Oct 11, 2011

Time, Technology, and Teaching

academic octopus multitasking writing publishing work technology teaching learning students
Given the length of time I've allowed to lapse since my last posting here on Orexis Dianoētikē, before taking up the threads anew of previous musings, conversations, discussions and diatribes, I ought perhaps to say a bit about what I've been up to, and introduce yet another topic to the mix, one bearing on and bearing out a shape of practical rationality.  My starting and anchor point is a Tenured Radical (Claire Potter) post, The Problem That Has No Name: Or, If Computers Are A Labor Saving Device, Why Am I Working A Double Shift?

A tenured professor, with an enviable position, class load, and preparation requirements, made the experiment of charting out her time in order to get to the bottom of a puzzle.  It would seem that academics possess a considerable amount of leisure time. . .  so where does all of it go?  How do we end up working longer and longer days?  Before examining at what she discovered, I'll  mention my own similar conundrum and commiserate in advance and by analogy.

I recently left my own tenure-track position, where I taught four courses per semester.  Class preparation was not particularly onerous -- they were mainly Critical Thinking classes, not all that demanding, but I did develop new resources for my largely underprepared students each semester, and loaded more and more materials into Blackboard (the course management system we were using).  I was also actively involved in a number of committees and initiatives, so much that I found myself turning down invitations to one meeting precisely because another, higher-priority meeting was scheduled.

My last year at FSU, I helped write, explain, and defend the institution's Quality Enhancement Plan, required for SACS reaccreditation.  With a few other professors in the School of Business and Economics, I also co-founded an Ethics in Business Education project, provided three workshops (one here, the other here), and helped them radically revise their Ethics assessment rubrics.  I coordinated CLA assessment in Critical Thinking for the Entering Freshmen and Rising Junior examinations, chaired a CLA Spotlight webinar, and provided a Saturday Academy workshop on CLA grading.  I also ran a Writing Across the Curriculum pilot focused on close reading assignments.

In 2011, more of my research focused on Scholarship of Teaching and Learning than on straight-out Philosophy -- four pedagogical presentations at conferences, one of them (on the CLA at FSU) actually impromptu.  A few new articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia entries -- as well as my first book -- were published, but much of the labor involved in those was accomplished during previous years.  In fact, much of my writing in my own field -- straying into others on occasion -- was carried out on this very blog.  Local libraries also invited me to give more popular talks, and I put together several now-staple presentations: The Ethics of Anger, The Seven Deadly Sins (or Eight?), and one specifically on my book for National Library Week.

So, adding all this together, it was no surprise that I was typically working very long weeks, coming in to start teaching at 8 AM, and heading back to my apartment at 8 or 9 at night, working most weekends as well.  I was spending 12 hours per week in the classroom, and probably about another 12 hours on class prep, much of which was spent generating electronic resources or working in Blackboard.  The administrative and faculty development work probably took up another 20 or so hours per week -- a good portion of which was spent in front of the computer, developing resources, writing and responding to email, developing web-resources (all of which FSU rather myopically deleted after I left).  I'd estimate another 12 hours per week online building a web-presence, networking, and participating in discussions on various teaching, philosophy, and political theory blogs, Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Atlantic.  You're already up to 56 hours per week.

2010-2011 was the year I really expanded my electronic scope, proficiencies, and activities.  Between blogging, recording course videos, Dr. Sadler's Chalk and Talk, and developing a robust presence on social networks like Twitter, VYou, Academia.edu, and LinkedIn, I probably spent at least another 12 hours per week.  So, given that I was also carrying out scholarship, writing, presenting, publishing, most weeks I was probably putting in at least 80 hours routinely, stretched very thin and in multiple directions.

Leaving Fayetteville State and North Carolina, relocating far up the I-95 corridor to the Hudson Valley in New York -- made good sense both for professional and personal reasons:  my partner and I were  becoming increasingly disillusioned with the constraints long distance imposed upon our time, and though I was still productive, I was growing progressively less happy, in fact at risk for burning out.  I'd taught full time in two different institutions, been very productive, contributed some value, but had never had the opportunity to take a sabbatical, even to enjoy more than an occasional course release.  (Add to those considerations considerable financial uncertainty about programs, funding, furloughs, and salary cuts.)

I'd move up here, we reasoned, teach a class or two, and spend the rest of the time getting back into the kind of leisured, unfettered, revitalizing reading, research, and writing in which I took so much joy years back -- as well as some public speaking and whatever educational consulting came along.

All of these sorts of things are really matters of time, you see.  No matter what efficiency measures you learn and put into place, no matter how good your time management may be, no matter how much you cut, simplify, multitask, consolidate, prioritize, strategize . . .  every day provides you with only the same 24 hours.  You can cut some from the next day in order to catch up on the previous day's unfinished To-Do list, but only by short-shrifting that day -- and its own list -- as well.

Technology is supposed to enhance our lives, extend our human capacities and powers, render complex tasks easier.  It ought to buy us time, a resource that seems in this 21st Century, all the more fungible, all the more fleeting, in shorter supply, more quickly consumed.  That this vision rarely pans out along those lines is precisely the point that the Tenured Radical was making in her piece.  Where does the time go, if one is not careful?  If one is not careful?  How's that?

If one is not careful as an academic who understandably relies on technology, for whom the way of the world, and often now explicit job requirements, mean technology is not an option but a daily  necessity -- and relies on it to work as expected.  That's one.

If one is not careful as an academic who understandably embraces the promises of technology for educating students, for providing them a rich environment of resources, for designing and uploading lessons, for creating engaging activities and assignments, for communicating with peers, and for integrating classroom, research space, and the "real world" of the workplace -- and relies on it to work as promised.  That's another.

In my semi-sabbatical, I've experienced something akin to what this full-time professor writes about:

So mostly, what am I doing for those other 60 hours for which I have yet to account? Answer: I am on my computer. I am doing email, I am clicking boxes to approve things for my students and advisees, and I am adjusting and building my teaching platforms.
She mentions a considerable loss of time drained away by a technology failure, the sort of thing that has become so common an aspect of our experience -- the technology not working as advertized, as promised, as it should, as the seminar said it would, always, mind you, when we need it most and no time allotted for such failures -- that often we feel just a dull sense of frustration, rather than the rage, indignation, or panic of earlier times.  I can relate, having had to learn to manage in a new course management system, Sakai -- losing who knows how many hours trying to get it to do what Blackboard can do, and often enough losing valuable content I'd developed but didn't save every few minutes.  Her story continues:
But here is the thought this experience, and a review of my two weeks in Hell, left me with. Except for a couple years at the beginning of my career, when I changed jobs annually and was learning to teach, I never worked so hard in the first two weeks of school before everything went online. In the codex version, the start of school was the easy part: readings were on reserve at the library, or in a course pack, after having been copied by the office staff; memos about various events (that we actually had time to attend) arrived in your box; and with lightning speed we faculty signed endless forms that resulted, by some miracle and the work of actual hands in the Registrars’ office, in our students having class schedules.

Now I am not proposing that we go back to the bad old days of copyright violations, frantic notes being pinned to our office doors, and the grounds staff out there felling trees so that they could be pulped into the reams of paper later filed and forgotten by nimble hands that typed envelopes in their spare time. But has it ever occurred to y’all that faculty are actually doing more work than we ever did because everything can be done by us on computers — and better yet, from the privacy of our homes, at all hours of the day and night? I never had a student follow me home with a drop/add slip.
All of this is on the "technology required" side of things.  If you're teaching these days, and you're doing your job as you ought to be, you're spending a lot of time in front of the computer screen, most likely  -- guaranteed if you're adjuncting like me, with no office, no university "work" computer -- from multiple locations, at all hours of the day.  If you shift to the "promise of technology to improve education" side of matters, then there's additional considerations.  The potential to use technology to enhance, to improve, to engage. . .  it's practically limitless -- and there's the trap, or several traps.
One is reminded of Betty Friedan’s insight in chapter 10 of The Feminine Mystique that “Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available.” Technologies that are billed as labor-saving devices generally have paradoxical effects: multiplying the tasks that any one person is responsible for, creating new, previously unknown tasks, and concentrating more labor in a single job category (in this case, mine) as other jobs are eliminated or modified to exclude these tasks. Furthermore, Friedan argued, breakthroughs in scientific housekeeping like the “no-iron” shirt did not liberate the housewife from ironing, but instead raised the universal standard for ironing.
The standards do get raised.  A course management system allows you to build modules containing course content you develop yourself, tailor to the texts you teach, arranged in the order you decide is most logical, to stock resources . . .  one could go on forever.  With nothing but Youtube and a Flipcam you can video your lectures, discussions, whatever you do in your class sessions -- even create additional video content outside of class.  Blogs -- like the Virtue Ethics Digest I originally started to introduce additional, timely, thought-provoking considerations for my students this semester -- these are just a few examples of what Web 2.0 offers us the chance to offer to our students -- though it does not offer us -- for how could it -- any additional time to do so.

Tenured Radical ends her piece at a starting point which I and many other professors share with her -- but the point that she wants to make, what she wants to call into question is one at the level of policy, of institutions, of large scale labor shifts. 
Assuming that we neither can, nor wish to, turn back the clock on the use of technology in education, and that some of us have found our pedagogy and intellectual lives transformed by technology in good ways, let us imagine — in the coming weeks — how to further assess the redistribution and recalibration of labor in the university since the widespread introduction of personal computers and web-based technologies. Let’s think about whether the university actually saves money by going on-line, and under what conditions teaching and administrative staff cannot actually be replaced or reduced through technology. In fact, in addition to the investment in hardware and technical staff, might shifting higher education to on-line platforms actually mean a greater re-investment in full-time, well-paid, highly educated labor, rather than the reverse, which is what many critics of higher education claim?
These are very interesting and timely questions.  I have to admit that I find myself more interested in matters at a micro-scale, in thinking about how I and others like me might both find more -- or rather make more productive -- or better put yet, how one might prudentially order -- time and exploit the potentials of technology for education.  I suspect that the answers we get at the macro-level will remain unsatisfying, even uninformative in comparison to those we can -- given adequate conceptual resources, which I'm willing to bet will include a coherent moral theory -- develop, deliberate about, put in place, and evaluate on a more personal, situated, scale.