Paper #5 – Epistemological Alignment


Introduction

Of course I’m infinite,
said the Grain of Sand, but
what’s the rest of this beach doing here?
(James Broughton, High Kukus).

I don’t expect that a traditional approach to this essay would say much that would surprise anyone who has read my previous entries on this topic, nor my attempts to contribute to the quantitative/qualitative nor the empirical/anti-empirical debates in the modern academy.  However, I do believe that there is a value in reiterating the personal and ideological engagement I feel with this topic, because it is precisely the interpretation of RAD/empirical research as impersonal that I have sought to push back against through my treatment of these concerns.

Because my ideological position in this essay ran absurdly long, I have provided it instead as a separate entry (viewable here.)  What follows, then, is a description of my specific area of interest and how it applies to my epistemological position.

In order to align oneself epistemologically through the RAD interest, one must position oneself for a more “informed” pedagogy, theory, and ideology.  In doing so, for better or worse, one must imply that other approaches are – more or less – “uninformed.”  This is an unfortunate implication.  It is especially unfortunate, because all too often it appears to be true in the modern humanities, where the personal gris-gris of researchers take precedence over the ethical application of humanist, careful, and methodologically-sound research, preferencing personal ideology above and beyond the student-centric ethos of the English Studies RAD scholar – especially in Rhet/Comp and many of the more demographic fields of study, which all too often ignore the necessity of student skills development in order to make room for more vogue, mysterious, postmodern concerns.


My RAD Object of Study

When your back is against me,
said the Wall,
why not lean on me?
(James Broughton, High Kukus).

I have always been intrigued by the recent re-alignment of undergraduate student bodies within the corporatized, capitalistic concerns of the modern academic landscape – and have, similarly, been concerned by (and opposed to) the forwarding of the personal ideologies, philosophies, ethics, and epistemologies of researchers/instructors/theorists as tantamount to “scholarship” with little concern for the ability of students to synthesize such ideologies external to their own academic (and lived) experiences.  Up to this point, this blog has approached the questions of RAD research through the general role that RAD values might play in developing more meaningful, ethical research and data – however, I think it is equally important to consider the ways in which RAD can demonstrate that other practices within the ideologically-driven academy are becoming un-ethical.

As such, some of the primary objects of study for my PhD in general (and a likely topic for my eventual dissertation) are the for-profit elements of the modern academic model that effect student learning – and color students’ very interpretation of what learning is and should be. The study of these elements can be both RAD and ideological – both “Rhet” and “Comp.”  I view these objects as worthy of close study because they have both universalized appeal in the modern, tech-centered college campus, and because they avoid the marginalizing, othering aspects of ideology-centric practices inherent in many of the modern (postmodern) schools of critical and social theory.

I am especially intrigued by the technical, communicative aspects of user interface design for for-profit writing- and learning-support platforms that specialize in instruction, assignment, and assessment, such as Pearson Writer, TurnItIn.com, Cengage Insite and Mindtap, or McGraw Hill Connect – and, especially, Blackboard Learn.  These services (or, as many label themselves, “solutions” – implying that learning is somehow a “problem” to be “solved”) present themselves with an ethos of accessibility, expertise, and student-centric experince, typically while actually offering none of these as actual features of the platform.  By offering a profit-curated form of knowledge, they restrict learning.  By presenting a purely mechanical expertise, they eliminate nuance.  By making assessment part and parcel of production, they debase process and lionize prescriptivism.

To apply notions of “power” and “signification” to resolve these aspects of the corporate intersection with academic progress would be easy enough; it would be trivial to demonstrate (through Marxist, postmodern readings of these systems and their cachet with administrative approaches to streamlined execution of goals-driven instruction) their functions in order to explain away their purposes as wholly malignant to the individualistic and personal nature of learning.

But it would not be effective.  Problematizing the philosophical and ideological origins of such platforms would not resolve the fact of their presence within the classrooms of the academy – our classrooms.  Announcing that “Foucault warned us about Blackboard” will not convince administrators to not enforce the use of such platforms in conflict with some instructors’ educational expertise and professional experience.  It will not un-bundle such software (and its associated fees) from the necessary texts at the foundation of undergraduate learning.

RAD, however, offers tools to provide meaningful, productive, convincing data of the difficulties these platforms create in the practice of meaningful pedagogy.  Through RAD interpretations of user interfaces, we can leverage student experiences to define user engagement according to its productivity.  RAD study of resource accessibility can demonstrate that any individual platform prevents student access to necessary literature, practices, and skills.  RAD study of student outcomes can help us to appreciate the ways in which these platforms typically do not (and, admittedly, sometimes do) improve the “lived experiences” of active learners.  Meaningful, independent study of these platforms could reveal avenues of productive dissent – results- and student-driven data that does not bow to the administrative concern, but is undeniable, demonstrable, and replicable.

That is all to say, my selection of these objects of study is in and of itself an expression of my epistemological alignment – an argument for a version of political, Marxist desires to better serve “truth” and student needs by eliminating the overtly political, and the overtly Marxist, in order to instead provide a non-partisan analysis of the tools and practices that shape students’ actual lives and and actual, functional learning practices.

I promised earlier (and in my supplement, linked above) that I would study how RAD research (and research in general) can “function both as performative scholarship and as scholarly performance.”  I believe that the study of such administrative concerns as academically primary is highly performative.  It is research that does “real work,” an utterance that enacts change.  It is capable of being both descriptive and extremely rhetorical.

I’ve pushed back against the notion, as I’ve stated before, that RAD is “impersonal” because it is quantitative and empirical.  In exploring the nature of this set of Objects of Study, and the ideology inherent in supporting, opposing, or studying them, I hope I have demonstrated that there is nothing more personal and humanistic than investing in discovering the ideological and politically/economically exigent elements driving and influencing the creation of such tools.  It treats the instructor as a whole person, seeking best solutions while also being limited by social, professional, economic, and political factors.  More than this, it treats the student as a whole person, influenced by these tools and exerting influence over them.  Finally, it also treats the creators and propagators of these tools as whole people, with their own desires, both towards exigency and student success.

Through the interpolation of these three views – rhetorically – with the data-centric study of the tools’ design and effect, I hope that we can come to a more holistic understanding of how they function – for better and worse – and how RAD can help us to understand (and improve upon) their nature.


Conclusion

Wherever you make your home,
said the Louse,
is the center of the world.
(James Broughton, High Kukus).

What is my RAD epistemological alignment?  “Do work at any cost. Serve students at any cost. Find truth at any cost.”  Sure, it looks good when you slap it on a t-shirt, but it’s not likely to make you many friends in the modern academy.

Your students will fear you for being rigorous – for expecting them to come to the table at full engagement, acknowledging that there are no easy answers and the search for truth is hard and painful.

Your colleagues will loathe you for being a stodgy, stick-in-the-mud-type – for daring to expect data and proof, even for the things you all believe or know to be true.

Your bosses will avoid you for being a liability – for raising uncomfortable questions while not being safely ensconced within the unspoken, departmental un-reality of postmodern discourse.

Your masters will punish you for daring to speak out – for commanding the language of their power, and for turning it against their corporate friends and commercial interests.

But in the end, you’ll have done something.  And you’ll be able to prove, not feel, that you made a difference.

In the end, your students will be better prepared, highly motivated, and more compassionate.  And you’ll know that you had some small influence in their growth as thinkers, learners, and citizens.

In the end, you will know for yourself that – however contingent your truth may be, however much an outsider you will become – you can leverage that truth to the benefit of everyone.

“You may have had some hard knocks, said the Pebble, but I’ve been kicked around my whole life” (Broughton, 1968).


References

Broughton, J. (1968). High Kukus. The Jargon Society, Inc. No. 56.

Jones, N. (2011). Six Questions for Slavoj Žižek. Harper’s Magazine, 11 Nov. 2011. Web.

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One thought on “Paper #5 – Epistemological Alignment

  1. Please, please, please do RAD research about learning management systems. Before joining the program, I was my department’s computer-assisted instruction coordinator and had to serve as a liaison between the faculty in the department and the people who “speak Blackboard.” Some days, there was not enough release time in the world for it. Many disciplines are convinced that each LMS is a wonderful supplement to their courses, and English folks are out of their minds for complaining about each and every iteration of the LMS. If you by any chance run out of topics to pursue RAD research with, the current hot topic in BW is placement tests. We desperately need this sort of research to see if our suspicions about the exams are true.

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