March 2, 2005

From Gerald R. Lucas

New Media’s Golden Mean
(Or, How Do I Post to the Blog, Again, Dr. Lucas?)

Janet H. Murray, in her work 'Hamlet on the Holodeck', discusses the future of narrative within digital environments, and she suggests the importance of “author” to narrative in particular and cyberspace in general:

Granted, we don’t want that “author,” or controlling presence, in everything we do. One of the reasons the internet, and much built around the computer, is so appealing is the feeling of decenteredness: the idea that no one voice dominates where anyone can have a presence. Getting this voice is becoming increasingly easier as software becomes more powerful and less technical. The more voices being heard means the less that one dominates and controls the conversation, the flow of ideas, and the developing cyberworld.

Digital-flow.jpg

However, this decenteredness also contributes to our anxieties. In not having a central authority to turn to for comfort and safety, the Internet can often leave us in a vertiginous state of flux: too many voices often leads to inaction. The “old” media (re)assures us by its authority: i.e., we know when a book is finished, how to watch a movie, and what to expect of a poem. Yet, these media—patterns, orders, conventions, structures—were the best at delivering the meaning and asking the questions when the are situated historically, but their usefulness is waning in the face of the digitality of new media. The authority of old forms is being questioned by the media of postmodernity: the computer.

However, as any critic of new media will tell you, the computer does not mean the instant death of the old ways. On the contrary, we remain nostalgic angels—to use a phrase from Johndan Johnson-Eilola—who long to fly toward a future of technological promise while our wings get caught in the cables of our past. We are not ready to give up our old media, nor should we be willing. However, as Murray points out in Hamlet on the Holodeck, we need to find a middle ground between the old authority and the new freedom (267).

I suggest that the same is true for education. I have doubts that our current educational system prepares our students to meet the challenges that new media presents in education. Instead of the “new order—an age of equality, justice, and emancipation” that the Internet promised for educators and students alike, Langdon Winner observes that these myths do not adequately account for the practical realities that any meaningful use of computers in education requires. Winner calls this faith in the utopian promise of computers “mythinformation: the almost religious conviction that a widespread adoption of computers and communications systems along with easy access to electronic information will automatically produce a better world for human living” (592).

Winner’s point is not lost on educators. With the proliferation of computers and networks increasingly replacing the analog tools of yesterday’s education—remember the chalkboard? the card catalog?—we have not changed our approach to education to accommodate these wonderful new tools. Now don’t get me wrong; I am no Luddite. I had a web site that contained rudimentary course information before many had even heard of the World Wide Web. I am an advocate of progress, but this progress must not only come in the form of new tools, but in how we work with and think about those tools.

Education, like all other ways of using computers, is in an incunabular state. That is, we have yet to develop conventions for the use of computers. We think they are neat. Administrators love to see them in our classrooms, students busily typing away, smiling as they fill their minds with the wonders of the Information Superhighway. Yet, as we all are by now well aware, just having the tools does not mean we have the desire or the knowledge to use them effectively. A two-year-old with a pen and paper can successfully scribble, but she needs guidance in order to begin to use those tools meaningfully.

Like all other colleges out there, our library system has adopted a series of online catalogs. The dead and long-since-buried card catalog has been replaced by those beige boxes that have improved our ability to do research tenfold. Yet, almost every time I go to use our library’s electronic resources, I need a refresher course. Progress comes at such a rapid pace that even someone as computer-savvy as I often feel overwhelmed—if only momentarily—when going to look up current articles in the MLA database. Did I say the “MLA database”? Forget about that: there are now databases that link to full-text articles so I don’t even have to get up to read the latest scholarly research on Beowulf or James Joyce. And with projects like the Perseus Digital Library, Project Gutenberg, the Voice of the Shuttle, the American Humanities Index, and Project Muse, I may never have to pick up another paper journal for the rest of my academic career. With all of this information available, surely students are at more of an advantage today than ever before.

Why, then, do my students’ blogs and wiki assignments all cite random and tenuous sites, usually because they felt lucky Googling, rather than taking advantage of the resources available through their campus library? Part of this has to do with getting paid. Many of these databases are expensive, and are therefore protected—or hid—behind barriers so only registered users have access. This makes it difficult for students to even get to these databases, much less use them. One cannot find an entry from the MLA database from Google. This pay-per-use system is indicative of the current trend to protect intellectual property rights, like the DMCA; this system is part of the reason that research is still relegated to those who have access under the aegis of institutionally deep pockets. It seems that information is still a closely guarded, exclusive club in most cases.

While the lawyers and copyright holders hammer out these issues, we are still stuck with the problem of computers in education. The way I see it: we want students to take advantage of these new tools toward an efficacious education, yet still allow them the freedom to acquire their own knowledge. It seems increasingly clear to me that our current educational system teaches students that knowledge is something that is passively absorbed by listening to a lecture, and maybe writing down a point or two—that education can be accomplished through a minimum of web browsing, cutting and pasting, and maybe regurgitating what Ted Nelson calls the “official angle” about the subject on the exam (308). As Nelson points out, education is as much about indoctrination as it is about knowledge. That is, their ability to do what they are supposed to is perhaps more important than the subject at hand. This practice, Nelson opines, destroys a student’s motivation by making him “orient himself to the current topic” only by understanding the “official angle” (308). Nelson suggests that the human mind is born free, but education imprisons and destroys “intelligence, curiosity, enthusiasm, and intellectual initiative and self-confidence” (309). The implication here is that if students are given access to the resources they require and the proper encouragement, they will be able to learn on their own.

Nelson’s argument is, in itself, utopian and radical. Yet, that does not mean he doesn’t make sense. Like Murray, he seems to suggest that students need the appropriate mixture of directed guidance or motivation—that “authority”—and the freedom to explore knowledge for any angle that interests them: a “golden mean,” if you will. I have noticed that the most effective way of approaching this is through encouraged research and response; the former using the collaborative environment of the wiki, the latter the individual expression of the blog. A commitment to giving just enough guidance—like how to use the wiki and blog; how to use the college databases; how to cite research; selecting primary texts—to allow students to have the ability to pursue any aspect they want about Homer might be a strong approach to teaching literature successfully online.

Indeed, how can I make an online literature experience successful for students that have had all of the autonomy and agency trained out of them by their educational history? How do I help students embrace the power of the technology and at the same time helping them get over their anxieties about it: enough to cure their inaction, but not enough to stifle their own desire to learn? How do I avoid having to answer the same question several times a semester: “How do I post to the blog again, Dr. Lucas?” Are these things related? I think so.

More on this to follow.