New Additions

Jay Lemke is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York. He has also been Professor in the PhD Programs in Science Education, Learning Technologies, and Literacy Language and Culture at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and most recently adjunct Professor in Communication at the University of California - San Diego and Senior Research Scientist in the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC). Professor Lemke's research investigates multimedia communication, learning, and emotion in the context of social and cultural change.

Re-Engineering the Research University

The large American research university used to be a model for excellence in higher education. Today it's collapsing under the unsustainable weight of an obsolete business model, and it's not doing its job.

This happens to be Singapore, but it's emblematic of the problem. To give faculty time to do the research that brings in the grant money that keeps under-funded universities alive, we cheat undergraduates of any genuine educational contact with them by packing students into large lecture courses where the instructor is at best only a distant presence.

No one in higher education believes this is what teaching and learning should look like. Students are left to fend for themselves and many who could succeed drop out. Many leave fields such as the sciences, where lecture courses leave them to sink or swim on their own, for other fields where it's easier to teach yourself the subject. Students in these lecture courses are either bored or confused. There is no chance for meaningful interaction or dialogue with someone who knows the subject well. When there is contact with a graduate student assistant, it's rare to find one with the time, teaching experience, and deep knowledge of the subject that is needed for serious seminar teaching.

Universities expect less and less of students: minimal writing skills, discussion skills, critical thinking skills. Employers in technical fields spend billions re-training university graduates to be able to do anything with their knowledge. Degrees say little more than that some books were read, some standard textbook problems solved. Faculty are happy with their Satisfactory student ratings as teachers. Students are accustomed to getting good grades without being seriously challenged.

And there is no incentive in the system to make things any better.

The first nation to radically transform its system of higher education will remain a global leader for a long time to come. While all pay lip service to innovation, creativity, and the knowledge economy, none are working to re-engineer higher education.
Lecture courses need to be abandoned in favor of seminar-scale teaching by full-time faculty, at all levels in all subjects. That means that universities need to be funded not by tuition or maximizing student numbers, but by funding faculty positions and admitting only as many students as the number of faculty hired can support. It means full financial support for all well-qualified undergraduate and graduate students, to a maximum of six years of higher education. It means an end to 4-year degrees and to non-specialist education in elite universities. [See more details: Changing Higher Education]

It means the creation and gradual expansion of a system of National Universities on this model, beginning with federal funding of the best existing public research universities. They will be smaller. Their graduates will be the best in the world. They will not serve every need or every citizen. General and liberal education should be done in secondary schools, themselves urgently in need of radical reform. Other institutions will provide different kinds of higher education access for most of the population.

The old model is broken, and it's time to say so.

Making Trouble

I have a new home and now a new website and blog.

Having moved from New York to the University of Michigan, and now to the University of California in San Diego, it was time to re-do a website whose design goes back 15 years and make it independent of any of my academic homes. With a new blog, re-located from Blogspot, I'm looking to make trouble more than ever!

This new website re-packages most of the content from Jay Lemke's Online Office, my old website at the University of Michigan, including popular features like the New Researchers Guide, and adds pdfs of many of my papers on New Media and Learning, Science Education, Discourse Analysis, Multimedia Semiotics, Digital Games, etc. It also includes new work since the end of 2007.

In my new home at LCHC, the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition, at UC San Diego, I'm working on some new research projects on integrated approaches to studying feeling and meaning (aka affect and cognition) and on play and learning with new media.

Already in my blog are short discussions of the emotional side of scientific images, why remix culture trumps intellectual property rights, going beyond schooling as a form of education, the future of democracy as a political ideal, and the moral dimensions of learning. New postings will make trouble around issues of emotion in learning and science, new media cultures, social dynamics, and education, sexuality, and policy.

Welcome! Explore the whole site, scroll down the blog, and come back for new additions appearing here soon.


The Leader of the Stable World??

So, "the Leader of the Free World" is obsolete, a relic of the old Cold War. But the US used to stand for something. Our international support among people used to come from the belief that we stood for freedom and democracy (whether we actually did or not).

Now, with a supposedly liberal President, we hemmed and hawed on Egypt until the last minute, we almost saw a total massacre in Libya, we have in fact given tacit backing to violent suppression of pro-democracy movements in Bahrain, Yemen, and who knows where else (Saudi Arabia?). We have defended "stability", not democracy. Not the Free World, but the Stable World.

Even in the first Gulf War, it was all about not allowing the status quo to change. Iraq had a legitimate historical claim to Kuwait, which was taken away from them and made an independent sheikdom by the British to protect their naval bases and later the oil. The US was horrified that anybody might try to change the sacred order of things. Anybody other than us, that is.

The Iran hostage crisis came about mostly because Carter listened to Kissinger's advice that we had to give sanctuary to a dictator (the Shah), because he was OUR dictator (one of many). Mubarak in Egypt was another one of OUR dictators. My taxpayer dollars have been going to dictators all over the world, to equip their armies to use against pro-democracy movements.

We're not really interested in democracy in Iraq now, or Afghanistan (obviously), or (Allah forbid!) Saudi Arabia. We tut-tut about democracy in China. We have no credibility at all when we talk today about freedom and democracy in Cuba, or Russia, or North Korea, because no one believes we are looking out for anything except our own interests. Correction: the global financial interests based here.

Why do so many Islamic people hate the US? (1) Because we continued to support Israel no matter how brutal or illegal their actions toward the Palestinians, and (2) because we continued to support oppressive dictatorships from Egypt (until now) and Saudi Arabia (and the Gulf States) to Pakistan. Because we are allied with their enemies all around the world. The World Trade Center fell because it symbolized US-backed oppression all across the Islamic world.

We just missed a rare opportunity to prove otherwise. If we (i.e. Obama) had spoken out early, clearly, and impressively in support of the Egyptian revolution, the Libyan revolution, and the movement in Bahrain (at least), a lot of Moslems might have had second thoughts about donating money to Osama bin Laden.

ALL our leaders believe that US longterm strategic interests require that we support dictatorships and maintain "stability". They are all wrong. And they are putting all of us on the wrong side of history.

Feeling Science

How does it feel to engage with Science?

20 years ago I wrote a book called Talking Science: how we use the language of science to describe, explain, design, investigate, teach, learn, reason, read, and write. Later on, I also wrote about how science integrates language with mathematics and graphs, tables, charts, maps, diagrams, and images.

But all that was about the meanings we make with words, images, and equations. It left out how we feel about them, how we feel about doing science and using its tools. Feelings are important in themselves, but also because they guide our judgments: about what research to do, what solution or design to try, whether an idea seems likely or not, a fact important or not, a procedure comfortable or not, an approach attractive or not.

At a recent conference on the Learning Sciences in Chicago, I tried to deal with just one part of the role of feelings in science: how we feel about images, equations, and a wide range of representations in science. I began by recalling that a lot of us got interested in science early on because of the feelings we had for dinosaurs and galaxies – things we experienced through awe-inspiring reconstructions and computer-enhanced photographs.

Most scientific images today are products of both data and human esthetic choices about to render that data in ways that highlight it meanings, but also in ways that engage our feelings. This is nothing new in science, as the famous drawings of bird species by Audubon easily remind us.

Not all the feelings we have about scientific images are pleasant ones, but they can certainly be very powerful ones:

We have feelings for and about the modes of representation (e.g. visual vs. mathematical), the media (diagrams vs 3D models), the technologies (print vs. video), the genres (topographic maps, star charts, chemical formulas, etc.), and even the individual styles in which these are rendered. Usually in science these come as packages, so it does not make sense to try to separate out our feelings for say a medium or a technology in the abstract. We don’t feel in the abstract; we feel as we experience real, concrete instances.

How we feel about scientific images or scientific tools, how we feeling in using them (comfortable or not? pleasurable or not? appropriate? proud? inspired? mystified? frustrated?) is part of our identity as a scientist or just as a person who encounters these images, tools, and ideas. What do we identify with? What do we distance ourselves from? Learning science, even in school, is not just about learning to reason like a scientist, it is also about learning to feel like one, even if only in some limited ways.

Feelings, which may also be called more elegantly affects or just emotions, are generally ignored, denied, or pushed to the side in the teaching of science (and mathematics) and in school curricula. But they are fundamentally important for motivation, for long-term memory, for developing attitudes, for career choice, for decision-making, and in fact for scientific reasoning itself. All reasoning requires choices, choices depend on values, values are grounded in or appear to us as feelings. Judgment and evaluation are fundamental to science, and both depend critically on feelings.

Feelings are not animal instincts; in human beings, at least, they are also learned and cultured. Feelings of appropriateness and moral rightness, of guilt or pride, are learned, built on top of whatever basic capacity for emotional response our biology gives us. So also with “a feeling for the organism” in biology (in the famous phrase of Nobel geneticist Barbara McClintock), or a feeling for the pathways of complex organic chemistry reactions, or for the world of quantum physics.

Feelings, like meanings, usually come to us through our engagement with words, images, sounds, and hands-on experiences. A famous chemist once told me that I couldn’t understand chemistry just by manipulating equations; I had to “smell” it and see it in the laboratory. I needed, in other words, to get a feel for it. No less obviously, we have feelings about meanings (ideas, proposals, explanations). Maybe we ought to say that how we feel when we make sense of something is an inseparable part of the meaning we make, of the activity of making that meaning?

And so feeling is also fundamental to learning, to development, to education. And not just in science. Why do we so often try to pretend that it isn’t? Well, that’s another story.

Moral Struggles Matter -- to Learning!

Even in fiction and games, we care about what’s right and wrong.

I’ve been trying to work out a puzzle lately: why do our feelings matter to how we make sense of the world around us? The answer, I think, lies in the contribution of feelings to the process of making evaluations and judgments. Not just about what is good or bad, but about what’s important or trivial, what’s surprising or ordinary, what to take seriously or just as a joke.

Last week at the International Congress of the Learning Sciences, where I was talking about the role feelings play in how science represents the world [see my next blog entry], I attended a session on learning through computer games. There’s no doubt that games play on our emotions; that feelings matter to what we do next in the game. But what hit me in this session was how deeply engaged we get when there are moral issues at stake, when we’re trying to figure out what’s right and wrong, and having problems deciding what’s right.

Many theories of learning imagine that all learning is like problem-solving, but then they mistakenly assume that problem-solving is or should be purely logical and rational. It never is; it never can be. Solving a problem always requires us to make choices and decisions along the way, about what is relevant, important, likely to succeed, etc. Take away our feelings about what to do next and we can’t do much of anything (that can, unfortunately, happen; read Antonio Damasio).

Likewise, most problem-solving involves the use of tools, especially information tools like books, notes, computers, or just counting on your fingers. And we always have feelings about those, too (my topic at the conference). Computer games put us in imaginary worlds full of problems to be solved and tools to solve them; they offer us adventures that rev up our feelings. And it turns out that what can draw us in most deeply is not the shooting or thinking, but puzzling about what is right and wrong when our choices matter to ourselves and other people.

Schools, on the other hand, seem scared to death of both feelings and moral issues as essential elements in learning. The main feeling reported by most students about most of their time in school is: boredom. The last thing the curriculum wants students to engage with, it seems, is issues of right and wrong. It’s all about knowledge and not about life. So most students learn little, forget most of that, and basically just don’t care. They feel that everything that matters is missing, and I think they’re right.

We learn when we have a need to know, when something really matters to us. It can be imaginary, but it has to feel important. Like being fair, like choosing between justice and forgiveness, like making the right decision when the wrong one will harm innocent creatures. No one can learn how to always make good choices, but we do learn passionately when we believe learning something can help us make a better choice here and now.

A century ago, and for a long time before that, the purpose of education was to build good moral character. When our society lost its consensus about what was morally right, education lost a critical link between learning and life. And schools lost a key principle for engaging students emotionally with learning.

We can’t teach students right and wrong. But we can engage them in deeply felt and learning-rich projects of trying to figure it out for themselves.

If we have the courage to try.

Images: Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice; Pilot of the Hiroshima bomber, years later; the Dalai Lama. People who faced and had to live with profound moral choices and their consequences, with no easy answers.