There was a brief moment in one of our classes this past week that’s gotten me thinking about Berlin; where he falls short, and where he has ahead of his time. I honestly don’t remember who said it exactly, but the notion was simple–that Berlin’s advocating an education that, in part, focused on getting students to be active participants in a democratic society has become a paradigm more and more fueled by technology in the past generation than any other.
I struggle with technology in the classroom. Not in any ability to use it, that is, but rather the reliance on its use. I often wonder if I use tech too much, or if I fall on it as a crutch. My background is in film studies and I find that I can explain concepts quite easily through visual analysis. At the same time, I run through a cost-benefit analysis in my head for film clips: do I really need to show my students a five or ten minute clip to get a point across when something shorter or simpler will do?
In that vein, I think of the criticism of Berlin, such as Maxine Hairston, who argue that this kind of education focuses too much on ideology and not enough on writing. Having read her argument, I can say with a small amount of pride that not once did I hit my head against the wall. It took a great deal of self-restraint. I see her point (despite my yelling at the screen that the purposeful omission of an ideology is an ideology unto itself…but I digress) but I don’t think it’s well founded. Many other composition theorists and practitioners argue that as facilitators, we should be meeting students at their level, seizing those “teachable moments” when they appear. Students, in this moment of history, have realized that the world has gotten smaller. It’s so prevalent: thousands of TV channels from all over the globe, social networks, ubiquitous computing power–and it would be easy to argue that because it’s everywhere, it’s nowhere. But given the dynamic nature of technological evolution, the visibility remains.
Interactive media has created interactive consumers of text. Student that we teach want to get involved, want to tackle the big issues. This is the seizable moment, where we can meet willing students at their level. For people like Cornell West or James Berlin or Mike Rose, writing has to do something, it has to engage–both author and audience. That, I believe, is the answer of social epistemic classrooms. Berlin writes that “in composing or interpreting a text, a person engages in an analysis of the cultural codes operating in defining his or her subject position, the positions of the audience, and the constructions of the matter to be considered. These function in a dialectical relation to each other, so that the writer must engage in complex decision making in shaping the text (90).” That’s one part of the equation; students write not in a vacuum, but in a dynamic social climate where they must navigate using critical thinking and rhetorical analysis.
This is where I still struggle with technology. Students bring laptops, smartphones, iPads, or other pieces of technology into the classroom and I’m not sure how to handle it. I own all of those and I don’t necessarily use all of them every day for classroom purposes. I see plenty of instructors writing up how to use QR codes, twitter, or posterous in classrooms, and I don’t get it. I don’t know how or why I would use many tools technology provides, especially in a writing class. It’s not that I’m unwilling to use it, but I can’t yet see how those activities are better than getting pen to paper. I admit, it’s an odd paradox that goes on in my head. I read what Berlin writes and it makes so much sense, yet I falter: “The work of social-epistemic rhetoric, then, is to study the production and reception of these historically specific signifying practices. In other words, social epistemic rhetoric enables senders and receivers to arrive at a rich formulation of the rhetorical context in any given discourse situation through an analysis of the signifying practices operating within it (90).” I get that. I get that one of the goals must be to endow students with the ability to navigate through an ever-expanding social dynamic and to wade through historical circumstances in order to produce texts that will satisfy an audience. And I know that our discourse includes iPads and smartphones and thousands of apps all designed to help students. I guess I’m just not sure if those objects will get students to think, engage, and create–to do things, or if they will just clog up an already saturated media environment.
I guess I’ll have to (re)think a few things.