The Latest

imagesYearly, we teachers hear the “Digital Natives” in our classrooms need something more and different. New technologies, programs, and applications will improve our instruction, we’re told, and each fall the push begins to integrate new methods into our classes. The old ways have passed away, and the message is clear: keep up or risk irrelevance and invisibility. Resisting progress is announcing your mental arthritis, your denial of newer realities.

I do the best I can but have an ugly confession: I love the throw-backs, the students who don’t need the enticement and excitement of innovative technology or techniques, who rely instead on their own inquisitiveness and the computers they carry within them. They appreciate learning whether it’s technologically advanced or not. Everything new is old again, and vice versa.

A teacher’s biggest challenge is convincing students to care—in my case, to value books increasingly regarded as passé, dull, or irrelevant; to embrace reading accurately, thoughtfully, and discerningly; to accept the useful torture of writing; to enjoy rumination that questions (even undermines) original answers. You have to want hard work to do it well, and, while easier paths lead to quicker results, they often sidestep the labor that improves you.

Some students flog themselves through school because they see it as a means to status or professional success, but most need intrinsic motives, curiosity, a feeling labor rewards itself. Technology is supposed to motivate and sometimes does, but the students who want to learn hear real people speaking from every and any source. Those who don’t wish to listen regard all words, electronic or ink, as noise interrupting what they’d rather be doing. My job is to assert authors’ voices are valuable. Insisting may not be enough, but elaborate, stimulating, and entertaining technology often does little better and distracts students as much as it entices them.

They grow rare, these students who accept low-tech education, who look past apparatus to the stuff of learning. My eyes sting with tears when I meet a student who expects struggle and wants it, who loves the frustrating play of writing, who smiles encountering the delicate expression of deep truth, who occupies a character’s mind with his or her own, who hears ancient ideas echoing in the present, who leaps like a spark between unlikely poles, who tunnels like a blind mole immune to diversion, who finds splendor in faintly etched messages, who laughs, or cries, or angers, or warms, or cools, or gasps when encountering another mind. Of course, all these traits exist in technophiles too, but does technology assure sound scholarship, does it guarantee interest?

When I started teaching, I poked the ground with a straw and oil bubbled out. Perhaps that had more to do with youthful enthusiasm, but every effort produced more than enough response to sustain me. I don’t begrudge the effort of preparing lessons or dreaming up new and different ways to engage students. I like my students. But lately the ground appears to yield less. The proportion of effort to return has changed. For my students, life outside school is so much more exciting than anything I can serve up. Students race ahead. Keeping up seems more and more taxing, the gained learning less and less fulfilling. Style trumps substance.

Perhaps I’ve become the teacher who has passed the age of being cool and, now older than his students’ parents, is part of the place, another desk or chair. I’d rather not be. Who wants to be the person colleagues regard deferentially, the one whose antique experience inspires the sort of love generally reserved for decaying uncles? Who wants to be the genial holdover whose eccentricities must be borne? I want to be hip.

But I’m tired and wonder how the latest novelty will help.



Filed under Aging, Ambition, Dissent, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Reading, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Worry

5 responses to “The Latest

  1. I do agree with what you have written. The penetration of technology into our lives in insane proportions has led to a state where “being diversified” has become more important than specialization.

    • dmarshall58

      Many technical innovations sneak in as ways to streamline our lives when sometimes they add another layer of attention, something new to monitor and administer. Specialization and even concentration become rarer when our attention is so spread out. Thanks for visiting! –D

  2. I taught undergraduates for a term–creative writing. I used youtube so that they could associate sonnets with actors whose names they knew and rap songs about the elements of stories. Probably the most successful exercise was getting them to do feedback to each other in the form of speed-dating–3 minutes each then move on to another person. I’m a student myself and find the internet sometimes gives me a quick taster of a subject and then I turn to textbooks for depth.

    • dmarshall58

      I’ve used similar techniques with Shakespeare. While I don’t get much depth from “flash study,” it does sometimes inspire deeper examination in those who want more. Thanks for the tips. –D

  3. Of late, my favorite classes have been the seminars where I provide students with discussion prompts, and I write on the chalkboard — good old fashioned fun, that! And engaging too– it’s the material that matters most (readings and prompts) not the medium, for the most part. Going completely techno-free isn’t really feasible though. In that same class I posted all readings on our Blackboard page, along with other course info.

    Just this semester one of my students asked me what college was like before the internet. When I told him that students used to line up for office hours, course registration happened in person, and so on, he said: “It’s so sad, what we’ve become!” and he meant it. Some technological advances are great, but there can certainly be too much of a good thing. This semester I reverted to an “old” practice: I had students create code names and then I posted grade updates on my office door. It was great! They came in, chatted, and got their questions answered. In that same class (an intro class, 70 students) while I did assign on-line practice tests, I also had students respond to lecture prompts in writing (on note cards) that they then swapped with a neighbor to compare notes – no clickers allowed! By the end of the term, many students were talking – many more than usual I’ve actually never used clickers, and after this term, have even less inclination to do so).

    Finding the right balance with technology is no small challenge – but a valuable process to embark on. All things in moderation, right?

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