Are these concerns justified? That is the topic COMNOTES asked Professor Vicente Rafael to address. COMNOTES asked faculty and graduate students for responses, too, and Professors Susan Davis and Michael Schudson offered some thoughts also printed here. If you would like to respond yourself in the next issue of COMNOTES, please send your remarks (250 words or less) to Michael Schudson (D-003).
But what if we were to look at this situation of lack or inadequacy of historical knowledge from the students' point of view? How do students view the past? More to the point, which students and whose past? If history entails an active living through events as much as the capacity to interpret the meanings of such events, what kind of historical consciousness would be available to nineteen or twenty year-olds who have yet to have a biography in the sense of self-reflective awareness of one's life and times?
To ask these questions is to raise an even more fundamental issue: to what extent is historical knowledge retrospectively arrived at as a consequence of realizing oneself to be a social subject, bounded by but not necessarily imprisoned in received categories of race, gender and class? The past cannot begin to make sense unless it somehow resonates with one's present conditions just as a critical understanding of those conditions entails asking about their historical origins. One can think historically to the extent that one can situate oneself socially so that the past appears not as a universalizing narrative of events, but as the past of and for a particular present and a particular community.
What I'd like to suggest here is that faculty assumptions about students' lack of historical knowledge at times fail to take into account students' relative lack of social place. Their liminal status in the university, their subordinate position in the classroom and their relative alienation from the faculty's day-to-day administrative and scholarly concerns places them in an odd relationship with figures of authority. Particularly in the Communication Department, many students feel caught between the critical stance towards the media that we as a department seek to cultivate and the siren calls of network TV, advertising and corporate public relations. (I feel this rather acutely as the departmental coordinator for the Academic Internship Program as I sense the eagerness with which students approach the prospect of writing copy for an ad agency or working as receptionists for Sea World, and you can't help but ask "where have we failed them?") It is not surprising then that as with all subordinated groups, students would at certain times be inclined to resist, in however attenuated a fashion, our assertions of what counts as history. In this sense, they are not so much ignorant but rather choose to ignore what we deem as important. In doing so, they disengage themselves from the scene of instruction, as it were, and take on a set of interests distinct from ours.
However, there are times when we do connect on matters of historical understanding. For example, in one of my Com/Cul 100 classes, I spoke about the importance of style as a terrain for the construction and contestation of social identities, and showed a documentary on the early years of rock and roll which stressed the profoundly miscegenated nature of American popular music, and the ways by which an ideology of white supremacy and institutions of marketing worked to deny this in the 1950's and early 1960's. Many of my students readily grasped the historical significance of such a denial, as well as the continuing critique that rock and roll in its most exuberant forms posed to the normalizing claims of the dominant culture. This to me suggested the following: That they saw in popular music a way of situating themselves in terms of what came before them (in the double sense of what happened before they were born and the images of the past that were in front of them). The question of musical style led them to think about the social location of something that was important to them - rock and roll - in terms of the historical conditions of its creation - the vicissitudes of racism and consumer culture in the post-war era. It made sense to think about the past because the past helped them make sense of the sources of their pleasure as well as of their alienation. For the students, history thus converged with biography in so far as both had a material locus: "my body" responding to this music; this music responding and creating a new kind of social body, of which "I" find myself at this moment to be a part. In this way they seized upon the past not as a series of lessons delivered from above, but as a set of dialectical images with which to shape their understanding of the present.
There's a sense then that students know about history, but the past that's known and the mode of knowing is something that is specific to their own situation. And given the considerable complexity of the student body, what they know and how they know it would probably depend on their sense of themselves as subjects as well as objects of social and cultural institutions. At times, their sense of history intersects with ours (keeping in mind that that which constitutes "our" history is still problematic) for reasons that I've tried to suggest above. At other times, it doesn't. One way of dealing with this divergence is to insist that students read up on history and perhaps take more history classes, etc. Another might be to see this difference in historical consciousness as the site and occasion for recalling the political nature of teacher-student relations. This means that students' ignorance of what we think should count as history might also be seen as a sign of other interests at work - interest which mark the limits of our authority as bearers of knowledge and judges of student performance. While we continue to call attention to this lack on the students' part, we might also want to learn something from it: namely the possibility of other narratives of other pasts that may alternately support and deflect what we teach.
Admirable! But what seems transparent may not be so. For if we define history as major movements, events and people (and surely these are important) then big gaps in knowledge and interest exist. If we define historical understanding as experience, and especially as the ability to make connections between personal and community experience and larger movements and events, I'm not so sure a sense of history is lacking. A sense of history can be found (my students in my class on Folklore and Communication helped with these examples) in the persistence of family stories from the past because they are still relevant in the present; in a widely sung ballad that inverts and counters a dominant culture's stereotype of an oppressed people; in the long-standing and continuing currents of isolationism and anti-interventionism in American politics, in what the Reagan Administration called "Vietnam Syndrome."
This distinction, between history as a specific and codified knowledge of facts, and history as relatable and tellable shared experience I would call the difference between official and vernacular history. What marks the social and cultural world of the U.S. in the 1 990's is an uneven distribution of these ways of knowing and an unequal authority for certain kinds of history. Offical history we find enshrined (not without important challenges) in textbooks and high school Advanced Placement study guides, in rituals and ceremonies and monuments, in museums and holidays, and very importantly in the news and entertainment media. In entertainment and industrially produced culture for mass audiences, history is often reduced to an image or a backdrop -- a setting for serials, novels, and leisure time consumption. A magazine advertisement for tourism in Pennsylvania organizes the colonial and nineteenth century past into a series of patriotic emblems, and touts the state as "One Big Theme Park!" As another student in my class said to me "The trouble is, history is a tool for creating emotions." These kind of uses of official history are what he meant.
Personal experience and understanding are much less organized and commodified (though not unpromotable -- I'm thinking of the popularity of Studs Terkel's books), and without the marks of authority on them suffer a strange invisibility in the world. It's a common experience for oral history interviewers, having tracked down a local person recommended as knowledgeable about their topic of interest, to be referred to a minister, a librarian, a local college professor -- someone with authorized knowledge about the past. Is this because the bearer of local knowledge has never been a social subject -- never acted or worked as anything other than a subordinate? Or is it because of the way, in our lifetimes, broad ranges of experience are made inaudible and untellable? I think what we study in communication are the processes -- and I mean systemic, social processes -- by which connections and disconnections, visibilities and inaudibilities are created. In the case of our own students, I think they are hungry for history that makes sense and helps them make sense of their lives and pasts.
I don't think, though, that students disconnect from historicizing discussion because of their subordinate position in the university. Vince's view of students as acted upon and not acting I find problematic: at best, students' subordinate status is highly relative. In fact, viewed from another angle, many (though by no means all) of our students come from the social groupings the University serves and helps reproduce, the professional-technical classes. For many students, attending university is a concrete and purposeful action -- seen as a piece of their life trajectory -- and many attend with the projects of mobility or the maintenance of place in mind -- if not in the front of their minds, at least the back. In my book, that's being a social subject.
What's interesting and difficult is trying to untangle the connections and disconnections between this personal history, and broader currents in social and political history. Perhaps it's not surprising that people find the sphere of consumption, style and entertainment a comfortable place to meet to look at the past: after all, the dominant view of this sphere stresses its supposedly apolitical and disconnected nature. The danger of approaching history through consumption is that it is easy in this world to claim the history of style as history itself. I don't mean to trivialize style and pleasure as subjects to teach about and with, but it seems important to note that style's superficial, changeable qualities can distance its participants from historical connections and knowledge even while they consume recombined images of the past. (As David Amram sang, "Remember when you grease your hair back, that Nixon greases his, too!") But I know from my own teaching that students have been and can be electrified by other connections between their own and larger histories: the histories of sexuality and reproductive rights, pay equity and comparable worth, the draft, the student movements of the sixties, war memorials, the history of the environment crisis and movements. We need to be prepared to inform students as well as to discuss with them the ways in which we are all kept underinformed.
But what about Joe McCarthy? Or Gene? Or Rosa Parks? (Leave aside for now Immanuel Kant or John Stuart Mill.) What if students have never heard of these people? Isn't something lost? Shouldn't we be appalled?
Before I answer that, I want to confirm that "the sense of history" faculty long for in students may be a surprisingly rare feature of the human mind. In l900, 60% of army recruits in rural France had never heard of the Franco-Prussian war of l870. Three out of four could not explain why July l4 was a national holiday. Storytellers in Brittany knew of the French Revolution but could place it chronologically only "a long time ago," about the time fairies left the land and statues shed tears. The sense of history as we know it is a product of school systems, not an inherent trait of the good person or the wise one, the good society or the just one.
Mass schooling is but a hundred years old. So is the "scientific" writing of history. A critical sense of history has been available only to college-goers, only in this century, and for most college students only in a handful of required humanities courses, at best.
Is the faculty's distress that students cannot identify Munich or DienBienPhu based on unrealistic expectations? Yes, I think so -- and probably based also on unrealistic recollections of how much we, or our peers who did not become social science and humanities professors, knew as college students.
All that said, it still hurts to realize how distant from our own is our students' consciousness of what matters in the world. That is not only a blow to our authority but a reminder of our mortality.
It is a reminder of our own situated position in history. What most rankles is not students' ignorance of the Congress of Vienna or the Treaty or Versailles but their ignorance of the moments and monuments closer to our own biographies (and we presume -- but we presume too much here, theirs). That's why the ignorance of Joseph McCarthy or Gene McCarthy or Rosa Parks worries us more than the ignorance of Webster, Clay, and Calhoun.
Vince urges we consider the generational difference in historical consciousness as "the site and occasion for recalling the political nature of teacher-student relations." I don't believe everything resolves into the political any more than everything resolves into the economic or psychological. In any case, the political dimension here is not only the teacher's power relative to the student but the shared privilege of teacher and student at a selective university relative to most of the rest of the population. Faculty who teach liberal education courses at selective public universities like this one are teaching that subgroup within society, male and female, white and minority, who will be the successful or unsuccessful carriers - to a much greater degree than their age-mates at state universities and community colleges and the 80% of the adult population without college education -- of the written and schooled sense of history that faculty believe a necessary context for understanding the lives and times of all of us.
The schooled sense of history is not the only one worth cherishing. And it's not truly a single sense of history but a set of often conflicting voices about history. But it is an important legacy. Part of what we're here for, as teachers, is to relay it, and a taste for it, to our students. Historical situations are specific, but part of a teacher's job, like part of a parent's job, is to connect one generation's specific situation to the next. As university teachers, we have been entrusted with a legacy we are obliged to pass on. As teachers at a research university, we are also obliged to alter and redefine that legacy, and to attack it outright when it constrains more than it frees, when it is untrue, when it is cramped. To do all this, we need to listen better to our students and for that matter, to ourselves.
This is not Yrjo's first time at UCSD or in California. His 1987-88 year was spent here as a Visiting Associate Professor and he also had a brief stint after high school living in Cupertino. A citizen of Finland, his previous academic experience was at the University of Helsinki's Department of Education, where his teaching ranged from computer-mediated communication to the cultural-historical theory of activity.
Many undergraduate and graduate students in communication are involved in the research in LCHC where the social-historical approach to the study of mind has been a hallmark. Engestrom sees the laboratory benefiting from the recent expansion and diversification of the Communication Department. "We are having more international and collaborative research, and are developing a large program of research in new forms of literacy from computer-mediated learning to problems of the deaf and blind." His own research here will focus on learning, cognition, and communication in the workplace. His current project looks at the relations among novices, experts and clients in the law courts. That investigation extends earlier research done in medical work settings in conjunction with his wife, Ritva, who is an educational sociologist presently working under the auspices of a Finnish government research grant.
With their two sons aged six and twelve, Yrjo and Ritva have been adjusting to cultural differences beyond as well as within the University. The climate is obviously different from Finland but it is the Southern California sense of distance that has been the most striking. "People are fairly secluded from each other. You have the idea of the private house and the fence around it. And everything is based on driving a car. Kids seldom have a chance to spontaneously get together and play in the street or in the yard. In Helsinki, the surroundings were such that ten or fifteen kids could easily get together and move freely from yard to yard." Yrjo says that spontaneous organization of autonomous play activity seems missing here. "Everything seems very organized. Kids participate in activities organized by adults." Yet he feels that this emphasis also provides for more interesting organized activities in the form of team sports.
Yrjo also has found some tremendous differences between university life in Finland and that of UCSD. He says, "It's much less strictly formal than the university I came from. It's possible to have even the most difficult discussions done on the basis of just speaking your mind. That's been the most positive and refreshing aspect."
He finds that UCSD undergraduates are willing to devote a lot of effort to field work and research papers. However, students here are much different in their orientation to grades where the terms and programs are completed in a shorter time compared to Finland. In Finland, the average undergraduate course of study culminates in a Master's degree in five to six years. "Students here are so tense and anxious about their grades." He also feels that the Finnish emphasis on the writing of a thesis provides a more positive and complete experience. "You have the advantage of seeing which students will be the best candidates for graduate school."
Yrjo will be teaching his first UCSD graduate seminar this quarter. He has been looking forward to working with graduate students. "Graduate students are looking for meaningful working relations and obviously the graduate program is still in the process of finding its own identity. It's not tradition bound and there is a lot of free space to be used."
ROBERT HORWITZ has a paper accepted for publication in Theory and Society entitled, "The First Amendment Meets Some Old Technologies: Broadcasting, Common Carriers, and Free Speech in the l990s."
CHANDRA MUKERJI was the Ford Foundation Lecturer at the University of Chicago in February, speaking on her recently published book, A Fragile Power. She also delivered a paper in March at a conference on "the culture the market" in New Orleans, sponsored by the Murphy Institute for the Study of Political Economy.
CAROL PADDEN spent last November as Visiting Professor at the Institute of Psychology, National Research Council of Italy, in Rome. While there, she gave colloquia on the development of writing in young deaf children and early literacy across cultures. She also spoke in Loughborough, Florence, Zurich, and Copenhagen on topics related to writing, literacy and the culture of Deaf people.
VINCE RAFAEL delivered a paper, "Death and the Ideology of Submission," at a conference on Early Modern Southeast Asia in Lisbon, Portugal in December. At a conference on "Japan and the World" at UCSD in January, he presented "Anticipating Nationhood: The Philippines Under Japan," a part of his larger project on nationalist discourse.
MICHAEL SCHUDSON has been awarded a two-year grant from the Spencer Foundation to pursue research on the history of political learning and political communication in the United States from l690 to the present. He recently signed a contract with Basic Books for a book on this topic.
BOOK PUBLISHED: Clayton Lee's book "Art and Design: Fundamentals" is out! (Michael-we have to get a blurb from Clayton).
FELLOWSHIP TO STUDY MEXICAN RADIO: Joy Hayes received a Tinker Foundation fellowship last fall quarter to travel to Mexico to study Mexican radio broadcasting in the 1930's and 1940's.
OAS FELLOWSHIP: Ben Alfa Petrazzini (from Argentina) came to the Communication Department (to study international telecommunications) on an Organization of American States fellowship; OAS renewed his fellowship for a second year.
FELLOWSHIP TO STUDY EAST GERMAN PRESS: Maryellen Boyle received support from the H.V. Kaltenborn Foundation to travel to the German Democratic Republic (March 9-20) to observe the East German press coverage of the March 18 elections.
CASA's members include historians, folklorists, architects, literary theorists, popular culture scholars, anthropologists - and now, communication scholars. If you are interested in attending the conference, mention it to Susan. The UCSD contingent will not be staying at the Madonna Inn but Susan reports there is still room at Motel 6.
This conference presents an opportunity for graduate students in the Department of Communication to hear about and discuss research that are taking place at other universities. It provides an opportunity to make connections for cooperative research with students from "neighboring" campuses. The format of the conference allows graduate students to discuss newly developing work with their peers in a context less demanding than mainstream conferences with more advanced scholars.
Papers invited for presentation and presented will be published under a grant from the Graduate Students' Association at UCSD. Questions about the conference should be directed to Bruce Jones, coordinator of this year's conference.
Questions about the conference & papers for consideration should be referred to:
Bruce Jones - Graduate Conference Committee Department of Communication, UCSD, D-003 La Jolla, CA 92093-0503 - (619) 534-4410
Language is an example of this very situation. We are biologically programmed to be physically able to speak, but if we have no one to speak to, or no one to teach us, we will never learn. When we first learn a system new to us we are, in effect, powerless, because we do not know the rule on which the system is based. During the first few trials with the new system we must take a submissive role - and let others dictate the rules of the game to us. In the case of this computer experience I would have gotten nowhere if I had not accepted this man's help. I did not know the rules of the game. This man acted as a mediator between me and the computer. He knew the compute "language," and he could also read the "world" (the exasperated look on my face). He brought these two elements together just long enough to give me the key to open a door to which access was denied.
This human mediator was needed because computers cannot read the "world." They work on a different plane than humans. Computers will not infer your meaning by the look on your face (as my friend did), and no matter how much you scream, yell, or kick the computer - it will not understand. Unlike humans, it does not understand this aspect of communication.
Indeed, our interaction and relationship with computers is formed by this limitation. Computers are not user friendly, they will not learn the language of the user. As a matter of fact, at times they don't even understand their own language. They will not understand their language if one minute detail is somehow omitted or scrambles. Computers are unable to f_ll in the b_a_ks, or decode a message the way humans do. The user must modify her relation to the object, not the object and the user coming to a mutual system of coordination. Humans are better at this process of coordination because we coordinate with each other. If we hear something, but don't quite understand the work, we still are able to come up with meaning by examining the situation and filling in the context - and thus creating meaning.
This limitation of the computer (not being able to interpret or infer meaning) is enough for any normal human being to sometimes want to discontinue all contact with computers. We humans, as social creatures, are unable to deal with this one-sided communication. Well, you might say, what about writing - isn't that on-sided? No, because although we set the context of the message when we write, we depend heavily on the receiver of the message to apply the information to a context relevant to him or her, and thus create meaning.
The computer, on the other hand, does not interact with us. We do not have a dialogue with it. Computers do not have their own cognition, they are only able to respond the way they have been programmed to respond. Dealing with the computer as such is very alienating because coordination is hard to achieve. It will not coordinate with you, you must adapt to it - and learn its language.
What is the function of the computer? Do we really want to talk to it? Are we trying to create an interesting dialogue with it? No. Computers are a tool. They are a tool used for communication between humans. There is not communication between humans and computers. What we are really trying to do here is use computers as a tool to coordinate with fellow human beings.
Our relationship with the computer is affected by how we use the gizmo; in what situation and in what context we use it. If we use computers for entertainment (like games), our attitude is very different than if we use the computer for a task we dislike (like work). Does one make us like the object and another dislike it? Yes. Those kids who spend hours bleeping away at space aliens enjoy what they are doing - and that's why they do it. Workers whose performance is monitored by computers, hate the thing because they are forced into a subservient relationship to it - they must answer to the computer, not the computer answering to them.
This question of use plays a central role in this class. Here, like the worker, we are evaluated to some extent, on our interaction with the computer. In this class we are forced to use the computer. In this oppressive environment where students have very little freedom (although you would like us to think we do, Prof. Cole!), computers have a meaning similar to that for the worker. We are indeed forced to use the computer - and a lot of students saw this as a great reason to drop the class...I actually considered it myself. People did not see this activity as fun. Consequently there were a lot of people secretly cursing at the computer (not to mention that force of oppression called the professor). What this means is that this relationship was not necessarily voluntarily entered into.
Another element that influences the way the user thinks about the computer is for what purposes it is used. As I have already said, our context is that of a class. Thus we are supposed to use it for discussions relevant to the class. This does not mean we are interested in these topics, but none the less, we must talk about them. We are limited in the use of the computer. We cannot talk about what we want. The issue of power and control plays a central theme in this experience. The student in this context has little control of the use of this medium. We do not have our voice, our "word," but must comply with the voice of authority. (Do you see what I'm doing?? I am finally using my voice. I finally see how I can use the computer as a tool to voice my opinion. This is suddenly more fun than I anticipated. I feel like a kid playing a video game blasting authority out of the water... You little trickster, Cole, I have the sneaking suspicion that is was your intention all along to get us to rebel...does this mean I am conforming? We are indeed dancing the fine line between control and freedom.)
Why do I feel like Freire should be smiling right now? Does he know that I see computers in a different way now? Now that I have my own voice, I have recreated the history I have of myself. Things are beginning to click... I needed a totally alienating experience to finally understand what is really going on. Now I realize this whole task has not been in vain. Wow! Ok, ok back to the subject...
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