A Necessary Rethink
A few months ago, one of my students tried to kill himself. He took a handful of pills and got into bed. Luckily, he mentioned what he had done to someone else, and a little while later, the campus police showed up at his dorm door. They took him by force to the hospital, and then — a day later, again by force — from the hospital to a lockdown facility on the edge of Los Angeles. And so, late one Friday night, I found myself handing over my keys, cell phone and identification to a stern guard inside a blandly colored facility that serves as a kind of comfortable recovery jail, mainly to addicts who overdose but also for suicidal students from local universities. Sitting there, watching people shuffle back and forth or make telephone calls on the public payphone, I wondered what I would say to the student’s parents. I felt a deep sense of despair. How did a university sophomore who came into my school to tell stories with a camera end up here? A few days later I would learn that no fewer than 2,000 students daily wander across my campus with active thoughts of suicide.
Why? I think part of it is due to the radical mismatch between an old-fashioned notion of college held by higher educational institutions and the actual lives of students in 2018. Not only have students worked relentlessly during high school to assemble all the required extracurricular activities that will make them viable college applicants, but once they are on a college campus, the dogged pace and demands to achieve, in addition to family pressure related to often exorbitant tuition, creates a sense of untenable anxiety. With a long list of loans that must be repaid, many students can already see a kind of indentured servitude stretching out in front of them for another decade or two. As a result, every decision in the present may start to feel connected to money and a job that students pray will materialize in the near future. As a result, many students are living in some kind of horrible virtual future, and every single thing now — a bad grade, a missed class — gets unreasonably amplified and dramatized. Add to this the image of overwhelmed faculty and staff who, in the university’s corporate culture that demands that everyone do more with less, are harried and anxious themselves. (The book we are passing around my department this month is The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, which advocates resisting the acceleration of work in higher education.)
In a roundabout way, this has led me to explore alternative models for learning about media-making that may offer some respite from these pressures. How can we imagine other ways to teach visual storytelling or emerging media practices that don’t immediately include these kinds of pressures?
One example is Fabrica, a gorgeous research center located in Treviso, Italy. Attendees can study design, visual communication, photography, interaction design, video, music and journalism in a beautiful 17th-century villa with people from all over the world. There is no formal curriculum, and the overarching goal is to create students who are, in the words of the school founders, deeply interdisciplinary “social catalysts.” Students attend the program for one year, and while there is no formal curriculum, there is also no exorbitant tuition. Graduates attest to a kind of immersive and intense learning experience that is deeply interdisciplinary and emergent.
The Strelka Institute, founded in 2009 and located in Moscow, similarly eschews a traditional college curriculum. Instead, it boasts a five-month multidisciplinary program for young people with varied backgrounds, from urbanism and design to cinema and architecture. The program is project-based and varies each year; this year’s program is titled “The New Normal” and began on January 31; it was designed and is being led by Benjamin Bratton, a professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego. The program is also free, and students receive a scholarship to help cover living costs. Writing about the program, Bratton notes that it integrates emerging technologies and speculative philosophy to create a think tank on urbanism. Scrolling through the website, what stands out to me — perhaps a reflection of my own sad response to traditional academic pressures — is the Strelka bar, with a 16-page drink menu that includes no fewer than eight different martinis!
Yet another learning experience that differs in many ways from college is 42. With sites in Paris and Silicon Valley, 42 hopes to teach computer programming to 10,000 young people in the coming decade. Like Fabrica, there is no formal curriculum; indeed, there are no instructors. Instead, students learn from peers. The program begins with a four-week intensive experience in which students compete to become a full-time student in the three- to five-year program. Everything is project based and responds to real-world needs. A colleague reports that he’s never seen his 17-year-old so excited to learn as when he participated in the program last summer. That may be true, but I harbor some ambivalence about the 24/7 intensity. Sure, it prepares teens for the hellish hours and competitiveness demanded for anyone working for a startup, but is that what we really want to promote? I note it here, then, mainly to underscore the interest students have in peer-to-peer learning and real-world engagement.
Minerva offers yet another intriguing model. The school was founded by Ben Nelson and boasts an online learning experience coupled with an onsite experience for small cohorts of students from around the world, thereby making the most of new research about online learning as well as the powerful connections that can develop among students working together in person. Each group begins their four-year undergraduate experience with a year in San Francisco and uses an online learning platform with live video to engage in small seminars. After that, students can choose to stay in up to six other cities: Seoul, South Korea; Hyderabad, India; Berlin, Germany; Buenos Aires, Argentina; London, England and Taipei, Taiwan. The curriculum is not at all dedicated to filmmaking; instead, it centers on four foundational courses dedicated to critical and creative thinking and effective communication and interaction. What’s interesting here is that rather than focus on, for example, college-level writing or video as a mode of storytelling, both are considered forms of communication and studied together. This blurring of media-based boundaries is fascinating as a pedagogical concept. Subsequent years allow for increasing specialization, and time spent in diverse cities is designed to help build global awareness and engage situated learning.
Clearly, I’m comparing apples and oranges here — these learning models hardly correlate with the film school education of traditional university-based undergraduate or graduate programs. But they offer those of us in these programs an opportunity not only to reflect on the kind of pressures many of our students are under but also to reimagine the way we teach and structure our programs so that they are vibrant, attuned to divergent models of learning and engaged with the real world.
My student spent his four days of confinement writing page after page on a yellow legal pad. He wrote his way toward a sense of direction for his life, and he emerged rumpled and emotionally bruised but ready to move on. Since then, he has had more ups and downs, and I often wonder how he is faring when I haven’t heard from him in a while. My faculty colleagues have used the event to consider our context more carefully. What are we modeling in our own behavior? How can we resist the neoliberal university and its corporate mindset as we stand with and beside our students? And how can we use our institutional power to reimagine our futures of learning? The ridiculous pace of the university, the ongoing sense of crisis and the idea that if you are troubled it is because you have failed personally — you have not yet harnessed the power of habits, you don’t know the secrets of being productive or you can’t seem to identify the keys to success — all mitigate against this collective re-thinking. But it is absolutely necessary.