Make new professors, but keep the old.
When I responded to the earlier version of "Technoliteracy and the New Professor" a year ago, I focused primarily on the pedagogical, not the political, or at least not explicitly so. But twelve months later I find it hard to keep this alliterating pair of adjectives apart in my own mind, especially since I carry out my pedagogical duties at the university founded by the same man whose memory Third Wavers invoke in their political scenario of an informed electorate empowered by technology. Nevertheless, in responding to Miller once again, I am going to keep my eye primarily on the pedagogical, not because I believe that it constitutes a realm separate from the political but because, if I have anything to contribute to this discussion, my contribution lies in my ability to be specific about pedagogical praxis. When it comes to political theory and its enviable comprehensiveness, I have to admit that, as A. R. Ammons confesses in "Corsons Inlet,"
but Overall is beyond me:
is the sum of these events
I cannot draw, the ledger I cannot keep, the accounting
beyond the account.(2)
Meanwhile, those who feel more confident about abstracting from my pedagogical specifics to their own political generalizations may do so with my blessing.
Miller's argument attracts me in three powerful ways. First, it appeals to me as a citizen of a society that, often paradoxically, claims to value both democracy and capitalism. Whereas Third Wavers promote technology by articulating its political function in a democracy, Miller promotes technology by articulating its economic function in a plutocracy: "The capacity to manipulate that technology may very well be the most important ticket to the middle and professional classes to which higher education has long promised access." Although I could argue with Thoreauvian conviction that access to the middle and professional classes does not guarantee escape from a life of quiet desperation, the fact remains that I have bills to pay, my children probably will have bills to pay, and higher education will most likely help them meet their obligations as it has helped me meet mine. But as Miller suggests, a large difference between my education and my children's is that theirs will entail logging many more hours at computer terminals than mine did, since mine entailed logging none at all.
My children lead to the second way Miller's argument appeals to me: as a parent. Having fathered future members of the classes of 2009 and 2013, when four years at the University of Virginia could cost $84,000 and $114,000 respectively (these figures assume an eight-percent annual rate of inflation), I welcome any vision of higher education that resembles Virginia Woolf's cheap college. Faced with the daunting prospect of accumulating $200,000 for so-called public education, I would love to believe those who claim that we can contain the costs of a college education, increasing them only with the cost of living, but the recent past shows me otherwise and suggests my hopeful faith would be misplaced. If technoliteracy could ease me out of this financial bind, I would be tempted to carry its banner enthusiastically.
Third, Miller's argument makes a strong appeal to me as a teacher, for it encourages me to think of myself as someone who provides "students with a sense of the whole, with a rubric of essential questions and possible paths to follow in seeking their answers," someone who "surfs alongside students, sharing curiosity, delight, and tumbles-not a repository of answers but a model questioner and problem-solver." Surf's up, I say to such a humane, flexible model for teaching. My only discomfort here arises when I admit to myself that I thought I was teaching this way already, especially at the graduate level and in the directing of dissertations. Have I been deluding myself, or have I been innocently practicing the pedagogy of technoliteracy without knowing it, the same way that Milton, according to Blake, was of the Devil's party? If the former, then the advent of technoliteracy might get me back on track. If the latter, then the advent of technoliteracy will simply institutionalize what I formerly thought of as my own pedagogical heterodoxy. Either way I win.
But despite these three powerful attractions, Miller's argument also troubles me because it underestimates a distinction that needs to be drawn more sharply. In the space remaining, I will try to draw that distinction and then voice an anxiety I have, an anxiety that is not among those Miller shrewdly and usefully anticipates. The distinction I have in mind is that between, on the one hand, technology used as a supplement to what I do face-to-face with my students and, on the other hand, technology used as a substitute for that face-to-face exchange. Miller brushes this distinction in her paragraph anticipating the objection that the new technologies will cost more, not less: "It is also true that technology will cost more than traditional modes of instruction even in the long run if it is used merely to supplement them, instead of as a way to free faculty to do what only they can do." Miller then maneuvers around this problem of cost with her witty image of the virtual log: "The crucial decision to be made is when technology can be used for instruction and when nothing will substitute for a professor on one end of a log, even when it is a virtual log, and a student on the other."
I'm confused. First, Miller distinguishes between using technology as a supplement and using it to free faculty "to do what only they can do," a phrase that presumably means something other than operate within "traditional modes of instruction." Second, she distinguishes between moments when students can use technology for instruction and moments when they must be able to talk to a professor, apparently by electronic mail or on the Internet (the virtual log). In the case of the first distinction, I would argue that using technology as a supplement does free me to do what I do, which is to show (the etymological meaning of "teach") students various aspects of both the material I am teaching them and the processes by which they can understand that material. In the case of the second distinction, I would argue that it is not a distinction at all. If students are talking to a professor only electronically, then they are using technology for instruction. Meanwhile, the distinction I am urging is crudely literal. Either students and teachers spend real time together in the same place, or they do not. Technoliteracy that supplements or enhances the former situation I affirm; technoliteracy that brings about the latter situation I fear. I should add that I suspect my fear is both pedagogical and political.
Let me give two examples of using technology to supplement or enhance face-to-face meetings in a classroom, one from the past and one from the future. During the fall of 1993, I launched graduate and undergraduate versions of a course called "Representations of the Civil War." Midway through the graduate seminar, ENAM 985, it became clear to all of us in the class that our conversations refused to fit neatly into our weekly two-and-a-half-hour meetings. Either people had more to say about matters we did discuss, or they wanted to introduce matters we did not. Following the innovative example of my colleague Steve Arata, I set up an e-mail network for the class. Although I know that some teachers require (and grade) e-mail correspondence, I decided to keep the atmosphere informal and spontaneous, so I made it clear that using e-mail was entirely optional and that all kinds of statements, queries, or research discoveries were welcome. Furthermore, I decided in my own mind that this new electronic realm belonged primarily to the students and accordingly kept the intrusions of my own voice to a minimum.
Most members of this seminar would agree, I think, that with the use of electronic mail we took a giant step forward. Both the quantity and quality of electronic discussion astonished me. By the end of the course, I had to leave an extra hour or two every week just to read all the correspondence, as well as to print out various contributions I wanted to save. Most gratifying was the experience of watching one student, who remained reticent in class all along, become positively gregarious on the e-waves. Since shy, quiet students have always fallen into the shadow of my particular pedagogical blind spot, I felt happy that we had discovered a satisfying way to enable him to contribute, and his contributions, especially in the area of the economic background of the Civil War, were extensive. Meanwhile, the quality of our face-to-face time rose sharply, since now we met each other already buzzing with ideas and responses about not only the books I assigned but also the electronic correspondence I did not. Each week we focused and honed a conversation already in progress.
Encouraged by this first experiment with using technology as a supplement, I am now anticipating a second. During the fall of 1995, I will be team-teaching a 200-level version of the Civil War course with Ed A,vers of the History Department. Over the last few years, Ed has been assembling a hypertext archive of materials relating to the wartime experience of people in Staunton, Virginia, and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania: census rolls, newspapers, military rosters, maps, and diaries. Although our syllabus is still emerging, we have agreed to make use of this hypertext archive. One possible use could come with a unit on the battle of Chancellorsville (May 1863). Since several regiments from both Staunton and Chambersburg saw action at Chancellorsville, we could send students on various electronic odysseys in search of differing perspectives on the battle, not only northern and southern, but also male and female or public (newspaper) and private (diary). Then when the students have returned with their finds, we can set their discoveries against the most famous literary treatment of Chancellorsville, Stephen Crane's novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), which we will discuss together in class. To predict success in this venture is to risk repeating the catastrophic irony of Joseph Hooker rashly predicting success before Chancellorsville, but to say that never before have I looked forward to a fall semester with such a sense of adventure is to tell the truth.
I have dwelt at length on these two examples of my own pedagogical experiments with technoliteracy to try to anticipate the criticism that what follows are nothing more than the reactionary sputterings of a technophobe. I do not fear the machine at which I sit typing these words. In fact, I wish I had had one fifteen years ago when I was getting my dissertation off the ground. Furthermore, I do not fear that this machine or its descendants will put me out of work, although it may transform the nature of that work in ways I cannot now imagine. Perhaps I am naive in my confidence, but unless someone develops a machine to teach students how to use machines, which would seem to be an impossibility, a human teacher will still be necessary to point the way into the electronic world.
What then is my anxiety? It is that in this period of drastically diminished support for public higher education too many people will come to confuse the pedagogically innovative with the financially expedient, a confusion that will result in using technology not as an expensive supplement to real time in a classroom but as a cheap substitute for that real time. What is more, I fear that legislators and administrators will market this cheap substitute to us under the heading of pedagogical improvement so strenuously that many will come to believe them and unwittingly acquiesce to the degradation and impoverishment of American higher education. I speak now not only as a teacher, but also as a citizen and a parent.
Consider this passage from John Henry Newman's "What Is a University ?" (1854), a passage in which Newman is considering the difference between learning from books and learning from people. Recalling Miller's reminder that books are technology, too, think of "e-mail" or "the Internet" when you read "book": " [N] o book can convey the special spirit and delicate peculiarities of its subject with that rapidity and certainty which attend on the sympathy of mind with mind, through the eyes, the look, the accent, and the manner, in casual expression thrown off at the moment, and the unstudied turns of familiar conversation.... The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the color, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already."(3) What Newman celebrates here in-the sonorous periods of his-premeditated prose arc the unpremeditated effects of physical presence. Admittedly, in Newman's life at Trinity College, Oxford, physical presence would have belonged to the lecture hall, the chapel, the dining hall, or the small tutorial, not to an American-style classroom.(4) But the vivid terms in which he describes the phenomenology of personal exchange apply to our classes as well. No,l have not forgotten Miller's hellish image of "the lecture hall with bolted-down seats and a passive audience of hundreds." I have hated my share of such lecture halls, both as a student and as a teacher. Nor have I forgotten the "concrete active learners" who find themselves at a disadvantage on timed examinations. I have also hated my share of timed examinations, again both as a student and as a teacher.
But in her argument Miller urges me to be deeply self-reflective about my habits and beliefs, and when I do reflect deeply, what I come up with is the firm belief, the bedrock belief, that the teachers who taught me the most, not only about their subjects but also about living my life, are those who embodied and lived the life of the mind right in front of me, people whose physical presence represented to me values that are sometimes congruent but sometimes at odds with the values of a culture built primarily on pragmatism, productivity, and profit. Ask any streetwise undergraduate what the best courses are, and he or she will respond by rattling off a list of professors, not a list of books or assignments or hypertext archives. Every year I ask my graduating advisees what they wish had been different about their undergraduate years, and every year I hear various versions of the same response: I wish I had gotten to know my professors better. Yes, the demographic profile of American college students will change, as more and more older students fill our classes, but this hunger to become better acquainted with people in whom the life of study lives already will not.
Or at least I hope not. In fact, it may be that the need for personal contact, forgetting to know others as people, is something that the shift from literacy to technoliteracy will cause us to evolve away from, as the shift from orality to literacy caused us to evolve away from needing, and so being able, to carry Homer's Odyssey in our memories. As a possible analogue for this evolution, my own experience with telephone answering machines comes to mind. I was among the first of my acquaintances to own an answering machine many years ago, and I found that the people who called became flustered and confused when they got the machine instead of me. But now, after many years of speaking into answering machines, many of these same people become just as flustered and confused when I actually answer in person. Does this small example suggest that if we do turn to technology as a substitute for the real classroom, we will soon adapt to learning as isolatoes and no longer crave the community of the classroom?
If so, then I fear that the gravest danger lies here, in the scenario of everyone learning only at home and only at his or her own convenience. In trying to articulate this fast fear, I feel myself sliding from the pedagogical, and only implicitly political, to the explicitly political. I hear myself trying to enter a conversation that leads back from the current debate about a Third Wave Information Age to the earlier debate about a Second Wave Industrial Age, a debate that includes William Godwin's argument in Political Justice (1793; 3rd ed. 1798) that technological innovation will bring with it the welcome lessening of people's need to rely on one another: "Hereafter it is by no means clear, that the most extensive operations will not be within the reach of one man; or, to make use of a familiar instance, that a plough may not be turned into a field, and perform its office without the need of superintendence."(5) But rather than undertake-the kind of massive theorizing I have already admitted to be beyond me (concrete active learner that I am?), I will sidle up to the political by means of an anecdote that recalls Miller's opening encounter with a foreigner. In my case, however, the foreigner is not an irate Frenchman but a benevolent Greek.
During the first half of 1993, I taught American literature as a Fulbright Lecturer at Ionian University, Corfu, Greece. At Easter time, the population of Corfu swells with thousands of people coming from all over Greece to celebrate the highest holy day in the Greek Orthodox calendar. It is hard for an American (or at least for this American) to comprehend the magnitude of a religious celebration that means something to ninety-eight percent of the people in a country, and Orthodox Easter is huge, combining elements of American Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve, and the Fourth of July. The climax of the celebration comes at midnight on Holy Saturday, when the Metropolitan proclaims to twenty- or thirty-thousand people assembled on the Esplanade that Christ is risen, whereupon everyone lights a candle and fireworks explode over the harbor of Corfu. As one might easily imagine, this scene cannot be recommended for someone who feels phobic in large crowds. After the last firework had flared and fizzled out, I turned to my Greek friend, George (Giorgos) and asked him, as I would have in America after, say, attending a sports event, "Should we-wait for the crowd to thin out?" George looked me in the eye, smiled, and answered, "We are the crowd."
Not all democracies are created identical, and my time in Greece taught me that to the Greeks, who take pride in having invented the form of government that Jefferson idealized, even if they have not been able to sustain it without interruption since 1776, democracy appears to mean that everyone has the right to be included. For example, my Greek students were both puzzled and amused by reports that the great United States was distracting itself with debate over the status of gays in the miliary. Meanwhile, to Americans democracy appears to mean that everyone has the right to be left alone. As a result, we spend much, if not most, of our time trying to secure our aloneness. We go in for answering machines, no-trespassing signs, and lawsuits about the violation of privacy.
What does the anecdotal chat have to do with technoliteracy and higher education? Just this: The educational analogue of a Third Wave democracy decentralized by technology is a decentralized university that students no longer have to visit in person. Of course, Miller welcomes the decentralization of the university, using terms that barely conceal her antipathy toward the educational present: "As colleges move into this brave new world that is opening in such disturbing and exciting ways, elite institutions will no longer be defined as those that teach privileged eighteen to twenty-three-year-olds on manicured campuses." Citing as an example of decentralization the proposed TELETECHNET at Old Dominion University, Miller exults, "The walls of the cloister have begun the irreversible process of crumbling."
Bristling with the same kinds of rhetorical barbs that Third Wavers unleash against a centralized government in Washington, Miller's vision of crumbled cloisters and curtailed elitism sounds both progressive and egalitarian. And to be fair, to some extent it is, as in the case of someone who could not afford to come to the University of Virginia but who had access to the interactive television that may be a fixture of my classroom in another few years. But in her rejoicing over crumbling cloisters, Miller seems to have forgotten that the irreversible process of transformation has been under way at colleges and universities for a full generation. As George Keller points out in remarks on demographic change and higher education, "Since the 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act, the United States has been undergoing the greatest surge in immigrants in its history."(6) Each year this surge, along with other social and demographic changes, brings into our supposedly elite cloisters more and more students with very different backgrounds.
In other words, the colleges and universities that Miller caricatures as elite cloisters with manicured campuses are rapidly becoming the only places where Americans can go to meet other Americans who are different from themselves. Before we crow too loudly about the decentralizing of colleges and universities by means of technology, we would do well to ask ourselves what other places we have to meet and mix with one another. When I contemplate the prospect of my children receiving an education that consists mostly of sitting before a machine in the same house in which they grew up, I worry deeply for them and for the country they will inherit. My worry is not so much that they will turn into machines, a worry Miller anticipates, but that if anybody with a computer can get an education in his or her own home at his or her own convenience, then everybody will stay home, confirmed in separateness. We will forget that we are the crowd. We will forget that "education" is not a synonym for "information" and that "educated" means "led out" from the narrowness of one's own perspective into a larger world of other people's perspectives.
Most important of all' we will forget that lessening our dependence on one another means one thing when it comes to plowing a field but something very different, and potentially disastrous, when it comes to confronting social problems we share. On the wall of the Fulbright office in Athens hangs this quotation from J. William Fulbright, who died while I was writing my response: "The exchange program is the thing that reconciles me to all the difficulties of political life. It's the only activity that gives me some hope that the human race won't commit suicide, though I still wouldn't count on it." In many important ways, our colleges and universities provide-Americans with a domestic version of the foreign exchange program. Those-who reread Fulbright's confession of faith, substituting "Education in the presence of others" for "The exchange program," may come to understand some of the urgency with which I have been arguing for the limited and qualified use of technology in higher education.
(1) Michael Kelly, "Rip It Up," New Yorker (23 January 1995), 36.
(2) A. R. Ammons, Collected Poems 1951-1971 (New York, 1972), p. 148.
(3) John Henry Newman, "What Is a University?" Originally published during 1854 in the Dublin Catholic University Gazette as tire second of a series of articles, but for my text I have relied on The Victorian Age, ed. John Wilson Bowyer and John Lee Brooks (Englewood Cliffs, NJ., 1954), p. 223.
(4) Thanks to Jessica Feldman for a conversation about mid-nineteenth-century life at Oxford.
5 William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, ed. F. E. L. Priestly (Toronto, 1946), 2: 502-4.
(6) George Keller, "The Impact of Demographic and Social Changes on Higher Education and the Creation of Knowledge," Changes in the Context for Creating Knowledge, ACLS Occasional Paper, No. 26 (New York, 1994), 1.
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|Title Annotation:||response to Margaret A. Miller, this issue, p. 601|
|Publication:||New Literary History|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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