« Poll Sham-pionsip Series | Main | State of the Blogora Address »

(b)light at the end of the tunnel

Ten years from now, my professional biographer will look back at Nov. 30, 2004 as the day I took my first baby step back into the flow of the Writing Program, the first concrete sign of the impending conclusion to my sabbatical.

Okay, but I did actually spend the day at school yesterday, from about 11 to 6, give or take. My primary mission was to visit Steve's graduate course and to share a little of my tech-spertise with the students. That sounds much more top-down than I actually meant it to. They had read portions of The Geopolitics of Academic Discourse, and spent the first half of class talking about the implications of globalism for composition--I was the second-half attraction, responsible for the implications of technology.

I was more than a little scattered, I fear, but oh well. One of the things that I did talk about was something that I had thought about in a different form, an essay that Paul and I put together a while back on the role of technology in graduate programs. There, we argued that departments need to move away from making technology hires that become, in recent parlance, the programs' "tech support generation." The default position of too many departments, in our field at least, is that technology is presumed to be an area of coverage, and too many departments feel that their commitment to technology is fulfilled by the hiring of one or two people in that "area." One of our major claims was that the integration of technology necessitates moving from a model that locates responsibility for technology with the individual to one that treats it as a collective responsibility.

Yesterday, I came at this issue from the question (that I raised myself, but have heard time and again) of where individual instructors can possibly find the time outside of class to learn technologies and inside of class when they've already got so much to accomplish. For me, this question is a symptom of this individual/collective problem, one that manifests itself in a great deal of wasted time and energy for those of us who are proficient. Here's one example: each year, as part of preparing our students for the market, we hold a workshop for the candidates to work on their web presence--initially, that workshop was public, and inevitably, the only people who showed up were those who felt the individual urgency of getting pages up. That urgency has yet to trickle down to students who aren't on the market, however, nor am I especially optimistic that it will. The end result of this is that those of us who are capable of putting up sites end up repeating the process each year for a small group of individuals rather than initiating a process that the program itself might take up and maintain.

The answer to this problem is not that every one must know as much as I do about technology--that would be unrealistic and ultimately it would defeat the purpose of hiring me in the first place. But it's also not the optimal use of my skills and resources to expect me (and I'm speaking generically here and not of my program specifically) to focus solely on the basics, to exist in a constant state of evangelizing for each new group of students and faculty that enter the department. It is worth asking what a program's baseline expectations are, and asking further whether those expectations have changed in the past 5 years--if they haven't changed substantially, then something's wrong. Technology specialists commit themselves to a difficult task, which is made up of departmental support, personal innovation, and an obligation to track the conversations going on in the fields/industries related to technology. Too many departments hire technology specialists with only the first of these in mind, without thought about how neglecting the other two will ultimately affect his or her ability to provide the first. Individuals can't be responsible for an entire program's innovation; assuming that they can is a recipe for stagnation, pure and simple.

Back in the day, my first encounter with "instructional design" people was largely a bust. I told them: tell me what's possible and I'll design a course around the possibilities. They told me: tell me what you want to do, and we'll make it possible. But the more I've thought about it, the more I've realized that both stances are important ones. I'm interested in finding the possibilities, and imagining what they might look like or how they might help us reconceive our roles as writing teachers. But there also needs to be a collective interest, one that isn't simply "tell me what to do" but actively takes an interest and pushes the specialist to seek out possibilities. But it can't just be a reaction to insititutional course outcomes or market expectations--reactions like those entrench the idea that technology is something that individuals take up rather than groups.

I don't really have a grand conclusion to all of this--it's just what I was thinking about. That is all.