Digital Humanities, “techno-lust”, and the Personal Economy of Professional Development: Ryan Cordell on simplification

It’s a sign of my unsimple and exceedingly overstuffed life that I’ve only now gotten around to reading Ryan Cordell’s ProfHacker piece from last week.  Ryan is moving to a new position at Northeastern (kudos!) and he’s taken the ritual of eliminating the clutter and junk of a household as a metaphor for the need to prioritize and simplify our professional practices and in his own instance to get rid of the techno gadgets and gizmos that curiosity and past necessity have brought his way.

I have confessed before my appreciation for Henry David Thoreau—an odd thinker, perhaps, for a ProfHacker to esteem. Nevertheless, I think Thoreau can be a useful antidote to unbridled techno-lust. As I wrote in that earlier post, “I want to use gadgets and software that will help me do things I already wanted to do—but better, or more efficiently, or with more impact.” I don’t want to acumulate things for their own sake.


I relate this not to brag, but to start a conversation about necessity. We talk about tech all the time here at ProfHacker. We are, most of us at least, intrigued by gadgets and gizmos. But there comes a time to simplify: to hold a garage sale, sell used gadgets on Gazelle, or donate to Goodwill.

via Simplify, Simplify! – ProfHacker – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Ryan’s post comes as I’ve been thinking a lot about the personal economy that we all must bring to the question of our working lives, our sense of personal balance, and our personal desire for professional development and fulfillment.  As I have been pushing hard for faculty in my school to get more engaged with issues surrounding digital pedagogy and to consider working with students to develop projects in digital humanities, I have been extremely aware that the biggest challenge is not faculty resistance or a lack of faculty curiosity–though there is sometimes that.  The biggest challenge is the simple fact of a lack of faculty time.  At a small teaching college our lives are full, and not always in a good way.  There is extremely little bandwidth to imagine or think through new possibilities, much less experiment with them.

At our end of the year school meeting I posed to faculty the question of what they had found to be the biggest challenge in the past year so that we could think through what to do about it in the future.  Amy, my faculty member who may be the most passionate about trying out the potential of technology in the classroom responded “No time to play.”  Amy indicated that she had bought ten new apps for her iPad that year, but had not had any time to just sit around and experiment with them in order to figure out everything that they could do and imagine new possibilities for her classroom and the rest of her work.  The need for space, the need for play, is necessary for the imagination, for learning, and for change.

It is necessary for excellence, but it is easily the thing we value least in higher education.

Discussing this same issue with my department chairs, one of them said that she didn’t really care how much extra money I would give them to do work on digital humanities and pedagogy, what she really needed was extra time.

This is, I think, a deep problem generally and a very deep problem at a teaching college with a heavy teaching load and restricted budgets.  (At the same time, I do admit that I recognize some of the biggest innovations in digital pedagogy have come from community colleges with far higher teaching loads than ours).  I think, frankly, that this is at the root of some of the slow pace of change in higher education generally. Faculty are busy people despite the stereotype of the professor with endless time to just sit around mooning about nothing.  And books are….simple.  We know how to use them, they work pretty well, they are standardized in terms of their technical specifications, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we buy one.

Not so with the gadgets, gizmos, and applications that we accumulate rapidly with what Ryan describes as “techno-lust”. (I have not yet been accused of having this, but I am sure someone will use it on me now).  Unless driven by a personal passion, I think most faculty and administrators make an implicit and not irrational decision–“This is potentially interesting, but it would be just one more thing to do.”  This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the changes in technology seem to speed up and diversify rather than slow down and focus.  Technology doesn’t seem to simplify our lives or make them easier despite claims to greater efficiency.  Indeed, in the initial effort to just get familiar or figure out possibilities, technology just seems to add to the clutter.

I do not know a good way around this problem:  the need for play in an overstuffed and frantic educational world that so many of us inhabit.  One answer–just leave it alone and not push for innovation–doesn’t strike me as plausible in the least.  The world of higher education and learning is shifting rapidly under all of our feet, and the failure to take steps to address that change creatively will only confirm the stereotype of higher education as a dinosaur unable to respond to the educational needs of a public.

I’m working with the Provost so see if I can pilot a program that would give a course release to a faculty member to develop his or her abilities in technology in order to redevelop a class or develop a project with a student.  But this is a very small drop in the midst of a very big bucket of need.  And given the frantic pace of perpetual change that seems to be characteristic of contemporary technology, it seems like the need for space to play, and the lack of it, is going to be a perpetual characteristic of our personal professional economies for a very long time to come.

Any good ideas?  How can could I make space for professional play in the lives of faculty? Or for that matter in my own? How could faculty do it for themselves?  Is there a means of decluttering our professional lives to make genuine space for something new?

7 thoughts on “Digital Humanities, “techno-lust”, and the Personal Economy of Professional Development: Ryan Cordell on simplification

  1. Nance McCown

    That IS the question, Pete. And I don’t have a good answer. I do, however, have a response. If one more person tells me to “work smarter, not harder,” or to “cut out all the unnecessary stuff,” and then when I respond that I’ve already done that they look at me reproachfully as if to say, “No, you couldn’t have or you’d have oodles of time,” well, I might either allow ALL of my true feistiness to show or burst into tears and curl into a ball in the corner. I’m not sure which. I’ve no time to decide. Praying THE answer(s) to THE question comes to you!

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      At the risk of incurring your wrath, Nance, I actually do think we need to work smarter not harder. The problem is that it takes time and imagination and creativity to figure out how to work smarter, and that is what we don’t have enough of, time. In a sense it requires a great deal of hard work to make things easier in the long run. I’ve compared this phenomenon before to the voice training I’ve gone through to learn how to sing. People think opera singing is about having a massive powerful voice and just horsing the sound up there. I thought that, and I sang with terribly counterproductive techniques for a very long time. And I think that if I had kept doing it I would have merely exhausted my voice in the long run. It took a very long time and a lot of hard work to relearn to sing so that the sound was not only larger and fuller, but also easier on my vocal cords. It also took a lot of imagination and reimagination because I had to relearn how to imagine what singing was, in a certain sense.

      There’s an analogy there to our work together in academe. I actually do believe that in the long run some of the new ideas that are circulating about technology in the classroom will make our lives easier. But it may take a lot of hard work to actually figure out what works, and it may take a lot of creativity and innovation to reimagine what’s possible in the classroom. And all of that takes a great deal of time. So it is not wrong to say that we have to work smarter not harder, but it does mean that we need to realize that working smarter isn’t a simple act of will. Somehow we have to find ways to make those spaces in our lives where innovation and thus new work is possible.

  2. Tiffany Eberle Kriner

    Your post is a lot cooler than Prof Hacker’s, Pete. Just thinking about you this morning after a good conversation with Jeremy and Susan Botts last night (did you meet Jeremy when he taught at Messiah in 1999 and ff?). As a faculty member that one of the biggest things that gives me space to experiment and play and invent ideas is collaboration–team teaching, or committee experience, even. There’s no time, of course, but somehow, conversing, submitting lesson plans and ideas, writing grants together for the scant dollars to fund a small project, assessing what our students have done because of our experiments, etc….all that’s incredibly fueling. I didn’t get funding to team teach this year, but made up a collaboration with a colleague for free–a common syllabus, weekly meetings–and worked through some experiential learning stuff in a first year writing course that’s bearing some good fruit, I think. There wasn’t time to do what we did, but there was energy, and that made the time. We’re learning a lot. Any chances for cross disciplinary engagement (our Center for Applied Christian Ethics, for instance, has a faculty workshop each spring–three days of remunerated fun/common reading/rich discussions). The second thing administrators can do is encourage via complimenting and engaging. A lot of playing and experimenting doesn’t turn into positive student experience right away, and that doesn’t map well onto the tenure requirements/plans/notes. What would make space in the faculty world for more play would be grace, encouragement, and trust, a relenting from the feeling of a constant need for self-justification. If someone found out what faculty members were interested in or doing, or moved away from the standardized forms to hear a richer story; if someone might encourage, encourage, encourage, maybe they’d do less worrying (which is v. time consuming) and more creative playing. I think people have a hard time playing when they don’t feel safe or valued.

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      Thanks, Tiffany. I especially like your comment about the difficulty of innovating in higher ed since experimentation means the risk that something will fail. I think here that humanists, and perhaps most of us in higher ed, need to figure out how to learn from our compatriots in the sciences and technology. We need to learn how to “fail better” as Samuel Beckett put it. That is, most scientific experiments FAIL. They do not achieve the results that scientists are looking for, but even that failure can be understood as a form of success to the degree that it crosses a possibility off the list, closes down a particular avenue of investigation or at least calls for the details to be reexamined. New knowledge is mostly gained by failure. By contrast, we in the humanities mostly judge failures as …. failures. If the paper wasn’t published, it must be bad, which means that I must be bad. To some degree that’s why I like blogging as an intellectual forum. It is genuine and serious thinking, but there is greater freedom to go out there, to through cast the line high and far. Much of the time you don’t catch any fish worth keeping, but sometimes….We need this same kind of thing in pedagogy. The room to try things out, the room to push students in new directions without being too anxious if things fall apart. Innovation in teaching ought to be measured and rewarded and supported somehow, at least if the innovations can be shown in the long run to extend and deepen student learning.

  3. Dermot McCabe

    Is it rude to suggest that you should ‘play’ in your own time. I know, that is what I have done all my working life. Most of my innovative idea ( I had a few) came from my play and study outside of my working hours.

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      I think the degree that a professional wants to do this depends a great deal on individual circumstance, Dermot. Thinking about this as an administrator, however, there is something counterproductive about encouraging my faculty to be innovative, but to tell them they will have to do it on their own while I and the institution will reap the benefits. Of course, this DOES happen all the time. The intellectual life is not 9 to 5 and most good ideas happen around 3:00 in the morning when people wake in a start from a dream. But for an institution, I think we have a rough equation that goes something like this. A) The nature of higher education is changing dramatically; B) We need faculty to get engaged with those changes and figure out the best ways to address them; C) In order to do that we need faculty to be innovative and imaginative; D) In order to be innovative and imaginative, faculty need to have time to imagine, try things out, make mistakes, try again, etcetera. Now, if I am going to insist on A thru C, it seems to me that it is incumbent upon me to help faculty figure out D, rather than just tell them, “Do this at home after you put your kids to bed”. Institutions benefit tremendously residually from the creativity and imaginative leaps that faculty make in their time off the clock. I don’t think that means that’s what we should rely or evaluate them on.

  4. Pingback: Revolution and Reformation in Higher Education: Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U | Read, Write, Now

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