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,