Past, Present, Future

First, let’s talk about the past.  Last night, when I got back from a wonderful day spent at UMW with old friends, sharing stories about how we met, people we knew, etc., I started digging through the blog archives to figure out the thread.  All of us had gaps in our memory, and most of us have known each other for around 10 years, so we almost can’t remember when we didn’t know each other.  The first mention of any connection I can find is this one, noting that Barbara Ganley’s blog is awesome and you should all read it.  Later that summer, Barbara G., Barbara S. and I would do a presentation at BlogHer, memorialized here and here.  Finally, there’s the first Faculty Academy, where I met many of the people I was reading and connecting with online in person.

Barbara G. had talked about fear at FA that year, and I wrote more about it here, and that, I think, spawned the fear crew and more conversations about fear, at least one of which is documented here.  As I drifted into K-12 and Barbara G. went on to do her own thing, and Martha had another kid, and Leslie moved to Idaho, we no longer came together, but we kept up online as always.  And maybe we’re not blogging as much, but there’s Twitter and Facebook.

Presently, we’re all in different places, but essentially, everyone is still connected, mostly through education and technology and all that entails.  Thankfully, our conversations have shifted a little as things really have changed.  We have makerspaces and the idea of posting online doesn’t seem crazy anymore.  The thing I think we all have in common is a need to push the envelope and to keep pushing people out of their comfort zones so that learning can happen.  Ironically, this involves looking back to the past sometimes.  Some people get stuck in the past, wishing for the old days of just books in libraries and no smart phones.  But some, like Jim Groom, look back at the old tv consoles and video games and computers (now stacked  in his office) and see the DIY spirit that was there and the hope of the future they didn’t yet know.  Those things seemed so cool in the 70s and 80s.  People are not as amazed by new tech as they once were. What we try to do, I think, is bring that amazement and wonder back.  And now, I sound a little like Gardner, so that completes my circle.

None of us know what the future will be like, but we keep looking in that direction, with a healthy respect for the past and for where people are.  Everyone I talked with yesterday wants to make change in some way.  Sometimes that’s directly through their work, and sometimes that’s through other activities (but it’s colored by their work, I’m sure).  And that’s exciting and inspirational, and makes me ready to keep moving forward.  Thanks, UMW crew, for the inspiration and the memories.

Being on (the) edge

Can’t believe how many days have passed since I last posted here.  It’s been a busy couple of weeks.  We just finished our accreditation process, in which I was heavily involved, and then last week, I played catch up.

I’m at that time of year where I am both looking forward and assessing where I am.  It is now that we start to think about new courses, changes to existing courses, etc.  So I’ve been having conversations with various people and thinking a lot myself about what’s next for Computer Science at my school.  There are too many options, it seems, and also too many constraints.  I’m at the point where my options–all of them–impact staffing, both my own and others.  And that’s where decisions get hard.  Can you add another person? If not, can an existing person extend themselves until the schedule opens up or enrollment increases?  Take the leap or not.  More conversations are ahead.

It’s really a good place to be.  I’m not making an argument just to have Computer Science at all.  I’m trying to come up with a plan to increase what we already have.  I’m both on edge about that and on the edge, bleeding or leading, not sure which.  I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, too.  I always seem to find myself engaging in new adventures, new technologies, new ways of doing things, mostly because they fit with my own philosophy.  When I latch onto them, I’m usually thinking, “Oh finally, there are others that think this way and are doing this thing I’ve been doing!” But there are lots of people, online and offline, who are skeptical, who don’t understand, who don’t like new things.  How should one approach these people? How do you react to someone who’s never heard of makered, never used Twitter, never read a blog, doesn’t understand the difference between writing code and learning a foreign language?

I do try to take a critical stance toward anything I do.  I try to say, “Is this the right thing? Is it grounded in solid research? Does it help my students learn?”  But sometimes, you have to go with your gut, and try something, and then reflect on what you’ve tried, retool and try again.  Taking the risk is hard.  I try to understand that.  I have trouble doing it myself.  But, if you don’t take the risk, what will be lost?  What could you gain if you do?  Weighing that is hard.  It is like looking over the edge and not being able to make out what’s there.

I guess the difference is, I feel the fear, but don’t fear it.  I am trying to embrace and thereby conquer it. At least I hope that’s what I’m doing.

More on irrelevance

In addition my own recent posts, there have been several others discussing the relationship between technologists and faculty. I’m also leading a discussion with a mixed group of faculty and staff tomorrow that may touch on (I hope) some of the issues raised by the online discussions I’ve been reading. Just as the issue of tenure seems to come up over and over again in the academic blogosphere, the issue of teaching and technology seems to come up over and over again in the academic IT side of the blogosphere. I think the issues are raised again and again because there’s a feeling that something isn’t working quite right and we feel a need to fix it. And, too, I think there’s a sense of a struggle, of an us vs. them mentality that we all seem to get bogged down in (myself included).

Let me start by relaying a couple of incidents that occurred over the weekend. At a social event, a faculty member whom I don’t see very often came up to me and said that a bunch of faculty had been talking about me recently. My heart swelled. I thought a great and insightful question or comment or suggestion was about to issue forth. But here’s what came out instead: We were talking about blu-ray and we all said, that’s what Laura should run workshops on. I won’t say how I responded, but suffice it to say it wasn’t pithy enough and obviously the comment has stuck in my craw.

Earlier, I’d gone to hear a talk in which the idea of tradition was lauded and commended and put on a pedestal. I found myself squirming and thinking, isn’t tradition for tradition’s sake a bad thing? Shouldn’t we be fighting against traditions that hold us back? The speaker went on to discuss the web and the wonders of the digital age, all the while reassuring his audience that books will always hold an important place in scholarship, perhaps even still the most important place, but that digital work should be considered as well. (Note: the commenter above attended this talk as well.)

I don’t think there was any maliciousness in the comment. It was a true misunderstanding of what it is I really do. It was also an indication that the commenter has not really investigated the application of technology to teaching or research. He/she very well could have asked me what I thought about the talk that we both attended and especially about the comments on digital scholarship. But no.

I think it’s hard not to feel irrelevant in the face of such comments, but I also think the “protests too much” nature of the talk also indicates anxiety about the future of academic work. What is to become of books in the web world? What about publishing articles? What about our students and their horrible Googling habits? The sad thing is, I’m here to help answer those questions, to help scholars and teachers find relevance in the web world. If only people would stop asking me about blu-ray.

I think, too, there’s a little bit of snobbery or something about some of us here in well-resourced schools. Our students and faculty have access to lots of rich materials because of location, because our library has such a great collection, and because our institution has the financial means to send students and faculty to places where they can access materials or to bring those materials to them. Not so at many other places and here, the web offers many opportunities. One of the first images I really looked at online was a digital version of Beowulf. Lacuna took on new meaning for me as it should for many students upon seeing something like Beowulf in the flesh, so to speak. How about accessing images of Shakespeare’s work? Or access to scholarly articles freely? The web has the potential to level the playing field and we have the opportunity to define the field. Will it be about quick, fast, surface-level work? Or will we put our work out there so it’s more about depth and breadth and access to great scholarship and creative work?

So, here’s what I might say to faculty. When you have those panic attacks in the middle of the night and you’re thinking that the Internet is ruining the academy, call me and talk to me about it the next day. I’ll talk to you about how the Internet is actually making the academy even more relevant but only as long as it doesn’t shut itself inside the ivory tower. I’ll help you figure out what to do to make your work relevant. You can share your goals and I can help you find ways to reach them. I won’t give you nuggets, mind you. I’ll teach you how to fish. Just whatever you do, don’t ask me about blu-ray.