The Division Bell: Sounding the Differences between Teachers and Policy-Makers

  1. Question: What can writing instructors do to convey an accurate idea of what successful web learning and online courses require in order to recruit adequate support from college administrators? The short answer to this question can be broken down as follows: As writing instructors we must 1) follow established or arguable best practices as defined by current pedagogy in the fields of composition, WAC, or writing center administration, 2) dovetail the programs and courses to be developed into existing institutional goals, policies and missions, 3) acknowledge the limits that individual institutions already face in funding technology by utilizing existing infrastructure as much as possible and by finding outside funding for new equipment or support, and 4) recognize the fundamental difference between administrators who are concerned with putting institutional resources to work in service of market forces, and humanities faculty and instructors whose institutional paradigms value individual allocation and use of resources.
  2. Indeed, the basic difference between the ways administrators usually conceive of computers in the classroom and the ways writing instructors want to use them, the last of the issues I raised above, may be the fundamental question or concern that divides policy-makers from instructors and faculty. Technology has shifted the means of creating and maintaining authority. No longer relying strictly on the physical means of production, those in power now control that power by controlling access to information-information that is itself mediated and itself controlled by computers. Discussing the dominant ways in which computers are used in the workplace, Ruth Ray and Ellen Barton, in their article "Technology and Authority," refer to "at least two interpretive perspectives from which we might examine the relationship between technology and the people who use it" (281). One of these they call the "institutional imperative," which asserts that "all meaning and the making of meaning itself is [sic] subject to the authority of the institution (be it a school or a particular workplace)" (281). Under this paradigm the institution, like the "state apparatus" of Louis Althusser, entirely replaces personal authority about the ways technology is used with mandates about such usage, the boundaries of work versus personal space, and even individual speech acts. The fact that work email may be reviewed by employers is a useful example of the ways in which such an institutional imperative may operate. The electronic record of sometimes personal communications carried on at work via the employer's email system subjects the employee to such constraints.
  3. Ray and Barton also refer to a second perspective which they refer to as "institutional interaction." This perspective recognizes that although the institution has the power to establish boundaries and assert its authority in the uses of technology, "this authority can be defined, analyzed, resisted, and changed by the individual user" (281). Although in both cases the institution is unarguably political, with ideological constructs which influence the uses and boundaries of technology, there is considerably more room in the second paradigm for adapting the technology to academic purposes. Within this perspective, the individual develops authority over technology "by analyzing the discourse of technology" (281). Ray and Barton argue that English departments are well-suited to encourage this interactive and empowering approach to the uses of technology on campus.
  4. One of the suppositions underlying Ray and Barton's argument is that computers are not the politically neutral devices we might assume them to be. Following the arguments of several writers, including Charles Moran, Mike Rose, and Dawn Rodrigues, James Strickland argues that computers bring with them the politics and "corporate power structure of the university or school district, influenced by what Richard Ohmann calls 'monopoly capitalism'" (302). Forces outside the classroom, indeed outside the institution itself (although not outside the structures which support and maintain the institution), are "making theoretical political decisions that support the use of computers... in ways that promote conformity" (302). In other words, computers re-inscribe existing power structures and provide for the production of future economies. Further, Ray and Barton cite a Carnegie Commission report which "called for major changes in the American educational system, suggesting that schools have a responsibility to produce workers who can use technology in ways that will help America compete in the global economy" (280). Although couched in terms that any teacher will likely agree with, this statement reminds us of some of the structural and institutional concerns that we must contend with when considering how to create, fund and teach courses online or with significant computer support. Not only are we competing with the "hard" sciences for funding, computer time, administrative attention and public and academic prestige, we are also battling the seemingly permanent question of what the humanities are good for anyway, what Richard Lanham calls the "Q" question (see chapter 7 of The Electronic Word, especially pp.155-9). Unless our teaching and writing somehow add to a company's bottom line or create more productive workers, what good are we?
  5. Though most academic institutions do not say so in so many words, the overtone of many of the articles written to date about the tensions between administration and humanities faculty is in precisely this register. If we are, in fact, expecting to meet the types of resistance I have highlighted in asking for funding for courses and computer classrooms specifically for English and writing programs, we may as well be aware of it and prepare for it.
  6. These basic differences in outlook can be overcome, however. The shifts which are taking place in our basic sense of literacy, shifts reaching back as far into the history of literacy as one cares to go, will eventually create a new awareness of writing in general and of the ways in which the very technology that is changing our definition of literacy--namely, the computer itself, and the vast interconnectedness of the WWW--also facilitate writing as a process. Ten years ago Lanham noted that "in university literature courses, we will soon have to teach students who have been brought up on interactive electronic 'texts,' and we will have to prepare them for a world of work that relies on the electronic word. [We can't] sit out this technological revolution; why not use it?" (10). That revolution is fully underway and we must find ways to continue to fund and use it in progressively innovative ways.
  7. Among the varied voices that proclaim electronic text a useful and exciting medium for drawing writers into increasing contact with texts and processes is that of James Strickland, whose article, "The Politics of Writing Programs," maps several approaches to integrating technology, specifically computers, into composition classrooms. Strickland observes that

    writing, once conceived of as a text created by the writer in isolation and given to an instructor to be read/returned, is now being seen as a text in fluid form, in an electronic medium, often produced in a room with other people engaged in similar activities, and displayed for others to read at their own or the author's invitation. (308)

    It will be an isolated and reclusive administrator indeed who will not recognize at least some of the ways in which computers are shifting the ways we look at text. Current best practices suggest that such shifts represent the direction in which our teaching ought to be moving anyway, taking advantage of the ways many students are already reading and apprehending the world around them and shaping those existing skills to fit a more structured, although not necessarily more traditional, system. As a result, we can take advantage of work we are already doing to highlight the ways in which our "new" methods of teaching reading and writing will benefit students in academia and in the workplace. And although this may seem like a capitulation on the part of the humanities, we have only to remember that no matter how much we may disagree with some of the larger concerns that trouble our sense of our roles in the university, most of us are still fundamentally interested in helping students succeed. In this regard our individualistic aims and the stated and unstated goals of the institution are not so far apart.
  8. Thus when James Strickland remarks that those who hold the purse strings do not understand our basic hopes and aims in teaching writing with technology, we can, nevertheless, still find room to hope for positive outcomes:

    Although the public pressures schools to prepare students to use the technology of the future, [the] decision-makers charged with these preparations are school administrators or school board members with little understanding of computers or the instructional use of computers in English composition. When the educational impact of computers is discussed at a gathering of teachers, everyone seems to have a story about how decisions about a computer lab or classroom at their school were made or influenced by someone in administration, someone in another department, or an outside interest group. Rarely are decisions about instructional technology made by the teachers themselves. (309-10)

    I suggest that proposals we write to such supposedly uninformed decision-makers emphasize the ways in which our aims coincide with trends that such decision-makers will already be aware of and which coincide with the market-oriented aims they themselves may already espouse.
  9. Of course, if the money simply isn't there, we will be barking up the wrong tree entirely. Recognizing the limitations that institutions, even the most forward-thinking and receptive ones, confront is an uncomfortable but all-too-familiar situation for those of us who hope to secure funding and other resources to support our plans. Charles Moran states, with a mounting note of frustration and even anger, that "the over-riding factor in determining who gets access [to such technologies] and who does not is wealth" (206). This inequity is not, however, always a matter of administrators managing existing resources poorly or in ways out of line with the goals of humanities as a discipline. Moran works at the University of Massachusetts, a land-grant university that coexists with many private universities (Harvard, Brandeis, Amherst, etc). He explains that "our state university is technology-poor," and that "this is not the result of administrative malfeasance: the University is under-funded everywhere" (207). In Moran's case, lack of access to solid infrastructure that would allow for greater access to computers than he currently enjoys is a simple function of wealth, "not bad management" (208). Nor is it, in this case, a function of decision-makers not seeing or not understanding what English faculty or writing instructors want to do with computers and technology.
  10. We may then ask, what are faculty and instructors to do in such cases? Moran offers several "ways of integrating what [Ellen Barton] calls an 'anti-dominant discourse' into our research and teaching agendas" (218). He suggests we learn about, use, and advocate less-expensive technology, and that we study the effects on students and teachers of technology-poor teaching (218). He also suggests, as I did earlier, that we reconsider what will adequately prepare students for today's workplace. Says Moran, "Let's not take the word of business that our students are radically underprepared" (219). Instead, we should study graduates as they enter the workforce, looking at the "transition between school/college/university and the workplace" (219). These suggestions (along with several others he details) provide a sort of map for future work in the field. That promising future notwithstanding, his larger concern, that wealth is unequally distributed, is still warranted. Indeed, we sometimes end up on those very campuses which lack funding for the "next wave" of technology and services. Instead of blaming the economic or political structures that perpetuate such inequities, we should take our own advice, finding inventive ways to teach and train students according to our own best practices. At the same moment, we should pay attention to studies of the ways technology plays with and alters the structure of power and the distribution of wealth.
  11. In the meantime, then, we must fit in what pleas and proposals for funds we can. In the pragmatic, seemingly sycophantic, world I have been describing, those who would get funded must dovetail their goals and aims with those of the institution in which they reside. While articulating this advice may seem wholly unnecessary, let me pause to mention that tailoring our proposals to address existing programs and missions may be the very avenue for passing our excitement and passion for computer-assisted curricula to those in control of the dollars. Muriel Harris and Michael Pemberton note, as an example, that "when an institution values its forward motion in the use of technology, a writing center's OWL [Online Writing Lab] is likely to be viewed as valuable in being yet another bit of visible evidence that the school is at the cutting edge of computer use" (534). The same can be said of other uses of technology that complement and enhance existing missions of "progress" and technology utilization. Aside from the pragmatic benefits of considering how our pedagogy and curriculum fit into the larger aims of our parent entities, we may find ways to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. The data collected from an OWL, for example, might be used by various disciplines in a research institution. As Harris and Pemberton also observe, "When community outreach is important, the institution will value an online service that is also available to the local community and to area high schools" (534).
  12. In addition to making the best of pedagogical concerns and desires which overlap between departments and management, there are also "administrative" concerns that none of us can afford to ignore. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education's Best Practices for Electronically Offered Degree and Certificate Programs offers a list of factors that may help inform a well-considered approach to getting online courses and technology-assisted curricula adopted. This list includes:
    • associated instructional and technical support
    • required informational technologies (and support)
    • marketing plans which take into account:
      • target student populations
      • available technologies
      • institutional goals
    • training and support for instructors and students
    • copyright law compliance
    • contracts for products and outsourcing, such as WebCT or Blackboard
    • possible future projects
    • coherent framework for students who may enroll in both online and face-to-face courses simultaneously
    • appropriate academic oversight
    • student and instructor integrity. (4)
    This list reminds us of the myriad factors at work in the conception, administrative authorization, funding, and implementation of courses and curricula using available technologies. They constitute best practices that take into account some of the expectations that decision-makers will have. Although online courses seem to be popular among some administrators currently, it is important to remember that, Marshal McLuhan notwithstanding, in online teaching the medium is not the message. The authors of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education report remind us that ideally "the institution judges courses and programs on their learning outcomes, and the resources brought to bear for their achievement, not on modes of delivery" (5).
  13. Best theoretical and teaching practices are also essential in the courses we conceive of teaching online or offering via computer-assisted media. It probably should go without saying that teaching online is only as successful as the theoretical grounding that underpins it and the preparation that goes into it. Just because we can put a class on the web does not mean that we are ready to or that we even should. Undoubtedly some administrators view online teaching as having the potential of decreasing overhead and reaching more students. With enrollment pressures ever mounting and budgets constantly fluctuating (if not shrinking), administrators have significant motivation to find ways to fit more student FTEs into the faculty/instructor FTEs already in place or planned for. They often mistakenly assume that no physical classroom means less cost. Online courses are at least as expensive as and usually more expensive than face-to-face courses, at least in their first iterations. While there may be overall cost savings in the long run, faculty need to make it clear to administrators that online courses are not a shortcut to budget savings.
  14. Indeed, online courses and courses which take advantage of existing and emerging technologies not only take more money, but require much more time and ingenuity on the part of instructors. There is no such thing as simply putting a course online. It is entirely insufficient to merely post a syllabus and assignments to a web site. While some aims of writing instruction can be accomplished online with a minimum of effort, the medium offers so many possibilities and such potential for new directions in teaching that it is irresponsible not to expend the effort necessary to prepare a truly online course-one that anticipates and takes advantage of the strengths of cyberspace, while mitigating its potential weaknesses.
  15. The best practices of online teaching are neither uniform nor easily identifiable because the field is barely emerging. A recent informal survey of several courses offered online reveals that many are mere extensions of classes usually taught face to face and which do not differ enough from such physical courses to justify their added expense. Nevertheless, instructors can almost always return to their home disciplines to find practices and ideas that can form the basis for excellent online teaching. Instructors from composition studies, WAC, and writing center pedagogies, to name just a few, will find different approaches to teaching online, and no one of these is necessarily better than another if the practices are informed by foundational theory in each field. A solid theoretical grounding for the online curriculum will also provide an easily defensible position when the accreditation folks come to call.
  16. Online teaching exists as a vexed and vexing convergence of standard classroom practices, political machinations, Marxist economic concerns, and pragmatic desires for excellent and stimulating teaching. The approach that English and writing instructors and faculty take in addressing these concerns with decision-makers must be determined by a host of factors that encompass both academic or pedagogical, and outside, meaning monetary/political, concerns. We must tread carefully but confidently in making our wants and wishes, and more especially our needs, known.