Tagged: academia

Video: Marshall Arts – McLuhan and media scholars

The Institute of General Semantics has recently posted videos of presentations given at the 2011 General Semantics Symposium. Included is my presentation: “Marshall Arts: Retrieving McLuhan for Communication Scholars”. This was my first conference presentation, and the paper eventually became my first academic publication. The focus of my work has shifted considerably in the time since, but this was a personal milestone and I enjoyed being able to revisit it four years on. You can watch the talk, along with others from the symposium, through the official IGS Youtube channel, and via the embed below:

A ticklish subject: Decrying, defending Žižek as teacher

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

  • Slavoj Žižek’s pedagogy became a topic of debate among critics and supporters of the philosopher after video of an interview with Žižek was posted to YouTube. In the 10-minute video, recorded in April at the 2014 Žižek Conference in Cincinnati, Žižek discusses his loathing of office hours, among other subjects. Regarding classes he has taught in the U.S., Žižek recalls telling students “If you don’t give me any of your shitty papers, you get an A”. Here is the video on YouTube, or you can watch the embed below:

I even told students at the New School for example… if you don’t give me any of your shitty papers, you get an A. If you give me a paper I may read it and not like it and you can get a lower grade.

  • And regarding office hours:

I can’t imagine a worse experience than some idiot comes there and starts to ask you questions, which is still tolerable. The problem is that here in the United States students tend to be so open that sooner or later, if you’re kind to them, they even start to ask you personal questions [about] private problems… What should I tell them?

Zizek has always been vocal about his general disdain for students and humanity writ large. He once admitted in 2008 that seeing stupid people happy makes him depressed, before describing teaching as the worst job he has ever had.


On a personal note, I was once told at the New School by a senior faculty member that Zizek would fill up his sign-up sheet for office hours with fake names to avoid student contact. I still wonder if that story is true, but now it doesn’t seem so out of character.

I have no idea what a superstar like Žižek gets paid, and I don’t know if he actually fills his office-hours sign-up sheet with fake names so that none of the “boring idiots” come and bother him with their stupid problems, as one New School faculty member has apparently claimed. But I feel safe in guessing that he earns more to not-grade one “shitty paper” than many professors do in a semester.

The real problem with Žižek, in any case, isn’t that he feels this way or that he says these things aloud. It’s that he does so and people think it’s hilarious. It’s that his view is, believe it or not, a common “superstar” view of students—so common, in fact, that if you work at a research university and actually like teaching, you should maybe pretend you don’t, lest you appear not “serious” enough about your research.


The academy is in crisis. The humanities’ relevance is questioned obnoxiously on a near-daily basis. Humanists need to think carefully about who our heroes are, and who should represent our disciplines to the public. Maybe, just maybe, this Ži-jerk has finally proved himself unsuited to the task.

I’m sure all of us have stories of colleagues basically slandering their students, and there is no more common complaint in the academic world than about the tedium of grading. I would venture to say that much of the resentment of Zizek’s attitudes stems from an unacknowledged desire to do exactly the things they’re castigating Zizek for. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to tell the students what I really think of them? Wouldn’t it be great not to have to deal with their crappy writing? Wouldn’t it be amazing to finally take the university at its word, valuing research absolutely and exclusively while making at best a token gesture toward teaching?

Indeed, it was disdain for teaching that made it so tempting to outsource pedagogical labor to grad students and underpaid adjuncts so that real professors could have the space to do real academic work. Zizek’s opinions aren’t some crazy outlier, they’re the structuring principles of our system of academic labor.

That I have met Zizek personally and can attest that he is no jerk is a minor point. That I personally witnessed him reject dinner with established professors and instead choose to sit with undergraduate students at a University of Rochester event is also fairly trivial but instructive about his actual attitude towards students.


No one has been more outspoken, or effective, about combating this “crisis” [in academia] than Zizek. He is dogmatic in his steadfast criticism of the Bologna reforms in Europe. Rejecting globalization’s call for experts instead of critically-thinking humanists cannot be accomplished through office hours and friendly teaching styles.

The risk of losing liberal arts is indelibly linked to the intrusion of unfettered (ostensibly) “market” mechanisms throughout human life. Where there used to be at least some sanctuary, now there is none. Education is just one of the last to fall.

Mrs. Schuman also uses the basic strategy that is usually employed by politically right-wing authors who try to dismiss Žižek’s political engagements, more specifically taking one of his jokes out of context. I have followed some comments of various professors online about this specific Žižek’s statement of ‘not reading and examining student papers’ and most of them have shared some sympathy with Žižek’s joke, agreeing that doing such work actually consumes a huge amount of their time for which they don’t receive much gratification. Mrs. Schuman fails to notice that Žižek is employed as senior researcher and not as a regular professor, at least at his faculty in Ljubljana and to attack him for not grading papers there is simply absurd, since it’s a formal post and it’s quite rare that he appears to deliver a lecture there at all. She also, like most of the people bashing him, fails to notice the statement was a joke, like many of phrases like this mainly produced in recorded interviews to provoke a media response, so in a way Mrs. Schuman’s text could have said to have been expected before it was ever written.

But anyone who is familiar with how he develops theory should notice that he is also the International Director of the Institute for the Humanities at Birbkeck in London, where he annually holds very serious ‘masterclasses’, which consist of multiple successive days of lectures followed by discussions with his students, where there is more than enough opportunity for those who are genuinely interested in his work to provide their comments and criticism, and more importantly, get a first-person perspective and a chance to collaborate on the development of his theory; his lectures there have often ended up as important parts of his big philosophical tomes later on. So he does teach classes, very important classes which have philosophical consequences, and Mrs. Schuman repeats the accusation against him simply because she doesn’t seem to be very familiar with his work. Those that are obsessed with Žižek’s place in the employment scheme of academia usually harbour resentment and envy due to their personal lack of luck at getting a satisfying job in the academic machinery and are just searching for quick attempts at dismissal.

Critical Pedagogy and Imperialism; social media and commodity fetishism

Gramsci has had a huge impact on critical pedagogy especially because of the importance he attached to the role of culture, in both its highbrow and popular forms, in the process of hegemony which combines rule by force with rule by consent. His discussion on the role of intellectuals in this process also infuenced discussions centering around educators as cultural workers in the critical pedagogy field. Henry Giroux has been particularly influential here. One issue which deserves greater treatment in critical pedagogy, in my view, is that of ‘powerful knowledge’ which, though not necessarily popular knowledge and also needs to be problematised, should still be mastered for one not to remain at the margins of political life.


Following Freire, I would say: the commitment to teaching is a political commitment because education is a political act. There is no such thing as a neutral educaton. We must always ask on whose side are we when we teach?  More importantly we should ask, with whom are we educating and learning? I ask this question in the spirit of Freire’s emphasis on working with rather than for  the oppressed.

In tying Marxist ideology to social media, there are a number of things to clarify, as the comparison is not a perfect one. Perhaps the most questionable caveat is the ownership of the modes of production. In the social media model, it can be said that the proletariat themselves own the modes of productions since they typically own the computer or devices that they are using to channel their intellectual labor through. Additionally, almost all popular social media networks today allow users to retain the copyright of the content that they post  (Facebook, a; MySpace, n.d.; Twitter, n.d.). Thus, it would seem that making the argument that users are alienated from the results of their intellectual labor power is a moot point.


I humbly suggest that in the social media model, owning the output or product of intellectual labor power has little if anything to do with Marx’s species being. Instead, I feel that it is the social connections created, broken, strengthened, or weakened that feed directly to the worker’s species being. Since the output of the intellectual labor power in this case is not a tangible good, the only “finished product” that the worker can place value in and not be alienated from is the actual social connection that their output generates; not the actual output itself. This allows for a supra or meta level of social connection above that of the social connections embodied in physical outputs outlined by Marx.


Graeber on labor and leisure; the perils of hipster economics; and the educational value of MOOCs

Right after my original bullshit jobs piece came out, I used to think that if I wanted, I could start a whole career in job counseling – because so many people were writing to me saying “I realize my job is pointless, but how can I support a family doing something that’s actually worthwhile?” A lot of people who worked the information desk at Zuccotti Park, and other occupations, told me the same thing: young Wall Street types would come up to them and say “I mean, I know you’re right, we’re not doing the world any good doing what we’re doing. But I don’t know how to live on less than a six figure income. I’d have to learn everything over. Could you teach me?”

But I don’t think we can solve the problem by mass individual defection. Or some kind of spiritual awakening. That’s what a lot of people tried in the ‘60s and the result was a savage counter-offensive which made the situation even worse. I think we need to attack the core of the problem, which is that we have an economic system that, by its very nature, will always reward people who make other people’s lives worse and punish those who make them better. I’m thinking of a labor movement, but one very different than the kind we’ve already seen. A labor movement that manages to finally ditch all traces of the ideology that says that work is a value in itself, but rather redefines labor as caring for other people.

Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it “cleaned up the neighbourhood”. This is often code for a literal white-washing. The problems that existed in the neighbourhood – poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services – did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.

That new location is often an impoverished suburb, which lacks the glamour to make it the object of future renewal efforts. There is no history to attract preservationists because there is nothing in poor suburbs viewed as worth preserving, including the futures of the people forced to live in them. This is blight without beauty, ruin without romance: payday loan stores, dollar stores, unassuming homes and unpaid bills. In the suburbs, poverty looks banal and is overlooked.

In cities, gentrifiers have the political clout – and accompanying racial privilege – to reallocate resources and repair infrastructure. The neighbourhood is “cleaned up” through the removal of its residents. Gentrifiers can then bask in “urban life” – the storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit – while avoiding responsibility to those they displaced.

Hipsters want rubble with guarantee of renewal. They want to move into a memory they have already made.

In the pedagogic trenches, MOOCs are considered a symptom of wider economic patterns which effectively vacuum resources up into the financial stratosphere, leaving those doing the actual work with many more responsibilities, and far less compensation. Basic questions about the sustainability of this model remain unanswered, but it is clear that there is little room for enfranchised, full-time, fully-compensated faculty. Instead, we find an army of adjuncts servicing thousands of students; a situation which brings to mind scenes from Metropolis rather than Dead Poets Society.


For companies pushing MOOCs, education is no different from entertainment: it is simply a question of delivering ‘content.’ But learning to think exclusively via modem is like learning to dance by watching YouTube videos. You may get a sense of it, but no-one is there to point out mistakes, deepen your understanding, contextualise the gestures, shake up your default perspective, and facilitate the process. The role of the professor or instructor is not simply the shepherd for the transmission of information from point A to point B, but the coforging of new types of knowledge, and critically testing these for various versions of soundness and feasibility. Wisdom may be eternal, but knowledge – both practical and theoretical – evolves over time, and especially exponentially in the last century, with all its accelerated technologies. Knowledge is always mediated, so we must consciously take the tools of mediation into account. Hence the need for a sensitive and responsive guide: someone students can bounce new notions off, rather than simply absorb information from. Without this element, distance learning all too often becomes distanced learning. Just as a class taken remotely usually leads to a sea of remote students.


Marshall McLuhan was half-right when he insisted that the electronic age is ushering in a post-literate society. But no matter how we like to talk of new audio-visual forms of literacy, there is still the ‘typographic man’ pulling the strings, encouraging us to express ourselves alphabetically. Indeed, the electronic and the literate are not mutually exclusive, much as people like to pit them against each other.

  • Pettman also quotes Ian Bogost’s comments on distance learning:

The more we buy into the efficiency argument, the more we cede ground to the technolibertarians who believe that a fusion of business and technology will solve all ills. But then again, I think that’s what the proponents of MOOCs want anyway. The issue isn’t online education per se, it’s the logics and rationales that come along with certain implementations of it.

Mike Gane interview: Baudrillard, academia, more

  • The upcoming issue of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies features an interview with Baudrillard scholar Mike Gane. The interview touches upon a variety of topics, including Gane’s interactions with Baudrillard, media coverage of Margaret Thatcher’s death, and hypothesizing what Baudrillard would be writing about were he alive today:

One could ‘see’ the specific things Baudrillard would have picked up – extreme phenomena like sovereign debt. Today he would be writing on fracking, drones, etc.

Gane also addresses the present state of academia:

The essential point is that the whole educational experience has changed, and the student has become oriented to enterprise, and to developing, accumulating, human capital. The student gets used to appraising the lecturer’s performance just as the lecturer grades the student, and the Sunday Times grades the university. So, all the discussion about declining standards focuses on the wrong issue.  What has happened is a transformation of individualism, not towards a new freedom in the classical liberal sense, but towards a new individual who builds up capital and exploits this competitively. The university staff members are equally thrown into a competitive game network, where to outperform others is essential to survival. Almost everything is assessed and ranked with a degree of Kafkaesque bureaucratisation that is hardly believable. Whereas the system of 40 years ago was simple and relaxed, with liberal values, and within it there were known traditional hierarchies, today it is hyper-bureaucratised and hyper-legalised and the hierarchies have changed and keep changing.   Thus to understand what has happened it is essential to see that neoliberalism does not diminish the action of the state; it avoids direct state intervention but only to insert new mechanisms and values insidiously where none existed before: for example, in Britain it is only now, forty years after the initial entry of neoliberalism, that an enterprise element is being required on each degree course, and that an enterprise element is to be counted within the work profile of academics. And these new mechanisms do not stand still; the system is in constant movement, as if in permanent crisis. This why Baudrillard, and others like Žižek, have described this as a new totalitarianism which works not by imposing a system of commands but rather a game framework into which the individual is absorbed and has to adapt at a moment’s notice.

  • In a recent Atlantic article Ian Bogost considered the McRib sandwich through the lens of Lacanian psychoanalysis. The aphoristic ending of the essay recalls the Baudrillardian turn on the function of Disneyland and prisons:

Yet, the McRib’s perversity is not a defect, but a feature. The purpose of the McRib is to make the McNugget seem normal.

Manuel Castells receives Holberg prize

Manuel Castells, University Professor and Wallis Annenberg Chair in Communication Technology and Society at USC and the foremost cited communication scholar in the world, was recently awarded the 2012 Holberg International Memorial Prize, a Norwegian honor that “recognizes outstanding scholarly work in arts and humanities, social science, law and theology.”

I’m lagging behind much of the communication world in familiarizing myself with Castell’s work. He first blipped on my radar at the ICA conference in Boston last May, where every panel I attended save one mentioned Castells. This weekend I started reading Philip Howard’s Castells and the Media.

From the PRNewswire article:

Castells, who holds the Wallis Annenberg Chair of Communication Technology and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, is the most cited communication scholar in the world, and was recognized by the Holberg Prize Academic Committee as “the leading sociologist of the city and new information and media technologies.”

“His ideas and writings have shaped our understanding of the political dynamics of urban and global economies in the network society. He has illuminated the underlying power structures of the great technological revolutions of our time and their consequences,” the prize committee said of Castells.