What’s with the old dogs…

At the risk of sounding ageist, what’s with the old dogs in the academy? Ha, you’re thinking, the age old question!

Indeed. In their recent journal article No Time to Think, Heather Menzies and Janice Newson contend that “technology, far from freeing up academics’ time, has compressed it to stressful levels” endangering the university as a “site of critical and creative reflection.” Their findings? 58% of respondents find it harder to focus; 51% don’t have enough “time to think” and 42% said they are more susceptible to being distracted by the information and communication coming at them.

No shit. These findings reinforce what I have gathered, learned anecdotally, and have begun to experience in my training for the venerable position of professor. The authors attribute this state to the shift to the “new, technologically enhanced work environment”, wherein academics are regularly online with colleagues, students, and research subjects and partners.

The problem with this article, as I see it, is the conflation of technology with the corporatization of the academy, and the blaming of the former for the deterioration of post-secondary education. To their credit, the authors acknowledge the commercialization of the academy, which began with severe funding cutbacks in the 1970s, and the ensuing repositioning of universities as more business-friendly. One result of this has been the “wired campus”. But in addition to reporting the (seemingly natural) outcome of higher stress due to fewer faculty members and increased work loads, as well as instant access via the internet, this study appears to be blaming ICTs for academics “not reading as deeply and reflectively as they use to, or as they’d like to.”

Hello! That’s a bit of a stretch. I have the internet, so I can’t concentrate, can’t think deeply? My students can access me 24/7 (though I’m under no obligation to respond in kind, and can, in fact, set strict parameters around this), and that’s why I do shitty research. Sorry, I don’t buy it. I don’t dispute the findings; I do take issue with where the authors lay the blame: technology. It’s too simple and too easy to blame this new technological dystopia that campus life and work has become.

Despite this fairly uncritical, determinst approach (technology ruined my life, waaahhh…), the study also only surveys 80 faculty members from across the country. While I think this is a fairly small sample, and hardly representative for all the fuss it’s causing, what I’d really like to know is their age. And does this technological anomie correspond to where these academics came in on the IT learning curve? For those of us who don’t know any different, I wonder if this encroachment of communication technology is so devastating. I don’t think that technology and critical pedagogy are mutually exclusive. Why on earth would Menzies and Newson assume this; it’s a flawed premise, and it has skewed their conclusions. Why would my use of technology as a professor mean that I “fail to challenge and provide an altenrative to students’ self-reported ‘consumerist’ approach to education…” Why would it preclude or threaten necessarily “sustained dialogue in leanring communities and asking questions about the long-term public good.”

There is definitely a problem in post-secondary education. But it’s not technology. Try looking at the people behind it, beginning with those who talk about university degrees as commodities, and students as consumers. Just for starters.

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