HEWN, Interrupted

Perhaps it's a tad jarring for HEWN to return from a months-long absence with an announcement that this will be the last newsletter I send from Substack. But hey folks: this is the last newsletter I will send from Substack, and as a subscriber, I thought you should know.

I have a much longer update on my blog — remember blogs? — about what I'm up to these days. Long story short, I'm mostly offline for the time being. That said, I do subscribe to enough newsletters to have caught wind of the fact that this platform does not align with my values. (If you too are trying to pay less attention to tech company shenanigans, you can catch up on the details here or here, if you like.)

You don't have to do anything. But the next time you hear from me — I have a book to promote, so chances are you will hear from me plenty — it won't be via Substack.

Thanks for remembering me.

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 352

Hi. It's been a while. Again.

My heart is broken. Figuratively and literally, it seems. Or at least, a routine visit to the doctor recently uncovered a heart murmur; thankfully, an electrocardiogram found nothing else wrong. But bloodwork has linked the murmur to severe anemia. There’s still no confirmation on the cause of the latter, but doctors are shoving cameras up and down almost every one of my orifices in order to find out. I like to imagine myself a fairly strong and healthy person, and I thought my utter lack of energy was the result of grief and depression and this terrible, terrible year. It is partially, of course. But my lethargy also stems from ridiculously low hemoglobin and ferritin levels. I am, I have to admit, not doing so well. I received two pints of blood a couple of weeks ago, which helped, but I’m still feeling pretty puny. There’s never a good time to be sick in this country. But now seems to be a particularly bad one.

I have a long list of things I want to write about: the (coming) toxicity of email newsletters, that classroom scene in The Mandalorian, for example. But the anemia doesn’t leave me with energy to do much, and part of me figures, for right now at least, I can just lean into my reputation as ed-tech’s Cassandra: I warned you; you didn’t listen; so no shit, it’s all a mess.

I will, however, be speaking on December 1 as part of an anti-surveillance teach-in, proceeds from which will go to fund Ian Linkletter’s legal defense fund — he's being sued by the bullies at the online test-proctoring company Proctorio. I will also be writing a couple of “ed-tech year-in-review” essays, as usual, although nowhere near as lengthy as last year’s.

This week’s pigeon is the Luzon bleeding-heart pigeon. (Image credits)

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 351

Hope is a discipline -- Mariame Kaba

Hi. It’s been a while.

I took August off to grieve more deeply. See, I couldn’t stop working after Isaiah died. There is no paid leave for the self-employed. So I spent the past month mostly sitting and thinking and (quite honestly) not-thinking. When September 1 rolled around, I didn’t feel any more at peace. And today I don’t have any more closure than before. It’s been hard to restart my work.

Yes, I know that there are many incredibly important stories unfolding right now with regards to education and education technology, most of which reflect the ongoing struggles — in the US at least — with containing the coronavirus and with kicking off a new school year: there's the shape of back-to-school itself — online, hybrid, face-to-face — and the technological demands on teachers and students; there are a whole raft of new surveillance technologies that schools plan to wield against students (and likely staff) to monitor where they go and who they come in contact with; and no surprise, there's another major influx of venture capital into the sector as crisis always gives investors and entrepreneurs dollar-sign eyeballs. There is the lawsuit by those monsters at Proctorio against Ian Linkletter, claiming that he’s violated their super secret IP by posting links to unlisted YouTube videos on Twitter. There are the algorithmic grading scandals that plagued the IB and the A-Level exams. There is the insistence that the college football season continue this fall, despite the toll that this will take on students and staff and communities alike. (It’s safe enough for football, the University of Georgia tried to argue, but not safe enough for a voting site on campus.) There’s Trump’s attempt to ban critical race theory and his call for “patriotic education.” And there’s the rise of “learning pods,” which like many of these events and trends, seems to signal an utter abandonment of public education as a good chunk of this country has decided it doesn’t give a shit about other people.

I’m struggling to write anything in response.

I won’t say that the burning rage that drives my work has died out. But it’s just a fire with a lot less heat and energy right now. This spring and summer has been a lot: the pandemic, Isaiah’s death, my aunt Audrey’s death, police violence, protests, curfews, heat waves, fires, an orange sky in Oakland one morning that felt truly apocalyptic... RBG is dead. And the election is just a few weeks away.

Solace and joy right now come from primarily from Poppy the puppy — even though she tipped over a planter full of marigold and peppermint starts this morning and spread 5 pounds of potting soil all over the office.

She forces me to get up each morning. She forces me to step outside.

Across the street from our apartment is a little urban park — a few benches and sculptures and boulders and trees. It’s where the smokers and the dog owners in the apartment building gather. The former come and sit in the same spot every couple of hours; the latter appear just as regularly, wandering slowly around until their pet poops and pees. It’s a strange dance of social distancing — everyone gives the other a wide berth. Everyone, that is, except the dogs who insist on rushing up to sniff butts.

"My dog wants to meet your dog," the exasperated human apologizes as his dog pulls him towards us.

Poppy and I have met most everyone — dogs and humans — by now. I try to avoid any lengthy conversations with the latter. I’ve found it’s best not to ask what your neighbors in the Bay Area do for a living if you expect the answer will be some evil corporation or industry. And it’d be awkward if they Googled me. But I made the mistake one day of chatting with the guy with the Shiba Inu. He was insistent that you can learn anything online — and you know me — that’s just an argument I can't walk away from. “A dog trainer is a waste of money,” he said. “Really, everything you need to know is on YouTube for free.” And yup. Turns out he works for a pretty terrible online education company that believes you can learn anything online (although they do charge you for it). His dog, for the record, is mean as hell.

I’ve watched a few videos, sure. But I opted for in-person dog training. It’s a luxury, I realize, but I decided to pay for this rather than therapy. It is therapy, in a way. I’m learning to manage my expectations, if nothing else. Some days, it’s clear I’m just asking too much — of the dog, of myself, etc etc etc etc etc.

Truth be told, training Poppy has meant that my attention has never actually strayed that far from education and ed-tech. Indeed, the dog is a constant reminder of the ways in which behaviorism remains one of the predominant theories of learning and how operant conditioning remains one of the most powerful methods of teaching. At least dog trainers — unlike so many in education and ed-tech — are honest about the theoretical underpinnings of their work.

In 1951, several years before he invented his teaching machine, B. F. Skinner published an article in Scientific American on “How to Teach Animals.” The Harvard psychologist was already well known for his work with pigeons, but in this article, he suggested that his training methods were widely applicable outside the laboratory. Operant conditioning, that is, could be used to train the family dog, and it could be used to train any ol’ pigeon — to dance, to pick a card, to play the piano. Moreover, “the human baby is an excellent subject in experiments of the kind described here,” he wrote. For Skinner, it would be silly to not use the methods that work so well to teach animals to shape and control the behavior of people.

And Skinner’s work always involved technologies of behavior. To condition a dog, for example, Skinner advised using a “cricket,” a mechanical device that makes a high-pitched sound, used the moment the dog exhibits the correct behavior. This way, Skinner argued, there is no delay while one takes a breath to whistle or one digs a treat out of one’s pocket; there is no confusion if the dog doesn’t see the hand signal. Make the sound then reward the dog, who will quickly begin to associate the sound with the behavior.

I have been carrying a little bag full of treats whenever Poppy and I go out. It’s all about the positive behavioral reinforcement, which Skinner insisted was more effective than aversion and punishment. Keep slack on the leash. Don’t snatch things out of her mouth. Praise exuberantly.

Poppy’s trainer recommended I try a clicker this week. Much like Skinner’s “cricket,” this little handheld device makes a loud noise when pressed. When Poppy does something right, I mark it with a click and then reward her. Sit. Click. Treat. Down. Click. Treat. Poppy the pigeon.

Despite trying to take a break from thinking and writing about ed-tech for the past month, I’ve become immersed in its practice. Audrey the pigeon too. And it’s not just the behavioral technologies. Dog companionship has me buying products and services that I’ve long railed against. Poppy is chipped, for example — the doggy surveillance technology everyone has given into “for their safety.” I also paid for a doggy DNA test. (She’s 50% Rottweiler, 12% American Staffordshire Terrier, 12% Labrador Retriever, 12% McNab, 7% Bullmastiff, and 6% German Shepherd, supposedly.) I bought a Roomba that runs daily to deal with the pet hair. We’re considering buying a car.

But we're all making do with the shitty circumstances and the bad choices and the terrible technologies, I suppose. Be patient, the dog trainer reminds me. You got this. Click. Treat.

This week’s Columbidae is the pied imperial pigeon. (Image credits)

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 350

A little Dog that wags his tail / And knows no other joy / Of such a little Dog am I / Reminded by a Boy — Emily Dickinson

It’s been almost two months since I’ve written a newsletter. It’s been almost three since my son died. A lot has happened that I haven’t chronicled or commented on here. And yet it feels as though nothing’s really changed at all — we’re all just barely treading water but there’s still no sign of a rescue, economically, politically, epidemiologically. Time moves so strangely during this pandemic, even more strangely under the fog of grief.

I’ve been trying to work, but it’s very hard. It’s hard to think, and when I look around at all the pain and suffering around us, I don’t know what to say — particularly when it comes to teachers, students, families, staff eyeing “back-to-school,” on or offline, with such dread and uncertainty. I mean, I have forced myself to say something; I’ve given several presentations in the past few weeks: “The Ed-Tech Imaginary.” “Building Anti-Surveillance Ed-Tech.” “‘Luddite Sensibilities’ and the Future of Education.” “Pigeon Pedagogy.” Oh, and the copy-edits of my book are due in five days time. It’s all a bit overwhelming.

This week’s pigeon is the Columba livia domestica, the common city pigeon. That’s our new dog, Poppy, in the photo too, ready to pounce. She’s a 9 month Rottie mix (thank you, Copper’s Dream Rescue). She’s been with us a week, and she’s been a marvelous distraction from the doomscrolling. Once she’s housebroken — soon — I will try to be back with more ferocity.

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 349

"The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me — he complains of my gab and my loitering" — Walt Whitman

Thank you, everyone, for your outpouring of love and support. It has been quite overwhelming — all of it — but I am grateful for your kind words. I am so utterly broken, but you know me. I am also deeply committed to work to make this world a better place.

In my last newsletter, I noted that there had been no national mourning for the hundred thousand deaths from the coronavirus. But now, there is. Now, our collective grief and anger have spilled out into the streets, uncontainable after we watched the police murder George Floyd. The officer stared into the cellphone camera with his knee on Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes, with all the confidence of a cop who believed that there would be no consequences for squeezing the life out of a Black man.

Uncontainable. Inconsolable. Over the past few months, we have all experienced the grotesque failures of the state, and we’ve all lost something to the pandemic — directly or indirectly from the disease. But racism and white supremacy are the scourge that have destroyed so much more, for so much longer. “America Is Giving Up on the Pandemic,” Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer argue. But I don’t think that Americans are giving up on justice. We can’t. People will clench their fists and fight on.

“Black lives matter,” brands have all suddenly proclaimed. But we should know better than to take them seriously, particularly the technology companies who build tools and services that put Black lives at risk. It’s “Black Power-washing,” Chris Gilliard writes, “wherein companies issue essentially meaningless statements about their commitment to Black folks but do little to change their policies, hiring practices, or ultimately their business models, no matter how harmful to Black people these may be.” These companies speak, to borrow from the situationist Raoul Vaneigem, with corpses in their mouths. (And yes, that includes many ed-tech CEOs. Just because I’m silent on Twitter right now as I mourn my son, don’t think I don’t see you showing your whole ass with your “all lives matter” “let's hear both sides” bullshit.)

These are unfathomably dark times, and these are strangely hopeful times too. I am particularly heartened to see school districts and universities move to cut ties with police departments — ties that have long served to brutalize Black children. I worry, as always, that the white supremacist surveillance impulse runs so deep in education and education technology that policing will remain even without “school resource officers” patrolling the halls. (Somewhat related: I’m not sure how I managed to string a sentence together, but I gave a talk a week or so ago, “‘All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace’: Care and the Cybernetic University.” There is no loving grace in substituting the police with algorithms.)

This week’s Columbidae is the Zoom pigeon in its unnatural, natural habitat. (Image credits: Bryan Mathers) Zoom pigeon stickers and Zoom pigeon mugs are available to my Patreon supporters. A portion of this month’s earnings will be donated to the Black Organizing Project, which works to eliminate police from the Oakland Unified Schools.

Yours in struggle,

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