Monday, January 02, 2006

Raking Muck

Perhaps in a fit of oddness, I spent a couple of days over the holiday reading a biography of Upton Sinclair by Jon A. Yoder. I must have purchased the book some years ago, because I found it on one of our bookshelves as I was browsing for something to read. I have an odd affinity with Sinclair, since my parents chose my first name at least in part in reference to Sinclair’s famous character, Lanny Budd. Having read Yoder’s book, I know a little more about that connection. Since Sinclair used his fiction in an overtly political way and his protagonists were meant as idealized forms of himself and since some of those political views coincide with my own, I feel a certain connection to Sinclair himself and in this post I’ll draw that out a bit.

Sinclair was an incredibly prolific writer, with 51 books to his credit and a substantial number of assorted other works – plays, screenplays, and the like. Apparently he is the most translated American writer and in his time was extremely popular abroad, though for a variety of reasons he was less admired at home. As an object of study from an academic viewpoint, I would think “historical fiction” would be a reasonable umbrella, his work fell between the cracks regarding which department(s) on college campuses would claim it for their own – English? History? Political Science? Sociology? This partly explains his comparatively poor reputation in the U.S.

I’m nowhere near as prolific as a writer, but I’ve surprised myself in just how much writing I’ve actually done since starting this blog. For better or worse, the “dashboard” keeps track of the number of posts. I’ve had 223, in about ten and a half months. Many of these are more than two pages when viewed in Word. So a fair amount of text has been generated. And in terms of recognition, the Sitemeter tracking data indicate a substantial number of hits from abroad. Hmmm, the planets are aligning.

Sinclair was a Socialist for much of his life because the evils of capitalism, particularly the exploitation of the many (notably new immigrants) for the benefit of the few contradicted his sense of American democracy. He wanted a system that produced greater equality of outcome, at least for the vast majority of workers who put in honest effort. Much of his work can be seen as variations on a theme, with the theme as I’ve just described. In that, according to Yoder, he was misunderstood in his time and he felt that he didn’t achieve what he was after in much of his writing.

For example, when I was a grade school student we were taught that The Jungle was Sinclair’s major contribution, a muckraking attack on the Meat Packing Industry. Indeed, the book caused quite a stir and did lead Teddy Roosevelt to institute reforms in that industry. But from Sinclair’s vantage, Meat Packing was just an example of an industry where immigrant workers were exploited and where the fantasy of the American dream, as symbolized by the words on the Statue of Liberty, was replaced by the reality of the immigrant’s nightmare, where their Darwinist attempts at survival start off from a noble base but end up with a morally bankrupt view of humanity. (Indeed, in this respect the story of Sinclair reminded me of the Paul Muni character in “I Was A Fugitive From a Chain Gang.”)

I too feel as if I’m somewhat misunderstood. Though the title of this blog employs the expression “Learning Technology” in it, I think a focus on the technology in itself is misplaced. The focus needs to be on a way of thinking about the teaching and learning. I hope the technology stimulates that way of thinking and that is why I’ve got the title as I do, but I think for too many, both inside my IT organization and even among some staff who work for me, the focus ends up being on the technology itself. Of course, part of my administrative job is to be the custodian for the technology itself, particularly the campus supported course management system and the technology we have in our smart classrooms. But that is not what makes me tick.

The essence with learning technology is seeing how the teaching and learning changes as a consequence. For example, very early on it became apparent that the technology was good at making the student work more overt – to the instructor and to the peer students. So we might ask questions like, are there ways with or without computer technology to make student work more overt? The elementary school where my kids went, and I think it was typical of a reasonably good elementary school, certainly made it commonplace to showcase the work of all the students. The technology they used was construction paper, thumbtacks, and a real (not electronic) bulletin board. The point is, once the question is raised, there are lots of ways of thinking about making the student work overt.

Then one might ask, now that we have the student work visible, what do we do with this knowledge? In the context that I think is most familiar in considering teaching reform, the instructor without seeing the student work has made some assumption about how much the student is learning. Invariably, that assumption is overly optimistic. So the question can be reframed as, now that the evidence from the student work indicates the students has less of an understanding than the instructor believed, how should the instructor change the teaching? What about the pacing of the presentation? What about activities for the students that might promote deeper understand? What about things that might be done to get the students to spend more time with the materials so they get a deeper understanding?

These are the right type of questions. Are they fundamentally about the technology? No, they aren’t. Does the technology immediately get the instructor into a position to ask these questions? No, it doesn’t. But if the instructor is asking these questions, it might very well help in answering them, particularly with what is possible to do.

Sinclair went through a sobering process in his adult life, from idealist to realist, from Socialist to Liberal, from feeling with his heart to thinking with his head. Much of this process happened because he was not fully successful in what he tried, but also because he recognized a tension between the idealism, driven by his sense of social justice, and the pragmatism of what could actually be accomplished, which he saw motivated so many others. Later in life he toned down some of the socialism and moved more to the pragmatic side. According to Yoder, much of Sinclair’s later fiction had the main characters play out this tension and recognize both of these views simultaneously. This is the distinct aspect of Sinclair that makes him the quintessential American Liberal of the middle 20th century. He was not a true believer. He was conflicted between these two distinct voices.

I know I’m not alone in this, because I’ve discussed the issue with some of colleagues around the country. We too feel conflicted, much in the sense of Sinclair. The idealism, easy enough to articulate, is that the technology would transform the teaching and learning, in ways that would be clear to all and hence that would generate a big and across the board embrace of the technology on campus, with a big improvement on the learning. To a large extent this hope has not been realized. Certainly there have been some changes in instruction due to the technology. But for many those are simply a matter of convenience, not a matter of transforming the teaching approach.

Further, to the extent that we are witnessing reform in teaching on campus this is in the main motivated, as Bill Massy warned us, by changes in the subject matter being taught, not by changes in method. But it is changes in method that are needed. We are still teaching “stuff” instead of teaching “learning to learn” skills. And we are dealing with reform that comes from spot innovation, designed to address a situated learning issue, not a systematic transformation. All of this is frustrating.

Let me note one other tie with Sinclair. He wanted to reform the system from within. He ran for Governor of California in the 30’s and came in second. For us lesser mortals, it is extraordinarily tempting to argue for reform from without. Certainly the argument was made consistently in the late ‘90s that Higher Ed moves too slowly and that we need new approaches to bring about the changes needed to realize the promise of online learning, so we need to go to the outside, perhaps to the for profit sector. My blog can be easily read as an extended argument for reform. (A while ago I found this post from Yule Heibel, which includes a section on my blog that makes it seems as if I’m…… muckraking!!!)

Perhaps this is the consequence of being a dreamer. For me it certainly was interesting to read about Sinclair. I believe there are other parallels that I haven’t articulated here. (Fir example, he cared about being readable by a broad audience.) But there is obviously sufficient distance that I can see it’s not the technology that is primarily at issue. Reform is a tough business. And many times it does not play out in the way initially intended.


Miguel said...

Over the last year, I have been feeling what you've written about here. I
was shocked to read the words, the truth so baldly. I had felt I was the
only one who had reached this point, but now, thank goodness, I'm not
alone. It is this point that highlights what I've alluded to in earlier
posts...that the enthusiasm of text and audio blogs to transform
education as we know it--hyperbole, no matter how honest or sincere the
belief--is a false promise.

Can't we learn our lesson, educational technologists of old? Can't we at
last look inside ourselves, and speak the truth, that the cause we
labored so long for, that touched so many of those we served, is at last
dead? And, in being dead, we must all begin again?

Frustrating, indeed. As I reflect on everything I've done so far, all
that has been sacrificed to further the goals of educational technology,
I can only console myself with the simple prayer. In every workshop, I
had the conceit, the ego to pray and wish each person well, knowing that
the content I taught, the skills I helped them develop would pass away.
In the end, only the act of service itself had an impact. Only what they
did with what they learned, how they "grew their knowledge" to be
something beyond what I gave them made a difference.

It feels like I am at the end of a journey, the end of who I once was.
But, I cannot be released or set free from my duty. Knowing now that the
service given has ended, and not willing to give myself to the role of
simple advocacy again, I can only that I will be called to greater
service. I cannot imagine what that service might be, and, I'm not sure
Lanny knows either. To quote futurist Marilyn Feguson:

It's like being between trapezes. It's Linus when his blanket is in the
dryer. Ther's nothing to hold on to.

Thanks, Lanny, for sharing.

Drop by and visit sometime,
Miguel Guhlin

Lanny Arvan said...

Miguel - thanks for the comment. I don't think it is all despair. There is still a lot of good work to do about promoting good instruction. I just don't think technology is quite the driver I had thought it would be and the pace of change on the the adoption for teaching is slow.