Let's Merge Some Genres! or Bringing Technology into the Classroom
I am a self-proclaimed convert. Not only did I come into college with a plan to avoid technology, but I also came supplied with an over active fear of computers and all the things that go along with them. In the eyes of academia I was the perfect student to continue the tradition of clinging to my ignorance of all things new, while memorizing dead languages I would probably never use once I received my diaploma. I lacked a facebook account and had a talent for avoiding communication through email, preferring instead to correspond with my high school friends the old-fashioned way, using paper and ink. This semester, two of my classes somehow found a way to change everything.
In the fall, as I sat with my College Seminar professor, the talk quickly turned to my plans for the following semester. I told him I intended to fulfill the quantitative requirement with computer science and he agreed that although I was worried about the course content I should go ahead and finish the requirement. This left us open to debate about my fourth and last course. He knew I was considering the English major and advised me to take an English class. I listed the few courses I thought I might like and, almost as an after thought, mentioned the Emerging Genres course. As soon as the name left my month however I hastened to explain that I was afraid of the course and probably would not take it. That was all he needed to hear. Right after my confession he advised me to sign up for Emerging Genres. Trusting his judgement, I ignored my fear and enrolled in both courses, a decision that would drastically change the way I think about the university community.
For the first few weeks everything was as I expected it to be, I knew very little about both Emerging Genres and computer science and I expected that I would not enjoy, nor do especially well in either class. Suddenly, things began to change. Emerging Genres became my favorite course and I could not wait to work on the labs for computer science. I spoke with my dean; I was worried something strange and unexpected was happening. How could I, Alexandra Funk, philosophy lover and letter writer, want to change my intended major to computer science? As someone adverse to change, it makes sense that I would fear a concentration centered on continual advancement. But what I have learned and what the rest of the university community must learn in order to survive is that technology is not the enemy. Technology, if used correctly, can bring the world of education to greater heights than ever before. Academia must come to embrace the new while still leaving room for the old.
The academic world has long been perceived as the cold world of truth seeking, where old habits die hard, and it's always out with the new and in with the old. But what happens when you can no longer ignore the pitter-patter of computer keys and the internet becomes a primary source? Our generation has entered uncharted waters. We are left to stare at the unending expanse of the internet without a compass to guide our way. With few role models to light the path, today's college students are lost in the transition between what will hopefully be the merging of two genres: technology and academia.
Dale Spender, the author of Nattering on the Net, spent time researching the way that technology is changing every aspect of our lives, including the uninverity community. Nattering on the Net is the result of years of research during which she made the transition from books to the internet. Spender writes "about the impact that computers are having on human society" and how, through technology, "we are creating a new community" (xiii). In chapter two, The Claims of Literature, she focuses on the university communities' preoccupation with keeping out new advancements. Spender interweaves this discussion with the story of English Literature and its now near forgotten quest to become a part of the university community. Her discussion of English literature's journey into the ivy covered walls savors strongly of today's debate about technology in the classroom.
One of the biggest concerns about the arrival of the computer is the ease with which those outside the ivy walls can write and be heard by a huge public audience. Ironically, these concerns seem to resemble the same ones held by universities when English literature made its first attempt to find its way into the curriculum. Those arguing for the incorporation of English literature felt the works were "the poor man's classics and that they would expand the soul and civilize the masses" (Spender 34). The resemblance between these two journys is uncanny, but also unsurprising. At the time English literature was not "the old" and therefore not the standard, just like technology today. As Spender points out, "One of the by-products of setting up a standard [is] everything that is not included immediately becomes non-standard and is soon regarded as deficient, deviant, and not the real thing" (33). At the time, the academy's way of life was threatened by the rise of English literature, whereas today the threat comes from our constantly changing technology.
As a twenty-first century college student, it is nearly impossible for me to imagine a time when English literature was not "the real thing." When thinking of the English major, I think of old world, endless reading, and refinement. Clearly however, there was a time when this was not the case. Now the English major is prized for fostering creativity and imagination. On the other hand, when the moves were being made to secure English a place in the curriculum, "the prevailing orthodoxy in the universities was scientific thinking. So the English literature lobby faced the challenge of making their subject seem more like the mechanics of Newton's laws, rather than odes, elegies, and products of human imagination" (Spender 34).
Unfortunately however, Spender also makes the argument that as the Internet takes over our community there will be no more room for the printing of books. "What we know as "literature" is a product of print. There was no great creative literature before the advent of the printing press... There probably will not be any such entity as "literature" after the presses give way to the Internet" (31). This very sentiment is a common fear of those opposing the rise of the Internet. Many of the older members of the university community (and even some of the young ones like my old self) fear that the beloved printed tangible book will become extinct as soon as the computer's shadow is allowed to cover this last part of the world. By claiming that the computer will take over all aspects of education, technology enthusiasts are becoming just as close-minded as the old world academics.
Clifford Stoll, a computer geek from the earliest days (the man who caught the German spies hacking through the system), is having second thoughts, for example. Not that he is against technology-he just wants to see a little more caution exercised when it comes to putting the information infrastructure in place In Silicon Snake Oil, he introduces his argument with the statement: ‘Computers themselves don't bother me, it's the culture in which they're enshrined'" (Spender xiv).
Like Stoll and Spender, technology in and of itself does not bother me. Already I have acknowledged that I intend to major in computer science. What does bother me however, is when, just like the extreme academics, the extreme technology enthusiasts believe that their way is the only way.
Computers and technology are having an unprecedented impact on the university community. Not only is it changing the way we learn, but slowly it is changing what we are learning about. Blogs are being incorporated into the English classroom as language classes employ youtube videos to teach students about music and culture. But as these small steps are taken by the few, the majority of those on the inside of academia prefer to ignore the vast changes and even ban them from the classroom. As one of the few Laura Blankenship, a staff member in the Bryn Mawr College technology department as well as the possessor of a PhD. in English, has a long road ahead of her.
Laura's unique position, as a staff member with an insider's understanding of the faculty, sheds a great deal of light on the current state of the relationship between technology and old world academia. Before she began teaching, Laura was alone in a rural area and wanted something of a shared community. She soon saw the opportunities available through the Internet and quickly found what she was looking for. After the start of her teaching career, she began to employ these practical uses of today's technology from her own personal life in the classroom. She saw technology as a writing tool, an analytical tool, a better way to peer review work, and overall, a very practical thing to have in one's education. Now as a member of the staff rather than the faculty, part of Laura's job is to help faculty members incorporate technology into the classroom. Obviously, in her line of work she runs into many obstacles on a daily basis, but like me she remains hopeful for the future.
Teaching faculty to accept new technology is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) obstacles in successfully combining these two genres. There is a seemingly endless supply of excuses for a faculty member who is looking to avoid picking up these new and necessary skills.
Most cite some form of lack of time and a feeling that using these resources does not fit with their methods of teaching. The quotes in this section are interesting, with faculty saying that the Internet is dumbing down our culture, that students need to learn to read books, etc. There is a sense that many feel these resources would substitute rather than supplement or complement text resources. There's some work to do here, I think, to educate faculty on how such resources can be used to teach the very things they're afraid they inhibit: critical thinking, argumentation, and reading and writing skills (Geeky Mom).
The most bothersome and the one of the hardest excuses to dispel is of course the fear that the Internet will take over the academic world leaving no room for traditional texts. But the last excuse brought up by Laura, that the Internet will worsen one's education, is also very alarming. Yes it's true that there are a lot of distasteful and stupid things on the Internet, but what many professors fail to notice is that the Internet and technology is not all that bad. If used the right way with the proper knowledge, the Internet could revolutionize modern education, without losing the best of the university system today.
The key however, is the right way with the proper knowledge. By refusing to acquire this skill-set, professors are making it easier for their students to ignore the novelties of our generation as well. Instead of seeing computers as a real academic subject, most young people today think of the computer as a recreational tool, which they sometimes use to write papers. Many students do not even know about the existence of various academic applications until a professor introduces them in the classroom. That is, if a professor introduces them in the classroom.
Yet still for many of you, that nagging question remains: why should professors, who are likely teaching a subject not at all related to the fielded of technology, have to incorporate technology into his or her teaching? In today's world there is not one academic discipline that has not been touched by technology in some way. Writing is being done in online forums and blogs, stocks are tracked over the internet and even through cellphones, and politics are debated in chat rooms on a daily basis. Our world is based in technology, so even if you think the internet has nothing for you and your study of Shakespeare, think again (and take a look at this interesting visualization of Hamlet).
I know there will always be those who refuse to adapt to the changes in our world and would rather ignore technology and all that goes with it. However, there are also those who think technology is important, but do not think that they should be the one to implement it. As someone who once completely bought into these feelings, who possessed them, and thought ignoring technology was the right way (or maybe just the easier way), I now know that the worst thing we can do is ignore the importance of technology. Computers run our world. From withdrawing money at the bank to buying groceries, computers are guiding our every step. If one cannot make it through his or her daily activities without encountering a computer, it is my opinion that one should not be able to make it through an entire college curriculum without once studying a computer.
This is not to say that I think professors should start picking random technological gadgets to ‘liven up' his or her classroom. The use of technology is an art, just like any other academic discipline. There are aesthetics to follow and a great deal of thoughtfulness involved. As Laura said in her interview, "There are two approaches to using technology in the classroom. The first is ‘How can the technology help me to teach x to my students. The second approach is ‘I just want to use this cool new gadget.'" She then admitted that more often than not the second approach is employed by faculty who come to her for help. "They think that I think that way just because of what I do" (Blankenship). This is a huge misunderstanding of the uses of technology and why people like Laura and I want to see it used in college courses. Many professors fail to see that technology does not have to be used just for technology's sake. All Techies do not love computers simply because they are new and shiny, many love computers due to the new and interesting things they can do to what already exists. Computers are not here to destroy the old ways, they are here to improve upon them.
This leads me back to a topic I explored in my first paper for Emerging Genres: emergence. Very early in the course Paul Grobstein, a biology professor at Bryn Mawr came to speak to us about his emergence theory. This theory explains story-telling through emergence as an ongoing experiment in creation, rather than through a narrative foundational story, where the past is the determinant of and the best guide to the future (Grobstein 2-5). Currently, academia is following a narrative foundational story, clinging to the past as the only means of defining the future. By blindly latching on to what is already comfortable and known, the university community falls behind the outside world only to catch up a few decades later. And maybe, you might argue, that this system is not all that bad. It is just the way things work. Things need to be worth studying and have a reputation before they can gain admittance behind the ivy walls. But, I would counter, why is all this research going on if it is only to explore old things in the old ways? Education should be an emergence story and therefore must explore the ways in which technology can bring old disciplines into the future.
Laura and I, a faculty member and student respectively, are currently passing through the bubble that is Bryn Mawr and we happen to share another important concern when it comes to my peers. Upon graduation, many of my fellow classmates will lack a basic understanding of the technology running our world. "My fear, and I think I fear it more strongly because this is a women's college, is that we might graduate students who can read Shakespeare but have no grasp of technology" (Blankenship). There is no technology requirement at Bryn Mawr, nor is technology being used to its full potential in the classroom.
We live in an age where gathering knowledge is easier than ever, but only if one understands and uses the technology one is given. Computer Science departments are in place all around the country, but surprisingly, as computers gain more control over our lives the amount of students studying them has dropped. The dropping enrollment concerns me, but like Laura " I do value a liberal arts education; learning a wide array of topics is important" (Blankenship). Computer Science, like any other academic disapline is just that an academic disapline. Coding may not be relavent to many of the things my peers hope to do with their futures, but the finished product of all that coding (word processors, visualizations etc.) must become a part of every student's education. Liberal arts colleges see the value of a well-rounded course plan, so why have they continued to ignore the growing presence of technology in the lives of their students?
In Emerging Genres, my English class this semester at Bryn Mawr College, Professor Dalke devoted the last third of the course to blogs. We discussed what blogs mean for the future of writing, reading, and communication. We read blog theory and spoke with real bloggers about what they think blogging is and where they think blogging is going. We used technology, not for its own sake, but rather to better understand the future of the diary, the novel, the English major, and the entire university community. Studying blogs was different than anything I have ever studied in an English class before and it was also my favorite part of the whole semester. Emerging Genres stands as an example of how effectively modern technology can be used within a tradtional academic disapline.
One of the best things about using blogs for research is that they are constantly updated with new informtion and ideas. Since Laura came to my Emerging Genres class, I have been reading her blog religiously. Her two most recent posts illustrate what I feel is the underlining point of this paper. Instead of focusing on what the students need, professors (for the most part) are increasely more concerned with his or her own status in the academic community.
He said that the higher up the food chain, you go, the less it's about the students. So, for example, he said that if you ask an elementary school teacher what they do, they say they teach 5th grade or whatever, the kids are very present. By the time you get to high school, teachers often say they teach physics, when really, they should say, I teach kids physics. The kids are the object, not the content. When you get to college, content becomes king. At R1's, it's really not about the kids. Teaching is foisted onto lower class labor. And that's a real shame. And, further, Chris added, he saw little incentive for higher ed to change. And, deep in my heart, I knew it was true. Sure, there are lots of individuals trying to effect change, really focusing on the students, making teaching their primary focus, but it's not enough to turn the aircraft carrier that is higher ed. Each institution is an equally large boat. So, really, it might be more like getting a huge formation of battleships to make a 90 degree turn. Not easy. But still, I have to say I'm inspired by our students and I was inspired by the SLA students. There's such potential there for change--for changing the world (Geeky Mom).
One important way to change the lack of real concern for one's students, would be to introduce technology into the classroom. What better way to show your students you care about the level of their education than by teaching them how to use their computer for more than just writing a paper or even showing them the ways technology is being used in the major they have chosen to study?
This does not mean that today's crop of students are off the hook. My peers still have no excuse for not making an effort to learn about technology (or for not joining the fight to get it in the classroom). Earlier I mentioned how I once fit into this apathic category. Now, it has never been more clear to me how important it is to understand the technology that controls even the most mundane tasks of my everyday life. Although it is imperitive that students take the initive to learn about technology, they can not be expected to master this field on their own without support. Hence, by bringing technology into the classroom, students will receive guidance when it comes to technology and will have less of an excuse for ignoring the twenty-first century advancements.
Through this past semester, I have stumbled into all of these discoveries. Taking computer science and Emerging Genres has changed my thoughts about what I want my education to be and what I hope will be in the education of others. It is undeniably clear, from my own experiences and from the experiences of those that I consulted for this paper that bringing together technology and the university community is absolutely necessary for a well-rounded and complete liberal arts education.
In the end, it comes down to what are for the moment two disparate genres: technology, that infamous thing that constantly changes our world and the way we live our lives with little or no warning at all, and academia, the ivy covered walls and ancient books that seem to forever remain the same, despite the fact that the libraries now contain computers. We have come to the point where these two genres, the old and the new, must learn to come together. How has the field of technology changed academia? How will it continue to shape its path? Obviously that answer can only come from us, the generation of technological transition. We, meaning the students, the faculty, the staff, and the administration must now determine how much longer we will continue to let the majority of our students avoid learning about the very thing that is running most of their everyday lives. Ultimately, we are left with one very simple question: Why is it okay for a community to hand out a college degree while simultaneously ignoring the technology that, more often than not, helped to make those degrees happen?
Grobstein, Paul (2007) "From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond: Towards Empirical Non-
Foundationalism as a Guide for Inquiry." Soundings: 1-23
Spender, Dale. Nattering on the Net. Australia: Spinifex Press, 1995.