Higher Education

Mark Bauerlein and digital imperialism

So I have discussed Mark Bauerlein’s contributions to the Chronicle of Higher Education here before. Here’s a new article entitled "Online Literacy is a Lesser Kind." The argument is one that is likely familiar. Bauerlein suggests that reading online does not improve print literacy and likely even detracts from it. He cites multiple studies and projects where the use of computers in the classroom has not resulted in improved test scores in reading, math, and so on.

Here is his most interesting point:

Educators envision a whole new pedagogy with the tools, but students
see only the chance to extend long-established postures toward the
screen. If digitized classrooms did pose strong, novel intellectual
challenges to students, we should see some pushback on their part, but
few of them complain about having to learn in new ways.

In other words, students have a great deal of experience interacting with screens outside learning environments. For Bauerlein this is a problem because they bring their bad social habits to the classroom. I especially like this part about how if students found digital classrooms to present intellectual challenges that they would likely complain about having to be there. It’s so cynical that I almost feel like I wrote it myself!

I suppose we can forgive Bauerlein this because I’m guessing he
doesn’t make much use of digital technology, and I’m not in a position
to cite research today on these matters, but my observations are
somewhat different. First, students do complain. I don’t think I’ve
ever heard a student praise the practice of powerpoint lectures, but
then I’ve never heard them praise the practice of lecturing, period.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t occassional good ones, but overall,
lecturing encourages the kind of intellectual passivity that Bauerlein
rails against here, regardless of the ancillary technologies employed.
Students also certainly complain about online courses, and I know that
my students complain about the challenges of figuring out how to
communicate in networked environments, despite their supposed
familiarity with it.

There’s another interesting flipside to this as well. I wonder how
Bauerlein would respond to the idea of students spending their online
reading time reading print instead? I imagine he would then be railing
against the trashy popular print forms they were reading, which were
engendering sloppy thinking or maybe loose morals. If it’s not
comptuers it’s TV or video games or rock n’ roll or movies or even
writing itself if we go back to Plato, right?

So this is just a rehearsal of one of the oldest of arguments.

BTW, I don’t disagree with Bauerlein that our schools have not risen
to the challenges of networked literacy. I disagree that one should
conclude from this that computers should not be part of education. I
also believe that it is wrong-headed to measure the success or failure
of technology-intensive education in terms of how well it manages to
replicate print-based education. Printcentric education results in
technologically illiterate graduates. We can see this on the faculty of
every English department in the US: people with high print literacy but
almost no ability to communicate or access information online.

Here are things that I think Bauerlein and I can agree on.

1. We can’t leave online/networked literacy simply in the hands of
students and popular culture. As educators we need to teach our
students to be critical readers/users of networks. We need to help them
develop strong rhetorical skills to use media networks to achieve more
complex and intellectual goals. Contemporary media networks can be used
to explore subjects with as much complexity and depth as print, but we
can’t expect our students to learn to do this on their own.

2. Our students need to be asked to engage in sustained intellectual
discourse in a variety of media, including print. I often tell my
students that college is a place where you learn to read "difficult
texts." I speak to them of the importance of constructing writing
projects that require them to take risks and challenge them with their
complexity. These are things we try to do. But we can also do these
things through online media. I think that if you go and look at the
discourse in my Writing in the Digital Age course in my Digital Age
ning community (link in sidebar) that you would find a conversation
that far outstrips what students contribute in a typical FTF class at
Cortland, where in an average class many students say little or
nothing. (And when I say this I include my own FTF classes. In many
classes, it’s just not logistically possible to get every student
involved in a class discussion.)

One last point of disagreement though. Bauerlein ends with this point:

Digital technology has become an imperial force, and it should meet
more antagonists. Educators must keep a portion of the undergraduate
experience disconnected, unplugged, and logged off. Pencils,
blackboards, and books are no longer the primary instruments of
learning, true, but they still play a critical role in the formation of
intelligence, as countermeasures to information-age mores.

digital technology is an "imperial force," how is that measured? Are
there any online classes in the English department at Emory
(Bauerlien’s home institution)? I didn’t see any listed on their
website schedule for this semester. Are there any classes that examine
digital technologies as a central topic or take up the task of digital
writing as a primary goal? Nope. What is there? Exactly what you’d
expect: a series of courses covering print literary subjects. There may
be one or two special topics courses that move into other areas (like
film) but for the most part it’s canonical literature.

It’s not surprising, but it also demonstrates quite clearly what IS
the imperial force in literacy education in our nation. And the
technology informing that imperialism is not "digital" but print,
literary texts. And yes, it absolutely should meet with more
antagonists! Or maybe not. It’s funny of course that the many, many
English professors who would share Bauerlein’s position might happily
join the chorus of serving as an antagonist against digital literacy
(even though it means carrying out antagonism against colleagues in
their own department) but would in turn take deep offense at the notion
that someone should return that antagonism.

Personally I am not about antagonism. I am about dissensus and
intellectual pluralism. Let’s have a discussion, even a heated
discussion, but let’s create intellectual environments that do their
best to take advantage of every faculty member’s intellectual interests
and strengths and make those as available as possible to our students.
If you don’t want to use digital technology, that’s fine. I wouldn’t be
one to insist that you should.

Nor am I an apologist or evangelist for technology. If digital
technology needs me to serve in such roles, then maybe we should be
skeptical. By the same token, I would not be upset if English
departments disappeared or faded into obscurity (as other disciplines
have) because they failed to respond to changing intellectual
conditions. Disciplines, like all living things, that do not change and
grow will eventually die. I’m not saying that it will happen. I’m just
saying it doesn’t matter to me if that is the end result of this
current media/information revolution.

In any case, it is quite clear where I am putting my chips. I’m
betting that media networks will continue to grow as integral parts of
how our culture composes, disseminates, and stores information. I am
betting that all aspects of our culture–art, politics, education,
business, religion, warfare, entertainment, etc–will increasingly take
place online, though obviously we will continue to have bodies as well!
I am simply betting that media networks will continue to need to be
studied by people like me and that our students will continue to need
to develop critical literacy and strong rhetorical skills in the
context of these media networks.

Everyone else can make their own bets.