Saturday, October 07, 2006

Moonlighting as a Techie

I am back from the one-day conference on Wednesday, which took so much out of me that I turned into the human vegetable on Thursday (didn't get out of pajamas all day, watched Judging Amy, What Not to Wear, and a good portion of Walk the Line--yes, again, so just shut up.) I talked on the phone to FrenchieF and my mother, ordered dinner in, and then watched both Gray's Anatomy and the Project Runway Reunion special. Now that, my friends, is the way to recover from a conference. I've now burned my retinas right out of my head, but barring that, feel very relaxed (did I mention that I also ordered this from Bluefly? Good times.)

All of this to say that I have cleared a bit of mental space to process what exactly went on at this conference. I think I mentioned that it was not exactly the kind of conference that we academic types usually attend. Due to a bunch of crap that I've been doing on campus, the head of IT here hooked me up with a link to this group. The panels sounded a bit less theory-loaded than they would have if it had been SCMS, PCA, etc. (Here in the English lit. world, we have our own version of Roosevelt's alphabet administration). So, I took a chance, for sure, and it wasn't exactly a home run (here in the English lit. world, we mix metaphors with abandon). The panels devoted to "media literacy" were primarily grounded in "workshops" that asked participants to analyze the images in tobacco ads and then, in a stunning development, draw their very own SUBVERSIONS of said ads! How outre! [And why can't these people refer to Kalle Lasn, I ask you? Name-drop, dammit!] So, this was a bit of a bust (particularly since I got up at 5:30 to get there in time to hear this guy...).

Since I wasn't exactly bowled over by the talk, I entertained myself by observing the participants. Again, this is not the slick, geeked-out, punk rock group I'd see at an academic conference. Lots of jeans and bad shoes (e.g., leopard printed clogs), 80's hair, only one faux-hawk. A quick skim of the list of participants cleared this all up for me; the dominant populations at this conference were IT people--the folks who support faculty requests, who manage servers, and most interestingly, the peeps who actually work in libraries--areas which are, in some schools, getting included under the IT banner. In short, I was one of 5 faculty members there--and one of 3 who was not giving a presentation.

So, in my new role as spy, I had a chance to eavesdrop on some rather interesting conversations about the problems that IT people perceive in how media, technology, and literacy get disseminated to the students. First, a few people noted their frustration in being asked by faculty to help them work with a technology that is already outdated. Here, the techies noted the ways that faculty members "don't keep up." Second, many were truly surprised (and some were dismayed) at the ways that the conference continued to return to talk about media literacy; they were far more concerned with technological literacies/information literacy--ie., how do we get students to understand how to locate and evaluate information they find on the internet? The way in which that information comes to them (what I'd call the media "package") was an issue that, to them, came later. First locate, then analyze--this is their preferred ordering. Finally, a good number of them were worried about the various resources at their institutions; sure, they said, people at MIT could do all sorts of cool stuff because they had the equipment and a place for students to play with it. What do colleges without the $$ do?

All of this was a revelation for me. Obviously, one of the infrastructral problems for faculty that want to work with media/technology is their understanding of and communication with the IT people. There seems to be a fundamental distrust on both parts, which, I think, stems from the question of who knows what. Who's the expert in this situation? Is it the IT person who has worked with the program/equipment/platform endless times, or is it the faculty member who's reading/writing/teaching it? Add to this the (perhaps) discipline-specific problem of how we hierarchize learning priorities; when I ask students to assess various web sites, I emphasize the way in which the advertising target them, speaks to specific markets/subcultures, etc. One of the IT people in my group, however, insisted that students have to understand information architecture first--that the media analysis could come "in the next semester." Whoa. Massive paradigm difference.

Finally, and perhaps most relevant: all of these groups (IT, librarians, faculty) had some implicit assumptions about who would actually teach the students various skills--and sometimes there was no overlap. Do faculty teach web design, or does IT? Do librarians teach research skills or do faculty?

All of this leads me to think that the more we emphasize learning in media/technological environments, the more strain we place on the fragile seams holding faculty and staff departments together. Schools that can develop ways of asking each faction to articulate its expectations, and institutions that will focus on making teaching responsibilities clear, are going to be the ones to succeed as technoculture marches on.

Off to grade papers--and slobber over laptops. And Blackberries. And all the other cool toys I saw at the conference.

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