MEDITATIONS AT LAGUNITAS
All the new thinking is about loss.
© 1987 Robert Hass
All the new thinking is about loss.
© 1987 Robert Hass
Bottom line: it's not time to start thinking about technology. If you
haven't started yet, it's time to catch up. If you don't know how to put
together a QuickTime movie, you're behind. If you haven't futzed around with
sound tools, you're behind. If you're still thinking about how to do web pages,
you're behind. If you don't "get" blogs and wikis, you're behind. If you don't
think that the Grokster case has anything to do with you, you're behind. And I
could keep on going. There is nothing wrong with writing an essay, a view, a
site, whatever, addressing those who are (by now) late adopters, but why in the
world would exhortations to think critically about technology have any effect on
those people when they've been hearing the same song for years now?
This made me cringe...for several reasons. First, it brought out a good old-fashioned sense of self-doubt. I know there are many things I should know how to do and don't. I hate to think how many. Second, I've always had an aversion to the master lists, the master narratives, the tendencies to proclaim This is the story of what you must know and do and be. Stray from it at your peril.
But I'm not here to tar and feather Collin. I think he makes some good points, though I don't think the article he pounced on was actually written for the people who live and work in Collin's sphere. I think it served its purpose and that many people out there probably got good use out of it.
What I really want to talk about, however, is the technology gap. This is the way we define the haves and have nots these days. Who owns the technology? Who owns the knowledge of how to manipulate the technology? Who is plugged in and who is not? It's so vital for our students that we don't let them fall behind. They will live in a world even more defined by technology gaps than our own. And if they want to be one of the haves, they've got to own the techno-knowledge. Maybe it is master narrative making to say so, but it is also being realistic.
And that brings me to my own rant about reality and technology.
The computer in my office is running Windows 98. That's the year I got it. It will not be replaced this year or next year or the year after that. My school and my state are experiencing massive budget cuts. There just aren't the resources to keep the technology on campus up to date.
In addition to having an old computer with a small hard drive that is completely maxed out, I have no one to teach me technology. When I went to graduate school, we didn't even have computers much less training in how to use them. I had a Tandy that my father gave me when I was working on my master's thesis, and I used it and Norton Textra to write everything I did for my Ph.D. Up to that point I used a Smith Corona typewriter. Though we were beginning to get computer labs around campus while I was in school, they never really came into my consciousness. I never took or taught a class that used them.
In other words, whatever I do know I've taught myself by futzing around, as Collin calls it. But there are limits to what I can teach myself in that manner, and there are limits to the technology I can have access to even if I want to learn it.
I read recently about Duke University's iPod experiment in which they distributed an iPod to all incoming students in order to "facilitate the use of information technology in innovative ways within the classroom and across campus." I found that comforting. It made me feel like maybe I was okay and not so far behind after all if Duke University was struggling to figure out how to use technology in "innovative ways." And I know that it is these people and maybe not so much people like me that Collin is ranting about. If someone is teaching with all the resources afforded by a place like Duke or Syracuse or Hopkins and can't or won't figure out how to use technology in "innovative ways" without a bunch of free gadgets being passed out in the classroom, well, they deserve a good rant.
But the fact remains that more composition classes are taught in this country in places like Jones County Junior College than in places like The Johns Hopkins University. The everyday reality is that many of our teachers have neither the equipment nor the training to keep up. There is very little motivation to get on board new innovations if you don't even have a computer that will run the software, and if you know that no one will be available to provide technical support for you or your students should you decide to embark on a techno-adventure.
There will always be the technological capacity to do new things long before the necessary tools are widely available. There will always be a gap. There will always be a place for articles that are of no use to the advanced but of great help to the struggling.My hope is that the big universities won't forget the rest of us. We need models that are realistic and encouraging if we are to remain even as little as five or ten years behind. We need people who will not simply sneer at us for having so little but who will help us figure out what we can learn on our own with limited resources. We need open communications. We have the technology now to make that possible. So what are we going to do with it?
According to the Career College Association, they now constitute 38 percent of the 2,500 higher education institutions where students can spend federal aid, and enroll 1.8 million of 23 million U.S. college students.Hmmm...
And they are growing rapidly -- unlike cash-strapped community colleges struggling to accommodate increasing demand. For-profits claim that their model, sculpted in marketplace competition, works (65 percent earn a degree or certificate within six years, compared with 25 percent beginning at public two-year institutions, according to CCA). They also claim to serve a higher percentage of minority and low-income students.
"If our institutions are doing a better job, particularly working with at risk-students, why should our students be denied the benefits of these competitive grant programs?" said Nancy Broff, the CCA's general counsel.
Just as reading literature that is about personal human experience can "enrich the imagination, enhance the powers of observation" and so forth, so too can writing about personal human experience.
The point is that we as instructors need to be clear on what it is we want the students to learn from any assignment we give. And we need to be sure we get that message across to the student.
I often start the year in composition with a narrative paper. The assignment is usually to write about something that happened either to themselves or to someone close to them that taught them a lesson or changed their minds about an issue. They write a descriptive story that they can use to support a claim. In this assignment I want them to learn how to make a clear point with a narrative illustration, how to narrow the focus and timeframe to an appropriate level, how to pay close attention to detail, how to be aware of the audience and how the descriptions might affect the audience, and how to fine tune their writing in terms of style, clarity, tone, etc. It's not just about confessing their hang-ups or bemoaning the loss of their loved ones. It's about making connections between experience and opinion and learning to speak with authority on topics that matter to them. We also, by the way, talk about the difference in personal testimony as evidence and academic research as evidence. And we discuss examples of ways people use personal testimony to persuade in advertising and politics and religion and other such arenas.
By the time the students finish this assignment we've done a lot more as a class than simply personal writing for the sake of personal writing, and I do realize I'm veering away from the original question. But I just wanted to make the point that I have a whole set of objectives for this assignment, but if I don't tell the students these are the things they are supposed to learn from it, they are never going to know.
Then the question becomes will they still learn any of these things (focus, support for a claim, attention to detail, style, clarity, audience awareness) if I never tell them that's what they are supposed to be learning? I believe the answer is yes, but I believe the degree to which they learn these things will vary greatly from student to student, as it does for all assignments.
People can learn writing skills from any kind of writing they do. It isn't so much a matter of what kind of assignment they are doing as it is how much feedback they get and how much they are aware of what they are supposed to be learning. It's also a matter of how motivated they are to learn.
Ideally, we want students who think for themselves and learn something from the class that goes beyond a set of objectives. Still, we have to start somewhere, and the first step in making sure any kind of writing is beneficial to the student is being clear on what the assignment is supposed to teach. If we are wishy-washy and uncommitted to whether there is value in the assignment, the students probably aren't going to learn as much.