After this, I’ve got notes on one more, and that’ll be it for this year. As far as process goes, typing up my notes like this helps me figure out what I learned at conferences, and I hope also honors in some way others’ work of composing and presenting — but it’s also a way of archiving, of coming back to how others’ ideas have shaped my thinking in previous years and tracking how those threads and themes evolve.
This session, “Creating Wireless Identities and Literacy in Higher Education,” was of particular interest to me because of the ways my institution has attempted to position itself as a leader in the use of wireless technologies. Several years ago, the Point was recognized for being one of the top “un-wired” institutions in the nation — and yet in my classroom practice, I see frequent connectivity problems and reluctance on the Cadet side towards bringing their government-issued laptops to class. That resistance is reinforced by some faculty member’s distrust of what open and connected laptops might mean in a composition classroom: what if we’re not actively surveilling their screens, the worry goes, and they do something other than what we want them to do with their computers? What if our wireless network facilitates a somehow illegitimate backchannel discussion of classroom activities? I came to the session, then, out of particular interest in its subtitle: “How Emerging Technology Changes Institutional, Programmatic, and Classroom Roles.”
Amy Kimme Hea began by talking about institutional roles at the University of Arizona and its project developing a wireless infrastructure for the entire campus. Her presentation covered the struggles to fund the project, the disappointments accompanying the campus wireless overlay (i.e., the way that the wireless network was to build on top of the already-existing campus computer network), and the successes with the project rollout. Kimme Hea talked about her role as the only faculty member on the campus network master plan communications committee, tasked with articulating the development of the network overlay, and how the committee created a wiki for in-progress documents and solicited feedback on student priorities for wireless use. One of the most significant obstacles to the project’s success, Kimme Hea noted, was a pervasive attitude of what Andrew Feenberg has described as technological determinism, which ascribes agency to the technology itself rather than to the rhetoric surrounding the technology and the practical human applications of the technology. As reported in the student newspaper, one student imagined the campus wireless implementation as helpful in that it would ease crowding in the proctored computer labs, disregarding — according to Kimme Hea — the intended purpose of the labs as student-oriented wired common areas for interaction. In another instance, a professor expressed concerns about allowing laptops in the classroom for fear of distraction. Wireless connectivity was seen as alternative, competition, or distraction, but ultimately figured as negative space, the alternative to what we do. This reflects a binary view that ascribes agency to technology rather than critically reflecting on the material contexts of its use, Kimme Hea suggested. We need to seek alternative ways to counter technological determinism, and one such way is to undertake technorhetorician interventions in large-scale projects like the ones she describes.
Heidi McKee followed Kimme Hea, with a case study of the way the Miami University of Ohio English Department instituted a wireless computing initiative. McKee’s presentation, “‘We’re so Surprised English is Leading the Way’: Shifting Departmental and Program Identities with the Move to Wireless Computing,” began by describing the university’s strong composition program and noting at the same time the absence of even a single section of composition in a computer classroom; an absence made more striking by the comparisons McKee drew to schools like Arizona, Florida State (20% of sections are in computer classrooms), and Illinois State (composition students spend one third of their classroom time in computer labs). Such a situation at Miami, McKee suggested, was not sustainable in a world where composers are increasingly multimodal and increasingly digital, and so she and her colleagues went about seeking change. They set out mapping possible resources and networks and building connections among the constituent elements of the English Department in order to create the Digital Writing Collaborative, and then went to the Dean of Arts and Sciences and the Dean of Business and Interactive Media studies seeking funding and resources, and wound up making trades and swaps involving classrooms and computers. They then went to the University’s Information Technology Services division and to the Miami Notebook program, which offers laptops with reduced prices, extended warranties, and pre-installed campus-specific software. According to University statistics, 50% of students in Fall 2006 purchased a laptop through the program, and a total of 75% of all students had a laptop. Academic Technology Services responded to McKee’s inquiries that they were, in their words, “surprised English is leading the way,” but offered considerable assistance. The next task McKee and her colleagues faced was to design the classrooms, and McKee said she found one piece of advice particularly helpful in this regard: “Don’t begin with technology,” a colleague told her, because “if you begin with technology, you will get only what you know.” McKee began instead with an ideal teaching environment, designed it, and got it funded, and after student recruitment and instructor recruitment and development, the Collaborative’s lead cohort had 400 students and 14 instructors. Ongoing challenges McKee described included formulating student learning outcomes that went beyond just the technology-related: rather, the composition program re-aligned its goals for all involved to consider appropriate technologies and multi-modal elements of texts. Certainly, tensions remained, McKee noted: there were fears that involvement with the digital would take over the department, and there was an ongoing need for planning for sustainability, further curriculum development, and fostering interdepartmental and intradepartmental collaborations, but overall, the picture McKee painted was a positive and hopeful one, and she offered to share any and all relevant documents and sincerely welcomed further inquiries from those who might be undertaking similar projects.
Finally, Will Hochman began his presentation on “Techie Teachers and Portable Learning Stations: How Emerging Technology Changes Who We Are in the Classroom” by citing Gerald Graff’s focus on conflicts in the teaching of English as a nod towards the ways English departments can see themselves as conflicted between teaching canonical literature and pushing digital technologies. Technology is as democratic as reader-response criticism, Hochman proposed (I found this remark somewhat confusing, inasmuch the connotations of and relations among the three terms were not elaborated upon, but it seemed to be in line with the aphoristic rhetorical mode Hochman later deployed more extensively), and we ought to see conflicts with technology as enhancing our teaching. And yet while the idea that pedagogy ought to drive our use of technology seems instinctively correct, Hochman suggested, he’s no longer certain it’s true, and offered the (again, aphoristic) revision that technology is pedagogy. In fact, Hochman worried, “big technology is understanding human nature faster than we thought it could,” and this ought to be a concern for teachers in the wireless writing classroom. (Again, with Hochman’s aphoristic mode, I was lost by the unexamined terms “big technology” and “human nature.”) In fact, Hochman suggested, wireless classrooms as ecologies work particularly well because the technology itself works well, and because teachers care enough about it to sustain it. Teaching is collaborative and hypertextual and always has been, and we ought to eagerly adopt open source courseware, social networking sites, and other ways that help us to design our own learning spaces in cyberspace. Big technology, Hochman concluded, is learning more about humans, and in response we need to know our machines’ hardware, software, and humanware, and follow up with more effective integration of technology into our classrooms. During the discussion session, Hochman acknowledged that in some ways, his perspective might come close to the technological determinism Kimme Hea critiqued, and McKee pointed out that with many students bringing their own laptops to class, there was considerable use of free and open source software such as Audacity, the Gimp, and OpenOffice.org. Hochman also helpfully cleared up some of my confusions and those of others as well, and the observations that audience members Hugh Burns and Dickie Selfe offered concerning the place of technology in the classroom and Will’s playful and aphoristic tone helped to further ground the panel’s examination of how wireless technologies might usefully extend our current pedagogical impulses.
At the same time, though, and as the panel’s individual presentations made clear, institutional context is everything: what might work in one place won’t work everywhere. I left the panel with a much broader array of ways of thinking about how my institution might more usefully employ the technology we’ve already got, and with considerable added enthusiasm — but also with scant idea of how that might happen, particularly in relation to the fears described by McKee that are prevalent at my institution, as well.