the social-rhetorical challenges of information technology

I spent about an hour this morning responding to two different institutional surveys about technology: one coming from the library and asking about digital scholarship and the other coming from IT and focusing on their services and classroom technologies.

  • What technologies do scholars in your field use? What do you use?
  • What frustrations do you experience with publishing?
  • Which technologies of ours do you use in the classroom?
  • Do you teach online?
  • What do you think of this/that piece of hardware we offer you?
  • And so on.

It’s not that there aren’t technological problems with technological solutions in English or in the classroom. There are. But in my view the primary challenges lie at the intersection of these technologies with physical space, social organization, and rhetorical practices. For example, here’s a classroom commonly used by the composition program.  This room seats 21 students. The photo is taken from the door into the classroom. The white desk at bottom right of the image is designed to be wheelchair accessible. You can see the instructor desk, the project (partially), and along the far wall the technology cabinet with a monitor. Inside there’s a PC. There’s a document camera too and various connections if you want to bring your own laptop. Not pictured is the whiteboard. Also not pictured are a couple more desks: 20 plus the one accessible desk. (BTW I think those are some small windows with the shades pulled down.) Probably the most traditional composition and discussion-led classroom arrangement would put the student desks into a circle. There’s absolutely no space for anything approximating that. Another conventional practice would have students working in small groups. That too is very difficult to arrange in this tight space. The space is clearly designed for lecture, even though it only seats 21 students. The reason it is stuffed to the rafters with desks is economic, not pedagogical.

This is why a survey coming from IT asking me about the usefulness of the technology in the classroom seems tone deaf to me. The problem isn’t the technology or if there are problems with the technology then they are obscured by the limits of the physical space. I would like for students to have enough space to bring their laptops, move around, work in groups, share their screens (even if only by all moving around in front of a laptop), and have conversations without getting in each others way.  I’d also like to be able to move among those groups without worrying about pulling a muscle.

If I had that kind of space where such learning was possible then we could start asking questions about software that would enhance collaboration, give students more personalized control over their learning environments, and facilitate communication in a variety of media. But that would introduce a whole range of other social-organizational limits ranging from the structure of classroom meeting times and semesters to the shape of curriculum, pedagogies and learning objectives. These are not problems that the library or IT department can resolve. I don’t expect them to ask such questions. But it makes answering their questions seem pointless and mildly comical. Sure, there are many things that I would do, given the time and space to do them. Of course I’d be building a bridge to nowhere, in a curricular sense, but I could do it just to amuse myself. However, since I have no illusions of such practices becoming institutionalized in any substantive way, there’s really no point in involving IT or the library. All I’m likely to get for my trouble is some litany of policies, forms, and demands for assessment. I’m much better off without their help.

To be honest, once upon a time, that seemed like enough, and I know I wasn’t alone in thinking that (and maybe some people still do). Being a bit of maverick, working under the radar, and doing your own thing seemed in line with a certain spirit of the web… 20 years ago. Maybe it still could be, but not so much for me.

I’ve had a similar experience in the realm of scholarship. I got my first couple academic jobs in part because my technical expertise (which was never all that stellar) set me apart from other candidates. In the early 00’s there weren’t a lot of assistant professors who’d been teaching in computer labs and teaching online for a decade. There weren’t a lot signing up to teach students who to write for the web or to train preservice teachers to teach with technology and so on. This blog helped to establish my professional reputation. I published articles in online journals with images, audio, flash, and video components. Such work continues to happen in journals like Kairos, Enculturation, and others. However, when I think about the obstacles to developing digital scholarship, I don’t think of technological limitations. I think about the intractability of genres.

When you think about a scholarly genre like an article or a monograph, you might ask what (social/communication) problem does it attempt to solve? The first answer might be “to share research with colleagues.” The second answer might be “to validate research through peer review.” A third, more cynical answer might be “to provide a standard for tenure and promotion.” However, in English Studies, I think it is also true that the article and monograph are means of knowledge production not just communication. That is, it is through writing in these genres that knowledge is discovered/made. Because of this, publishing is the way one becomes a scholar, not just provides evidence that one is a scholar. It’s a kind of incorporeal transformation.

So what happens if you stop writing in those genres?  Well, you stop being a scholar, or a least you no longer have a way of becoming the kind of scholar that your predecessors were.  Maybe, certainly, you become a different kind of scholar, but what does that mean? It’s a more difficult question than trying to decide how to “count” some digital publication.

These problems are only intensified by the continuing churn of digital media. It’s one thing to create a video as (a part of) a scholarly article. At least that’s still recognized as a kind of authoring. You could even make an argument for blogging as scholarship (though I’ve never asked this work to be counted in any particular way, even though I do list it as a thing I do). But where do we go from there?

What are the disciplinary and social challenges we are seeking to address? What communication tools might we use to address them? What genres and other rhetorical practices might emerge as we do? And how do we make sense of this as part of the social-organizational context of our work as academics?

I didn’t really know how to phrase that within the context of the survey.