Sunday, January 31, 2010

Hooked Into Machine

I'm not terrifically fond of popular music, but I do rather like Regina Spektor, the irreverant young songwriter/singer/pianist whose latest album, Far, has helped me get to work lately. Her stuff is witty and melodic, with odd jazzy/bluesy vocal riffs, and some amusing social commentary.

One of the songs gives this post its title, and my riff is on the currently popular propensity to stay constantly plugged in to one machine or another--and sometimes many. In many ways this phenomenon is connected to some of my remarks in The Multitasking Myth from some weeks back. It's undoubtedly also connected to the huge (and growing) number of ADHD diagnoses being thrown around, but that's for another day, and another rant.

In "Eet," Spektor touches another of my nerves with the lines,

you spent half of your life
trying to fall behind

your ears in your headphones, to drown out your mind

--yet she's far more sanguine than I, as she notes at the end of "Machine":

and you live in the future
and the future
it's here, it's bright, it's now

Of course, I live in the future of which I was terribly afraid as a child. I am, after all, part of that post-war generation that practiced "duck and cover" and (because I lived in Japan in the early fifties) air raid drills. When we lived on base we kept a packed suitcase under each bed, and when the sirens went off, we grabbed them and headed down to the basement of the concrete GI housing complex ("Green Park" it was called, rather ironically).

This probably accounts for my chronic suspicion in regard to technology in general, even though I haven't always been quite so reluctant to adopt new gadgets. My aunt bought me a little turquoise transistor radio for $5.99 in 1964, and I still have it. It was my lifeline to California during my first Texas exile; occasionally, late at night, I could get KRLA if the bounce was right; if not, KOMA, from Oklahoma City played much the same kind of music. I wasn't nearly as much of a music snob then as I am now, and the surfer rock played continuously, ever reminding me that I was really far from any ocean. I did not, however, own a set of headphones.

We also didn't watch much TV when I was growing up, even when there was one in the house. And my daughter was a year old before I bought my first color television set, all 13 inches of it, in 1980, so I could watch Cosmos and she could watch Sesame Street in color. I'm pretty sure we had a computer (a Commodore 64 first, and then an IBM clone, called a Clone) before we ever got a bigger TV. I was only peripherally aware of the possibilities offered by computers, but my first gig as a teaching assistant was in the microcomputer center at UTD, tending to early PCs and Mac SEs. Even my first teaching job at the Art Institute was using Apple 2Es to teach computer literacy.

What being around my children taught me, however, was to be selective about my technologies, because I saw how fast kids latch on to things, without questioning their real necessity or even utility. Children are little information siphons, and anything new that feeds them data (no matter what kind) is on that year's birthday or Christmas wish list. I am to this moment grateful beyond measure for the fact that cellular phones were not widely available in this country while my children were growing up.

These days I have to practically beg my students to disconnect for an hour and a half. Despite the fact that electronic devices of any sort are prohibited in the classroom, I constantly catch them sneaking peeks at their phones or even texting under the desk, oblivious to the fact that their very body language gives them away. Occasionally I'll make fun of them for trying to pull one over on me, but usually I just let it go. The real problem isn't just the lack of social graces and courtesy these little acts of rebellion demonstrate; it's the sense of quiet desperation reflected in the fact that they just can't turn the damned things off for even a few minutes.

It really is almost as though they're afraid to listen to themselves think.

Plugged relentlessly into headphones attached to their iPods or iPhones, they don't seem to be able to live without a soundtrack. Silence seems to scare the crap out of them. And why shouldn't it? They probably grew up with TVs on all the time, or tape players and radios and CDs in the car, computer games going night and day, Muzak in every store. I wonder how many members of generation X or Y have actually ever heard silence.

Even now, sitting at my desk on a Sunday afternoon in a quiet house, the furnace is going, the cars drive by, the ridiculous recorded church bells from nearly a mile away are tolling. The one truly pleasant sound is the occasional snore from one of the dogs.

This morning I was reading a book I bought yesterday, Land Arts of the American West by Chris Taylor and Bill Gilbert. It's a compendium of images and text resulting from a project involving the College of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico. It's designed, according to the Introduction, to "explore the large array of human responses to a specific landscape over an extended period of time." Some of what it features are works by people I've lectured on in the past--Robert Smithson, James Turrell, Nancy Holt, Michael Heizer, Lucy Lewis's daughters--as well as landscapes of which I am particularly fond--Chaco Canyon, Wupatki, Sunset Crater, and a big chunk of Western desert. The book is stunning and inspiring, and as I was writing this essay I remembered one of the things I love best about these spaces: their silence.

Except for wind and birdsong, there is little in the way of noise out in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes it's so quiet, one can hear the sound of a bug walking across sand, or a lizard skittering across a rock. Sand itself seems, despite the hard surfaces of the grains, to absorb sound into its interstices, muffling the world around it. A thumping great wind can blow up out of nowhere and change all that, but in the end everything goes back to silence.

Yesterday I thought the battery in my iPhone was shot, and I played around with the idea of upgrading to a 3GS (mine is a first-generation 2G). I even mooned around on the Apple website lusting after a MacBook Pro (one of my students let me play with his the other night and I was smitten). In the end, though, the problem turned out to be my car charger, and the battery is working just fine now. So I get to put off the decision a bit longer--like I did with getting the phone in the first place. I've only had it for two years, and I only got it because nobody could reach me when my daughter had to have an emergency appendectomy. So I ended up with a phone not for myself, but to put my family at ease.

Now, of course, I depend on the bloody thing far too much; but it helps me keep in touch, even though I don't really use it all that frequently. I read the New York Times on it more often than I phone anyone; I've never listened to music on it; I'm not even sure how to use some of the basic apps. So no, I won't be getting an iPad any time soon.

I am, however, still daydreaming about the MacBook Pro.

Image credit: Ghengiskanhg, "Artificial Fiction Brain" via Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Case Against Textbooks

As more and more colleges agonize over the rising cost of textbooks, I would like to don my Swiftian hat here and make a modest proposal.

And, no, it has nothing to do with creating baby-skin lampshades.

Rather, I would suggest that institutions of higher learning get smart, talk back, and tell the textbook companies where to shove it.

I can say this because I never once used a "textbook," either as an undergraduate or a graduate student, at any of four major universities I attended: the University of California at Riverside, the University of Pennsylvania, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the University of Texas at Dallas. This represents a fairly wide geographical range, and both private (Ivy League) and public institutions. I also have to admit that I'm excluding Greek and Latin grammars from the category of textbook. In the interest of full disclosure, I must also confess that I suggest to my History of Art and Design students that they buy a comprehensive art history survey, much as I suggest that they also have a copy of a good dictionary; I refer to both, but teach from neither.

In fact, I probably need to clarify what I mean by "textbooks" (as opposed to "texts," which, as all good postmodernists know, include anything that can be interpreted): books intended to teach a subject in broad introductory terms, in schools or colleges. They typically do not contain much in the way of original research or interpretation, but rather categorize and summarize information. They may offer a broad perspective on a topic, provide condensed historical or practical information, and are supposed to represent a kind of state-of-the-subject picture, especially in fields commonly taught in liberal arts institutions: history, the sciences, maths, and the humanities. I contrast these with the monographs that made up my education: books by the likes of Homer, Joyce, Swift, Goethe, Morris, and even the four evangelists and the writers of the Pentateuch.

Textbooks also tend to be written by committee (not necessarily a bad thing), profusely illustrated (also not necessarily a bad thing), and usually very expensive (in part because the aforesaid profuse illustrations and committees cost a great deal of money). They're also ubiquitous, and some colleges seem to be having fits about the cost of these books to students, and whether they should require them as actual or digital books. The proliferation of e-books and digital downloads makes it increasingly more likely that textbooks will become a permanent fixture in virtual reality, thus reducing the number of trees killed for spurious reasons--but the textbooks themselves will remain.

In addition, these books (especially the computer programming textbooks I used to illustrate the post) tend to contain material that becomes dated the minute new scholarship or new technologies emerge, so that they constantly need to be updated, new editions produced, and their prices increased, thus further exacerbating the problem. Since most software programs come with tutorials, why do instructors even need to assign textbooks in the first place?

So here's my solution. Nix 'em. Teach what you know, and write and develop your own materials. If you don't know the stuff, you shouldn't be in the classroom.

I saw one argument once that beginning teachers don't have enough experience to write their own curricula, and therefore absolutely must use a textbook written by an expert. If this is the case, what is it that they were learning in college or teacher-training programs?

I was told in a faculty development meeting just this week that I'm an expert. I sure as hell should be, after 190 graduate hours acquired during 15 years of full- and part-time schooling, not counting eight years of undergraduate education at top-notch schools. But what the facilitator meant is that we who teach are assumed to be experts in our fields. We've all got, at the very least, Master's degrees, and most of us have real-world experience related to what we teach. We all presumably spend many hours each year keeping up with current developments and advances in our subject areas, attend conferences, write peer-reviewed papers (or, in my case, blogs open to the scrutiny of any peers who happen by), participate in workshops, read monographs, subscribe to journals, and employ myriad other means to help us keep abreast and learn new stuff.

In addition to all these traditional resources, there's now the Worldwide Web, with online material that expands daily, the quality of which seems to improving all the time. Thanks to my laptop, the internet, and my college's library, I can now access millions of peer-reviewed articles, read major world newspapers, subscribe to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and commune with scholars and creative people all over the world. I can participate in virtual digs (I started out life as an archaeologist), read field reports, enjoy scholarly blogs, and take advantage of the TED lecture series. One of the most promising aspects of all this is the technology that allows me to read books online that I would never be able to even see in person except under glass or with hard-to-acquire special permissions: the Kelmscott Chaucer, Darwin's notebooks, Leonardo's sketchbooks. The means for perpetual learning are now quite literally at our fingertips.

So why are so many people so bent out of shape about spending preposterous amounts of money on textbooks good teachers don't really need? If we are indeed well-prepared enough to be "experts," why can't we be trusted to gather the material we need to teach our students what they need to know or, better yet, to provide them with the tools that make it possible for them to participate energetically in their own learning?

I suspect that there are several answers to these questions. Some beginning college instructors don't feel confident enough to strike out on their own, preparing their own lessons and assigning their own choices of primary texts and secondary works that could generate questions they might not be able to answer. If we're assumed to be experts, after all, we can't not know the answers. Although I'm not sure why the notion of "expert" implies "omniscient," this does seem to be a prevailing sentiment. And it creates a problematic model in the mind of the student: there is an answer; once we know it, we don't have go any further.

Another reason, I hesitate to mention for fear that I might sound accusatory, is intellectual laziness, which seems to be endemic in some schools these days. It's too much trouble to do all that work analyzing and collecting suitable readings. Why not order a textbook, where somebody's already done all that work for you? It's much more time consuming to select works and readings by great writers and thinkers, to locate ancillary materials, to search for appropriate websites in the growing pantheon of content-loaded interactive pages.

Oddly enough, though, it's considerably cheaper. A few paperback copies of significant works and PowerPoint slides built from images freely available on the web or through one's college library might well provide the basis for a top-notch humanities class. Surely the original works, some commentary, and some explication on the teacher's part, and a lot of healthy discussion and research would be far more interesting than slogging through chapter upon chapter of textbook condensations or pre-selected readings.

Still another explanation is the problem of suspicion or ignorance on the part of authorities--those in charge of running the show. An administration may have hired us, but because few of those who hire know what we know, they may not trust us enough to afford the kind of academic freedom that allowed us to become the well-trained, academically qualified, committed teachers that we are in the first place.

I fully realize that the academic world in which we now live is not the one in which I was educated. My teachers all knew well of what they spoke; they lectured, we took notes, asked questions, conducted research, wrote papers, discussed those papers, responded to critical assessments, and graduated from college and graduate school having learned the way people have learned ever since the idea of the university began in the Middle Ages.

That model is increasingly under attack in a world that demands interactivity, instant gratification, and entertainment--as well as "accountability" (which I suspect is engendered by our also increasingly litigious society). I quail to think of what high school is like these days after having read a feature essay in today's Daily Poop by a high-school Junior who likes the idea that libraries are now noisy, because it means that people have finally learned how to mix education with entertainment. I'm not sure how forty years of Sesame Street fits into her world. Maybe she missed it.

Ye gods and little fishes! What brave new world is this that has such people in it?!

For the moment, I'm out of steam. But I'll return for another chapter soon, perhaps with some suggestions for how to do what I say we should be doing.

Image credits: A row of computer textbooks uploaded by K.Lee; A detail from Jan van Eyck's The Madonna and the Canon Georg van der Paele, 1436; and Carl Spitzweg's wonderful The Bookworm, 1850 (I have a print in my study). All from Wikimedia Commons.