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Tales of an Emergent Academic Technologist or, Getting Out of the Garden

posted: 10.5.12 by archived

In college, I somehow came to distrust technology. This was around the time of the Unabomber, in the early to mid-1990s, and I remember reading one of his manifestos in the newspaper and thinking–“This guy is crazy, but he’s sure getting a few things right.”

I’m not sure I would have seen it that way prior to my becoming an English major at the University of New Hampshire, but I think that studying English can cause you to distrust a lot of things, among them: organized religion, corporations, politicians, the military, and maybe, if you’re like me (and the Unabomber), technology. For some, a Thoreauvian vision emerges as a kind of solution to a dim world-view. Get off the grid. Go out into nature. Bring a paper and some pencil. Write. Grow your own food. Whatever. I imagine I am not the first or the only English major to have lived some version of this dream–to have had his coursework seem to point him in this direction.

Despite the fact that I now teach English majors, I have only a slight sense of how such students view the world today. When I hear a student say, as one did in my rhetoric course the other day, that he would prefer to talk less about politics because he “fucking hates politics and all politicians,” I begin to think that being an English major may not have changed a great deal. On the technological front, things are a bit more complicated. On the one hand, many of the English majors I teach embrace their smart-phones and their Facebook pages with great vigor. On the other hand, I had a student last year who confessed her adoration and preference for the pencil. Another questioned why so much of what we were reading was posted online (she wanted to read more books).

Each semester, a consistent minority of the English majors I teach seem to struggle with very basic technological operations and some, I think, take pride in this. A certain kind of person is still drawn, as I was, to the often romantic vision of the world and self that is sometimes still encouraged by the study of writing and literature. They sit on benches reading hard-cover books in the bright autumn sun on warm September afternoons. They carry journals in which they scribble quotes from their reading and questions about–well, everything. I was one of them.

When it comes to issues of technology, English professors, not surprisingly, are sometimes like their students. We are forever forgetting (or refusing to remember) how to work the hardware in our classrooms. We carry around stacks of our students’ papers and write comments assiduously in the margins with our favorite pens. We queue up at the photocopy machine, printing out, for example, massive packets of MLA guidelines that could just as easily be linked to online. Mention of the campus learning management system (LMS) elicits eye-rolling or nervous laughter in the hallways where I work. Complaints about students’ texting behaviors never cease (in the 60s and 70s, when these professors were students, this same ire was directed at television). Like our students, we English professors have always been and may always be conflicted about the machines in our garden.

There is a passage in the book 1977: A Cultural Moment in Composition that has been following me around since I first encountered it a year or so ago. I’m using this passage in conversation with a research project about the history of composition teaching at the University of New Hampshire, but I’m finding all sorts of other uses for it and now, I think, I’ve found another one. Here it is:

Why do people teach composition as they do at any given moment? What determines their choices of textbooks, assignments, and daily classroom activities? Of all the possible approaches to the teaching of writing, why do teachers settle on particular ones? What accounts for the shape of composition programs–sequences of courses, testing and placement procedures, staffing and administrative practices? Individual preferences and personal styles are certainly involved; so, of course, are institutional values and constraints. But even more certainly, the teaching of composition is shaped by the available means of persuasion that are presented to us by intellectual and professional communities (broadly considered)–communities shaped, inevitably, by culture, circumstance, and history. (3)

In this first blog post, I’ve been trying to think about the communities and culture, circumstances and histories that have shaped my own orientation towards the use of technology in the classroom. My point, I think, is that for many who teach writing, the available means of (pedagogical) persuasion probably included some variation on this theme of skepticism/suspicion of the machine in the garden. We were not born with the impulse to roll our eyes, laugh nervously, or intentionally forget when issues related to technology come up–we were enculturated into these ways of knowing, we learned them while playing in the garden.

I’ve managed to unlearn them.

Today, in most of my classes, I strive to create the paperless classroom. I joke with my students that the paperless classroom is the penance I am doing for all the forests I killed in South America during my early teaching days. But the paperless classroom is more an ethos than it is a penance. I hope, through this blog, to share this ethos with you. Today, my orientation towards technology in the writing classroom is one of possibility and opportunity. But as I say, it hasn’t always been so. And that’s why I decided to start this blog by looking back. To know where you’re going, you’ve got to know where you’ve been. This is an important lesson I learned from being an English major, too.

Categories: Michael Michaud
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2 Responses to “Tales of an Emergent Academic Technologist or, Getting Out of the Garden”

  1. Jack Solomon Says:

    Your allusion to Leo Marx’s classic study, The Machine in the Garden, is certainly significant. That book alerted American literature scholars to the ways in which American writers, like Henry David Thoreau, responded to the growing intrusion of technology into the American landscape—like the railroad tracks running along the margin of Walden Pond.

    When I was a student, Thoreau was still a culture hero, especially among those who were interested in the Humanities. The fact that that attitude is now regarded as not only old-fashioned but wrong-headed, that Henry David Thoreau and John Muir have been replaced as culture heroes by the likes of Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, is wholly in keeping with a culture that takes a blind eye to the negative effects of technology (global warming and climate change; the profound shift of wealth to a techno-entrepreneurial elite; the general unsustainability of industrial and postindustrial culture, etc.). Such matters continue to affect the attitudes towards technology that an ever-dwindling number of us may hold.

    To be sure, the paperless classroom is certainly an ecological advance, exemplifying a good reason for not going to another extreme by rejecting technology tout court (as I do not myself: after all, here I am on the Internet, and I am a proponent of such techno-tools as, as well as the Internet for research purposes), but I want to hold out a hand to those students and faculty who are alert to the less than salubrious effects of technology, among them the potential diminution of critical thinking skills.

    By the way, the Thoreaus owned a pencil factory.

  2. Holly Says:

    Welcome to Bits, Michael, from a fellow UNH English major!

    I enjoyed your post very much, and the way it’s invited me to think about my own “bias” towards the use of technology in the classroom. For me, initially at least, it was the tremendous (miraculous almost) way that technology can *connect* writers. I think this is especially important for students who otherwise would have limited possibilities for publication; to read and be read by others with the convenience that technology affords goes a long way to help students begin to see themselves as writers within a community. (I’m just starting to embrace the visual and aural possibilities technology opens up as well.)

    My class is not quite paperless, however, as I still encourage students (if they wish) to begin with scribbled notes and end by proofreading on paper copies–in other words, to feel free to slide on that continuum between paper and screen.

    At any rate, looking forward very much to reading more of your thoughts about tech in the writing classroom!