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,

HEWN, No. 348

Content warning: death

I got the phone call Monday night that every parent dreads: my son was dead.

Isaiah had struggled for a very long time with addiction, anxiety, and depression. He’d swing back and forth between periods of hope and despair, destruction and promise, dedication and despair.

If you’d asked me last week, I’d have told you — quite honestly — that I thought he was doing pretty well, the general state of the world not withstanding. He was back on Suboxone, he promised. He’d rescued a lost cat and was disappointed when he found the owner — even though he was given a huge finder’s fee; he had applied to adopt another feline. He’d just bought houseplants, happy to find someone selling succulents from the front door of a barely re-opened retail shop.

We’d spoken last Wednesday afternoon and then texted back and forth later that evening. He asked if I could get him a cast iron skillet and a kettle. (He wasn’t sure what kind of tea he’d drink, so maybe I should send some lemon juice and sugar too. The corner store was out.) The final words he typed: “I love you. And maybe buy me some masks too.”

And then, very shortly afterwards, according to the medical examiner, he overdosed. Or it seems likely he overdosed. I don’t know yet. I probably never will. His body wasn’t found for days.

It is unimaginably awful, and it is all I can imagine. He was alone. He was alone.

His father died on August 29, 2005, the same day Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast. Isaiah had just turned 13. We’d spent the previous year watching his dad slowly shrink away. Fucking cancer. In retrospect, I think part of Isaiah died that day too.

At the time, my own rage and grief were enormous. But it felt so small compared to the loss and the injustice in New Orleans. The shared anniversary has always reminded me that each tragedy is both deeply personal and deeply structural. None of this had to happen.

None of this had to happen.

It is so strange to be mourning again at this moment. It’s a different grief than 2005. He was my baby after all. But it’s unsettling that so many people seem to have decided they don’t care about one hundred thousand dead from this pandemic. They do not see. They do not believe. There is no “we” in America right now who mourn our losses. There is no national collective whatsoever, so those of us who mourn mourn alone.

And literally, with stay-at-home orders, we are alone.

So many of the rituals we typically perform around death have been interrupted, put on hold, canceled; and those rituals we enact together are how we stop from coming undone.

I am coming undone. I have been unraveling watching my son struggle for fifteen years.

But now, no one can come over with a casserole and sit with me to reminisce. No one can hug me. No one can squeeze my hand. I will have to hold Isaiah’s memorial service on Zoom, and fuck I fucking hate Zoom. “A tragic, sordid phrase that wouldn’t have meant anything just a few weeks ago: ‘Zoom funeral.’”

It’s not just the rituals of death that are different; our rituals of departure and absence have been painfully altered too — for months now. I haven’t seen my mother in over a year; she’s in Canada taking care of her dying sister. I won’t see my aunt Audrey again. The last time I saw Isaiah, the day before Kin and I left Seattle, we stood six feet apart as I handed him all the condiments and frozen food from our fridge. We gestured at one another, arms outstretched, but we could not hug goodbye. “I’ll see you when this hell is over,” I told him.

This week’s Columbidae is a mourning dove. (Image credits) And the pigeon for weeks to come…

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 347

"Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing" -- Arundhati Roy

I had a string of days of great productivity this past week or so — links to two talks I gave are below — and I thought that finally I’d shaken the anxiety and depression that has made writing so hard lately. But then those days were followed by a couple of sheer exhaustion where I barely managed to answer emails.

I need to exercise more. That’s part of the problem. I used to walk to the grocery store every day — it took about an hour round-trip. It was a nice break from work. Now I barely leave the house. I could still go for walks, of course. But “going out” just to exercise has little appeal, even though the weather is beautiful. Every trip outside feels risky. And when I do step outside, I am both heartbroken that everything is closed and frustrated that everyone seems to be out-and-about, far too many without masks.

I took my first video-based yoga class this week — something I’ll do regularly now — because I need to focus on my breath and my body and because I want to support my friend Margarita whose income has disappeared due to the closure of the studios where she works. Even if they reopen, she’s immune-compromised; she can’t go back.

I am making more of my decisions like this: how do I need to re-order my time and my priorities and my purchases so that the people and places I love survive? The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner interviewed chef Tom Colicchio this week about the fragility of the restaurant industry and its food supply chain (and certainly some of their observations can be applied beyond just what and where we eat). Me, I've signed up for a local CSA — a half share of vegetables and full share of fruits and nuts weekly. I’ve ordered meat from a local ranch network. I signed up for the wine club at the neighborhood wine shop. I’ve bought flour and butter and brown sugar and yeast from the bakery around the corner. All of this takes so much more thought and effort than did that once-a-day walk to the grocery store. And I am so privileged that these are the choices I have, the decisions I get to make, that I live in a city, in a neighborhood where this is possible. The world I want to live in is cooperative and sustainable; it is interconnected. I don’t want the pandemic — or capitalism, for that matter — to flatten our communities under corporate monopoly.

So much of what I love in the world was already so brittle. You can see the brokenness more than ever. And the billionaires are circling like sharks, sensing blood in the water. The Gates Foundation will help New York “reimagine education,” says Governor Cuomo. Eric Schmidt will help the military reimagine war. It’s all part of “the Screen New Deal,” as Naomi Klein calls this latest manifestation of disaster capitalism.

Some reading and viewing recommendations:

This week’s pigeon is the kererū, a wood pigeon native to New Zealand — best known, I think, for sometimes getting so drunk on fermented fruit that they fall out of trees. (Image credits)

Look out for one another, dear pigeons.

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 346

Kick me under the table all you want. I won't shut up -- Fiona Apple

I’m not sure what to write in this newsletter right now. I’ve spent the past decade or so warning folks about the future that (education) technology has envisioned for us — one in which automation and surveillance are branded as “personalization,” one in which private industry dismantles public institutions and public spaces and replaces them with screens and buttons. Frankly, I am tired of having to repeat myself, and more than a little pissed off we have let things get to this point.

So this newsletter has sat dormant for the past few months, as I’ve been reluctant to have it echo what I’ve seen Twitter become: a long list of reasons why schools, particularly K-12 schools, should avoid using the videoconferencing software Zoom. Or that’s what the first few weeks of school closures looked like — concerns about the company’s security and privacy practices; statements by its CEO marveling that Zoom had never considered that its product would be used for targeted harassment. Now, all the latest takes are about Zoom exhaustion, about the emptiness and loneliness of this particular pandemic pedagogy.

Oh. All this sucks? Really? Wow.

I have been increasingly loath to jump into any of the conversations about “the future of education,” although I suppose I did poke at it a little with a talk I gave Friday at CUNY on the history of the future, on the rise of futurist-consultants, and on the necessity that we wrestle the future of school from their high-priced grip.

It feels wrong to speculate about what education will look like on the other side of this pandemic as we are still very much at the beginning of it. And yet it feels negligent to let the privateers and the techno-solutionists control the narrative.

It also feels impossible to grieve and organize. But grieve and organize we must.

In personal news, Kin and I have relocated — yes, again — to Oakland. Who the hell moves during a pandemic? Well, lots of folks do for lots of reasons. The lease is up. A new job. A better life. A new start. Etc.

It is so good to be back in California. I don’t know that one always recognizes how much the grey gloom of the Pacific Northwest dampens one spirits until one gets to live in the sunshine again. And Seattle under quarantine was eerie. It’s like the tech workers (at least those in our apartment building) already lived that way — always inside, always online, ordering everything to be delivered to their doorsteps.

The move was, no surprise, an anxiety-inducing challenge. It was particularly hard to leave both our kids up north, as their lives, like most folks’, are very much in limbo now. And we did the whole thing ourselves — we didn’t hire movers, that is. We rented a U-Haul and drove almost straight through from Seattle to the Bay Area, only stopping for gas. I’d hand Kin a pair of rubber gloves so he could fill up the tank. We ate the snacks that I’d packed, cursing that I’d bought two different kinds of nuts but no fresh fruit. We were thankful that the rest areas along I-5 were open and very, very clean. We bought masks for the trip, which seemed perhaps a bit too much, but now we wear them every time we go outside.

I love Oakland already, even though it’s so strange to move to a neighborhood and figure out its vibe when all the stores and restaurants are closed. But I trust the history of resistance and resilience here. I’m happier. I’m reading books again. I’m writing again.

This newsletter’s Columbidae is the laughing dove. (Image credits) Its call, according to Wikipedia at least, is really more of a chuckle.

Find joy where you can, I guess.

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 345

"I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me" -- The Mountain Goats

Shortly after the inauguration in January 2017, I gave a talk titled “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump.” I anticipated that education technology — the impulse for pervasive data collection and analysis — would be wielded by the new administration to extend surveillance in dangerous ways. It would be used to identify and punish undocumented students and their families. I worried too about transgender students and how identities get hard-coded into student information systems. I worried about students the algorithms deemed “at risk” (or “a risk”). I worried about the ways in which the power of counting and compelling students via technology was now not only in the hands of unscrupulous companies but in the hands of an unscruplous President and his cronies.

And here we are. On top of all that I predicted (was I wrong?), we now face this new crisis, another new disaster involving Trump and ed-tech.

I understand that many people want to be able to maintain the continuity of their lives and just shift everything online. I am telling you right now: that is not going to be possible. It is not going to be possible for teachers. It is not going to be possible for students. I don’t say this to minimize the work — the very, very hard work — that many teachers, instructional designers, and support staff are putting into their preparations. And I deeply appreciate the generosity I’ve seen this week as those with experience teaching online have shared advice and resources.

I am much less impressed, I admit, with the “generosity” of ed-tech companies who are making their products free to schools, who are inundating our inboxes with their marketing pitches. I am much less impressed with the sharing of long lists of educational software, with little concern for student privacy and security, with little concern for accessibility, with little concern for digital equity — who has access to a laptop, to high-speed broadband at home. I’m worried about students eating. I’m worried about families making ends meet, paying the bills, maintaining a roof over everyone’s heads. I really don’t want to hear about your company's offers of “virtual solutions, including pre-designed digital assessments.” I don’t want to hear about your company’s proctoring tools and how you can make sure students aren’t cheating. Ed-tech in a time of Trump indeed.

It’s easy, I think — particularly for those who work in, with, and around a lot of technology — to believe that this moment calls for a technological solution. But what we are facing isn’t solvable through a “pivot” to the cloud. You might have all the equipment — all the licenses to all the products and all the content lined up. Your students might have all the equipment to watch, listen, chat back. But we are in the middle of a global health crisis, a global economic crisis; we are in the middle of millions of individual health crises, millions of individual economic crises. This is not going to be a great time for teaching and learning, no matter how carefully you’ve orchestrated your online courses. (And with the lead-up time a lot of folks are getting? Things aren’t really going to be carefully orchestrated. Let's be realistic.)

I know that there are lots of people — many readers of this newsletter, I imagine — who will insist that online education can be done well. And yes, there are plenty of online educators who do do right by their students. They create a digital community where students can learn and thrive. But research suggests that’s typically not what happens. Most students do worse online than they do in face-to-face classes; and that's particularly true for the most vulnerable students — for Black and Latino students, for those with lower GPAs, for low-income students, for younger students. Most students do worse online than they do in face-to-face classes; and that’s under “normal” circumstances. These are not normal circumstances.

I don’t think it's right or fair to ask parents to replicate school at home. I don’t think it’s right or fair to ask teachers or students to replicate school online either. Not replicate. Not right now. Yes, I understand that the kids need to have something to do. They need routines. They need whatever normalcy we can provide. We all do. But I think it’s asking too much to expect too much structured teaching and learning to happen in the coming months.

This school year? Folks, it’s gonna be a wash.

It seems unlikely that this is going to be a short interruption, and frankly I don’t know that we can expect schools to re-open this academic year. There won’t be senior prom. There won’t be commencement. And that sucks. There won’t be AP exams or SATs. (There better not be, you vultures over at the College Board.) There won’t be standardized testing — I mean, come on — but there are going to be some gaps in what students learned. It’s possible there won’t be enough “seat time” for accreditation, enough “student-teacher interaction” for authorization. Sports eligibility could be in question. Scholarships could be in jeopardy. Financial aid might get screwy. Students will want refunds on their fees. Parents will want refunds on room-and-board. We’re going to have to be flexible with “the rules” here.

We are going to have to be patient and flexible with one another. I know that my anxiety over the past few weeks has been just barely contained, and I’ve broken down in a couple of loud crying jags (and some quieter ones in the shower). And I am used to working from home. Social distancing? Man, that’s my life. But I am finding it very, very hard to get anything done with this sense of impending doom. Once the doom hits? Damn. So please, you can stop already with your clever idea that fourth graders are going to log in to a webinar every day for class.

The question right now for educators should not be “what technology do I need to move my class online?” The question should be “what am I doing to support my students (and my colleagues and my family)?” Start there — not with tech but with compassion.

So much of good teaching is about caring, and yet the labor of caring is often invisible or at least unacknowledged — particularly in higher education. The burden of caring in this current crisis is going to fall particularly hard on a precarious, exhausted workforce. This a time for solidarity. Be kind to one another. Check in with one another. And good grief, wash your hands. But really. Shut up about Zoom already.

This week’s Columbidae is the Ducula goliath — the giant imperial pigeon, which at about 20 inches in length, is one of the largest tree-dwelling pigeons. (Image credits)

Yours in struggle,

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