A Problematic Conundrum
Reveling in the apprenticeship tradition
Pandemics often expose fault lines in capitalist hegenomies. With a 20 year career teaching apprenticeship trades math, I faced a problematic conundrum in 2020, how to develop Learning Management Systems (LMS) due to the COVID crisis. Labor communications has a rich tradition of being “secret,” from artisans to laborers forming the London Corresponding Society reacting to Pitt’s suspension of habeas corpus, to mideavel guilds to the collega: workers back to ancient times defined their communities as being separate from state and public regimes. I resisted yet another application of disaster capitalism by Google Classroom, Zoom, and all the other macho Silicon Valley venture capitalists gregariously effusing that all teachers need are more GrubHubs, trudging skilled educators towards the gig economy, like the gig mills of centuries past, trending us all toward the digital poorhouse. Growing up in the ironic 80s, how could I see this as anything other than yet another expression the lactic labor movement?
Living in the Bronx, seeing myself as what Antonio Gramsci calls an “organic intellectual.” Wrestling with my so called problematic conundrum, my hermetic proclivities lead me towards secret waters, resigned to the perhaps hateful belief that my time has not come yet. As a trades math instructor, I must reject any way of teaching with a foundation no better than sand or mud. I am certain I need to develop new ways to, as a way to resist hegemonic framings of what learning means, offer “how to” classes on curriculum development, instructional delivery and data driven assessments to my fellow trades instructors. Unlike Descartes, I must begin not with myself (hasn’t worked for me), but with others with similar perspectives and experiences. What follows is a bumbling, meandering attempt to describe what I am looking for a research programme I can matriculate into, that will serve as a framework for me to answer this troubling question. If this is too much for you, please swipe down to the bottom bullet points.
Remembering Michael Harrington at my first NYC DSA gathering (shivering/trying to sleep the night before on a cold church basement floor, sharing a blanket with 3 other 20 somethings), everything comes in threes. First, an example.
911 is the other bookend of my 20 year career teaching pre-apprentices. 2020 was a time I spent resisting the application of disaster capitalism upon the worker education programs I taught as a construction trades math instructor. were rapidly revised in 2020, necessitated by the imperative to utilize remote learning platforms due to the COVID crisis. Mostly ineffectually, I resisted yet another application of/by Google Classroom, Zoom, and all the other macho Silicon Valley venture capitalists gregariously effusing that all teachers need are more GrubHubs, trudging skilled educators towards the gig economy, like the gig mills of centuries past, trending us all toward the digital poorhouse. Growing up in the ironic 80s, how could I see this as anything other than yet another expression the lactic labor movement? Pandemics often expose fault lines in capitalist hegenomies.
To defang the many headed hydra known as multinational corporate capitalism, slithering, strangling, and sucking out worker productivity to the last dram, I am convinced I know what needs to be done to resist the ever encroaching eels, but, I also know I lack the vocabulary to entice workers to demand their own learning modalities.
My muteness is easier to describe through a second layer of my teaching experience: as an adjunct science professor. Borrowing from “An Inconvenient Truth,” I have expanded its timeline in my classes, comparing today’s atmospheric CO2 concentration to previous mass extinction events — 65 million years ago, when an asteroid killed off every dinosaur that didn’t have wings on its back, 185 million years before that, the mother of all dinosaurs, Megachirella, somehow survived the Permian extinction that ended the long run of the Cambrian explosion that began ½ a billion years ago.
I play my slideshow in class three times a year. And yet when the midterms come back, many of my adult workers’ responses to what the above graph means, tell me, once again, I have failed as a teacher. Why can’t I communicate 500,000,000 years of natural history in a way that all of my students will leave my class understanding, not another “existential” crisis, but a full blown mass extinction event streaming to you live as you read this: the burning koalas, Paradise lost, the bomb cyclones, where there once was maybe one are now many hurricanes circling the ocean at the same time? Al Gore describes my muteness as an “urgent question”:
How can this crisis be made as clear to our nation and to the world as Revelle made it to me?
Another way to get at the problematic conundrum I find myself mute to describe is that what I’m talking about requires “turning” to see it from many sides. In “The Question Concerning Technology,” Martin Heidegger begins with the simplistic, chronological explanation of the Scientific Revolution, that Galileo, et. al. had ideas which were then codified into scientific regimes that were then materialized into technologies used to buttress the Industrial Revolution. He seeks a deeper understanding, and plays with three words, poiesis, episteme and techne to go on to show that any linear understanding is bound to come up short.
Al Gore’s urgent question could be “turned” as well: what can I do to make clear to others how dangerous it is to rely upon online behavior modification as a means to implement worker education andragogies? link Our grandmothers who were teachers had manila colored grade books where they wrote down week by week grades, and then, on the far right column, a ‘total’ column, to help them figure out quarterly grades for the 100 students in their classes every year. Google Classroom has no sum function, which means the way teachers have been assessing their students for over a century must be eliminated, if we are to rely on Digital Maoists for teaching. These “free” eduapps are a Pavlovian click-thru-5-windows-for-one-assessment-for-one-student, 30 times per class, 10 assessments per quarter, 5 classes per day. Grandma’s grade book is a lot easier to use, so why let Google brain hack our teachers? The answer relates back to my problematic conundrum.
What can test-prep click-bait, designed to offer a single solitary product to every alienated student, condemned to a cubicle offer — to a woman fleeing her abusive husband from down South, sleeping on a Central Park bench her first few days here, the high school dropout struggling to get his GED, the immigrant from Bolivia whose English isn’t too good? Will any of these workers be adequately served by a computer algorithm executing logic statements on an online multiple choice quiz? It is equally absurd to believe that sitting in front of a computer for hours cut-and-pasting someone else’s answers will do anything to help an apprentice become a journeyman in one of NYC’s many local construction unions.
There are many times I feel the need to smash the computers before they completely annihilate life and labor. But to say that the keyboard campus is anathema to workers rights is as simplistic as saying the Industrial Revolution was logically determined by Newton. Which lead me to my third strand.
From Despard to Thislewood and beyond there is a tract of secret history, buried like the Great Plain of Gwaelod beneath the sea.
“Problematic conundrums” is a phrase the reveals more about my failure to communicate my perception of the struggle than the struggle itself. We are embedded in a time so rapidly revised that it is impossible to express, or even see, a coherent explanation of what it is we are doing. In the future, historians will be able to wrap around an explanation of what it is we are doing. But for now, I have to imagine our own place in history based on sunken secrets, like living in the Andromeda Galaxy, if only to visualize our own Milky Way.
That is why it is so difficult to resist the constant encroachment of “academic” framings about what learning ought to be for workers. There are many strands of experience embedded into the proliferation of Google Classroom.
Designing my research programme, seeks to satisfy expressions like the following:
All of this return to my original crag: why we continue to burn fossil fuels when the verdict is in on its effects. Knowing you’re right means nothing if most people don’t agree with you. Scientists, workers, and the teachers of both, must place as their most fundamental imperative, /… everyone that what we see, interpreted by our rational minds,
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