This article is not a Luddite’s rejection of digital technology. Even though I feel some intellectual kinship with Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in regard to how some tools affect people constitutionally, I readily admit that digital technology has made my job as a teacher much easier in a number of ways. Courseware makes it possible for me to share handouts with students without having to make copies. I can post web links for easy in-class access. Using email, I can make important announcements when my students are not in class, and they can contact me with questions about their essays. After my students visit a local science museum, I can have them post their thoughts about the visit to a discussion board, responding both to me and to each other as they ruminate on connections between the museum displays and related content in the course text. In short, for teachers and students—including sometime skeptics like me—digital technology, despite occasional overuse, facilitates interpersonal communication and accessibility to information.
In Discourse on Inequality
, Rousseau notes how easily “conveniences” turn from novelties into necessities (p. 59). In other words, something that strikes us as a nifty innovation quickly becomes something without which (we come to believe) we cannot function. My own digital skepticism notwithstanding, I can see how technology has become an increasingly integral part of how I approach teaching. Easy access to video streaming from my institution’s library, for instance, is something on which I depend as I prepare class sessions that focus on certain texts.
In spring 2016, however, I learned a lesson on taking digital technology for granted. After discussing the translator’s conclusion to Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius
in the first half of a class, I had planned to stream a library video on science and religion in the second half. As always, I double-checked the video access in the days before the class. It streamed without issue on my home computer, and it did the same on my office computer. At the crucial moment in class, however, the video would not play! As it turns out, there was a glitch with the classroom computer, and a technician I summoned through a “Help” button could not correct the problem that day. This was not the first time that a computer glitch had hindered me in class, but it was one of the more noteworthy occurrences. I was really depending on the video!
For a moment, a feeling of anxiety overcame me. What to do now? After a deep breath, however, I recalled my ongoing inner battle to have my classes be more organic, something I have written about in The Teaching Professor
(22.8). I thought about how the conclusion to Sidereus Nuncius
included an abundance of material that I had chosen not to explore with my students because I had intended to show them the video. In lieu of the video, I returned to the text’s conclusion. The class ended up not going badly at all.
The lesson I learned was really more of a reminder that the digital technology widespread in classrooms is a means, not an end. Chalkboards too were a means, not an end. If for some reason I did not have chalk in days past, I could still teach. Would this have been inconvenient? Of course. My ability to teach, however, was not inextricably bound to chalk and slate. The same is true with regard to digital technology. Even if my classroom’s digital technology fails, hampering my lesson plan, I am still a teacher.
Rousseau, J-J. (1994). Discourse on Inequality
. (F. Philip, Trans.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1755.)
John A. Dern, Temple University, firstname.lastname@example.org