Latour’s Journey Among Various Modes of Existence

Thanks to Graham Harman for linking to this very interesting essay by Latour.  In it Latour describes – in a very open, and biographical style – the development over the last 40 years of his project now known as An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME).  He describes his encounters with people such as Michel Callon, Isabelle Stengers, and Shirley Strum, and explains how these encounters have shaped his philosophy.  Especially interesting to me is his blending of empirical philosophy with anthropology – specifically an anthropology of “the Moderns,” but he also mentions Marilyn Strathern, Eduardo Vivieros de Castro, and Phillipe Descola as anthropologists who apply the same approach to non-Western cultures.  Here’s a quote on how the whole project came together finally by way of a conversation with Stengers:

I am almost certain that it was in 1987, during a conversation by the swimming pool in Les Treilles, that Stengers shared with me an astonishing quotation from Whitehead, who was even less well known at the time than Gabriel Tarde, about the risk taken by rocks – yes, rocks –in order to keep on existing; it must have been the famous passage about Cleopatra’s needle on the Charing Cross Embankment in The Concept of Nature.

In August of that year, stretched out in the sun on an island across from Gothenburg, in Sweden, I couldn’t stop running my fingers over the rough red surface of the rocks as if to find out whether Whitehead could have been right . . . Everything became clear, then: what I had discovered in Kenya, and what the principle of irreduction had hinted at obscurely. There exists a completely autonomous mode of existence that is very inadequately encompassed by the notions of nature, material world, exteriority, object. This world shares one crucial feature with all the others: the risk taken in order to keep on existing. Thus the  hiatus that I had detected very early on in exegesis, that I had found in the study of scientific inscriptions, in the disjointed itineraries of courses of action, in the surprising detours of technologies, this same hiatus was here as well, here in the first place, in the apparent continuity of beinghere. An epiphany that linked up with all the others, and especially the one whose scenario I had developed in Irreductions, the irruption of things “irreduced and on holiday.” There was nothing inevitable, nothing definitive, nothing irremediable in the tribulations of subject and object. One could think differently.”

It’s All Politics…

This place has been a bit quiet the past few weeks. This is because I’ve been unable to settle down. This has been a month of traveling and other excitement – last week I was in Maine doing some blood worm research.  I spent the week helping the biologists go through piles of seaweed in search of snails, bugs, and crustaceans.  It was tedious and tiring work, but I learned a lot about their part of the research, and think of it as an opportunity to do participant-observation with them.

Next week I’m off again – this time to Michigan for a wedding.  I’ve never been, so it’ll be nice to see a new part of the country.  However, that also means that things will be pretty quiet here for a little while longer – it’s just hard to keep up with posting while I’m out and about with only intermittent internet access.  I do have some really quick thoughts to post before I head out, though.

This week I’ve been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Blue Mars – the last in his Mars Trilogy.  I’ve written a lot about Robinson before – in fact, the title of this blog is taken from one of his books (see the quote on the left sidebar).  His writing is engaging and the characters are complex and intriguing.  I especially love the political drama that plays out in these books – everyone trying to make things work in their own way, and always having to negotiate and compromise with others.  What’s more, I find that the planet itself plays a major role in the novel.  It’s not simply a background for the characters’ lives to play out or to be shaped by human hands at will (though the massive amounts of technology deployed allow them to create some amazing things).  Mars is something to be negotiated with as well.  The terraforming effort is a complex balancing process with variables constantly going out of control.  For example, in the first novel a massive storm rages around the planet for decades as the changes in the atmosphere begin to take hold.

For this reason, I find much in Robinson’s books that fits with the cosmopolitical, and ontological constructivist theoretical position I embrace.  Everything is political – existence itself is politics.  It’s a continual process of negotiation and renegotiation – a struggling forever towards the good.  In our desire to survive and make the world better, we always contact other beings, other bodies besides our own – both human and non-human.  It’s through this process of connection that we can grow and create new ways of being.  This is true for plants, animals, and rocks no less than for humans.  These beings don’t simply exist “out there” as a reified “natural environment.”  To think of them as such does a disservice – it reduces their being to mere essences and denies their ability to actively, vibrantly live and affect one another and us.  Sustainability is not just a matter of “thinking like a mountain,” it’s a matter of contacting the mountain, attempting to understand it, and learning to co-exist and co-construct a world with it.

That’s it for now – a quick rant, I suppose.  Maybe I’ll have more to day later.  There are a few days before I leave, so I’ll try to get a few posts up before then.  Either way, I hope you all are having a nice summer – or winter if you’re in the South!

Anthropological Pedagogy

In the comments to my recent post on Techno-Pedagogy, Jenny makes a very good point:

The point of Anthropology is to engage with the world, and neglecting the progress of technology and the interest and NEEDS of one’s students, makes an anthropologist–in my opinion–hardly an anthropologist at all.

This is something that I’ve written briefly about in the past, and was thinking of writing another post about – so Jenny has given me an excellent excuse!

The thing is, anthropologists spend a lot of time thinking about applying various theories and methods to their research, and that’s very important.  However, I would suggest that the bulk of our time, and the bulk of the difference that we make, if it were to be calculated out, would be in teaching students (at least in academia).  But few professors that I’m aware of spend much time thinking about the implications of anthropological theory and methods for the classroom (techno or otherwise).  So the question that I have is what would an anthropological pedagogy look like?  That is, what would a class be like if we took seriously the ideas of collaboration, building rapport, participant-observation, and the co-construction of knowledge, not just in the field, but in the classroom itself?

I don’t have answers, this is really just a speculative question meant to foster thought and discussion.  If, as Jenny says, the point of anthropology is to engage with the world (and I clearly agree on this), then it seems like we ought to be considering the implications for this engagement in the area we spend most of our time doing and where we can potentially make a very large difference.  I think this could be a revolutionary way of thinking about pedagogy – at least within the discipline.  Mike Wesch is an excellent example of this, in my opinion.

This is not to say that anthropologists who don’t apply anthropological theory and methods in the classroom are bad teachers – I’ve had many very good simple lecture style classes with anthropologists, and have learned a lot.  All I’m suggesting is that it’s an area for consideration.

Two Announcements

First: Jason Antrosio has an excellent post up on Anthropology on Sex, Gender, Sexuality – as Social Constructions in which he explores the reality of social constructions.  He builds on a post I wrote a while back on the same topic.  It’s an interesting take on a subject that’s at the core of anthropological thought.

Second: The 2012 edition of Imponderabilia is out with an essay by yours truly on “Becoming Vulnerable.”  I’ve written briefly on the topic before, but this is a slightly more in-depth exploration of the idea of vulnerability.  The issue also has an excellent essay on the anthropology of climate change by my colleague at UMD – Christy Miller-Hesed.  There are a lot of other very interesting essays in the issue as well, and I may be writing something about one or two of them in the days to come.  In the meantime, I highly recommend checking it out.

Capitalist Sorcery

On the train ride home from Connecticut this weekend, I was finally able to put some time in and finish reading Isabelle Stenger’s Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell.  I was going to write a whole synopsis of the book with commentary, but Adam Robbert has posted a link to a review that does that work for me.  For the sake of novelty, I’ll quote a different passage than Adam:

The strategically non-linear development of their argument allows Pignarre and Stengers to draw a rather “heteroclite crowd” in support of their thesis. Various parts of the text thus discuss the relevance of Afro-American spirituality (the concept/affect of “yearning”), the pragmatic inventiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous (aware “of the impossibility of getting free alone”), organisations such as the Association Française contre les Mypathies (involving the parents of sick children in its budget allocation process) or the role of the mutual societies for working class communities in 19th-century France. The last chapter of the book is dedicated to an extensive discussion of the neo-pagan witch movement, whose attractiveness for Pignarre and Stengers (in line with Stengers’ own radical constructivism) lies in the fabricated yet realnature of its rituals. The red threat that connects these otherwise highly heterogeneous collectivities is that they all develop techniques of empowerment, a veritable “culture of recipes” to counter capitalism’s universal designs and the “psychosocial techniques of adherence” subtending them. The pragmatic “successes” of these collective interventions lies in the fact that they are always local, interstitial, “defined neither against nor in relation to the bloc to which [they] nonetheless belong.” (110)

This quote highlights what was to me the most captivating (dare I say “spell-binding”) aspect of the book – the many concepts Stengers and Pignarre introduce that help us “think through the middle” and find alternative paths in the interstices.  They introduce the idea of “minions” in order to distinguish between those who fully support Capitalism and those who are merely  captured.  Ideology-based approaches don’t allow for such a distinction – to them we are all equally guilty because we are all equally deluded.  The review points out another, which is “yearning” – a way of desiring alternatives without knowing a priori what form they will take. Another is “recipes” and “relaying” – an approach to transmitting success without becoming hegemonic or majoritarian to use their term.  Many of these concepts are drawn from other sources – Deleuze and Guattari, of course, Starhawk, feminists, etc. – but Stengers and Pignarre create an experimental, and pragmatic combination that draws us towards a speculative future.

Another thing I wanted to say – and the reviewer also mentions this briefly – is that the book has a lot in common with J.K. Gibson-Graham’s work.  In particular the need to resist reifying Captialism, and Ideology as totalizing forces for which there is no outside.  Instead we have to learn to work through the interstices – crafting alternatives in those spaces where Capitalism is unable to fully penetrate.  Stengers and Pignarre add to that conversation the need to create protective spaces – casting the circle – in order to keep capitalist sorcery at bay.

Bemoaning and Bullying

There’s a mode of argument going around in anthropology, which, although not new, is definitely growing more common.  It goes something like this: anthropologists used to be well respected, now we are not, because anthropologists … are too post-modern … pay too much attention to continental philosophers … are too unscientific … are too scientific … and so on.  The problem with this mode of argument is that it relies on the image of a golden age – back during the time of Boas, Mead, Malinowski, Levi-Strauss, Harris, or whomever is being valorized by a particular argument – and asks how we can regain such status.  But, to quote a great philosopher, “the good ol’ days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”

The fact is, anthropology is and has always been a very diverse field, and the better off for that.  There’s no need to bemoan its state, because the important thing is that anthropologists are doing good work and making a substantive difference – not that they’re doing it in a particular (i.e. scientific, post-modern, etc.) way.  So the idea that there was some golden age that we have lost is simply wrong, and to outsiders it sounds like we don’t even value ourselves – why should they value us?

In fact, these types of arguments seem to have as their objective the closing off of particular sources of concepts – continental or post-modern philosophy, scientific approaches, or what have you – as valid or useful for the discipline.  For me, the value of a concept lies not in where it comes from but in what it allows us to do.  Whether a concept comes from Deleuze or the natives of the Trobriand Islands isn’t what’s important (although I recognize the need to get more non-western voices into the philosophical mix – preferably unmediated by anthropology or any other discipline), what’s important is whether the concept is useful.  Some people may find Deleuze’s concepts completely worthless – I can sympathize with that, though I don’t completely agree.  Does that mean that I shouldn’t be allowed to use them if I find some value in them?  No, and I will not tolerate anyone who says I can’t use a concept – regardless of where it comes from – without providing adequate argument against it (and calling Deleuze an idiot is not an adequate argument).

This bemoaning is exacerbated by an internet style of debate where discussion degrades into name-calling, and self-righteous indignation.  This is not scholarly debate – it’s bullying.  People who use it are essentially trying to shut the debate down by strong-arming objectors, making them feel worthless.  If someone raises an objection to your argument, as a scholar it’s your job to set the record straight.  If it’s just trolling, then it can be ignored.  If it’s a valid objection – even if it’s a misinterpretation or a misrepresentation – then it’s your job to say “No, actually this is what I said…” and to do so in a civil way without just calling the objector lazy, stupid, ignorant, or any other pejorative and not to simply say “How dare they misrepresent me!”  If you don’t want feedback on your words, or if you want them to be 100% secure from misinterpretation and misrepresentation, then publish them in an obscure edited volume that no one will ever read.

These two kinds of arguments – bemoaning and bullying – are not the norm in anthropology, thank goodness.  But they are common enough that they deserve some attention.  We have to be conscious of them, and resist them when they are seen to arise.

Note: I’ve disabled comments on this post because it’s already turned ugly elsewhere, and I don’t want that discussion to spill over here.  If you want to respond, use your own blog or your preferred social media outlet.

Otherworldly Sound

Here’s another video. The scene is black because it was dark out when I took the video, but I was mainly trying to capture the sound. I took this from the bedroom window at my parents’ house. The sound is of hundreds or thousands of frogs croaking in the swamp on their property. This sound went all through the night, every night I was there. It didn’t affect my sleeping at all despite the sheer volume, but it was very uncanny – I don’t remember ever hearing this many frogs all talking at once before! It makes me feel sympathetic to the Windham colonists who went crazy one night due to cacophony of the frogs – thinking they were being invaded or that the world was coming to an end.

Movements of Things

Here are a couple of videos I took from the train using my phone.  Between reading, working, and sleeping, I spent some time just looking out the window and was captivated by the diversity of things I saw.  All of these things were made to compose a world – many were made by humans, many were not, and all had a life and vitality of their own.  I took the videos so I could share these things with you.  The first was taken outside of New York City after a long delay during which we were stalled on the tracks with no power.  The second was taken farther along in Connecticut.  I like the contrast between the city landscape and the rural landscape – both equally constructed, and both constructed by a combination of humans and non-humans, and both beautiful and ugly in their own ways.  Enjoy!

I neglected to turn of the audio recording on the first video. What you’ll hear is the ambient noise of the train – people talking, papers ruffling, coughing, etc. I suggest turning off the volume on your computer, but that’s up to you – maybe you like that ambient train noise! 🙂

Extended Ecologies: An Anthropology of Life Support Systems

The following is the text of the talk I gave today at the Society for Cultural Anthropology biannual meeting.  Together with the AnthroPlus talk I gave back in March titled “The Anthropological Thought” this constitutes the article I’ll be submitting to O-Zone (pending some revision to reconcile the two parts and fill in the gaps).  Please feel free to offer feedback and constructive criticism.  I will do my best to integrate suggestions into the final draft of the article. 

The scene opens upon an intrepid explorer lying dormant inside a capsule.  Her metabolism has slowed, and she is kept alive on the barest minimum of sustenance.  To us, she may as well be dead. 

Suddenly, with a hiss, the capsule opens and our explorer reawakens.  Her body writhes in pain as she revives abruptly form her long slumber.  A shadow reaches down from above.  Unable to see clearly, but sensitive to the change in light, she extends her mouth and four sharp fangs grasp at the hand reaching towards her injecting neurotoxins into the intruding flesh.  A drop of blood drips down into the capsule from our explorer’s mouth, and the hand withdraws in shock.  End scene. 

Perhaps it is clear now, our explorer is not human – in fact, she is blood worm a creature more alien than many we see in film!  She has traveled to this distant world from far far away, encased in a life support system that keeps her alive – just barely – until she reaches her final destination.  Little does she know – or maybe she is fully aware – she is not alone in her capsule.  Creatures almost as strange as her have come along for the ride.  Luckily, to her they are no threat, but to the inhabitants of this new world, they may not be so friendly.  This is the story of an ongoing struggle to maintain diplomatic relations between two worlds – worlds brought together by a life support system created by humans to extend the lives of one species – blood worms – but with the unintended effect of extending the lives of others as well.  Can these worlds coexist? Can they live harmoniously with one another?  Or will one be consumed the other?  These are the questions we hope to address in an ongoing research project.

First, Why am I talking about blood worms as space travelers encountering different worlds and establishing relationships?  Is it just a literary device meant to capture your attention?  Am I being merely metaphorical, or is there some substance to this way of talking?  I suggest that, although I am being literary in some sense, there is also a sense in which this story is literal – that these organisms are in fact travelers from different worlds. 

What is a world?  According to Levi Bryant, a world is a set of relations, an assemblage, or an ecology.  These worlds are not bounded, but are limited by the qualities of the beings that compose them.  A being may be excluded from certain worlds because they cannot, for various reasons, enter into relationship with the others who compose it.  Furthermore, these worlds may overlap and intersect, as John Law and Annamarrie Mol have shown.

These worlds are composed by the beings of whom they are composed.  In other words, by building relationships with one another, beings (human and non) contribute to the construction of the worlds they occupy.  Thus being part of a world requires some kind of active participation with the others within it.  A world cannot therefore be reduced to the activities of any one being – human or non – but must be recognized as the complex production or performance of a number of different kinds of beings resulting from the relationships they craft with one another.

In this sense, the world of a being extends as far as the web of relations it and its kind have entered into.  The world of the blood worms, for example,  extends along the Eastern coast of North America.  Our intrepid explorer, then, is on little more than a diplomatic mission when she travels from Maine to the Mid-Atlantic coast.  She and her kind have already colonized and, indeed, vermiformed this area – the relationships have been established and she is simply visiting her distant kin.  As a matter of fact, she is on a sacrificial mission – she will be gouged on a hook and cast to sea in order to lure flounder, spot, perch, and other fish for the hungry humans.  However, in order for her and her comapnions to make the arduous journey, they must be kept alive artificially by means of a life support system.

Humans are adept at creating such life support systems.  They are not meant to be comfortable, but only to maintain the minimal needs of life.  Indeed, some imagined life support systems would bring us close to death.  In his novel Blindsight, for example, Peter Watt’s characters are implanted with vampire DNA so that they will be able to be revived after decades in the life support capsules in which they travel.  But not all life support systems are so high-tech, and hyperreal – most consist simply of food and water storage, means of transportation, and clothing and portable shelters to protect from the elements.

These life support systems have allowed us to cross otherwise inhospitable or downright uninhabitable spaces – deserts, oceans, mountainous terrain, frigid landscapes, and even the vacuum of space.  By means of these systems, we have extended our world to encompass the entire planet, and beyond. 
What’s more, we have also created life support systems for other organisms – such as the one I’ve just described for blood worms – so that we can transport them over inhospitable distances for our own purposes.    In this way, we have also extended the worlds of these organisms – though not always intentionally or as extensively as we have extended our own. 

Bloodworms – in order to make the journey from the coast of Maine to the Mid-Atlantic – are packaged in boxes with a special type of seaweed – known as worm weed to the people in Maine and Ascophyllum nodosum to the scientists.  This seaweed is a variety of rockweed which is found in abundance on all of the rock beaches in the Northeasten United States.  In this case, it has been separated from the rocks and floats freely in tidal tributaries – eventually to be deposited in the saltwater marshes upstream.  Here, the worm weed is collected, washed, and taken to the worm dealers where it is used as packing material for the live worms.  Wormweed provides a life support system for the worms – it keeps them moist, separates them just enough to keep them from attacking one another, is porous to allow the worms to burrow around and move freely without being damaged.  The boxes are then cooled in order to slow down the worms’ metabolism for the long voyage ahead. 

These boxes of worms – typically about 250 per box – are shipped to the Mid-Atlantic, to California, and to Europe where they are then repackaged into bags of 10 or a dozen – usually using the same worm weed.  The life support system created by the worm weed keeps the worms barely alive for the time it takes them to be shipped, repackaged, bought, and used as bait.  This is ideal for the anglers who want live worms to lure fish, but it comes with serious consequences, because worm weed is also home to other creatures – snails, insects, and crustaceans – with no established relationship to the distant worlds they are traveling to.

Importantly, it is the work of both humans and non-humans that has constructed these worlds, and that now offers the possibility for new relationships between them.  For this reason, we have worked collaboratively with biologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center also known as SERC.  Together we have worked to better understand the world of the worm weed life support system – the species that occupy it in Maine, and those that hitch rides as the worms are shipped to the Mid-Atlantic and other regions.  The live bait trade has long been recognized as a vector for invasive species.  Although not as abundant as other vectors such as ship ballast water, live bait life support systems are thought to be an extremely efficient vector – precisely because they are purposefully designed to keep organisms alive during transport.  Already, this vector has been shown to have introduced snails such as Littorinis saxatalis and even the worm weed itself to the Western coast of the United States.  No such proven introductions have been identified for the Mid-Atlantic region, and it’s not clear whether the species that are carried in these life support systems would pose any substantial threat to the new world they encounter there.  However, this is the first attempt at a kind of preemptive diplomacy – establishing an agreement between worlds that would prevent hostile relations before they begin.

Working with the researchers at SERC we have begun to understand the relationships that constitute the world of the wormweed and how that might affect the world of the Mid-Atlantic Coast.  At the same time, we have been working to understand the overlapping and intersecting world of the live bait industry which is responsible for extending the world of the worm weed – enabling new relationships to develop between these organisms and those of the other worlds to which they are introduced.  The industry generates in excess of five million dollars in the state of Maine, but it’s an industry dominated by small-scale businesses.  The harvesters are individuals who might otherwise be unemployed – those with little education, construction workers put out of the job by the housing crisis, and so on.  The dealers are often family owned businesses with close connections to the harvesters they employ.  Worm harvesting is hard work – subject to both natural conditions (weather, tides, etc.) and the whims of bait retailers and anglers.  Our goal, then, has been to work with the SERC biologists and the people in Maine to craft a diplomatic solution that would allow these worlds to step out ahead of any potential hostilities (including the threat of regulation from above) in order to diplomatically preserve the relationship between worlds.

Our research is ongoing.  So far we have created a detailed picture of the world of the live bait trade including both the humans and the non-humans involved in its composition.  While there are still holes in our understanding, we have developed several ideas for how we might craft a diplomatic relationship between these distant worlds.  By building relationships and working with the human and non-human beings involved in these worlds we hope to alter the practices that compose it.  For example, we are studying various methods for washing the worm weed that would kill or remove any hitchhikers while keeping it safe for the worms themselves.  It is hoped that, by introducing these alternatives, and facilitating their use, the contact events between these worlds will be significantly reduced, if not eliminated altogether, and with reduced contact events, it would be easier to maintain a diplomatic relationship – smaller, short-lived, and accidental colonies, perhaps, versus a full scale invasion. 

Through this process of building relationships and “working with” – as Tim Ingold emphasizes – all of the different beings involved, we hope to craft a different world – one in which the relationships between the established worlds of organisms in Maine, and those in the Mid-Atlantic can coexist peacefully.  Where our intrepid explorer can continue to make her scrificial voyage, whithout threating other worlds to which she travels.


It used to be that students in a classroom were a captive audience for the professor.  To the extent that they had to attend lectures, and the professor gave lectures as opposed generating discussion, the students had to sit and listen for the duration of class time.  The only competition for the professor was the students’ own minds, which could wander freely but were still self-contained (barring some kind of telepathy, but that’s a different discussion. Now students have technology.  Through this technology they can access a world of information, talk with friends, watch videos (without sound), and so on.  It’s true, they’d have to be discreet about it – continually taking out and checking one’s phone, for example, tends to be obvious and clearly disrespectful.  However, most students have laptops, and use them to take notes, and it’s very easy for them to do other things on those laptops while taking notes or instead of taking notes with little indication to the professor that anything different is going on.

This is the world we live in, and I see four ways for professors to deal with it:

1) The professor could ignore the problem and continue as s/he always has – standing in front of the class and giving a lecture.  This is not uncommon, I think, especially among older professors who maybe aren’t familiar with the potential issues with technology in the class room.  And it might be a perfectly fine approach.  It just means that the students would have to get the information for the class either by paying attention intermittently – focusing on the relevant information – or through readings, assignments, or other coursework.  Clearly students in these kinds of classes are still passing them, the question is what are they actually learning?  I suspect that most of them are learning how to parse out the important information, and apply it to please the person in charge (i.e. the professor).  These are good skills to have in the world today, but it’s not what we usually think of teaching when students come to our classes.  It’s actually probably not that much different from what happened before technology in a lot of cases.

2) The professor could ban technology in the classroom.  This would be a difficult sell, since one would have to ban not only cell phones – the most commonly banned devices – but also laptops, and tablets.  Given that most students prefer to take notes on these devices, it’s difficult to say that they shouldn’t be allowed at all.  Nevertheless, it is possible, and if a professor is willing to deal with the likely backlash, then it’s certainly a viable option.  However, the question of what are we teaching remains.

3) The professor could compete with technology in the classroom.  This is where the options start to get interesting to me.  Here the teacher allows technology – makes no or only very limited restrictions – but chooses to attempt to make class itself more engaging so that students won’t be as tempted to zone out on the internet.  I can see a number of ways of doing this.  One I’d call the Sesame Street approach where the professor engages in antics or tells stories, or uses videos or music in order to draw students’ attention to the lecture material and away from the internet.  It’s a tall order for most professors who are not particularly gregarious, and willing to engage in such displays.  It’s possible, though, but what would students be learning here?  That they need to be entertained to be informed… that life should be entertaining all the time… possible – I don’t know for sure.

The second approach here would be to engage the students in active learning.  Here it’s not that learning is entertaining, but that it’s demanding.  By demanding, I don’t mean that it’s difficult or lots of work – just that it makes demands of the students.  For example, if students are asked to stand up and move around, to talk to classmates, to write some thoughts, to answer questions, to engage in discussion, etc – then they won’t have as much opportunity to zone out on the nets.  Hopefully it would be enjoyable (as opposed to entertaining, which I see as largely passive) too.  This changes the dynamic of learning in the classroom.  Now it’s intentionally not so much about passing on knowledge from professor to student (which results in the scenario described above where students gather just enough information to please the professor), and instead it becomes intentionally about getting students to think about the issues and come up with their own ideas.  This is much more interesting to me than any of the above options.

4) The professor could embrace technology in the classroom.  This is actually a subset of #3 where the professor – instead of trying to compete with technology – openly accepts technology in the class and uses it to her advantage.  This could be done in two ways just as described above.  It could be entertaining – having students watch videos, listen to music, etc. in order to attract them to class and pass along the material.  Or it could be engaging – having students use their technology as resources to add to discussion and thought.  I personally don’t have a preference for either #3 or #4, but I think #4 would tend to win out in practical situations simply because they will use technology whether the professor intend them to or not – assuming it’s not banned.

In other words, I think the primary issue that needs to be considered is what we are trying to teach students, and what they are actually learning from the class.  Only after we’ve addressed this question can we begin to think about how we teach and the role of technology in our approach.