NOBODY LIKES A TOURIST
(And Who Wants to be a Tour Guide?)
A Reflection on the Value of Teaching with Technology
|Yet undeniably something of the romance of adventure in a visit to the White Hills is wanting, now that the railways penetrate every valley, and all of the physical obstacles of the journey are removed. . . . Never again by the new rail can [the traveler] have the sensation that he enjoyed in the ascent of Mount Washington by the old bridle-path from Crawford's, when, climbing out of the woods and advancing upon that marvelous backbone of rock, the whole world opened upon his awed vision, and the pyramid of the summit stood up in majesty against the sky.||
got it right when he concluded: "Nothing, indeed, is valuable that is easily obtained. This modern experiment of putting us through the world—the world of literature, experience, and travel—at excursion rates is of doubtful expediency."
The mechanics of travel have continued to progress,
so that today you can have your wedding pictures taken at
the top of a mountain simply by having your entire party flown
there by helicopter.
The mechanics of travel have continued to progress, so that today you can have your wedding pictures taken at the top of a mountain simply by having your entire party flown there by helicopter.
Yet, while tourists are an embarrassment,
explorers continue to be hailed as heroes—even in an age in
which some of their exploits can be reproduced by helicopter-hiring
couch potatoes. Instead of being two levels of the same
basic operation, "tourism" and "exploration"
are categorically different. The
person on a guided tour sits back in comfort and listens to
what someone else knows. The explorer, by dint of hard work, earns an
intimate and lasting knowledge of the landscape. And this
is why I teach with technology.
Instead of being two levels of the same basic operation, "tourism" and "exploration" are categorically different. The person on a guided tour sits back in comfort and listens to what someone else knows. The explorer, by dint of hard work, earns an intimate and lasting knowledge of the landscape. And this is why I teach with technology.
Traditional modes of teaching and learning can too easily slip into a form of tourism, so we need to find ways to promote adventure and discovery in the classroom. The more "ground" we attempt to cover as teachers, the more we find ourselves in danger of being reduced to tour bus conductors, pointing out the major sights to our students as we dash across, for example, the history of American literature or history without any chance wandering or exploration. In the same way, our students can easily find themselves reduced to the same confusion sometimes experienced by those who take tour operators up on the offer to "See All of Europe in Just Ten Days!" I remember actually remarking to a friend when we were both college sophomores enrolled in the dreaded survey of English literature,: "If this is Tuesday, it must be sixteenth century lyric poetry—or is it the seventeenth century metaphysicals?"
By using technology, however, as teachers we can introduce students to the truly adventurous nature of academic life and allow them to experience the challenges and joys of genuine inquiry. Specifically, I use technology in my own classes to:
· provide students with access to resources that make it possible to place people, ideas, events, and texts in context;· transform would-be tourists into explorers by inviting students to pursue individual lines of inquiry rather than complete standardized assignments;
· and promote communication and collaboration among my students so they can tastes the rewards of expertise and learn what it means to function as part of a scholarly community;
In this way, I am able to develop in my students both a new appreciation for the signficance of American literature while also instilling in them a new appreciation of the life of the passionate learner--and their own fitness for academic exploration.
"They Look Like Ants!"
The first problem faced by the teacher is the question of what to teach, for there are always more topics than there is time. Most of us, especially when teaching survey courses, find ourselves resorting to the conventional solution and teaching the canon. We hit the peaks and skip the valleys.
practice has much in its favor, it can have the effect of stripping
the canonical from the contextual. Students
may read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,
for example, without understanding the way his arguments fit into
the antebellum debate over slavery or the fact that other slave
narratives were being disseminated at that time.
Before I learned to use technology to construct contexts,
my students responded to Douglass's work by writing essays in
which they did little more than pity the man for his pains ,
reducing him to just another victim to be pitied. Other students
would praise Douglass for his heroism, putting him on a pedestal.
Neither tears nor salutes, alas, are adequate replacements for
, reducing him to just another victim to be pitied. Other students would praise Douglass for his heroism, putting him on a pedestal. Neither tears nor salutes, alas, are adequate replacements for thinking.
reverence can be corrupting. Students are usually willing to take
earnest notes on what their teachers say in class, believing that
this is what college is about. But most students lack the belief
that they can or should engage the ideas they encounter
in the classroom. Emerson put the problem rather more eloquently
in "The American Scholar," when he warned "Meek
young men grow up in libraries, believing it is their duty to
accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have
given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young
men in libraries, when they wrote these books."
Indeed, reverence can be corrupting. Students are usually willing to take earnest notes on what their teachers say in class, believing that this is what college is about. But most students lack the belief that they can or should engage the ideas they encounter in the classroom. Emerson put the problem rather more eloquently in "The American Scholar," when he warned "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it is their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books."
And while Frederick Douglass can at least be counted on to provoke the interest and admiration of students who have no deep understanding of the context in which he lived and wrote, many other historical figures, events, and authors cannot manage that feat. As a consequence, the canonical becomes the cartoon. Mary Rowlandson is politically incorrect. Franklin is a phony. Thoreau is a crank. In fact, students have a point in each of these cases. But Mary Rowlandson is not merely a person who uses the wrong words to describe native Americans, Franklin is more than your average "phony," and Thoreau will never be merely a "crank." Noticing someone crying as we pass them on a city sidewalk, we may wonder what prompted the tears or even wonder if we should pause to offer help. Passing a panhandler, we may feel a pang of conscience even as we quicken our step to move beyond the range of the smell of his clothes. Rubbing shoulders with the people in the crowd, we may feel impressed, depressed, or even repressed. . However, take the elevator to the top of the building that towers over that same street, and we'll all say the same thing as we look downwards: "They look like ants!"
That sense of separateness and detachment is a consequence of distance in space, and distance in time works in much the same way. We even tend to reduce previous periods in our own lives to cartoons, fables or fantasies when we reminisce, so that most graying baby-boomers continue to look back on the sixties through the lens (and soundtrack) of "Woodstock," even though relatively few of us stripped naked to slide and dropped acid so we could slide in the mud while shouting "groovy." Should we be surprised, then, if students regard historical figures as little more than either chuckle-worthy caricatures or somewhat dusty marble monuments?
Fortunately, the web makes it possible for us to provide students with access to primary sources that can breathe life into people, issues, events, and texts of bygone years. In fact, students can now use materials previously unavailable even to most researchers. Working only a few blocks from the world's largest repository of materials printed in America before 1820, I am grateful to take advantage of the remarkable collections of the American Antiquarian Society, where I can consult books, letters, diaries, lithographs, children's books, maps, periodicals, institutional reports, newspapers and countless other materials in the course of my research.. Technology has now made it possible for me--and countless other individuals--to share the results of our investigations with students, scholars, and the world via the web.
This means that students wondering "why all the fuss about temperance?" can read my transcription of excerpts from the handwritten, unpublished autobiography of a self-taught Methodist minister who remembered the time in his life as a young man in the early eighteen hundreds when alcohol
was as necessary for mechanical business, as water power, or tools. No marriage vowes were complete without it and no funeral party could mourn if it were wanting, it was necessary to buy the dead, as a coffin, or a shroud. No favored parent, could rejoice over a new born babe, without plenty to drink. No building could be raised but by rum. It was an absolute necessity at huskings, at quiltings, at bees, at dances, and at parties of all kinds. . . . He who could drink the most, and the longest, was the hero, and if a man, a young man even, declined, for fear of being drunk, he was held up to publick scorn.
A little later, Harding confides to his notebook the sense of failure he felt over his inability to inspire religious interest in the worried war-obsessed inhabitants of a Northern mill town without access to cotton, "But the year wore away, as all years do, and will, while the sun rises, and sets. I do not know of a soul's being converted, and perhaps no good was done. It may be my fault, if so I hope it will not be laid to my account, in the last day, but attributed to ignorance. I had fallen upon times I knew not how to manage, I was beset with difficulties new, and strange, and so were the people." Although temperance workers and evangelists are always easy targets for scoffing students who picture women with axes and grey-bearded men and assume that reformers probably drank and carried on when no one was looking, it is hard not to take these troubled words of a private man seriously. By taking advantage in this way of the many letters, diaries, and other primary resources now available o line, we can help our students begin to see that many of these "cartoons" in history and literature were real people struggling to do their best, despite being "beset with difficulties new, and strange.
Our goal should be to promote understanding rather than to simply provoke interest or empathy, of course, and I would argue that the one can naturally develop from the other. Seeing the bloodstained notes Whitman made at the bedsides of wounded soldiers, students can come away not only with a deeper personal connection to his writing but also with new questions about the sources and evolution of his poems.
What you see below are five representations of basically the same event. On the top left you will find a typed transcription of the Whitman verse called "A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim." This version was published in the 1865 and 1867 editions of Drumtaps. The image on the top right shows the same poem as it appears in the anthology I use in my American literature course. Immediately below that, you will find the digitized image of a page from Whitman's notebooks available at the American Memory site of the Library of Congress.
A SIGHT IN CAMP
The very sight of the notes, written as battlefield operations were taking place nearby, forces us to take Whitman's descriptions seriously. Indeed, the sight of these notes had much the same effect on Whitman himself, who wrote in the opening pages of Specimen Days:
Following, I give some gloomy experiences. The war of attempted secession has been the distinguishing event of my time. I commenced at the close of 1862 . . . to visit the sick and wounded of the army, both on the field and in the hospitals in and around Washington city. From the first I kept little notebooks for impromptu jottings in pencil to refresh my memory of names and circumstances . . . . I wish I could convey to the reader the associations that attach to these soiled and creased livraisons, each comosed of a sheet or two of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fastened with a pin. I leave them just as I threw them by after the war, blotched here and there with more than one blood-stain, hurriedly written, sometime at the clinic, not seldom amid the excitement of uncertainty, or defeat, or of action, or getting ready for it.
But these pages offer more than testimony to the experiences that grant Whitman's poems authenticity, for by reading the notebooks we can witness the evolution of many of his poems. For example, yet another treatment of the same material; the poem below appeared in the 1910 (deathbed) edition of The Leaves of Grass. The pages from the notebooks in combination with the two versions of the poem make it possible to gain some insight into how Whitman's mind and writing worked as he moved from field notes to a published poem and then a second version of the poem drawing on the same materials.
As should be evident from this example, the notebooks alone offer a powerful resource for teaching Whitman. But the case of Whitman also offers a wonderful example of the range of resources that can be found on the web and the way they can contribute to a new understanding of significant texts and historical moments. There is a dizzying array of other materials to help contextualize Whitman's work.. The Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive at the University of Virginia includes "Biographical material", "Whitman's Works," "Manuscripts," "Notebooks and Letters," and even "Reviews of Whitman's Works." (NOTHING gives students a greater sense of freedom to think for themselves than the realization that today's monuments were once merely the butt of criticism more harsh than that received by most students from their teachers.)
The very name chosen by UV to describe the Whitman project, "a Hypertext Archive," appropriately directs our attention to one of the great truths about teaching, learning, and technology. Each text, figure, idea, or event is a hypertext and has been a hypertext since before there was such a word to describe the phenomenon.. What technology offers is the opportunity to recognize, exploit, and explore the hypertextuality of works in order to develop new levels of understanding. Now it is easier to make students understand the hypertextuality of a great work of literature or a historic document because some of the links between that text and the world beyond its margins can be graphically represented by hyperlinks and explored with the simple click of a mouse button. It takes only a relatively short step, then, for a student to identify the way the work links to yet another resource, even though no hyperlink advertises the connection through a brighty colored underlined key word. As students move from following links to making them in their own minds, in class discussions, in their papers, or on their own web pages--they are moving from tourism to exploration.
Academics have always explored the ways things link to one another; this is an essential part of reserach. Scholars studying Uncle Tom's Cabin, for example, share a common interest in the text but follow individual trails that radiate outwards in countless directions. In the days when student research was necessarily based solely on the resources available on the shelve of the college library, very few such paths would have been available to undergraduates writing about that same novel. Students could have assembled some biographical information about Stowe, and they could probably have pulled together some basic information about abolitionism. With a little work, they could have located some articles in which Stowe scholars recounted the results of their research. Today, by typing in the key phrase "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in the search engine of their choice, students can find the very materials and topics that scholars use to produce those articles. . Here are examples of the kinds of results a student might get on his or her first page of "hits":
Using just a few of the first ten listing from two searches, we have already located several versions of the text, several discussions of dramatizations, information on the serialized newspaper version that preceeded the book, biographical information on Stowe and her family, illustrations from early editions of the novel, photographs, information about the novel's publishing history, and some of Stowe's correspondence. (Remember, these were just a few initial results from two very basic sources.) In fact, students can make significant steps towards setting up their individual investigations simply by taking advantage of the University of Virginia's excellent site on: Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture.
While students are visiting the University of Virginia project, they can also find wonderful examples of the way academic thinking and writing are supposed to work. Essays such as "Uncle Tom's Cabin and Slavery," produced by Stephen Railton, and "Grow'd Again: Articulation and History of Topsy," by Jim O'Loughlin model the ways that scholars raise questions, frame arguments, employ evidence, and draw conclusions. These articles also demonstrate the way that a researcher can draw from a variety of resources to build an argument that is deep, yet focused. I have spent too many hours in my life reading "research" papers that can be described as quote one + quote 2 + quote 3 = quote 1 + quote 2+ quote 3. This is the final act of the play which opens with the student going to the library, taking three books off the shelf, taking one point or quotation from each book and writing an essay in which s/he summarizes the three points. I can, in fact, remember sitting on my dorm room floor, the three books fanned around me, trying to imagine an escape from the grip they seemed to have on my thinking about the novel I was analyzing. I also remember riding in an elevator with a fellow student who was puzzled that her professor had noticed and objected to the fact that she had composed her paper by using the first paragraph of each chapter of an anthology of essays on the subject. True, she knew that she had crossed the plagiarism line, but she thought what she had produced must have looked like real scholarship. Students need us to do more than offer resources, they need us to teach them how scholarship looks and works. Technology can help us solve this problem.
I'll let you in on a dirty little secret. I've never taught Uncle Tom's Cabin before and there are two good reasons why. First, I couldn't imagine how to teach it in a way that would allow the text to come alive for my students. Second, I couldn't imagine how to make it come alive when I read it myself. The same web-based resources that have now sparked my own interest in the novel are the ones I will use to inspire in my students a hunger to know more about Stowe's classic.
By now you may have noticed the obvious hole in my argument. Although I started out by admitting that there are always more topics to teach than time to teach them in, I have arguing since that point on behalf of a number of proposals which will clearly require more time from us rather than less. If we're going to have students read Uncle Tom's Cabin and dramatizations of the novel and treatments for juvenile literature and documents on slavery and Stowe's letters, aren't we really talking about the infinitely expanding syllabus?
In this case the problem is the solution. It takes more time for a student to inquire into a subject than to listen to someone else describe it. However, if a course is constructed as a collaborative inquiry, everyone does not have to investigate everything. Instead, each student (or team of students) can investigate one dimension of a topic and report the findings back to the class as a whole. Writing teachers long ago came to the conclusion that students needed to write more than any one teacher could possibly read. As a result they moved from being the grammar wardens and punctuation police to serving as mentors to developing writers.
This move towards fostering individual inquiry has the added advantage of enabling students to locate questions that connect to their own interests or curiosity in some way. In one particularly gruesome semester, I had a small class that included a senior who was the president of the English Honor Society, and a freshman with very weak basic skills who accidentally wandered into the course and did not realize her error until after the end of the add/drop period. After an initial period of tears (on the part of the freshman) and fears (on both our parts), the semester finally settled into a routine after students chose their projects. The highly academic senior ultimately produced a report on the way that groups women artists in the late nineteenth century could sometimes use their informal communities as a way of coping with the obstacles faced by working women.. To develop her project the student drew upon evidence provided by a collection of letters in the Way-Champlain papers in the manuscript holding of the American Antiquarian Society, a published biography of the Way sisters entitled Sisters of the Brush, and a number of other library and web-based resources. It was gratifying to read an undergraduate essay that might easily compete with the work produced in graduate courses. I will admit that I hesitated briefly before opening the pages of the project produced by the struggling freshman, but her essay also made a useful point. Fascinated by the dating rituals of the young women who were her own age in the mid-nineteenth century , she had immersed herself in conduct literature for young women in the nineteenth century and produced a solid discussion of conventions of polite conversation and behavior in that period.
Of course , even if you succeed in instigating students to pursue independent inquiries, a class can only function as a "collaborative inquiry" if the syllabus is designed to raise a significant question and then offer a series of texts and assignments that will lead to a sustained reflection on the question. Real scholarly thinking requires continuous thought over a long period of time. Anyone who has written a book, an article, or for that matter, a good assignment knows that the process always takes longer than seems reasonably justifiable--even to the author. I have never yet met an academic in the midst of a project who wasn't complaining about the geological slowness of the process. Just as we think we've finished, we notice a flaw in our argument or come across a remarkable but thesis-changing piece of evidence.
Unfortunately, time for sustained reflection is a luxury we rarely provide for our students, and understandably so. We need to "get in" a certain number of papers in a certain amout of time. We need the papers done in time to turn in grade warnings or mid-semester grades. We also have to deal with what I call the "chapter nineteen problem": the need to cover all of the chapters before the one at which the next course will pick up. Admittedly, all of those papers and tests connect to the same general subject, but they often are on entirely different aspects of the discipline.
This is why when I plan a course, I begin by framing a central question. Here, for example, the way I posed the course question for students in my Fall, 1999, Major American Writer's course:
After framing the question, I choose topics and texts that offer opportunities to follow up on that question. Next, I construct classroom activities, assignments, and major projects that offer students the opportunity gradually to build an answer to the question over the course of the semester. And in the process of building my assignments, I develop resource archives that students can use as starting points for their own research. Here is the front page of the archive, to view the resources, syllabi, or assignments from last year's course, click on the image.
Over the course of the coming semester my students will be investigating the evolution of an American national identity by researching and reflecting on the kinds of beliefs, values, and behavior celebrated in American literature. To this end, we will be paying particular attention to the way autobiographies, conduct manuals, and novels about individuals in the process of "getting ahead." Franklin's Autobiography will provide one useful starting point for our investigations, later we will compare Franklin's advice with the counsel provided by various types of advice literature and by Frederick Douglass's works. At the end of the semester, students will do a major project focusing on Edith Wharton's House of Mirth and late nineteenth and early twentieth century codes of etiquette. If you're interested in a closer look at the assignment, resources, and goals of that assignment, visit:
(For another package of questions and resources, see "Contextualizing Frederick Douglass.")
A faculty member who chooses to use technology to teach students how to engage in academic inquiry and place texts in contexts must take on at least three important roles. As a mentor, the teacher must respond to the needs and inquiries of each student or group by offering suggestions about methods and resources and interpretations. The teacher must also serve as the moderator for the course inquiry by setting timelines and goals, raising questions for general discussion, scheduling frequent opportunities for progress reports, and creating an ongoing discussion which promotes collaboration and synthesis. Ideally, each student or small group of students should be developing an area of expertise while pursuing an individual line of inquiry. Class discussions and other forms of communication should allow students to share questions, hypotheses, and resources. Class discussions should also allow students to collaborate in piecing together a sense of the topic that goes beyond the confines of their individual projects.
In fact, this is how work gets done in the academic "real world." I've done little more than borrow for my classroom the model I learned as a researcher at the American Antiquarian Society. When a new research fellow arrives at the AAS, he or she is brought around the library and introduced to the staff members, the fellows, and many of the readers so that people have an opportunity to share initial information about their projects and interests. The fellow will also have a chance sometime in the first few weeks to make a brief presentation before the staff and readers, outlining his or her questions and hypotheses, and the kinds of resources s/he is hoping to find in the course of the fellowship. In the discussion which follows that presentation, people join together to offer suggestions and additional questions. The personal introductions, and the staff talk, along with brown-bag lunch colloquiums and the contributions and encouragement of staff members foster the development of a conversation between the individual fellow and the other members of the AAS community that will continue at least throughout his or her period of residence, and often over the course of a lifetime. There are many afternoons in the reading room when you can watch a reader, excited over a new find, call researchers and librarians over to his or her table to share the material, the idea, and the moment.
My own participation in that community has helped me understand that no one of us, no matter how gifted, will ever be able to pursue research into all of the issues that matter in our disciplines or even our specialties. Paradoxically, however, this experience has also made me aware of the way in which these focused inquiries are part of the larger collaborative project of scholarship. Each time I learn something of the work of a new fellow, my understanding of my own projects expands. Although I've spent much of my time in the last few years studying the evolution of the preaching styles, reform interests, and professional lives of Boston's mid-nineteenth century Unitarian ministers, my own thinking about American literature and culture has been deepened by conversations with academics studying the place of sensational literature in the lives of young men, the diaries of Caroline Dall, the changing meaning of the witchcraft trials, American orientalism, representations of Native Americans in local histories, and even the history of hygiene. My intellectual life would be limited indeed if I could not see beyond the Unitarian ministers who presently populate my mind and continue to think about how they connect to the complex landscape of American history, culture, and literature.
And this is what I want for my students. I want them to experience the excitement of individual inquiry, the sense of self-respect that comes with the development of expertise, the intellectual stimulation that arises from exchanging information and viewpoints with other academics, and the kind of rich understanding that results when you can see your own conclusions as part of a much bigger picture.
Why, after all, do some people continue to hike when you can take trains, cars, or even helicopters to the top of the mountain these days? Because it's exciting to choose your own path to the top. Because it's satisfying to understand the view you see from the top since you have a working knowledge of that landscape so it's not just a pretty picture. Because despite the many challenges and hardships, you have a sense of self-respect because of the many challenges and hardships. As you grunt as you stretch to climb up to to the next rock, you pity the people in the car you hear whizzing by in the distance.
A colleague once asked me what she
could do to make a first, small step into teaching inquiry.
Unfortunately, the only honest answer is "Watch out, the
first step's a doozy. " I once heard computers described
as a hole in your desk you throw money into. My own formulations
is different: it's the hole in my desk I throw my life into.
It takes time to find resources. It takes time to think through
the implications of teaching in a wholly new way. And it takes
a remarkable amount of time to put it all together into a functioning
web-site. (I am writing this on a morning when I ran a check
on a relatively small new site I am developing in collaboration
with a colleague. I have just printed out an 85 page report
listing linking errors. But school begins next week . . . )
So, yes, my feet hurt because when I make my students hike,
I have to hike before them--and with them--and behind them.
" I once heard computers described as a hole in your desk you throw money into. My own formulations is different: it's the hole in my desk I throw my life into. It takes time to find resources. It takes time to think through the implications of teaching in a wholly new way. And it takes a remarkable amount of time to put it all together into a functioning web-site. (I am writing this on a morning when I ran a check on a relatively small new site I am developing in collaboration with a colleague. I have just printed out an 85 page report listing linking errors. But school begins next week . . . ) So, yes, my feet hurt because when I make my students hike, I have to hike before them--and with them--and behind them.
And yet, since I first
began teaching with technology I have found the benefits irresistible.
As a faculty member with a 4/3 load at a college that makes
leaching its first priority, I have always found it difficult
to find time to do any research over the course of the school
year. Now I find myself doing ongoing research, both in libraries
and on-line, in order to provide my students with resources
on upcoming topics. Because I am advising them on how to proceed
with their own inquiries, I also regularly find myself talking
about my own research projects , and that keeps my own questions
in the forefront of my consciousness. Directing student projects
has also had the effect of making me more conscious of my methods,
and thus better able to improve them. As an added bonus, even
though I still worry about having the time to grade papers,
I actually look forward to reading them.
, and that keeps my own questions in the forefront of my consciousness. Directing student projects has also had the effect of making me more conscious of my methods, and thus better able to improve them. As an added bonus, even though I still worry about having the time to grade papers, I actually look forward to reading them.
In fact, the thing I find most
startling about using technology to teach for inquiry is the
fact that I continue to benefit from the products of my students'
investigations. I know that teachers are always supposed to
say "I learn more from my students than they do from me,"
but I fear that is rarely true if we are really talking about
our disciplines rather than our understanding of human nature
or of the nature of learning. The freshmen in last year's Major
American Writers course, on the other hand, directed my attention
to material and questions that I might otherwise never have
noticed. I can still remember the day a young woman came up
to me after class and said: "You'll have to be sure to
read An Indian Teacher Among Indians by Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude
Bonnin) because it makes great reading and connects to the same
questions we've been discussing. I had put a link to that text
on our on-line syllabus because we were reading Impressions
of an Indian Girlhood by the same author, but I had never
read work my student recommended. When I followed in her "footsteps,"
I encountered a text that has contributed to my understanding
of some of the tensions between tradition and "progress"
that seem characteristic of the American identity regardless
of time, place, class, or ethnic group. I am looking forward
to learning more from the new crop of freshmen in my course
In fact, the thing I find most startling about using technology to teach for inquiry is the fact that I continue to benefit from the products of my students' investigations. I know that teachers are always supposed to say "I learn more from my students than they do from me," but I fear that is rarely true if we are really talking about our disciplines rather than our understanding of human nature or of the nature of learning. The freshmen in last year's Major American Writers course, on the other hand, directed my attention to material and questions that I might otherwise never have noticed. I can still remember the day a young woman came up to me after class and said: "You'll have to be sure to read An Indian Teacher Among Indians by Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin) because it makes great reading and connects to the same questions we've been discussing. I had put a link to that text on our on-line syllabus because we were reading Impressions of an Indian Girlhood by the same author, but I had never read work my student recommended. When I followed in her "footsteps," I encountered a text that has contributed to my understanding of some of the tensions between tradition and "progress" that seem characteristic of the American identity regardless of time, place, class, or ethnic group. I am looking forward to learning more from the new crop of freshmen in my course this fall.
Getting There Fast By Going Slow
What Thoreau Might Have
You have to have a lot of nerve to claim Thoreau as your patron saint while preaching the virtues of technology. But Thoreau's argument was not with technology but with how it was used. Listen closely to his complaint:
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. After all, the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages . . . .
Too often computers become "pretty toys which distract our attention from serious things." If we use class time simply to show students one dazzling site after another, letting them "ooh" and "aah" as colors burst and fade across the screen and three-D titles rotate, we have once more reduced them to the business of simply admiring the view. If we simply assign students to "collect as many links as possible" rather than asking our classes to analyze, evaluate, and apply the evidence they collect, we are merely offering them an "improved means to an unimproved end." These approaches to technology don't move students off the bus and onto the mountain, they just add an attractive tint to the windows. As the caption of the drawing below asks:
While teaching with technology may seem to some to represent a move from academics to pointing and clicking, used wisely technology can create a better environment for old-fashioned hard work What I am advocating is the use of technology as a means of moving more slowly rather than more rapidly, in the classroom. Instead of covering more ground, I would like my students to travel the landscape of history, culture, and literature with greater care and attention. Each student can choose his or her own route to explore as we go, as long as our paths keep connecting and we all meet at the top. Although the time needed to pursue individual research topics means that my students may sometimes investigate fewer topics than they might in a traditional survey-style course, this causes me no worry. Together, the members of a single class can make up a formidable community of scholars who can collaborate in constructing an understanding of American literature that has both depth and breadth. By the end of the semester my students have pursued their own inquiries rather than listening to me talk of my own. I don't need to build my students' "self-esteem" because they have earned something much better: self-respect.
In a famous episode, Thoreau spurned
the invitation of a friend who wanted company on a short railroad
excursion. Puzzled by the refusal, the friend insisted: "you
love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today
and see the country." Thoreau wrote lovingly of his boat trip
on the Concord and Merrimack rivers, of his hikes in Maine, and
of his visit to Cape Cod. But Thoreau was never one to exchange
"travelling" and tourism. In the same way, I try to use
technology to transform my students from tourists to explorers,
remembering Thoreau's response to his friend:
In a famous episode, Thoreau spurned the invitation of a friend who wanted company on a short railroad excursion. Puzzled by the refusal, the friend insisted: "you love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country." Thoreau wrote lovingly of his boat trip on the Concord and Merrimack rivers, of his hikes in Maine, and of his visit to Cape Cod. But Thoreau was never one to exchange "travelling" and tourism. In the same way, I try to use technology to transform my students from tourists to explorers, remembering Thoreau's response to his friend:
I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot."
Submitted by Lucia Knoles, Associate Professor of English, Assumption College
The author earning
the view on her way up the fells on a wet day in the Lake District.
The author earning the view on her way up the fells on a wet day in the Lake District.