Tackling ‘Placetimematter’

Educational researchers study the darnedest things.

When last year’s PISA international school-test results revealed that United States public schools lagged further behind countries like Finland and Korea, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared that this “brutal truth . . . must serve as a wake-up call against educational complacency and low expectations.” Two weeks ago, roughly 20,000 researchers converged on Philadelphia to attend the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). With the best and brightest education researchers all in one place, I was eager to read about their ideas to put America’s public schools back on track.

As it turns out, that was just about the farthest thing from their minds. The conference’s program featured 134 panels on “Identity” and 104 on “Gender Studies.” “Reading” had a mere 85 panels and “Writing” had but 62. There were 67 panels on “Critical Theory” yet only 39 on “Critical Thinking.” “Postmodernism” had more panels than “Dropouts” (26 to 18), and “Post Colonial Theory” beat out “Continuing Education” by 17 to 1.

Reading and math scores are a bit prosaic next to the fare that concerned America’s educational experts, who listened to a presentation on “Neoliberal Globalisms and the Rebooting of Mankind’s Ideological Revolution.”

There was, of course, the token panel on “Marxian Analysis of Society, Schools, and Education,” but overall it seemed that for the education academy, Marx is out and Foucault is in. Not only was there a panel on “Foucault on Education,” there was also a panel on “Everybody but Foucault: How Alternative Poststructuralisms Operate in Educational Theory, Policy, and Practice.”

Normally, “Foucault” vs. “Everybody but Foucault” might seem an oppressively binary structure, but don’t worry. The “Everybody but Foucault” panel transgressed its own norms by featuring a paper on Foucault entitled “Foucault’s Matter: Education, Subjectivity, and Political Ecology.” And the true beauty of poststructuralist subjectivity is that Foucault need not be the only subject. Take, for instance, the educationally indispensible paper “A Poststructuralist Feminist Study of Three Chinese Women Academics’ Subjectivity and Agency. ”

It’s common enough to hear talk of feminist agency breaking barriers, but for the researchers at AERA, feminism seems to hold the promise of transcending space-time. Take, for instance, the panel on “The ‘Placetimematter’ of Generation in Feminist Qualitative Research.” (For what it’s worth, the feminist academics certainly broke a new barrier in the English language; Google shows no other instance, anywhere, of the word “Placetimematter.”) The panel featured the instant classic “What Might a Transnational (Queer) Daughter Make? Staking Claims to Feminism via Race, Space, and Time.”

Technology may have a long way to go in catching up with feminism when it comes to bending space-time, but in the near term many folks are excited about ed tech’s prospects for improving teaching and learning. Perhaps fearing that the experts were missing technology’s promise for rebooting mankind’s ideology, one academic presented a paper on “Remembering the App/arations of a Traumatic Past: Forgetfulness, Mobile Applications, and the Contestation of Colonial Logics.” The Internet, of course, has other uses. One academic bravely tendered the paper “The Educative Ga(y)ze: How Bodies Get ‘Seen’ on Mobile Phone Apps for Gay Men.” Someone had to.

For those more interested in food than phone apps, they could read about “Food Mapping as a Critical Classroom Activity.” Or one could listen to an academic present on “Multicultural Multilingual Multimedia Projects: Promoting Healthy Eating Habits Among Young Children.”

Folks for whom three “multis” isn’t quite enough could attend a panel on “Multivocal, Multilingual, Multimodal, and Multicultural Literacies in Contested Spaces.” How do we multiculturally contest literacy? To find out, read the paper “English is ‘Not Just About Teaching Semicolons and Steinbeck’: Instantiating Dispositions for Sociospatial Justice in Education.”

Perhaps the most interesting panel was on “Transcendence and Education,” with one paper posing the eternal question, “How Could There Be an Education in Transcendence?” One possibility is “Existential Yoga: The Educational Event of Thought Bending Back Upon Itself.” But for the less physically limber, transcendence may be found in “Eco-Pedagogy and/Through Entheogens: For a Critical Sustainability Education as a Science of Cosmic Well-Being, Consciousness Alternation, and New Sensibilities.”

For as intriguing a new educational frontier as dosing our children with peyote and psilocybin mushrooms to improve their cosmic well-being presents, one can’t shake the feeling that our best and brightest could be doing more. But it seems that they are content to poststructurally intersubjectify each other’s navels in the pursuit of transcendent sociospatial justice while another generation of students languishes in low-achieving schools.

— Max C. Eden researches education issues at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Max C. Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of Issues 2020: Public School Spending Is at an All-Time High.


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