Teaching and the shifting definition of technology

I read Steven J. Corbett’s “Technology and Teaching” in Inside Higher Ed this morning mainly because I was quoted in it and that doesn’t happen too often.  I show up in the beginning of the piece:

Is it a given that technology enhances the acts of writing, as it does the arts and sciences of film-making, design, engineering, data collection and analyses, and so forth? What about the teaching and learning of writing?

In a flurry of recent exchanges (subject “Writing horse-shoe-of-horse-heading-east Technology”) on the Writing Program Administration (WPA) listserv, scholars in writing studies have argued these points in some theoretical and practical depth. Maja Wilson, from the University of Maine, sums up the argument nicely: “Steve [Krause, of Eastern Michigan University], and others were arguing that to teach writing, you need to teach the tools available now and not teach or allow the tools on their way out (pen, pencil), because if you aren’t teaching the tools, you aren’t teaching writing. Rich [Haswell, professor emeritus from Texas A&M University], and others argued that, while teaching the use of all those tools can be a good thing, it isn’t necessary to teach writing: writing itself transcends the particular tools, so while teaching the tools can be involved in teaching writing, it isn’t necessarily the same thing.”

Corbett then goes on to explain the “pros” and “cons” of teaching with “technology” in a fairly user-friendly and pro-technology sort of way, making points that would not surprise anyone who does even a hint of scholarship in teaching with technology.  A lot of what he’s suggesting here as new has been standard practice for lots of folks like me for years and years.  But that’s not really a criticism though because I don’t think that is Corbett’s audience.

Anyway, I largely agree with what he’s saying here, though I thought I would gently raise two issues.  First and foremost, Corbett doesn’t define technology, simply assuming it means “computer stuff we all don’t take for granted nowadays.”  I raise this as an issue in part because that was one of the points I was trying to make in that email exchange on the WPA mailing list he’s quoting.  Writing is inherently tied to tools and technologies, and literacy itself (as Ong talked about tons of times a long tine ago) is a technology.  Try writing something without a tool and see how it goes and you’ll see what I mean.

But I also think the issue of defining technology is more than philosophical hair-splitting because I think far too many people teaching writing– especially those who throw up any resistance to “technology” in the writing classroom– use their short memories as a way to resist new things.  Corbett doesn’t mention word processing, email, or even computers as technology per se because those things have been naturalized to the point that they fit into that “stuff we all take for granted” category.  This is understandable:  I haven’t seen an essay from a student written with anything other than a word processor in at least 15 years, maybe more.  Everyone has an email account nowadays, and I can count on one hand the number of students I had last year who didn’t own a computer.  But a) this doesn’t mean that there still aren’t problems with “taken for granted” technologies that writing teachers ought to discuss (I can’t tell you how many students don’t know how to do things like paginate, indent, double-space, and similar such things on something like MS Word), and b) let’s be aware that today’s new-fangled and cutting edge technology is likely to be “taken for granted” tool of tomorrow, and maybe, just maybe, teachers shouldn’t be so paranoid about trying something new.

So for me, one of the main ways I am trying to convince, cajole, con, or otherwise persuade the reluctant to consider current technologies for teaching writing is by trying to remind them that they have always been using technology to teach writing, and a lot of those “stuff we all take for granted” technologies were once resisted.  The current fears of “technology” (e.g., social media, laptops, cloud computing, etc.) all existed with “stuff we take for granted” (e.g., word processors, spell checkers, email, etc., and if you go back far enough, ballpoint pens, typewriters, pencils, etc.).

The other issue I have is pretty petty, but I’ll mention it anyway.  Corbett writes:

And the issue of students being distracted by social networks like Facebook is a valid concern for any techie teacher. A recent Inside Higher Ed article suggests just how distracting the thrall and temptation to visit online social networking environments in classrooms can be for students. But the article also suggests (and I would agree) that a vigilant teacher can stay on top of the problem of the compulsive web-surfer often simply by watching students’ eye movements and gestures. By circulating the room frequently, and training ourselves to be aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle eye and hand movements that can belie a Facebook frequenter, we can take steady steps toward keeping students attentive and on task.

I see his point and I’ve certainly experienced in my own teaching.  But as someone who frequently multitasks myself (meaning I have a FB window and G+ window open right now, I’m listening to the radio, etc., etc.), I think that teachers need to get over the whole “I must be the complete center of attention” thing a bit.  Or they need to be more interesting.

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