re not careful, such algorithms could dominate students’ lives. Machines, not teachers, could set parameters. Educational efficiency, compliance, and control could trump human dignity, agency, and freedom. The solution? Awareness. The tool? Critical pedagogy. The process? Human centering, or, to use bell hooks’ phrase, a coming to voice.