Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Educational Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part One)

On paper, Elizabeth Losh and I can sometimes look like polar opposites: she’s definitely much more of a skeptic, much more rooted in the Critical Studies side of Rhetoric,  more likely to point to issues of corporate exploitation and government manipulation, than I am. Indeed, when we appeared together a few years back at the Mobility Shifts conference at the New School of Social Research, for what was billed as debate, Losh’s partner created two sets of race car jackets for us, demarking Team Critical Studies and Team Cultural Studies, so we could perform the culture wars which sometimes divide these frames of reference.

In practice, where education is concerned, we both end up somewhere much closer to each other, as we’ve discovered to our delight since I have moved to California and gotten to know her and her work much better. She’s someone who works closely with classroom teachers and has a firm belief in the importance of public education, someone who is invested in debunking corporate claims about new tools and platforms in favor of promoting forms of education which allow more expressive freedom and creative participation for students, and someone who is ultimately a pragmatist in terms of trying to figure out how we can change the current system from within rather than engaging in rhetoric about blowing up the schools and starting over.

We’ve written a piece together about the challenges of bringing participatory culture and learning into the schools, and so I was excited when I saw that she had a new book coming out on education to grab another chance for us to talk together about some of these mutual concerns and interests. Her new book, The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University, comes out in just a few more days and deals with the ways that new media is having an impact (real and imagined) on higher education.

Losh draws here on her own classroom experiences as someone who is constantly experimenting with new teaching methods and cutting edge toolkits, but she also looks at a range of national controversies and alternative imaginings (Project Runway!) through which we can think about what the university classroom might become. She examines all of these topics with the critical eye of a trained rhetorician, debunking many myths and false claims, but also articulating some ideals we as pedagogues and mentors should embrace if we are serious about making our classrooms into more participatory environments.

Here’s what I say in the blurb I wrote for the book: “Elizabeth Losh’s The War on Learning makes an invaluable intervention into current debates about the role of digital media in higher education by adopting an approach that is at once hopeful and skeptical, that rejects technological euphoria and moral panic alike, that challenges the promises made by corporate vendors but also those made by educational reformers, and that insists that core principles of inclusion and mutual respect should govern the relations between faculty and students.”

I meant it!

Throughout the book, you challenge some of the rhetorics which are used to describe the introduction of new technologies into the classroom. What would the Rhetorician Liz Losh have to say about the author Elizabeth Losh’s use of “war” as the central metaphor in her book’s title?

As a rhetorician, I am always interested in how people use language to characterize different aspects of public policy debates.  Using “war” in the title – along with “gaining ground” in the subtitle – to characterize how social computing is disrupting higher education was a very deliberate choice.  When I started to look at how faculty (and the media) talked about using instructional technology systems like to monitor plagiarism in student writing, words like “weapons” and “arsenal” began to jump out at me, and I started to notice how much of our discourse about these issues is driven by military metaphors, either because we needed to stage a revolution in the university or because we need to defend our battlements against uncouth invaders. Well, we all know how the “war on poverty” or the “war on drugs” turned out, so I also wanted to make clear that adopting either a strategy of command and control or one of mob rule wouldn’t take us very far.

I also wanted to make learning the focus of my intervention.  So it’s really two titles: it’s about the “war on formal learning” coming from social media and other distributed knowledge dissemination systems and about the “war on informal learning” being waged by campus administrators who don’t want students subverting or gaming the system.

I proposed a book that would be a “scholarly polemic,” and then I found in writing it that my engagement with this subject matter – as an instructor myself – is much less abstract and more personal and more complicated than the binaries of an antagonistic argument, so there are also a lot of my own stories about negotiating conflict in the classroom or the lecture hall or the residence hall.  I claim that far too often people assume that a radical generational division between the “digital generation” and everyone else makes communication between students and faculty impossible when technology is involved.  Certainly the traditional system of disciplining students isn’t well suited for some of these emergent phenomena.  And then there is the weird fact that some of this conflict may even be manufactured by interested parties with an agenda for sowing discord.  Some of the most dramatic scenes of conflict – such as viral videos of professors destroying laptops or cell phones – are actually staged.


You begin the book by identifying some common mistakes or misunderstandings that often shape digital learning initiatives. What do you think we most often get wrong when universities seek to bring new media technologies and practices into higher education?


As I say in the opening, the material features – as well as the human aspects of technology that involve standards or values or design choices – are frequently underestimated, so that people have very idealized conceptions about technology in which technology exists without the mess that seems to compromise and contaminate everything else in the world.  Technology is presented as something that manifests itself as a liberating force that is characterized by its youth and radical novelty, and it isn’t supposed to be constrained by physical barriers or historical baggage.

Most famously Nicholas Negroponte, of One-Laptop-Per-Child fame, spent significant time in Being Digital differentiating between “bits” and “atoms.”  Of course Matt Kirschenbaum loves to point out that computational media depend on material components and that you can actually see bits on a surface of a hard drive.  (I also like how Paul Dourish points out that digital signals have signatures that are actually a lot less mathematically perfect, because they always depend on technology that is analog at some level.)

So universities tend to assume that digital technologies only involve shiny new gadgets combined with intellectual property – pure code to be licensed from vendors – and not physical property that institutions have to continue to maintain with labor.  Because technologies are always new we also don’t have to think about them aging or dying or about things like the infrastructure needed for support.

I particularly love the assertion that technologies are inevitably labor-saving devices and that teaching online or with a course management system will always reduce labor so that teachers can teach more efficiently.  Part of this is a mistake about misunderstanding the nature of pedagogical labor and the assumption that the affective labor of managing students’ feelings doesn’t matter because teaching is simply a logical process of transferring content from one party to another that process can be divorced from emotions or conceptions about one’s identity.

I say all this as a technophile, as someone who loves experimenting with new technologies in my teaching, as a person actively involved with initiatives like Digital Media and Learning Central, Reclaim Open Learning and FemTechNet.


You direct many of the book’s strongest criticisms against the “acceptance of shortsighted commodity solutions from corporate vendors.” Why do you think such “solutions” have gained such a toe-hold in the modern university and what are the consequences of thinking about digital media and learning in terms of products and services? Do such practices further a tendency to think of education in terms of consumption rather than participation?

Well, we live in a commodity culture, and I tend to be a pragmatist about how much the university can really transform our society by reshaping the individuals who participate in higher education.  In education-speak we talk about the “zone of proximal development” that describes the area of activity where intervention is most effective and the process of trying to meet people near to where they are as learners.  I might argue that the same principle holds true when we talk about a politics of public resources and common values.

The tendency to think about students as consumers that we want to keep happy with dazzling media or brand-named stuff is certainly understandable, because unhappy students might become unhappy alumni who won’t be very likely to become generous donors.  Gadget-distribution programs, such as handing out an iPad to every registered student, make for good headlines . . . until things begin to go wrong, as they did rather spectacularly for the Los Angeles Unified School District that will probably never recoup its investment.

I am often astonished at how naïve administrators can be and how susceptible to pseudo-scientific pitches from instructional technology companies with as much research to support them as a typical soda commercial.  I actually think the best strategy is to play the capitalist and to appeal to the logic of consumption by at least arguing for lower cost solutions. The thing that I find most exasperating is that treating the educational enterprise as a marketplace for experiencing high-tech goods and services is that it is really prohibitively expensive.

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is also the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander.  She writes about the digital humanities, institutions as digital content-creators, the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday user practices.