It's no secret that for those of us interested in all things technological that in the academy is not always the most receptive place. When we think of the digital divide we many times think in terms of older faculty members versus junior faculty and graduate students, but a few recent experiences have challenged my thinking about age, technological developments, and their role in the university.
I’m taking a fascinating graduate seminar this semester entitled “Reading and Writing in the Digital Age” in which we consider the changing nature of the printed word in a world increasingly governed by screens and what we do on them. So far, we’ve considered theoretical aspects of the “digital turn” in context within the long history of technological advances (Andrew Piper, Lisa Gitelman, Friedrich Kittler), experimental aspects of new media (Kenneth Goldsmith), new techniques of distant reading (Franco Moretti), and even the neuroscience of reading (Stanislaus Dehaene). Refreshingly, the course also has collaborative and project-based elements (which will be the subject of future posts).
Anyway, back to the story: As in many parts of the country, an ice storm brought Nashville to a complete standstill this week, and some students were not able to make it into campus for seminar. Unfortunately, the professor had a very collaborative class planned, but in the spirit of embracing the digital we did our best to accommodate all students. We set up a Google Hangout for all to follow, both those in class and at home. After a 10 minute delay in setting up the systems, we were finally on board, but spent 5 minutes trying to figure out the best combination of microphones in order not to suffer ear-wrenching feedback. In the end, the students at home could not participate in the discussion, and could barely hear half the participants. Wi-fi signals surged and faded, creating an even more unequal participation. One diligent student resorted to summarizing class contributions on a sort of “backchannel” in the chat function of the Hangout, and she also served as the voice for the at-home students in their own chat comments. In the end, no one really got the full experience of being in class, not even those of us present, as the focus of the class was on struggling against technology instead of talking about its role in the future of our lives (irony abounded). However, our professor refused to let the class be wasted, and truthfully stated that it was a good exercise in the limits of technology and an example of the value of “brick and mortar” class setup.
By no means was this the only instance I’ve experienced of graduate students chafing with technology. The first week of class several of our laptops were rendered unusable, including my own, reducing our discussion utility because of old batteries and lack of outlets in the room. The second week of class we were tasked with “tweeting” the class discussion, and we spent a good 10 minutes of class struggling to sign up for twitter (or remember the password in my case) on our various devices. I remember looking around the room and thinking, “All these problems, and these are the academics who are actually interested in technology!”
These experiences in class, as well as others, have made me wonder: Is it necessarily the case that the type of people who go typically into academia, the traditional bookish types (myself included) are different than the technological mavericks that make the digital happen in the private sector? Are we bound to struggle against technology even as we make the academic case for its implementation? In our technological bumbling, are we doing justice to our students' education, or are they just as digitally faltering as we are? Every day on this site there are hundreds of examples of wonderful digital projects, suggestions, and tips that make me think the paradigm is changing, but we leave the friendly confines of HASTAC to encounter an academy still seemingly stuck using quill and ink, and at times reveling in it. Sometimes I even find myself in split camps, half wanting a revolution to sweep away tired old conventions and half wanting to be left alone in the library with my books. Then again, maybe there's something happy in that balance, to bridge the gaps and try to ease the technological blues that occasionally make their way into even the most tech-savvy classroom. For now, I'm just glad the forecast looks clear for next week.