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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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Institutions for a Less Disabling Future: Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age

In their pioneering work The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg argue that institutions of higher education sit at a tipping point brought about by the advent of web 2.0 technology.

Davidson and Goldberg explore implications for higher education of the new possibilities afforded by a range of social media and digital communication technologies, claiming, essentially, that universities must actively pursue the possibilities of digital connective technology and the values of “participatory learning,” even as it means confronting difficult challenges of integrating new styles of institution with old ones. Thanks to sites like Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter (just to name a few immediately recognizable examples), we are now producing knowledge through perviously impossible processes of peer-to-peer, global collaboration, a knowledge-making environment that requires new definitions of literacy and learning.

Traditional institutions of higher education have been reluctant to embrace many innovations, however, often for deep seated structural reasons. For instance it is now possible to use virtual reality environments like Second Life to create large-scale collaborative learning institutions that could cross geographical and institutional borders. To allow for comparison of these seemingly incompatible conceptions of “learning institution” they posit a new model that applied to both material and virtual learning institutions: as mobilizing networks, systems sustain themselves over time and distribute resources to their participants based on agreed procedural practices.

Speaking about the range of institutional structures we employ to administer education to learners, Davidson and Goldberg argue that we must seek ways to make the flow of access to information, resources, and collaborative support more fluid and universally open. They ask,

If, at present, too many learning institutions post obstacles to the free flow of thinking, to collaborative knowledge formation, and to interactive learning almost as formidable as obstacles imposed by corporations and by governments, then how do we create free-flowing institutions? (15)

One answer the authors offer emerges as they examine the academic social networking community, the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC). As a test case, HASTAC offers unique possibilities for the future of learning institutions, but it also evidences the real difficulties involved in building and sustaining new mobilizing networks that would bring virtual and brick-and-mortar institutions together in the producing learning institutions fit for the digital age.

I believe Davidson and Goldberg’s notion of institutions as “mobilizing networks” has a number of compelling implications for disability scholars. Here I’m focusing particularly on the fifth chapter, “Institutions as Mobilizing Networks: (Or, ‘I Hate the Institution–But I love what it Did for Me’)”

It is in discussion what institutions are and how they work that the authors most specifically name disability as a relevant topic in the discussion of learning in the digital age (though race, class, and gender are mentioned quite frequently). On the one hand, the author’s initial framing of the “traditional institution” directly evokes the kind of brick-and-mortar institutions developed to house and “care for” the disabled, such as mental institutions and prisons (125). This is the model of an institution as building, as in a charity foundation or public service. Because they find this model of institution recalcitrant to digital innovation and the possibilities of participatory learning, they try to establish a definition that would support the development of new institutional arrangements demanded by the emerging field of digital learning.

By redefining institutions as “mobilizing networks,” the authors claim mobility as a dynamic capacity for change, open collaborative involvement, access to resources–a quality not evenly distributed across contemporary learning institutions. As the authors themselves put it, “institutions in and of themselves, are not intrinsically good or bad. Their utility is a function of what they enable or disable and make possible or restrict” (129).

As Davidson and Goldberg highlight the way institutions either provide access or obstacles to users, I can’t help thinking about the work of composition scholar Jay Dolmage, who has offered similar–though less digitally focused–definitions of institutions that exclude. In his essay “Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door,” Dolmage also draws connections between traditional institutions of higher education and public institutions for the disabled (in Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook 2008). Dolmage observes that colleges and universities, because their institutional function involves subjecting students to challenges and judging their capacities as students, often justify practices that put high demands on students’ physical, mental, and social abilities. Dolmage employs an architectural metaphor of “steep steps” to explain this mentality–college is supposed to be a hard slog, and those who can’t make it don’t deserve to make it to the top.

Dolmage claims that before the rise of disability activism and the ADA requirements that disabled people have equal or comparable access to public institutions of higher learning, universities were designed only to serve the needs of able-bodied students and staff, and many of the “steep steps” that were justified by administrators and teachers actually disproportionally disadvantaged disabled people. Like Davidson and Goldberg, he advocates universities pursue new practices for designing and administering institutions of higher learning, ones that would remove discriminatory barriers to entrance and access by creating more adaptable, responsive, and participatory institutions.

While Dolmage is less focused on the role digital technology can play in fostering access, and Davidson and Goldberg focus less on the plight of disabled students as a particular vulnerable population, these authors clearly come together in the ways they picture the disabling effects of traditional, hierarchical, institutions of higher learning; they also share a goal of creating new institutions that would allow for improved access and inclusion for a diverse range of learners.

A second point of interest for me in their discussion of institutions as mobilizing networks is the way Davidson and Goldberg discuss the roles of specialized institutional sites within larger traditional learning institutions–sites like libraries, DH labs, and specialized institutes that serve to promote new digital methods within the larger, more conservative university system. They refer to these as “supporting sites of mobilization.”

They argue that Institutional sites like libraries, Digital Humanities labs, and digital literacy institutes function “catalysts for innovative uses of technology for pedagogy” for the university, providing access to and training in new technologies for scholarship and pedagogy while at the same time sharing information and facilitating collaboration with communities outside the institution’s physical walls. Institutional spaces like these, the author argue, serve as hubs of mobilizing energy for the university.

A quick example I’ll likely explore in a later post: I work as a communication fellow at The Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute at Baruch College. The institute provides training for faculty and students in a range of new media practices including course blogging, digital composing, digital assessment. It also provides an institutional link between the university and the corporate world through the annual symposium that brings faculty across a range of disciplines together with business professionals to forge important connections that support the interests of both Baruch and the industries the college’s students wish to enter. The institute also supports open practices in the products it develops, including the blogs@baruch platform and VOCAT, an open source application for giving instructor feedback on video projects. They draw resources from open participants and mobilize their resources throughout the broader global community.

My question: I wonder whether there’s a way to conceive of disability services offices as supporting sites of mobilization.

They certainly can be “catalysts for innovative uses of technology for pedagogy”: throughout my education, I have used these sites to access all kinds of assistive technologies: computer programs designed specifically to help students with learning disabilities (literacy support programs like Kurzweil 3000); books on tape (sometimes in conjunction with national foundations for the Blind and Dyslexic); and many technologies I’ve used somewhat off label for dyslexics, like speech-to-text composing software (Dragon Dictation). These resources tend to be prohibitively expensive for students, and mostly unknown to faculty and staff (outside of libraries). They mobilize digital literacy resources. I’ll address the problems with this idea in a moment.

DSOs might serve important mobilizing function within institutions of higher education in other ways, too. Clearly, in their charge to remove environmental and curricular impediments for students with disabilities, they foster mobility at colleges in literal ways: more people are able to move around campuses, access buildings, access course materials, and (ideally) access college degrees.

I wonder, though, about the important differences between DSOs and other digital literacy and access sponsors like libraries and DH institutes. Within DSOs, resources are distributed through a hierarchical process of administrative bureaucracy. Because their work with students raises all sorts of legal concerns about confidentiality and anti-discrimination legislation, DSOs must be exceptionally controlled in the way they facilitate mobilization of information, resources, and access. Some of their resources are open access (say, information about disability aimed at educating the local community, which is often hosted on DSO websites): these are for everyone, inside or outside of the university, and they often draw reference to disability culture and activism outside academic walls.

However, the majority of the resources available at DSOs are administered through confidential channels and provided only to a select few who have documented diagnoses of disabilities. Access to resources is almost invariably a top-down affair, where the administration sets the plan for accommodation according to legal prescription, and the faculty and student must both comply. DSOs don’t seem in a position to facilitate the kind of peer-to-peer collaborative learning networks Davidson and Goldberg advocate.

I want to close this post by speculating on a model from within the disabled community of mobilizing networks that may provide useful models for innovating the work of DSOs. Here I’m wandering into unclear terrain, where I will need to argue that one important function of these sites of mobilization Davidson and Goldberg describe to push cultural change and community building across social barriers of race, class, nation, and disability. I think here of the way she describes how community organizations like Sustainable South Bronx use participatory learning practices to promote social change and bring together a community.

I think also of the important role that online communities have played in bringing disabled people into active, collaborative community building. I can imagine particularly salient examples from the autistic or Asperger’s communities–the kinds of online sites of emerging “disability culture” Joseph Straus describes in his essay “Autism as Culture” (in Disability Studies Reader, 4th ed).  What productive analogies can be drawn between institutions of participatory learning in higher education contexts and these peer-to-peer digital networks that foster community building and group identity formation? How could similar peer-to-peer disability networking be productive in universities to sponsor new more empowering understandings of disabled identity? What part might DSOs play in facilitating this development?

I will take these questions with me as I continue my research. My next stop is Davidson’s Now You See It, which more directly addresses disability issues. Perhaps I will be able to think through these questions more there. Mark also suggested I track down any blog posts or articles she’s done on disability topics–which I’ll aim to do before she arrives for her job visit to CUNY this Friday. I look forward to talking with her in person about these and other ideas I have emerging for my experiences with her work.

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