Monday, March 31, 2008

More on irrelevance

In addition my own recent posts, there have been several others discussing the relationship between technologists and faculty. I'm also leading a discussion with a mixed group of faculty and staff tomorrow that may touch on (I hope) some of the issues raised by the online discussions I've been reading. Just as the issue of tenure seems to come up over and over again in the academic blogosphere, the issue of teaching and technology seems to come up over and over again in the academic IT side of the blogosphere. I think the issues are raised again and again because there's a feeling that something isn't working quite right and we feel a need to fix it. And, too, I think there's a sense of a struggle, of an us vs. them mentality that we all seem to get bogged down in (myself included).

Let me start by relaying a couple of incidents that occurred over the weekend. At a social event, a faculty member whom I don't see very often came up to me and said that a bunch of faculty had been talking about me recently. My heart swelled. I thought a great and insightful question or comment or suggestion was about to issue forth. But here's what came out instead: We were talking about blu-ray and we all said, that's what Laura should run workshops on. I won't say how I responded, but suffice it to say it wasn't pithy enough and obviously the comment has stuck in my craw.

Earlier, I'd gone to hear a talk in which the idea of tradition was lauded and commended and put on a pedestal. I found myself squirming and thinking, isn't tradition for tradition's sake a bad thing? Shouldn't we be fighting against traditions that hold us back? The speaker went on to discuss the web and the wonders of the digital age, all the while reassuring his audience that books will always hold an important place in scholarship, perhaps even still the most important place, but that digital work should be considered as well. (Note: the commenter above attended this talk as well.)

I don't think there was any maliciousness in the comment. It was a true misunderstanding of what it is I really do. It was also an indication that the commenter has not really investigated the application of technology to teaching or research. He/she very well could have asked me what I thought about the talk that we both attended and especially about the comments on digital scholarship. But no.

I think it's hard not to feel irrelevant in the face of such comments, but I also think the "protests too much" nature of the talk also indicates anxiety about the future of academic work. What is to become of books in the web world? What about publishing articles? What about our students and their horrible Googling habits? The sad thing is, I'm here to help answer those questions, to help scholars and teachers find relevance in the web world. If only people would stop asking me about blu-ray.

I think, too, there's a little bit of snobbery or something about some of us here in well-resourced schools. Our students and faculty have access to lots of rich materials because of location, because our library has such a great collection, and because our institution has the financial means to send students and faculty to places where they can access materials or to bring those materials to them. Not so at many other places and here, the web offers many opportunities. One of the first images I really looked at online was a digital version of Beowulf. Lacuna took on new meaning for me as it should for many students upon seeing something like Beowulf in the flesh, so to speak. How about accessing images of Shakespeare's work? Or access to scholarly articles freely? The web has the potential to level the playing field and we have the opportunity to define the field. Will it be about quick, fast, surface-level work? Or will we put our work out there so it's more about depth and breadth and access to great scholarship and creative work?

So, here's what I might say to faculty. When you have those panic attacks in the middle of the night and you're thinking that the Internet is ruining the academy, call me and talk to me about it the next day. I'll talk to you about how the Internet is actually making the academy even more relevant but only as long as it doesn't shut itself inside the ivory tower. I'll help you figure out what to do to make your work relevant. You can share your goals and I can help you find ways to reach them. I won't give you nuggets, mind you. I'll teach you how to fish. Just whatever you do, don't ask me about blu-ray.