In the first part of these reflections on Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman Year, I looked at how Professor Cathy Small’s pop-ethnographic immersion into undergraduate life at Northern Arizona University might be considered an example of a minor academic genre of disciplinary reflection that bridges the perceived gap between research and teaching within higher education. By choosing to take ‘student culture’ as the site for her anthropological research, Small not only provides an engaging, entry-level introduction to anthropology but also provides anthropological insights relevant for teaching and learning more generally. Most notably, she notes how the academy’s idealized vision of ‘student culture’ as primarily a learning community has become fragmented by the competing demands of working and consumer lifestyles (the domination of abstract labour), one of the effects of which is to transform the activity of individual learning into something more “work-like” as students are required to work more efficiently at being “students”. In this second part, I want to consider the implications of this in relation to the idea of communities of learning in the context of the professionalization of social networks more generally.
3. Learning Communities
If student culture has become ‘professionalized’ as another facet within the fragmented demands of working life, what happens to the academic communities that academics idealize as the imagined basis of student culture? In a recently published article on the history of teaching excellence, I traced the emergence of the idea of teaching excellence within the English educational policy to what Bill Readings characterized as the growing “Americanization” of global higher education (Readings 1996: 4), and situated this in the context of the influence of Ernest Boyer’s re-conceptualization of scholarship (and so the teaching-research nexus) in response to theories of human capital and prompted by anxieties over the need to develop a learning society.
One aspect of such Americanization that I didn’t have time to talk about in that article is the influence of Boyer’s emphasis on “communities of learning” in the Carnegie Foundation’s Campus Life: In Search of Community (1990). Although Boyer wasn’t the only or the first to discuss communities of learning, the practice of which can be dated in the US back to Alexander Meiklejohn in the late 1920s, Tinto (2003: 7, n.1) attributes their recent popularity to a series of reports and studies in the 1980s and 1990s, including Alexander Astin’s Achieving Educational Excellence: A Critical Assessment of Priorities and Practices in Education (1985) and Boyer’s College: The undergraduate experience in America (1987). I have traced the influence of the latter’s work upon American and British Higher Education policy, first as US Commissioner of Education in the late 1970s, where he had sought to shift federal priorities from mere quantitative access to education towards the qualitative promotion of educational excellence across the sector, linked to the increasing demands of what he referred to as the learning society, and then as the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1980s.
As Cathy Small points out in My Freshman Year (44), the Carnegie Foundation’s Campus Life: In Search of Community responds to the same issues of the social and cultural fragmentation of the student body that she had experienced in her own project. Boyer attributed a ‘declining quality of life on campus’ to the fragmentation caused in part by a growing and increasingly diverse student body:
During the last fifty years …enrollments have exploded… Women, minorities, and older students have enrolled in larger numbers, making the nation’s campuses intellectually richer and culturally more diverse. However, strains and tensions associated with change have also become apparent in campus life …It was in this climate that The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in cooperation with the American Council on Education, launched a study of campus life …Many of the issues faced by colleges and universities reach far beyond the campus. America seems to be increasingly divided, racial tensions seem to be increasing, the gap between rich and poor has widened, and self-indulgence is celebrated, while service is undervalued. However, when all is said and done people do need one another. No one can make it alone. If colleges and universities cannot find common goals, if higher education cannot overcome the intellectual and social separations that so diminish the quality of life on campus, what can be expected from society at large? But, if purposefulness, openness, justice, discipline, caring, and celebrativeness can become hallmarks of campus life, not only will the integrity of higher education be affirmed, but perhaps renewal of the nation can also be realized. (Boyer 1990: 1-5 )
In response to a declining sense of national cohesiveness – the hallmark of capitalist modernity, it should of course be noted, since at least Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy – the Carnegie Foundation proposed six principles of an effective learning community that could provide the model for wider cultural unity: to be educationally purposeful (the sharing of academic goals and work between students and staff to strengthen teaching and learning), open (the uncompromising protection of freedom of expression and civility), just (the honouring of the sacredness of the person and the pursuit of diversity), disciplined (the acceptance of group obligations and the guidance of well-defined governance procedures), caring (the sensitive support of the well-being of each member and the encouragement of service to others), and celebrative (the affirmation of the heritage of the institution).
At the heart of many of these principles is a vision of the recognition and reward of teaching excellence, understood in terms of active, critical and lifelong learning fostered within learning communities:
Still, as the first priority, a college should be committed to excellence in education, and college, at its best, is a place where students, through creative teaching, are intellectually engaged …And yet at a college or university of quality, the classroom should be the place where community begins. Educator Parker Palmer strikes precisely the right note when he says, “Knowing and learning are communal acts.” If we view student life from this perspective, then strengthening community rests not just with counselors, chaplains, residence hall supervisors, or the deans, but also with faculty who care about students and engage them in active learning. With this vision, the great teachers not only transmit information, but also create the common ground of intellectual commitment. They stimulate active, not passive, learning in the classroom, encourage students to be creative, not conforming, and inspire them to go on learning long after college days are over. We urge, therefore, that colleges and universities reward not only research and publication, but great teaching, too. (Carnegie 1990: 12)
Although Boyer (1987: 15) claimed he did ‘not wish to romanticize the notion of “College as Community”,’ his reference to Parker Palmer’s To Know As We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education (1983) attests to a deeply spiritual ‘recovery of community’ (to quote the title of Parker’s preface to his work), one that would seem indebted to Boyer’s and Parker’s shared Christian faith (Jacobsen & Jacobsen, 2014). Indeed, Parker’s rejection of an objectivist model of education for the ‘risky business’ of a living encounter between subjects (Parker 1990, Parker 1998: 16, Parker 2015: 9-10) anticipates more recent work by Gert Biesta and is perhaps rooted in a similar Christian existentialism (cf. my own engagement with Biesta’s work here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14681366.2016.1160672).
This spiritual ‘renewal of the nation’ through the ‘recovery of [the learning] community’ – a moral economy that underpins Boyer’s own political economy of human capital – also suggests the social limits of Boyer’s educational vision, which precedes from the family and culminates in a vision of individual character (cf. Boyer 1996: 4-8). Roth and Lee (2006: 28) have pointed out similar problems in recent theorizing and implementation of learning communities and the associated idea of communities of practice, which are ‘artificially fitted into dualistic epistemologies that reducing knowing and learning to the individual within the disciplines of psychology or to the collective in the sociology of education’. The critical theorist Walter Benjamin, as I’ve described elsewhere, regarded these limitations as inherent to bourgeois educational theory, which he claimed revolved in an undialectical manner around the two poles of psychology and ethics.
As Roth and Lee argue (2006: 28), this idealistic and individualistic conception of learning communities overlooks a number of problems: there is little consensus in the scholarship regarding what exactly constitutes a learning community; learning rarely involves a single, homogeneous community of practice but usually several distinct communities with different practical motives; and the totality of exchange relations that characterize any community in wider society is often absent within formal education. In other words, recent scholarship on learning communities has a tendency either to generalize the term in such a way that it merely characterizes something largely omnipresent within formal education and so undistinctive (for the purpose of their statistical analysis of National Survey of Student Engagement scores, for example, Zhao and Kuh (2004: 9) define a learning community as ‘a formal program where groups of students take two or more classes together’) or else to capture distinctive developments that are more disciplinarily specific and so unrepresentative of learning as a whole (‘most of the handful of multiple-institution studies that have been reported,’ Zhao and Kuh (2004: 8) point out, ‘are from the two-year college sector or focused on students in specific disciplines such as engineering,’ where the development of learning communities involves a shift away from ‘expecting students to come up with the “right” answer which is characteristic of traditional pedagogical approaches such as the large lecture class’ to ‘peer learning and interaction’).
As Roth and Lee (2006) point out, attempts to measure the efficacy of learning communities revert to individualized metrics of grade increase – and one would expect, in the near future, earnings increases – that overlook a larger sense of the wider social impact of learning communities, or even of higher education in general, for those that don’t experience them, or differentials between different kinds of learning communities or levels of education, since members of an institution or a society can’t all be in the same learning community or enjoy the same “elite” education without undermining the nature and cohesion of that community or institution itself. To make the obvious point, analyses need to reflectively incorporate methodologies capable of demonstrating that grade or wage differences produced by the presence of learning communities, or education more generally, aren’t actually the result of a negative impact upon those lacking or regarded as lacking such experiences or credentials. To the extent that the promotion of learning communities expresses a sense of wider social fragmentation, it is hard to imagine that these can be overcome by educational means, in the way Boyer imagines, because education fails to collectively and cohesively address the root causes of this fragmentation and is likely to exacerbate such divisions.
Small suggests in My Freshman Year that some kinds of learning communities may also contribute to the very fragmentation of the academic body they are intended to overcome. As Small argues, there can be a ritual function to certain kinds of teaching practices, that through their very performance attempt ‘to establish the perception of the classroom’ according to a powerful ‘shared American ideal of community: a place of equality, informality, intimacy, and reciprocity’ (93). This can be seen in the obligatory, round-robin class introductions and small-group discussions and presentations that permeate learning in higher education, activities that – as effective and significant as they are – reassert the value of the individual and the small group at the expense of the larger community precisely because there is no practical possibility of larger community. Indeed, the international students Small speaks to identify ‘the frequency of group [work,] projects and presentations’ as characteristic of a distinctively American academic approach’ (82).
Indeed, the multiplication of these community-building groups actually makes it more difficult to cohere into a larger whole:
…efforts at building community [often] compete with the demand for choice… Because requiring common experiences is vastly unpopular…AnyU, like many universities today, encourages community through elective participation… The proliferation of event choices, together with the consistent message to “get involved,” and the ever-available option of dropping out, creates a self-contradictory system. Students are confronted with an endless slate of activities vying for their time. Every decision to join something new pulls at another commitment, fragmenting the whole even further. Not only people but also community are spread thin …With varying degrees of success, this was the pattern of “community involvement” that operated at various levels of the university: a multiplicity of voluntary activities, a handful of participants at each, and renewed efforts to create new activities that were more relevant and attractive, resulting in an even greater proliferation of choices and fragmentation of the whole …They genuinely want to have a close community, while at the same time they resist the claims that community makes on their schedule and resources in the name of individualism, spontaneity, freedom, and choice. (43-47)
This suggests, perhaps, that the ideal of the learning community, preserved as a residual, ritualistic and collective memory within education as a response to wider social transformations, is no longer adequate to the mass system of higher education produced by those very social transformations. Or, to recontextualize the words of the German cultural critic and philosopher Siegfried Kracauer (1995: 326), truth is threatened only by the naïve affirmation of educational values that social changes have rendered unreal, which therefore deflect attention from the external damages of society onto the private individual; under these circumstances, the educational experience of fragmentation, disorder and distraction is closer to the truth of social reality today than any spiritual invocation of community.
4. The Social Network
For Kracauer, as for Walter Benjamin, these broader social changes were not simply the result of, but nonetheless often received their clearest expression in, the newest technology. Taking a cue from Kracauer’s and Benjamin’s analyses of the affect of cinema on the modern work of art, Small’s insights about communities of learning and their difficulties may be analysed in the changed context of the ‘social network’ encapsulated by contemporary digital media.
Moving beyond Small’s own research, what I’d like to speculate here is that her insights from 2002 can be seen to anticipate not merely the way new digital social media and networks quickly came to dominate contemporary student culture, exacerbating the division, fragmentation and distraction that the focus on community had sought to overcome, but also often originated out of the context of campus life she was in the process of examining. If one intellectual history of social media, for example, can be traced from American social psychologist Stanley Milgram (and even, via Milgram’s use of the Californian F-scale, to Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, Sanford, Fromm and the Frankfurt School) and his “small world” experiment with its purported ‘six degrees of separation’ (Travers and Milgram 1969) to the corporate entrepreneurialism of SixDegrees.com (1997) and Friendster (2002), this skyrockets in the R&D networked culture of post-millenial universities. Milgram sought to develop the ‘theoretical machinery needed to deal with social networks,’ demonstrating through empirical research that such networks are ‘in some sense tightly woven, full of unexpected strands linking individuals seemingly far removed from one another in physical or social space’ (Travers and Milgram 1969: 441 & 426; others such as Kleinfield (2002), have questioned the scientific validity of his claims). Milgram’s (1984) own infamous experiments concerning obedience to institutional structures of authority and the “cyranic illusion,” in which an interlocutor fails to detect that a speaker is relaying the words of another transmitted by hidden radio, further suggest the extent to which such social networks might also function asocially, that is, coercively, deceptively or instrumentally.
Facebook, for example, was infamously developed by Harvard undergraduate Mark Zukerberg from his 2003 program “face mash,” which compiled photographs of Harvard students from hacked university ID images and compared for students to rank in terms of attractiveness. An earlier project, CourseMatch, enabled students to make decisions about courses based on which and how many students had enlisted on specific courses and Zuckerberg also expanded on face mash by compiling images of Augustan-era paintings and allowing other students to share notes before an art history exam:
In one class—one of his stupid Cores called Art in the Time of Augustus—he’d supposedly fallen so far behind that he’d almost forgotten about an exam that was going to be worth a large percentage of his overall grade. He’d had no time to study for the damn thing— so he’d reportedly figured out a unique way of dealing with the situation. He’d created a quick little Web site where he posted all the artwork that was going to be on the exam and invited people in the class to comment—effectively creating an online crib sheet for the test. He’d essentially gotten the rest of the class to do the work for him—and he’d aced the exam, saving his grade. (Mezrich 2009: 73)
Xiaonei (now known as Renren), meaning “on-campus,” was founded by students at Tingjing and Tsinghua universities in 2005, and for a long time ‘primarily targeted and restricted its use to college students’ (Martinze-Aleman and Wartman 2008: 4). Evan Spiegel’s Snapchat app may have began life in 2011 as a final project in a Stanford product design class but it infamously originated in the context of sexting anxieties. These ‘dorm room companies’ certainly built upon the technological and corporate resources of existing social media and capital investment that had begun to flood into universities in the wake of concerns over automation and the learning society, but the specific success of their innovations emerged from the – sometimes misogynistic, alienated and asocial – characteristics of contemporary campus life, what Small herself encountered as an increasingly networked, professionalized and instrumentalized “culture”.
‘When I asked students in interviews whether they felt they had a “community” at AnyU, most said yes,’ Small writes:
But what they meant by community were these personal networks of friends …small, ego-centred groups that were the backbone of most students’ social experience in the university …There were few open invitations in these exchanges …Among members of the same network, however, there were constant interactions… for many students, their social lives at the university consisted of repeated contacts with the same people, who constituted that student’s personal network. Once networks were formed, usually by the end of the freshman year, students tended to stay with their groups, maintaining intense and frequent interactions with their network and more superficial and sparse contacts with others. The way that student social life is formed necessarily affects issues of diversity’ (55 -58)
To be clear, I am not suggesting that social media is responsible for the kind of fragmentation described but rather that it emerges as a response to the same changes in social conditions that produce such fragmentation and often functions as a highly effective response to it. For the same reason, nor am I suggesting that social media could be used as a way to overcome such fragmentation and recover the lost sense of community sought by Boyer and others. Just as the competing demands of work and consumer culture intrude upon the time, space and community of learning, so the personal networks Small describes remain multiple and diffuse, and, with the proliferation of social media, can continue to endure virtually, further permeating the university. While Small argues (143) that the coercive social norms that permeate learning could be identified with the mode of discourse Michael Moffat (1989) characterized as “Undergraduate Cynical,” it remains important to assess to what extent these norms have developed as distinctive expressions of the professionalization of the social per se.
5. Social Capital
Milgram’s work on the small-world problem heralded ‘what was to become a major area of study in the sociology of communication: the study of social capital’ (Lunt 2009: 125) and much recent scholarship (Ellison, Steinfield, Lampe 2007, Cadima, Ojeda and Monguet 2012, Newton 2013) has sought, often in rather uncritical ways, to analyze social networks of learning in terms of social capital. The latter has been defined by, among others, Robert D. Putnam (1995: 65):
By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital – tools and training that enhance individual productivity – “social capital” refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.
For Putnam (2009:19), social capital refers to connections among individuals and the social networks that arise from them, whereas human capital refers to individuals. As Putnam (1995: 72, quoting Wuthnow) points out, although the rise of small support groups may be considered a counter-trend to the perceived decline of social capital associated with community, these networks of small groups (which might be said to mirror the rise of new kinds of learning communities through seminars and small groups projects) might actually represent the opposite:
Small groups may not be fostering community as effectively as many of their proponents would like. Some small groups merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others. The social
contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Come
if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone’s opinion. Never
criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied ….We can imagine that
[these small groups] really substitute for families, neighborhoods, and broader
community attachments that may demand lifelong commitments, when, in fact, they
Similarly Cadima, Ojeda and Monguet’s (2012: 297) research suggests that social networks might hamper learning, to the extent that learners tend ‘not to go to the channel of the highest quality of information, but rather to go to the channel of the highest accessibility,’ that ‘interaction is much more common within a group than inter group, so people in the same group tend to have the same ideas and opinion, to interpret the past in the same way and to have similar expectations of the future’ and so that ‘some students were structurally advantaged or disadvantaged as a result of their network positions.’ Rather than addressing the attempt to foster the social capital of social networks of learning in a more critical vein, they instead conclude that an understanding of social network analysis itself might provide a powerful tool for students in relation to learning communities, because ‘enhancing students’ awareness about social structure can have potential effects on their performance’ (Cadima, et al. 2012: 302-3).
This conclusion is based on research related to the improved performance – in terms of evaluation, promotion and retention – of company executives educated in the network of social capital through corporate leadership programs, but only for those actively engaged in the learning process (Burt and Ronchini 2007: 1180). This suggests not that all social networks yield improved learning performance but that an awareness of the role of social networks permits some students to harness social capital more instrumentally; contrary to the claim such networks better engage students in the learning process, it also suggests that such awareness is predicated on the active engagement in learning that such networks are themselves proposed to produce. One might even surmise that the performance of active engagement – whether faked or genuine – is the precondition for success not because it contributes directly to gains in learning but because it is rewarded by peers and educators (and the failure to exhibit such engagement – whether genuinely or cynically – is punished). The professional student, the learner who works at performing learning most efficiently, is acquiring the soft skills, including manipulation of social capital, demanded of human capital in the professional workplace.
In light of such claims, it is odd to consider that a small number of recent commentators have proposed an unlikely source for the recovery of a learning community in the increasingly fragmented world of social networks. Tokumitsu (2017) has recently argued in defence of the lecture, on the basis that what is often overlooked in standard criticisms of the lecture – that students retain little information – is the very social dimension that, I have suggested, learning communities are praised for:
Far from being one-sided, lectures are a social occasion. The regular timing of lectures contributes to their sociality, establishing a course’s rhythm. The weekly lecture, or pair of lectures, draws students together at the same time and place, providing a set of ideas to digest while reading supplementary material and breaking into smaller discussion sections. Classrooms are communities, and typically lectures are the only occasion for the entire group to convene physically. Remove the impetus to gather — either by insinuating that recorded lectures are just as effective or by making the lecture optional — and the benefits of community disappear …While lectures won’t necessarily introduce students to their best friends or future partners, they do require attendees to get dressed, leave the house, and participate in a shared experience …Like a metronome, lectures regularly punctuate the week, grounding other elements of students’ lives by, for instance, encouraging regular sleep schedules and study periods, which can also reduce anxiety and stress. …If public lectures did not draw sizable crowds, then museums, universities, bookstores, and community centers would have abandoned them long ago. The public knows that, far from being outdated, lectures can be rousing, profound, and even fun.
To this, we might add, in the context of the preceding discussions of some of the pedagogic limitations of social networks of learning with respect to individuality, accessibility and diversity, that (good) lectures – somewhat paradoxically – might offer a renewed time and space for collectivity, equality and independent thought. Tokumitsu argues that (good) lectures encourage a process of active listening; the critical theorist Oskar Negt (Krause and Negt 2006) goes further and suggests that the opportunity for ‘unburdened listening’ also contributes to a process of public thinking not only for the lecturer but also the student:
In this way, I could fascinate people with what I call public thinking. I have learned this from Adorno …Adorno spoke based on his notes almost without preparation, just like following one of my favourite texts, Kleist’s “On the gradual formulation of ideas while speaking”. This has always induced students to also think by themselves and learn …Myself and others have learned much more through such lectures than by any other means. The seminars with Horkheimer and Adorno for example with about 20, 25, 30 people were really depressing and painful, because the pressure to not only look intelligent but also to say intelligent things, has put students under so much stress. In contrast unburdened listening (entlastetes Zuhören) depends on some measure of anonymity and this anonymity has something productive about it.
Ironically, perhaps one of the most misattributed quotes concerning education not as a process of knowledge transmission but intellectual engagement – ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’ – most likely derives from Plutarch’s (1927) lecture ‘On Listening to Lectures’, where he insists that ‘right listening is the beginning of right living’. Negt may be referring not only to Kleist but to Plutarch when he insists on the value of unburdened listening; for Plutarch, the hearer, no less than the speaker, has a function to perform in the lecture, ‘for he is a participant in the discourse and a fellow-worker with the speaker …just as in playing ball it is necessary for the catcher to adapt his movements to those of the thrower and to be actively in accord with him, so with discourses, there is a certain accord between the speaker and the hearer, if each is heedful of his obligation.’ The ‘mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth,’ Plutarch insists, and if a person ‘comes to another to share the benefit of a discourse, and does not think it necessary to kindle from it some illumination for himself and some thinking of his own …he gets, as it were, a bright and ruddy glow in the form of opinion imparted to him by what is said, but the mouldiness and darkness of his inner mind he has not dissipated nor banished by the warm glow of philosophy.’
Or, as Small suggests, gesturing to what I want to suggest as the principle of the “good-enough teacher”:
Most seniors will agree that they’ve forgotten much of what they learned from classes, even from the semester before. Looking back on college, they will have claimed to have learned more about themselves, their abilities, and their relationships than about subject areas. And when all is said and done, they will be satisfied with their college experience: 87 percent will rate it “good” or “excellent”.’ (131)
In the third and final part of these notes, I want to return to some of the limitations of Small’s own anthropological insights in the context of the relationship between the teacher and the student not a hierarchical distinction between two separate identities but as a spectrum or medium along which it is possible for both teachers and students to traverse.
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