In honor of our killer class discussion of Jame Paul Gee’s work today (check the syllabus), here is a Gee lecture that I found inspirational and generative when I saw it sometime last year.
Here Gee offers a critique of modern university education and an alternative model based on what he calls situated learning within established affinity groups. I do not necessarily subscribe to his doomsday scenario for current universities. It’s not that I think he is wrong. It is more like my years of watching science fiction and listening to Metallica have prepared me for his rhetoric of useful hyperbole. Or maybe I think he is right on. Judge for yourself.
There is a lot here to talk about. And I hope we can in the class and in the comments. I want to focus here on one aspect of Gee’s lecture that raised some personal, pedagogical, and epistemological issues for me. Literally, a few days after first viewing this video, I went to see George Lipsitz lecture on campus at UT. The combination got me thinking.
Gee tells a story about the failures of the disciplinary thinking of Alan Greenspan. Promoted as an exemplar of economic thinking within his disciplinary silo, Greenspan rose to the top as an expert in the field, but he utterly failed to grasp the housing crisis and its implications for the larger economy. His disciplinary blinders–his tendency to undervalue what he did not know, says Gee–left him woefully unequipped to guide the nation through the housing bubble crisis and its aftermath. Gee uses this tale to promote a classroom centered on problem-solving rather than content recall, around learning that is situated in everyday experience rather than disciplinary checkboxes. Cool.
Three days later, George Lipsitz came to town. George is a hero of mine. Reading his books convinced me to go to grad school and become an academic. They offered the whole package: a fan’s obsession with popular music, a labor historian’s understanding of the shop floor, a preacher’s fire and cadence, and an activist’s demand for applying the lessons of a usable past to today’s struggles for social justice.
He came to UT to talk about the importance of Asian American Studies for the contemporary university. Area studies centers such as this have been facing big challenges under the current political push to monetize academic disciplines and research. Lipsitz defended the vital need for Asian American Studies not only—as it turns out—for Asian American students, but also because of the vital new knowledge and theories scholars in the field are discovering about how democracy works within a diverse population. Asian American theory today=American practice tomorrow. Just wait.
He offered this through a more general critique of the particular kind of disciplinary expertise that is traditionally celebrated and rewarded within academia. He told the story of giving a talk at Duke in early 2008. He shared the things he had learned while working with housing activists helping people who had signed on to sub-prime loans. Their situated knowledge enabled them to see that the nation was headed for a major downturn because of these prevalent practices. An economics professor stood up and challenged Lipsitz’s story. He claimed that the free market would make adjustments by itself to avoid such a crash. He of course was devastatingly wrong. Four months after the talk the economy tanked just as those grassroots activists had predicted. The moral: the university system creates and rewards disciplinary expertise. Experts rise through the ranks by maintaining the blinders that are built in to their disciplines. They cannot see outside of their own groupthink and ideologies. People on the ground facing wrenching economic transformations do not have this luxury or constraint. With no commitment to maintaining disciplinary integrity and institutions, they do not feel the need to stick to one approach to a problem. Their desperation to find a solution propels them to search far and wide for insights. Grassroots activists are pedagogical innovators.
Lipsitz and Gee use very similar language to talk about both the problems with the university and the alternative environments they favor. Both describe the bankrupt system of credentialing disciplinary experts in the academy. Both insist that such experts are devastatingly wrong. Both insist on smashing the disciplines. Lipsitz is noting situated knowledge produced by oppressed communities. Gee is into situated learning within passionate affinity groups. One is propelled by need, the other by passion. Each, however, say that learning has to be propelled by desire, involved in direct problem solving, and open to new forms and expressions of knowledge. There appears to be little explicit overlap between the two. Could that possibly be right?
What is the relationship between the Lipsitz’s situate knowledge and Gee’s situated learning?