Tangled Up in Blue: The Web of Resistance to Technology and Theory

Dona J. Hickey
University of Richmond
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In computer-mediated composition, we have used the word "resistance" to describe faculty and students who resist the infusion of technology. The Alliance for Computers and Writing, The Epiphany Project (Strategies and Structures for Pedagogical Change in the Age of Electronic Text), and "Computers in the Writing-Intensive Classroom," the summer institute at Michigan Tech, have provided faculty with invaluable support, yet studies have shown that mainstream resistance is hard to break. In his 1996 survey, Dickie Selfe identified access, support issues, and technical service as causes. Yet one unanticipated response is not to technology but to pedagogy. In other words, it's not just a "software problem;" it's also a theory problem.

But it doesn't look like a theory problem. For example, here's a multiple-choice quiz:

I would describe my presence in the classroom as  a) sage on the stage, b)goose in a noose, c) guide at their side, d) guard along the watchtower, e) other

If you answered "c," you're in the majority. Most writing teachers, especially those working in the networked classroom, claim that description of themselves. "Guide at their side" implies belief in "the student-centered classroom," "collaborative learning," "community-building" and thus a "social constructivist view of knowledge." Computer technology, especially the

networked classroom, supports the creation of such a learning environment and has made it increasingly difficult for teachers to maintain a relationship to students as "sage on the stage." But not too difficult.

Interestingly, many teachers have embraced technology quickly and happily, in much the same way that my great-grandfather, when he heard about electricity, said, "Hey, that's for me!" These teachers, the early adopters, not the mainstream that we worry so much about, made a remarkable transformation. They re-invigorated their teaching and research, created webs that rivaled any on the Discovery Channel, developed sensational multi-media presentations, and collaborated with programmers to create new applications. Then, as Peter Havholm and Larry Stewart have described, "They put the sage into a machine and wheeled the machine onto the stage. And they've had a wonderful time doing it."

Unfortunately for students in some literature courses, Havolm and Stewart say,

Technology in the classroom often results more nearly in the passivity associated with watching television than with the active scholarly and critical thought that invigorates us. Multi-media presentations that demand creative reflection from their makers, are, after all, still lectures to be witnessed by students. Literary webs, calling on deep knowledge from their faculty and graduate student creators, are clicked through by students much as they channel surf their cable televisions. ("Giving Technology's Power to Students")

Technology's power in such classes, then, is the teacher's. It is not the students'. Is it different in the writing classroom where teachers favor interactive applications like asynchronous and synchronous conferencing and webfolios? Currently, there's the assumption that those who are using computers "deeply" (beyond e-mail or research on the web) are creating the more de-centered classroom. That is, a de-centered classroom happens when the locus of interaction and work shifts to the virtual. But in the writing class, as in the literature class, that is not necessarily the case.

There are teachers who are not using computers at all, much less "deeply," but who have created de-centered classrooms. With little or no technology assistance, they've moved to a new learning environment. It is also true, however, that with the help of technology, some teachers who are already committed to community-building and collaboration find it easier to move in the direction of de-centered classrooms. The error of assumption is that sophisticated use of technology transforms the sage on the stage to guide at their side. "Deeper use" doesn't necessarily lead to a deeper awareness of one's presence in the classroom. In other words, "deeper use" doesn't necessarily lead to deconstruction of the sage figure.

Sometimes, even for teachers who attempt to foster a collaborative learning environment, the intricacies of the technologized classroom can interfere, sometimes so that the teacher may not even be aware of it. One teacher who's relatively new to the classroom, but quite experienced with computers, helped his students create webfolios (portfolios on-line). Previously, in this networked classroom, the same students learned to use CommonSpace, e-mail, and listservs; they also navigated the Web, doing research and evaluating sources. Yet the classroom seemed "virtually" to fall apart with the introduction of webfolios.

Too much technology too fast overwhelmed novices, and the teacher spent too much classroom time (usually spent on preparing the writing for portfolios) commanding, "Do This, Then Do That." Here was not the submersion of a sage into the machine, but the emersion of a techno-allknowabot. In this scenario, the teacher had all but stood on top of the machine, "pointing and clicking" his heels. Uncomfortable and unsure of himself as teacher-guide, he reinscribed the worst aspects of teacher-authority and unwittingly forfeited it.

Students not only resisted, but rebelled. In the classroom evaluations, they complained that they did not learn enough about writing and that this was not supposed to be a technology class. Despite his painstaking directions in the use of technology, they nevertheless identified him as a novice teacher who didn't have "control" or "presence." The hostility against him was more personally directed than in any evaluations I've read. And the few students who were sympathetic were condescending. Let me say right here that, with the permission of the chair, I tore up two evaluations that were crushing ad hominem attacks because, frankly, no teacher would benefit from the remarks. And secondly, I recommended that we rehire him. Despite the subversion in the classroom by teacher and by students, harmony could be won.

The next semester, no webfolios. (These could come later, after the teacher gained some experience in pacing, in conducting face-to-face discussion, and in integrating technology and pedagogy.) The locus of interaction needed to shift—not away from the virtual, but back and forth and more slowly so that both teacher and students could learn from each other. The novice teacher, no matter how expert in the use of technology, cannot plunge deeply into virtual spaces until he or she has learned to navigate the spaces in the physical classroom—the spaces occupied by individual students, the spaces filled with voices or silence, and the space that the teacher occupies among those voices and in those silences. For the teacher I've described, leading and interacting in real classroom discussion felt like drowning. He needed some lessons in the water, and these were lessons that teacher and students could learn from each other, before and after they sailed into the deep blue.

In the following scenario, another kind of subversion takes place. An experienced teacher has spent several semesters gradually incorporating technology into her pedagogical aims. She uses it deeply–in the sense that the two are fully integrated. She creates assignments and facilitates on-line and face-to-face discussions that involve students actively in their learning process. They are aware of her, certainly, but she's more off-stage than on. At the end of the semester, a student writes in response to "How well did the teacher present the material?" that "she didn't teach us, really. I learned more from the readings and the activities than from her." Another writes in response to: "How well did the teacher lead discussion?" that "she didn't really lead discussion. We learned more from each other."

The standard evaluation forms encourage positive comments in a formal lecture-discussion classroom, but negative comments in a collaborative learning environment. The students don't recognize the bias in the questions nor do they recognize the degree to which they define "teaching" and "learning" according to that bias. By the time they arrive at the final question: "How would you rate the overall effectiveness of this teacher?" they conclude, "Well, not all that highly, now that I think about it." And this scenario worsens when students are less self-revealing in their responses. At least in this teacher's case, any good WPA, chair, or dean, can interpret the evaluations positively, given the classroom pedagogy. If anything critical can be said, it is that the teacher might make students more consciously aware of how they are learning, instead of like the Wizard of Oz, saying by her silence, "Pay no attention to that woman behind the curtain."

In a worse-case scenario, however, the students are unfamiliar with the pedagogy and the technology. They resist taking fuller responsibility for their own learning and they subvert the process, but not alone. Teachers and students subvert it together. In British Cultural Studies, Graeme Turner argues, "Cultural domination is the product of complex negotiations and alignments of interests; it is never simply imposed from above, not is it inevitably produced through language or through ideological apparatuses such as the education system. The achievement of hegemony is sustained only through continual winning of consent" (67).

Students subvert the pedagogy by complaining not about it, which they can not see or define, but about the technology, which they can see, and about which there is no stigma in disliking and no shame in failing. The discomfort they feel, therefore, must be with the machine. It's getting in the way of learning from the teacher. The teacher, reading the classroom evaluations, begins to think, especially if she too is struggling with integrating technology, that they might be right. Or if she's not doubtful about her efforts, she fears a negative evaluation of her teaching. And to the degree that risk-taking is not supported in the classroom, administrators become complicit in the resistance. By consent, the dominant pedagogy does not change.

In the worst case scenario, the failure of administrators to support risk-taking and the resistance of students can make it exceedingly difficult for teachers to move further in the direction of learning communities, if they are inclined to do so. Even the most experienced teachers need time to integrate technology and pedagogy. According to Trent Batson and Judy Williamson, co-directors of the Epiphany Associates, a group within Teaching, Learning, and Technology, affiliated with AAHE, it takes approximately five semesters for motivated teachers to accomplish that aim.

One of the immediate effects of engaging the process, however, is the awareness that our classrooms may not be as transformed as we had previously believed. Computer technology, especially within the networked classroom, fronts the complex, dynamic, and nonlinear processes and negotiations in which students engage as they create written texts as well as dialogues. These texts can often be archived and chronicled in ways that allow teachers to look back and see more clearly the dynamics of knowledge-making, the extent to which students have invested primarily in individual projects, or have collaborated and arrived at consensus. In other words, the process of learning can become more visible in the networked classroom than in a traditional classroom. That visibility can help teachers assess their own positions as well as their students' positions within that process: To what extent did the learning environment both urge negotiation and promote individual agency, two dynamics integral to community-building and knowledge-making in social epistemology?

Although it may well be the case that many faculty resist the infusion of technology for reasons that include lack of access, support, and technical service, they also resist, but less noticeably, the pedagogy—the process and assessment of learning that computer technology assists. The reasons are similar: Many faculty lack support from each other, from chairs, and from administrators. They lack access to better instruments for assessing the dynamics of teaching and learning in a collaborative environment. And finally, they lack not only technical service, but techno-pedagogical service—how to integrate the technology and pedagogy and how better to help students see knowledge as more than a single linear process for one individual.

As Cindy Selfe argued in her 1998 keynote address at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, "We have to pay attention." Before the counter-hegemony chorus can sing, we must become more deeply aware of how our students and ourselves as teachers consent to the dominant culture of teaching and learning. If we don't, we'll be "tangled up in blue" instead of "knockin' on heaven's door."

Works Cited

Havolm, Peter and Larry Stewart. "Linear Modeling, Giving Technology's Power to Students," in Learning Literature in an Era of Change. eds. Dona J. Hickey and Donna Reiss, Sterling: Stylus Publishing, 2000.

Selfe, Cynthia. "Technology and Literacy: A Story about the Perils of Not Paying Attention," keynote address at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Chicago, 1998.

Turner, Graeme. British Cultural Studies: An Introduction, 2nd ed. NY: Routledge 1996.

Publication Information: Hickey, Dona J. (2000). Tangled Up in Blue: The Web of Resistance to Technology and Theory. Academic.Writing. https://wac.colostate.edu/aw/papers/hickey/ (Conference paper originally presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, March, 1998, Chicago.)
Publication Date: March 26, 2000

Contact Information:
Dona Hickey's Home Page: http://www.richmond.edu/~dhickey/
Dona Hickey's Email: dhickey@richmond.edu

Copyright © 2000 Dona J. Hickey. Used with Permission.