Listening

Everything about a particular voter, you have to predict how that voter is going to act.

Reince Priebus, MSNBC

Be patient for the wolf is always with you.

Malcolm Lowry,  ‘Be Patient for the Wolf

Rayanne Tabet, Steel Rings, 2013, NY High Line, Nov 8 2016
Rayanne Tabet, Steel Rings, 2013, NY High Line, Nov 8 2016

1

It’s morning in Brooklyn. Below us the street is going about its business. Little ones are being walked to school, stores are rattling open, buses at ground level and planes in the sky.

Yesterday, voting day, I walked the High Line listening and marvelling at the energy that achieved this large urban project. There are art works all along the way, and I found this one, Steel Rings, a sculpture that brings the history of the Trans Arabian Pipeline to New York. History, distant places, time, nations, states, money, oil, rust. We stop to think.

Moments later, we’re stunned by a wall of words, Zoe Leonard’s I Want a President (1992). The sky is blue, it seems like we’re all on the verge of at least being able to imagine the United States with a woman president. But I’m snagged on the ending. It feels like a premonition that we’re trying not to think about.

I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that a president is always a clown: always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker, always a liar, always a thief and never caught.

2.

It’s morning in Brooklyn. I’m reading a City Lights imprint of Malcolm Lowry’s poems that I found in a second hand bookstore, and thinking about how his bitterness fits this day.

Be patient, because of the wolf, be patient:
The squeaks and woes of night all have their place.
You’ll find your blood-warm cave and rest at last;
The shadows wait for you to say the word.
Listen now to your own soft cunning step.
Be patient, because of the wolf be patient —
His step is your own now, you are free, being bereft.

Bereft.

Watching the television, hearing over and over again: white college educated, white non college educated. Somehow with all the polling and data and knowledge, this demographic crack in the ice was misread. It’s not just (white) people who are locked out of college who voted for this. Higher education has overpromised on aspirational futures it can’t deliver at mass scale in this economy. (White) college graduates who listened to the message about getting ahead don’t see it transpiring in their own lives, the lives of their children, their communities. What they see is debt, and a college system that can barely see them in the crowd, but nevertheless spits them out and banks the cheque.

The situation in Australia is the same. There are students in every classroom I teach who know that politics is run by people who have more comfortable lives than they do. As far as they can tell, this is also true of our education system. Our marketing focuses on the happy groups of students with laptops having coffee, the lone beautiful thinker in the upmarket casual wear, staring into the middle distance imagining the graduate premium on her future salary clinking into the coin tray. The student barely making it onto campus because of back to back shifts at work, the student struggling with the price of coffee let alone laptops, the student trying to get through their innovative hybrid students-as-producers digital making learning experience using only their phone, sees the gap widen.

When the institution you’re already paying money to can’t recognise you, the institution that promised you so much in terms of care and attention can’t quite focus its lens on you, seems to be less proud of you than of some others, what happens next?

3.

It’s morning in Brooklyn. A week or so ago I met a young man who struck me in a long conversation as ethical, hard working and smart. I learned two things from him. First, that at 18 the prospect of higher education didn’t meet his needs. He was already a father—as were many of his friends—and he needed a concrete plan for a training that would translate into skills, capacity and self-discipline, so that he could get on and support his family. He checked into the military, and briefly gave the University of Phoenix a go (“the worst time of my life”).

Now at 24 with a larger family, more than one job and more responsibility, he had a shrewd and disappointed grasp of what each presidential candidate was saying to him. He didn’t like one, and liked the other less. Both live lives that are so remote from his everyday efforts to make the ground solid, to support his children, to be a role model, that they had no claim on his attention or loyalty. He could see clearly what the dog whistling was about, what the populism was for. And as a millennial independently reading and thinking about civic responsibility, someone who has thought about what it would mean to be deployed and then killed or injured, he told me he wanted to have better options for his vote than the ones in front of him.

I liked him, and he’s stayed in my heart as we’ve been travelling around. Predictive data couldn’t know what he would do, couldn’t see why or what was on his mind. Listening is a human expertise. We have been learning to listen to one another since we were tiny babies, and courageous, conscientious listening is what we have to do now. America’s political system is critical to the health of our planet, especially in terms of global climate targets. It’s crucial to the future of others that we don’t in anger jump to conclusions about who voted, or who didn’t, why thousands wrote in Harambe or voted third party or stayed home, based crudely on the broad cleavages of race, age, gender and college education. Particular voters made sense of all of this in particular ways.

So those of us who work in college education anywhere in the world have woken up to work to do. We have the expertise to do it. We need to think very hard about who comes to us, how we treat them, how much attention we pay to what they’re saying and what they believe; and we need to think every day about who is not in the room with us, and why. Computational analysis can’t do this as well as we can; data isn’t dead, but our faith in data has been naive. Dazzled by the bigness of analytics, we benched ourselves and our insights, because data promised to take on this shadow work for us. We outsourced our own capacity to think.

So let’s summon the confidence to return to work slowly, to recalibrate what we understand education to mean, to show up, and to attend at the level of human insight. The behavioural patterns computation delivers to us in relation to what students want, and what they do when they show up, can suggest where to start. But it’s absolutely time to put aside the fantasy that higher education can engage with the fear and frustration, the complex refusals, that this election represents with some kind of snappy tech-led solutions: analytics, automation and low-waged casual hiring.

This result is in our terrain. If we now think we can fix any of this without human listening, we have no business in education.

4 thoughts on “Listening

  1. I took a deep breath and saved this blogpost to read when I felt most down today. And it helped. Thank you. Of course I am far away and this whole election isn’t about me and mine and yet it’s about all of us and we are together in it and we grieved together and we need to rebuild together. Hugs

  2. The arguments about demographic “guilt” for Trump (“It was the poor!”, “It was white women!”, “It was Christians!”) remind me more of the man himself than any way we can stop him.

  3. No analysis tonight.
    Over a year ago there was a TV feature on “Bikers for Trump” and the theme was that some people were so frustrated being in a maze that ALWAYS ended with them losing they would just blindly toss wrenches over the partitions until they got a response–any response. Push people to where it doesn’t matter what they get as long as it seems different. Any mess will do.
    Not too long ago “the game is rigged!” and people howled but then they won and all the fowl twist was for their side to win and nothing works at all. The cruelest of unexpected fate is upon them.

  4. Thank you for this wise and measured and ultimately hopeful reflection. Professor Brian Cox is saying something similar over here (in an article in The Big Issue 21-27 Nov) “Education is as important to security as aircraft carriers or missile defence … people are not being taught how to think… you have to be taught what it means to take a position based on data and then change it… over the last few years there has been a rise in people who are absolutely certain, who want to be seen to be right all the time, and I think that’s a big problem… one of these countries will end up like Germany in the 1930s if we don’t start treating education as something that’s absolutely vital.”

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