Open Letter to Heather Menzies

Open Letter to Heather Menzies

Some snippets from today’s Toronto Star: “Dumbed down on campus, bit by bit” by Heather Menzies, professor of Canadian Studies at Carleton University, my first alma mater (registration required for the Star, I can’t get a direct link):

There’s a terrible irony here: people are feeling disconnected in the midst of all this newfound digital connection.
There’s also a danger signal here. Knowing, or “knowledge production”, as it’s sometimes called, is a social activity. It involves people comparing observations and data collected by various research instruments, interpreting these through frames of various theories and hypotheses, and reaching a conclusion that will be tested by further dialogue and research.

Reduce that fecund, engaged social component too much and knowledge production becomes technocratic. Systems and data sets become ends in themselves, with people more and more removed from a sense that their take on things counts, and from the social habits of face-to-face dialogue that ensure it does.

Students today are missing out. Instead of co-producing knowledge through challenging discussions with professors and fellow students, enhancing and practicing the democratic idea that society does best when there’s a continuous open dialogue about the issues fo the day, there’s downloading modules of ready-made knowledge.

“There’s just no depth to their reading, often, and no depth to their sense of What do I do with all this material? How do I focus?” complained one professor.

That’s precisely what the same professor helps students do when she invites them into her office.

“I remember a student the other day—I started talking about this notion of authorship, and we all have a voice, and this fascinating notion that it’s all a babble and we are all immersed in it all the time, but what you have to say is important. And the lights wehnt on for her, and she said, “I never thought about it like that. ” And I said, “That’s why you try to question.” And I think, could I have done that typing to her on email?”

My response, emailed this afternoon:

Dear Professor Menzies,

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been mulling over the articles spilling out of academia about the dangers of the internet; it makes us dumb, it prevents us from engaging in contemplative thought, it isolates us. This morning I read your article on this subject in the Toronto Star and I feel compelled to get in touch with you.

I agree with you that something is amiss in academe; I agree that communication between undergraduates and faculty is at a dangerous and unproductive low. I agree that academic enterprise cannot be conducted in isolation, and that web applications like WebCT are not helping. Social constructivism teaches us that the best knowledge is built in groups. The place where we part ways is in our understanding of computer technology’s potential in assisting and supporting communication, collaboration, and learning.

There is a set of assumptions about computer technology that are causing the kinds of problems you note. These assumptions are undercutting the strength of your argument, and blinding many to the real potential of technology in the university environment.

The first assumption is that the purpose of technology is to make things faster, cheaper, and easier, that the introduction of technology to a particular realm will mean less work for everyone involved. Some administrators hope that adding technology to the classroom will allow them to further remove academics from the dull, time-consuming processes of teaching, marking, and filling out forms, letting the software do all the work for a fraction of the cost. Fewer instructors, more students. Automation is progress, and progress is speed. This understanding is preventing us from using the technologies available to us to improve the student experience.

When I first encountered weblogs in 1999, I immediately thought they were a wonderful venue for thinking out loud; here was a personal yet public space to hash out ideas and pose questions. For the shy undergraduate without the confidence to stick up her hand in front of her classmates or to step into a professor’s office (an act that requires a lot of chutzpah), there are no venues for scholarly communication other than the requisite essay and the exam. I’m currently of the belief that we should never ask an undergraduate to read something without also asking her to write something. Weblogs can be a venue for that kind of regular contemplative thought and critical writing. This is a venue that can be easily monitored by TAs, instructors, other students in the class, subject librarians, guest lecturers, interested faculty and graduate students, or even the authors of the week’s readings. Since weblogs come equipped with tools so that any visitor can comment on any post, this means a student’s tentative thoughts can be heard, encouraged, engaged, challenged, and commended by those around her. Students’ ideas can inform the direction of the class week by week, even if they don’t have to confidence to open up their mouths and explore a new idea in the classroom. This kind of social software can be used not only to encourage thoughtful and regular writing, but also to help turn a classroom into a community, to help build relationships between students as well as students and their instructors.

The first time I ever discussed this idea with an instructor, her response was: “That’s a lot of marking. I’m not interested.” As is any useful technology would as its first goal address the burden of marking, not the student experience.

When we approach technology with the idea that its sole purpose is to make our lives easier, we miss a lot of its useful applications. Web applications will not take away work that links us to each other; but they can help us build new venues of communication to support and draw out the best parts of a university education, to give every student a voice. Not all undergraduate classes can be seminars, but we can bring some of the seminar experience to them through social software.

The second assumption revolves around the metaphors we use when talking about the internet. You are alone when you sit at your computer. You are not communicating, making connections, being challenged. Email is supposed to connect us but it does not. It merely hangs like an albatross around our necks and forces us to disengage from the contemplative thought that breathes life to our work. We use email to send brief, unthoughtful, fast missives to nameless usernames through the ether. There is nothing conversational about machine-mediated communication; it is simply dry text responses to (faceless) dry text. The depth of this understanding is so clear in your article, and in the experiences of the people quoted in it; I’m deeply saddened to see this idea win out in academic circles.

Outside of the academic world, the internet is often a primarily collaborative tool. The open source movement, for instance, consists of thousands of programmers working collaboratively on large software projects, working together to make the best possible product that they can give away for free. None of these people are working in isolation; they are bouncing ideas and full-blown scripts off each other, learning from each other, debugging each other’s code and voicing opinions that result in a better product. If the academy is the original creators of the gift economy, programmers in the open source movement are its natural children. Technology does not by nature stifle collaborative work. In fact, computer technology’s true gift to society is the way it can amp up collaboration.

In my adult life I have never taken on a project and executed it alone. While I may be sitting at home or sitting quietly at my desk at work, I am never without a host of experts. Rather than slow, ponderous email, I use instant messaging software to keep in immediate communication with experts in my field. That means that while I’m sitting at my desk doing work, writing line after line of code, in the corner of my desktop is a small box full of names. Those names represent my friends, my experts, and their willingness to field my questions. This is not an impersonal experience; the official term is “presence awareness”, and it means that even when I’m not talking to anyone online, I know they’re there and that knowledge reassures me. If I hit a wall in my lines of code I can turn to them, open up a little window, and begin a conversation.

The metaphor is important; it’s not an electronic message fired off into the impersonal ether, it’s a conversation that hangs in the air in text.

I have used instant messaging software to work through all kinds of ideas; teaching practices, historical concepts, theoretical issues. And I can hash them out with people across any distance. I have worked closely thought by thought with teams made up of people in Toronto, Virginia, Norway, and Japan. I have written collaborative fiction line by line with a co-author in Australia. Online, we can gather together in the same room and just talk things out. Again, note the metaphor; no impersonal machines, only people, rooms, conversations, documents, and connections.

I know a group of undergraduate students at the University of Toronto who feel that they are possibly cheating while in class. What they do is this: they come into class, open up their laptops, connect to the internet via the wireless network, and launch a simple text program. They invite each other into a document that appears on each screen. As the lecture begins, they take notes. All of them write simultaneously in the same document, colour-coded by person. They correct each other’s mistakes, add notes or perspectives someone else missed. They feel free to stop typing and engage completely with the instructor at points, listening carefully, knowing that the bare bones are being captured while they work to understand a knotty idea. Then they share that understanding in the collaborative notes. Is this cheating? Or are they using the collaborative potential of internet technology to connect, communicate, and share ideas?

The Wikipedia is a large reference source sitting on your shelf that is constantly being rewritten, critiqued, updated, reviewed, and reconsidered by thousands of people at once. Those thousands are creating one product. It works for the Wikipedia; can you imagine the implications in a classroom? What if we inserted a text inside a wiki, allowed for endless collaborative annotations by the class? A historical document, a poem, the introduction to Said’s Orientalism? We love the idea of slapping a chunk of text onto a transparency and dissecting it with an overhead marker; what if we had that document on the screens of each student and allowed them add their thoughts and questions synchronously in the classroom, or asynchronously prior to the class? Students could see each other’s ideas and questions and be pushed in new directions because of it. The ideas that come students as they read the text home can be brought directly into the class. And wouldn’t that annotated document be a wonderful end result? Isn’t that one more way to help making student thinking visible?

So I find myself agreeing with your original premise; communication at the university level is suffering. I even agree that that suffering is partly due to bad implementation of technology, but I don’t agree that technology itself is the problem. I think we can blame it on a bad metaphor and on badly constructed user interfaces that don’t support more useful metaphors, that don’t communicate a sense of engagement and collaboration that’s possible.

For those of us actively engaged in creating and implementing social software for academic use, your criticisms are timely and useful, but disheartening. I have only detailed the tip of the iceberg here; there are thousands of engaged, and connected online communities who are using social software in ways that links them not just in conversation but in real relationships. Having experienced just some of the possibilities that online communication has to offer, I’m sad to see none of it reflected in your article.


Rochelle Mazar

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