Note to readers

This is a blog that I'm required to keep that's full of unedited, near stream-of-consciousness reactions to similarly required and related readings in a graduate course in N.C. State University's Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program. The way these posts are written help me interrogate and understand what's going on in our readings. I'm identifying what's troublesome so that I can give it more thought, but the posts aren't written in a style that's productive for audiences outside of our class to read. That's by design. I start with contestation, then spend heavens only knows how long researching, recutting, and reevaluating so that I can try and see what potentially productive readings I can extract from these source for use in my own work's contributions back to the field. Comments encouraged, but please, you'll likely need a thick skin if your work is quoted here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Projecting your hopes for adequacy [as an instructor]

It will likely already come as no surprise that I'm a fan of the general thread that cuts through Ohmann and Hawisher/Selfe. Technology is a conduit for (and represents a excursion by) the corporation into what was once an independent space -- the corporation now more precisely presented as the especially complex proxy for monopoly capital (though I'm not sure I found the "monopoly" in monopoly capital beyond its ability to put business processes for a product, cradle to grave, under one roof, smartly anticipating the success of Wal-Mart as uberretailer of products created by those vertical monopolies). Both of these readings clearly recognize the importance of delineating the weaknesses of ye olde proverbial computer age, something academics as loath to do. (Good list of bank teller, "junior secretary," "check-out clerks," "fast-food counter" workers", etc on Ohmann 27.)

But why are academics loath to talk badly about technology? Why the "uncritical enthusiasm that frequently characterizes the reports of those of us who advocate and support electronic writing classes" (Hawisher/Selfe 36)? I'll pretend it's the same reason so many are addicted to pills; they project the shadow of their problems onto technology in the mistaken belief that believing in technology's potential can fix what's wrong in the traditional classroom. Hawisher/Selfe start to unveil the mistaken projection in the answers to their "lengthy open-ended questionnaires to writing instructors" given "At the 1988 Conference on Computers in Writing and Language Instruction." When asked "Do you prefer teaching writing with traditional methods or with computers? Why?", their respondents' "comments are remarkably similar to the published claims about the use of on-line conferences...", here meaning "electronic bulletin boards and conferences" (37-39).

The "remarkable similarity" is enabled because the statements have nothing to do with the technology, but everything to do with the perceived pitfalls of the current state of instruction being projected onto a digital snake-oil. Who doesn't constantly balance the desire for added "democratization," pupils who "work collaboratively," improved conference time, and a "student-centered" learning experience against the demands of ensuring students receive [self-sanctioned?] exposure to and practice with course content? who get to As Hawisher/Selfe remark, "the change [to a better classroom] will not happen automatically in the electronic classroom any more than in a traditional classroom" (44). There is nothing inherently emancipating about digital techs, as their description of the digital classroom that "can actually be used to dampen creativity, writing, intellectual exchanges" (41) shows. It's frightening to see how easily the genre of academic composition pedagogy can adopt the characteristics of sales literature. (An interesting (but impractical) experiment would be to create some analog technology with a similar buzz and see what happens... I'm sure there are many, like new book editions that are heavily recycled from the old.)

Again, digital text is, currently, much more dynamic than manuscript or typed text, but still falls several orders of magnitude below the interaction that's possible through face-to-face contact. As Dr. Keyton illustrated in her class last night (with a few apologies), "If you're homesick for your spouse, do you want an email, phone call, YouTube, or personal visit?" Or, as she asked later, "Is it easier to lie online or face-to-face?" Trite, perhaps, but these two examples do a much better job than I can logically argue that the death of the analog instructor (and their analog methods) have met an overly exaggerated end.

(Hawisher and Selfe come very close to explicitly blaming the teachers. "Unfortunately, as writing instructors" we are all too likely "to perpetuate those values currently dominant within our culture" (35). The sentence construction there is particularly dense as they nearly make the claim that instructors are to blame, and is worth rereading. Careful hedging throughout, with a strange mix of pretty straight talk.)

Instead of believing in the panacea, it is more important to see what work we want technology to do in our classrooms. There are more than a few obvious tasks that can't help but appear more suited to digital technologies, though even Ohmann's quote of O'Shea and Self ("But there is a possibility that computers will be used to enhance the educational process and equip each learner with an exciting medium for problem-solving and individual tuition." (29)) seems to push tech to more liberating ends than necessary. Tech is good for (eg)...

* Creating digital end products
* Filing, saving, and commenting on student assignments
* Taking roll!
* Saving your own notes, A/V aids, etc to make re-teaching easier (insert standard concerns about becoming too fixed in your instruction, which I've found happens no more often with instructors with good notes than none at all)

Deskill the labor where the labor should be deskilled. There's no reason to pay tuition to pay instructors to file printed papers if they're comfortable with, eg, gmail and some flavor of tracking changes.

Finally, a very quick word about creating digital end products... If there was no call for a particular composition type's/medium's analog precursor, it's an interesting argument to explain why the digital versions are needed now. That is, do Powerpoints on Melville (or whatever -- nuclear fission) really make us more knowledgeable than our predecessors, or is it still more important to simply possess a critical mind, be well read, and be ready to participate in the professional conversation?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Heidi here ---

You bring up some good points, Ruffin.

"But why are academics loath to talk badly about technology?"
I must exist on another planet because it seems like all I hear is technology criticism.

"They project the shadow of their problems onto technology in the mistaken belief that believing in technology's potential can fix what's wrong in the traditional classroom." OR they badly want the high from the hope that an external object fixing all their problems and when technology doesn't live up to the (incorrect) expectations then scholars have someone to blame besides themselves. ORRR they believe the heinous public media reports of technology's panacea which then gives them the hope that tech will fix everything etc etc. Tools are only as good as the people using them, which is why I hit my thumb with a hammer all the time.

"That is, do Powerpoints on Melville (or whatever -- nuclear fission) really make us more knowledgeable than our predecessors, or is it still more important to simply possess a critical mind, be well read, and be ready to participate in the professional conversation?"

Being an analytical thinker, well read etc is still more important because technology doesn't make us more knowledgeable, at least not yet. Tools simply enable us to do something. A hammer (I know, my fave example) helps us insert nails into soft materials. I could also use a rock but the leverage isn't the same so it takes more physical energy. Medicine, computers, bombs == they are tools that help us do something. Computers allow us to do things we couldn't before and there are advantages and disadvantages to that new way (and not just one-sided).