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.
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?