Nothing but this

Douglas Rushkoff at WebVisions 2011 by webvisionsevent

Douglas Rushkoff at WebVisions 2011 by webvisionsevent

In the first part of his new book Present Shock, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff explains how we have come to a “now-ist” “presentism” resulting in “narrative collapse.” If I understand him correctly, Rushkoff argues that new media, social change, and technologies make traditional story-telling untenable. While we are accustomed to stories that fit the mold of Campbell’s hero, we are no longer able to use or enjoy them (or any new Star Wars movie?) because

  1. We have become too self-conscious to consume narratives uncritically (see everything from Beavis and Butthead to MSTK3000 to Community). [These references and the following are Rushkoff's.]
  2. We have become more interested in current individual performance (see the itinerant NBA star) than collective group history (see baseball rivalries).
  3. Our pop storytellers in news and entertainment have reduced (betrayed?) storytelling to the serial exploitation and humiliation of others, requiring us to consume many, many exploitative and humiliating moments to maintain emotional investment in current programming and to norm ourselves to believing such entertainment is okay.
  4. Surviving long-form narratives (such as the first Obama campaign) have failed to deliver the ends that they promised.
  5. We have become producers of our own fleeting and episodic narratives – participants in our own stories – that we do not want to end (we want more hits on our next YouTube video; we want to skate or snowboard one more line; we want to play one more round of multi-player deathwatch; we want to play more D&D; we want to keep on Occupying).
  6. How we create and experience new, collapsed narratives is not always without reward or real benefit (Rushkoff shares a beautiful, sad story of VR therapy tweaked in real-time response to his recall).

I’m sure I’m missing something. I hope other readers will chime in below. I’ll come back after I read more and make any corrections.

I’m especially interested in how Rushkoff’s notion of “narrative collapse” relates to schools.

Schools epitomize authoritarian narrative.

Think of the lesson plans teachers write, despite knowing that no plan survives contact with students.

Think of each unit, pacing guide, or curriculum as a narrative waiting either to collapse or to capture students inside of it as the narrative of that content.

Think of the stories teachers and students want to tell as defense mechanisms when classes, lessons, units, curricula, and policies go awry.

Think of each academic year for a kid as one chapter in a thirteen-year-long, long-form narrative. Think of the kids cast in stories in which they are considered the villains of everyone else’s stories.

Think of each academic year for a teacher as either the same repeated, long-form narrative or as another failure to satisfactorily achieve the “good teacher” narrative.

Think of each new policy initiative as a chapter in a longer narrative about the perfect or globally dominant American school system and about how that narrative is patently unachievable and perhaps even undesirable in certain ways.

Think of the decaying narrative that goes like this: “Do what you’re supposed to do and you’ll get a job and make a living.”

Of course, narrative sometimes works, and narratives that privilege the privileged often work for them. I think exceptional narratives still help people.

But school does not provide exceptional narratives. Sometimes the people in it do, but the System is suffering narrative collapse. The System wants us to norm one another to a society that rewards the school-compliant.

Is that society still ours? If so, for how long?

Is it possible to conceive of a curriculum- or narrative-less space inside a school? A space that is a pause from school’s grinding narrative? A space that is for episodic and rhizomatic learning that builds over time from the connections made between micro-narratives, rather than from connections inside one macro-narrative? Can we imagine student occupied, produced, collected, and connected works as evidence of learning if we do not guide the kids or dictate the parameters of their work? Can we imagine and value teachers who hone and hold to inquiry, improvisation, and intent?

Could it be that the duress we feel under standardized testing is resistance to narrative? That the reason our kids struggle to trust us and play the game of school is that at some deeply felt, culturally subconscious (or keenly aware) level, they know that we are all inside a collapsing narrative that we teachers disingenuously prop up with their young, desperately curious lives? That they are searching for what comes next, and we are saying paradoxically, hypocritically, inaccurately, “nothing but this?”

  1. Pingback: Nothing but this | Cooperative Catalyst

  2. Chad, this is a really thought-provoking piece — and I’m still stewing on it. I haven’t read Rushkoff’s book yet (do you recommend it?) but I’m trying to reconcile what you’ve written here with Evgeny Morozov’s book (which I reviewed on my blog earlier this week ( Morozov argues that we’re moving away from the narrative imagination to a numeric imagination. In that formulation at least, the narrative imagination is self-reflexive whereas the numeric, restrictive. It may well be that Morozov’s formulation is too hopeful about one in order to condemn the other. How do we offer counter-narratives to the authoritarian ones on schooling that you describe here — narratives that *are* self-reflexive and liberatory and messy.

    • Audrey, thank you so much for reading, commenting, and sharing Morozov’s book. I’m becoming increasingly invested in helping people spread messy learning spaces in schools, but I’m not sure how to help such spaces become accepted or part of school’s norm. I have hope that we can sustain more of these spaces inside school if we document and share kids’ work from them relentlessly. I recently shared a clip of of my kids at work, and even though they were all doing different work with different materials, because they spoke so intelligently about their work and seemed so engaged, one observer said the class looked well organized (this is hilarious to people that know me). If more people see more kids engaged with – and talking eloquently about – personally meaningful work, perhaps that student performance “forgives” all – or perhaps it at least gives people looking for traditional measures of efficiency something to latch on to in democratic and maker-centered classrooms – a way to understand.

      Thank you for all you do,

  3. So this messiness is the key, right? — because this isn’t something (the control or the resistance) that’s (necessarily) organized by either the numeric nor the narrative. Yes, both of these efforts demand a certain organization (my Masters degree is in Folklore, and I think here of Vladimir Propp and his 31 functions of folktales…) But is there a way to both adopt and then subvert these conventions?

    No matter, you are so right here — there are efforts to categorize and organize and tag and mark us all. (Damn them ethnographers!) But how then do we learners and teachers and radical storytellers resist this — in terms of “data” and “narrative” and “practice” and “culture” and “heritage” and “inquiry”?

    Do either Rushkoff or Morozov know ANYTHING about the world of the classroom in order to diagnose or theorize this?! (I’m thinking “no”… which is why I am so very grateful for your work)

    • I think the messiness is key – open possibilities for student participation in their own educations and environments that resist undue specialization in materials or practices. Rooms full of stuff. Wunderkammer of recyclables and simple digital/material IDEs. I suspect it is simpler than most of us would anticipate to develop a learning space that promotes making things, it’s just that to let go of having the textbook and the posters and the mismatched filing cabinets full of copies of pages of books that saved our lives during the first few years of teaching takes a willingness to let go of both a)what we we have been taught and b)what we think others want from us.

      I have one class that I’ve kept non-messy and more traditional for a variety of reasons – few of them satisfying or flattering to me – and while it’s structured fairly well for compliance and episodic engagement with traditional content, I don’t see as much emergent behavior in that class as I do in others. I’m really drawn to observation as a teacher. In particular I like observing emergent play and learning in “messy” or “simple” and undifferentiated environments that allow for a seemingly paradoxically high amount of differentiation by learner.

      I also think whole-class instruction is not as effective as radical differentiation and one-to-one human relationships about what each kid is learning, even about what each is learning differently or through a different pace from a common “assignment” like build a cardboard-cabinet for your own hand-crafted arcade game. Certainly whole-class instruction with school-resistant kids is a power-struggle trap for all involved. The best learning I’ve seen has not come from whole-class instruction; that experience would be useful to discuss and unpack with folks who characterize the kids in my room as on-point. Minimal note-taking and direct instruction. Minimal teaching.

      Lots to think about – you ask great questions.

      Regarding data, I’m thinking about the minimum amount of data required to prevent the collection of more data. For example, we have a study that correlates fall Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test scores to individual students’ likelihoods of passing the following spring’s SOL test. It’s easy to make a case from such data that the outliers, at least, should be doing something different than jogging the curriculum treadmill, and from there I make arguments about equal access to agency and inquiry-based pedagogy for all kids, including those described as “bubble kids.” We need educators and supervisors that are not threatened by conversations in which high test scores are not the only possibility they can admit as being “best” for kids.

      I think Rushkoff approaches learning from the side in terms of people making their own stories and the importance of having “a society that at least knows there is this thing called programming,” (I think that’s the quote) and he definitely shares a lot of thinking about identity and identity mediated through technology, which are facets of kids’ selves that we surpress in school. Is he interested in school as much as in society? I don’t know; maybe he can chime in here.

      More later – thank you for this conversation!

  4. Amazing post, Chad, and I ‘m glad I found it albeit a bit late.

    A couple of thoughts hit me as reading both the post and your back and forth with Audrey. I’ve been writing about narratives of late as well.

    First, I wonder how much the collapse of narrative is due to the growth of short attention span media. How difficult is it to thread conversations in Twitter, even if we curate together each missive in Storify to try to find the larger whole? We used to be dependent on others to supply the narrative; now each of us has to create it in each interaction. And to add to #5 above, there is a messiness of competing narratives of the same event when each of us becomes the arbiter of reality in that event. Or something like that…

    Second, school and schooling is such a powerful narrative, despite the subplots you articulate above. And that came so clear to me a couple week ago when (again) I had a parent say to me something along the lines of “School was good enough for me; it’s good enough for my kids.” A lot of parents want schools to teach that compliance, to offer up a story they can share. They fear a messy classroom because it doesn’t fit their own narratives.

    I really think the key to “reform” in the way you and Audrey and I tend to think of it is to break apart that narrative. (Schools are broken, though not in the way the policy makers and foundations would have us believe. ) I’m not sure what replaces that is “narrative-less” since that might require heavy doses of Xanax for adult society. But I’m hopeful for one main reason: I do think there is a more universal “change narrative” that is taking hold that can be used as a foundation for a “we need messy schools” pitch.

    Or not. This all feels so huge at times that my feeble brain struggles to get around it. Thanks for pushing me quite a bit this morning.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Will – I’m excited to follow the film project and on-going thought-work of Why School?

      We could probably say that the narrative is the collapse, and visa versa, or that the narrative is, as you suggest, change. I’m drawn to both stories – they seem archetypical to me. I’m struggling with all of this, too. I wonder about discovery – can we help build learning spaces in which discovery for learning (without apriori curriculum or content knowledge) is considered more effective (because learners make meaning) than content delivery by agenda and fiat? How many of those spaces can we build inside schools inside pockets of systemic inattention? Is there a narrative within the system (because I don’t think it can adopt new ones) that can accommodate, sustain, and spread inquiry-driven classrooms in which teachers and students do the same work?

      All kinds of stuff to ponder – a good problem to have and share.

      All the best,

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