Monday, October 1, 2012

Entry 6: Things Fall Apart

I wrote my timeline to illustrate a tug-of-war within technological and social arenas. The basic idea I wanted to get across was that with technology (as with society) there's always a push and pull between what a system is "supposed" to be used for, and what it can be used for. iPhones get jailbroken, The Kinect was used for everything but playing video games, the capitalist-designed Twitter was used both to protest and to enforce capitalist regimes. Systems are most apparent when they break down. As Shipka and The New London Group illustrate, changing cultural systems demand changing pedagogical systems (and vice-versa). They also show how this can lead to new, unexpected complications. For example, take this quote detailing the dangers of changing pedagogy in "Postfordist" capitalism: "As we remake our literacy pedagogy to be more relevant to a new world of work, we need to be aware of the danger that our words become co-opted by economically and market-driven discourses, no matter how contemporary and 'post-capitalist' these may appear. The new fast capitalist literature stresses adaptation to constant change through thinking and speaking for oneself, critique and empowerment, innovation and creativity, technical and systems thinking, and learning how to learn" (New London Group, 7).

When I read that line, my first thought was "too late." Every time a departmental meeting turns to the question of how the Humanities can stay relevant, we see how market-driven discourses inform our pedagogy. More specifically, regarding technology, this co-opting is obvious whenever a teacher is compelled to use a modality that he or she is unfamiliar or uncomfortable with due to administrative or social pressures. Shipka states that "Although it may often appear...that a cultural tool is naturally or in and of itself tied to superior levels of performance, it is often the case that the continued use or dominance of that tool is based on other factors such as historical precedent, fear of or resistance to change, or the fact that the particular tool has been invested with so much cultural or institutional authority that it appears natural" (47). Though not speaking specifically about digital technologies, I couldn't help but have traumatic flashbacks to workplace experiences where the management bought a new (and faulty) system and then forced us peons to use it under the auspices of "superior levels of performance." Most of us have experience with a technology (digital or otherwise) not doing the work it's supposed to, but that "constraints may be deliberately overlooked or strategically downplayed" whenever we try to go back to, or devise, a system that actually works (48).

In short, things never work out the way they're supposed to. In acknowledging that "We live in an environment where subcultural differences - differences of identity and affiliation - are becoming more and more significant...Indeed, in one sense it is just this historical shift in which singular national cultures have less hold than they once did. For example, one of the paradoxes of less regulated, multi-channel media systems is that they undermine the concept of collective audience and common culture, instead promoting the opposite: an increasing range of accessible subcultural options and the growing divergence of specialist and subcultural discourses" (9), The New London Group demonstrated how changes in media have unexpected consequences for cultural and sub-cultural groups. In calling for a pedagogy that takes this growing plurality of "life groups" into account, the group opened the door for both "A Composition Made Whole" where different modalities are allowed into the classroom ("Muffie's" use of dance in a writing assignment, for instance) and an environment where some programs adopt multimodality for multimodality's sake in an effort to respond to market driven discourses. If digital multimodality is encouraged in our official pedagogies, then it may sometimes be shoehorned in even where it doesn't benefit anybody; here I'm thinking back to Cooper and Selfe's warnings about classes that use mutlimodal (digital) technologies without considering how the modality changes what an author can or cannot do.

To me, the solution is to follow Shipka's strategy of examining how "an action is simultaneously enabled and constrained by the mediational means or cultural tools employed" both in the classroom, and with regards to technology (digital and social) in general. Technology, whether digital, analogue, or cultural, only works when it becomes invisible. Think about the first time you rode a bike or used a computer: if every subsequent use demanded that much cognitive effort, you would never touch those things again. If we forced our students to examine every technology they use in the composition process, we would never get anything done. On the other hand, the only way to devise new uses for a technology is to (at least temporarily) render its inner workings visible and tinker with its guts, a method which is certainly necessary in composition. This space between visible and invisible is most apparent when systems break down (or are broken down). Shipka states that "We count on things working in the specific ways we have become accustomed to" and that when technologies break down we notice things that may have escaped our attention before (55). Though she is talking here about methods of writing, this also applies to technology. As technology becomes integrated into every social (or physical) practice in our lives, we should periodically stop and examine this symbiosis so that, if the system breaks down or changes, we can adapt constructively. The panic that sets in when the internet goes out - almost like losing a limb - is just one example of how using a tool eventually changes the way we work with other modalities. If your internet breaks down, how many times will you try to check your daily news websites before you get back in the habit of going out to buy a newspaper? The disappearance effect isn't the problem; the complacency that it creates is.

In the classroom, we can take advantage of this by encouraging students to pay attention to the systems they use, and how it both makes their lives easier and more difficult, regardless of which modality we're most comfortable with. In a larger context both of these readings show that new mediational means transform mediated actions (Shipka, 49). Just as Twitter was used both to organize Occupy Wallstreet and to spy on those same protesters, and information can be used for either liberation or surveillance, technologies in the classroom can either empower or frustrate students and teachers in ways that no pedagogical system can anticipate. The trick isn't to eliminate those breakdowns, but to examine and to learn from them. 

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