digital humanities digital rhetoric Higher Education Teaching

the monastic academy #edcmooc

We often see studies of technology adoption by college students, such as those done by Pew. We know from our own classrooms and walking the campus that Pew's statistics that 96% of undergrads have cell phone and 88% have laptops, that 92% of students have wireless connection on some device, are reflected in our own observations. The general adult population is 82%, 52%, and 57% respectively. I wonder what the stats would be for humanities faculty? Lower than undergrads I suspect, but I wonder if it would be lower than the average adult. I don't think anyone would be surprised to discover that humanities professors spend more time with traditional cultural/media activities than the average adult or student: reading print books; going to museums, public lectures, and libraries; listing to classical music, etc. And obviously one should be able to live one's life as one chooses, including in terms of online connection.

Given the nature of our profession however, particularly our professional freedoms, these personal choices then become professional ones. To a certain degree, all faculty have needed to come online in one way or another: library databases, email, online grading and student information, and to a lesser though still significant extent, course management systems. Clearly all faculty have internet access at least through their workplaces. But to what extent have we collectively embraced networked culture? Certainly not to the extent that we have embraced the modern culture that we continue to celebrate through our curriculum. 

Why is this an issue? Let's say, for example, that I didn't really care for reading books. I would assign books for my courses because that was expected, but I didn't live a life where books were personally valued. How successful do you think I would be teaching print literacy? Teaching with digital networks requires a kind of literacy derived from a significant level of immersion. This is, I think, a real stumbling block for our profession in facing up to this challenge. And it's not just one decision that is crucial here, and I would agree that one can become overly and unproductively immersed in the digital world, but here are a few examples:

  • Not wanting a smartphone or other mobile device because one wishes to be disconnected
  • Not wanting to be involved in social media of any kind because they are trivial
  • Not taking seriously conversations that take place primarily via the web, because that's not where serious conversations happen
  • Viewing digital cultural activities from gaming to YouTube to any kind of user-generated content as crass commercialism not worthy of serious attention, as a kind of anti-literate, anti-intellectual space
  • Viewing connectivity as an intrusion of valuable cultural activity, in the classroom or elsewhere. 

Again, there are valid points of concern here and these are all acceptable individual decisions. I have no problem with someone living their life this way, but if one puts this all together then I think one ends up with a faculty member who is not well-suited to meet the challenges of preparing students to live in a world that the faculty member has renounced. 

In the eLearning MOOC we've been talking about this in terms of Prensky's digital immigrants and digital natives. In my view this is an unproductive and even damaging perspective. Again, as with the utopian/dystopian discourse, perhaps the concept is to move people away from these positions. Reading the course discussion, there are certainly people who have arrived familiar with these terms and unhappy with them. (I would imagine anyone who knows something about these matters knows this is not a productive kind of thinking. It's akin to starting a composition class with grammar instruction because that's what the students expect, even though as an instructor you know that's not the right direction.)

The immigrant/native business sets up a false dichotomy and reinforces an unnecessary conflict. If you identify the faculty as immigrants, then you are really taking a hostile position toward them. But more dangerously you are setting this up as a generational problem wherein the immigrant faculty can just say let the younger generation, the natives, do this work. But that's not what happens because this isn't about generations. It's about disciplinary culture. I have encountered plenty of mid-20s English doctoral students. Yes, many have cell phones and laptops and such, as you would expect. But very few see digital literacy or practices as part of their teaching or disciplinary work. Instead, they are adopting the cultural practices and values of their discipline, which is print-based. 

English departments have always claimed that they are place where people go to become better writers. I have never believed that. I think English attracts students who are already good writers, and I think a literary and print-based curriculum can teach students to read particular genres in particular ways and write literary criticism with its specific discourse. Increasingly though, what is taught is a kind of monastic practice, one that clearly prides itself on its removal from the discourses of the marketplace and the larger culture. There is nothing wrong with monasticism…. for monks. However it doesn't have broad appeal, though there will always be some students who want that experience. We can't expect that there will be a generational shift that will lead to some eventual change in this situation. "Generations" are broad enough and the academic job needs are small enough, that there will always be potential hires and grad students to replicate these disciplinary values, just as there will always be people willing to live lives as monks. 

And of course it's not just English departments. It's all of the humanities and perhaps beyond. That's just the corner of academia where I live. Ultimately, I think meeting the challenges of digita literacy will require university strategies for hiring and supporting faculty that work outside the disciplinary/departmental will to repetition. 

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