Friday, March 21, 2008

The future and the academy

This article is fascinating. Prophboy send me the link, and I'm intriegued and terrified. There are, of course, some inherent flaws to the article, but its argument about the possible impending doom of the entire educational system due to technology may or may not be accurate.

It's interesting to think about academia, which still feels quite often like a holdover from the 13th century actually being challenged and changing due to technology. I'm not talking about technology in the classroom (ie powerpoint), per se, but rather the ways technology changes the way people's minds work. I just finished TAing for a lecture class in which the Professor gave lectures, containing tons of names and dates and titles, from his head every day. The students were expected to take notes, and then had open-note quizzes and a closed-note final exam based on how well they recorded and recalled all of this data. There were papers, too, and as the TA I graded those based mostly on critical thinking and building an argument. But the fact that large portions of students' grades were determined entirely by how well they memorized facts is almost a foreign concept to me. This is the argument that prophboy, if not entirely Cringely, was making: that evaluating people based on their knowlege, as opposed to their ability to find and process knowledge, is more or less a thing of the past and is made completely outdated by the presence of the internet at our fingertips.

The other issue about this that Cringely raises is: what is the value of presence in educational process? If we follow Auslander, we don't necessarily believe in the unmediated performance. But do we believe that there's a value in sitting in a classroom and learning from a teacher? How is that different from an online course in which we're sitting in a chatroom learning from a teacher? Especially if the students in the classroom are texting or instant messaging instead of listening anyway? As I've been applying for jobs, there have been several (mostly community colleges) that have asked me about my experience teaching online courses. My standard response is that, while this isn't something I've done before, I'm sure I could do it, I'm generally proficient with computers, am familiar with educational software, etc. But honestly, I'm scared of the concept if not the technology. Sure, students can read instead of listening to a lecture or write blog post/comment responses instead of discussing in class, but isn't something of the experience of education lost in that process? And if so, what? Would I want to be a teacher in that kind of system?

And now, my major concern about the Cringely article is that it seems to think it's discussing the whole range of education from k-12 through MIT in one article and one concept, and that doesn't work at all. First of all, what you learn in kindergarten is how to talk to people and play with blocks as much as anything else - it's very tactile and I don't think technology will change that any time soon. Similarly with most of elementary school, being in the classroom and learning to socialize is a relevant (if often unpleasant) part of the education. And most of the things that are taught are basic skills (reading, spelling, arithmatic) that I think that people do need to learn, no matter what comes next. Also, it seems that in elementary school, teachers do have enough authority and a managable student-teacher ratio (although my mom is at 34:1 which seems fairly absurd) that they can prevent the students from texting in class or otherwise using technology as a distraction instead of a tool. They also use technology enough (typing, word processing, occasional computer games) that I think that it's not likely to get away from them.

When it comes to high school, this may be the crux of where things need to adapt and focus more on critical thinking and less on memorizing. The technology can be embraced more. But what technology? There was one teacher in my high school that notoriously insisted on everyone doing group powerpoint presentations. It forced them to confront and learn about the technology, but I'm not sure it made their presentations any better. Texting? How does one incorporate that into the classroom? Is there any way to accept that if you let your students use laptops in class, they will inherently use them to look at gossip sites on the internet and IM their friends rather than listening or participating? Is it possible for teachers to adapt to that?

What we do need to teach, and what seeems obvious to me but seems to elude my students, is how to do research on the internet beyond google and wikipedia. Someone needs to teach them that any online encyclopedia is not a valid academic source for a research paper. There are many great online resources that they can and should use, but they need to see that a private website from some guy is not the same kind of source as an academic journal. This kind of critical thinking in relation to technology should be inherent, but somehow it isn't, and it seems like high school might be the place to teach it. So perhaps they don't need to learn the data itself, but they do need to know where to find it, and how to evaluate it and its source once they have found it.

Personally, I think that the educational system is adaptive enough to integrate technology in productive ways, but there will always be battles about keeping some uses of technology out of the classroom (I heard someone the other day say that before IMing, there were always students reading books or doodling in the back of class, and that is, of course, perfectly true). The issues of presence and what is the value of a college education is a larger question, and one that will continue to haunt us, though I certainly hope it won't bring down the educational system as Cringely suggests it might.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Academia and the Suburbs

A week or two ago, I listened to Karen Tongson from USC give a presentation ("listening party") on music and the suburbs. Last night, I attended a talk in which Alan Hess discussed the architecture of suburban Southern California. As a child of the suburbs and a student of 1950s culture, I found both talks fascinating.

The suburbs, like the 1950s in which they flourished, seem to be traditionally discussed with a mixture of derision and nostalgia. When you think about the suburbs, you think about white, middle-class, nuclear families living uniform lives in straight little rows. Of course, the minute you begin to look critically, that image dissolves, but it generally persists in the myths we tell ourselves anyway. This is perhaps what makes the discussion of suburban culture, particularly Southern Californian suburban culture, interesting. Art and design are a fascinating set of discussions because they have been so invisible. One assumes there is no design in the suburbs, that the houses all look the same. While there is an element of truth to this, Hess effectively argued for the virtuosity and variety of those planning the surburbs and their ranch houses in Southern California in the '50s. The Googie coffee shops and Cliff May ranch houses were precisely designed to fit a lifestyle and a mindset that were new and exciting in the 1950s, and not so different than what a lot of people still wish for today.

Tongson's work on race in the suburbs is particularly interesting, because I know I grew up with the image of the suburbs as depicted in A Raisin in the Sun: all white with the whole neighborhood getting disrupted by (gasp!) black people moving in. By the time I grew up in the suburbs, Southern California was pretty racially diverse and I grew up with friends who were Chinese and Taiwanese (I knew the difference!) and Japanese and Korean and Filipino and Indian. Nearby suburbs had large Chicano, Latino, and Middle-Eastern populations. While I haven't done any historical research to back this up, I rather suspect that even in the 1950s, Southern California had a very racially diverse population, and while I'm sure there was a great deal of neighborhood segregation, I wonder if the suburbs were ever as lily-white as we like to imagine them.

Tongson's talk on music in the suburbs was primarily focused on the late '80s and early '90s. She talked a lot about pop music, but it's also easy to imagine pop, punk, grunge, and other movements as the response of disaffected teenagers to the confines of growing up somewhere "safe" with nothing to do and nowhere to go in the evenings. But what were the suburbs like musically in the 1950s? We imagine teenagers listening to Elvis and other early Rock 'n' Roll and forming bands to play at high school dances a la Back to the Future, but how much of this image of accurate and how much of it is created by nostalgia? I know that my dad growing up was listening to The Beach Boys and my mom was listening to Mitch Miller and her parents' music from the '40s and '30s much like I grew up on music from the 1950s and '60s.

My mind, of course, turns to the theater. I can know exactly what people were watching on TV and in the movie theaters in the 1950s in Southern California, but were they seeing live performance? Was there theater to see? They were presumably buying the cast albums of Broadway musicals and seeing the stars appear on the Ed Sullivan show and doing shows in high schools. Were there even theaters for live shows in LA in the '50s? I know that the LA Music Center opened in 1964 and Gordon Davidson began working at the Taper in 1967. What comes before that? The Shrine Auditorium opened in 1926. Did it ever host anything besides awards shows and USC basketball? The Pantages Theater was opened in 1930 and originally hosted Vaudeville acts and movie screenings, but didn't do live theater until 1977. Did people from the suburbs come into LA to see shows? Did mid-level Hollywood stars appear in stage shows in LA as they occasionally do today? What is the theater of the suburbs? Is it Death of a Salesman and Our Town? National tours of Broadway musicals? Community theater?