“Every man, woman and mutant on this planet shall know the truth about de-evolution.”

I have to admit that I became much more fond of Clay Shirky the moment that I found out that he occasionally reads this blog (or at least the last version of it). It’s not like I had anything particularly against him before. It’s just that I had only read a few of his articles and a couple of blog posts and all of it seemed a bit too technologically utopian for my taste.* Little did I realize that he has the same kinds of problems that I do:

The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

As a result, Shirky has banned electronic devices in his classes.

I sympathize. Indeed, I’ve been all over the place on precisely this question. What I settled on is a pretty simple general principle: different technologies for different classes. In classes which are mostly lectures (aka surveys), I’ve ask students who want to use a laptop to sit in the front row. Since I’m a walking lecturer as well as a lecturer who’s been doing the same survey class long enough to work without written notes, I can see who’s not paying attention. Since my survey classes aren’t huge, I can therefore do something about it if I see that anybody’s not paying attention.

Phones are a different matter entirely. I can’t imagine a single viable reason why anybody would have or want to take notes on their phone. Usually, they’ll bend over the desk or table, cradling their phone lovingly and try to be unseen. But come on! It’s kind of obvious what’s going on and it’s also rude as heck.

Yet I am now teaching a class where students have to bring their laptop to sessions. Indeed, without it, they’d be lost.

I. My own personal three-ring circus.

My time with the nice people at RRCNMH has been put to good use almost instantly. Having been forced to teach a forth class this semester and not wanting to do something conventional for fear of boring myself to death, I decided to teach a hybrid, experiential learning, digital humanities course based around the collections of our local corporate archives, the same one I wrote a book out of just a few years ago.

So far it’s been amazing in many sorts of ways. Since I had some experience with a few DH tools before, I knew that the great appeal is that you get to ponder entirely different kinds of questions than you do in ordinary classes. To borrow one from a few semesters ago in the early days of my wiki, should the sanitariums of old Colorado Springs be categorized as “Medical Facilities” or do they belong under the existing category of “Leisure?” [The class and I picked leisure.] The same kinds of questions are emerging already and the semester is only three weeks old.

More interestingly, the entire way that I teach has changed. It’s not just that I never expected to be paid to introduce undergraduates to digital tools like Dropbox or Omeka. It’s that it’s almost impossible to script any class in advance. For one thing, I have no idea what I’m doing from week-to-week so the agenda kind of arises organically from student blog posts and e-mails. I also have no idea how long reviewing any of these tasks are going to take.

The most interesting thing about the whole endeavor is the potential for students to teach me. After all, I literally have no idea what I’m doing. If they figure out a problem first then certainly I can learn from them. Then, when I do this again for my first undergraduate Colorado history course next semester, I might actually cease to feel like a fraud. At least for the moment I’m a fraud who’s enjoying himself.

It all sort of reminds me of an old Steven Wright joke: “You know how it feels when you lean back in your chair and you think you might fall over backwards and you don’t? I feel like that all the time.”

II. Shared governance rocks.

Sick person that I am, another thing that I do for enjoyment is read books about shared governance. OK, I know of only one book about shared governance, and when I read about it in IHE a while back I actually bought it. Since it’s written by a historian covering the history of this important (at least to us) subject, it has turned out to be more fun than I ever expected.

I don’t want to review Larry Gerber’s The Rise & Decline of Faculty Governance here (maybe if anybody reading this has a publication interested in such an essay, you can drop me a line?). What I do want to do is drop a lot of quotes. You see, Gerber starts with shared governance (or lack thereof) all the way back at the beginning of American higher education and reading old-timey professors complain is a little like that scene in The Shining where Jack Nicholson is looking at all the pictures on the wall and he sees the ghosts all around him in them. It’s hard to tell what era they (or you for that matter) are really occupying.

Here are a few examples:

A) Louis Aggassiz, 1874 (p. 26):

“I believe that there is no scientific man who will concede that there can be a university managed to the best advantage by anybody but those interested in its pursuits, and no body of trustees can be so interested.”

B) The Nation, 1881 (p. 29):

“…[The businessman trustee] wishes very much, indeed, that a college could be carried on without professors, and has a vague notion that by some sort of improvement in organization this result may some day be attained.”

C) William Channing Russel, President of Cornell, 1881 (after he was dismissed by the Board of Trustees there, p. 34).

“[Universities] are not business enterprises, nor are professors clerks or servants, nor have the Trustees any right to look down on them, ignore their claims, or treat them summarily…”

I could go on. Heck, I’m not even done with it yet. Who knows how many ripped-from-the-headlines kinds of academic controversies I’ll eventually find?

III. Jocko homo.

I swear I wasn’t going to read this book with a highlighter, but the quotes were just so good and they just kept coming that I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to be able to get back to them later. It’s not that I even expected to blog about them later, but eventually the link between tech and shared governance became very clear to me.

Human interaction matters. Human beings matter. As Nick Carr wrote earlier today, summarizing his new book:

I argue that we’ve embraced a wrong-headed and ultimately destructive approach to automating human activities, and in Apple’s let-the-software-do-the-talking feature we see a particularly disquieting manifestation of the reigning design ethic. Technical qualities are given precedence over human qualities, and human qualities come to be seen as dispensable.

That’s why teaching machines are a contradiction in terms.

But the people in charge don’t seem to understand that. The same way that Apple is pushing automated conversation on us, whether we want to or not, too many administrators are pushing automated education on us whether we need it or not. My class, if nothing else, has already demonstrated the importance of having a living, breathing professor around to help students with cold feet and to serve as a ringmaster in the three-ring circus.

Of course, if there’s only one path students can take then the ringmaster seems superfluous. That’s why this article from Slate about those textbook company course packages just scares me to death:

Creating online courses from scratch is expensive and time-consuming. When universities try to do it themselves, the results can be erratic. Some online classes wind up being not much more than grainy videos of lectures and a collection of PowerPoint slides.

Publishers have rushed in to fill the gap. They’ve been at the game longer, possess vast libraries of content from their textbook divisions, and have invested heavily in creating state-of-the-art course technology.

Faced with these alternatives, schools frequently choose the plug-and-play solution.

Unfortunately, in an online university which might have faculty scattered across the planet, shared governance is very difficult. In a university which makes vital technological decisions like which learning management system to use, shared governance does not exist in the traditional sense of that word. In a university that forces professors to use their e-mail system for professional correspondence or their web pages for conducting your course business, faculty prerogatives no longer exist.

Shared governance is the vehicle by which faculty can resist these and countless other similar developments. What’s technologically sophisticated may be pedagogically backward, and it’s up to the well-trained, tenured faculty of the world to tell the difference.

Anything else sounds like de-evolution to me.

* Indeed, if I’m really going to get into this education technology thing in a big way, I should probably read his books.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 2 Comments

    1. Jonathan Rees

      “There are some classes of human existence that are best kept away from the market and I think higher education is one of them.”? I think that’s absolutely right.

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