Sunday, July 3, 2016

mourning the MOOC

Coursera: "Philosophy and the Sciences", The University of Edinburgh (no longer available)

I am recovering from a veritable MOOC addiction. It started a few months ago, when for some reasons I kept finding myself wide awake at 3am. Ordinarily, I would pick a book and read it, but that means turning on the light and concentrating and relinquishing every hope of getting back to sleep, so I tried a different strategy and I began my binge adventure in MOOC entertainment. Coursera is one of the main platforms offering MOOC classes and over the span of a few months I went through over thirty of them. I can certainly say that it was good entertainment for sleepless nights: I would spend a couple of hours listening to various classes (most of them are subdivided into small units of some fifteen to twenty minutes, so it is easy to keep hopping) and then even have time to fall asleep again and make it look like a normal night when I woke up again later in the morning. As a form of intelligent entertainment, I certainly think it should be widely adopted and encouraged, but how about all the those other bold claims that were repeated ad nauseam in the recent past, according to which the new MOOC fad was the death knell of university education and at the same time the trumpet announcing a triumphal new era? I call bullshit on that all.

Coursera: "Automata", Stanford University (no longer available)

When I first started browsing through the Coursera catalog some months back I thought, wow, this is great! I binged through a dozen classes immediately, and within a short time I realized what exactly had made it all sound so exciting. I noticed how, if someone had asked my six year old self how I would have wanted my university curriculum to be, I would have ended up with a list that resembled pretty much what I picked in the Coursera catalog: yes, I want to take a class on neuroscience, and one on robotics, and one on cosmology, and one on dinosaur paleontology. I also want a class on science fiction, and one on artificial intelligence, and one on astrobiology, and one on the philosophy of science. I want the history of astronautics, and a course on Chinese characters, and one on video games, and one on Buddhism, and one on jazz improvisation. For a few months I indulged my inner six year old self with each and every unfulfilled desire about what a university education would have been like if only she had had her way. It was fun. I think it was also therapeutically important to find ways to reconnect, as an adult, to one's inner child, to those early dreams and aspirations. So, besides the fun of it, there was also that, some kind of self help therapy by MOOC. That's all fine, and pleasant, and helpful. However, let's pause for a moment and reflect on why the typical university curriculum is not structured in the way a six year old would design it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the curiosity of a six year old: it is wonderful and it is crucially important. However, unlike a more adult notion of learning, the child's tends to focus primarily on subjects of immediate reward. I like the dinosaurs and I want to learn about them. I am curious about Chinese ideograms. I am powerfully attracted to the vastness of the cosmos. Of course, this is all deep and important, but precisely for that reason, we (as adults) also know that cosmology is best tackled after and with the use of advanced mathematics, and paleontology with a serious background in geology and biology, and so on. We understand that some delay of gratification is necessary and important for the sake of gaining in depth of understanding. As an adult and a professional scientist, I can piggy back on a lot of background already built through my (traditional) university education, on a previous in depth (traditional) humanities education, and on the subsequent twenty years of professional experience, and pick and choose from the MOOC catalog to indulge my inner child, while playing the MOOC pretend game according to which these online classes would provide a replacement for actual university level classes. This is an obvious lie that many conveniently pretend to believe. It is a lie because the course content is obviously an enormously watered down version of what a typical university level class on the same subject would be like. It is intelligent entertainment, much better than watching TV, but it is certainly not a university education.

Coursera: "Spacebooks: an introduction to extraterrestrial literature", 
University of Zurich (no longer available)

This is by no means the most problematic aspect of the MOOC system. There is a much more sinister and troubling part of the picture. The available platforms that support the current MOOC system, like Coursera, are commercial platforms aimed at making a profit. A way in which they expect to obtain a monetary gain is through the selling of some certificates that state the student's achievement based on some online multiple choice tests associated to the class, and on some assignments that are peer reviewed by other students in the same class. As a university professor myself, I find a lot that can be criticized about how these assignments are constructed and handled, but this is not specifically what I want to discuss. I want to take a step back and look more closely at the underlying assumption. The motor of learning is curiosity. It must be driven by curiosity otherwise it simply does not work, and the satisfaction of that curiosity is the reward in itself, the quenching of that thirst for acquiring new knowledge. The fact that someone is trying to attache a certificate and some silly multiple choice tests to it is only a nuisance, not an incentive. If you are watching the lectures of one of these online MOOC classes because you are interested in learning something, I bet you would be much more likely to use them the way I did, namely watch all the lectures for your curiosity and entertainment, then get a good book on the subject and read it for some more serious learning. Screw the tests and the certificate, who bloody cares! Yes, that is indeed the way it goes, because that is the natural way in which it should go, and that is why trying to mix education and profit is an extremely bad idea. It turns out that the Coursera platform and whoever is running it have very quickly become aware of this themselves, and realized that, precisely for the reason just described, all the course content they were offering that had some interesting intellectual content was not making a profit, while what was bringing them buyers was the content-free business mumbo jumbo, the quackery they list under "self-improvement" and such things, that are entirely disjoint from intellectual curiosity and that people buy, in the form of statements and certificate, to show some fluff to their jughead corporate employers. 

Coursera: "Sleep: Neurobiology, Medicine and Society", 
University of Michigan (no longer available)

So comes July 1, 2016, nearly all of the courses that had at least that quality of intelligent entertainment and could help fulfilling some intellectual curiosity suddenly disappear from the Coursera catalog. Even the ones that still show in my feed now link to a somber "ooops... HTTP 404... looks like you found a page that does not exist...": all of them removed from the Coursera catalog and from the Coursera site altogether, while a veritable avalanche of business-bullshit and quacky-self-improvements is flooding the site. This finally takes us to the most profoundly troubling aspect of these experiments in online education. Over the course of decades of my own personal intellectual education, which did not stop when I got my PhD but continues every single day of my life, in the face of any stupid collection of grades and certificates, I have been going back, over and over again, to the material I learned over the years. I kept all the books I read on all the subjects I have been learning. They grew over the years to a sizable collection and a private library of several thousand volumes. Barring major natural catastrophes, nobody is going to come all of a sudden and erase my access to all that without warning. I have books that are over half a century old and that will continue to serve their purpose as repositories of learning and references ready to be looked up at a moment notice for many more decades to come. I am greatly in favor of disseminating knowledge through the internet and digital media: I am in favor of online lectures, and of digitalizing and distributing academic journals and books of all kind. However, what I think is an enormously serious danger is the terrible impermanence of online repositories of knowledge, the fact that they are controlled by entities whose motives are driven by profit and not by the quest for knowledge. The enormous vulnerability of this model of digital access to knowledge and learning is evident in the ongoing sinister transmogrification of the Coursera site. What remains of the more than thirty courses I have taken on that platform over the span of the past few months is an impression, a memory of the lectures I watched, some of them very interesting, which will no longer be accessible, and thankfully those physical books that I bought and read as a consequence of the interest sparked by those online classes. Beware of relinquishing the caring and transmission of knowledge to entities with their own incompatible agenda. If the MOOC signifies anything about the future of university education, it is only a vision of its worst nightmares: the watering down of content, the rapid elimination of all intellectually viable subjects and their replacement of dubious objects more suitable for the purposes of buying and selling, for the logic of profits. Greater availability of online classes is great and should be pursued, but definitely not through these channels. 

Coursera: "Graphene and 2-dimensional materials", 
University of Manchester (no longer available)

the Chrysalis

Christopher Gaston "The Chrysalis", 2012

Phase transitions, we call them in Physics. In our everyday existence, we recognize them as sudden rips in the texture of life, catastrophic transformative changes. The sandpile model, with a gradual accumulation of grains of sand, each affecting a minuscule change, reaches a threshold of self-organized criticality, where a chain of growth and collapse initiates a profound restructuring into a state of higher complexity. As usual, mathematical abstraction is consoling and beautiful, in comparison with the ugly reality that populates the mathematical world. About three years ago, I reached one of those thresholds, which kept me off regular writing for the ensuing time. What caused it was just another casual drop of yet another stone on the pile, another brick in the wall, another random act of bullying by one of the usual suspects who claim control of the territory in one of my recent research areas. An average act of verbal violence, abuse, condescension, mansplaining and assorted ugliness: nothing unusual, in other words. Yet, it created a threshold, a liminal region between a before and an after, a profound process of reconfiguring. We move through life with a vague sense of continuity, of consistency between our past, present, and projected near-future selves. We are used to imagining our spacetime profile as a continuum, not as a granular composition of disconnected entities. However, we all know that there are special times and special events, a major loss, sometimes a trauma, sometimes simply a phase transition of the kind discussed here, which make it impossible to compare our old and our new selves on a principle of continuity. I can no longer look at the past twenty years of my scientific career in the same light, I can no longer accept to consider myself a part of a "community" that still insists on calling itself "the mathematical community" as if it were based on some shared principles. I do not consider myself a mathematician any longer. This is curious, in a way, because mathematical research, in some form or other, is what I spend my days doing and what pays for my living. Yet, I no longer accept to be part of the underlying order, its network of connectedness, to participate in its functioning, to accept it for what it is. So about three years ago I entered a long phase of profound restructuring. As a scientist, it is very hard to reinvent oneself from scratch after twenty years of career: the apprenticeship phase in science is long and painfully slow. It takes an enormous effort to start it all over again, when one could simply comfortably sit on top of one's own well oiled paper producing mechanics and continue to let it run along its well trodden path. Yes, it takes a major rip in the personal spacetime continuum to attempt an abrupt change in the set course of a fast moving machine. I have previously made many other drastic changes over the span of my mathematical career: they were all difficult, and behind each of them was an attempt to escape the violence of the environment. This story is told at length in the article "A Drifter of Dadaist Persuasion" in the recently published AMS volume "Art in the Life of Mathematicians" and I do not need to repeat it here. The blog posts preceding this one, in this blog and in the previous blog Welcome to the Machine, testify to the latest of all these struggles for survival, the one that began around eight years ago and hasn't resolved itself yet. An important part of the later ongoing transformative change consisted of gaining a broader perspective and an understanding of the fact that it is not simply the effect of certain specific people who make their surrounding research environment so toxic as to force others in the field to quit all they are doing and jump ship, and start all over again one more time, each time, over and over again. The problem is more widespread and systemic: it is the culture of the "mathematical community" that makes all this common practice and acceptable.  It is a culture of violence, of intimidation and fear, of behind the back stabbing and smear campaigns carried out in dark alleys.  I am not a mathematician, because I no longer accept to be part of this environment. Society forces on us a professional identity. I work in a mathematics department, in one of the world top science and technology hubs. I produce mathematics. These days I do this largely in the attempt to train a new generation of students about whom I have some hopes. I have a dream, that they may one day not only become producers of innovative ideas and results in mathematics, but perhaps also game changers in the way the "mathematical community" is structured. I have a dream, that they will be finally willing to stand up to the widespread culture of abuse and confront it, instead of joining the crowd of those who prefer to look the other way and speak softly in the presence of power. That is, of course, a hope and a dream, which may be fulfilled, but only if they do not get corrupted by the system along the way. There are many subtle ways in which complacency is enforced. We shall see. I am not a mathematician though. I am not, because I refuse to be considered a part of all this. Unlike all the previous changes of course and restarts of my mathematical research path, the current one is deeper and more deeply existential. I am no longer attempting to jump start the same machine once again on a slightly different course within the same scientific community: I have done that enough times already, and each time, within the span of just a few years, I have inevitably run into the same problem again, each time with a different name and a slightly different face, but ultimately with the same programmed reptilian territoriality instinct and the same ferocity. I have grown tired of this repetition compulsion. I have gained from it occasionally: without the bully of my postdoc days, I would still be doing gauge theory and I would not have learned a lot of other beautiful things and done a lot of other interesting work. Without the bully of these last eight years, without the ostracism of his court of sycophants, I would have continued on a set course without exploring and learning new subjects. Without the bully of the transitional episode three years ago, that I have been referring to here, I would not have seriously reflected on where all these efforts were going, on whether it is a good course of action to keep wandering the mathematical landscape in search of a mythical oasis of peace, or rather trying some longer term strategic thinking and perhaps a different navigational route altogether. I consider these past years as an incubation period, a chrysalis state, in which a core transformative restructuring is taking place. I sometimes say that I am a Linguist now, but even that is a poor description of what is going on. I don't think I even want a professional label like that attached to my life anymore. Any kind of grouping comes with its own forms of group think and power abuse. I have become a profoundly convinced anarchist, as an effect of the toxic dynamics of power that I have witnessed in the world of mathematical research, and that is another important part of my personal growth that I have gained from this experience. I used to linger in the old fairytales teaching us that once the class struggle for a world of better economic justice would be finally victorious, all other forms of oppression would magically evaporate and disappear in a future classless society. When I slammed hard into the power abuses within the community of research mathematicians I had to finally admit that there are oppressive power structures that cannot be simply deduced from class struggle, not even with the best revolutionary tightrope walking sophistry. Oppression because of narcissism, of power hunger: the pure pleasure of being able to exercise force, to hurt and dominate others, the trolls in respectable academic clothes. All this is real and widespread. Anarchism is about the abolition of all power relations and only such a broader victory can restore science to the pleasure of investigating the unknown, to the pursuit of knowledge as the higher goal of humankind. There is no power structure that is not abusive and criminal. There is no authority that is not build on the crushing of the lives of others. Not even in science. Especially not in science. 

Catherine Malabou's recent book "The Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity" deals precisely with this type of sudden transformations of the self. "In the usual order of things", she writes, "in classical metamorphoses, transformation intervenes in place of flight [...] But metamorphosis by destruction in not the same as flight; it is rather the form of the impossibility of fleeing. The impossibility of flight, when flight presents the only possible solution." Like all animals, we possess an innate fight or flight response to a situation of aggression. When fight is not an option, we instinctively escape. When the escape route presents over and over again the same scenario of aggression, with names and faces just slightly transposed, we are faced with a more drastic transformative experience: destructive plasticity. "The individual's history is cut definitively, breached by the meaningless accident, an accident that it is impossible to re-appropriate through either speech or recollection. [...] These types of events are pure hits, tearing and piercing subjective continuity and allowing no justification or recall in the psyche." Destructive plasticity is the building of a new self after a profound metamorphic restructuring of the self. A chrysalis that covers a body in transformation and opens up again, after a transformative process has run its course, to reveal an entirely new structure of existence. "What do we look like once we are metamorphosized by destruction, once we are formed by destructive, explosive, nuclear plasticity? How do we look? However beautiful and decisive," Malabou writes, "we have rejected the figures of trees, animals, and the fantastic beings described by Ovid." At the end of the essay she concludes: "the history of being itself consists perhaps of nothing but a series of accidents which, in every era and without hope of return, dangerously disfigure the meaning of essence."

The Greeks and the classical world populated the boundaries of the unknown with liminal figures, stretching across the human and the animal, the natural and the supernatural. Mostly, these symbols signified transformations, possible and impossible, composite chimeric bodies resulting from ill amalgamated conflicting experiences, incomplete metamorphoses, attempts to hold a fragmentary self together under impossible pressures. Identities that do not fit into any classification, into any Linnaean labeling taxonomy, inevitably become monsters, that is, portents and omens that signal the impending downfall of power and herald the arrival of waves of liberatory chaos. Out of Chaos everything is born, out of that primordial anarchist yawn. Out of that cosmic chrysalis new shapes emerge, known and unknown, heterogeneous and unclassifiable, monstrous, precisely because they are not subject to domination. Abomination of insurrectional selves, who dwell in spaces outside the reach of power. The continuous restructuring of the toppling sandpile leads to complexity, to deeper structures. Out of this restructuring a new and completely unexpected shape will eventually emerge.