Saturday, April 09, 2005


I must confess to being behind.

Collin is a trifle annoyed with an article from Inside Higher Education in which it is suggested that "Computer technology has swiftly become our key writing tool but it’s too easy to imagine everyone 'gets it.'" What really sets him off is the recommendation that Boolean logic can make for more sophisticated online research.

Collin's rant rebuttal:
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?


Rosa G. said...

You said it. I have become more and more conscious that what I do have here in Maryland is not what everyone in the country has. And I think that while Collin and Jeff (yellow dog) need to rant about things to move us ahead, we have to remember that not everyone has the technology nor the incentive to keep up, and that some of our ranting should be propelled at getting funding for the have-nots.

jocalo said...

Steve Krashen at USC argues that at whatever level we encounter students, the work we provide should be L + 1. By that notation he means we should present work one increment greater than the student's current language competency. That's easier said than done, but it's a useful formulation.

I think as faculty we might consider T + 1. Whatever our current level of technology literacy, we should be working one increment beyond it. Obviously, we are limited by the current state of our hardware and network, but most of my colleagues don't come close to using the resources we have, even though we could certainly use more resources.

One problem we face is that most faculty currently prefer face-to-face communication for doing our professional work. We have many tools that could reduce face time, and allow more flexible use of time. Some of the problem lies in resources, but in my department the problem is more one of faculty attitudes/preferences/willingness to learn than it is in resources.

So I think we need to move on both tracks simultaneously: develop a greater repertoire of technology skills and then demand the resources to use them. And I think it has to happen in that order.

Sharon Gerald said...

Heh. Well, yes. There are plenty of people on my own campus who don't use the resources they do have available. I think it's a lack of confidence more than anything. Technology is like a foreign language to them. When they don't use it, they lose it. Then they feel more and more behind and more and more under-confident all the time.

There's no use in "demanding" technology where I work. You can't get blood from a turnip. The state budget cuts have been truly crippling. However, there are such things as grants, and maybe that's an area I need to be investigating.

I wish I could find a summer workshop to go to on technology in the English classroom. Now there's a job for some of those guys who are frustrated with the laggers.

j.rice said...

It's good to see you all are interested (and it's even good to see that we got you debating all this) in technology.
But there are always a few things to keep in mind so that you don't get bogged down by the fear of not having "enough" technology.
It's not a question of the tools.
It's a question of how the tools shape the ways we communicate, whether or not we use those tools.
The obvious example is that culture was shaped by print before most people could read and write.
And we're seeing that today with digital culture. Students come to us with ways of thinking that have been shaped by digital culture (many of us have been shaped by digital culture). It's up to us, the educators, to work with the culture's new needs.

But back to the tools/expertise issue which is the one that we usually get most bogged down by: A little goes a long way. The first task anyone faces when looking to teach is to familiarize oneself with the relevant material to go a long way ("I'm not an expert in American Lit - I've been assigned a lit course, what do I need to do to get up to speed"). Once you've done that, regardless of how advanced your tools are, you and the students you work with can do quite a lot. When I first started doing all this 10 years ago or so, we used the most basic web authoring tools. It didn't matter.
Anyway - the comment section is always a hard place to offer a little bit of response.


Rosa G. said...

jeff, write this out and send it to CLC on Community College English. She'll post it for you. That is, if you are serious about expanding your ideas here. I would LOVE to hear you talk about your experiences using tech over the years and about how you view culture and thought being shaped by the digitial world. And I think that what you have to say would be useful to many community college instructors.


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