Posts Tagged Technology
Greetings from Chicago!
The leaves are starting to change color on campus and there is a chill in the air. Fall is slowly coming here to the windy city. We’re now more than half way through the semester at UIC and it shows on the faces of students and faculty. Everyone is ready for a break. If nothing else, it will get us away from the constant noise of construction that follows us from one space on campus to another. In the meantime, we press on.
My last blog post focused on my research. This one will be a bit of a grab bag. One of the major downsides to being a Full-Time Nontenured Faculty member is the lack of time for research. This semester I’m teaching four First Year Composition classes and its hard to find time in between course prep, grading, and meeting with students to read the sources I’ve collected from the library for my second book project. Right now, I’m slogging my way through an economic history of farming written by Willard W. Cochrane. His text is giving me a useful overview of the shift in farming practices over the course of US history. Careful notes are helping me remember where I left off each time I set the book down to counsel a student on the best way to format a literature review. I recognize, of course, that having any time at all to research is an oddity for most NTT Faculty, especially those who teach part-time. My situation as a Lecturer is far from ideal, but it is certainly an improvement to the days when I was paid by the course and had to travel in between campuses.
As with most things in life, the academic profession is a series of pluses and minuses. The minuses for me are the stagnant pay and lack of research opportunities. The pluses are the security of a yearly contract, benefits, course schedule, and now an increasing recognition of my past research on campus. It might not seem like much to outsiders, but my being assigned to teach a section of the Sophomore level American Literature survey (ENGL 243) is a major advancement not just for me but a sign of how work conditions are improving for NTT faculty in our department. I’ve also been invited to a faculty author’s reception hosted by the UIC Chancellor’s office to celebrate the publication of my first book (New Men) last year. This also is a major advancement in NTT conditions on campus since I was not recognized for a long time as a faculty member. Finally, there’s the fact that I am writing this blog as part of my duties as Director of American Literature for NEMLA, a position that has traditionally been held by TT faculty. So life is not all gloom and doom for those off the tenure track. Progress, I often have to remind myself, is incremental and not necessarily linear. I continue to advocate for NTT faculty and for nontraditional students on campus, planting seeds for trees I will probably never see fully grown.
Part of what has helped me become more integrated into my campus is hutzpah. If there’s something I’m interested in, I find a way to get involved. This was the case with a recent event discussing the construction plans for a new classroom building on the UIC campus. I saw the faculty massmail advertising the event and showed up, the only English faculty member and probably the only NTT faculty member in the room. The usual types were well-represented, of course, various Vice-Chancellors and diverse Deans of subject areas few can adequately comprehend. There were also a few TT faculty from Math and Chemistry as well as Engineering and Social Sciences. During this session, the designers explained the overall goal of their plan. They want to design a classroom that encourages “student-centered” learning. Normally phrases like that give me the creeps. They have this “edu-speak” ring to them that is common amongst folks who talk a lot about education but have never stepped into a classroom. This presentation, however, held my attention because it focused on how the physical design of a classroom might change (in a positive way) how faculty teach.
Physical design of classroom space at UIC is a frequent topic of conversation among our faculty. Usually in the form of complaints about how a classroom’s designs prohibit us from doing the type of teaching we would like to do. For years I’ve wanted to experiment with multi-modal composition in my writing classrooms but have been stymied by the lack of a good computer and projector to exhibit projects, poor wi-fi reliability, and classrooms that are too small for students to move around in comfortably to work. Our buildings at UIC were designed for an era when the lecture was king. In spite of our best efforts to increase the discussion/activity functions in teaching, the rooms often lead us back to the lecture because it’s easier to do so. So what would a class that makes lecturing hard if not impossible look like? I saw a few examples of this in the presenter’s mock up drawings.
The example most relevant to the size of the courses I teach (18-25 students) was a room that could hold a maximum of 35 students. That room had a white board in the front, a fixed computer podium, projector and interactive screen (i.e. a screen you can write on with dry erase markers). Students sat at square tables made from joining together two rectangular ones. Four students to a table. These were arranged throughout the room. On the side walls were touch screen televisions that could be used by students for break out sessions. Each television was connected to the main projector in the room as well as to the internet.
The whiteboard, podium, and projector set up still make it possible for a faculty member to lecture, but it is harder for students to see the material. They need to move around because they don’t sit in fixed rows oriented towards the front board. The room is also longer than it is wide, making it difficult to project your voice from front to back. Consequently, this room discourages faculty from talking to the class as a whole and encourages them to move away from the podium to walk among their students and check in with individual groups. This is something that I already try to do in my composition classes. The square footprint of our classrooms, however, make it harder for me to do this. The room fits exactly 24 students (according to fire code) and that is the number I have. Add backpacks and winter coats and it soon becomes impossible for anyone to move about in the room. A 35 person room with 24 students in it would be like heaven. Adding technology to the room and more natural light would simply be a bonus. I can imagine providing students in a classroom such as this with a task to complete in a set period of time. I would then check in with each group as they work and show the entire class particularly unique methods to addressing the task.
Of course, there are obvious drawbacks to the design proposals I saw. One is the assumption that all our students have laptops or tablets that function like laptops. The digital divide is real on our campus and is only slowly being addressed. You can’t complete homework assignments on a smartphone even though many students try to do this. Another is maintenance. Lincoln Hall is currently one of the most advanced classroom buildings on our campus and its technology is fast becoming outdated and very beat up through heavy use. I’m constantly having to reconnect or jiggle loose cables and find adaptors to connect new devices that no longer have VGA or standard sized HDMI ports. Finally, design alone cannot drive pedagogy. It can force us to think more carefully about how we teach, but only faculty meeting with other faculty can hash out what the role of the lecture should be in each course and discipline and how it should relate to more active learning techniques.
All of this brings me to my conclusion for this post, which is a question. What does your ideal classroom look like? Mine would be large enough to have zones for distinct modes of learning. One zone would have a circle of desk/chair combos near a white board for lecture/discussion. Another zone would have tables and chairs for writing and research. And yet another would have comfortable chairs for students to sit and read, thinking through their understanding of a concept. Students could move freely through this space depending on what task they needed to accomplish. My syllabus would reflect this. Each day would emphasize a certain mode of learning and blend them together as needed. At least one wall would provide natural light that could be filtered or blocked to allow showing films and videos. There would also be ample storage for student backpacks and coats so that they don’t have to be placed on the floor.
Multiple focal points in a room. Multiple modes of learning in a syllabus. These are my goals. We’ll see if the new classroom building UIC constructs makes this possible. In the meantime, we make do with the tools at hand.
Until next time….
I hope that you all had a Happy Thanksgiving and are on track for a successful end to your fall semester. After getting back from a visit with my in-laws in Springfield, Illinois, I find myself swimming furiously in a sea of student papers, articles and manuscripts in need of peer review, and revision of my own writing. There’s also the constant rush of students in and out of my office now that they’ve discovered (belatedly) the location of my office as well as my posted office hours. Ah, the glamorous life of the academic. ; )
In my last blog post, I focused on the use of Twitter for academic purposes. This month I’d like to discuss the use of electronic texts in the classroom. Among my colleagues at UIC, there is a robust debate over whether it is appropriate at all to invite the use of electronic devices in the undergraduate classroom. Some faculty choose to prohibit phones, tablets, and laptops from their classrooms and require students to purchase hard copies of books and print out articles for discussion in class. Other faculty on campus only use electronic texts, print sources than have been scanned or coded into an electronic format or sources that only exist electronically.
My approach is a hybrid of these two poles. Certain books I prefer to have students buy in hard copy or print out. These are typically sources that we will be reading closely or analyzing multiple times. Other resources, mostly contextual in nature, I prefer students to access electronically as needed. The rationale behind this decision does have some research to back it up, but is based largely on my teaching experience as well as feedback I have received from students. “Close reading,” “Analytical Reading,” “Hermeneutics,” call it what you will, depends upon a form of deep concentration that it is hard for us to achieve when we are scrolling up and down a computer screen. True (as Franco Moretti points out) readers have been engaged in superficial readings of texts for as long as humans have been writing language down. However, it is just too easy for me to shift to Facebook, Twitter, or another document when reading an electronic text or skim rapidly across the words on the screen without registering much beyond the “gist” of what I have read. With a book or article in hand, I feel pressure to go back over text my eyes have lazily gazed over and highlight/annotate the parts of the text that seem significant.
Students in my courses have generally agreed with this assessment. Contra Cathy Davidson whose most recent book, Now You See It, champions the benefits of distraction, students on the UIC campus have complained to me about how hard it is to focus with their phones buzzing and pinging with updates and notifications from various apps. They have also found the technological limits of wifi, software compatibility, and device battery life a challenge. We joked in my Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory course several semester’s ago that the main vulnerabilities of the codex as interface are water and fire. Other than that, as long as you don’t lose the book or print article, you’re good to go.
These significant drawbacks to the electronic text have often left me skeptical about the best way to use them (if at all). As I mentioned earlier, the main ways in which I have found electronic texts useful have been contextual in nature. This includes bringing historical documents such as newspaper articles, letters, photographs, and maps into the classroom. These supplementary texts help us better understand the social background of the writings we are analyzing. Another effective use of electronic texts has been when a work is otherwise unavailable in print for students to read. Most of the authors I teach and research are now part of the public domain, making their work freely accessible for all to distribute in whatever way they see fit. What better way to appreciate the literary context that influenced an author’s aesthetic than to read the works of his or her contemporaries for comparison.
Perhaps the greatest source of influence in my decision on whether or not to assign an electronic text, however, has not been pedagogical at all. Instead it has been driven by the rising cost of student textbooks. The anthology I used in my Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory cost students on average $115 to buy. Renting the book lowered the cost to around $70. This might not seem like much in comparison to texts in other courses that can cost significantly more or software programs that students are required to buy for majors in the architecture and the sciences. Yet the cost adds up over time. Whenever I assign a print book or article, I make sure that we are in fact going to read the text exhaustively. That it is in ever sense a “required” text for the course. Anything that might even be vaguely considered supplemental, reference oriented, or “recommended” is assigned in an electronic format to save costs.
Now at this point it is worth acknowledging the hidden and often not so hidden cost of e-texts. Publishers come by my office on a near constant basis around this time of the year, particularly Pearson. They are more than eager to sell my students access to proprietary websites that mediate between them and the things they will be reading. One example is MyReadingLab. The allure of such technology is that it lessens my workload in and out of the classroom. But is it worth the cost? To me, at least, it isn’t. I would rather find online resources that are either free or more affordable and link students to them via our course management site, Blackboard. There is also the transfer of costs to students in printing fees, my xerox budget has been cut dramatically by my department, as well as the cost of buying a device to read electronic texts on. Sure, a sizable number of our students have smartphones today, but who wants to read a novel on a iPhone? Even youthful eyes are strained reading that tiny print.
The only honest way to conclude a discussion of electronic texts in the classroom is to admit that the data is mixed. Their are numerous disadvantages to moving away from print texts but there are also many benefits. I hope to have a fruitful discussion on both during my round table presentation in Hartford on “required texts” and “authoritative” editions of literary works. In the meantime, if you have been using electronic texts successfully or unsuccessfully in the literature classroom, let me know. If you haven’t tried using them at all, experiment with a few this spring. Teaching and scholarship after all are a great adventure. Why else would we keep slogging along through the seemingly endless writings by students and colleagues that call for our attention on an almost daily basis?
In my next blog post, I intend to revisit my comments on Pearson and other educational resource providers (including Blackboard). What should scholars know when they enter the market for educational technology? How can we choose the tools that make sense for our pedagogy when we are limited by lack of knowledge, money, and sometimes institutional bureaucracy?
Until next time….
Our examination in class of the Digital Humanities has shown the difference between visions of what this movement might mean to the Discipline of English. The makers of digital tools, the old guard of Humanities Computing, still provide a compelling case for the need to actually create something in order to consider yourself a Digital Humanist. Users of existing digital tools show how reading and scholarship are rapidly shifting due to technological advances. And Critics, well, they are struggling to catch up. What would a critical theory of the Digital Humanities look like and is it needed?
Although there are many objections to the Digital Humanities as a field of study, I think one major point of contention is the rapidity with which digital projects come and go. To the less technically inclined this seems a waste of scarce resources of both time and money. Why go to such great…
View original post 414 more words
Much of the research on the “digital divide” focuses on individual users and demographic groups that have traditionally had limited access to technology. A recent study by the Pew Research Center continues this trend. Their findings indicate that thanks to mobile technology, specifically the smart phone, internet use among all social groups is increasing. Fear of technology is also fading as once excluded groups learn digital literacy.
Although these studies are heartening to read, indicating gradual progress towards greater access to technology for all citizens, they fail to take into account the digital divide that exists within educational institutions. While television, radio, and internet news providers have been busy bashing the teacher’s unions and tearing apart the educational policies of “No Child Left Behind,” precious little has been said about the uneven technological infrastructure of our nation’s schools.
For every school with access to i Pads and state of the art computer labs, there are hundreds with only a handful of aging computers (usually in the library) that are available on a first come first served basis for internet research and word processing. This problem is endemic throughout the current educational system, reaching as far as the ranks of higher education.
Right now I am writing this blog post at home on my personal laptop. Partially this decision was made voluntarily, as I wanted to write during the evening in the comfort of my home and not use work resources for non-work related activities. Even if I had wanted to write this post earlier at work, however, I could not.
I share an office at my institution with four other Non-Tenure Track Faculty (NTT as we’re calling them these days). At one point, we had a desktop computer that was five years old. Not surprisingly given the CPU intensive nature of WEB 2.0, this machine died during the summer semester.
In its place, next to the CRT monitor (i.e. the kind that looks like an old TV), mouse, and keyboard of the old computer, sits a seven-year old laptop–a PowerBook G4. This machine was wrangled from the department after over a month of hectoring our IT guy. I had never even heard of this particular brand of Apple laptop so I took the time to search for information about the system on Wikipedia. It turns out that the “new” computer in my office is the precursor to the now ubiquitous Mac Book.
With its limited CPU power and an outdated browser, the most I can do with this laptop is check my email and read websites that aren’t overly graphics heavy or interactive. On most days I go upstairs to the computer lab and wait to use one of the three computers in our departmental computer lab. I also have the option (unlike most of my colleagues) of using the computer in my other office where I serve as an undergraduate studies program assistant.
Added to these frustrations is the lack of wireless internet access in either of my offices, which prohibits me from bringing my personal i Pad to work and getting around the technological limitations of my work space. At one point, I was able to “hack” my way into the network by plugging the internet cable in my teaching office into my own laptop, but as of today our internet connection there is down. This also makes it impossible to use the telephone in that room as my institution switched a few years ago from regular phone service to VOIP (voice over internet protocol).
If we move from my early twentieth century office into the classrooms where I teach, the situation is only slightly better. In a course I designed to teach digital literacy and multi-modal writing to my students, the most advanced technology in any of my three classrooms is a flat screen monitor with a VGA cable that allows me to plug in my own laptop and display its screen on a 25″ television. Wireless access is available in all three rooms, but that assumes that my students can afford to bring their own technology to class as I have.
“Plug and Play” is better than nothing in a world where technological access is no longer a luxury but a precondition for education to take place. Yet it places the burden of technology’s cost on the students and educators. Not only is this unfair, it also sends a strange message to our students: “You need to be educated for the jobs of the 21st century, but we will not provide the tools.” No wonder self-learning is coming back into fashion. Why pay for school when you can buy a laptop and let the internet teach you the skills needed to survive in a tech-driven world?
Now I should perhaps qualify my statement/rant above by reiterating the fact that I am a NTT faculty member. I’m also an English Professor. Perhaps things are different for the TT faculty in my department or are significantly better in other programs at my institution. My suspicion, however, is that while the technological infrastructure might be less antiquated than what I described above it is still inadequate to meet student needs.
When we talk about the digital divide, we need to remember that surfing the internet is a skill easily learned alone at home. Using the web to your advantage, however, is a skill that should be learned collectively in the classroom. Regrettably, this can’t happen when many educators work in an environment designed to teach Baby Boomers to fight the Red Menace.
After reading Cathy Davidson’s book Now You See It, a work that examines the potential of technology to reshape the ways in which we learn and work, I thought it would be beneficial to get the other side of the story. Sherry Turkle’s new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other provides a perspective that is vastly different from that of Davidson and other Digital Humanists who see technology as a way to enhance our humanness and connect with each other in more productive ways.
Turkle sees technology as a hindrance to meaningful human interaction. First examining humanoid robots and then exploring social media, she argues that what we are seeing in both instances is simply ourselves. Both the robot and our lists of “followers” or “friends” simply reflect back at us what we want to see. We are talking to ourselves and they (i.e. our electronic audience) applaud our performance. And, what’s more, on those occasions when we do receive a negative review they are easily unfriended or ignored.
The consequences of the shift in our emotional relationship to technology are far-reaching, according to Turkle. Most importantly, they remove mutuality from any discussion of human behavior. Everything we do is directed one way with little thought of the consequences or the response. The speed of communication also insures that thoughts will come and go as fast as leaves blowing in a strong wind. Reaction rather than sustained thought, acquaintance rather than true friendship are the rules of the day.
Turkle’s book is not meant to offer solutions to these problems but instead to outline them and offer an explanation as to their origin. On this latter point she is uniquely qualified as she has written two previous books on the connection between humans and technology–The Second Self and Life on the Screen. Turkle readily admits that she has grown increasingly pessimistic about technology as she written on the subject over time. In this third book she shows how humans have increasingly become more like machines even as machines have become more like us. Thus making the famous Turing test besides the point. We are all bots now, is the constant refrain of her text. In making this claim she shows an unlikely affinity to Neil Postman, the cranky humanist whose 1992 book Technopoly deftly outlined how humans had become the tools of their tools. Her conclusion seems to be that if more people feel the same concern she does, we will step back from the ledge and find ways to make technology work for us in ways that foster human interaction rather than mediate it.
As with Turkle’s two previous books on the subject, Alone Together is well researched. My only complaint involves the overall structure of the book, which is confusing at times. Her division of the text into one section on humanoid robots and another on social media feels artificial and makes the work appear to be two smaller texts stitched together. Additionally, there is a considerable amount of repetition in each chapter that suggests a need for more editing. The book could have been cut by at least 60 pages and still made its point effectively.
That said, Turkle’s book is worth reading by those who are suspicious about technology as well as those who embrace it with open arms. She leaves the reader much to think about and paints a damning portrait of how humans have let each other down while using technology as an excuse. One cannot help but think that Marx would approve.