This Academic Life
  Technically conservative
At a meeting of a subset of the faculty in my department on Wednesday, the issue of faculty participation in the annual recruiting of admitted students was brought up. Faculty complained that they didn't like being gathered into a room for the traditional "phone bank" with people from financial aid and student advising present to answer picky technical questions; they also complained vociferously about the fact that phone calls were problematic -- the student was often not home when the call came, etc.

So I brought up what seemed to me a perfectly obvious solution: IM. Faculty doing the recruiting would simply make their screenname and a block of time available; they'd then jump online from wherever in the world they were then, chat with interested students (who would initiate conversations themselves, thus guaranteeing that they were present and available), and have ready-to-hand a list of screennames and e-mail addresses to refer the student to for issues involving specific AP credits and the like. Plus, students these days grow up with several IM chat windows open on their screens at once, and it's a medium with which they are very very comfortable. So our making ourselves available would signal a certain kind of approachability and tech-savvyness as well -- an added bonus.

I might as well have have grown a second head right then and there, or proposed offering all of the students drugs and alcohol in order to secure their enrollment. A series of typical skeptical/dismissive responses were in evidence: the condescending half-smiles, shakes of the head, wide-eyed incredulity, verbal replies that deliberately tripped on the technical terms in order to generate laughs ("so when I, what do you call it, 'sign on,' then the thingamigummy starts working?"). The general tone was that of the pat on the head that precedes the admonition for the kids to run along and play quietly.

There is a very high level of what we might call technical conservatism in academia; academics as a group are very resistant any of these new-fangled things like e-mail and blogging and IM. This is not to belittle the small minority of academics -- of which I am one -- who are relatively tech-savvy and responsive to these alterations in pedagogical practice. Full disclosure: I didn't use IM regularly until a couple of years ago, and only started blogging in earnest last Spring. And I caught both viruses from students, but in a way did so deliberately -- I want to reach students where they live, and that means not just being able to drop pop cultural references from time to time. It means participating in the form of life of students, mutatis mutandis (and figuring out precisely what has to be changed and what can be preserved intact is a nontrivial endeavor), seeing how they world and what can be done to introduce divergent elements (uncomfortable facts, logical rigor, an analytical sensibility) into their cosmos. So I consider my use of IM, my blogging, and the like to be ways of developing a pedagogy -- at least in part. [There's a geek-cool aspect here too, of course, and I think that my geek credentials are quite intact.]

It sometimes seems to me like my more technically conservative colleagues are implicitly picking up on this broader pedagogical and philosophical issue, and that their resistance to e-mail and IM and the like (even extending to visual slide displays generated by Keynote or PowerPoint -- I fail to see why those are any different from writing on the chalkboard, or using transparencies or even paper handouts) is in a non-trivial sense a resistance to students. if one is going to resist students, why in God's name does one take a job in a situation where students are omnipresent, and in fact constitute the raison d'être for the organization? Just go work in a think tank someplace, or produce policy briefs in an office in your basement. Sheesh. Our job, the thing we get paid to do, is to teach students. And resisting the form of life of one's students seems to be an abandonment of this charge in one of two ways:

  1. it could be an implicit or explicit judgment that the students' form of life is somehow wrong and needs to change (e.g. Allan Bloom's rant in The Closing of the American Mind about how portable music players make students incapable of appreciating the serious silence that is essential for real thinking, which of course bears more than a passing resemblance to Socrates' rant in The Republic about how the poets are corrupting the youth with their fancy language and tales of sex and violence…anti-hip-hop crusading, anyone?), which abandons teaching in favor of training and drill. And I am not a trainer; my job is not to force people to live in a certain way. Gurus and prophets do that; teachers should avoid such an abuse of their authority.
  2. on the other hand, it could be simply a way of turning students away -- "leave me alone except for these very few, minimal, constrained kinds of interactions, which take place exclusively on my terms." Again I wonder: if you hate students so much, why put yourself in their path all the time?
Maybe this problem will ultimately be solved by a generation shift, as older folks retire and are replaced by people of my generation who grew up with computers. But will this mean that in twenty years there will simply be another clash involving different technical apparatuses? Perhaps. But I would like to think of myself as the sort of teacher who would be able to remain in touch with whatever the form of life of my students is. Indeed, I can't really imagine exercising this vocation in any other way.

[Posted with ecto]

<< Home
"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



Powered by Blogger