Tag Archives: knowledge

The teacher’s body

I used to have a pretty decorporealizing view of teaching, back when I was starting out as a classroom ethnographer. I mainly paid attention to the teacher’s voice, to classroom discourse, to power and authority structures. This was a strategy of objectification that I used to find useful, critical, and sufficient. It was also a product of the theoretical atmosphere at the time (2003-4), with its emphasis on language, semiotics, and micropolitics.

But now that I’m teaching, I find myself more and more affected by the weird force of collective gaze and mood that constantly strikes the teacher’s body. To teach is to be observed. To be seen. I used to see teachers as subjects, agents who were generative of social structure. Now it’s sinking in just how much teachers are also objects. Objects of students’ perception. Of their own self-perception. Of historical expectations that they had no hand in creating. They become meteorological instruments measuring the collective weather.

In the classroom I’m constantly getting caught up in these little gusts or gales of shared affect. Sometimes there’s a good atmosphere or a sense of excitement. Other times the room feels confused, lost, paused, stuck. I’m the first to admit that this kind of affective knowledge of the classroom situation is horribly unreliable; you don’t really know what anyone is thinking just by looking at them. But it’s still the best feedback you have, the most immediate measure of collective sentiment. An imperfect form of realtime knowledge that – as a realtime social actor — you need.

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The fragility of the knowledge society

I don’t really believe that we live in a “knowledge society.”

Technocrats say we live in a knowledge society. Educators and politicians sometimes say we live in a knowledge society. Sometimes they’re trying to say: a world where formal knowledge from the education and research sector is crucial to social success, economic production, and the like. OK, education is a means of getting jobs, and a marker of social distinction. Scientific research is sometimes very politically involved (paradigmatically, the Manhattan Project). None of that seems to add up to a social order where “knowledge” is the foremost concern, mightiest tool and dominant value.

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Knowledge, secrecy, and elite education

The academic press is particularly provocative these days. In a fascinating Chronicle column by Georgetown’s James O’Donnell, What a Provost Knows, we are informed that, as provost, he alone knows all the secrets of campus finances, the scale of comparative worth embedded in the salary hierarchy, and the general health of the institution. He ends by saying:

“That’s the burden of the job: knowing all the things that others don’t know or would rather not know. Much that I know I can’t talk about, and I have had to get used to being the object of (usually) undeserved suspicion. Because I know so much, my actions are not fully intelligible to those who observe them. The hardest part of being provost has been learning that it’s right and proper that I be suspected — that such vigilance is part of what keeps our institution healthy.

In the end, the burden of knowledge is worth it. The pleasures of the job are many, not least of which is understanding this marvelous institution so well — a Rube Goldberg creation that really does work, and very well indeed. And the opportunity to kibitz on the intellectual lives of more than 500 keenly intelligent and resourceful faculty members is an immense privilege. Even cleaning up their messes and fixing their leaky roofs gives me great satisfaction.”

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