Excerpted from “After the Fall: Teaching “English” on the Internet at UCLA”

From “After the Fall: Teaching “English” on the Internet at UCLA.” ADE Bulletin 121 (Winter 1998), pp. 47–5. Accessed on 8/1/2015

The trouble began during the summer of 1997, I suppose, when a picture of me appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education illustrating an article on the directive in the College of Letters and Science at UCLA that every undergraduate course (some three thousand of them) have its own Web page the coming academic year. “Faculty Forced to Use the Internet.” “UCLA Goes Electronic.” “Sink or Swim: Will UCLA Professors Stay Afloat in Cybersea?” So the headlines read. Shortly after my picture appeared, I was interviewed and quoted at some length in an article in the New York Times. A few weeks later came a visit from the BBC. Clearly I had become an expert, an authority on the future.

[. . .]

The recession of the early 1990s behind us, some changes in university budgeting that gave me last year nearly $200,000 in chair’s discretionary funds (mad money that I assure you can buy happiness for many academics), a thriving undergraduate program of some thirteen hundred majors, and a graduate program that becomes better with each new class—it seemed paradise on earth. Then, into this Eden came Satan with his apple (or his PC). We called it the Instructional Enhancement Initiative. And on a dark September day in 1997 we were forever banished from paradise and driven to E-Campus east of Eden.

Like most of our falls from grace, it was not altogether intentional; or rather it was the result of good intentions, coupled with miscalculations and the lack of necessary resources. Even though the Internet is said to have been invented on the UCLA campus in 1969, UCLA lagged far behind in general computer resources for faculty members and students well into the 1990s. We are a big,decentralized place of free spirits (both UCLA and LA),and entering the electronic age so late in the revolution posed serious problems, the chief one of which was money. To make a long story short, representatives of the administration and faculty (the illusion of shared governance is something we take very seriously in the University of California system) believed they had reached an agreement with student leaders for a new fee to be implemented, a technology fee. (Remember we still cannot use the t-word — “tuition”—in the California system.) In return for their agreeing to this fee, the students were assured that all their classes would benefit, that is, all their individual classes would have Web sites — regardless of the course’s content, style of presentation, or ability of the instructor to negotiate the new technology. The fee was fairly modest — ten dollars per four-unit course in the humanities and social sciences, fourteen dollars per four-unit course in the physical and life sciences. But the legacy of tax revolt is strong in California, and a student group that advises the chancellor in such matters recommended against the fee. In the end, however, this did not prevent the outgoing chancellor from signing the Instructional Enhancement Initiative on his last day in office in June 1997, angering those vocal few who had opposed the proposal.

Then came the fall. Students were furious, faculty members bewildered; adequate technical resources seemed initially to be lacking — such as the necessary hardware, software programs,and, most important, technicians and programmers who would help us survive and flourish in this brave new world. Tensions mounted. In my own department, we had survived the culture wars fairly well intact; theorists and literary historians talked cordially to one another, even — in some instances — slept together. But now one heard whispered in doorways words like “Luddite,” “techno-phobe,” “geek,” and, worst of all, “distance learning.”

But nothing is taken seriously for very long in California, and now that we have completed the first academic year following the Instructional Enhancement Initiative, perhaps it is a good time to take stock, to consider what we have achieved by this attempt at total immersion into the holy waters of electronic technology (not the way we baptize, by the way, in the Anglican church). It was for those reasons — assessment and review — that I accepted the kind invitation to write this paper. But instead of giving my thoughts or impressions, I decided to let my colleagues — the ladder faculty, lecturers, and graduate teaching associates — speak for themselves. Therefore I sent the following e-mail message out on the departmental Listserv toward the end of spring semester:

I’m scheduled to speak next month at the ADE conference in Jackson Hole, WY, on the use of electronic technology in the teaching of English. I suppose being quoted in the New York Times automatically made me an expert! Actually my contribution in this discussion with other chairs of departments of English is to address the successes, failures, misgivings, hopes,expectations, etc., etc. of the UCLA attempt to put every course online all at once. Therefore it’s not my expertise these folks will be interested in, but your views and responses, frustrations and victories. This is a low-priority request, but if you are inclined and have the time, drop me a few lines and I’ll relate them to others who may be interested. Since it is Jackson Hole (the Wild West), four-letter words are allowed.

[. . .]

Certainly one of the most sophisticated responses came from a graduate student of ours, now completing her dissertation and specializing in medieval and Celtic literature. She writes:

Dear Professor Wortham:

Although I am serious about scholarship and my field, my business card says “Digital Medievalist.” I’ve been working in digital technology since 1989, and it’s the fault of the English department. Richard Lanham hired me to convert his Handlist of Rhetorical Terms to a digital book, and I became fascinated by digital technology. I have since worked on CD-ROMs and digital books for Voyager and Calliope, edited computer how-to books, and assisted Fortune 100 companies with technology policy, pedagogical software, and Web sites. The problem with the way digital technology is being implemented is that the University has put the cart before the course. In the “real world” of commercial software and technology implementation, you start with the data, the “content,” and then you look for the most suitable technology to use with it. You do not start with the technology and then tell the content expert (jargon for scholars and teachers) to find some use for it. That strategy is completely ineffective and any commercial enterprise that proceeded in that fashion would quickly be in Chapter 11.

Let me give you an example of an effective way to implement technology. Bob Stein, the founder of the Voyager Company, happened to visit David Rodes’s Shakespeare class. Although he had never met Dr. Rodes, Bob knew he was a fantastic teacher and was excited enough by the lecture (on Macbeth) that he afterwards rented the Polanski video. He then approached Dr. Rodes about a CD-ROM. Dr. Rodes reluctantly agreed, with some misgivings, on condition that Professor Braunmuller be part of the project. [. . .] If you have seen the CD-ROM you know that it adds features to Macbeth that a conventional book lacks. An audio performance is linked to the text; click on a line, and the play begins at that point. The pages even turn automatically in synchronization with the performance. There are extensive glosses, provided by Professor Braunmuller, video clips of the same scene from different productions, a concordance, images, maps, stills, vehement discussions about the play from Rodes and Braunmuller, and a karaoke, so students can attempt to play a part. My point is that technology in an educational setting, as in all others, starts with the content, then requires an author, and then, and only then, is the technology considered. The technology is really only a container, a delivery method; it is not the purpose of the exercise.

Someone needs to evangelize, so that the concerns and needs of faculty and students are met. The content must be emphasized, and there need to be reasons for using digital technology. It isn’t enough to put something on the Web or on a CD-ROM just because you can. The point is to enhance scholarship and pedagogy, not to take scholars and teachers away from what they do best so that they can learn to use constantly changing technology.

[Excerpt used with permission from the MLA]


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