Monday, June 1, 2009

sadhappy, anxiouscalm: on career transitions

Today is the first day of my last month at my day job. For almost two years, I've been a team member of Project New Media Literacies, an educational research project based at MIT. It would be a lie for me to say that every minute was exciting, fun, and exhilarating; anyone who's done this kind of work knows that it's often exhausting, frustrating, and stressful.

That's because to do educational research well, you have to care, and you have to care deeply. And this means facing some difficult realities: That the institution of education is deeply flawed in some important and fundamental ways; that educational innovations are often stymied by policy issues and bureaucratic red tape; that most of the time, educational research--even at its most valuable--has a minimal impact on education as a whole.

My work at NML has focused largely on the formal classroom setting, the educational environment that--because of its compulsory nature--offers the greatest opportunity for closing the participation gap that limit some learners' ability to engage with participatory culture in a meaningful way. I've had the chance to talk with some of the most amazing, dedicated teachers I've ever had the good fortune to meet, and I've gotten to sit in on some of their classes. I've seen the everyday miracles they pull off, often thanklessly, without acknowledgement from students, parents, or administrators. Some of these teachers have explained to me what they'd like to do, if they didn't have to deal with state-mandated standardized tests and the policies and curricula intended to boost student scores on these tests. I've heard teachers explain which ideals they've had to give up on, how they've become more cynical or realistic about the impact they can have.

So we're back to burnout, exhaustion, and stress: This is the story of the educator who cares.

I leave NML equipped with a more complete understanding of the complexities and challenges of working in education. I leave knowing I did my best work but wishing I could have done more. I leave more confident in my own abilities but less confident in the possibility for real, lasting transformation of formal learning environments.

And yet I leave NML to begin doctoral study in education.

Despite, or maybe because of, my frustration, I have come to believe that schools are the most important institution America has for working toward social justice. This is where the participation gap is most obvious; this is where class biases--and the racism, sexism, and accompanying approaches to teaching and learning--are simultaneously most apparent and most insidious, and therefore most essential to confront.

I've been writing obsessively here at sleeping alone and starting out early about what I've started calling the social revolution. By this term I mean to suggest that we are immersed in fundamental changes to our society that are so rapid, so deep, and so transformative that we can't yet even say exactly what this revolution will yield; but we know that a new social order is emerging out of the emergent tools, technologies, and practices of a participatory culture.

In fact, as one of my colleagues pointed out, even NML has trouble defining "participatory culture." He argues that while we have little trouble explaining what participatory culture allows for, we struggle to explain what it actually is.

He may be right on this, and he may be wrong. It is true, however, that we don't yet know what valued social structures, practices, and dispositions will emerge out of the participatory practices enabled by new media. In fact, it may be that one of the features of a truly participatory culture is a constant destabilization--perpetual overthrow--of dominant values, mindsets, and skillsets. Christopher Kelty calls this a "constantly 'self-leveling' level playing field." Wouldn't that be scary and at the same time so very neat?

This is the struggle of our society, and one that John Dewey pointed to back at the end of the 19th century, when he proposed development of a laboratory school where educators could try out new approaches to teaching and learning. In setting forth a series of arguments about new ways to think about knowing and cognition, he conceded that
[i]t is... comparatively easy to lay down general propositions like the foregoing; easy to use them to criticize existing school conditions; easy by means of them to urge the necessity of something different. But art is long. The difficulty is in carrying such conceptions into effect—in seeing just what materials and methods, in what proportion and arrangement, are available and helpful at a given time.... There is no answer in advance to such questions as these. Tradition does not give it because tradition is founded upon a radically different psychology. Mere reasoning cannot give it because it is a question of fact. It is only by trying that such things can be found out. To refuse to try, to stick blindly to tradition, because the search for the truth involves experimentation in the region of the unknown, is to refuse the only step which can introduce rational conviction into education.
Beginning this fall, I'll be a graduate student in the Learning Sciences program at Indiana University. The transition makes me simultaneously sad and happy, anxious and calm. Bring it on, says hegemony. I can take you.

It's already been broughten, says revolutionist cat, playing hegemony off.


Rafi said...

I'm sure NML will miss you Jenna, but big congrats on your continuation and deepening into the ed world. I know you'll take IU by storm!

Hillary said...

It's been AMAZING working with you Jenna!! You've taught me so much. I can't to see how you'll rock the school walls in the future!

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