Cultivating affection in online education?


Agrarian author, Wendell Berry (image licensed under Creative Commons)

Farmer, author, Kentucky boy – Wendell Berry; (Photo licensed under Creative Commons)

Wendell Berry has been a big influence on my thinking and doing in the past few years, thanks to a close friend who not only loves and knows well most of Berry’s work but also embodies many of the things that Berry is passionate about: place and community, to name just two. It’s not a stretch to say that my family’s moving back to our home state of Iowa was for me helped along by exposure to Berry’s work and its resonance with my primarily theological convictions.

But therein lies the tension for someone like me who loves Berry: We’ve moved back to my wife’s little hometown in Iowa and yet I still work as a telecommuter for EMU in Harrisonburg, Virginia. What makes this arrangement possible is a technology and communications infrastructure built upon a particular economic system (not to mention my periodic travel), all systems that Berry has spent a considerable amount of time rightly critiquing for their corrosive effects on local communities and our stewardship of the earth.

Further, my work for EMU (and the emerging network of collaborative Mennonite educational institutions) is largely about advancing online educational programs. For some online programs, there are two words that illustrate their underlying values: convenience (for the student) and efficiency (for the institution), concepts which can be antithetical to the slow, messy, and “inefficient” nature of being deeply rooted in a particular place and committed to neighborliness.

So can a telecommuter working at the advancement of online education be truly committed to the virtue of affection, which Berry recently argued is “such love for a place and its life that [one would] want to preserve it and remain in it?” Is it even possible for online education programs to help cultivate such affection?

Robert Elder, professor of history at Tabor College in Kansas (a school with Mennonite Brethren ties) – has also appreciated Berry’s argument that “it all hangs on affection.” Elder argues that affection should (once again) undergird the work of higher education, rather than the guiding lights of industry and capital which have captivated higher ed, visible most recently in the precipitous rise (2012) and calamitous fall (2013) of the VC-funded MOOC as the “savior” of higher ed (a favorite topic of mine to critique on this blog). Elder seems to be suggesting, though, that affection in higher ed is only possible in the meatspace of the college/university campus community (and not, by implication, in online educational spaces-that-are-not-places). But I wonder…

One rejoinder I would have to Elder’s argument is just how much the online/virtual has crept into the on-campus/physical. Walk around any campus in the US and note how many students walk from place to place staring at the glowing screens in their hands. Walk into the library or study areas and see how many faces are gazing into slightly larger glowing screens. Note the number of earbuds in or full-on headphones covering ears. Look over a student’s shoulder and see how many apps & browser tabs they have pulled up behind or in front of the research paper they’re writing. Peek into the dorm rooms and see how many faces are gazing into yet larger glowing screens, often with control devices clutched in both hands, fingers and wrists frantically twitching.

In other words, the freneticism and multiphrenia brought about by the digital age is here now, for worse and better, on college/university campuses and off. So I want to say “yes, and…” to Elder.

Traditional campus communities have their work cut out for them when it comes to embodying affection, but it’s noble and necessary work. Yes, go do that work. - And online education is increasingly the most viable path for folks without the access and/or opportunity for a higher education in a physical campus community. And since we’re all placed somewhere, online education can also help serve the ends of affection, if said online education tries mightily to build a learning community and help its students love their local communities more and be better neighbors.

Campus-based education has a kind of “gathering, forming, & sending” progression and it’s in the forming stage that affection should be cultivated with the hope that it “sticks” after the sending phase, when students go on to some other place with some other people. Perhaps online education just has to work at it in a different fashion: gathering and forming already-placed-elsewhere students who are no more (or less) “saturated selves” than are traditional college students.

So can affection be cultivated through an online education? It depends on the online education, but I want to say yes. Would it be difficult to pull off? Yes. – How much more difficult would it be than the campus culture in the US which exhibits all the non- or even anti-affectionate habits of the broader society in our digital age? I’m suggesting it’s not much.

What I find compelling about the potential for online education within the Mennonite tradition and its various institutions of higher education (including both EMU & Tabor College), is the possibility of a radical online education. One that’s “subversive” in the sense that it uses the tools of the digital age but calls out their contingency, questions their inevitability, highlights their pitfalls and ultimate limits. I’m talking about deconstruction. – But deconstruction on the way to developing attitudes and practices which can help re-construct something more life-giving than what our consumer culture can provide: Affection for self and neighbors – friends and enemies, affection for place, and ultimately (in the Christian context) affection for our creating and sustaining God. And when we do this in collaboration with each other - rather than mimicking the logic of consumer capitalism – the radical potential only increases, deepening roots and establishing routes/linkages that contribute to the common good of Mennonite communities and institutions, and those whom we serve (i.e. “the world”).

That’s what keeps me “coming to work” for EMU, staring into the screen, as I do, from my little town in rural Iowa…