Author Archives: brianfinbarr

Using Cultural Artifacts as Words

Back in January I took part in the first few weeks of a University of Alaska MOOC about Digital Citizenship. Here are some of my thoughts on the experience

I forget what prompted me to write this. Perhaps we were talking about multi media literacy or the place of copyrighted material. The argument I make is more or less taken wholesale from Downes talk ‘Speaking in LOLcats’.

One way to think about digital resources is as words. A youtube clip is a word, a soundcloud clip is a word, an instance of a meme is a word, an article you link to is a word. You get the gist. We have a web of resources that can be linked to directly. Increasingly people will use these resources as a means to communicate. Take ,for example, this classic meme below  which “is an expression and reaction image often used to show disgust or disappointment with others” [from ‘know your meme’].
People often use this in place of a written comment. It’s a shared cultural reference point, with it’s own affordances and connotations.
If you accept this conception of digital resources as words, and acknowledge that many of these resources are copyrighted, you get into a very muddled grey area. At what point does a legitimate claim to copyright become a suppression of free speech. We have fair use rights, but at the moment these are not being respected. Internet users have taken many resources and imbued them with cultural significance where previously there was none. This is particularly true with memes and many youtube clips but we can expect the use of digital resources as words become ever more sophisticated. When I think of digital citizenship I think of issues like this. How do we protect our freedom to speech in a world where our words are copyrighted? And where will educators stand in this debate? Below is a link to a slideshare, by Downes, which elaborates on the idea. It’s slightly difficult to follow without the audio but you get the gist (i didn’t search for the audio but it might be out there.)


My Missionary Position – Why I dislike school mission statements

Back in January I took part in the first few weeks of a University of Alaska MOOC about Digital Citizenship. Here are some of my thoughts on the experience

Towards the beginning of the course there was an exercise related to either crafting a school mission statement, or evaluating that of your institutions.Also there was something to do with formulating a personal mantra. I can’t fully remember now, but in any case it lead to a lot of discussion. Personally I felt too much time was spent on something which is, if I’m being cynical about it, a glib public relations exercise. Perhaps a discussion on the merits of creating a school constitution would have been more substantial. It isn’t a ludicrous idea. I know small scale cooperatives for whom their primary and secondary constitution are of huge importance. Perhaps an elected student body, an elected faculty body and administration member could construct the constitution, which would be duly debated on a school wide basis, before being voted on in a school wide referendum. Then, if any student, or faculty, felt that their constitutional rights were being infringed upon they could make a case before some appointed body (be it the school assembly or some elected body). I’m sure there are plenty of examples of such endeavours in democratic schools all over the world. Something like a constitution, which actually forms a kind of a mandate from the students to the faculty/administration, merits a great deal of thought. Given the authoritarian structure of most primary and scondary level educational institutions presently, mission statements smack of propaganda. Below are my responses to arguments made by various participants in the course.

I can see how organisational mission statements might be useful as an exercise, but personally I think the implied support they lend to hierarchical structures make them more damaging than they are worth. Even if the heads of organisations do make a genuine effort to craft a mission statement which vaguely reflects the values of the members, the final call is ultimately up to them. And I suspect in most cases a genuine effort is not made. When I am part of an organisation the goals I am pursuing are entirely my own. If they overlap with the goals of other members all the better, but it is not a necessity.  I will cooperate with other members to the extent that our goals overlap, which hopefully is significantly.  Of course, often I would choose to cooperate out of feelings of mutuality or simple solidarity.

Mission statements are a way to enforce conformity. For those with executive powers to create a reductive statements, reflecting their values, which they can later point to and say, you must focus on these goals because these are the values we agreed on collectively. I don’t know if it’s consciously used that way, but in practice it reinforces top-down structures. If not taken too seriously they can a useful guideline. If I was to suggest an organisational mission statement for a school it would be something along the lines of “To support autonomous members to reach their full potential (as defined by themselves)”. A personal mantra might be “Demonstrate, encourage, share, respect” but then mantra’s are only useful if they can adapt, or else they just unhelpfully lock your focus in and restrict your growth. And maybe it’s not a mantra if it frequently morphs. Again, as a guideline it could be useful.

We might consider as an alternative to an organisational mission statement you could have something like a tag cloud. Let each member of staff pick five or ten adjectives, collect them all together and represent them as a tag cloud (with the more frequently occurring words being displayed in larger font). You could expand it to the student members too if you wanted.

One of the MOOC’s participants made the following point:
“I don’t know how many administrators out there use mantras and mission statements on a daily basis, but. If people took the time to craft them, with the support and input of the affected populations, I would expect them to be front and center when crafting new policies. I also think that these statements could provide a good baseline for students and teachers to begin discussing digital citizenship and expected behaviors. Individuals may not agree with them but if students know about what’s expected of them they at least shouldn’t be surprised if crossing the line results in some sort of disciplinary action.”

Using a mission statement as a guide for formulating policy faces a number of problems:
It’s brevity makes it ambiguous. For example, many mission statements refer to supporting students reach their full potential, but who defines potential? Students ‘reach their potential’ in any number of ways, academically, athletically, spiritually. I think of reaching one’s potential (with regards to education), as developing a rich inner life. Many school administrations (and the bodies that direct them) prioritise narrow academic achievement, and have something very different in mind when the use the term potential. Not only are terms not sufficiently defined, but also it not often clear how different stated goals will be weighted up. One participant cited a mission statement that advocated “holistic education” and “high academic standards”, which I wouldn’t go so far as to say is self-contradictory, but certainly raises the question of how the two goals will be balanced. ‘Academic achievement’ and ‘Human development’ are very different goals, and motivate very different discourses. Another participant’s school’s mission statement includes ‘Students choose healthy/safe activities’. Who could disagree. But what is healthy/safe? Personally I consider experimentation a very healthy part of growing up. My point is that unless these things are well defined they are open to interpretation by who ever is dictating the direction of policy-making. Presumably the purpose of mission statements is to investigate and express in a concise way, to the public, which the values and goals are broadly shared by the teaching staff, administration and regulatory system above it. If one were serious about this goal a more appropriate approach might be to have the staff fill out a survey (one which is robust enough to cover the full spectrum of pedagogical approaches) and perform a cluster analysis on it, and plot the results visually (perhaps on a multi-axis model like the political compass.) Then policy can be more easily examined to see if it does in fact reflect the goals and values of the staff. More than that, if the results of a cluster analysis was clearly presented next to state education policy I suspect the difference between the grassroots values and the top-down values would become more apparent.

As to it being a useful baseline from which to start conversation about expected behaviour and digital citizenship, it is if your goal is to create a group. Personally I would prefer that conversation to begin with everyone coming from their own unique position. Start by encouraging a diversity of ideas, then converge through a process of negotiation on a shared set of standards. The utility of mission statements depends largely on if you are trying to create a group or a network. If you are making a group it generally makes sense to suppress difference and accentuate shared values. A group is hierarchical and collaborative, like a business corporation seeking market dominance, or an army seeking to overpower an enemy. But what about for a liberal democratic State. A state is much framework which maintains conditions which make network conditions possible internally. Should a school be more like a business or like a State? A constitution is essential for a state, but a constitution is not a statement of intention or direction, but a safeguard for the citizen against the state. When setting up conditions for an effective network you want to accentuate difference and transparency. A network is flat and cooperative

. downes groups vs networks
My problem with students knowing what’s expected of them, as a result of being familiar with their schools mission statement, is that it gives the false impression that what’s expected of them is singular and coherent. The administrators in a school may have very different expectations of a student than me as a teacher. I would expect students to stand by their convictions, voice their disagreement with pedagogical methodology, discipline policies, etc. Sure fire ways to get you in trouble when I was in high school. Rules should be presented as such is what I am trying to say, and ethical judgements, or proclamations of values, should be expressed as such. Rules, or laws, are boundaries to an individuals actions. They are external. They are prescriptive. Values are personal (internal). They are inspirational, in the sense something we strive to uphold. When I was a student in remember having to deal with lots of stupid rules. Occasionally I would decide it was worth breaking one, and while I was quite happy to accept the punishment, I hated when a teacher would take the opportunity to moralise. It is frustrating to be made to live under someone elses rules, it’s intolerable to be expected to internalise their morality.

Some interesting psychiatry related links

*The person i address in this post is a friend of mine working on a mental health docu*

An excellent, and oft referenced book(s) review by Marcia Angell. It sums up the major debates in psychiatry very comprehensively. (it’s in two parts)

This is a good song parody about big pharma 🙂

The critical psychiatry network. Based in Britain, comprised of mental health professionals. members include pat bracken and joanna moncrieff. Has a great collection of articles

possibly the most informative talk i’ve watched. Given by allen francis, a chair of the board that produced dsm iv. He covers a lot in this talk. cannot recommend watching it enough

Joanna moncrieff talking about the chemical imbalance theory. very interesting, particularly if you are interested in the socio-political history to madness. Given that you are interested mainly in Big Pharmas role in propagating the ‘myth’ of the chemical imbalance – by advertising, allying themselves to the psychiatric profession , funding studies and service user groups etc- this video, and allen francis video are well worth watching

The social control theme is explored more by Thomas Szasz. Szasz is one of the leaders of the 60’s anti psychiatry movement. I’m not sure is what to make as Szasz. I think his views are extreme. But I don’t think he is a polemist in the way the likes of m moore are. He is more of an absolutist when it come’s to certain principles, like autonomy and personal responsibility. He’s seems more honest than manipulative.

pat bracken has a very good talk on something called postpsychiatry. He goes into the philosophical underpinnings of psychiatry as a discipline. extremely interesting and well articulated but probably not as relevant for your purposes.

thomas insel, head of NIMH, gave a ted talk on the possible biological root of mental disorders. there are certain parties on each side of the biomedical debate who acknowledge that our knowledge of the biological aspect of mental illness is so limited it is not particularly useful (in terms of diagnosis and specifying treatment). One side (e.g pat bracken) conclude that we should abandon the biomedical model anyway, the other side (insel) argue that the biomedical model will ultimately yield the most benefit and we should stick with it (and what’s more we are on the threshold of making a break thru in terms of biological understanding). this is a hard debate to understand the nuances of.

TVO panel show. i like canadians. this show is interesting, if a little of a mixed bag. You will see clips from it in the video i gave you

Welsh David healy on how big pharma influences our perceptions of our mental turbulences. good viewing, though I do sometimes get the impression healy extrapolates a bit much

allen francis and healys talks were featured as part of the TVO Big ideas podcast series. This series is incredible. If you ever decide to look through the talks i can recommend my favourite. there are hundreds

madness radio is a great radio series. what the speakers have to say is very varied, from deeply personal experiences, to experiences as an activist to academic and often a fantastic mix of everything in between. Actually, come to think of it, it may be worth your while to contact them and ask them if you could contribute.

I know that there are countless more articles and talks i’ve enjoyed but i can’t remember them right now. I don’t want to put too many here either or you won’t have time to check them out. you can convert the videos to mp3 here
Apparently we sit for far longer than is good for us. Much nicer to listen to these things as mp3s as we walk around the fields i think 🙂

You will hopefully get a better idea of what my take on the main issues in psychiatry is after watching the video i will drop into you. Personally I think the crux of the problem lays in our strong tendency towards reductionism. The same is true of education. We seem to have a real problem with ambivalence.