The medium or the message?
Some 20 years ago, Duke University opened, with some fanfare, the Center for Teaching and Learning.
As the name implied, the purpose of the Center was to support teaching excellence. It had a small staff and an annual budget of $200,000, which funded various programs, including lunches for faculty and graduate students to exchange insights and battle stories. Some of these sessions had a significant impact on my teaching philosophy and on the way I structure my classes. The Center was one of very few places on campus where people from very different departments could come together to share experiences about their time in the trenches. It was thrilling to realize that a course in Russian literature can take advantage of techniques developed for teaching, say, biology or math.
Several generations in student-years, a lifetime in dog-years and countless eons in tech-years have passed since then. My frisky 90’s Duke graduates are now posting photos of themselves on Facebook in elastic-waisted jeans, standing proudly with 10-year-olds in sports uniforms next to battered minivans. Their former ball-chasing puppies are now gray-muzzled, sedentary and incontinent.
In 1993, the initiators of the Center for Teaching and Learning could boast, quaintly, that they were using cutting-edge technology to “network all TAs by electronic mail.” Now email is sitting in a wheelchair, shriveled, drooling and slurring its consonants, and we communicate mostly entirely nonverbally, shooting images and video clips to one another through tiny electronic devices.
And I have no idea what happened to the Center for Teaching and Learning. It just disappeared quietly, like last week’s “snow,” along with its measly, laughable little budget. If you Google “Duke Center for Teaching Excellence,” what will pop up is the “Center for Instructional Technology.” As the name implies, the mission of the CIT is to help “instructors find innovative ways to use technology to achieve their teaching goals.” Click “Teaching at Duke” on their page and a number of links pop up, leading to pages showing how faculty have been putting their courses online.
It seems as though our educational mission has become a technological mission with teaching attached, kind of like the balding tail on that old dog. Before you know it, the devices will do the actual teaching, and the primary mission of faculty—the few who remain—will be to sit in a dark room and push buttons. And the students can soak everything up from a little screen like those cute, helpless planet-people scooting around in “Wall-E.”
Is it just Duke? Well, actually, it just might be. Click around a little more. You may end up on a site that lists teaching centers associated with numerous American educational institutions. Of 30 major universities listed on this site, only at Duke is a center for teaching subsumed under the rubric of “technology.” The others, including the University of Michigan, UNC, the University of Virginia and George Washington University, feature centers foregrounding the teaching mission, with technology, if mentioned, an afterthought. Does this mean that Duke is ahead of the curve, a cutting-edge institution, or are all these other schools onto something important?
Mention teaching at Duke, and the conversation will be about technology, about shiny new things, about the medium. This has certainly been the case in the Arts and Sciences Council, where the subject of online teaching has dominated the agenda to the exclusion of just about any other topic for a whole year now. What has happened to the conversation about teaching? Did it melt away, along with the Center for Teaching and Learning?
Judging by the onslaught of communications from the administration urging faculty to engage in online teaching (not to mention the millions of dollars that have gone into these efforts), one might assume that the means has replaced the ends in the conversation, and that the existence of instructional technology has rendered a discussion of teaching philosophy irrelevant.
Exactly 60 years ago, back when people used to write letters to their loved ones and drop them into physical mailboxes, when a monthly telephone call home was a big deal, when people used to listen to music on the radio and when color TV was something new and special, Marshall McLuhan, using the phrase “the medium is the message,” suggested that our forms of communication had come to dominate the content of our conversation. In our humanities classrooms, it wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of us are indeed addressing this problem of how a focus on the medium (the “how” of our teaching) might be distracting us from deeper issues, such as what we are teaching and why. It would be downright exciting if the administration would join in the conversation.
Carol Apollonio is a professor of the practice in Slavic and Eurasian studies. Her column is the third installment in a semester-long series of biweekly columns written by members of the humanities faculty at Duke.