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In the real world...

Compassion and complexity reduction

I find narratives that contrast school with ‘the real world’ to be disheartening since I spend so much of my time there. Part of this discourse is a way to devalue the work that teachers do, much like how our society devalues domestic work, overwhelming performed by women, because it is not ‘real work’. I see this as no accident since teaching is a highly feminized profession. 1 As Michael Apple points out, “Any occupation that is feminized, that is seen as women’s paid work, as most teaching is, gets less respect, less authority, and less pay and is blamed constitutively and continually when there is an economic crisis.” (9:10) Another part of the discourse functions to critique activities in school for not being ‘authentic’. However, rather than failing to mirror or connect to some other ‘real’ world, I argue that schools engage in what Gert Biesta has called complexity reduction. For example, by having students put up their hand to go to the bathroom or by using a multiple choice quiz, “we reduce the number of available options for action for the elements of a system.” 2 Biesta, G. J. J. (2010). Why “What Works” Still Won’t Work: From Evidence-Based Education to Value-Based Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29(5), 491–503. p 497) As teachers, we must negotiate and balance the ways that we reduce complexity with showing our students compassion and being kind to ourselves.

In a blog post, Alice Keeler argues that we should not use the idea of ‘the real world’ to discipline students, but she then uses the concept to discipline and regulate teachers. In response, Christopher Bronke finds fault with the concept because it implies that there is something fake about school. In fact, I think the problem with the concept is much worse.

Keeler’s post quickly shifts from calling out teachers for using the concept, to using the concept in the sense the Bronke objected to. She contrasts school and the real world (’School does not mimic the real world’), and ends her post by asking for “examples of ‘in the real world’ that contradict common school practices.” Her main counterpoint to the teachers who tell students that the real word is harsh is that “In the real world… there is a lot of MERCY!”

Now, I agree that we should show students mercy and compassion. However, I think it is worth asking to what extent the compassion and mercy we experience in life might be related to the privileges we have. If we are middle class and privileged, we might find a lot of mercy in our lives. Ask young men (and women) racialized by the police, or women objectified and harassed by online communities,  and they might not feel the same. 3 See this article about John Oliver’s piece on online harassment.

In Nickle and Dimed: On (not) Getting by in America, Barbara Ehrenreich recounts how something as simple as her work uniform radically changed how people treated her. She says that a

waitress’s polo shirt was always a conversation starter: “You at Jerry’s?” a clerk might ask. “I used to work at the waffle place just up the boulevard from there.” But a maid’s uniform has the opposite effect. At one place where we stopped for refreshments, an actual diner with a counter, I tried to order iced tea to take out, but the waitress just kept standing there chatting with a coworker, ignoring my “Excuse me’s.” Then there’s the supermarket. I used to stop on my way home from work, but I couldn’t take the stares, which are easily translatable into: What are you doing here? And, No wonder she’s poor, she’s got a beer in her shopping cart! True, I don’t look so good by the end of the day and probably smell like eau de toilet and sweat, but it’s the brilliant green-and-yellow uniform that gives we away, like prison clothes on a fugitive. Maybe, it occurs to me, I’m getting a tiny glimpse of what it would be like to be black. 4 Ehrenreich, Barbara (2001). Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) getting By in America, p 76

‘The real world’ does not exist, at least not in the way that people use it in the discourse about schools. There is no monolithic, homogeneous world that we can contrast with school (much like we can’t make many useful generalizations about school itself, but that is another topic). Even when we are physically in the same place, there is a deep sense in which we live in different worlds. 5 In Killing Us Softly 4, Jean Kilbourne argues that men and women live in different worlds. “Men basically don’t live in a world in which their bodies are routinely scrutinized, criticized, and judged – whereas women and girls do.” https://www.mediaed.org/assets/products/241/studyguide_241.pdf page 6.

Many visions of ‘the real world’ in Keeler’s original post and contributions from visitors reflect the world as experienced by people with privilege: “I have forgotten my keys at home a million times and the secretary just let me in.” Yet, Dr. Ersula Ore and Dr. Kiese Laymon have had rather different experiences on their campuses because they are racialized and discriminated against by our society and the authorities.

Class also plays a role in the kind of life we have at work. As part of her training to be a maid, Ehrenreich had an experience that showed much less respect for her personal freedom on the job than some people on Keeler’s post have experienced. She recounts how the maid service strictly regulated her behavior:

And, as is explained in writing and over the next day and a half of training, we too have a special code of decorum. No smoking anywhere, or at least not within fifteen minutes of arrival at a house. No drinking, eating, or gum chewing in a house. No cursing in a house, even if the owner is not present, and – perhaps to keep us in practice – no obscenities even in the office. 6 Ehrenreich, Barbara (2001). Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) getting By in America, p 57

Here, compassion and privilege clearly intersect in ways that don’t benefit low-wage workers.

I suggest we use a different vocabulary that escapes the dichotomies that pit school against ‘the real world’ or contrast schools with something more ‘authentic’. Drawing on systems theory, Gert Biesta argues that schools – like all institutions and our social life more broadly – engage in a kind of complexity reduction. As one example, schools use a schedule and bell system to organize time.

While in some cases complexity reduction can be beneficial, in other cases it can be restraining. But since any attempt to reduce the number of available options for action for the ‘elements’ within a system is about the exertion of power, complexity reduction should therefore be understood as a political act. 7 Biesta, G. J. J. (2010). Why “What Works” Still Won’t Work: From Evidence-Based Education to Value-Based Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29(5), 491–503. p 498

As a maid, Ehrenreich experienced the oppressive consequences of complexity reduction. Teachers have too (standardized curriculum and testing, professional evaluation systems, merit pay, etc.). Many of the routines that get in the way of compassion come from attempts to control and reduce complexity. It makes my life much easier if I require students to print their essays and put them on my desk at the beginning of class, and then refuse to have any conversations about extensions. Instead, I let students keep working on their google doc until I grade it, and they can revise their work if they want to. This is much more complex for me, but something I gladly do – and which I have the privilege to be able do. 8 I am lucky to work somewhere that values our professional judgement, my students have access to tablets, I don’t have children to take care of at home, or need to work a second job.

Reducing options is not always a bad thing. We have limited working memories, and often we can be kind to students by helping them focus on one thing at a time. For example, when my students need to write complex literary analysis, I notice that the quality of writing sometimes goes down as the task becomes more difficult. To be kind to them, I can also encourage them write a lot about things they do understand well and care about and use that writing to assess their voice and style. Reducing complexity can be a kind of compassion in this case.

Sometimes, attempts to reduce complexity are written of as being not ‘authentic’. When educators talk about ‘authentic’ work, they often have in mind some sort of contrast between repetitive practice or testing and work that “mirrors the complexities and ambiguities of real life.” 9 http://edglossary.org/authentic-learning/ According to the Glossary of Educational Reform,

“An “authentic” way to teach the scientific method, for example, would be to ask students to develop a hypothesis about how ecosystems work that is based on first-hand observations of a local natural habitat, then have them design and conduct an experiment to prove or disprove the hypothesis. After the experiment is completed, students might then write up, present, and defend their findings to a panel of actual scientists.” 10 http://edglossary.org/authentic-learning/ It seems absurd to convene a panel. This most certainly does not happen for every paper that gets written or published.

Never mind that there is no method that unites Darwin and CERN, this example obscures all the other kinds of authentic yet unsexy things that scientists do, such as reading articles and entering a lot of data in SPSS. As David Foster Wallace put it, “There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration.” 11 http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

Let’s take music as an example. What might seem like the most authentic part, playing as a band in front of a live audience, is also the most complex. However, to get there requires so much complexity reduction and repetitive practice, and there is nothing inauthentic about that. Think of all the hours that Eric Clapton spent in his bedroom slowing down Muddy Waters records so he could copy licks.

We need to be compassionate with our students, instill this as a virtue in them, and yet prepare students to not always rely on that kind of mercy and compassion in life. At the same time, we need to reduce complexity in ways that keep valuable options open for students and promote choice while still being kind to ourselves.

References   [ + ]

1.  As Michael Apple points out, “Any occupation that is feminized, that is seen as women’s paid work, as most teaching is, gets less respect, less authority, and less pay and is blamed constitutively and continually when there is an economic crisis.” (9:10)
2. Biesta, G. J. J. (2010). Why “What Works” Still Won’t Work: From Evidence-Based Education to Value-Based Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29(5), 491–503. p 497)
3. See this article about John Oliver’s piece on online harassment.
4. Ehrenreich, Barbara (2001). Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) getting By in America, p 76
5. In Killing Us Softly 4, Jean Kilbourne argues that men and women live in different worlds. “Men basically don’t live in a world in which their bodies are routinely scrutinized, criticized, and judged – whereas women and girls do.” https://www.mediaed.org/assets/products/241/studyguide_241.pdf page 6.
6. Ehrenreich, Barbara (2001). Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) getting By in America, p 57
7. Biesta, G. J. J. (2010). Why “What Works” Still Won’t Work: From Evidence-Based Education to Value-Based Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29(5), 491–503. p 498
8. I am lucky to work somewhere that values our professional judgement, my students have access to tablets, I don’t have children to take care of at home, or need to work a second job.
9. http://edglossary.org/authentic-learning/
10. http://edglossary.org/authentic-learning/ It seems absurd to convene a panel. This most certainly does not happen for every paper that gets written or published.
11. http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words
I footnotes