Beginning Thoughts on the Six Binaries indicated in TOUR #1

February 6, 2008

Thinking through education on YouTube, after teaching a class using its many resources and even greater limitations, I found that the specificity of the site, and some of the features more generally of Web 2.0, served to unsettle six binaries that typically structure the academic classroom. As these rigid binaries dismantle, the nature of teaching and learning shifts. I’d like to quickly outline the nature of these changing conditions and some of the thoughts they have opened for me about teaching in a digital world.

Please note: these thoughts are rudimentary and changing. Your responses and criticism are greatly appreciated.

Public/Private: The elite liberal arts classroom, usually (or in the ideal) comprised of an intimate and “safe” gathering of high-paying, and carefully selected students, depends upon privacy to create a communal pedagogy. Get me, I’m no advocate of this as the final and end all form for learning, in fact, as a practioner of “critical pedagogy” I am always undoing typical structures of education. That said, for me, YouTube took things in new and unchartered directions, and it is these I want to explore here. In m typical classroom, doors are closed, and students are asked to actively contribute their interpretations, and sometimes personal experience or knowledge, always knowing that they are not experts, but are certainly experts-in-training. The construction of a confidence of voice, particularly in relaying a complex analysis is one of the “services” we hope to provide. Students, often vulnerable in the eyes of their fellow students, and their esteemed professor, are challenged to add their voices to the building dialogue, one in which they are an active, continuing member. I am ever aware of the power dynamics that structure the classroom, allowing some to speak with comfort and others not, and engage in strategies to alter the “safety” of the space. Of course, this lofty dynamic shifts when anyone and everyone can see and also participate. During the class, students felt and actually were judged by critical YouTube viewers we would never see or know, who may or may not be aware of the history of our conversations, the subtle dynamics in the room, or the particularities of the speaker. While access grew, the structures in place (attendance, grading, community responsibility) to insure that our viewers were as committed and attentive as were we, did not. Note the role of discipline here, see Control/Chaos below.

Aural/Visual: The capacity to express ideas through words is almost entirely closed down on YouTube where both the 500 character limit, and the sandlot culture of web-expression, produces a dumbing-down more or less impossible to improve upon. The place to speak and be heard on YouTube is through video: which effortlessly links sounds, language and images, and where it might be argued, images dominate. However, most newly empowered videomakers on YouTube are not educated or adept in the language of the visual, and thus depend on the relaying of their recorded words, primarily through talking-heads, or rants. Meanwhile, professional content on YouTube abounds, making use of the flashiest, fastest gizmos available. This raises the question of competing standards on YouTube: those of the “bad” videos of the amateurs, and the “good” videos of the pros, which itself indicates that this is not the level or uniform playing field people want to pretend it to be. I am interested in thinking about how YouTube is changing the standards of video-production: how “bad” videos (poorly shot and composed, unedited, weak performances, all-talking all-the-time) are sometimes thought to be “good.” More on that later.
However, I will end here by saying that I have previously written about the reliance upon talking-heads in the beginning of film movements (by women, AIDS activists, queers and the like), and how people speaking new truths to power directly through newly available technologies is not necessarily the naïve step the elite may imagine. However, in the case of YouTube, rather than say, AIDS activism, I would suggest that the site’s force to keep its makers from unifying around style, from organizing around ideas, from learning from the words and images of others, keeps this “bad” video less complex than I might wish.

Body/Digital: Teaching and learning depend in significant ways upon presence: the forceful, dynamic, inspiring, rigorous performance of the teacher, the alert attention and participation of the student. While in a typical classroom this may not function in the ideal sense, in that the professor can be uninspiring or uninspired and the students may be there in body but not in mind, the YouTube classroom diminishes this further, losing entirely the powers of eye contact, professorial censure (control again…), and expressions of boredom or enthusiasm writ large on the bodies of students in exchange for expanded access. When we attempted on-line classes through YouTube, they simply fizzled and died (see my blog entry, On YouTube). There is something in the shared exchange that creates the atmosphere for education that is not possible on this site.

Amateur/Expert: On YouTube, amateurs rule, experts are deflated, and authority is flattened. While it is exciting to hear from new and varied people, and while this undoubtedly widens and opens our knowledge-base, it is difficult to learn in an environment where vying opinions rule, where data is helter-skelter and hard to locate, and where no one can take the lead. Again, the role of discipline within the academic setting proves the rule. Without it, ideas stay vague and dispersed, there is no system for evaluation, and you can’t find things or build upon them.

Entertainment/Education: Today’s students, schooled on YouTube, iphones, and Wiis, want their information relayed with ease and fun: they want it pleasurable, simplified, and funny. They don’t want to be bored; even as they are always distracted. They want school to speak to them in the language they like and know and deserve. While I’m the first to admit that a good professor makes “hard” information understandable, this does not mean that I do not expect my students to take pleasure in the work of understanding it. While I have always been aware that I am a performer, entertaining my students while sneaking in critical theory, avant-garde forms, and radical politics, much of what I perform is the delight and beauty of the complex: the life of the mind, the work of the artist, the experience of the counter-culture.

Control/Chaos: The college classroom is a disciplined space where knowledge moves in a formal and structured routine familiar to all the players. While the critical classroom begins to alter this script by giving more real power to the students, and allowing knowledge to be created dynamically, this is not the random chaos of information and power which is YouTube. For effective education, structure is needed in all kinds of ways: to control conversation, to allow ideas to build in succession permitting things to grow steadily more complex, to be able to find things once and then again.

I recently read an article by two professors equally underwhelmed by social networking in a classroom setting posted on the Wired Classroom. In “Learning to Leisure?  Failure, Flame, Blame, Shame, Homophobia and Other Everyday Practices in Online Education,” Juliet Eve and Tara Brabazon at the University of Brighton, argue that the “blurring of leisure and learning has corroded the respect that is necessary to commence a scholarly journey.”


8 Responses to “Beginning Thoughts on the Six Binaries indicated in TOUR #1”

  1. wairere Says:

    Very well done! A clear and succincct analysis of the impact of technology on learning and communication.

    Kia ora from New Zealand,

    I just found your blogsite through my Google Alerts for Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy. I think that you may enjoy my own website – which you are free to use as a resource. I am a retired academic with more than 40 years teaching Architecture at Universities on three continents (the UK, U. C. Berkeley and U. of Auckland, New Zealand). I have a PhD in Architecture – specialising in the interface between design education and critical theory/critical pedagogy – but my writings cover a whole range of fields. I have a distinguished teaching Award from the University of Auckland (where I taught for 20 years), and for the last five years served as Director of Academic Programme Development at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, (one of three Maori Universities) in New Zealand where I also taught Critical Education Theory and Cultural Studies in a mixed-mode delivery form (with mixed feelings and results). This gave me a unique perspective on issues of Colonisation, Education and Cultural Pluralism and Critical Pedagogy. I retired a year ago and have set up the website as an educational resource. I am writing because I thought you might find my own website useful. It covers issues such as:

    Critical Theory
    Critical Theorists
    Critical Practice (Praxis)
    Critical Pedagogy
    Critical Education Theory
    Indigenous Studies
    Critical Psychology
    Cultural Studies
    Critical Aesthetics
    Academic Programme Development
    Sustainable Design
    Critical Design etc. etc.

    The website at: contains more than 60 (absolutely free) downloadable and fully illustrated PDFs on all of these topics and more offered to students from the primer level, up to PhD. It also has a set of extensive bibliographies and related web links in all of these areas.

    I would be very grateful if you would have a look at the website and perhaps bring it to the attention of your friends and colleagues for them to use as a resource.

    There is no catch!

    It’s just that I believe the world is going to hell at an unimaginable rate and I want to do something to help to turn it around – for my five children and my grandchildren All that I ask in return, is that you and they let me know what you think about the website and cite me for any material that may be downloaded and/or used.

    I would also appreciate a reciprocal link to my site from your own so that others may come to know about it and use it.

    Many thanks and again, well done!

    Dr. Tony Ward Dip.Arch. (Birm)
    Academic Programme, Tertiary Education and Sustainable Design Consultant

    (Ph) (07) 307 2245
    (m) 027 22 66 563

  2. Howdy Howdy!

    I found your discussion here via searching for some Enid Blader texts on YouTube. You host one, so I searched your other materials. And the bread crumbs led me here…

    What you are doing–what you did in Fall of 07–is where I hope to take parts of my composition courses soon: using YouTube in or as the classroom. For instance, watching “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It” by Ice Cube and then discussing it in comparison to hooks’ writing on gangsta rap. Practicing basic media crit, etc. Your efforts look like upper division work, so I’m scaling to community college students in my mind.

    I look forward to spending more time with your materials and seeing what you have uncovered.

    There are two issues which I did not see covered in your post. Both of these, I believe, are based in the privileged nature of your students/institution. They have ready access to technology, peers who know technology, and/or institutions which can provide them with adequate, if not exceptional, resources. Additionally, the average age for many small, elite liberal colleges is late teens early 20s. (Let me know if I err, here.)

    I teach at a rural community college where students ages range up into their 50s, finances do not allow for ready access to recent tech, and the school has few digital resources. All of these elements make learning from YouTube range from unlikely to impossible. I lost students just last week because of the difficulties/frustrations from navigating Google, GDocs,, and a Blackboard style site. How can students learn from a medium which they can barely access or not afford to access? Similarly, this media does place an age barrier as well (I doubt my parents could post a video with the ease that I can; similarly, one of your students could probably do it in one-third of the time I require.)

    Last, but not least, I wonder if the use of critical and analytical terms—specialized languages for academics—was not off-putting to the “regular” YouTube viewers. Invading another space and using a language they did not know, control, and/or effectively manipulate.

    Just a few thoughts off the top of my head. Regardless, this is fascinating work. I look forward to seeing more of your work. If possible, I’d like to see a copy of your paper/presentation.

    Best wishes,
    Gregory Zobel

  3. Hello again.

    I just reread your post. Reality/cyber seems a bit vague as a category. In your post, you discuss losing the power of personal/physical presence, eye contact, etc., when teaching in digital spaces. As such, might not “Body” or “Visceral” be another option instead of reality? Reality is just so vague.

    The classroom has scents, footsteps, the smell of coffee, and bodies moving in and out with air currents. These impact attention and intention. In my experience, “reality” just doesn’t cover it.


  4. MP:me Says:

    GZ: Your observations about critical media pedagogy within different institutions/communities is right on. I began by naming the specific terms of my place of employment (expensive, hard to get in, lots of money and resources), because I am certain it affects much of what we did as a class: how we learn, who we are, how we are supported (yes, we all had easy access to the web, cameras, etc). I am eager to discuss how using web 2.O (and YouTube as part of that) can contribute to heightened engagement in art/politics/culture throughout our society, and what we as educators can do to contribute to people making the most of these newly accessible technologies. What strategies are uniform, and what do we need to adapt across constituencies of education? I think Tony Ward’s work (he comments above: ) is an important step, for I am certain complex ideas, communities, and struggle need to be part of this equation: what people at the DIY conference called context. How do we embed access to technology in this richness?
    As for academic language, it’s hard for me not to speak in the efficient language I have learned, however, working with my students was one attempt to allow other vernaculars into the dialogue.
    Also, I think you’re right about “reality” and I’ll move forward on making that change! Hope to hear more soon.
    I hope to hear more soon.

  5. Alex:

    I’d agree that setting your context at the get go is critical to establishing credibility with your audience–the reader avoids surprises that way.

    I am currently working on some of Said’s ideas about the role of the intellectual–particularly the public intellectual–and I think his ideas dove-tail with Web 2.0 in a variety of ways. First, if educators as intellectuals are engaged in producing and performing materials online, we model not just for our students but also for others who may stumble into our work. Second, public performances like these can operate to “raise the bar” or make the presence of academic and critical language more normal in environments like YouTube, the pub, etc. I agree that our very specific language is hard to limit–and should it even be limited?–but acidic public response to such language is to be expected.

    I partially believe the stigma attached to intellectualism–especially critical and theoretical language–keeps many educators quiet and/or operating as anti-intellectuals themselves. If there was a presence of engaged intellectualism which demonstrated relevant theory/praxis (is there even a difference?), then, perhaps, people might be more engaged. In some ways, I believe this is a closet that is almost as painful as coming out LGBT.

    But underneath all of this–theory, production, performance, media, texts–those doing these things–the intellectual educators, or whoever–must not only produce calls and analyses, they must prove their words by demonstrating their intentions through deeds. Or, as I prefer to say it, put up or shut up.

    A side note: Many writing teachers do not themselves write at home for pleasure or work unless they are required to do so. How can this be? They teach for five, ten, twenty years, and yet they are rusty in that which they are supposed to be competent.

    Back home: If we are to encourage greater public engagement, if we want to urge our students to greater public participation and intellectual activities, if we want them to do socially conscious and critically challenging work, we must demonstrate how it is done. We must take risks, we must be in the open, and we must take unexpected slams from the public. Doing, being the engaged public intellectual speaks more than the ten page vita.

    I truly believe, and know from personal experience as student and teacher, that the most significant growth comes from modeling and mentoring.

    A pro-active, engaged model of generating socially conscious and interactive web-based texts that cut no slack and embrace intellectualism and theory–sans hubris and indulgence–and operates as a model can be a general modeling praxis which applies to diverse communities. How that takes place in each community is situational.

    I attempted to open the Ward page–my computer does not like that site. I look forward to reading it.

    There are so many fascinating aspects to 2.0 and their potentials. Are there any journals/sites focused on theory/praxis? I’ve not located any, so I welcome suggestions. Similarly with YouTube. Is it just so new that it the materials are largely inter-disciplinary?

    This is great stuff!


  6. MP:me Says:


    Much of what you say about academic language, and its limits, explain why I have chosen to make documentary as well as write as a scholar. I cover the same topics, in a different language, accessible to another audience. While I’ve been told my docs are “theoretical,” which I guess they must be, I do speak in different places and to other people when I talk in this way.
    The question you raise that I find critical is how might we introduce our concerns, and knowledge, into arena outside academia (YouTube, for instance), not by hiding it, or sugar coating it, by but re-thinking what counts as academic discourse.

  7. Brian Says:

    Very good post. Hope to see much more good posts in the future.

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