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William Pinar & Cyberspace: Complicating the Conversation

SocialMedia Background 2

In June, I attended the Curriculum Studies Summer Collaborative Conference (CSSC) in Savannah, Georgia (an absolutely fantastic conference, by the way, for anyone interested in broad issues of education theory, social justice, critical theory, and educational philosophy) where I presented a paper entitled Curriculums of Identity: Embracing Digital Space (Eaton, 2014). In this paper I sought to extend William Pinar’s (2012) key question: what knowledge is of most worth? into digital space in two key ways: first, by examining digital architectures and affordances to question what knowledge of identity is of most worth in digital spaces, and second in framing a new question rooted in individual user agency: whose knowledge of my identity is of most worth?

This semester I am fortunate to be co-teaching the Master and Doctoral Level Introduction to Curriculum Theory course here at Louisiana State University. We are beginning our foray into the broad field of Curriculum Studies with William Pinar’s (2012) What is Curriculum Theory? – so I was able to re-visit this text in preparation for class this week. What is striking about re-reading a text you have previously studied is how, upon returning to the text, you read differently. William Doll, another curriculum theorist, talks about the importance of recursion in our academic studies, revisiting that which we previously studied in order to complicate our relationship to the ideas, and to ourselves (1993). This was certainly the case as I re-read Pinar’s (2012) text, particularly in advancing arguments I made this summer in my paper at CSSC.

In the book, Pinar (2012) breaks an understanding of curriculum into four different steps: the regressive (understanding of history), the progressive (imagining the future), the analytical (examining the present), and the sythetical (utilizing insights gained from the first three steps in transforming the present). Pinar’s chief aims are not only to look at broad educational curriculum, but also to understand curriculum as autobiographical and subjective. Important to his work, and I believe the work of many other curriculum theorists, is highlighting individual human identity as the key, and arguably most important work in education (see also Biesta, 2014 for important insights regarding subjectification as an ethical aim of education).

In the Progressive moment of his book, Pinar examines the digitization of our society – examining the impacts of computers, social media, and the Internet on contemporary educational discourse, practice, and curriculum theorizing, and imagining a future of ‘screens’ where human subjectivity is dispersed across cyberspace. In Pinar’s estimation, such a dystopian future will lead to “the dissolution of subjectivity in cyberspace,” the title of his chapter on the Progressive moment.

In this blog post I would like to complicate Pinar’s conversation on cyberspace – particularly in relation to digital social media. This post serves to further complicate and enhance arguments made in my original paper presented at CSSC.

Technological Impacts on Education

Part of Pinar’s (2012) Progressive moment is encompassed in a vision of what and how education in a digital age is emerging. Though this is not the main purpose of this blog post, Pinar’s (2012) discussion of the potentially deleterious impacts of the digitization of education should not be ignored. In fact, I have argued against the larger cultural push toward online learning, competency-based learning, and other forms of electronic and technological advancements in education as some panacea.

If you know me, you recognize that I advocate and argue many of the positions in Pinar’s book: a belief that there is, in American culture and education, a fierce anti-intellectualism; a position that advocates for intense academic study; an understanding and appreciation of history – particularly critical history and non-mainstream history (Takaki, 2008; Zinn, 2005); a fierce positionality against standardization of curriculum and standardized testing; and a belief that we should not ‘scapegoat’ schools, colleges and universities, teachers, and professors as responsible for failures in an educational system performing and producing exactly as it was designed: to ensure that people are kept in their place, to minimize critical thinking, to ensure that youth, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, people with different religious beliefs, immigrants, and human alterity in general is seen as a threat. In fact, I think one of the important contributions of Pinar’s book is his insightful use of currere to dissect how talk of ‘school reform,’ and I would argue now ‘higher education reform,’ is disingenuous and anti-democratic. If you care about education you should read the book for this reason alone. As Pinar (2012) states, “we are teaching in a state of emergency” (p. 72).

Dissolution of Subjectivity?

Pinar (2012) also discusses the growing impact of digital social media. In this discussion, I believe he risks alienating the importance of digital social media and cyberspace as sites of profound human subjectification (Biesta, 2014), and more importantly, as spaces where social reconstruction is occurring. While I will delve more deeply into each of his points in this regard, broadly Pinar seems to assert a position that in social media we have reached a profoundly anti-democratic moment: the peak of narcissism and presentism, and the total loss of social connection or social responsibility.

There is a temporality to social media sites. We might imagine the ways that digital social media sites are not simply a form of presentism, but also may function as a form of currere – regressive, as a cataloguing of personal history; progressive, in the often-cited idealized forms of self-expression present on social media sites; and analytical or synthetical as we recognize that cyberspace and digital social media are not static, flat, or without relation. Many users of social media are distributed across digital landscapes, presenting different aspects of self in various forms, fashions, mashes, or remixes in different platforms. Viewing digital social media in these ways actually could counter Pinar’s assertion that such sites are solely presentist and narcissistic in nature, opening a dialogue centered on social media sites as complicated curricular conversation.

Authenticity

Pinar’s fear of the dissolution of human subjectivity in cyberspace appears rooted first in questions of authenticity. Citing a study by Susan D. Blum, Pinar states “Blum studied 234 Notre Dame undergraduates who told her they were less interested in cultivating a ‘unique and authentic identity’ than in experimenting with many different personas, something social networking sites on the Web encourage” (p. 146). It turns out this is an adult normative view (Junco, 2014) – and it speaks to a certain conception of social media and technology as untrustworthy, inauthentic, primarily rooted in what I believe is fear of the non-corporeal nature of social media.

What I mean here is that social media is disembodied – identity becomes lodged not in the body, the mind, or physical social interactions – but rather in a new space (Pinar’s cyberspace) that is difficult to reconcile or understand. Without going into a deep philosophical discussion, it was the Enlightenment and the Cartesian revolution that led to conceptions of identity and subjectivity as essentialized, a notion that I and others find somewhat problematic (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 2001). Certainly there may be some individuals who engage in social media for what Turkle (2011) calls identity play. However, there is mounting evidence that an overwhelming majority of individuals engaging in social media sites are being authentic (boyd, 2014; Buckingham, 2008; Everett, 2008; Junco, 2014; Poletti & Rak, 2014).  

Individual Identity

Pinar’s second fear appears situated in the loss of individual identity. He asks a profound question: “Is social networking creating new models of social exchange in which the individual – as an ongoing project of originality and social responsibility – disappears?” (p 148). This is a question I wrestle with in my own dissertation research.

The answer is both no, and yes. Social media is not, in my estimation, destroying our Western, Enlightenment, Cartesian notion of the individual precisely because in many ways social media adheres to an understanding of identity and human subjectivity rooted in distinct entities. Individual users have individual profiles where they (re)present their unique individuality. In fact, despite Pinar’s (2012) fear that social media somehow advances a lack of individual authenticity, many contemporary social media sites require users to authenticate their identity, utilize their real name, and provide safeguards against identity theft (boyd, 2014; Junco, 2014). This is particularly true on Facebook, widely considered the most widely adopted social media site (Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project, 2013).

However, the answer to Pinar’s question could also be yes. In fact, answering in the affirmative may be important to Pinar’s overall project. Chief among Pinar’s concerns regarding cyberspace and social media appears to be the “disappearance of the subjectively coherent subject” (p. 148) – an understanding of identity that is rooted in what I believe is a potentially outdated understanding of human identity as essentialized, static, and in developmental equilibrium. Pinar appears to advocate against such a position in his use of currere as autobiographical text.

Arguing for a non-linear understanding of time in his framing of curriculum as complicated conversation, Pinar argues for “living simultaneously in the past, present, and future” (p. 5). This is precisely what social media allows one to do: social media documents your past, (re)presents your present, and allows you to project into the future. Further, social media often allows one’s ‘originality’ to exist if one chooses to express it (however, I would refer readers to my paper presented at CSSC for a discussion on how the affordances and constraints of digital architectures serve particular functions and often dictate prescribed understandings of identity and human subjectivity).

Social Responsibility

The third issue embedded in Pinar’s earlier referenced question deals specifically with social responsibility. As he states, “our curricular challenge is simultaneously subjective and social” (Pinar, 2012, p. 12), and one purpose of currere and curriculum in general is to understand personal subjectivity, personal history, and ultimately larger social histories in order to reconstruct the social world. For Pinar, curriculum studies is political: it is about saving democracy, saving America, and saving ourselves. However, his concern that “social responsibility. . . disappears” (p. 148) in cyberspace is not entirely accurate.

In just the past two weeks we have witnessed, in America, the profound impact of social media on individual and collective social responsibility. The events in Ferguson, Missouri, surrounding the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager named Michael Brown, point to this fact. Social media, particularly Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, have been sites of intense currere – the regressive moments (how did we get here?); the analytical moments (what is happening in Ferguson and New York and Los Angeles and in many cities around the country?); and the progressive moments (what type of country do we want to be? How can we imagine a different path?) In this particular case, it has been Black individuals reconciling the past with the present and future and coming to a more profound understanding of their own personal subjectivity and potential for action. White people reflecting critically on how our unfinished work from the past, our misinformed and poorly envisioned policies, have led to the present, and how we might continue to fight racism in order to work toward a more perfect union. Politicians and Presidents reflecting on how a culture of fear, a culture obsessed with war-mongering and violent force has been paid for in a post-9/11 world, how that has led to military style policing in the present, and whether that is what America is really all about.

There has been social responsibility in these moments, as well as intense understanding of individual and collective identity formation. It has been impactful. It has been powerful. It is curriculum – precisely because it has been “autobiographically informed truth-telling” (Pinar, 2012, p. 35).

Conclusion

My point: Pinar might want to embrace social media particularly as it represents a new social space where individuals are becoming who they are. Social media is ontological: it is a new space of living and being. It (re)presents our individual human experiences, our social intra-actions (Barad, 2008), and ultimately may help achieve Pinar’s precise aims: human subjectivity and a more complicated curricular conversation. Social media sites are part of 21st century curriculums of identity, and rather than ignoring or fearing these spaces, as responsible educators we should inquire, interrogate, seek understanding, and re-imagine what identity and human subjectivity look like in a post-Cartesian, emergent world.

References

Barad, K. (2008). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Biesta, G. J. J. (2014). The beautiful risk of education. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

boyd, d. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Buckingham, D. (Ed.). (2008). Youth, identity, and digital media. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Doll, W.E. (1993). A postmodern perspective on curriculum. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Eaton, P. W. (2014). Curriculums of identity: Embracing digital space. Paper presented at the Curriculum Studies Summer Collaborative Conference. Savannah, GA.

Everett, A. (Ed.). (2008). Learning race and ethnicity: Youth and digital media. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Holland, D., Lachicotte, Jr., W., Skinner, D., & Cain, C. (2001). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Junco, R. (2014). Engaging students through social media: Evidence-based practices for student affairs. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project. (2013). 72% of online adults are social networking users. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/social-networking-sites.aspx

Pinar, W. F. (2012). What is curriculum theory? (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Poletti, A. & Rak, J. (Eds.). (2014). Identity technologies: Constructing the self online. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Takaki, R. (2008). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. New York, NY: Back Bay Books.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Zinn, H. (2005). A people’s history of the United States: 1492-Present. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.


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