Getting Reception

In the spectrum of technologically-induced emotions, is there anything worse  than the feeling of sending an email and getting no reply? The sensation is amplified if it’s an important email, one you’ve been worrying about, and whose contents you may have spent hours, even days, finessing. Then, after all that…internet silence. At times like these, I try to imagine the better-case scenarios (they must be busy, out out of town, off the grid) before the worst (they hate me!) Yet no matter how common a phenomenon unanswered email may be — especially for those of us who have not yet achieved inbox zero — I am weirdly sensitized to it, to that experience of non-response.

Of course, email exchanges are only examples-in-miniature of the kinds of communication situations we engage in countless times per day: situations in which someone talks/writes/texts/posts, and others receive the information and respond, or not. For me, the classroom has been the site of some of the richest and most complex communication I have ever participated in. But also, some of the most freighted. I am particularly reminded of the ethical stakes of pedagogical communication whenever I sit down to read and respond to student writing — which is, after all, just another kind of written transmission. How I reply — how I signal to my students the “receipt” of their writing — is of great importance to me. What qualifies as good reception? How can I ensure that my students feel heard, by me, but also by each other?

I know from experience the perils of over-responding. As a novice instructor, I routinely returned student papers covered with copy-edits and dense marginalia. But now, having been trained in the art of minimal marking, I sometimes wonder if there is such a thing as not-enough marking. Although the lore of teaching is that students toss their essays in the trash as soon as they’ve seen their grade, that axiom oversimplifies. I’ve watched students decode my (terribly handwritten) comments. I’ve conferenced with them. And I think, even if they don’t necessarily express it, that many are looking for something beyond the grade: an affirmation, maybe, that what they have written has been read, understood, received.

In some sense, this proof of reception may be what all writers, not just apprentice ones, are looking for. In 1908, Henry James — still stung by the disastrous reception of his play, Guy Domville — was doubly shocked by the poor sales of The New York Edition. “The non-response of both sources,” he wrote to his agent, James Pinker, “has left me rather high and dry.” Literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin goes so far as to suggest, in one of his later essays, that “for the word (and consequently for the human being) there is nothing more terrrible than a lack of response.”

All this is just one of the reasons I am so excited by the existence of digital platforms like the OpenLab. Not only because it gives teachers the chance to respond to student writing in something like real time, but because it gives students the chance to do this, too. In Cathy N. Davidson’s new book, she highlights the positive effect writing online for peers can have on the quality of student writing. And I would speculate that the improvement may be motivated as much by the promise of an expanded audience — and the attendant potential for recognition and praise — as by fear of criticism.  As a dissertating student, I’m pretty sure my writing would change, too, if I suddenly learned that thirty people would be reading my chapters, instead of three.

So how can teachers and students harness the audience-expanding powers of digital platforms? Why aren’t colleges, as Jim Groom suggested in a great talk at Baruch last week, “programming the web with great stuff?” This is clearly a bigger question for a bigger post. For now, I’m going to keep thinking about the new modes and methods of response that blogs make possible. What are some best practices for commenting on — and inviting students to comment on — digital writing? How can publishing platforms like WordPress change the way student writing gets written, yes, but also read and received?

Just sandboxing…

Last week, during some online excursioning, I found myself reading a blog post about an out-of-print book called 1975: The Changes to Come. From what I could gather, it’s a sort of extended experiment in speculative thinking, a bid to imagine how technology might affect American lives in what was then, “the future,” and what is now, now. The post included a number of the book’s photos — some funny, some fascinating — but what really got my attention were several images of students using “teaching machines,” including the “Film based” example below:

According to the caption, “Teaching machines, expected to boom in the next decade, usually operate on the principal of repetition until the pupil understands. They aim to speed up the learning process and relieve teachers of much paper work in the classroom.”

A contemporary viewer might laugh at this image, and the cringingly retrograde notions about learning it seems to represent. And yet…adjusting for the rate of sartorial change, this student doesn’t look so much different from today’s budding scholar, hunched over a desktop computer. In fact, one could argue that “teaching machines” are just one of the more dubious experiments in a long history of educational-technological-tool-using. From blackboards to Blackboard, pencils to wireless mice, we have always made use of “machines,” however simple, both to teach and to learn.  Just as silent films were never truly silent, classrooms – long before laptops, smartboards, and Web 2.0 – were never really free of technology.

My goal in starting this blog is to begin thinking and writing more regularly about the ways teachers and students make use of the unprecedented and startling number of technologies now available –  in many instances, for free. I am thinking of this site as a sort of cognitive sandbox, a place where I — and hopefully others –  can play around with ideas and pose questions. How might  educators use this era’s “machines” in their teaching? How could students use them in their learning? What are the possibilities we know about, and the use-cases we haven’t even begun to imagine?