September 30, 2013
An Open Letter to Our College President on the Digitization of Learning
From The Cheapskate Intellectual
Thank you for being a thoughtful leader and serious colleague who has invited us to wrestle with the challenges and opportunities facing us and all other colleges these days. At your State of the College Address this year, you introduced us to “the Five Disruptors” of higher education these days: the student cost-and-debt spiral; the digitization of learning; the regrouping of American communities, including faith communities; the changing profile of prospective students; and the measurement of educational excellence by learning results. I’m writing to speak in a more organized way than I can usually manage from the floor at a faculty meeting, because I’m hoping to serve and develop our conversation about the one “disruptor” that seems to me most intimately and problematically linked with the others: the digitization of learning. More specifically, I’d like to name what seem to me our frequent (and, to me, problematic) assumptions as faculty that technology, as it makes its way into our classrooms, our admissions efforts, and our and our students’ lives, is part of “progress” and therefore cannot (or should not) be resisted; that adapting the latest device or platform is necessarily productive in all areas of our lives and work; and that electronic media are cognitively, socially, and pedagogically neutral, always able to complement without co-opting the nature of the work we are privileged to engage in here. I believe that each of these assumptions is wrong.
The notion that using technology is inevitably a marker of progressive thinking, good teaching, and general forward-looking-ness for a college seems to me to be one of the last unchallenged assumptions in higher education – ironic and sad for an enterprise that depends for its life on leading all of us to see and reevaluate our paradigms and assumptions, every day. “Don’t just be a swimming fish,” I tell my own students (especially first-years), “learn to see the water, too – that’s what being an educated person is all about.” Yet even as many of us shake our heads at K-12 initiatives that seek to improve cognitive skills by first putting an Ipad in every student’s hands (at the same time as arts programs and library budgets are cut), we accept far too often that digital media should have a place in our classroom and are inevitably necessary and helpful in our work as they are in our lives beyond the classroom – to say nothing of their “necessity” for marketing purposes. To accede too easily to prevailing modes of being and doing could mean acceding to what educator Lowell Monke has called “a common disregard for one of schooling’s most important tasks: to compensate for, rather than intensify, society’s excesses.” Since college is one of the last (if not the last) places where our increasingly Iphone-enslaved students can be helped to examine cultural norms and their effect on individual minds (including the constant demand for entertainment and small bites of information that the Internet and electronic devices have helped create in them), we owe it to them to point out what else is possible for them, and what they are missing in a life conducted largely online. As writers like Nicholas Carr, among others, have pointed out, the Internet is far from neutral in its effect on our individual consciousnesses and capacities for attention (which it flattens, fragments, or “shallows”), our capacities for presence, dignity, and awareness in interactions with others (which suffer from the cognitive reduction of people to things and ideas to soundbites that media like TV, video games, and Internet, by their very nature, tend to wreak), and how we spend (and are able to spend) our time. It is not neutral, and it is not without effects on our personal, educational, and civic lives, in more ways than we know. Our students, often without quite realizing it, are seeking other ways of seeing, thinking, and being in the world than what has become their “new normal” of techno-stimulation and subsequent jadedness. I’m coming to believe that if we, their college professors – especially within the liberal arts tradition of inquiry towards richer meaning in our world – cannot show them alternatives, then no one can, or will.
This is perhaps the place to point out that despite my techno-skepticism, I do use technology as a tool, and I’m not blind to the irony of my own doubts about it. I run a blog, I use email and Facebook, I publish in online literary journals, and I use an online course module to disseminate course resources and enable online discussions, although like several of my colleagues I’m nervous about what would happen to us all if that module, on which we are now so dependent, were to crash, and I smile somewhat sadly at the professional reality that using these tools enriches my perceived “market value” as a teacher and a writer. My issue is with what happens to professors and students when we allow ourselves to lose sight of the fact that technology is still just a tool, to be deployed with exceptional mindfulness and care in helping students develop intellectual and emotional independence, curiosity, and humility. “But we are mindful of this,” colleagues will protest, and rightly so. “We do care.” Yet I wish that higher education in general and the humanities in particular (the natural home, I think, of the kind of fine-grained, humanly-complex, countercultural pressure I’m advocating) were more thoughtfully aggressive about pushing back against the new normal of omnipresent technology rather than (in various ways) acceding to it as “reality.” When I have made deliberate efforts to discuss (and push back) against this “reality” in my own classrooms (and retooled my creative writing classes, for instance, along these lines), students have responded with initial bewilderment (“What do you mean, technology’s doing things to my brain?”) followed by dawning realization (“It’s true – it does feel different in my head when I take a walk, in silence, with no Iphone or headphones! I’ve never really done this before!”) and increasingly far-reaching and thoughtful personal transformation (“Clicking away to Facebook while I’m writing has gotten to be a bad habit – now I keep that window closed” or “I’ve never kept a notebook and pen in my pocket to write things down before – now I notice more and do a lot more writing because of that.”) Students who have learned to unhook from and examine our new social assumptions about the way life and experience must be mediated through technology have come a long way toward the independence of thought and capacity for self-analysis that will make them flexible, curious people for the rest of their lives, able to navigate changing worlds based on internal rather than merely external compasses. Surviving the twenty-first century, intellectually and psychologically, will depend, I think, on being able to interpret and make one’s own decisions about the tsunami of information and advertising and messages and “media” now washing over us from every direction; passivity, credulity, and discomfort with nuance, which are encouraged by the very nature of such media, are more dangerous to our lives as people and citizens in our complex world than they’ve ever been.
Yet for corporations – alarmingly influential in higher education, as in government – passivity, credulity, and adherence to the needs of the moment are profitable and desirable. Almost the first thing one reads in Jeffrey Selingo’s College Unbound, which you have helpfully suggested to us, is a quote from Jennifer Fremont-Smith, described as “the cofounder of Smarterer, a Boston-based start-up that offers technology for validating technical skills on everything from social media to Microsoft Office programs.” “In other industries, ‘those who don’t innovate go out of business,’” Fremont-Smith says. “Higher ed shouldn’t be different.” This quote is surrounded by descriptions of anxious universities partnering with industry to tailor curricula to that industry’s needs, producing workers for that industry: in 2011 a Stanford professor and Google’s director of research “offered their graduate-level artificial intelligence course online for free” and drew 160,000 students – the top thousand of whom were invited to send the professor their resumes so he could pass them on to Silicon Valley tech companies. The University of North Texas “called in the management consulting firm Bain & Company, famous for helping corporate America restructure its operations, to assist the university in designing the college of the future for its branch campus in Dallas. The model shaped by Bain called for a limited number of majors ties to the needs of the local economy (such as business and information technology.)” You needn’t be a confirmed corporate skeptic like me (I’m currently working against frac-sand mining in the anti-environmental “regulatory” environment born from the marriage of corporations and government) to question the sanity of pinning your institution’s future to the needs of a protean business world, and of becoming the handmaidens of entities that have – to say the least – not always acted responsibly. Remember the first Internet boom and crash around the turn of the millenium? Remember when going to work on Wall Street was not only a “sure thing” but at least vaguely socially respectable? If the “local economy” suddenly shifts, what internal equipment will those students be left with to respond to the changes? Yet I have no doubt that the “forward thinking” that is driving those business-partnership decisions is born of the other great unquestioned assumption in American life, that corporate partnership is always a positive good. Universities are about helping students build independent minds, selves, even souls. When we say “rich lives,” we’re not talking about money – but that’s the only language corporations recognize. Like technology, the inherent qualities of corporate partnership inherently undermine the nature of what is – necessarily – our countercultural work, focused on cultivating the unguessable, unquantifiable, inward, and defiantly unprofitable texture of the individual. And technology is one of the forces that can smooth away that texture to make the individual little more than a good consumer.
As the late, great anti-mountaintop-removal-mining activist Judy Bonds asked, “If coal mining is so good for us hillbillies, why are we so poor?” If assessments, measurements, scores, and the like are so all-encompassing and reliable as the way to measure what students are doing, how can I account for the unquantifiable thing I see among even the best-measured, highest-scoring students I teach – a longing for meaning, a sense that the affluent, technologically-smoothed society they’re living in is cheating them out of some rich texture of experience on this Earth? If technology is such an unmitigated good for human beings, why hasn’t it eradicated rather than (as the philosopher Hannah Arendt claimed) exacerbated war, oppression, and their fundamental cause – the notion that with technology all obstacles to whatever one desires, including other people, can be engineered away? For instance, I believe another of the “disruptors” we’ve discussed – the “regrouping of American communities” – is linked to and even exacerbated by technology: even as American public life fragments into individual living rooms lit by TV sets, cognitively rich educational and even life experiences (digital and not) are becoming the domain of children and families with money. Affluent schools at all levels are able to provide carefully designed activities and contact with teachers – the hands-on variety of pedagogies and experiences, including contact with caring adults, that has been shown to improve not only children’s social skills but the literal structures of their brains. Poorer schools (especially preschools) park children in front of the television to keep them quiet. (The famous open letter to Prof. Michael Sandel from the philosophy faculty of San Jose State University posits, correctly in my view, that MOOCs will create the same effect in colleges. In today’s New York Times, an obituary of educator Jean Anyon describes her similar conclusions). And these differences in preparation are visible all the way up the academic chain – including in our classsrooms. To borrow a notion from that wild American “disruptor” John Brown, we as a society and as individuals are sowing the wind to reap the whirlwind if we cannot ask better questions about the way our tools are reshaping our selves and our lives.
Thank you very much for reading this letter. I look forward to working with you as we deliberate, in a colleague’s words, about how to keep the “disruptors from disrupting the heart and soul” of our college.