Conclusion | Getting Into the Fray; Or How to Do What--and Why
While part of the confusion of using many of the newer computer and telecommunications technologies in higher education could be attributed to a deficit of information on the subject, this is beginning to change. Not only have colleges and universities become more dedicated to instructor training programs within their institutions, but much of the information content which had been exclusive to journals and trade magazines, such as the Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia and Internet World, has in recent years found its way into more discipline-specific publications. The MLA's Profession 1997, which includes an essay on the positive applications and benefits of using an electronic mailing list in a literature classroom, signals a change of heart for one of the largest professional associations in the humanities.(1)
In a number of ways, 1997 marks the year that the MLA decided to follow J. Hillis Miller's advice "to make every effort to study the effects of the electronic revolution" (Profession 95 95). Not only did the organization go online in 1997 (http://www.mla.org), but it featured as many presentations on computer mediation in language, composition and literature that year at its annual convention as it did presentations on film, television and media other than print ("Subject Index to All Meetings" PMLA 1231). Like its electronic precursors, hypermedia, the once exclusive darling of information and computer science, is gaining legitimacy as both a literary and critical form as well as an area of study.
The point is this: the rhetoric of indignation and apprehension, of regarding the instructional technologies that college and university administrators are working to implement at their institutions for whatever reasons (corporate sponsorship, legislative pressures, budget cutting, downsizing, academic surveillance, to name a few) as anti-humanist or as unestablished is no longer very persuasive in a discipline such as English. For the discipline itself shows all the signs of adopting, if not internalizing, a veritable cornucopia of computer and telecommunications technologies.(2)
What the MLA seems to know nowadays is that to do otherwise might ultimately hurt the profession. To do otherwise would be to ignore the reality of market economies that require of their work force writing, reading and critical thinking skills, yes, but also skills that can be (or, in the best of all possible worlds, are already) adapted to an environment that is increasingly computer- and technology-oriented. Perhaps more importantly, though, to do otherwise would in effect undermine the purpose of humanistic studies, which is to gain a critical appreciation and understanding of the creative work of human beings.
who resist technological innovations in teaching because they might
find such resistance somehow fashionable or because they are unwilling
to face the technology learning curve need to think long and hard
about their dedication to their students and to their discipline.
When certain technologies are--like certain critical methodologies--in
and of themselves beneficial, it seems to me that the only legitimate
form of resistance is an informed argument that resists the
manner in which such technologies might be implemented or used
(once implemented) to the detriment of the people they were designed
to assist. Resistance to the technology itself, which perpetuates
an ignorance of the technology itself, is an attitude that English
professionals can no longer afford, for such an attitude does little
but thwart expertise, robbing the profession of its ability to be
truly critical and to assess for itself what it is that technology
might do for (or to) the discipline. The reality is that computer
and telecommunications technologies are beginning to change the
way colleges and universities do business, administratively and
academically. By extension, almost every discipline will be affected,
but English seems poised for--if not particularly vulnerable to--a
more serious transformation. While other disciplines use language
and require writing and reading in their curricula, English is the
study of language itself, the main purpose of which is to render
ongoing and self-conscious critiques of language's most formidable
applications: writing and reading.
digital technology is changing is fundamental. Not only is the English
language fast becoming the language of computer and telecommunications
technologies (the a priori medium of electronic media which
makes up the vast majority of the zeros and ones zipping through
cyberspace worldwide), but how people write and read that language
is beginning to change and is, for good or ill, going hyper. The
new, computer-mediated texts, characterized by a prefix that distinguishes
hypertexts as "over," "beyond" and "above" (OED) other types
of texts, are explicitly different texts yet implicitly similar.
Hypertext, writes John Slatin, Professor of English at the University
of Texas at Austin, "can exist only online, only in the computer";
the "new medium," he asserts, "involves both a new practice and
a new rhetoric, a new body of theory" (153). Yet Slatin is unable
to discuss this new medium, this new practice, this new rhetoric
outside the context of traditional print or linear texts; he is
unable to broach the subject of hypertextual concepts without using
and modifying the old, familiar language of the profession:
Unquestionably, writing and reading hypertexts do require a new set of skills, but the old set of skills that makes up a good deal of the subject matter which is currently the English curriculum is also required. Thus, inhabiting the digital world is, I think, both a natural and necessary development for English professionals. How quickly professors make themselves at home there, however, may make a real difference in terms of whether or not they are truly able to help others or help themselves when they arrive.
With a World Wide Web that cries out for the assistance of people who possess a deeper appreciation and understanding of organizing and developing written documents and a student body eager for online training in languages such as HTML or software such as Microsoft Frontpage so that they might write or "author" more of these Web documents, English professionals--particularly those specializing in composition and technical or professional writing--have their work cut out for them. And, I cannot emphasize this enough: it looks to be pretty good work. Not only has Web authoring and editing proven to be generally lucrative and increasingly in demand, but I have also discovered that many of my students interested in writing hypermedia for the Web are experiencing an equally intense interest in writing for the print medium. Whether it is the immediacy of publication or a worldwide audience or the mixed-media features of Web documents, the students in my classes who learn to write hypermedia do seem to enjoy themselves more; they definitely take more pride in their work and do a more careful job of editing.
Like most professions, English can improve its chances of sustaining and perpetuating itself as a discipline by rising to the occasion and meeting the changing needs of the public. Perhaps more importantly, though, English professionals along with the professorate at large might gain more insight into the politics of distance learning and instructional technology in higher education and deploy that insight strategically at their own institutions. From Maine to California, college and university administrators in the United States are under a good deal of pressure to cut the costs of education.(3)
However, automating faculty work and distributing pre-packaged learning programs to students may not be among the best of educational solutions. As more faculty come to appreciate the value of software and the decentering and democratic nature of networked computing, more revolutionary solutions to improving education and cutting costs may come to light. Why not, I have been thinking of late, automate administrative work and distribute pre-packaged managerial programs to faculty? I can think of any number of programs that might do more efficiently and more fairly the scheduling, accounting, purchasing and general representation tasks of an immediate supervisor or department chair.
idea is not really a new one; it is just more enabled in an electronic
milieu. Since third-party U.S. Presidential candidate Ross Perot
arrived on the scene in 1992 advocating the Electronic Town Meeting
(ETM), government representatives have worked to improve their accessibility
to ordinary citizens via interactive television, email and the World
Wide Web. In January 1994, U.S. Vice President Al Gore participated
in the first nationwide ETM hosted by U.S. News Online and CompuServe
wherein he dealt directly with the questions and concerns of American
citizens from his office computer in the White House. The ETM forum,
which was televised (on the cable network C-SPAN) as well as available
online made it possible for citizens from across the United States
to read the comments of each other as well those of the Vice President.
Despite the electronic "crackles" and a few gateway garbled messages,
the transcript from the Gore ETM demonstrates a good deal of promise:
do the opinions and ideas of citizens bypass the costly and often
contorting middlemen of a representative republic, but the opinions
and ideas of high-level elected officials are also, in return, direct
"A highly intercommunicating decentralized structure shows far more resilience and likelihood of survival," writes Negroponte. "It is certainly more sustainable and likely to evolve over time" (158). If faculty want democratization to work, however, they, like the concerned citizens of any democracy, are going to have to start intercommunicating and vie for more of a voice in administrative decisions involving technology, especially if they are planning to use technology to facilitate shared governance.(5)
such disintermediation is difficult to achieve because the powerful
computing and communications technologies that might facilitate
a more direct democracy within colleges and universities are generally
controlled by administrators and computer services departments.
To short circuit or circumvent the automation scenarios that have
befallen factory and clerical labor, college and university professors
must empower themselves with a substantial understanding of various
technologies and a real knowledge of their applications in a variety
of disciplines, but especially in their own disciplines.
My own experience with the computer and telecommunications technologies that afford online hypermedia publication, acquisition and interactivity has me advocating, at least for now, a "buy and manage your own, if you can" philosophy. In the best of all possible worlds, I would not advocate doing so. Wrangling computer hardware, managing peripheries and keeping up with software quirks and licensing is hardly my idea of a good time, but what I have observed over the years is that doing so can optimize a person's technology use and understanding, and that use and understanding transfers to colleagues and within departments. The newly acquired technology skills then transfer (sometimes in rather inspired ways) into teaching and scholarship. Unfortunately, administrators who are usually in charge of technology on campuses are not always the people who know the best ways to implement or use technology for instructional purposes; many are also at a loss at what to do about engaging instructors in such a prospect. Thus a number of marvelous tools and applications go under utilized in higher education.
The way around--and sometimes through--bureaucratic thinking is and always has been singular ingenuity. There is usually a tradeoff in terms of labor, but having and managing your own equipment and software (your own Web server, principally) will give you greater freedom of implementation and use. Although you may not want to get involved too far beyond your discipline, you will want to acquire some level of familiarity with the means by which hypermedia is served on the World Wide Web. For the means, which is essentially a robust, Internet-connected computer that runs server software, such as Webstar or Internet Information Server, can have everything to do with the capabilities and functionality of the hypermedia you, your colleagues or your students may wish to serve. If, for example, you wanted to create individual, password-protected accounts or shared virtual spaces or run Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) programs, various Java applets, audio- and video-streaming software or courseware, such as TopClass, or incorporate CGI programs into your hypermedia, you would need to have a good deal of access to the "back web" or the server itself. Otherwise you will have to work something out with your instructional or information technology people or, if there are no such people on your campus or simply too few (which is often the case), your LAN administrator.
It may be the case that computer and technology support is becoming more user friendly. When I inquired about the listserv that is the subject of Laura Mandell's Profession 1997 essay, "Virtual Encounters: Using an Electronic Mailing List in a Literature Classroom," Mandell responded (via email): "I didn't have to run the listserv program at all; the people at my university set up class lists for us each semester" (1998). This should give us all hope, indeed, that an exceedingly positive experience of relatively few technology frustrations is possible. Mandell's experience was so positive, in fact, that she offered this additional information: "I am using a MOO(6) in a class now and hope to write something about that after it is over--even if it turns out to be a disaster" (1998). Of course, campus computer and technology support infrastructures vary widely. And I would have to guess that the support personnel at Mandell's Miami University makes itself readily available to instructors. However, this is not the case at a number of institutions. Many computer and technology support departments are relatively small. And with the boom in technology, they are seriously stretched and kept busy with a plethora of administrative concerns. Add to these frustrations the fact that computer and technology support departments and humanities departments generally harbor a good deal of mutual antipathy towards one another, and your hopes of technological innovation in the classroom might be dashed fairly often.
The bad relations I have observed over the years are truly unfortunate, as computing is fast becoming a feature of communications and communications is fast becoming a feature of computing. Perhaps it is silly of me to hope for a quick change of heart on either side, for the rivalry is, after all, a very old one, exacerbated from time to time by the politics of government fears and of commercial competition. However, I do hope, and I hope because I see real advantages to respecting and understanding the technology of means as well as the humanity of method. Like Negroponte, I believe that the "polarity (however artificial) between technology and the humanities, between science and art, between right brain and left" will be made less severe by computers. I agree that the "burgeoning field of multimedia is likely to be one of those disciplines, like architecture, that bridges the gap" (81). But I do not believe it will happen over night, which is why "[t]he readiness is all" (Hamlet 5.2.220).
More and more sophisticated technology is on its way, making this readiness in skill extremely important; however, we do not want to make the same mistake poor Hamlet did in trusting too much in skill. Hubris gets you nowhere in a tragedy. We must also prepare ourselves for craft, for the venomous rapier or the poisoned cup of wine--for the tough, deep cuts compelled by academic administration or the sweet, institutional takeovers by corporate America--or we do indeed "defy augury" (5.2.216). In late 1997 I remember wondering why a publishing house like McGraw Hill would team up with WBT Systems, a small Irish company that designs a popular Web-based learning system called TopClass. Within a few months I received an email from my TopClass representative, explaining rather happily that:
might ask yourselves what a software corporation like Microsoft
and a publishing house like Simon and Shuster might have to do with
a small Denver-based education company like Real Education. You
might also ask yourselves why their group advertisements in The
Chronicle of Higher Education wholly ignore instructors and
professors in their appeal but are keen to "present FREE executive
briefings" to "technology/distance education decision-makers in
higher education" (see Figure 4-1). For those of you who are
ready to match your skill with your craft, you might consider the
you have the right stuff, you will then need to pay careful attention
to the subtle and not so-subtle differences between teaching an
actual class and teaching a virtual class, if not both and at the
same time. While I believe that an increasing number of instructors
are going to find themselves teaching more courses that are strictly
online, I estimate that, in the next several years, the majority
of us will find ourselves teaching fairly traditional, face-to-face
courses that will include a smattering of electronic features, something
similar to the kind of course Mandell describes in Profession
As with all other innovations and changes in pedagogy, it will be some time before the cumulative effects of electronic media and Web-based teaching and learning can be assessed more conclusively. We are--as we always seem to be with regard to technology--living in changing times. My advice is to be prudent--not in the connotative sense of delay but dennotatively: to avoid undesired consequences. I don't think prudence amounts to what I hear too often from my colleagues: "I'm waiting for more user friendly software." "Where's the compelling research that equates online teaching with good teaching?" "I just don't have time to learn these new technologies." "It's just too much like computer programming, and that's not what I do." "I want my students reading books, not surfing the Web." And, finally: "This may be well and good for you young people, but I don't see any point to it."
To all of these I simply must respond (and not without some measure of sympathy): The day you wait for computer and telecommunications technologies to plateau or stabilize or for the research to amass and inform your pedagogical direction, you may find yourself getting hopelessly behind. The minute you give in to the constraints on your time and refuse to re-examine your priorities in light of coming generations, you may find yourself slipping professionally: students avoid you, colleagues ignore you. And the year you deliberately disregard the Web's instructional potential and declare yourself "too old" to go online, you may find yourself out of a job, if not with a job that, in this period of downsizing and automation, holds little in the way of its original attraction. I think we are rapidly approaching yet another point in time wherein we can choose to re-think, revitalize and reconstitute the discipline of English, or we can choose to let it to slip further from us, becoming ever more fragmented, isolated and diminished. It is my hope that the digital word can help to re-write the history of what many in English are calling the "dysfunctional relationship between literature and composition" (Schneider A14). Like no other media, hypermedia illustrates as it facilitates the interactive nature between reading and writing; it reminds us every time we navigate the Web, every time we "click" on an underscored, highlighted word of hypertext, that writing and reading are inextricably linked. It helps us understand and appreciate all over again the importance of the interrelationship between language, composition and literature.
2. 53 Some of the paper titles at the 1997 MLA Conference in Toronto included "Holistic Integration of Technology into Language, Culture, and Literature Curricula," "Postmodern Fiction in the Information Age," "Beyond Hypertext: Civilization and Its Discontents," "Pioneering the Networked Environment: Project Muse and Peer-Reviewed Humanities Journals Online," and "Synchronous Aural-Visual-Textual Internet Tutoring."
3. 53 "If colleges and universities don't behave more responsibly to control their costs, others will do it for them--with a lot less thought and consideration" said Barry Munitz, chancellor of the California State University System and a member of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education (qtd. in Burd: A26). The Commission, an eleven-member panel, was appointed in August of 1997 by Republican leaders in Congress to help government curtail the rising cost of education.
4. 53 Evan Schwartz reminds readers in his 1993 Wired magazine article "Direct Democracy: Are You Ready for the Democracy Channel?" that our "Founding Fathers, in their white wigs, feared that the lower classes would vote to seize their property. So they intentionally created a representative republic, not a full-fledged democracy, to keep power out of the hands of the masses" (502).
5. 53 "For a long time, decentralism was plausible as a concept but not possible as an implementation," Negroponte argues in Being Digital. "The effect of fax machines on Tiananmen Square is an ironic example, because newly popular and decentralized tools were invoked precisely when the government was trying to reassert its elite and centralized control. The Internet provides a worldwide channel of communication that flies in the face of any censorship and thrives especially in places like Singapore, where freedom of the press is marginal and networking ubiquitous" (158).