Wednesday, October 29, 2008
The Architecture of the Post-Modern Mind, Part II
Pedagogy is by definition the art of teaching, and of course its master principles. I call it an art rather than a science because there are a plethora of factors that make it a moving target: 1) the cultural context in which it is done; 2) the previous education of the audience (and the learning and unlearning required of that audience); 3) the epistemic principles in play in that culture (that is the assumptions about how we know what we know in that setting); and 4) the actual way the brain of that setting, era, culture is wired to learn, the habits of the heart and mind that affect this matter.
The setting in which the teacher in the 21rst century finds herself or himself is one in which increasingly the audience is composed of persons primarily geared to and triggered by visual stimuli. This is not a matter of heredity but rather cultural patterning and conditioning. The computer generation, by which I mean most persons glued to a screen since about the mid 80s, present different challenges to the teacher than most of the pre-80s learners they face, and even with the latter, many of them have spent so many years now learning the computer that they too are hard-wired for visual stimuli. Without DVD clips and powerpoints, even the most dynamic lecturers have a hard time reaching these post-modern learners.
And sadly they are all too often lazy learners anyway—“just give me the powerpoints (instead of taking notes)” they say. Or “point me to a website” instead of send me to the library to do original source research on my own. It is a challenging environment for learners and teachers alike. This is especially evident when one is dealing with an online course.
For a visual learner who cannot see the teacher and pick up his or her vibes, signals, body language, or tone of voice nor be able to see how other learners are responding to a class, and when they are taking notes and when nodding off, taking an online course, while it has various advantages, is scary because it is like flying blind, especially if the online classroom does not involve web-cams.
As a result, online courses are far more labor intensive, involve far more explanation, require far more hand-holding because each learner feels alone, off on an island, and largely without viable support and resources, especially if online ones are largely disallowed.
In ever so many ways then the computer generation conditions persons to be very unlike the people Jesus and Paul confronted in the first century A.D. That culture was an oral culture, with only about 15% literacy rate at most. People actually preferred hearing things than seeing them on a page. Documents were secondary to the living voice. This in turn means the Bible is addressed to a radically different sort of audience than we face now, and it presented very different pedagogical challenges. Jesus’ “let those with two good ears” might be replaced by “let those with two good eyes….” today. But there is a further and deeper issue.
Many analysts have pin-pointed the Matrix movies as inaugural and quintessential expressions of post-modernism, not least because virtual reality is portrayed as the real and deeper reality that matters in those movies. And herein lies the problem. For many of the computer generation, there is a preference for virtual reality, to the really real. In other words, in post-modernity there is a tendency to retreat into a mental world of our own making, whether it be “World of War Craft’ or ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ or something else.
This is one reason why the remaining modernists amongst us find people who spend so much time playing video or X box games so annoying. Things are said like “they need to come back to reality” or “they need to get a life” or “they need to go out and play a real game and get some exercise”. Hand maneuvers and increased hand-eye coordination in itself is after all not a very potent form of physical exercise. From the modernist point of view, those glued to computer screens and immersed in computer games are attempting to escape from reality, whether the charge is fair or not.
One of the problems youth ministers have had in reaching youth who are immersed in the computer and gaming and texting culture is that it is hard to get them away from their electronic devices, so often youth ministers go the "if you can't beat them join them route" sponsoring gaming parties. It is hard to get the gamers to relate to people directly, rather than through the buffer of a game or a computer screen.
And unfortunately for Evangelical Christian apologists, most of their apologetical training is geared to dealing with rationalist and modern arguments against God and faith, but in fact the discussion has largely moved on. The post-modern person is less concerned with whether something is logically consistent, and more concerned with whether it is captivating, whether it moves them, whether it interests and entertains them, whether it presents them with an alternative vision of reality.
Virtual reality is seen as more interesting and engaging than reality, and plausible and provocative truthiness is often seen as more engaging than the actual truth about something. In the post-modern age the clear and analytical documentary is replaced by the docu-drama, for what matters is the engaging and moving story. In the post-modern age shock jocks replace NPR dialogue and discourse, and the airwaves are seen as avenues for venting rather than inventing, for pooling one’s ignorance and feelings, rather than pooling one’s knowledge. Or so it seems.
The good news about post-modernity and its educational schemes, is that at least with online courses you largely have disembodied minds interacting, not whole persons. This is a plus in the sense that when one is online bodies, racial features, gender, shyness, matter less, and if all are required to contribute to the class all are able to do so if they can type. I have found that people who would never say ‘boo’ in a traditional class are often barricudas online. It helps those who are challenged or disadvantaged in a normal classroom setting. It levels the playing field, so to speak. Its hard to snow, smooze, or suck up to the teacher when they are miles away and not subject to a certain glance, or certain kinds of flattery. The ethos factors that tend to turn certain students into teachers pets largely disappear online.
If I were to sum up what post-modernity has thus far done to education and pedagogy I would have to say it is a mixed blessing at best. There are times when virtual reality is in fact unreality, and it leads to unreal expectations on the part of those used to learning, gaming, living in a virtual environment.
The cost of accessibility without mobility (i.e. without leaving one’s home, town, state and traveling to get an education) is that one does not really become part of a worshipping community at the locale where the education is delivered, or only in a derived sense does one do so.
I once did an experiment with an on campus class. The class was taped in the TV studio on campus at Asbury, and the students were given the choice to attend the class live in the studio, or in a classroom on campus via Vtel hookup. Many of them chose the latter, particularly the younger members of the class. They liked virtual Ben more than real Ben, not least because he was much bigger up on the screen--- MORE VISIBLE FOR VISUAL LEARNERS. It was a nice humbling experience for me.
Whether we like it or not, education and so pedagogy is changing because our audience and delivery modes have to change to reach them. And when the philosophical underpinnings of post-modernity come with the changes, the teacher finds himself having to adapt and adopt new ways of doing things, virtually all the time.
One has to explain why buying books is required (for the life of me I can't figure out why anyone would prefer a book on Kindle, rather than a real book with cover illustration, actual pages etc.). One has to explain why note taking is important. One has to explain why visual stimuli whilst important are not the be all and end all of education. One has to work to build community in a diverse environment where the class may be meeting in more than one place, or all online virtually, but in reality in 30 different places.
And the ultimate elephant in the room problem is disembodiment of the education. But then disembodiment is one of the spiritual features of post-modernity--- the Gnostic severing of the spiritual from the religious, of the spiritual from the historical, of the spiritual from the traditional. This is what we must discuss in the next post.