Monday, April 17, 2006

On both sides of the fence

Since I'm finishing my Ph.D. (hopefully) and have now taught a class and am teaching another in the fall, people often ask me if I'm planning to slide back into full-time teaching. I've definitely thought about it, but I think I like where I am, even with its frustrations. The one attractive thing about teaching is more control over my day. I could begin and end work whenever I liked. There might even be days with no classes and no obligations. But the work load (in a 4/4 likely scenario) could be backbreaking. The grading might be endless and the rewards few.

What I like about my situation now is that each side of the equation, teacher and technologist, informs the other. What I do in the classroom lets me know the kinds of things I might pursue in my role as a technologist. For example, I taught in a "smart" classroom whose layout was worse than horrible. The space was inflexible. There was barely room at the front for the teacher (and I didn't always want to be at the front anyway). Using the computer and screen precluded using the chalkboard at the front. This experience led me to discuss these issues with our team of people who plan for classroom technology. It led to, among other things, the use of tablet pcs in similar spaces and to making sure that new spaces did not cover the board with a screen.

As a technologist, I am able to share my teaching experiences with those who come to me for help with using technology. I can say what I've tried and how it's worked and how to manage the extra time and energy using new technology often requires. I don't pretend that technology is a magic wand that solves every pedagogical issue and even admit that it may create new ones. When presented with problems, I look for appropriate solutions that might be useful pedagogically and not just the lastest new gadget.

Some, I know, find this dual role I play problematic. I've noted many times the desire on some people's part to have me play the mechanic. And I don't mind playing that role at times. Sometimes it's nice simply to fix a technical problem or answer a question and move on. But I do know a bit about teaching, both from experience and from extensive research. I won't pretend to know what content one should include in a biology class, but I might offer ways of presenting that content or of having students interact with it or build their own. Sometimes those suggestions are viewed as stepping over my bounds.

On the other side of the fence, there are staff in my department who don't know about my experience teaching and the knowledge it's given me about the way faculty and students really use technology. A few years ago, for example, we had a discussion about the use of laptops. Why would faculty need a laptop anyway? Don't they have computers on their desks or at home? I had to remind them that many faculty do research remotely. They visit libraries or archaeological sites and may need a laptop for notes, for writing up reports, for storing and analyzing data right there on site. That fight is long over as many of my colleagues are now laptop owners themselves and value the freedom of computing anywhere they want. Now we're on to discussing tablets!

I also get a lot of the perks of teaching without the grading. I love helping students. I love working with them, whether it's on their writing or putting together a multimedia presentation. I get to do that every summer with the internship program I run and throughout the year, students come to my lab for advice and technical help. I also get to do research, as much or as little as I want, with no pressure for publishing in the "right" places in the "right" amount. It's really gravy. And a perk I get that most faculty don't: a 7-hour day. I leave the office and leave the work behind.

I like the back and forth of all of this, of being the go-between. That's why I signed up for this gig and that's why I still find it interesting, if sometimes challenging. But what's life without its challenges.