As I write this, I am looking at an ad from a major department store (I will leave the store unnamed so as to avoid giving it further advertisement). I received this mini-catalogue in the mail, though I did not supply this store with my address. In the catalogue, I am promised some kind of free gift if I pin them, follow them on tumblr, follow them on twitter, Facebook-friend them, use/view instagram, watch them on youtube, download their shopping app, and visit their blog; and these shopping suggestions are presented in a circle as if one thing cannot stand alone. All that AND a catalog mailed to my home too! “This is just crazy” is what I first said aloud.
Needless to say, I am probably on the left end of the spectrum, always interrogating new modes of capitalism and the ways it structures thought and behavior. Technology is never immune to the critique since new technologies make new modes of capitalism possible and vice versa. However, I am not necessarily inclined to reject all new technologies simply because they have been co-opted for hyper-consumerism. Obviously, we need to build radical community uses of digital media for our own purposes in a world that co-opts all technologies for consumerist purposes. This seems to apply to college students especially since they are the target consumers for seemingly EVERYTHING. And that’s just my point here: we need to know when we are being co-opted. When I meet other people of color who are suspicious of new technologies for its co-opting, I do not assume they are tech-phobes, too primitive to understand the advanced world, or merely indulging conspiracy theories. I know that people’s histories with institutions (COINTELPRO did, after all, also use the new technologies of its time) can never be ignored. I like to hear these suspicions and analyses that keep my social observations sharp.
I think back to the first time I ever used blackboard (a learning management system bought by many colleges) in my classes circa 2000. There were uses of it that I have always found invaluable (archiving 100s of assignments and digital texts, for example) but I never fell for the incessant, institutional dogma that insisted blackboard would save my teaching. There were two problems with this dogma for me. The first was that if we simply co-opted young people’s uses of and inclinations towards new technologies into our own curriculum and instruction (without the need to really change any of that), then we will capture their interests. The second issue for me was this notion that students could be tricked into experiencing their classrooms as something other than impersonal, post-industrial, large lecture halls because they could post questions on blackboard (or, in today’s parlance, tweet their professor and 300 classmates). This all seemed rather convenient to university’s budgets: there is no compelling need to rethink large lecture-based classes and, therefore, hire more tenure-track faculty, build new spaces, or create smaller learning communities. You can just pack all the students in, make them feel like they are making real-time connections by co-opting their favorite means of social networking, and collect money from them in the process without really having to shell any out. Convenient, indeed. This is all the more relevant when you consider Manny Marable’s argument (in Wells of Democracy) that universities (private universities, especially) often function today like Fortune 500 companies. Convenient, indeed.
When I think of schooling’s uses of technologies, I think of scholars like Ngugi and Walter Rodney. They remind us that those students who were supposed to be the passive recipients of the empire’s models and modes came back to bite the empire in the behind with the very education that was supposed to domesticate them. That’s all that keeps me going on those days when my college students and me are publicly asked to “brand” ourselves using new social networks. As a descendant of enslaved Africans, the legalized branding of my person and body stopped with the Emancipation Proclamation so I simply can’t see taking on this language or EVER using it with black students in a classroom. This is when I think back to the black college students of the HBCUs who were the catalysts for a new sit-in movement (like the Greensboro Four from North Carolina AT&T on February 1, 1960 pictured at the top of this post) and a branch and method of Civil Rights protests that perhaps no one foresaw: black college students who questioned the ways their bodies and minds were socially patrolled as part and parcel of a new kind of educational curricula that they shaped and defined for themselves. I find hope for the future looking at these patterns of the past.
I tend to get worried when I am simply expected to plug in information into an institution’s pre-determined templates where my needs, social-political purposes, linguistic designs, vernacular imaginations, and aesthetic philosophies are never consulted or regarded. Even though I get worried, I always remember how domestication, co-opting, and colonizing never fully work, never really take with color-conscious people (the term I use to mark a politics distinct from color-blindness). Capitalism tends to contradict itself and that’s where those little fissures of new possibility get magnified. A blind allegiance to the kind of eCommerce awaiting me in my mailbox won’t ever be the full picture. A radical ePedagogy for people of color will always be possible as long as we do what we have always done: question the how and why of what institutions do.