PAMLA 2014 Reflection on Technology and Education

Although not purely a conference on Educational Technology, the Pacific-Area Modern Language and Literature Association (PAMLA) conference had a few panels related to the use of technology in literature and composition curricula. My goal is to use this space to reflect on those specific panels and their potential to inform my own curricular practices within my discipline. Additionally, I noted the use of technology at the conference itself and have some thoughts as concerns the “proper” use of technology at academic conferences. As an initial disclaimer, too, I should note that I was not able to attend the entire 2.5 day conference: in order to defray the costs of attending the conference in Riverside, I forewent the first sessions on Friday and drove up early Saturday morning. In sum, I attended a total of six panels in addition to being on a panel myself. I found the panels “Teaching with the Internet & Technology” and “Rethinking Remediation: New Approaches for the 21st Century” to be especially insightful with regard to my approaches to teaching with technology and overall curricular strategies. Additionally, the differences in the uses of technology as a means to present ideas—namely from the panels “Comparative Literature 1” and “The Uncanny Art of Reading”—has informed my own attitudes and assumptions about using technology as a delivery device both in conference formats and, by extension, in the classroom itself.

One proper use of technology in the classroom is as a means to get “multiple stories” into our classroom. Sibylle Gruber (2014) from Northern Arizona University argued that students who are not members of the hegemonic tend to be less willing to take risks by offering responses to curriculum in public venues such as a classroom. Students not presently members of the hegemonic are those who represent racial, cultural, ethnic, and religious minorities as well as those who self-identify as LGBTQ. The particular dangers here are that 1) the public sphere only gets to hear stories from the hegemonic and thus loses on a crucial opportunity to critique itself and 2) those outside of the hegemonic continue to be silenced and marginalized. Creating a discussion space online is one way to provide a space where there is less critical distance between those within and outside of the hegemonic, giving representative minorities a chance to share their stories without being put immediately on the spot and having to defend their stories against the more dominant discourses. Gruber (2014) does note a risk with this strategy though—online discussion spaces are asynchronous, so teachers / discussion moderators cannot respond in real time. So the risk of an asynchronous learning environment is having unchecked bigotry that attempts to shut down non-dominant discourses and worldviews. This unchecked hostility can potentially pollute a learning environment, defeating the purpose of creating a safe, equitable space for learning and meaning making to occur (Gruber 2014). PAMLA LogoMy initial response to this problems grows from my studies of Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory (which applies directly to the discipline that is was the subject of this panel): if we teach rhetoric and argumentation as a means to achieving mutual understanding and peace—and I mean explicitly teaching that kind of response as a rhetorical move we must make in argumentation—then not only do we teach language as working toward the larger project of human peace, we also give ourselves tools with which to question and respond to bigotry. Perhaps with the work of peace in mind, students will be more mindful of their responses before the bigotry even surfaces. That being said, I think using online discussion boards is and will continue to be a fantastic way to enable students outside of the hegemonic to share their stories, worldviews, responses to ideas we’re discussing together, and so on.

More particular to literature studies, David Sandner (2014) from CSU Fullerton presented a real-world example of using technology to teach literary studies. He and his students created a website using Google Sites to document and archive their ongoing scholarship on a writer specific to their locale, Phillip K. Dick (author of A Scanner Darkly). Although Sandner (2014) did not make this strategy explicit in his presentation, he was using pieces of the ARCS model to construct this project, either consciously or unintentionally. Because their focus was on an author specific to their locale, the project had not only the attention of the students but of the community around them. The project was likewise relevant because it 1) concerned a local, widely-celebrated author and 2) engaged in media that students find important to their daily lives. Because students worked together and collaborated on this large project, they had confidence. Finally, because their labor culminated into a product that the scholarly and non-scholarly community could benefit from, there was a great deal of satisfaction. In my view, working with digital scholarship, research, presentation, and archiving is chalk full of potential! Though unstated in Sandner’s presentation, I especially like how this kind of labor does work to bridge the gap between the university and the community, narrowing the space between scholar and citizen.

Designing curriculum with a shift from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation is crucial in getting students to make real meaning from their time at the university. This is what Nancy Barron (2014) from Northern Arizona University argues, and as a constructivist, I find myself in complete agreement. Leaning on psychology, this look at motivation forces us to think of assignment sequences and even course administration policies that encourage students to think about and value knowledge and learning for its own sake (Barron 2014). The reason why students cheat, plagiarize, or otherwise try to “work the system” is because they’ve been indoctrinated to value grades and not learning. Like Sandner’s real-world example, Barron (2014) urges us to think about designing curriculum that appeals to the current student population. When students become motivated because the processes they do are relevant to their needs and interests, they will naturally begin to shift from an extrinsic (environmental) sense of motivation to an intrinsic (internal, “of itself”) sense of motivation (Barron 2014). Although I believe this approach values (and evaluates) process more than it does product—and I’m not suggesting that this is a bad thing at all—more attention and value toward the process will naturally lead to better, more genuine products that students actually care about beyond the letter grade they’ll potentially receive.

In another session and panel titled “Rethinking Remediation,” Richard Hishmeh (2014) from Palomar College proposed a new methodology for “basic skills” instruction and textbook approaches that treats reading and writing as inseparable from each other; he thus calls for composition textbooks that resist partitioning reading and writing activities (and thinking along those lines) from each other. The idea here is to construct writing activities based off of the adjacent readings and reading activities that respond to and engage with the rhetorical feature(s) presently being studied. For example, if the current rhetorical topic is “introduction strategies,” we might think about constructing reading activities that ask students to look at introduction strategies being used by authors from the unit’s readings. One caution that Hishmeh (2014) has about this approach is that it can potentially generate a lot of materials that need to be assessed and that we should be mindful of the “constant threat of assessment” that basic skills students face; I would also make it explicit that this “constant threat of assessment” also generates fear and anxiety that becomes associated with reading, writing, thinking, and learning, which is clearly counterproductive to the purpose of attending college. As an aside, my extended analysis of fear and anxiety in the writing classroom along with strategies to address those problems, i.e. mindfulness practices, is forthcoming, and I will be presenting my findings at the 2015 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Tampa Bay, FL. Meanwhile, an additional solution to this concern is to stop assessing student writing altogether! Consider using grading contracts that derive course grades based on student behaviors like doing the work to the letter and in the spirit in which it was asked, actively participating in class, discussions, etc.—thus we continue to move toward valuing and evaluating process rather than product. Ultimately, I support Hishmeh’s (2014) idea of creating basic skills composition texts that are half as long and half the price of those presently available, and I adore the idea of trying reading and writing as intimately interrelated. One question I have and will continue to ask my students during class discussion is, “How might this thing help us as readers of this text? Ok—how might this same thing help us as writers?” The dyads here are simple: use reading to teach reading; use reading to teach rhetoric; use rhetoric to teach rhetoric; and use rhetoric to teach reading.

As I’ve suggested at least implicitly to this point, the use of technology becomes right and proper when we think about using technology rhetorically. We must ask ourselves what our audience needs from us. If we use technology in order to service the needs of our audience, it is right and proper. If the use of technology is a disservice to our audience, it is perhaps not right and proper. For example, one of the speaker’s during the “Comparative Literature” panel leaned heavily on PowerPoint slides throughout her presentation, and I quickly became mindful of how distracted I was. (Indeed, I was mindful of being distracted). I found myself struggling to figure out if I should be paying attention to the wall of text from the projector or to what the presenter was saying. I believe that having to switch between those input channels kept me from being able to fully engage with and comprehend this presenter’s argument. On the other side of the same coin, a presenter from the “Uncanny Art of Reading” panel also leaned heavily on projected slides throughout their presentation, but they did it in a way that merely supplemented their discussion rather than drove their discussion. Too, the slides were much more visually than textually driven, allowing my brain to multitask because it wasn’t being bombarded by different inputs on the same sensory channel. The lesson here is this: use technology in a way that allows your audience to engage with the material on multiple sensory input channels; in the case of lecture or presentation, the delivery device should complement and/or supplement the presentation, not drive it. This includes the everyday use of technology in the classroom.


References

Barron, N. (2014, November). It’s 2 a.m. Finish Your Own Paper: Writing, Technology, and the Comprehensive Website. Paper presented at the annual PAMLA Conference, Riverside, CA.

Gruber, S. (2014, November). Online Learning Environments: Ideologies and Multiple Stories. Paper presented at the annual PAMLA Conference, Riverside, CA.

Hishmeh, R. E. (2014, November). The Basic Skills Textbook: What We Need…What We Get…. Paper presented at the annual PAMLA Conference, Riverside, CA.

Sandner, D. (2014, November). Darkly Scanning A Scanner Darkly: “Philip K. Dick in the OC” and Teaching Digital Literary Studies. Paper presented at the annual PAMLA Conference, Riverside, CA.

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