Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, June 14, 2010

the teacher's dilemma

No thinking person can simply be for or against digital technology. You have to be able to use your critical faculties and evaluate any particular technology in an independent way, trying to balance the plusses (which there will be) against the minuses (which there will also be).

In my job as a teacher I use some recent technologies and avoid others. I assign blogs for some of my classes; I ask students to submit papers as PDFs which I then annotate. This kind of thing makes some of my colleagues think I am very cutting edge. On the other hand, I don't use Blackboard, not because I am philosophically opposed to it but because I think it is really terrible software — though admittedly not as terrible as it used to be. I think I can get at what Blackboard tries to do in other ways, some of them electronic, some not. I make a good many handouts, often with very sophisticated software like Omnigraffle, because I think such handouts are almost always better than PowerPoint. As I say, I evaluate on a case-by-case basis.

I just learned the other day that the classroom in which I usually teach — maybe three-fourths of my classes are there, the others in seminar rooms — will be transformed this summer into a “smart” classroom. This means that an enormous console will be hauled in, to enable a range of digital audio and video stuff, online and local. But the size of this console, and its accompanying projector and screen, will in turn require that the rectangular room’s seats be rotated ninety degrees, so that they will now be oriented lengthwise — that is, broad and shallow instead of long and narrow.

But this means (a) the space will be much more crowded, leaving me little room to move, and (b) it will be impossible to rearrange the seating. Now, as long as I have been teaching in that classroom I have arranged the seats in a two-desk-deep semicircle. This has enabled me to move among the students, to lecture when I need to, but also to get them talking to each other about the books we read. I have, I realize, adapted my teaching style to the characteristics of that space — I use the space as one of the tools in my pedagogical toolbox. But from now on the space will be significantly altered, and everyone in it will be in neat rows, facing the same direction, so that they can all look at pictures on the screen — and spend less time looking at books.

I think this is a bad trade-off, because what we have here is the facilitation of a particular set of technologies at the expense of others. It’s a net reduction of pedagogical options — or at best an even trade — and the pedagogical options it does enable are ones poorly suited to teaching students to read books with care.

So now I have a choice: Do I try to get my class reassigned to another room, almost certainly in another building? (One major advantage of this room is that it’s twenty feet from my office.) Do I try to adapt my teaching style to this new environment? Or do I try to persist in my old teaching style, fighting this new environment?


  • English classes in a semi-circle (or around a table for small seminars) were one of my favorite things about college. I hope you find a way to keep that set-up.

  • You can probably guess my thoughts, Alan. As it happens, over the last four years I've worked to move my teaching schedule entirely over to the old Davis building on our campus, precisely because I don't want to be in a "smart" classroom! A projector which can show the occasional dvd or internet clip is more than enough for me, thanks very much; beyond that, just give me a chalkboard, and room to walk around! I love being able to teach classes near my office (which is also in the Davis building), but if the classroom I were assigned didn't give me the two necessities mentioned above, I'd be out of there as soon as possible, even if it were just across the hall from me.

  • Aargh, the bowling alley mode sounds not so great to me. A classroom farther from your office would require more exercise too, but not in an obsessive George Bernard Shaw versus Chesterton way.

  • What program do you use for annotating PDFs when grading? I am trying to transition to electronic grading for its many benefits (especially better record-keeping for later requests for recommendation letters), but the weaknesses of Word (I know, I know) and the PDF readers I've tried to use keep sending me back to print-outs and colored pens.

  • For PDFs I just use Preview on the Mac. It doesn't do everything I'd like, but I appreciate the simplicity.

  • As someone who was able to buy his first house with the rewards garnered from being an earlier adopter, it has been strange to see that most of the professional and creative advances I've made over the last 15 years have come from retreating from the mastery of new technology and focusing ever more so on what I apprehend to be the essences of what I have to offer that seems to be unique and valuable to others.

    Good luck sorting out your seating. :-)

  • "Most of the professional and creative advances I've made over the last 15 years have come from retreating from the mastery of new technology and focusing ever more so on what I apprehend to be the essences of what I have to offer that seems to be unique and valuable to others." Something worth meditating on.

  • An interesting question is whether getting to know new technologies well enables you to be a better and shrewder user of older ones when you do return to them.

  • If it's a Smart Board that your classroom will be getting, you may find it somewhat useful. It's more suited for math, science, or foreign language classes though.

  • I recommend choice c: try to persist in your old teaching style, fighting this new environment.

    I suggest that a sledgehammer will make that fight more successful. The only downside is that it might require a bit of exercise.

  • You know, Brian, I could use some variety in my workouts. . . .

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