Unshackling The Liberal Arts

John L Murphy is concerned at the direction in which the Liberal Arts are heading. 
Professor John L Murphy blogs @ Blogtrotter.

Chelsea Manning urges:

Read everything. Absorb everything that is out there and act as your own filter. Hunt down your own answers to questions. This is the only advice that is actually worth anything. If you don't read these things yourself, then you can't say that you truly understand what humanity has done, and where we are going. We can't spend our lives getting spoon-fed all of our information every day and then expect to understand our world. Only then will you understand that people are still hurting and dying in the world around us.

In this Paper interview, I suspect his fervent embrace of transhuman cyber-utopia, urged on by "Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst; design duo Metahaven, aka Daniel van der Velden and Vinca Kruk; and Web-activist Jacob Appelbaum." As the introduction explains: "Together, they weigh the strictures and possibilities not just of government, but of technology, culture and gender." No surprise, given Manning's transition from Bradley. I am not as confident as these enthusiasts that more tech equals more following one's bliss. Manning and confreres eagerly anticipate that tech will unshackle us all. Like her, I've seen a lot.

When I started teaching "Technology, Culture, and Society" to my students, all tech and business majors, in 1997, we used a textbook. Microsoft had barely moved from 3.1 to Windows 97, long since a relic. I relied on written notes, an overhead after I typed them, a whiteboard to highlight them, and my own exams to test my students' comprehension. We chose, locally, our text. Later, as colleagues joined me to teach this course, I lobbied successfully for an option for each of us to use our own current events materials and historical documents, to keep ever-changing content relevant.

Those teaching this course thrived. My colleagues enjoyed tailoring materials to their own expertise and the interests of their students. As tech changed and events flowed, so the curriculum for this course changed. Each term, I'd revise my readings into a packet, and tinkering with syllabi was a joy.

As with Manning, I resist being spoon-fed.. Like processed food, some packaged contents seem appealing, but repeated reliance on lesson plans weakens the recipient and infantilizes the dispenser. I relished, when I chose to teach college and so to earn my Ph.D. first, a career that rewarded liberty.

About a decade ago, that freedom ended. A top-down administration took over. Our campus lost any autonomy. We were told all campuses had to use the same books, follow the same lectures, and conduct the same exams. That way, somehow it was reasoned, students could move between campuses, and then the emerging online mode, seamlessly. Also, we were all monitored as in turn we monitored our students, via a proprietary course platform. Designed by a major academic publisher, it guaranteed we selected its titles first, and those we liked more, even if we could not choose them anymore, were abandoned. Faculty had little input; we were told if we wanted to have a say, we ourselves should design the courses. But what worked for me onsite, a term now that along with landline entered the language to differentiate old from new "modalities" of communication and data transfer, did not work even for my colleague teaching the same course. I valued most our autonomy.

A year ago, we hosted a Career Day for students. I attended and took the same quiz as they did. After narrowing down the options from dozens I found the one that matched me best as #1: autonomy. As the outlier at an institution where everyone teaches and majors in fields not liberal arts, I may have self-selected myself out of the herd. Apparently, engineers, accountants, and managers follow orders.

I now try to adjust to the new system. Systems are in place that track all of us, when and where we log in and out. A Panopticon. Still, I alternate my own materials, showing videos and generating discussion in-class that then follows through to that mandated online. This is a "capstone" course building on past humanities and social science courses, but these dwindle. "My" literature course, the only one left after the film and science fiction electives were oddly cut--given what I have found the natural interests of visual learners and techies--keeps getting cancelled for lack of interest, tellingly.

The technology text may enchant some, but I generate lessons out of venerable vignettes or late-breaking news. I share them and I elicit them. Gradually, some try to speak up for themselves. Students start to learn from each other, rather than only my lectures. I teach fewer hours in front of a class but many more online. I divide my time between two sites now, and also I must teach online. Those courses enroll double or triple my onsite ones, and the workload is exponentially far higher. I lack the limited modification permitted me onsite, and the syllabi and rapid online pace are daunting.

I reflect on this as again I prepare to teach, the most taught of all my courses, once again. I estimate thousands by now perhaps went through it, and after nearly twenty years surely as many students have taken this than even my composition courses? I used to teach it every session, and sometimes twice. Schedules enabling online enrollment decrease its frequency, but I do like hunting for new videos and I often glean from Facebook and the L.A. and N.Y. Times tech articles and lively links.

One of the supervisors from the top visited us recently. I told her of my experiences after a decade of imposed standardization. I concluded by urging that she and her cohort "trust us enough to teach."

How my plea was received I am unsure. I used to hear from my directors that "they would keep such-and-such in mind" before getting back to me. When they rarely did, I wondered how they forgot. Now into my third decade of college teaching, I come to understand what has been left unsaid.

It can be a grind teaching the same courses over and over, now in only eight weeks, sometimes with no pause between terms. My estimation of self-motivated and grassroots design become all the more embedded as I age, and as I keep at it. In every creative way I can, I long to make my courses personal, and designed not to trap students or myself in a mold, but to liberate us for the humanities.

(Photo credit: search for "autonomy" found this ironic image and slogan c/o HP's latest acquisition.)

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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