Flipped, Wired, Gone: Is there space for the classroom in the twenty-first century?

Stylin' the transference

Image from Txalteredart on Etsy

I’ve been working with Blend@UW and several other colleagues (including the awesome Jesse Stommel – one of the minds behind Hybrid Pedagogy) to think about delivery platforms, hybrid pedagogy, and instructional design. As part of that, I am currently teaching a course using the replacement model of blended learning in order to export what is normally experienced as uni-directional content (lecture, prezis, films, performative critiques) to an online space in order to better exploit instead of undermine the richness of the face to face encounter with the class. We are currently about halfway through the semester, and I have some thoughts, some concerns, and some frustrations (as one tends to have half way through the semester, when evaluating learning and learning environments can only be partial at best). But, rather than talk about that particular experience, I want to talk about meet space and meat space, about the idea of the encounter in learning environments as a theoretical concept.

I want to talk about meet space and meat space

Since my slow reading class, I’ve been thinking through the idea of the encounter (with texts and with teachers) and the work of being with someone or something in an attitude of learning and the event of learning itself. I don’t mean that when it comes to the classroom I find myself bound in a metaphysics of presence; tangling with what is withdrawn or elusive in language (and as language itself) continues to be a structuring principle in all of my classes. But I do see something important, something worthwhile, something (dare I say it?) efficient in the experience of that struggle with others, of the spectacle of learning as it adheres to the physical classroom. Presence isn’t revelatory, in other words, but perhapsaffect can be?

I trace a lot of this back to conversations in and out of the classroom with Josh Gunn at UT-Austin. It was Josh that first introduced me to the work of Larry Rickels and in particular to the joke in the The Vampire Lectures in which Rickels says that his pedagogy is guided by the idea of “stylin’ the transference.” Josh breaks down the idea this way:

Rickels’ joke about teaching as “stylin’ the transference” extends Freud’s observation to the classroom...[T]eaching attempts to establish a transferential relation between the teacher and the student: by accepting the affect typically reserved for a parental figure, the teacher attempts to channel it into learning course material (en loco parentis, indeed). In other words, it’s because the student believes that you care about them as a person that they want to do well in the course. It’s hard to learn from a teacher who doesn’t seem to give a shit; one is motivated to do well and learn, in part, because one cares about the recognition or approval of the teacher. In short, students learn because they (desire) love.

I used to joke that I was also “stylin’ the transference” when, in order to assure the best participation from student-student interactions I took on more of a maternal persona in emphasizing their responsibility to their classmates. I once had a student fall ill the night before peer review, only to offer tearful apologies both to me and to his/her partner for missing class. After that, I backed off. Sometimes Mom becomes Mommy Dearest, and that wasn’t the kind of impression I wanted to make on my students.

But it’s worth considering the work of affect in pedagogy, even if you don’t want to be someone’s momma, and this is what brings me back to the “meat space” of the classroom and the work of the encounter. (The term, a pun of course on the “meet space” of the classroom, is derived from the contrast emphasized in William Gibson’s Neuromancer between the insistent materialism of the body and the immaterial “consensual hallucination” of cyberspace.)

Consider, for a moment, the Mona Lisa.

You won’t know the painting better by seeing it in the Louvre. Thanks to high quality images available world wide on the Internet, you can inspect the detail of the painting much better online (including, of course The Louvre online, which offers stunning high definition close-ups). Because of how many people want to be in its presence, the painting remains under a protective case and separated by the viewer by a couple of feet of cordoned off “moat” space that prohibits close inspection. In the space of the museum, which serves simultaneously as the space of preservation and reserved as the space of the encounter with the object, this painting withdraws from its viewers.

It plays coy, that Joconde.

And yet patrons flock to it. Arms holding cameras high in the attempt to exclude the crowd from their witnessing shot. Throngs of patient museum-goers waiting their turn to stand in front of the painting for a few seconds in which the testimony of their own presence will be recorded on film...or more properly on memory card. They are excited, they are breathless, they are responsive, they are disappointed. Provoked not just by the object, but by the scene of the object, from which it cannot be extricated (until it can, but this, of course, is not the same object). I have been spending a good deal of time thinking about the nonhuman of late and thinking more and more about the withdrawal the object in relation to, well, object relations, about how affect itself as a relational projection (and evidence of an otherness at the heart of the ego) might be a way to think about our vulnerability to objects. I think that Haraway's idea of companionality might get to this. But what about teaching? Is it necessary to reduce the affective work of teaching in its transferential potential to the kind of humanism that it has traditionally claimed?

I introduce this example to show that there is an affective quality to presence and to ask how this same quality functions in the encounter between teacher and student, and even between student and scholarly object or artifact, and finally how the affective potential of the encounter should affect how we shape learning environments to best suit the needs of our students and the goals of our courses. And I want to think of ways to approach this question that exceed or complicate that transferential relationship referenced above. The experience of learning, of real learning, is shattering and exciting, and even a little bit scary sometimes. Sometimes a revolution is only, as Lacan pointed out, a quarter turn, but it is destabilizing in an incredibly productive way and good teaching is therefore rocky in a really cool way. But is this rich experience shattering because our objects (perhaps even our objectifications of teachers themselves) can't love us back? And how do we maintain that affective experience online?

I don’t have answers yet, just some loosely-formed ideas I’ll write about soon, but I do think this is an interesting question to consider as more and more of our content and process involves, requires, or relies on digital environments, environments that are notorious for their weak (or nonexistent, depending on who you ask) ability to convey tone or communicate affect. We like to say that this is an issue of the screen – the insistent mediation of the mechanics of digital work, but the immediacy of presence is a lie: our face to face interactions are of course highly mediated – barriers to access are formed by bodies, postures, design, even language itself. But it remains to be considered that the space of the classroom, the space of desire produced by the affective work of the encounter, plays a role in the map of our pedagogical practices.