Currents in Electronic Literacy
Lessons in Value: Working Relationships in John Slatin's CWRL—An Intervew with Bret Benjamin
An Interview with Bret Benjamin, April 4th, 2009
1. Bret Benjamin, currently at SUNY Albany, worked closely with John Slatin in the CWRL from 1992-1998. Dr. Benjamin characterizes these years as a "transitional period of rapid expansion, where [the lab] moved from a small, collaborative, experimental workspace, into a much larger, more complex institution, employing numerous graduate students, hosting a wide range of computer-assisted classes, and operating multiple labs in multiple buildings. That was the same moment of the DRC/English split, so part of this transitiona[l] period was about negotiating the lab's relationship—both intellectual and administrative—to those two disciplinary configurations." As one set of many evolving relationship in this climate of change and accomodation, the apprenticeship relationships in the CWRL were intimate and necessarily complicated. Though Dr. Benjamin's current work in the intersection of literary/film/cultural studies and global finance has led him away from the kinds of projects cultivated in the CWRL, he graciously agreed to an interview on John's enduring influence in the realm of mentoring and administration. Any administrative position requires negotiations between the ideals of young students and colleagues on one hand and the bureaucratic structures of the university and its monetary contributors on the other hand. John Slatin, Benjamin contends, skillfully walked that line, developing sustainable institutional infrastructures, while continually innovating in the realms of technology and pedagogy. As John's enduring legacy, the CWRL at the University of Texas is a testament to that fact.
2. In this interview Dr. Benjamin provides a more personal perspective on the graduate-student-faculty relationships cultivated in the early years of the lab. Though the emphasis is on his own relationship with John, the interview also pivots on the ways in which technology continues to impact apprenticeship and professionalization into the 21st century. Dr. Benjamin here speculates on the kinds of negotiations necessary for administrators certainly, but also for anyone who engages with the technological institutions and systems that pervade higher education today.
3. Caveat emptor: This interview was conducted on a sunny day, April 4th, 2009, at a coffee shop in Austin, Texas. As such it treats the listener to both Dr. Benjamin's reflections and speculations as well as various environmental sounds. The interview is occasionally punctuated by revving motorcycles, wind noise, and the ever-endearing South Texas grackle. The interviewer's and editors' hope is that these sounds will serve to present for the listener a bit of the city's character.
4. The first part of the audio interview, found here comprises the bulk of the interview. The last part, here, provides Dr. Benjamin's final thoughts (beginning para. 21) on John's influence and the role of the CWRL and institutions like it.
5. Currents: How is it coming back to Austin?
6. BB: Oh, it's always nice. I was here for almost ten years, and I think I lived here longer than I've lived anywhere else. So it always feels a little bit like home. Even though, you know, there's always changes. It's never the same place when I return. But it still has a certain feel to it; it's nice.
7. Currents: Absolutely. Well, good. Well it actually makes me feel a little bit better that you hadn't fully prepared <laughing> because I was going to ask you a potentially unfair question , which is just to see if you could describe your relationship with John and maybe, you know, any fond memories that really stick out to you.
8. BB: I had a good relationship with John. Graduate student-faculty relations are always complicated in a certain kind of way and then boss-worker relations are complicated in a slightly different way. And he was both those things for me. I don't think I ever took a class with him, but I worked in the CWRL for years and years with him. ... I was there for a long time. So, I think I knew him relatively well, and I have great fondness for him. What I appreciated about him in large part was that he was kind of an intellectually inquisitive person, and I often found myself having drinks or coffee or something with him and getting into conversations that I found really productive. But he was also kind of a pragmatic person and somebody who was able to get things organized and get things done and get money and make budgets and so forth. And so there were a lot of really good working relationships.
9. I don't have an anecdote or anything that leaps to my mind other than one phrase that I stole from him and that I remember him saying, 'you should quote me when you steal this.' <laughing> And I think I did in my dissertation. He and I were talking about what's now often called corporate social responsibility or something along these lines. This move towards a certain kind of philanthropic lending profile that a lot of the high end corporations were doing. And I remember him saying it's like 'venture philanthropy'—in the heyday of venture capitalism here in Austin where all the dotcoms were all looking around for their sugardaddy benefactors and money was flowing pretty freely in the 90s. And there was this sense of, 'how does that venture capital return a profit?' And I remember us thinking about the ways in which philanthropy and a lot of tech lending for education and for other kinds of things has this underside of, 'where's the return of profit on it?' So that phrase, 'venture philanthropy,' stuck with me. I've used it once or twice before, and I always think about John and him saying, 'yeah you should feel free to use it; remember to cite me when you do.' So, I'll cite him in this interview among other places.
10. Currents: Good, good. Given that sort of venture philanthropy and what technology was doing in education, one of the questions that I wanted to ask you was, how do you see the role, the shifting role, of technology in the university, and how does that affect those apprenticeship relationships or advisorial relationships?
11. BB: I'm not in a great position to answer this because I don't know that my university is particularly emblematic of broader transformations in higher ed or in education in general. At Albany—I think I was seeing this here [in Austin] as well to a certain degree—there was always a lot of money for putting in a new sort of smart classroom-something-or-other, podium with a projector, and some sort of tech money that was available. And it becomes part of the profile of the university to have classrooms that are built with this. But there was never really any money for funding staff and systems and organizations and so forth in which that technology has been used and it seems to me that that continues. I remember seeing it and thinking about it when I was here, and it certainly continues apace in Albany today—the move toward off-the-shelf, pre-fab solutions to everything, the BlackBoard world and WebCT (I guess webct was bought by Blackboard); that ongoing kind of merger and so forth seems to be moving apace, and I guess we shouldn't be surprised. I've fallen out of the crowd of people who really were trying to press to do things on their own, to work on open-source projects, to build and design things that weren't in that model. And, I regret that to a certain degree, but when you move to different institutions, the settings are different and so sometimes things slide. So, I don't know that I'm in a great position to comment on a broad state of technology in education today other than to say, education in general moves towards a closer and closer relationship with corporate America all the time, and technology is always a part of that. With that said, I'll say one caveat. In general, I see this move in that direction, towards the corporatization of the university and so forth. With that said, I always think that you can do a lot of interesting things with tools that weren't meant to be interesting. And there's always room for creative adaptation and working—the tool itself doesn't determine its use. The people that put it to use in interesting ways are the ones who really put the content into the relationship between technology and education. And so the kinds of essays that I see occasionally and the kinds of projects that I see which simply decry the fact that everything is now off-the-shelf, as though the fact that commercial software, the fact that commercial relations with computers are the dominant strand, as if that precludes doing interesting things with them. I'm not so sure that the coolest open source software is any more useful without a smart, thoughtful pedagogy than blackboard is. And so, it's that relationship that continues to interest me even though I pull back from it.
12. Currents: Well, and that's always a negotiation, right? I mean, they are institutions of higher education, and as such there's always this seeming complicity with all the other institutions that are backing and supporting them.
13. BB: Well, it often feels, though, that universities are a potential place where you could do some work against some of those things. And it even seems like there are fiscal arguments to be made for hiring a few staff and having them build things and do specific work with faculty as opposed to spending enormous amounts of money on web-in-a-box kinds of solutions that are perhaps easier in the sense "everyone's doing it." But you almost think that you could make a pretty convincing case to administrators that are trying to cut every single corner they can to save a penny here and there. But those arguments have gone nowhere, so it's a strange and dispiriting in certain kinds of ways relationship.
14. Currents: So I wonder then...those up and coming professors, junior faculty, current graduate students who are training in those tech modes, what—I mean it’s a little bit unfair for me to ask you to forecast—but given this assertion that it seems like institutions would rather focus on the technologies, the products themselves than a systemic hiring of staff, what’s the relationship between graduate students and technology and how do you sort of cultivate that?
15. BB: That’s a tough question. A couple things come to mind. One is that there are certain institutions and certain places that do have dynamic, active programs where technology is being thoughtfully applied and engaged with critically in a variety of ways. So it’s not to say that this is happening everywhere, or that there’s nowhere to go outside of Austin where you’ll be able to find these things. I think there are institutions that continue to do similar kinds of good work. Secondly, as I’ve said, I’ve moved away, and I don’t do much tech-building anymore. I wouldn’t mind trying again at some point in the future, but I don’t know exactly how that'll play out. But what I would say is that none of that was wasted. I think that the reason I got a job was because I had a lot of background in technology and I had done a lot of really hands-on work. I’d written some text books, I’d developed some software, I’d taught with it extensively, and it was an important part of my professionalization here. So I think it had material effects in terms of getting me a job even if the job turned out to be not a sort of a tech job or at least as I turned it into, not a tech job. They had hoped, I suppose, that I would probably do more.
16. But the thing that I think more than anything else is that the self-reflective, meta-critical conversations that emerged about the relationship between technology and pedagogy were the ones that made the biggest impression on me in terms of crafting my own sense of a teacher. That is, I have a feeling that a lot of tools that are used in the lab and so forth are very useful, but the thing that they do more than anything else is make you think about your own investments and objectives and philosophical frameworks that you want to engage in as a teacher. It’s not the technology itself; it’s the fact that it makes you question some of those relationships that would otherwise be more difficult to tease out. That is, we’ve all been trained in traditional classrooms where the teacher goes in and talks for a while and the students talk for a while and so forth, and it’s easy to slip into that role in a certain kind of way without too much meta-critical engagement. But the presence of computers and the challenge of working in the lab was [that] you had to think about what was lost and what was gained in some of those relationships, and it was that kind of self-reflexivity about the methods of teaching that I think was the most useful part of the training for me. And I would assume that that transfers for the other students who are teaching and working in the lab, too. And I think there’s lots and lots of room. I think universities want there to be, that it looks good to have worked with technology. They want to hire people who have done that, there’s lots of space for faculty starting new jobs to carve out a niche, and if building and working in technology and pedagogy is something that’s important to you, I think that you’ll be able to maintain those things even if it may be more difficult than it is here. It requires the kind of labor of people that create some of the infrastructure. That’s always a battle. They fought the battle here before I got here—it’s always an ongoing battle, too—but the initial space was carved out before I got here and so I was lucky enough to sort of walk into it. But that doesn’t mean that those battles can’t be fought at other universities and labs set up and things done and so forth. So, you know build it and make it work for you if that’s what you want it to do.
17. Currents: Absolutely. So can you talk a little bit now about what were the stated goals of the lab while you were here, and how did John or how did the grad students or some of the other initial faculty members work to achieve those goals?
18. BB: I think goals emerged after John left the lab. I think there was a great deal of creativity and freedom and openness in the way that John had set up the space. He was interested in those things and wanted others to be interested, too. And at least when I first got there it was a small enough place that the people who were there wanted to be there. It had not yet become sort of a place that people were sent along with the Writing Center as part of the employment arrangement. I don't remember stated goals. I remember freedom and creativity and a kind of exploring things and an openness to doing different kinds of projects at different times. If there were goals, it was simply to say, 'This is a new frontier of media. It has a relationship with literary studies and textual production and so forth. It has a relationship with writing instruction and with questions of pedagogy. How might we be able to develop and press some things for our own interests and for perhaps a broader audience that would be of value?' And that was the kind of rubric under which I think we were playing.
19. Currents: Great. So you had mentioned that you find now [that] your current work has taken a different turn—not as much of maybe a tech turn as other people in the lab or some of John's other students. And you had told me before you found John's influence really more powerful in the realm of administration. So can you talk about that a little bit?
20. BB: Yeah, sure. There's a part of me that wants to say John wasn't a great administrator, in the sense that he was not always the best with managing details and that there were occasionally moments where maybe he was interested in something himself and part of a process and not looking up. But in fact these are things that made him a pretty good administrator, actually a really interesting administrator. As I've begun to work more in administration—I was the undergraduate director for a few years, now I'm the graduate director, I've done a lot of service work in our department, and it seems like this is one component of my academic life these days—I realize how difficult it is to be an administrator. Particularly, working with graduate students and the complexities of an employment relationship, while also being an intellectual mentor is very, very challenging. I think that the intellectual and academic labor of being a good administrator is incredibly useful. It carves out a little bit of a space to allow other kinds of work to take place that otherwise would easily be pulled into a more mechanistic, instrumental kind of university logic. I think what John did that was so great was he just said, 'This is an interesting set of questions. I can get this room in the basement of a building. They're going to give me a few computers. And I can carve out a way for the department and the university to allow students to work there and get some credit for it, and then to give them the freedom to do what they want to do.' And I think he spent a great deal of his time, and especially as the labs got bigger and bigger, being a bulwark between the university pressures of 'Where is the financial return on this? Why aren't these people teaching? Why isn't this... what's the pay off for us?' in ways that we didn't really see or always acknowledge and understand. And I think administrators are always put in compromised positions. There's no way to do this with an ideological purity. The people who rail from the left or the right in a university about protecting an idea, carving out some kind of clean, uncomplicit space don't work as administrators. There's always compromises there. I think he did a great job of standing in between the pressures of the university and a space that he wanted to leave as relatively open and free and give people room to work. That was amazing. So that's an institutional level, and I want to give a lot of credit for how difficult that work was when I don't think I always saw it when I was a graduate student. I think I see it a little more clearly now. But I also think that he was a really good administrator in the sense that he had real relationships with the people he was working with and wanted to engage them intellectually as well as as a boss of a lab that had to run and so forth. I think he balanced that role very well. He was a good mentor to me. He talked to me about the questions of the profession, about what things might be useful down the road, how I might think about marketing myself. And when I was writing the dissertation, I didn't put him on my committee I think in part because my relationship was a little too close with him in this other kind of regard. I had a chapter on information technology in my diss., and I gave it to John and had him read it. He gave me some really good feedback and thoughtful comments. He was really sort of one side of my role or world here at UT and then the academic side was somewhat distinct. I don't know, looking back at it, I'm not sure why I did that. It felt slightly strange to me I guess to put him on a dissertation committee at that stage. I had Lester Faigley as a rhetorician, but not John. But the mentoring role that he had with me was really important. And I look back on it with great fondness. And I think I learned a lot about how as a faculty member one needs to be generous with students, open to their ideas, allow certain kinds of flexible, creative initiatives to take place; there's always a certain degree of energy from graduate students, a kind of newness, a freshness, innovative set of energies there that are wonderful. At the same time, within the context of that, how do you make sure people get finished with their degrees, make sure people do certain kinds of work and not be exploited? Those are tough lines to walk. I think he walked them pretty well, all told. There were moments where I was cranky with him while I was there, but as I look back on it I think that's a pretty good line. He was both a friend to us, but also clearly a faculty member, an administrator, an academic, and someone who was working to professionalize us. I think he balanced that set of roles pretty well at the end of the day. I give him a lot of credit.
21. Final Thoughts:
BB: I think that my time in the lab was enormously productive for me, made me think about things in new and complicated ways. Probably the balance I had between my work in pedagogy and technology and my work in postcolonial literature or transnational cultural studies (or whatever it is I might want to call it today) was a balance that kept me sane when I was a graduate student and prepared me really well for a career as a faculty member. I think I'm a better faculty member and administrator in part because I had that kind of institution there to work with. And I'll say this, as well. I know this is rambling, but the work of setting up organizations and institutions is really crucial. I said this yesterday at the [SEQUELS] round table, as well. The impulse of people on the left who do transgressive kinds of research, or at least like to think that they do, is often one that hews against disciplinarity, hews against institutions, hews against the conservative nature of organizations and the ways in which they solidify knowledge, the ways in which they canonize certain types of expertise, the way they produce, professionalize in the worst sense of the term faculty and students. I think all those critiques are right and need to be balanced, but I also want to say that there's a relationship between insurrectionary, transgressive knowledge and putting institutions in place that can sustain that kind of work and that can provide a little bit of a bulwark between the various forces that want to go in different directions. And it takes a lot to build strong institutions that are capable of being flexible and human and decent to people and so forth. Sequels has reminded me of this as well: that there is something good about having a concentration like Ethnic and Third World and a set of conferences and a set of listservs and this review of books and so forth. The CWRL was that for me as well, the work that was done to put an institution into place. Institutions have problems, but they also allow for certain kinds of activities and relationships to take place. John deserves an enormous amount of credit for institution-building at the lab there and doing it in a very thoughtful, decent, smart, flexible kind of manner. That should be applauded for sure.
22. Currents: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, thank you so much.
23. BB: My pleasure, my pleasure.