Education: Repetition or Difference?

I don’t often feel like putting an axe through someone’s head.  If I do, it’s a good indication that something charged for me is coming up.  Yesterday I wanted to put an axe through somebody’s head. A long, two-handed axe. The kind of thing lumberjacks used to murder redwoods in the days of yore.

At the time, the person in question (let’s call him “Trotsky”) was suggesting that digital media students ought to be trained the way that guilds trained people in the middle ages: apprentice, journeyman, and master.  He actually used these three words, in that order, with a straight face.

In the context of a discussion about digital media, this was irritating, but not axe-worthy.  It was smug, patronizing, and out of touch with research on how learning actually happens, but that’s hardly unusual in a college professor. No, what made me reach for my whetstone was Trotsky’s glib assurance that he was a model that students ought to be imitating.

He’s not. I think he’s a sucky model for students to imitate. But’s let’s be clear: I think that I am a sucky model for my students to imitate. No, what made me so angry wasn’t Trotsky per se, but the way his attitudes so perfectly evoked a notion I vehemently disagree with: that students ought to repeat their teacher’s way of thinking, and the better they approximate the teacher’s approach to problem-solving, the better students they are.

A clarification: this goes much deeper than simply not wanting students to parrot facts. I don’t want them to internalize the workings of my mind in general. At least not as a system, not as a template for how they think. Let’s put it another way: I don’t want apprentices or disciples; I want hackers.

Now to be a really good hacker, you need to understand—or at least explore or discover—some key features of a system. But the whole point of hacking is that you then put those features to unexpected, unforeseen uses. (As Gilles Deleuze said of his philosophy, he wanted it to have not applications, but uses.)

My job is to expose students to some key features of systems of thought.  It is not to teach them to use those features in the ways, and for the purposes, that I use them. Of course there is repetition involved, but my goal is difference. Not to be a model, but a catalyst. Not to represent a norm or a yardstick, but to provoke difference and change. Change the students have to work for. Change that meaningfully engages the systems of thought to which I introduce them. (Otherwise what they do is hardly a successful hack: at best it’s a bug, and in any case, it’s a failure.) But change nonetheless. Not repetition, but difference.

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