The Great Beyond: Teaching Technologies from an Inexpert Perspective

Hermes typewriter


Jeremy Smyczek

As a teacher a generation older than most of my students, I begin to increasingly find myself in the role of “digital immigrant” to their “digital native” status. Most of us tend to be more familiar with technologies of our youths, inevitably falling behind the curve a bit as new media resemble the ones of our earlier days less and less. Part of this is social: beyond the convenience of the integration of social media and portable communications, there’s peer pressure towards having what the cool kids have, a pressure that recedes as high school social cliques dissipate and one’s friends in the professional world are more diverse in their purchasing tastes. Lacking a smart phone means I miss a lot of cool apps, sure, but that still doesn’t make me need a smart phone.

This isn’t a defense of technological disengagement (a poor idea, probably, in a digital humanities classroom), but rather accepting that there will over time be more technologies with classroom use potential—particularly forms of social media—that are more familiar to students than to me. Navigating this can be tricky in a class such as mine, a rhetoric course in which a digital advocacy project in response to the course’s theme (rhetoric and animal rights) accounts for the students’ final grade. It’s problematic on two distinct fronts: teaching unfamiliar technologies and evaluating materials made from them.

The first problem seems the easier one: between ubiquitous YouTube tutorials and the instructions imbedded within most new online media, it’s generally not too hard to learn new tools quickly. Most of them are designed to do just that, typically aimed at young users lacking the ability to write code. What has to underlie all this is the willingness of the instructor to learn enough of a given technology on the fly to walk with students through challenges arising during a project. Can’t ask them to do what we won’t, after all.

But online media tools are also designed to prepackage a good deal of imbedded labor, with the effect that hastily created projects can nevertheless be shiny and professional, at least in the production if not the quality of the advocacy. Hence, deciding how much comparative effort has gone into an InDesign poster campaign (an older technology with which I am familiar) or page (a newer one with which I am not) can be difficult.

That last qualifier should indicate, though, that I’m not entirely sold on Marshall McLuhan’s claim that “the media is the message.” It’s true that media often entails audience. (Long-duration megaliths like Facebook, aside, how many people over 40 would follow a Tumblr or Pinterest account?) But rhetorical canons have constancies that make carefully or haphazardly thought arguments transparent enough in virtually any medium. Although iMovie can make anyone a director in a hurry, we need only look to Hollywood to know that slickly packaged films can still be blissfully devoid of much intelligent content.


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