Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cyber-friends, Online Fences, Factory Schools

I hate talking on a phone. I'm getting tendonitis from using this keyboard. My work requires I log on 24/7 to teach my "blended learning" classes and my classrooms now mean I diminish my own inventiveness to teach to a top-down mandated lesson plan in the cause of "course consistency."

I accessed my course evaluations for the first stint under this new regime. Many of my students noted their unhappiness with what a Marxian might have reminded us, in the age of chalk unless you had a hip prof sitting on the edge of a desk flipping a coin, of the "school as factory" or "banking" models. Those tenured radicals of my college years might now wax nostalgic (as some Russians long for Stalin) for blue book exams, lined-up chairs bolted to tiny desks (none for you left-handers), seating charts. Bells, yells, drills.

Compared to what now? "Student-centered" approaches of peer groups (blind leading blind, contra Fanon & Friere; my last class in "advanced composition" featured one student (who happened to be my age) out of thirty as sufficiently literate. Many enrolled entered-- and a few I fear left nearly as-- worse than the remedial ("developmental") students I'd taught two terms earlier; two were my students in both classes. Their progress proved to have been minimal in the intervening class and term not taken with me for "basic composition."

So, as I look at my charges, with smartphones and laptops, arrayed more and more out of my line of sight, hiding in front of computer stations instead of those tiny wraparound desks, if sitting in equally uncomfortable chairs, I wonder. About their literacy, their ability to concentrate, their own carpal tunnel syndromes, their tiny fonts on tiny screens they thumb. I imagine them hunched and squinting, after thirty or forty years of peering into backlit pools of images, staring at glowing flat monitors. Or whatever holographs they conjure up circa my estimated funeral.

Where I teach, they can choose only technical and business majors. We don't teach for the joy of learning, but for the skills corporations demand. We churn degrees out in our mass production line, accelerated eight-week courses marketed towards turnaround in three-odd years, a relentless pace that takes its toll. Grim jokes about the only way out of where we clock in (and are monitored on-line now more than ever thanks to such electronic "platforms" to "deliver" material to "customers") appear to be by heart attacks abound. We faculty, untenured, underpaid, recall the jobs we hoped (alongside thousands who compete for the adjunct "freeway flyer" jobs I too started with Ph.D. in hand), had aimed for, and in this market never got. We're told implicitly every day now for the past few years we're lucky not to have been fired. At-will employees, half of our full-time colleagues were laid off in '07.

It's a labor-intensive Fordist workplace. I may romanticize a truer campus as
"field" compared to my office park oxymoron, freeway adjacent, airport bordered. I envy despite their own publish-or-perish entrapment our colleagues with their thirty weeks of classes, research grants (I hope given their straitened budgets; we who must teach rather than write books need some of our former grad school classmates and mentors to produce scholarship for the rest of us highly trained but overdriven drones to at least glance at enviously), and support (I hope!) for the life of the mind and not only the use of the classroom as career generator. Ok, I romanticize.

I've taught there going on fifteen years this autumn. I've taught a total of twenty-six years this fall. So, in my 3/5 curriculum vitae "running my life" at my walled-in, windowed-absent or at least sealed, glass lined, campus-as-parking lot institution, what the future holds-- for me who never thought I'd wind up in such an edifice for my treadmill teaching-- lies in the hands of those who direct my classes, who design my curricula, who select my textbooks (or e-Books as paper ones begin to vanish), and who assign my course load of about fifteen courses a year.

I started on campus with Microsoft 3.1, those red-blue-green overlaid templates with F-commands (which still as my older students note come in very handy in a pinch). Amber and green-lit monitors were only beginning to fade before Mosaic's browser brought us the GUI and a Web we could see. Kennys bookstore in Ireland was one of the first on-line sites I visited; the Medieval consortium at NYU reminded me the year I finished my arcane dissertation that I was the last year, almost precisely, to not use the Internet, 500 index cards of bibliographical sources. No "works cited" or "reference list" filled with http:// -- or at least ftp://.

Now, self-taught except for programs my workplace told me to learn, I nudge my way intuitively, with a bit of asking around now and then, around the keyboard, the Net, the virtual sites I must report into and figure out or at least wander around. I spent yesterday afternoon logging in for my annual "performance review" dozens of numbers to be crunched for my supervisor, for that alone determines my being kept on this job. What I manage to publish, how I connect with students, the letters of recommendation I prepare, the chats I have with them and colleagues about what to read or what to watch-- that may be filtered through such data. Or obscured; we humanists can't quantify our skills. I don't know.

My supervisor skimmed my list of what qualified me as a "Subject Matter Expert." Our school sells itself, literally, on hands-on experience from its faculty. When you're a humanist with a Ph.D. in English Lit, the chances for such daily immersion outside of the assumption "all we do is mark up papers for grammar" (which I do; if doubtful of the effect, it justifies my "SME" existence even if the eggheads in Composition Studies wonder at its practicality) seem scarce. My supervisors increasingly gain doctorates granted from solely or largely on-line institutions. Those of us with "traditional" educations from research universities, where we had to battle in seminars with world-class minds, feel antiquated already. We're the last heirs of medieval and sheepskinned customs. I watched as my boss flicked past the "SME" page of my drafted "performance review." He hurried on to where more numbers needed entry.

What he brushed aside were my essays, my book reviews, my conference papers, my daily effort to keep involved in giving back via the Net. I try to sustain the life of my mind, to enrich academia despite my teaching load. His reaction crushed me.

I know I will keep on investigating what I'm trained to do and what I want to. Yet, I've had to list-- returned to me to redo in bullet points-- for the boss of his boss the "advantages" to my employer of me begging for funds to attend a conference. I suppose one advantage of no tenure is nobody can fathom what I write anyway at my school. As an habitual outlier in the realm of scholarship, my marginal place makes me feel more grateful than ever for you who read and follow me here.

While some of my hi-tech students take toll roads to exurban McMansions, most of them follow me into the trafficked freeways and buses and gridlock. Virginia Heffernan with typical astuteness in "The Death of the Open Web" compares the "teeming commercial city" of the Web to our congested, unplanned, noisy, dirty burgs, full of bullies, trolls, and rabble.
But a kind of virtual redlining is now under way. The Webtropolis is being stratified. Even if, like most people, you still surf the Web on a desktop or laptop, you will have noticed pay walls, invitation-only clubs, subscription programs, privacy settings and other ways of creating tiers of access. All these things make spaces feel “safe” — not only from viruses, instability, unwanted light and sound, unrequested porn, sponsored links and pop-up ads, but also from crude design, wayward and unregistered commenters and the eccentric ­voices and images that make the Web constantly surprising, challenging and enlightening.

That reminds me of my own casual or intense interactions, some with people I have known in person from first meeting on-line, some vice-versa. Among them what one calls "egotistical academics"! What began as "wayward and unregistered commenters" turned first mutually "eccentric voices" and a few became my pals. In Irish I saw a coinage, "cibearchara," cyber-friend. I like that.

Last week I sent a link to my "Shake Your Earthquake Maker" by e-mail to one of the bloggers I had credited in my entry. I thought this person-- same age as many of my students but far smarter and spirited, now headed off to start a non-virtual doctorate-- would respond if with a quick nod to my polite note of solidarity.

A week's passed. No reply will fill my inbox. I felt hurt, for when readers of my blog or Amazon reviews peek in to say hi, I always drop them a word of appreciation. I wondered if I was too sensitive, too unreasonable in expecting every electronically transmitted gesture to generate its own response. After all, we hold doors open in real life for people to pass through and often they walk by us without a glance. Maybe as in at the non-virtual threshold, a web passerby brushes past me-- a graying owlish pale bookworm, nothing to take notice of. (Cue: tiny violins.)

On the other hand, the bat mitzvah friend about whom I wrote (and my wife) sent us a thank-you card for her gift yesterday. In the mail. Handwritten. Neatly. I was impressed. She is my age, I admit; I'm already at the age I look back as much as ahead. Doors held open. Greetings however "phatically" exchanged even by aloof me. Etiquette. We used to call these "bread-and-butter notes." I mused again on a custom perhaps flung the way for most younger folks tapping away to Evite the arc of a floppy disk.

Still, I did feel boosted within this finger-pecking medium a few days later. Dan Schlitz, whom I'd met when we studied in Donegal, posted my latest Irish-language entry, "An Aistear sa lá" on Facebook to promote my fumblingly bilingual efforts. Visit his own "Irish Milwaukee"circle of learners such as far-flung ourselves. As with Gaeilge, so this blog, so walks= my workouts.

Meanwhile, the enigmatic Éabha Rose at "Words Undone ™" sent her own cheer after my recent excursus into "Celtic Buddhism". Her own blog's where you can view Bataille & Foucault, Graves & Nin vividly transmuted into a fin-de-siècle aesthetic decidedly refined. If for the discreet.

I thought again of other favorite blogs you can find at my links listed if you scroll down my blog's right margin. Ben Howard's calm reflections on the practice of Zen in upstate New York; "Vilges Suola" at "Lathophobic Aphasia" with his unerring ear for how English is mangled by his own students, who have the excuse some of mine lack of not being natives; "Bo" at Cambridge with his paired blogs, one open and one closed, teaching me so much about wit, erudition, and wisdom.

Tony Bailie's "Ecopunks" full of the latest Russian metafiction, Spanish verse, haiku, or inevitably the same obscure Irish novel or CD I just finished; John W. Smart and "Tamerlane" who fight the good fight politically; and the too-rarely updated "Harper Berry Hollow" from my dear friends Chris & Bob up north, full of their insights.

Thanks to all of you for your tacit or vocal support. I send you mine, dear readers and friendly followers. I live in a real city, where as Heffernan puts it: "Its public spaces are mobbed, and signs of urban decay abound in broken links and abandoned projects." Unlike my loved-hated native First-turned-Third World megapolis, I hope we can huddle against "the online equivalent of white flight."

I have no idea how my students, overburdened with families, work, commutes, afford such technological gentrification. I guess my priorities make me their professor, not their IT go-to guy. Still, in this tougher economy I and they face, not all of us can afford Heffernan's penchant for the latest gadget, the shiniest app. Nor, I hazard, do all of us wish to profit from and lock up every open, free space online.


Mila Night said...
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vilges suola said...

Good God, the job sounds grim! Here I do sometimes feel unappreciated, thinking that no feedback = general satisfaction with what I do, and noting that students tend to be at their most complementary around the time when they know I'm preparing reports on them. But however boring it gets, I do enjoy total freedom to teach what I want in the way I prefer to do it, and nobody is keeping lists of numbers anywhere and ignoring my human input. Give your boss a smack in the teeth for me.

As the rest of the world gets bug-eyed on computers I'm turning increasingly to books, ordering them by the truck-load from Amazon to fill the shaming gaps in my knowledge. I have a tottering pile of books on Greece, Rome, Egypt, Latin, theology and philosophy, but though I had a traditional education too, definitely think that the internet has diminished my powers of concentration and retention. My students, most of whom are half my age, regard books as very quaint things indeed.

Fionnchú said...

I appreciate the echo, as it were! The quantitative appears to overwhelm the qualitative, South Campus vs. North Campus, mechanized techies vs. humane letters these past decades. The more we pour all data into spreadsheets, the more we turn enumerated, numbers, entries. I hope the efforts of those of us online in our blogs and networks resist turning us into nothing but silicon bits & bytes. We with a half-life of carbon decay!

Fionnchú said...

VS, see my next entry for a perfect antidote to our shared affliction of lack of concentration amidst so many distractions. Of course, the author lives on Cape Cod, so he has a headstart when it comes to alternatives to lose himself in! "Hamlet's BlackBerry" review Powers recommends E.H. Gombrich's "A Little History of the World" as an ideal companion to plug up such gaps; written for children, but he got a lot out of it. Powers also argues how retention decays at work and our pursuits on a screen hooked in to so many detours. I keep thinking how at my institution, the more we install computer stations, the faster we will lose student's attention. But our bosses have created an expectation that this alone "delivers course content consistently, our trap.