This essay’s title paraphrases an important 1935 text by Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In it, Benjamin reflected on how the “mechanical” creation of cultural products, such as photography, recorded music (although Benjamin curiously doesn’t mention it) and of course cinema, entailed a radical transformation of art itself. Several authors in the past couple of decades have written things titled “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction,” updating Benjamin’s argument for our present circumstances, which evidently have wrought a similar change in the ways works of art are made and enjoyed.
I practice the sometimes mysticized, and usually devalued, art of teaching. Pedagogy, too, is undergoing enormous changes in the conditions of its production and reception, which have dramatically accelerated under the present pandemic. Obviously, it’s critical that these changes be understood, and I hope to contribute to that with the following reflection from my own personal experiences, and my fast-changing theoretical understanding of what’s going on.
A few years ago, I was contacted by a colleague from a private university, whom I hadn’t met. He told me he was working on a proposal for in-service training of public school teachers, and would like to include a presentation by me on the use of video games in teaching. He mentioned that they would be paying $100 an hour. I thanked him for thinking of me, tentatively accepted, and forgot about it.
In late May of that year, another professor from the same university called me about the same project. I told her I was still interested; I’d never done in-service training for public school teachers, and thought it would be fun, even if it meant two days of traveling from San Juan to Aguadilla, on the northwest corner of the island, which is close to a two-hour trip each way. We spoke several more times in the following weeks, and she repeatedly insisted that it was important that I send her a PowerPoint presentation of what I would be sharing in the workshop. Also, for purposes of evaluating the presentation’s effectiveness, I would need to prepare a pre- and a post-test. I had hardly used PowerPoint back then, and pre- and post-testing has never been my pedagogical cup of tea, but I diligently went about preparing the .ppt and the quizzes and sent them to her, about a week before the workshop was scheduled. I still have the presentation and the quizzes; they’re not badly done.
The day after emailing the presentation and the quizzes, I got a call from the second colleague’s secretary, letting me know that I would be compensated at the rate of $23 per hour. I felt like such a mercenary scumbag for declining, but I just couldn’t justify eight hours of driving for a couple of hundred bucks… until I realized they already had my PowerPoint and quizzes, and probably had somebody willing to administer the quizzes and read off the slides for that amount. I’d been had, with the old bait-and-switch.
I suspect a group of public school teachers in Aguadilla were given a terribly impoverished version of the presentation I would have made, and that the Puerto Rico Department of Education—which paid for the workshops, surely using federal funds—was satisfied by the test results, if in fact anybody even looked at them.
Between March and April of 2020, for the first time in my life, I made extensive use of PowerPoint, using it to record screencasts for my students to watch when they were able. I wasn’t emotionally prepared to face a screen full of muted icons and still pictures, as so many colleagues (and, from the other side of the screen, my own son) have described. I met with small groups who had to make class presentations, offering them the option of holding a whole-class Google Meet for them to present, but each of the eleven groups preferred to record themselves and have their classmates watch the videos asynchronously.
Emergency remote teaching has completely transformed my teaching: I have sworn never to give another real-time lecture. I’m going to keep recording all the “telling” I do, putting the recordings up on the Learning Management System (LMS), and using class time for more interesting, interactive stuff. During the 2020-21 school year I did do a fair amount of synchronous whole-class teaching, trying to concentrate on activities that maximized student engagement. Whenever we get back to face-to-face teaching, I will finally have flipped my classroom after years of “I really ought to…”
No joke: this is a major pedagogical game-changer, and I hope lots of other teachers see the opportunities I’m seeing now.
This summer, the administration of the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras campus, where I teach, announced it would dedicate part of its CARES Act funding to compensate faculty who convert their face-to-face courses to the Moodle LMS. This involves uploading in advance all the course’s readings, videos and other activities including different forms of assessment, broken up into more or less self-contained modules that students can work through at their own pace. UPR, having paid for this work, would retain copyright, and might assign other instructors to “facilitate” the courses.
This was not very well received by my colleagues. Our courses are, in some measure, extensions of our pedagogical personality, and alienating them in this way, contemplating the possibility that someone else would “facilitate” our hitherto face-to-face, often intensely personal experiences, is discomforting, maybe even repugnant.
One colleague remarked, after completing the online training we all had to take in March, that the figure of “facilitator” of online courses was a clear degradation of university professors’ status, and concern with the nature of some future “online university” has run through countless conversations over the past several weeks.
This all takes me back to Marx, and the alienation of labor. With industrial production, craftspeople’s work was broken down into simple operations performed by machines, operated by workers far less skilled (and more poorly compensated) than those who had sewn, milled and cobbled goods in the past. Industrial workers were alienated from the products of their labor, dominated by the machines they worked, and reduced to material and spiritual poverty until the rise of trade unionism, along with the Keynesian welfare state, briefly turned the tide of class warfare in the mid-20th century.
What I felt as the theft of my labor a few years ago, and my colleagues’ concern with our loss of control over “our” courses, point to cracks in what was, for a very long time, a more or less unified and continuous practice of teaching. As digital technologies have taken on increasing prominence in our work over the past few decades (and online teaching took it over, at least temporarily, during 2020 and 2021), we have seen how our planning and preparation are now quite easily separable from the “student interface,” and in fact from ourselves as their creators.
With asynchronous online teaching, that student interface itself is now fragmented into multiple, discontinuous events, and even the act of evaluation can sometimes be automated to give students instant feedback. And administrators can assign those pre-planned and pre-created courses to whomever they wish.
As my UPR colleague pointed out, our orientation to online teaching distinguished between “content experts” who create courses, and “facilitators” who interact with students. Her concern about what that means for professors is very real: after creating online courses, we may well be thanked and paid for our work, and immediately see others tasked with “facilitating” them—graduate student teaching assistants, for instance, or adjuncts drawn from the ever-more-impoverished reserve army of unemployed intellectuals whose ranks are swelling all over the world.
This fragmentation of the educational process had not previously been possible. At the beginning of each term, each teaching day, classroom doors would close as each teacher, with their own unique set of skills and knowledge, faced their students. The results were sometimes awful, sometimes spectacular, mostly in between… but educational managers at any level held precious little sway over what went on in classrooms.
The technologies now in use in online education, though, have rendered much of our educational labor divisible, visible, assessable, alienable and appropriable—as I imagine happened with my quizzes and PowerPoint a few years back—by our bosses. Similar to what happened with the production of material goods a couple of centuries back, these technologies allow a considerable quantitative increase in “educational production”: more classes are now, or will become, available to more people… probably with a significant drop in quality. Teaching may become a less idiosyncratic, less private affair, less intimately connected to individual teachers (and students), and the excess supply of educational labor will drag down educators’ real wages at all levels.
I have little doubt that this managerial wish-list is being actively worked on throughout academia. With universities, both public and private, under massive fiscal pressure and watching the pool of college-age students dwindle, it seems inevitable that they will turn to distance learning as much as possible, both to cut costs and to expand their applicant pools. In May 2020, an interview with NYU Professor Scott Galloway foresaw a major “shakeout” in the academic world, with more famous universities increasing their market share with “superstar” faculty teaching Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), or smaller online courses for that matter, to a far-flung and growing student population. Meanwhile, less competitive academic “brands” would disappear or be pushed into specialized niche markets, largely online. Face-to-face learning would be limited to a dwindling population of wealthy, or particularly talented, students, as the rest of the college-age population squeezed their online coursework in between shifts of paid labor.
Industrial products, at least in the early decades, were decidedly inferior to hand-crafted goods, but their prices were so low that the few surviving craftspeople did so by selling to high-end clients. Over time, the quality of industrial goods improved, and who wears tailored clothes now? Likewise, Galloway predicts (not approvingly) that only the wealthiest, and perhaps the most talented, students will be able to “go off to college” when they graduate from high school.
In other words, the Pandemic-induced lurch to online teaching may well accelerate a qualitative transformation in the organization of educational labor, which threatens to downgrade both the conditions of educational labor and the quality of its “output.”
For those who, like me, see education as an art and a craft at least as much as a science, Benjamin’s essay added another dimension of concern over the changes we’re living through. His comments on how first photography, and later cinema, transformed art are disquietingly applicable to teaching, which COVID-19 so abruptly changed from a mostly direct experience to one almost entirely mediated through digital technologies.
Reading Benjamin’s description of the actor’s “exile” before the cameras, completely unable to sense spectators’ appreciation, hostility or indifference, I felt a shock of recognition—wasn’t it obvious? Online is to face-to-face education, as cinema is to theater. Even the mediating devices are similar, although much more compact now; there is the same distance between performer and public.
But Benjamin goes much further: the massification of art’s audience, through photography, film and recorded music produced, in his view, a “democratization” of its enjoyment. By his time, “anyone” could be a film critic because films were exhibited to a mass audience, this being a condition for their profitability, as opposed to theater or especially painting, whose audience was always much more limited. With online teaching, teachers’ audience is no longer limited to students in classrooms (where we wield considerable power), but now extends to their whole families, in whose living spaces we now perform… often before an evidently less-than-enthralled audience. I’ve heard more than one scathing criticism of teachers by parents, based on much more concrete evidence than parents had in the past.
Benjamin spoke of the “aura” of an original work of art, which is lost in any reproduction, no matter how faithful. It is the specialness of being, “here and now,” in the presence of this unique object or event as opposed to a picture in a magazine or a “live” recording. With online teaching, we’re no longer “here,” and often we record our words and visage so students don’t have to watch or listen to us “now.” Besides being at a distance rather than close, online teaching also fragments our work, into discrete modules with asynchronous interaction, for example.
This also mirrors Benjamin’s contrast between the “totality” of a painting, and film, which is made up of “multiple fragments, assembled under a new law.” The classroom’s unity in time and space—its aura—has dissolved into a variable sequence of modules, readings and tasks, and articulating the “new law” that will give them coherence is one of the principal challenges I faced as my first full year of online teaching began in August 2020.
Finally, Benjamin described how a painting “absorbs” the viewer who contemplates it intently; he quoted a Chinese legend about a painter who, upon finishing a work, entered into it. By contrast, the masses who view movies are superficially “entertained” rather than absorbed by higher, more demanding aesthetic pleasure, and “absorb” the mechanically reproduced products. That sounded pretty abstract, until I considered the quite literal difference between entering a classroom, being (ideally) absorbed by the immediate experience of powerful teaching and learning in that confined space, versus having my screencasts or conversations received by students inside their homes, with all the surrounding activity competing for their attention.
Nobody needed to tell me that online teaching is a whole different ball of wax, but it took a German intellectual, exiled 80 years ago in France, to make me see how closely the changes I’m experiencing mirror that other, now distant transformation that utterly disrupted European aesthetics.
So, is that it? Are we all just screwed?
Neither Marx nor Benjamin would say that. Like them, I reject nostalgia. I don’t think anybody would say, now, that painting is superior to photography, or theater to film. They’re just different arts, each with its own technologies and aesthetics, and have grown further apart over time. I don’t see distance education substituting face-to-face teaching, certainly not K-12 (though it probably will boost homeschooling). It will certainly expand the scope of post-secondary education, and that can be a good thing: people who, for any number of reasons, can’t venture far from home or leave their jobs—or countries—to attend a university, will certainly benefit from it. Even if it’s not the “rock star” professor answering their questions and grading their papers.
Digital technologies, and the experience of having to rely almost entirely on them for a while, transformed my own teaching for the better, and just like the technologies involved in producing goods, software and devices will surely improve over time. (Although technology is neither “autonomous” nor innocent, as the late David Graeber has argued in his important book The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.)
But we definitely have a long and uphill battle ahead. The managerial vision Galloway laid out is clearly barreling down the pike in our direction, and it will impoverish everybody in its ravenous search for economies of any sort, perfectly aligned with neoliberalism’s political agenda.
The first thing we’ll need to fight is the view of education that underlies that managerial model of distance education. “Banking education” may not have much currency in Colleges of Education, but the notion that to educate is essentially to transmit information remains very much alive in administrative practice as well as popular “common sense.” That’s why MOOCs were once proclaimed as “the end of college,” and why we’re always being prodded to measure the attainment of educational objectives, frequently with devices as clumsy as pre- and post-tests. It’s always the least important objectives, such as memorization, that are easiest to measure; it takes years to know if the important ones, like the development of critical thinking, aesthetic sensibility, and civic consciousness have been met.
We will continue to face the idea that educational processes really can be divided up and managed just like factory production. Historically, of course, the factory was always the model for schooling; digital technologies have only provided the means to bring practice closer to that dehumanizing ideal.
Of course it’s possible to learn from books, internet video tutorials, and didactic games like Duolingo, which I “played” for over a year. I got all the way through the Portuguese course, then went back and refreshed several times, building up a modest vocabulary and sense of grammar until the day I made friends with a Portuguese speaker. I then immediately, without thinking, lost interest in the game. I think I was mostly embarrassed; after all those months on my cell phone I could neither hold a conversation, nor understand even half the lyrics of the Brazilian songs that were my main motivation for that little project.
Learning important things, things that involve our relationships with other people—a new language, an academic discipline, or a way of understanding the world—requires relationships with other people. You need at least one person with a solid understanding of what you’re supposed to learn, and ideally others with whom to share the experience of trying to build your own understandings. Deep learning is deeply social.
Those relationships work best in each other’s physical presence, with the full range of non-verbal communication available to all participants. To paraphrase Benjamin, the classroom’s “aura,” its “here and now,” can be magical when everything clicks. But the experience of distance learning, before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, show that it is possible to accomplish much, if not everything one would like, through digital technologies.
What is absolutely irreplaceable, through (or despite) the mediation of those technologies, is human relationships. Establishing them online with students I haven’t met was my first challenge when the 2020-21 school year began. It wasn’t easy; neither was it impossible.
It is for those relationships that we must struggle: for our courses not to be reduced to sequences of modules and exercises, assessed by software or people we don’t know. For courses to remain always thoroughly infused with the human presence of students and teachers interacting deeply, whether face-to-face, online, or blended. For our humanity to leave traces, on our teachers if we are students; on our students, if we are teachers. So must we also fight, not just for our material livelihood, but also for our full humanity, and for the web of relationships that sustains—at least as much as our technologies—our species on this half-destroyed planet.
Jimmy Seale-Collazo is an activist, history teacher and educational anthropologist. He teaches 9th grade World History at the Escuela Secundaria UPR, the University of Puerto Rico’s century-old laboratory high school. He was a community organizer in Philadelphia during the 1980s, before going on to teach in Puerto Rico and the United States. He got a doctorate in Education at an elite US university, which was enough to get him a job at UPR and still keep calling himself an anthropologist. He has held leadership positions in the Asociación Puertorriqueña de Profesores Universitarios and is now co-coordinator of the Mesa de Diálogo Martin Luther King, a progressive Christian organization in Puerto Rico. He has published a number of essays in Spanish in the online journal 80grados (www.80grados.net).