Thursday, September 15, 2005

Without walls

Kathryn Flannery has described what she calls the "women's-university-without-walls" that flourished from 1968-1975 as feminists wrote and distributed manifestoes, little magazines, poetry--all outside of the mainstream publishing industry.

The internet, of course, is another university without walls. Will Richardson suggests that we're teaching ourselves right out of a job. Because the internet provides easy access to information, what students need is not so much information but ways of using that information, of finding and connecting. In other words, we all need a new job: digital teacher rather than lecture-note teacher:

For many teachers, the idea of teaching kids to be able to access information and find mentors and communities of practice basically means teaching themselves out of their jobs, at least as they know it. I mean, at some point, we're going to have to let go of the idea that we are the most knowledgable content experts available to our students. We used to be, when really all our students had access to was the textbook and the teacher's brain. But today, we're not. Not by a long stretch. And we don't need to be. What we need to be is connectors who can teach our kids how to connect to information and to sources, how to use that information effectively, and how to manage and build upon the learning that comes with it.
Alex Reid also takes up this idea of the anachronism of the classroom-with-walls, or at least of the affective problem of classrooms that fail to engage because of a misunderstanding of their mission. He talks about students' lack of engagement within walls, reflects on his own lack of engagement as a student ("I was bored probably 95% of the time I spent in a classroom as a student K-Grad school. Maybe more."). But:

Then I think about that internet-thing. There's more intellectual activity going on there that interests me, more interesting folks for me to interact with if I wish, than I could ever find on campus. Obviously there was a time when the campus was a necessary physical location for intellectual behavior. The books and journals were there. All the intellectuals that you might have daily contact with worked there.

In short, the campus is no longer necessary as a physical site for intellectual behavior and increasingly cannot compete with the broader, distributed resources of virtual communities. When you factor in the corporate-administrative-bureaucratic shape of higher education, the campus does become more plainly what it always fundamentally was: a housing and processing center for the production of professional workers. And who would want to spend any more time at such a place than one absolutely had to?

One thing that I grapple with in my teaching is the fact that I actually really, really loved being in school. Why do you grapple with that, you ask? Well, because I realize that a lot of people, including a lot of smart people, didn't/don't love it. I loved it because I didn't otherwise have contact with a lot of intellectual ideas. And even though I did often find class "boring" in a certain sense, like John Berryman, I had been told "Ever to confess you're bored / means you have no / Inner Resources," and so I put up with a certain amount of boredom.

But, since becoming a professor, oddly enough, I've been intellectually bored. Not with teaching or with anything in particular, just with the realities of institutional life. I suppose that's part of what Richard Miller is talking about when he talks about facing up to the inevitable bureaucracy in our work. I thought being a professor would involve constant intellectual interaction with colleagues and students and, well, it doesn't. And now that I've been in three different tenure-track jobs and three very different universities, I'm pretty confident that it doesn't have anything to do with the specific institution or with specific colleagues. (In fact, I quite like my colleagues and find many of their scholarly projects, insofar as I know about them, interesting.)

But the internet--and, specifically, blogging--has opened up a new sense of interaction. I told someone the other day that blogging has been the most intellectually stimulating thing I've done since I left graduate school. Well, not done, since I am after all interested in my own work, both scholarship and teaching. But one of the really wonderful things about graduate school was the intellectual atmosphere: the over-arching sense that my peers were doing interesting work, the way that ideas would become part of my thinking almost through osmosis (ie, exposure), the challenge that smart peers posed to my own thinking. And blogging, yes, blogging offers for me much the same atmosphere.

But without walls.

This is a long post, so I'll end it, but I do want to agree with Alex that
some will tell you that face-to-face experience still counts for something. And I am one of those people. It's not a matter of better or worse, just materially different. The campus cannot compete with the net, but it can be otherwise.



Keri said...

I read Will's posting, and I had a few things to add to your thoughts and his. I think we should be teaching ourselves out of a job.

This is what he said:
"What I realized more clearly last night is that for many teachers, the idea of teaching kids to be able to access information and find mentors and communities of practice basically means teaching themselves out of their jobs, at least as they know it. I mean, at some point, we're going to have to let go of the idea that we are the most knowledgable content experts available to our students."

I couldn't agree with this more, but so often, teachers don't really model finding information or mentor students. They or we, assign. Do a research paper.

One thing I want to add is something about his success with Tablet PC (which sounds really cool). But he had one comment from a teacher who said she used the PC
Tablet for a vocabularly worksheet and students were more engaged than they ever had been before. This made me realize a certain problem. Technology is fun. The fun of technology can mask bad teaching practice. Why was she giving them a vocabulary worksheet on the computer? It's not researched-based or good practice whether it is on paper or on a screen. So, I thought that was interesting. I would love to have that technology, but it doesn't necessarily equate to good teaching.

Becky Howard said...

My first scholarly community was the WPA organization. My latest one is the blogosphere. Thanks for the focus here on the intellectual community issues; I think you're right on the mark.