Friday, February 24, 2006

Iron Cage of Technology

Evidence presented to pre-empt cries of "Luddite!" in response to the following post:
1) I'm a blogger.
2) I benefit personally and academically from many uses of technology. Including, but not limited to: Academic Listservs, The Dictionary of Old English, other searchable databases, other bloggers, recipe lists, online shoe-shopping, and the cut and paste function.

Evidence presented to pre-empt cries of "Lazy Student!" in response to the following post:
1) I spend approximately 6-8 hours per weekday reading primary source materials, both assigned by professors and self-assigned.
2) I spend another 6 hours per weekday (averaged, including weekend marathons) finding, reading, and processing the scholarship of others.
3) I can't tell you how any hours per day I spend on writing my own scholarship, I just keep going until it's done. Then I read it, rearrange everything, and go again until it's done better.

The Post:

In an effort to create a community of active scholars, one of my professors has created an online discussion group which we, as his students, are required to post to at least every three days. If a few of us meet up (by design or on line at the coffee kiosk) and discuss the literature, the class, our ideas about anything having to do with medieval and renaissance culture, we are supposed to log on to the community site and report the findings of our conversation. Although there is a (pretty big) part of me that resents professorial oversight of all intellectual activity in said professor's field, I sort of see where he's going with this scheme. While I refuse to report in, Stasi-like, on outside conversations, there's a good chance my interlocutor will do it and we both are "credited" for our community time.

However, an ugly side of this system has shown through. You see, all discussion group communications are time-stamped. For reasons beyond my comprehension, we live in a world where time of day has morality attached to it. Activities that occur between the hours of 7 am and 10 pm are probably OK. Yet all things happening between 10 pm and 7 am are tainted, somehow. That time/morality bias has crept into the professor's assessment of discussion board posts.

For personal reasons I will not disclose, I do my reading during regular work-day hours, research before dinner, and much of my quiet contemplation after 10 pm. Ergo, I do much of my posting after 10 pm. For clarity, I do not wait until an hour before the class meeting in which we will discuss a work and hurriedly throw up any old comment to satisfy the requirements. Some of my colleagues do just that, and I don't blame them for it. They're busy people, and this community board can feel like the very last thing to which one should attend. Sometimes one doesn't feel comfortable sharing the half-formed opinion, riddled with questions, that one has. Sometimes the demands on you as a grad student get overwhelming, and you really are reading all night in order to be prepared for class. The professor, to his credit, recognizes these issues.

Yet, because my comments are time-stamped at hours later/earlier than most, I seem to have fallen into the category of "unserious scholar" in this professor's eyes. He has told me that he has no compunction about giving poor grades to people who stay up the night before a paper is due to do their writing. ( I don't do that.) He has asked my teammates in a presentation if I have been failing to give input. (I was the first to have read the damned book. I located the secondary scholarship that we are using. I am the editor for written materials created by the group.) Lastly, he has indicated to me that he doesn't "like" people who do their scholarship in a haphazard, rushed fashion.* And this is the part where the skills learned as a 16 year-old sales assistant come into good use. I am able to smile, and smile, and hide my villainy. I refrain from saying "fuck you," and say instead, "Since thinking-style is highly individual, and difficult to document, I assume you're talking about finished product." To which he responds, "I believe that I've made it possible for people to make their process visible to me." As long as one's process doesn't occur after the local evening news it's good enough, I guess.

Again, I like technology. I think really great teaching can occur when aided by technological tools. I even see the uses of the time-stamp function with turn-in deadlines and such. However, using the time-stamp function to assess the seriousness of a student's work, quite apart from the actual content of the work, is asinine. Taking it to the point where you are assessing the student as a good/bad person based on her waking hours is crossing the line. It is, in my opinion, an abuse of the technology.

In an effort to conform to this professor's ideas of when real scholarship can occur, I've started creating my community board posts in a word-processing document at my usual time then posting them the next morning after I check my Email. OK, I'm not really conforming. But I am continuing my work in a way that doesn't activate his bias. No doubt he'll believe he's finally succeeded in frightening me into 'taking my work seriously.' That's fine. What he has really done is successfully threatened me into pretending that I'm safely tucked in by 10pm, like a good girl.

This is now something I have added to my "never allow yourself to be like these people" list of
professional goals.

*I have a visceral reaction to people predicating their assessment of my work on "liking me," or even suggesting that their affection is something I should seek. I have already experienced running around like a headless chicken attempting to earn the affection of a professor who was not inclined to like me. A professor who frequently shifted the marks I had to meet in order to be likeable. In the process, I developed the attitudes and behaviors common to battered children. The experience almost destroyed me, personally and academically. So, stating "I don't like people who do this thing I erroneously think you also do" is not an effective way to inspire me.


Bardiac said...

Wow, I can't imagine having the energy to be that obsessed about WHEN my students are doing anything, anything at all. And if I were that obsessed, I'd probably be danged impressed at the student who's working late into the night. And then, of course, I'd wonder why I'm so tired by 8pm that I can't keep my eyes open. :(

Martin said...

Maybe I'm not used to the Stasi-like culture at your Uni, but this seems, from beginning to end, an invasion of your privacy.

It's fair enough to require participation in on-line discussion as part of the coursework, no real difference between that and requiring participation in tutorial discussions, but any suggestion of time-stamping let alone the professor's response to those times is well beyond the pale, surely.

He shouldn't have the right to know when you're doing one thing rather than another. He certainly shouldn't have the right to care.

Ancrene Wiseass said...

I absolutely agree with Martin. This behavior is not only a bad use of technology, but reeks of some serious control-freakism which borders on psychosis.

Who the hell does he think he is to tell you when you must do your work? Or to tell you that you have to report on every word you exhange with anybody else on the subject of the class?

Honestly, this is just Orwellian and inappropriate.

Holly said...

I agree with the others--this is outrageous. Have you considered reporting this? Do you plan to make an issue of it in your end-of-semester course evaluation?

I'm indeed outraged--but I'm also kind of mystified. In grad school I had so many colleagues who kept odd hours and did very productive work in the middle of the night. We all agreed that one thing we liked about academia was the flexibility it gave us--we didn't have to be perky and awake at 8 a.m. How has this guy failed to understand that as well?

Inappropriate and odd.

Anonymous said...

*I have a visceral reaction to people predicating their assessment of my work on "liking me," or even suggesting that their affection is something I should seek. I have already experienced running around like a headless chicken attempting to earn the affection of a professor who was not inclined to like me.

Wait until you get a tenure-track job and discover that whether or not you get tenure can hinge on whether or not your students "like" you--not whether or not they find your classes an important part of your education, but whether or not you are "nice." I was told by the administration that I was too "mean" and that if I wanted to get tenure, I would "provide better customer service" to my students.

berenike said...

all my historian friends seemed to go to bed at four a.m. and get up in the afternoon, and get decent degrees from a real university. maybe you should give this man

to read.

HeoCwaeth said...

Thanks for the moral support, folks. I do think this is what happens when a control freak is in denial about being a control freak. (Oh, no, my students run the conversation. I have it all set up for them.) I also have a family that assigns morality to time of day. So, to have it show up in school, where I feel people should *know* how many hours it takes to read and write and think and grade to the extent that grad students are asked to do so made me really mad.

Anonymous- I am no supporter of the "customer service" corporate model of education. Frankly, I get peeved on behalf of the undergrads going through such a system.