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An unasked question for Cathy Davidson: response to Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It (2011)

I had the opportunity to spend the day with Cathy Davidson yesterday. She was visiting the Graduate Center for a series of job-talk events–a catered lunch with program grad students, a seminar with grads and profs, and a lecture, all exploring how higher education is poised to respond to shifting paradigms in digital education and Internet-based industry. I didn’t get to talk with her as much as I would have liked, and by the end of the day, when she was finally free enough to approach alone, I chickened out. She had already endured eight straight hours of conversation and debate, including some rather adversarial questions in the final lecture, and it didn’t seem like the best time to engage her with my rather specialized interests in her work. We’ll have other occasions to talk. And, besides, who needs to talk IRL anymore? If you’re reading, Cathy, it was a pleasure to meet you.

I wrote about The Future of Thinking, Davidson’s 2009 (mass-)co-authored monograph in my last post. There I found compelling institutional theory and a model for peer-to-peer academic work that surprised and inspired me. Now You See It (2011), Davidson’s newest book, addresses a more popular audience, bringing brain science and case studies from 21st century schools and workplaces together to dispel our contemporary fixation on the “attention crisis” caused by the proliferation of digital technology, especially as that crisis relates to today’s young people. Davidson narrates the history of American educational institutions and workplaces and their connections to mass-production models of industry, productivity, and uniformity. She argues that the newest revolution in mass communication–the Internet and the World Wide Web–have initiated a paradigm shift in the way we work and learn in the 21st century. Education, she claims, has been among the slowest sectors to embrace these possibilities, largely due to misconceptions about attention, productivity, and work life that we have inherited from older generations.

To aim her message at a popular audience, Davidson employs easy-to-follow narratives throughout Now You See It, leaving behind the carefully wrought academic language of Future of Thinking. Davidson’s choice of audience address has clearly contributed to the book’s massive popularity and appeal, but for me as a scholar, it initially turned me off to the book. While I found her case studies from classrooms and work places compelling and illustrative, they tended to leave me without many scholarly leads to follow.

However, I don’t want to make it sound like the narrative work Davidson does in this book is simplistic. In fact, I feel I’ve learned much from examining the ways she incorporates individual historical narratives (for instance, the history of IQ or standardized testing, or the history of the 20th century corporate-style workplace) within a broader narrative structure of the book itself, a cradle to grave examination of life in the Internet age.

She begins with infancy, when we learn to pay attention to our world by internalizing the values and habits of our home and our parent’s culture. She then examines the neural capacities that allow us humans teach and learn as they grow and go through schooling. She then takes us through both the public school and the university system, at each step confronting how contemporary educational systems respond to or ignore current understandings of how we learn. Because most education is justified as preparation for life in the work world, she takes us to 21st century work places and the new industries fostered by information technology. In the end, she speaks directly to an audience who sees itself as too old to learn the new technology, celebrating the impressive and sustained capacity for learning and growth possessed by even the most skeptical, behind-the-times, technophobes.

Throughout all stages of life, Davidson’s investigates what literacy and learning really mean in the 21st century. In particular, she explores the question of what role attention and attention-blindness play in our current work and school lives. She draws upon recent brain research about how we actually pay attention in order to dispel the common complaint that kids today don’t know how to pay attention like they used to. She turns this argument on it’s head, claiming that it is the popular press and tech-skeptics who distract themselves with hand wringing about multitasking, video games; because they fixate on what’s wrong with kids today, they themselves do not pay attention to the positives that come from embracing our universal capacities to pay attention in different, ever-changing ways. Rather than trying to force people to pay attention in old-fashioned ways better suited for the industrial age, Davidson believes we should be learning from what kids find important enough to pay attention to and teaching them to cultivate their own attentional and discernment abilities. Rather than pushing all students to pay attention in the same ways (the ways that are supposed to lead to good standardized test scores, usually), we should teach students to “collaborate by difference,” working together to fill in for one another’s attentional gaps. Davidson believes collaboration, flexibility, and creativity are the literacy skills necessary for survival in the Internet age. And our institutions should reflect this shift by becoming less hierarchical, less silo’d, and more conducive to the kind of peer-to-peer, self-directed knowledge making now possible through the Internet.

I found my own attention drawn to the way Davidson discusses learning disabilities throughout her book, including ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, her own dyslexia. Her general stance toward labels like LD, dyslexic or Autistic shows a careful skepticism, especially about what we as a culture believe these labels mean in our current moment. She walks a tense line between acknowledging differences in people who have “different brains” and also denying that there’s really such a thing as learning disabilities in any fixed definition. It’s a tension I myself feel when talking about learning disabilities as a progressive educator who at the same time wants to advocate a positive identity for LD people, while also changing education to remove impediments that make LD diagnosable in the first place. I see this tension throughout Davidson’s work.

On the one hand, because she has read a great deal of neuroscience work on these “disabilities,” she is willing to describe developmental conditions using some medicalized explanations. For instance, when narrating the way a typical baby’s brain develops more streamlined neural pathways as he learns, Davidson writes, “If his [the hypothetical Baby Andy’s] development unfolds as it should, he will lose 40 percent of his extra neurons before he grows up. If he does not, he will not be able to function independently in society and will be considered mentally handicapped or disabled.” (44 – 45) To me, this passage exemplifies the tension of talking about cognitive disabilities in a progressive educational context. On the one hand, Davidson is talking about a biological reality–something that is happening or not in an individual’s brain. On the other hand, she is talking about this person’s ability to “function independently in society,” which Davidson’s work acknowledges is no stable capacity–it is indeed a rapidly changing capacity as technology, industry, and social structure change over time. By setting the labels of “mentally handicapped or disabled” within their historical and cultural context, Davidson acknowledges that these labels are not natural or automatic or even value neutral–they are labels that name someone as a poor fit for our current social and economic systems.

I feel a great deal of consternation about her use of the phrase “If his development unfolds as it should.” Having read other examples from the book, I know that she praises the broad and diverse capacities of people our medical discourse labels as disabled, as evidenced by her extended examination of industries where neurotypical (NT) people are disadvantaged compared to their autistic coworkers, such as IT program quality control (see ch 7 “The Changing Worker”). However, this phrase signals to me a value-laden assumption that–all things considered–it would be better if people like Baby Andy developed along the normal path, the way they should. It would be nice if there were fewer cognitively disabled people in the world. I want to push back against that should, to say that it leads us toward seeing intellectual capacity as the most important factor and away from seeing the value in intellectually disabled people. I don’t want to push very hard, though, as I think that should speaks against the injustice of innaccess, rather than the tragedy of disability.

In almost every other case where Davidson discusses disability, she does so within a larger social and cultural context, rather than focusing on the shoulds or should nots of individual development. For instance, rather than speculating about biological causes of recent rise in autism, she carefully observes “it seems that more people who are born now will eventually be diagnosed with autism than a decade ago” (215). Similarly, when talking about her own dyslexia, she claims “I wasn’t always dyslexic. I am old enough that ‘learning disabilities’ didn’t exist as a category when I was a kid” (8). In each of these cases, Davidson foregrounds the historical contingency of our terms for discussing these seemingly stable, unchangeable brain conditions (dyslexic, autistic).

In so doing, she is able to focus not on what makes dyslexics or autistic people biologically different, but instead on how education practices workplace cultures perpetuate systems that exclude certain people and not others (10). Labels like autism, ADHD, and learning disabilities arise, Davidson claims, because doctors are asked to provide reasons and treatments for people who don’t fit into rigidly narrow education systems. As she puts it when discussing the rise of standardized learning and IQ assessment, “the more standardized our assessment, the more kids fail. Their failure is then diagnosed as a learning disability or disorder” (79). If schools employed broader approaches to education that respected (instead of seeking to correct) the differences between individual capacities, these labels of disorder and syndrome would no longer be necessary.

I will conclude this discussion with one final passage, where Davidson lays out her social perspective on disability most broadly. Here, she is discussing the fact that in our current age of constantly shifting literacy requirements–where this year’s newest technological innovation leaves us unable to do work with new software or hardware we need to carry out our lives–learning disability is in fact the norm, not the exception. She writes,

The issue isn’t whether you have learning disabilities because, in a larger sense, everyone does. No one does everything perfectly all the time. Given the inherent lack, it’s just not interesting or useful to label some disabilities and not others. Far better to diagnose what the issues are and then find the right tools, methods, and partners to compensate for those so that you are able to contribute in the unique ways you can. (140)

Here Davidson takes the social model of disability to its logical conclusion: disability is not about individual impairment, it’s about inability to function within the existing social structure, and in that regard the label could apply to anyone irrespective of actual “brain difference,” whatever that would mean. Even if you might be temporarily learning-abled now, a simple change in the technology could render your literacy abilities out of date, creating in you a deficiency that did not previously exist.

This leaves me with the question I never got around to asking Cathy Davidson when I saw her yesterday, a question I hope to discuss with her more in person, as it’s not quite answered for me in her work. How can we rationalize and resolve the tension between biological essentialism, educational progressivism, and positive disability identity politics when we talk about learning disabilities and education? From a biological essentialist view, Davidson and I are “different brained, ” as she describes in her recent blog post “How it Feels to be Learning Disabled.” From a progressive educational viewpoint, however, we are simply the most disadvantaged in an disadvantaging education system whose priorities fixate on a fictional “normal brain” that no human being actually has. To reform that system is to deny the relevance of our “brain difference,” that is, to render us as a population indistinguishable from everyone else. And yet, these two views do not preclude a third, a paradoxical middle ground in which Davidson (and I) can cheer for positive identity politics in which we can say it’s great to be dyslexic or autistic, and we can use these terms for community building and to fight a culture of stigma. I want to know what place positive identity building as “differently brained” plays in Davidson’s politics of disabilities and learning. Maybe I’ll get up the gumption to ask her about it next time I see her.

Notes: https://docs.google.com/document/d/121f0oy5xPDldQyCCu4y0Liu5BPmTAgONiC2X3dSf4ak/edit?usp=sharing

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2 thoughts on “An unasked question for Cathy Davidson: response to Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It (2011)

  1. I’m so sorry we didn’t have a chance to talk and look forward to that conversation when it does happen. You nailed exactly what I’m trying to do in Now You See It: put together what we know about biological, cultural, and individual brain and attentional development as one, continuous explanatory system because, after all, most of us do not exist solely as physical brains or solely as cultural products or solely as unique individual minds without bodies—although disciplinarity is such that it is very rare to have a holistic explanation. A cultural theory of brain biology: you got it exactly right. Thank you. These things are inseparable and yet, depending on the question you are asking, the policy you are creating, or the “cures” (such as with stroke patients) you are seeking, the emphasis shifts . . . and then shifts again in implementation, economic support, rehabilitation, and another constellation of actual workable and working situations beyond the theories.

    The one critique you offer is my “should” in the parable I’m inventing for the mythical Baby Andy that I use to exemplify. in a very concrete way, what I mean by the cultural theory of brain development. The tone of that is a “just so” story, with then lots of side stories (such as the anecdote about Andy if he were Japanese rather than an American baby severing all those infant neural pathways through learning a kanji-based language versus an alphabetic). I don’t see the exact “should” you quote but I’m talking about the expected, culturally sanctioned “ideal” pathway in order to make the exceptions (such as different cultural appreciations or censure of the “personality” of a child with the Williams Syndrome chromosonal condition). I’m sure you are correct that I could have done it better. One always can.

    I also want to address your comment about writing for a trade versus a professional audience: there is nothing harder than writing for a general audience, in my opinion. It is rather like teaching English to a speaker of a non-Western or non-alphabetic language. You cannot fall back on accepted shorthands that the profession pretends to agree upon (except when we don’t: as Foucault says, as Jameson says, etc). You have to unravel assumption, embedded in assumption, embedded in assumption, and do so without talking down to one’s readers who, after all, are probably asking deeper, more fundamental questions than all those we gloss over in talking to people who “share” our language–or so we think.

    Thanks so much for this really stunning blog post and for your generous reading of my work. I look forward to a further conversation IRL.

    • Thank you for your encouragement and for reading my post! I am deeply interested in your ideas about a cultural theory of brain biology. It draws together many of the strands I’m trying to work though in this orals blog. I’m excited to have the chance to talk more about it later.

      I’d also like to clarify about my comments about the trade versus academic audience. I fear I came off sounding critical of the choice to write for a wider audience. I probably should have been clearer about this in the post: I admire the way Now You See It is written, and I learned much from the model it provides me as a writer who hopes to speak to non-academics someday. (Indeed, this blog is my latest attempt to teach myself how to write more clearly for an audience other than myself.) Because I think a lot about writing and teaching writing, I always push myself to notice not only the content of what I read, but also the style and the effects it has on me as a reader. And I know I’m a reader with particular desires and needs that aren’t universal. Perhaps I should be clearer in the future that I intend my comments as subjective reactions, rather than objective assessments. This feedback is useful. Thanks again.

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