“Slow down, you’re moving too fast.”

9 04 2012

At the recommendation of Shane Hamilton, I got Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together with part of my Barnes and Noble birthday gift card. All of it’s interesting, including the long section about robotic companions toward the beginning, but it’s the later part of the book about people’s attitudes towards technology in general that really is a must-read. I’m going to try to write two posts inspired by the book: the first one about us adults, the second (coming tomorrow) about those crazy kids.

Turkle’s narrative is full of quotes from people that she’s interviewed about technology and the net. While some of these folks make me wince because I don’t understand them at all (like people who are addicted to playing Second Life), others make me wince because their stories really hit home (p. 203):

Dan, a law professor in his mid-fifties, explains that he never “interrupts” his colleagues at work. He does not call; he does not ask to see them. He says, “They might be working, doing something. It might be a bad time.” I ask him if this behavior is new. He says, “Oh, yes, we used to hang out. It was nice.” He reconciles his view that once collegial behavior now constitutes interruption by saying, “People are busier now.” But then he pauses and corrects himself. “I’m not being completely honest here: It’s also that I don’t want to be interrupted. I think I should want to, it would be nice, but it is easier to deal with people on my BlackBerry.

I’m not copping to all of that. I actually keep my office door open far more often than I should because I like being interrupted. However, I really do think that people are busier now. On most work days, inside my open door, I am usually typing away on something: blog post, book, e-mail, etc. I do this as part of a Herculean effort to take as little work home with me as possible. Usually, I can succeed with everything but reading (which can usually pass for fun with me anyways) and grading (which at least only comes when a paper has been turned in).

I’ll do what I have to do in order to be the best professor I can be, but there are limits to this. As I’ve explained before, I think keeping up with a class blog has proved difficult for my students because it requires them to engage in class-like activities outside of class. In a very real sense I’ve realized that it’s difficult for me for the same reason. Does this make me lazy? I prefer to call it setting boundaries.

I think many of the problems that we tenure track folks have with their working conditions can be traced directly to technology. Administrations invent new forms for you to fill out because they can automatically process the results. You, however, can’t fill it out on autopilot. Blackboard may help you do some things more efficiently, but when it breaks down on the first day of class it’s just one more problem that you have to fix.

When Turkle discusses robot companions for the elderly, she mentions that the response of elementary school students was, “Don’t they have people for those jobs?” I might say the same thing about staff whose job it is to assist faculty. My number one rule of surviving academia is never be mean to your administrative assistant. Last week I complained about the lack of tenure-track colleagues to help us deal with paperwork, that goes triple for academic (as opposed to administrative) staff.

How many college staffers have lost their jobs to the newest administrative doo-dad that’s come down the pike in the last ten years? The answer to that question is virtually unknowable, but I’m sure it would boggle the mind. Some of those doo-dads have undoubtedly saved labor. However, some of those doo-dads have made it possible to move work from staff to professors of all kinds, who all have more than enough to do already.

The caption on the above video of “The 59th Street Bridge Song” calls it, “The happiest song on earth.” I agree, but in the context of today’s academia it can also be subversive. So be subversive. You’ll feel better if you do.



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