Saturday, February 05, 2005

Fear and Loathing in Las Techno

In working on this grant, I have come face to face with the fear of technology among professors. At a small liberal arts college, I had assumed this was rampant, but seeing it in the flesh is quite fascinating.

Some background. I am an abd. My primary field was Early Modern Literature, but I was minoring in Composition and Rhetoric with a focus on technology and writing. Had my department offered a full degree in Comp. and Rhet., I'd probably be doing that instead and I'd probably actually be finished. So obviously, I like technology; I use it everyday for things not work-related (like blogging and listening to music). I'm an Instructional Technologist (translated by some as the mechanic who fixes their Blackboard problems), but I also have an authentic academic interest in its use for education, especially in writing (which is the focus of the grant). I don't flaunt this background very much--perhaps I should.

Background on the PI. He tends to be our advocate for technology among the faculty. He has a laptop. He's not opposed to technology. He uses it fairly frequently. However, he is about 5-10 years behind current trends.

Anyway, in the early days of working on the grant proposal, I had sent some links to the PI related to some work people were doing on our grant topic as a way of suggesting that we might contact these people to speak at our planned workshop.

At the meeting after these links are sent, PI is flabbergasted by the sheer newness of the stuff these people are doing. Do people really do this stuff? It seems so impractical. I just want my students to write a good paper. And I said something to the effect of, well, the students are reading stuff online (complete with sound, pictures, video) and we should help them be critical of those rhetorics and one way of doing that was to have assignments that make them construct such pieces themselves. His eyes popped out of his head and then we moved on.

I won't go into too much detail, but basically this person is stuck in ideas that are 5 years old and while I don't think our 5-year old technology ideas are worthless, considering this guy is about 5 years ahead of a heck of a lot of our faculty, I do think that it's worth recognizing that you're 5 years behind and maybe make some effort to catch up.

This whole thing got me to thinking about the way some faculty (anyone really) approach technology. Most of the people I work with seek me out. They're interested in using technology and want some help in doing so, either with how to incorporate pedagogically or just simply how to use it. But when I run workshops or talk to people in informal settings, I'm often confronted with this latent fear/loathing of technology.

Some of this, I can appreciate. There's a lot of technology that isn't easy to use. As Jane was commenting, the interfaces for a lot of the technology faculty are required to use is nearly impossible to figure out. For older faculty, it's downright maddening. They don't use technology regularly. They don't even have a vcr. It's a foreign land for them. And I'm very sympathetic to that kind of fear.

But sometimes I get the weirdest comments that reveal the hatred, couched often as fear, of technology. In a Blackboard workshop, for instance, here's some gems:

Why would I have an online discussion? I have small classes and good f-to-f discussions.

Why would I use an e-mail list? I see my students all the time; they can just call me or stop by

When I respond to these, their looks of puzzlement are often revealing. The look is either a) I have no idea what you're talking about (have never seen a discussion board or been on an e-mail list) b) why would anyone do such a thing?

I'm never going to reach these people. No amount of evidence put forth is going to change their minds. They think any technology is bad--tv, email, cellphones, stereos, the internets. What's good in their minds are books, pencils, papers, people.

And they think those that like technology hate books, pencils, papers, and people and would like to see robots take over the world. So not true. I love all of these things. And I know people think this way because when I start a conversation with, "I was just reading fiction book x . . . " or "I just finished, fiction book y . . ." I get the look again: "You read books?"

My point is that this fear and loathing sometimes creates a real barrier to communication. It's hard to have a real discussion about the sound pedagogical uses of technology when the person on the other side hates technology. I am no proponent of technology for technology's sake. I often say, sometimes the best technology is a piece of chalk. It's also hard when your biggest support is five years behind and starting to exhibit some of these fear and loathing behaviors. But I guess this is why my job is interesting.

P.S. See this post at digital digs for another interesting view of technology integration in the humanities.