Monday, February 10, 2014

The Contemplative Cynic disproves that "Since the dawn of time, man has searched the internet." Who knew?

Dear Digital Daniel,

In our lit class today, you accused me of being a technophobe because none of the literature that I have assigned for you to read and analyze has dealt with the problems of changes in society due to current technology of the internet/social networking, a topic you seem very passionate about.

Had the internet been a concern for the 17th-century individual, I can assure you I would have included those stories and poems in the lecture, because: (1) it would have been amazing how they could predict the future, and (2) it would have shut you up about how much of a technophobe I am for not including such works in class this quarter. I understand that your 'mission' is to call out the Luddites on campus who are still using overhead projectors and requiring students to hand write their notes, but please take a moment to consider the logic of your request that I stop being a technophobe by adding more literature to the course that deals with technology.

Given that this course is an overview of history and literature from the 16th and 17th century in Asia, I am fairly certain I cannot accommodate your request. I hope you realize that the four hours spent in meetings based on your formal complaint about my "technophobia"--first with my chair, then with my dean, and then with your 'Up-with-Technology' student group on campus--has made me even more sensitive to the experiences of the 21st-century technologically savvy student community on our campus. Alas, however, despite all of the time spent in these meetings, I still cannot capitulate by including any literature written by the 16th and 17th century writer on the topic of the internet, video games, or changes wrought by social media because it does not exist.


The Contemplative Cynic


  1. For me, its desk, book, pen. I think all the flashing lights and loud noises are a distraction to make students hate the core competencies (read: reading and thinking, in my field anyway) less, but I get that every proffie should be able to do whatever s/he wants.

    But yeah, they have no sense of literary and historical time. On a longer side rant, we had our faculty meeting with its obsession with assessment and learning outcomes, and among all the buzzwords we didn't have anything about, you know, literary history, understanding the context of literary production or, really, anything to do with actual literature.

  2. In the high school where I work, we increasingly see students struggling with the distractions wrought not just by the ubiquitous smart phones, but also the laptops that we forced them all to start carrying last year. I've seen kids have teary breakdowns trying to manage the time-suck of near-constant connectivity. This is an academically challenging and competitive school, and it's not enough to just half-ass the homework and reading if you want good grades. It often takes some hard blows to the report card before they put two and two together and realize how much they're missing when they think they're "multi-tasking."

    Some students use that software that shuts you off the internet for whatever length of time you tell it to, and some of them lock away their devices during study time. But still, they are teenagers, driven to be social, and it's like trying to help addicts sometimes. And these are the kids that are self-aware enough to know that they need strategies.

    Me, I try to keep my classroom a quiet place that encourages sustained thought. No laptops are allowed. Buzzing phones are confiscated, but it rarely happens. Every reading assignment is on paper. Hard copies are required of nearly everything they submit, and they get extensive hand-written comments on their work. I have a digital projector, a kick-ass sound system, and a LMS for kids who were absent or forgetful and need another copy of something. I integrate images, video, and music into my lessons all the time, but we do it thoughtfully and critically, not as brain-candy.

    I'm seen as a Luddite now, but one of these days, when administrators stop hyperventilating over everything that blinks or glows, I'm going to be cutting edge, baby.

    1. Good on you for keeping your eye on the long game, Surly. You're so right that this trend will turn right back around in the end!

    2. I agree with you, the time is ripe for a backlash. But maybe it won't happen until the plutocrats who push the shiny blinking things on all of us figure out a way to "monetize" the backlash as well.

    3. God help us all, Peter K, but you're right.

    4. I'm guessing that's the strategy that some expensive private SLACs with already-high faculty to student ratios will take. And universities that can't afford that kind of investment in instructor labor (or a least think they can't) will keep emphasizing the tech aspects, and soon the graduates of high-human-contact schools will be looking down at the graduates of high-tech schools (and probably vice versa) and. . . .well, I don't see this turning out well, especially given that we already seem to have the beginning of class conflict brewing. Polarization is not a particular productive aspect of human behavior, but it seems to be a deeply-ingrained one.

  3. I suspect there might actually have been some new technologies during the period you're studying (though I'm not knowledgeable enough to know what they might be), but I'm pretty sure that Daniel would be equally unhappy -- and probably extremely bored -- if you spent time on how, say, a new writing instrument or substrate -- which are, after all, technologies -- changed the experience of reading and/or writing in this period. Judging from my own experience with trying to get students to imagine just how much inventions like steam power, the railroad, and the telegraph changed people's senses of themselves and the world, the most proudly high-tech students are only rarely among the few who are willing to really think about what the introduction of those technologies would have been like for those who lived through the changes. I remember thinking how amazing it must have been for my grandparents to be born in the horse-and-buggy era and live into the era not only of airplanes, but of moon landings and space shuttles. They died a decade or so before the world wide web really took off, and now I feel as if I've experienced almost equally seismic change (most of which I like, but I wouldn't mind if the rate of change slowed down a bit. I don't look forward to dealing with 2 or 3 or 4 or more equally major technological revolutions. I'm tired.)

  4. Have you read The Shallows? This is a good examination of different technologies and how they shape our brain, literally. It examines the fundamental technologies that shape us: clocks, writing, reading, and so on. Honestly, the web is just another version of many other technologies, and really, what has truly been a real invention in along time? Steve Jobs copied the old rotary phone dial for his Ipod. A keyboard for a computer is different from a typewriter?

    What is new is quickly replaced and what is old remains.

    Anyway, hand him this book to

  5. *FOUR HOURS* spent in meetings because some whiny little no-nothing bitched about an obvious non-problem?

    And people wonder why we need a place to vent?

  6. My department masters didn't like that I emphasized using one's brain and rudimentary tools to solve problems. After all, as someone once said, people should think and machines do the work, not the other way around.

    However, that made me persona non grata with them. Since the kiddies had all their fancy-schmancy electronic toys, and, quite likely, were addicted to using them, I was required to emphasize those devices instead. The reason was to show that I was "one of them" or "with it" or to make myself "accessible" to them.

    I often wondered what would happen to some of my students when they graduated and went into industry. In some settings, those machines would be considered hazardous, as, for example, they would be potential ignition sources in the presence of combustible gases. Also, what would happen if they were out in the field, far away from any electrical plug-ins and the batteries ran out? Would that mean they couldn't do any work, let alone think?

    However, those were aspects of the real world that the department administrators chose to ignore. I should have expected as much when the only reality they were concerned with were high graduation rates, high "customer satisfaction", and departmental prestige.

    1. They don't even have to be in the field. Case in point: I want an egg mcmuffin and i'm in the drive thru. "Egg mcMuffin, please," I say. "Sorry," says the voice. "Our computers are down and I can't take your order." WTF?

    2. That's not surprising. Some of drive-through fast-food outlets are now set up that orders are handled by some other location and all the attendant at the window does is hand you your food and take your money.

  7. This would be a hilarious story if it were not for the fact that you had to actually attend those meetings! What is wrong with the admin folks at your college?

    Along the lines of what Cassandra wrote about, there is a funny YouTube video about a medieval IT department. I present it for your amusement:

  8. My favorite recent interaction regarding technology was the comment by a student that it was stupid to require them to learn all that tedious citation stuff, because all information that was not already on the internet was obsolete and would be replaced.
    Don't get me wrong, I am in a tech field and LOVE, LOVE, LOVE that I can acquire terabytes of tech data from my office chair, but this future citizen is saying, in effect, "if it ain't on the internet, it ain't information." It scares the hell out of me that some of these morons may be working at the local nuclear power plant in 2 years. (excuse me: "Newcyuler")

  9. When I started reading this post, at first I was filled with envy. Your students are awake enough, engaged enough to complain viva voce , in real time? Gimme some of those! I can totally take this kind of "challenge", beat it back rhetorically and make it work in my favor.

    Then I got to the part of the meeting with dept heads, deans, activist, spare me stupid meetings or shoot me instead. It does make my life easier when almost all my students care about is football, and all my colleagues abhor stupid meetings as much as I do.

  10. Confessing myself just an aficionado in Asian history, I'd suggest some interesting 16th century Asia-relevant Information Technology bits (defining information technology as technology that facilitates the transmission of information):
    -Introduction of Chinese woodblock printing in Japan: first dictionaries, development of pornography industry
    -Printing press: Korean and Portuguese mobile type printing presses, introduction in Japan, dissemination of Confucian doctrine through them. First Japanese-Portuguese dictionaries.
    -The use of Christian icons (fumie) to test political loyalty in Togukawa Japan.
    -Dissemination of Portuguese romance novellas and its influence in the emergency of kabuki theater.
    -Use of printing presses in the Philippines to disseminate Western medieval narratives in local language (avuit, corrido).
    -Introduction of the ars memoriae in the Chinese imperial court (Matteo Ricci and co.)