Monthly Archives: September 2013

It’s Not Really a Phone

I imagine what I would have thought if, a quarter century ago when I started teaching, someone had told me that some day the students in my classes would be bringing with them hand-held computers with which they could keep their schedules, take notes, and, best of all, have instant access to a world-wide interactive network of information. I would have probably said something about people in hell wanting ice water and dreamed about what might be possible. This came to mind again the other day when my local school district decided to lift the ban on cell phones in some of the high schools. Of course, because the issue is framed by the word “phones” there was a predictable outcry about sliding standards, distracted students, and the glories of life in days past.

Apple, always the savvy marketers, got people to start buying smart phones by continuing to call them “phones.” Phones are cheap, phones are utilitarian, phones feel like a necessity. Had they called them “computers” people would have thought of them as something they might not need in their daily lives, or have been skeptical about what they could use them for. But, the reality is – and I’m far from the first to say this – that they are used more as computers most days then as phones. I applaud the school district for recognizing the use, and the potential, of these devices and giving teachers a chance to work with them rather than to have to police whether students are breaking the rules.

That said, what we call things makes a difference. I’m guessing I can’t get people to call them “computers” rather than “phones,” but I’m going to keep pointing it out and asking them to think about how the label and the use might change how they imagine using them and teaching with them. What’s more, it’s always important to remember that material technologies change practices, create new ways of considering knowledge and communication, and create new relationships of the social and identity (to borrow from actor-network theory and anthropologists like Daniel Miller.) So, using hand-held computers in the classroom is going to start changing relationships, practices, conceptions of knowledge in the classroom. We can’t just layer them on top of what we do; even trying to do that – bad idea that it is – would be doomed to failure as practices would emerge and escape through the new technology and networks. What do we do, then, when our students walk into class tomorrow, hand-held computers at the ready?

Starting Again, and Focusing on Writing

The start of the fall semester should mean that summer is over – though the weather outside in Louisville reminds us otherwise. Regardless of the weather, I realized a while back that I tend to set my annual internal clock by the start of the academic year. My new year – my resolutions, my reflections, my sense of renewal – starts not in January, but in the autumn with a new academic year. This year, as with every year, I find myself busy beyond belief (hence the paucity of posts since July) but also invigorated by a campus full of students again. There is always a sense of promise, a sense that this semester, whether as teacher or student, there will be a breakthrough of learning, of inspiration. (Am I a bit on the sentimental side about these things? What do you think?)

Working in the University Writing Center is particularly conducive to optimism. 143We work with any and all writers in the university — undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff — on any kind of writing at any stage in that writing. Our goal is both to help the writer improve the current project, but also to help teach the writer new strategies to use on writing projects in the future. In practice, we see a lot of people who come to us at moments of extreme anxiety about their writing, and, most of the time, when they leave they have a clear plan for revising their writing, and feel more confident about their work. (The fact that almost half of our visitors schedule return visits during the course of the year is a testament to the fact that we must be doing something right.) We ground our work in an ethic of care and an ethic of respect for the writer and I think that comes across to people. It’s hard work sometimes, and exhausting, but rewarding for both the students and consultants. (It’s also a space that has political potential in the university in ways that need more exploration, but that is for a future post.) So it’s not hard to feel optimistic when you know that this is what the work for the year will be.

Much of the preceding paragraph is not news to those who work in Writing Centers, which are becoming much more common in U.S. universities. (Even so, it felt good to write it). But I realized, while in Britain in the spring, how little the concept of a university writing center was understood there. When I would tell wc-signpeople that I was director of the Writing Center at UofL, many people had no idea what I was talking about. When I explained what we do, from the individual writing consultations to the classroom workshops on writing to the events such as the week-long dissertation writing retreats we hold, the lack of understanding often turned to envy. It’s hard not to like the idea of a writing center. And, in places where there are writing centers, like the marvelous one in at Coventry University, they have become  valued institutions. But I missed the commitment to writing instruction in universities there that I think writing centers exemplify.

My point is not that I wish more UK universities had writing centers (though I do – and if anyone is reading this and wants me to come over and help set one up…..). My point is that, while I enjoyed my time with my British colleagues so much, and learned so much from them, it was meaningful in coming home to again be part of the Writing Center, and all the things we do. Simple as that.