Monday, June 18, 2007

technology and ideology

In her (now outdated, but interestingly not really so much...) essay , "Ideology, Technology, and the Future of Writing Instruction," Nancy Kaplan points to some gaps in research around pedaogical tools such as textbooks and technology. On pgs. 13-14 Kaplan notes that no empirical studies "assess the textbook as pedagogic delivery system, let alone analyze its ideological implications" (emphasis mine), and studies of computer writing tools have tended to focus on effects of the computer or word processing program on the cognitive processes of the writer as opposed to focusing on the ideological nature of the technology itself. My project is less interested in the effects and effectiveness (or not) of electronic writing tools and more interested in the process by which we come to decide on particular versions of software. I might touch upon the effectiveness (or not) of these pedagogical tools -- especially if and when I might make a case for alternatives -- but overall I am more interested in getting at the considerations, awareness, conversations (or lack thereof) that go on around what is at stake (and for me this means what is at stakes in terms of corporate capitalism and its hold on higher education) when we make these choices.

It's like this: Wal*mart is an option for purchasing my daily needs. The price is right. The location is right. They carry what I need. They have a large selection. They have friendly people at the door waiting to give me my cart. Okay, so maybe these are the qualities I'm looking for when I choose where to shop. But, in terms of long (and short) term economic effects on me (as a citizen and taxpayer), on the workers (few of whom even have insurance), on society as a whole, I might not want to shop at Wal*mart -- even if it does have everything I'm looking for.

"When a technology is as pervasive and profoundly shaping as print has been, it is often difficult to perceive the full extent of its entitlements and exclusions. Its formations and empowerments seem simply natural and right. When a new tool emerges, however, the conflict it engendered by its emergence can illuminate previously obscured relations" (14-15). Kaplan explains that the conventions of a book have not only shaped the text itself, but also the world. She uses indexing as an example. Indexing has become the "natural" way by which we shape, organize, categorize knowledge, and she goes on to point out that there are digital equivalents that "are rewriting the world, restructuring what is knowable, by whom, and for what purposes" (15). The Michael Wesch video, "The Machine is Us/ing Us" -- -- is an example of just that. We now organize knowledge in the form of tags, social bookmarking, etc. Ultimately the point here is simply that the tool is not just a means to an end, the tool itself shapes and structures the world. And ultimately, I want to ask, What kind of a means is it? What are the factors that shaped the technology that is then shaping us and our students? (Is it Wal*mart? Or some other lesser evil?)

In his 1985 College English article, Richard Ohmann asserts that technology cannot inherently create new ways of thinking as if "'the technology somehow came before someone's intention...'", reminding us that "' itself a social process, saturated with the power relations around it, continually reshaped according to some people's intentions' (681)" (qtd. in Kaplan 23). From this perspective, Ohmann sees capitalism at work and technology giving a hand to those with power, money, and need to maintain the(ir) status quo. He accuses the "computer revolution" of expanding the reach of the elite, "meanwhile facilitating the degradation of labor and the stratification of the workforce that have been the hallmarks of monopology capitalism from the onset" (Ohmann 683). Andrew Sledd's 1988 article, "Readin' not riotin': The Politics of Literacy"raises similar questions about the alleged empowering effect of technology. He argues that "the plan is to produce a few experts in the service of established power who will refine and program the technology, often for surveillance, plunder and massacre" (499). In the scope of my project I believe I'll be making some similar claims, but I'm also hoping to achieve a less grim outlook (than Ohmann and Sledd). While I would never make the rhetorical choice of "massacre" and "plunder." I do see the creepy surveillance function of many of these programs, but I don't view all electronic/digital tools as functioning in quite this way (one of the arguments in favor of an open source model as it puts firm dent in that surveillance feel). Kaplan is also more forgiving, willing to look at these technological tools as "enabling pioneering efforts, helping us to actualize for all what the few now possess" (25). Still, she cautions, "electronic texts don't simply materialize out of thin air; they must be created, housed, and displayed by means of systems--hardware and soft. Those structures and interfaces affect users' expectations and aspirations, shape our values and our sense of our own potential" (25). Limitations and exclusions we come across in terms of these programs might very well be "grounded in the political and economic arrangements within which systems are designed, developed, and disseminated" (26). System designers, programmers, technology managers have decided what is and is not possible in the scope of these programs. They have determined the structure of the electronic environment for all of us.

As an example of the relationship between a tool and its pedagogical uses, Kaplan uses the blackboard. While the blackboard has a range of potential uses, it limits the writing process in terms of favoring certain transformations and discouraging others: "for example, the blackboard is best at word-for-word subsitutions...worst at a complete reordering that would require erasing everything and starting over" (27). The amount of text the blackboard can actually hold also limits what we can and can do with it as a writing tool. Interestingly, the monolithic CMS, BlackBoard, takes its name from this centuries old pedagogical tool, creating a sense of convergence between old technology and new. Also, the e-learning version of BlackBoard, like its namesake, affects and shapes the writing that takes place there. All the elements of both BlackBoard and the blackboard shape how we use them. As Kaplan puts it, the technologies themselves "shape users' perceptions of what texts are and can become: who can write them, read them, distribute them and to whom" (28). And one of my problems with BB is that it creates a (too) limited and closed sense of each of these things. The fact that only students from the same class can read and write the documents contained therein merely replicates the same type of thinking about purpose and audience that the students are already doing when they create a print text for class.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

I have a new dissertation

I know it sounds crazy (or maybe it doesn't; it does sound crazy to me -- even though I'm the one doing it). I met with my committee (well the two local members) on Friday and proposed my new plan to study proprietary software programs -- those utilized as writing "tools" -- as emblematic of the corporate University. Right now it's all just starting to come together. I'm focusing on three schools:

  • a community college
  • a small, private four-year liberal arts college
  • a state research university.

I'm focusing on the following products:

  • Blackboard/WebCT = CMS
  • Angel ePortfolio2 = ePortfolio
  • ETS customizable essay scoring services – turnkey and Engine only = assessment tool for writing
  • ETS Criterion = assessment tool for writing

I will possibly look to add more ePortfolio programs to my list. I'm open to suggestions.

I will essentially be doing a reading of these products (and in doing so a reading of education as commodity) utilizing the "circuit of culture" presented by Stuart Hall (et al). Because the circuit focuses on different moments or processes and the interaction between them, the project will not only include a rhetorical analysis of the marketing of these products but will also look at the people involved in deciding on the purchase of these programs as well as those who end up utilizing or consuming these products. I'm interested in what specifically is involved in the decision-making processes that go on when institutions are debating over or deciding on these programs. And more specifically I want to know the extent of awareness that exists around these decisions as choices that are feeding the problematic relationship between higher education and corporations. I want to know how much awareness admin and faculty have of freeware and/or open source models that do the same thing that these programs do. This information will be attained primarily through interview and survey. I will also look at usage -- how the consumers (primarily teachers and students, but also administration) use these "tools" -- differently than or similar to their intended usage.

That's my "new" project in a nutshell. It's not as drastically different from the original as I'm making it seem here, but it does present a whole lot of new research and reading that I did not do for my exams.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Blogging, like exercise or anything else that takes/is work, becomes more and more difficult to get back to the longer you've been away from it.

I've been away from both blogging and other related academic work for a couple of weeks now, and it has been rough getting back into them.

This morning I reread Paula Mathieu and James Sosnoki's essay "Enacting Cultures: The Practice of Comparative Cultural Studies" from Robert Yagelski and Leonard Scott's edited collection, The Relevance of English. And rather than (re)invigorating my own project, it only served to deflate me/it.

In this essay Sosnoski and Mathieu address a particular complaint against cultural studies and its alleged lack of pedagogical success: "its reliance on 'cultural critique' as a pedagogical technique" (325). By this they mean the way that cultural critique is imposed upon students and viewed by them as a "moral imperative" (326). In this way, they argue, 'cultural critique' is not rhetorically an effective technique. They point to advocates of cultural studies, such as Libby Miles, who complain that this technique ends up being "formulaic and flat" (qtd. in Sosnoski and Mathieu 327).

Sosnoski and Mathieu study the complexities of the problems with this common form (cultural critique) of cultural studies pedagogy. One problem is based on students entering the classroom determined "to resist or refuse any teaching they find 'political,' 'feminist,' or promoting what often gets misnamed 'reverse racism'" (327). Sosnoski and Mathieu argue that this resistance isn't necessarily due to an inherent conservatism, but rather is driven by the dominant culture -- corporate controlled media -- that "constructs a conversation that labels pedagogies that ask students to be critical of social and cultural practices as merely code words of the plotting advocates of critical correctness" (328).

Sosnoski and Mathieu argue that students view 'critique' as requiring that they renounce their daily lives and associated cultural practices, and through an understanding of this student perspective we can begin to understand how this pedagogical approach can be viewed as a "moral imperative." Sosnoski and Mathieu seek to "introduce students to a form of cultural criticism that makes productive use of students' everyday experiences and critical abilities rather than merely inspiring their ire" (328).

Nothing here so far is particularly "new" or "different." Sosnoski and Mathieu are addressing, and even tentatively aligning themselves with, common arguments against a cultural studies approach/pedagogy. And, on the other hand, Cultural studies, which is itself often conflated with or misconstrued as critical pedagogy, does also share some similarities with critical pedagogy and these types of pedagogical approaches are often put under the canopy of radical, emancipatory, or liberatory pedaogy. Critical pedagogy has its roots in Freire who would indeed find Sosnoski and Mathieu's goal of making use of or starting from the everday lives and already in place critical abilities of their students as an admirable goal and one inherent to critical pedagogy. The question of course is how does one do this while simultaneously avoiding the pitfall of the "moral imperative" that Sosnoski and Mathieu are so concerned with.

The proposed "answer" (according to this essay) comes in the form of a cultural studies-oriented first-year writing course created by Mathieu and Jennifer Cohen. In order to escape the primarily negative function/outcome of critique, the pilot composition course, "Reading, Writing, and Enacting Cultures," asked students to examine current university culture (in this case focusing on its electronic presence by comparing the web page of their university and its coverage of a topic of the student's choice to that of another university).
Asking students to perform this concrete comparison allowed them to begin criticism as a place of their own interest and choosing. Also, rather than asking them to 'critique' by using an existing theoretical model, their criticism was derived from comparing one cultural site to another. Rhetorically, comparison allows students to look critically at a practice without forcing them into an impossibly negative space, which often results in resistance or cynicism. (333-334)
Comparative criticism (as opposed to other existing theoretical models) is not restricted to current conditions; it can also address possibility -- i.e. the future. By asking students to "imagine better ways to teach and learn" through the 'imaginative' essay on an ideal university, Mathieu and Cohen claim to have escaped "the purely negative space of critique" (334). They believe that "helping students articulate desires for a better world and to initiate discussion about different views of the ideal is a worthwhile political and pedagogical goal" (336).

In the essay's final section, "Don't Stop at Criticism: Enacting Culture," Sosnoski and Mathieu address the idea that writing pedagogies that have emerged from a cultural studies perspective tend to cast students as merely ananlysts. They point to Alan France as an example of a scholar who has critiqued textbooks that solely ask students to "analyze the culture around them as a sort of cultural critic by closely examining and picking apart texts," leaving students in an analytical but passive position (337). Mathieu illustrates ways in which the course she and Cohen created urged students to take action by making Web pages to publish their views. Some of these writings now exist as actual links on their University's official Web page.

Here is an example of a cultural studies based writing class that is critiquing campus culture. It is essentially doing what my own project argues a cultural studies based writing course should consider doing. This is how I ended up deflated. How is my argument different? How do I distinguish my argument from arguments already being made?

1) It seems that the choice of studying and analyzing campus culture was a somewhat arbitrary choice for Mathieu and Cohen (although I don't know that this is the case, as they don't detail their exact decision making process); whereas I tend to argue that it should be not just one choice among many, but the very starting point for a cultural studies based writing classroom.

2) I would like to call more attention to the ways in which corporate influence in education is not so obvious, more transparent -- for example, in the form of proprietary software, academic labor, writing practices that contribute to the creation of a labor force under capitalism. So that the exploration doesn't begin and end with what is lacking, missing, underdeveloped from one University website to another, but how decisions being made -- corporate ones -- are directly and indirectly affecting the campus that students inhabit both part-time and full-time.

3) My project is based, in part, on a gap identified by Richard Ohmann in his Afterword to Left Margins -- the pedagogical project that Ohmann noted missing from the cultural studies collection in 1995 was a critique of campus culture. Mathieu and Cohen's class helps to fill such a gap, but it is only one example. Where are the others? Are there others? These are questions I might also grapple with. One example alone can't necessarily fill a gap.