Reflections on Writing a Teaching Philosophy

In the pursuit of my dreams and turning on my hustle mode, I’ve dedicated the past couple of days to working on my teaching dossier. After writing a successful draft of my teaching philosophy, I felt the need to share something on this blog.

(This will not be a post about how to write your Statement of Teaching Philosophy)

I have to say that before writing out my own teaching philosophy, I don’t think that I ever realized how much this profession means to me. I know that I love to teach, but by actually describing the feeling of teaching, taking the time to say why I love to teach, it makes me feel all the more committed than ever to improving my teaching strategies and my approaches to constructing a class. I feel more alive in front of a classroom, because it embodies and multiplies that feeling you get when you read a really insightful, thought-provoking book. My students have had this effect on me, surprising me with moments of brilliance that fill me with wonder and inspire me to become a professor that will reciprocate their thoughts in turn. It is humbling to be a teacher, because being there means that I contribute something, if at least for that time in the classroom, to the circulation and free exchange of ideas.

If you are working on becoming a teacher, in any field, take the time to write out this statement of teaching philosophy. It may be that we live our whole lives with feelings that we were not aware made up part of our being, and it is for this reason that I believe in the power of literature. But perhaps, by taking the time to reflect upon these feelings and writing it out, words give feelings, to borrow from a title by Marta L. Werner, an itinerary to escape. To quote one of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems:

 

One    note   from

One    Bird

Is     better    than

A        scabbard

needs

has  –  holds

but       one

sword

 

– Feature image: “A bird in flight” by Hamid Naderi Yeganeh

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Neo-libralization of Online Reading

There is definitely a difference between reading print and e-reading. In Alan Liu’s lecture at Western last week, “The Big Bang of Online Reading,” I had asked Dr. Liu regarding the changes to the sociology and labour surrounding reading and book culture as a result of this new big bang. Dr. Liu’s response, which I paraphrase here, amounted to a discussion of a new kind of neo-liberal labour that de-professionalizes the professional, where it is more likely that a book will now be reviewed, edited, and at times translated by amateurs for no pay whatsoever. In our class two weeks ago, Alex Carillo-Hayley gave an amazing presentation that dealt with the growing manipulation of DIY on the website goodreads. Searches for e-book reviews on a dedicated website that mirrors the once popular New York Review of Books or Globe and Mail’s Book section in the Saturday paper, are no where to be found. While e-books maintain a seamless transition from print culture to digital culture, what has been lost in the process is the paid labour that goes into mediating these books. Instead, websites, such as goodreads and amazon, provide user-friendly interfaces with star rating systems and comments, but the separation between the capital market and the critical (and we all know that the criticism had become lighter with every passing year) economy of reading has been nullified. Instead, user-friendly is another way of saying free labour, in a way making every review a somewhat concealed version of the free labour of unpaid internships that have all of a sudden become commonplace in the new neo-liberal job market.

The rhetoric of e-books hails in a new age of liberation with a new-found availability of choice and automatization that was not present in the previous culture of books. I can bring along a million book with me wherever I go with my amazon kindle, or have access to millions of books by accessing the Google cloud. However, automatization, the dream of the mid-twentieth century, brings along with it a new kind of nightmare, wherein everything is at your fingertips. What has been liberated is the potential for an open-source manipulation of labour. Wikipedia, as Alan Liu has said, has become a refuge for professionals to actually disseminate their expert knowledge. But one cannot idealize this generosity because along with it comes a dedication of unpaid labour for the time devoted to building up this information economy. When Benjamin states in “The Task of the Translator,” that “any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information–hence, something inessential” (Bejamin 69), I feel as if this is the Benjamin that has not met Adorno and has not fully evovled into the late Marxist critic. For information is not inessential but is quite material indeed. The digitization of material does not remove the very real material labour that goes into the production of sites such as wikipedia or the reviews on amateur sites, but the rhetoric of open-source and liberation hides the very real exploitation of users in the digital age.

 

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Break me off a piece of that Kitkat update

After last week’s discussion about the differences between turning away in books and looking on while reading online, I’d like to talk about interface a little more, and specifically about the interface of my phone. Now, while I don’t want to get too technical about updates and simply end up glorifying some products over others, I will say that I chose a Samsung Galaxy S4 because I was under the impression that I was going to be getting a user interface that was designed by Google and Samsung in partnership. Something about partnership made me feel more comfortable with the product as opposed to the apple monolith, the Iphone (also because the Samsung was cheaper).

However, since taking this class on the materiality of the digital text, I also started to view my phone as something that was modifiable rather than as a static medium. In fact, Android phones are celebrated for their customization as well as their openness of their product. This leads me to my point about user interfaces in the age of the android phone. Whereas Apple has established the GUI from the beginning, Androids can be lifehacked. Something like a cross between lifestyle and or DIY, lifehacking – which is a website as well as a verb – appears to be a kind of dialogical relationality between subject and object, user and interface that promotes play, tweaking, and messing around with code. It also takes the investment of time and effort, something that most people would not associate with smartphones. Smart implies an intuitive relationship that already understands what you need. But the difference between Android and Apple seems to be that the latter presents you with a lifestyle that appears tailor-made, ready out of the box, and thus seamless and united; Android, on the other hand, allows for an openness and a labour that reproduces the labour of handwriting, that it takes time to master but it is itself an important part of forming complex and interesting relationships between yourself and the text. As Piper states,

But in focusing solely on the outcome of commonplacing, we overlook the value of the labor of commonplacing, all that time spent copying other people’s words with our hands. (There is a humorous moment in [Steven] Johnson’s piece when he suggests that digital texts appear “broken” if they cannot be copied. It never seems to occur to him that he could copy out the words on the screen by hand.) The point of commonplacing is not just combination, but repetition and, by extension, internalization. In copying the words of another writer word for word, early modern readers were learning how to internalize those words so that they could use them later on, in new ways and in new settings.

Piper’s point about the emergence of writing and copying can be applied to the problems of the aesthetics o GUI as well. While I may be typing on an Apple MacBook Air at the moment, I am fully aware and am now more determined to move away from Apple’s model of commonplacing the “user-friendly” interface. This flattens out while it also establishes for itself a consumer that belongs to a lifestyle and class of people that can afford to enter into the Apple family. Smartphones currently are products of privilege, while I think that an increase in lifehacking may bring about the rise of perhaps more affordable or perhaps even more hackable products. This is to say that User Interface may in fact be dictating to you more than you

This all comes up because I have recently updated my Galaxy S4 to the newest OS, Kitkat 4.4.2. Now, I didn’t necessarily like the update, because the aesthetics of the former clash with the latter. The new Kitkat features a transparent bar at the top of the screen that reinforces the kind of virtuality and suspended quality of what is in front of you, reminding you that can swipe at any moment into a lush and colorful portrait where you can manipulate information as if it were air.

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And, for some reason, the update really just stops there. Samsung’s version of Kitkat only breaks off a piece of the bar, leaving you with the desire for more than the outdated navy blue navigation menu from the days of the now-stale gingerbread.

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While the points may seem to ramble on in this post, I would like to sum up for you what they all have in common: the update. Not only must we update our technology every so often, but so must we continuously update its software and interface. The update contains within it the potential of a renewed aesthetics that is absolutely tied up in the discourse of every discrete product (Samsung, HTC, Nexus, Apple, etc.). On the same note, the incompleteness of the update also opened up for me – and, therefore, possibly for others – the realization that I can update the phone myself, that I can essentially take part in the lifehack of my interface and at least have a choice in how in the mediation between myself and my phone. What we do not realize is that there is a labour and an internalization of that labour that goes on every time we lifehack our phones. This differs from the purchase of new apps, which are themselves a microcosmic product of the macrocosm of the smartphone operating system: both need updating, and both need a user. Without these two, smartphones would then become merely black mirrors. Smartphones are only as smart as the intelligence with which we imbue them. The update, then, is a site upon which the user can capitalize on its relationship to the machine, just as long as they realize that the update can come from somewhere beside the developer.

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Book faces, Facebook, and Kyle McDonald

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I know that I am going to be spiraling off Andrew Piper again today, but I don’t care because I love his book and just want to write about him all the time. Piper’s second chapter of Book Was There is all about the effect that the object has on our faces. This reminded me of an art project that occurred a few years back, so I immediately went to my favorite online literacy tool, Google’s search engine. Now, I couldn’t find the article that discussed this project, and I also couldn’t remember the name of the artist, and it was possibly the first time I ever felt disoriented using Google. This disorientation, though, occurs often and is perhaps the main difference I’ve noticed between the materiality of the book and the virtuality of texts online, which was compounded by the fact that the page I was looking for WAS NOT THERE.

I must admit that I am getting more comfortable with writing on this blog, since I’ve started to consider this simply a form of being social otherwise. The reason I say this is that I managed to find out the name of the artist by asking my facebook friends in a status about the origins of this artist, and whether or not I had gone insane by not being able to use Google effectively. My friend, who will remain nameless (though you could just look at my profile on facebook to see who it is), sent me a link which answered my question. The page had been effectively taken down due to the intervention of the secret service in conjunction with a cease and desist from apple! Another article details the artist’s–Kyle McDonald–experience and the rationale behind the whole ordeal.

So I decided to upload two different pictures, one of me reading the Huffington Post this morning, and the other of me reading Piper’s Book Was There. Even these two pictures detail the real difference between turning away and looking on that Piper emphasizes in his second chapter. The other difference, which remains shocking to me, is that I could not find anything else besides a couple articles afterwards that discuss McDonald’s work, while what I really wanted to see were the photographs of customers at a New York Apple store staring blankly–usually–into the screen. Perhaps my friend is right that the main reason this work was taken down was that the “Panopticon doesn’t like it when we turn our gaze on it.” All of this is to say that I see Piper’s even-handed argument about the benefits and disadvantages of reading online or digitally in this experience. On the other hand, after seeing the article on Wired, I realized that I had already read this at one point, and somehow forgot about it. Once again, and I realize that I am mythologizing the book again, I definitely feel like the articles I read online disappear from my memory much more quickly than anything I’ve ever read in a book. This subjective argument, though, should be the topic of my next post with, hopefully, some research to back it up.

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source: http://www.spritzinc.com/#

It should come as no surprise to people that I’ll be blogging about the Spritz mobile reading app. As one of my friends on facebook remarked, I’m tired of people applying an “economic” logic to the arts and humanities. Spritz is emblematic of a kind of visual literacy that does not seem to understand the interaction between reader and text the way that say Johanna Drucker does in her article, “From Virtual Text to E-Space,” or the way that Andrew Piper describes the “meaning of reading [as what] lies in the oscillatory rhythms of the opening and closing hand” (Piper 23). I’ve never been one to complain about my capacity for reading (I think I average about 50-60 pages an hour, which I believe is average?), but trying to read everything one word at a time misses the point of the slippery and opaque movement of reading.

Reading a Yahoo answers post, one person talks about improving the speed of reading in terms of eliminating regression (which I’m guessing means going back over words), eliminate sub-vocalization (which I think means cutting off the urge to reflect while reading and thus eliminating the slow and beautiful engagement afforded while reading any text), and finally widening your field of vision. While the first two pieces of advice seem to be a result of Spritz’s fast streaming speed reading, the last tidbit appears to contradict the whole act of speed reading itself. While reading is in fact a visual medium, Piper is right to also point out that reading from a codex (and ebooks as well!) involves also touch and sound, and with some of my older copies of books a quite remarkable smell. Notice the image above from Spritz’s website, dominated by a fetishism of the eye, whereas reading is actually a lot more complex than merely seeing words in succession. Reading also involves a desire to go backwards, as well as forwards, something that both the codex and the scroll allow us to do, but that the rapid succession of words forces us to consider texts as processes that must be completed and then archived in some kind of database. What they term their custom-designed “redicle” (www.spritzinc.com), confuses a human capacity for reading with that of a computer (or terminator: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvRb9jZ9wFk). I know that I go on and on about the terminator here, but he just keeps coming back to remind us that even a computer will come to a more human understanding of his environment and vision than humans will, and that trying to see through a computer’s eyes may really be missing the forest for the trees.

I’ll end this with a personal anecdote that also shows my bias against the act of speed-reading. My family being split down the middle (I am from a generation of divorced children) is also split in its attention to reading. While one side is highly religious and thus incredibly tied to the good book, the other is has widened its field of vision to read everything from health books, spy thrillers, existential philosophy, and the occasional Dan Brown novel. The religious side, which you would think would be more invested in a slow reading, in fact doesn’t understand my desire to read many books slowly. When we’re at the dinner table and they invariably ask me how school is (treating it very much the same way as asking someone in high school), they can probably only listen to me for five minutes before asking me how fast I can read. The conversation then turns to when my grandfather bought a speed reading course book in the 70s, and how they all tried to learn to speed read but never really kept up with it. The conversation will thus always change from speed reading to something involving economics, engineering, and literature would always be left by the way. Perhaps my love of reading stems from a form of ressentiment that is linked to a distrust of speed reading, and perhaps even more to a distrust of an orthodox reading of the Bible. I see these two as linked, as both limit the reflective act of reading that comes from going back and forth, from slowing down and skimming, and essentially from our interaction with a text rather than merely processing data in an oppressively linear fashion.

source: http://www.spritzinc.com/#

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Reading Computers Reading

When I was growing up in Windsor, Ontario, I, like many of my southern brethren, listened to Canada’s grunge darlings, Our Lady Peace. Although many were a fan of their earlier work, I was always fascinated by their third studio album Spiritual Machines, an experimental album interspersed with interviews with the emerging futurist Ray Kurzweil. Now, this album came out around the time that the IBM super computer Deep Blue beat out the Chess Master Gary Kasparov, a prediction Kurzweil had made earlier in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines, and it was specifically the extra track at the end of the album featuring a conversation between Kurzweil and an artificial intelligence that really captured my attention.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELWqOw2xBNY

Fast forward to the present, I still listen to OLP on occasion, but I have fallen out of love with Kurzweil’s wild fantasy, especially since the prophet is now trying to bring about the singularity which he had predicted long ago. In a recent article I read in the guardian, Kurzweil writes about his new research funded by Google’s Big Data division:

“Language, he believes, is the key to everything. “And my project is ultimately to base search on really understanding what the language means. When you write an article you’re not creating an interesting collection of words. You have something to say and Google is devoted to intelligently organising and processing the world’s information. The message in your article is information, and the computers are not picking up on that. So we would like to actually have the computers read. We want them to read everything on the web and every page of every book, then be able to engage an intelligent dialogue with the user to be able to answer their questions” (“Are the Robots about to rise? The Guardian Saturday, February 22nd, 2014).

I am equally fascinated and terrified by Kurzweil’s devotion to bringing about AI, mostly because his devotion resembles the mad scientist of old cinema. Admittedly, I am a Romanticist and we are highly sceptical of scientific solutions, seeing any scientific innovation as being both a boon and a disaster, as in Hawthorne’s “The Birth Mark.” Reading, though, I find is the most interesting aspect of Kurzweil’s work, especially since he believes that reading is in fact the origin of intelligence. I don’t know if he’s gone back far enough in the history of reading and writing, but it was not the origin of our intelligence, but was itself a technological leap forward in memory and recollection in the service of accounting in ancient Mesopotamia, specifically in Sumeria. However, the ways that computers function is specifically through reading code, which is something that I am currently learning in class. Far from my understanding of speech learning and computer science, I am seeing the way that computers read is absolutely different from the way we read. For instance, computers read according to a hierarchical or tree model, whereas we are able to read things in terms of semantics and in a linear order. Computers seem to be moving in a similar direction, but whether or not Kurzweil’s efforts will work is still up for debate. After reading the article though, I have thought less about computers being something absolutely independent of us, but rather as something that we are teaching, helping them learn, which is a lot less apocalyptic than what the guardian’s article throws in our face (the terminator is much less threatening if we think about it in terms of something that we are educating rather than creating). Language is something that is learned, not necessarily something that is natural to all of us. Cuneiform was a proto-writing that lead to the writing systems we know today, but writing is not the same as language. If Kurzweil’s AI were to ever comprehend language, it would have to be able to make that distinction; that is, language is different from writing insofar as its origin precedes and eludes writing. In this case, I really hope the massive amount of data that Kurzweil’s AI is using has been reading Derrida, and also hope that it is watching Her in its spare time. I’d rather be doing that than listening to Kurzweil any day.

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#SochiProblems: Meme or Critique?

In Sarah Kaufman’s article on the recent surge of tweets depicting problems at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, a critical question about the nature of journalism and new digital media arises. Kaufman’s argument makes an incisive point against Western journalists superficial ridicule of real human conditions that are a problem for Russian citizens, and that these tweets and instagram pictures have the potential to become much more critical of a regime of corruption and political manipulation than the journalists and twitter users are implementing. For instance, every retweet should be a means of spreading the criticism while also realizing the inherent dangers of retweeting that verges on the reposting of memes. In this sense I don’t feel as if Kaufman’s article is an apology for Russian authorities and contractors, but rather makes a good point of criticizing the contractors for their use of slave labour by explaining that the hallway of coat racks is not the result of lazy Russian labourers, but because they were not even being paid but shipped in through a revolving door of labour, which cannot suitably be scrutinized with merely one tweet. Unless someone checks the facts. I also think that Kaufman is right to criticize journalists because these tweets are superficial at times, and that the medium at 140 characters is still hard to properly convey a substantial critique. At what point does a critical tweet merely become a meme reposted on friends walls in support of the Canadian hockey team beating those dang Ruskies? In support of Kaufman, I suppose that her article also got me thinking about the effectiveness and the dangers of the digital medium of twitter, which I am still uncomfortable with and yet am ultimately fascinated. Especially considering the spread of information via twitter during the Arab Spring, we see every retweet bearing a certain political action that goes beyond the entertainment value of retweeting something by say @KimKierkegaardashian–which, as I write this, I realize is in fact a brilliant expression of art and cultural critique of celebrity worship. Although I am not watching the Olympics this year, Kaufman’s article about @SochiProblems raises issues that go beyond the particular case she investigates.

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