Headshot of Joseph Unger

Another Perspective

Kairos  Talks with Technology Support Specialist

Joseph Unger

InterMOO conducted by Corey Wick and Doug Eyman

Joseph's Fish Bowl, MediaMOO

You bob about in an aquarium of fresh water. Across your path, a school of brilliant Cardinal Tetras darts, chased lazily by two enormous Turquoise Discus
Douglas Eyman, Joseph Unger, and Corey Wick are standing here.

Douglas [to Joseph]: perhaps we can start with an overview of what exactly it is you do -- your title is "Instructional/Information Technology Specialist" which sounds pretty much like "the guy who does everything no one else knows how to do. Can you define your role for us -- i.e. what exactly do you do?

Joseph says, "That's actually not my *real* title; it's something Fred Kemp made up because my original one--Technician IV--was not descriptive enough of what I do. Now Texas Tech calls me a "System Programmer I," which also does not describe what I do since I do no programming whatever (at least in the traditional sense). My job is so unusual that the University hasn't fully defined it yet."

Douglas [to Joseph]: How would *you* define it?

Joseph says, "As 'the guy who does everything no one else knows how to do,' that's true in a sense."

Corey chuckles

Joseph says, "I would define my job starting with Fred's title for me--"Instructional/Information Technology Specialist." I'm chiefly responsible for supporting instructional and information technology in any way that it needs support, be that technical (fixing computers, adding hard drives) to advice on how to use them in the classroom."

Corey says, "What problems does your lack of an accurate title and job description lead to?"

Joseph says, "The lack of an accurate title and job description is actually somewhat liberating. Nobody can tell me "Stop that; that's not your job."

Corey nods

Joseph says, "However, I frequently end up doing more work than a properly-defined staff member would have to."

Douglas [to Joseph]: Your position as instructional technology and computer specialist had been unique in the academic world, but recently your name has been used as a generic position name -- 'does your program have a Joseph?' Can you talk both about the pressures and problems of being one of a kind?

Corey does the macarena while waiting for Joseph to type up his answer

Joseph says, "The pressures come from being so vaguely defined. As I said, I frequently end up doing more work than perhaps I have time to."

Douglas [to Joseph]: feel free to be a bit more specific ;)

Joseph says, "For example, I often have faculty members and Graduate students bring in their home computers for configuration or even repair. That would clearly be out bounds in a traditional university-defined staff role. Yet, I know that by helping them with their home computers, I help out the overall missions of the English Department at Texas Tech."

Joseph says, "As for national pressures of being one of a kind, there aren't any, really. I get emailed questions from folks who'd like to set up similar positions in their departments, but those don't take too long to respond to."

Corey says, "it seems to me, then, that as the support person *you* might not receive much support; is your position an island, so to speak?"

Joseph says, "Quite true, Corey. A big down side of my job is that the central academic computing department can write off the English department, because they know that I'm here to take care of things. This is a real problem. I think as my position becomes more common, however, we in-house computer support folks will have to band together and establish a relationship with the central computing folks."

Douglas agrees with Joseph.

Joseph says, "Many places, such as Brigham Young University are creating such a relationship between central and departmental computing folks."

Corey thinks that's a very good, but perhaps uncommon, idea

Douglas [to Joseph]: but that leads to another kind of dilemma for you: Do you encounter the "you're just a technologist" attitude from humanities people? Or the "why are you in the humanities?" attitude from other techies?

Douglas knows from experience that bridging the gap between teacher/researcher and technology specialist can have the effect of alienating one from both the department and central computing support.

Joseph says, "I haven't really seen the "you're just a technologist" problem. Perhaps it's 'cause I have a Master's in Literature, and have therefore been "sanctified" in the eyes of folks in the humanities. People around here are too much in need of help to act snobbish."

"People around here are too much in need of help to act snobbish."

Douglas [to Joseph]: Texas Tech seems like the ideal institution for your position to be valued; it doesn't seem to work out quite so well in other places...

Joseph says, "Techie folks, particularly those in Academic Computing Services, do not at all understand what we're doing over here in the English Department. They've even said that email and MOOs are "trivial" uses of technology."

Corey agrees. MOOS especially receive a lot of criticism for being merely for play, games, etc.

Douglas [to Joseph]: Do you think that's because they see computing as computation rather than communication?

Corey ooohs. Good question!

Corey says,"how about the flipside? Do any "techies" question your choice of academe? Surely you must have lucrative offers from business and industry."

Joseph says, "I went to lunch with a fellow making $70,000 a year doing what I'm doing. *I* "question my choice of academe after such encounters."

Douglas wants that guy's address so he can ask him how to get that kind of job!

Joseph points South and says, "Go to Plano, Texas, young man.

Corey wants to shield Joseph from those types of people so he doesn't up and leave TTU :-)

Joseph says, "I do think, though, that what's happening here is a revolution that can't occur in business."

Corey says, "How's that?"

Douglas [to Joseph]: do you think the undervaluing or perceived undervaluing of your position will ultimately hurt the progress of cmc (as tech specialists leave for more lucrative and/or valued positions?)

Douglas defers to Corey' question.

Corey thanks Doug for politely deferring

Joseph says, "I stay in academe doing what I'm doing, because there's such fertile ground here for the exploration and cultivation of the Third Wave."

Corey says, "Third wave meaning . . . ?"

Joseph says, "I don't think my position is undervalued. They value it here. It's just the same problem our professors face: lack of money to compensate them adequately."

Joseph says, "Third Wave as in Toffler's Third Wave. I think we're on the crest of a tidal wave that will revolutionize knowledge production and dispersal."

Joseph says, "I want to be part of cultivating that and I don't think I'd have the freedom to do that in business."

Douglas [to Joseph]: what about in businesses like Daedalus or Sixth Floor Media -- the businesses that want to revolutionize knowledge production and dispersal?

Joseph says, "Well, now that's different. Businesses like Daedalus or Sixth Floor are indeed a part of this revolution, but they don't pay $70,000 a year."

Corey says, "Perhaps this type of freedom could be part of a restructured compensation for people in your position. What other changes might you suggest? Do you want tenure? Do you consider yourself an "academic"? How should what you do "count" in a promotion process, considering the long-standing bias in the humanities against technologists?"

Joseph says, "I'm not in this for personal gain (he said modestly and just a touch dishonestly); I think my career later on in life will benefit from what I'm doing now."

Joseph says, "I think it's very clear from my point of view that the Texas Tech does not view me as a academic and there is no possibility for tenure or a course load."

Joseph says, "I'm support staff."

Corey says, "I'm just asking that as part of a larger concern -- that technorhetoricians are freqeuntly expected to take part in online activities, but all too frequently without being given proper credit."

Corey says, "I'd like to shift the discussion to technology and pedagogy if we could. Doug, do you want to take the next question?"

Douglas [to Joseph]: Would you like to be seen as more of an academic and be given the opportunities to test the pedagogy you theorize?

"I believe that technorhetoricians hired into professorships that require them to do what I do is silly."

Joseph says, "I am not an instructor or professor. I believe that technorhetoricians hired into professorships that require them to do what I do is silly. There should be two positions: one such as mine and one such as a professor whose primary responsibility is teaching."

Douglas [to Joseph]: What do you think this position, at its core, needs to accomplish -- what service and support is provided -- that makes the instructional technology and computer specialist necessary for the efficient functioning of a program in computer-mediated writing instruction?

Joseph says, "My position is one of recommending pedagogy or recommending software for professors to use in class."

Douglas [to Joseph]: in other words, could you elaborate on the position you just stated?

Joseph says, "Folks in my position have to keep the computers running, keep the software loaded, show the instructors how to use it, and stay out of the way once class has started."

Douglas [to Joseph]: but at the same time, if you are recommending pedagogies, aren't you placing yourself in the teaching process to a very high degree?

Joseph says, "Sure, I'm in the teaching process, and people around here recognize that. I do not, however, have the power to mandate pedagogies or establish pedagogies in the program."

Corey says, "Here's a related question: even though you "stay out of the way," you still have a very interesting perspective on technological pedagogy. At the Computers and Writing Conference in El Paso, you said "we definitely still need training, because technology by itself is not a ... "

Douglas [to Corey]: I was just going to ask that :}

Joseph says, "I didn't get the rest of the question"

Douglas [to Joseph]: Corey is trying to ask : At the Computers and Writing Conference in El Paso, you said, "we definitely still need training, because technology by itself is not a panacea. Instead, consideration of technology's role in the classroom and its effect on learning must complement considerations of the instructor's role and the student's role" Can you elaborate? What *are* the instructor and student roles in the technologized classroom? Are they, by definition, different than in the brick and mortar classroom?

Corey says " [to Doug] looks like you got to ask it after all :-)

Douglas tunes his guitar and plays a bit of Sor as he waits for Joseph to ponder the question ...

Corey prepares to sing

Douglas [to Corey]: this is a classical piece, but if you can put words to it, more power to you. (How about "HTML"?)

Joseph says, "A lot of people disagree with me on this, but I really think the computer-based classroom, using a LAN or WAN is inherently decentralized. Instructors who come into the computer-based-classroom have to fight the network itself if they want to try to force traditional pedagogies onto the classroom, in a similar way that non-traditional instructors have to fight the shoe-box structure of the traditional classroom. However, no instructor can walk into a computer-based classroom and expect the network to solve all problems, hunkey-dorey. No, training and practice in new pedagogies is absolutely vital. We've found here over nearly a decade of using these classrooms that instructors who go into the computer classroom without any preparation ahead of time and no support during the semester fall flat on their faces. My role is to prep the instructor through workshops prior to the beginning of a semester and through continuous support throughout the semester. more follows"

"No instructor can walk into a computer-based classroom and expect the network to solve all problems, hunkey-dorey."

Joseph says, "The instructor's role is one of constructor of an environment (with a little help from me) and coach rather than lecturing professor. The student, on the other hand, is much more self-guided and must work with other students in collaboration. Elizabeth Pass has talked more extensively about the need to prepare students for this role. The quote you mentioned responds to her and Amy Hanson's talks at the C&W conference in El Paso"

Corey likes the constructor/coach metaphor.

Joseph says, "In my position, I do very little of preparation or training of students. That's for the instructor to do. I prepare the instructors (mostly... I hope at least marginally well)"

Douglas [to Joseph]: Why should a hesitant techno-newbie come to the networked classroom after X years of successful teaching in the face-to-face classroom? What advantages exist for experienced teachers transforming face-to-face pedagogy into computer-mediated pedagogy?

Joseph says, "I think the biggest advantage over the traditional classroom is saturation in text. The computer-based classroom submerges the students in exactly the substance of what they are to learn."

Joseph says, "That quote is from the end of my presentation on the use of Usenet News as an Invention Heuristic available at: http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/1.3/news/UsenetPaper.html

Joseph smiles

Corey looks on as Joseph seizes opportunity :-)

Douglas particularly liked Joseph's reference to the 2nd law of Thermodynamics in that presentation.

Corey says, "huh? (thinking he missed something)"

Douglas [to Corey]: you'll have to re-read the paper (which is an excellent piece of work, I might add).

Corey nods

Joseph blushes like a bride

Joseph says, "Back to the advantages of the computer-based-classroom. I really believe that a writing course in the traditional classroom is in fact a course in speech communications (though there's nothing wrong with that, if that's what you want to teach)."

Douglas [to Joseph]: whereas the cbc is quintessentially text-based, right? (until we begin to communicate solely through digital pictographs, anyway).

Joseph does not look forward to the computer network turning into a CUSee-Me TV/telephone medium.

Joseph says, "Right. I think the computer network provides a new textuality similar but different than the letter-based textuality that existed before the telephone."

Corey says, "in your description of postmodern writing spaces, I have often heard you speak of "hypertexture" -- what is hypertexture in terms of hypertext? in terms of linear text? is it part of the postmodern zeitgeist?"

Douglas respectfully requests that no-one use the term 'postmodern zeitgeist' in his presence again.

Joseph says, "My personal theory of postmodernity is that the postmodern is something which has hypertexture. Go into a mall and bounce around the various selections. Read a novel by Nabokov and bounce around. Watch MTV."

Joseph says, "Hypertexture is multi-linearity, but much more, the FEEL of it."

Corey says, "could you explain the *feel* a bit?"

Joseph says, "I think the computer-based classroom already has a good degree of hypertexture. There is fluidity and multilinearity in an InterChange. There is multilinearity in a Usenet discussion. "HyperTEXT" is by itself the wrong term, 'cause that refers specifically to texts that are able to jump from one to another. You don't necessarily have links to other email messages, do you? You understand the links between messages by subject lines and by references. That's hypertexture. You feel out your own multilinear path."

Corey says, "ahhh."

Joseph says, "Better?"

Corey says, "much"

Douglas [to Joseph]: In your position at Texas tech as the "instructional technology and computer specialist," what do you see as the future of hypertext in the computer classroom? Now that networked pedagogy and hypertext instruction are coming together in the World Wide Web, what do you see as the future of teching with technology?

Douglas says, "er, teaching with technology, although the previous statement might be just as valid."

Joseph says, "In response to Doug's question, I think the future of teaching with technology is in Distance Education. I'm with Fred Kemp on this. Distance Ed over the Internet and particularly the World-Wide Web has the potential to break that "closed system" I talked about in my Usenet paper. "

"I think the future of teaching with technology is in Distance Education ... Why do we have to have walls? To hold in a prof's hot air. Walls are made superfluous by the computer network."

Corey says, "Do you see Texas Tech moving more in this direction in the near future? "

Joseph says, "We'll see on-site Distance Ed at first, followed my more and more fading of the walls of the classroom. Why do we have to have walls? To hold in a prof's hot air. Walls are made superfluous by the computer network."

Douglas [to Joseph]: do you think that using WWW in a physical classroom space might be able to similarly break that closed system, or do you foresee a movement away from physically-based teaching?

Joseph says, "Texas Tech is moving in this direction now, yes. Fred Kemp will start holding "on-site" distance ed courses in the Spring."

Douglas [to Joseph]: since you just answered that, how about a bit more about on-site distance ed -- how is that different from off-site distance ed?

Joseph says, "Sure, Doug, I do see the Web opening up the closed system greatly. But back to the fundamental question: why do we still need walls?"

Douglas [to Joseph]: I'm still inclined to think that there are different ways that physical and 'virtual' communities teach/interact, and that students benefit most from being able to exist in both types of community simultaneously. Hence the need for walls (or at least a comfortable cafe).

Joseph says, "On-site distance ed is where students enroll in a university, live in the same town, use its computer facilities, but don't have to show up for face-to-face class meetings. It's a baby exploratory step towards a future where one instructor in Lubbock, Texas, can provide an on-line learning environment for students in Dallas, Santa Fe, Anchorage, and Moscow. Last week, by the way, I got an email from someone in Maui who wanted to do a distance ed course."

Douglas would like to do all his distance-ed courses from Maui too. ;-)

Joseph says, "Doug, how do students benefit?"

Douglas [to Joseph]: sometimes I seem to have great discussions in f2f classrooms that enhance the cmc elements--and there's always the speed factor. In other words, I guess I see composition classes as actually being more rhetorically oriented -- combining elements of speech and textual communication.

Douglas [to Joseph]: plus it's a lot easier to order a pizza together.

Joseph likes to eat pizza in the computer classroom.

Douglas [to Joseph]: yeah, but then you are all in the same physical space, no? I think students can benefit from the freedom of on-site distance ed combined with some physical sessions more than they can from purely off-site distance ed. I'm still waiting to be convinced otherwise, so I look forward to hearing how it works out.

Corey says, "[to Joseph] I'm sure you'll document the "distance ed onsite" in your "history of C&W at TTU" website. Besides recording the progress of computers and writing at Texas Tech, what other objectives do you have for this project?"

Joseph says, "Corey, our distance ed sites will document themselves. They will be (are) on-line after all."

Joseph wonders what physical presence has to do with learning writing, but understands that lots of folks like it.

Douglas feels that learning writing encompasses a lot more than just learning writing...

Joseph does see the necessity of physical presence in a strictly rhetoric course -- one not solely devoted to writing, but rather one devoted to both speaking and writing.

Douglas [to Joseph]: nods.

Corey says, "I think there is much to be said for student immersion into textual communication, but some folks feel there are many affective reasons that make students more comfortable in an f2f situation."

Joseph says, "Do you think this InterMOO would be better F2F?"

Corey says, "you didn't tell us there was going to be a quiz ;-)"

Douglas [to Joseph]: well...I could scam a beer off you guys.

Joseph laughs and hands Doug an ice-cold beer.

Douglas [to Joseph]: thanks

Joseph would drink one himself, but it is not yet noon here. What the heck, he pops open an MGD.

Corey says, "that's a good question. I really don't know if it would be better. I'm inclined to think it wouldn't work as well"

Douglas says, "I think it is better (as an InterMOO) partly because of convenience, and partly because we think and communicate differently in a purely textual medium. So I'm not arguing against distance-ed; I just think that students could benefit from also having a physical support group present. But this discussion could go on forever ..."

Corey says, "Actually, I'm sure it will continue over email, etc. I'm looking forward to it. But let's conclude with some words about your greatest challenges and rewards in your line of work. What do you find to be the most difficult, or perhaps the most frustrating part of your duties? Conversely, what do you find the most rewarding?"

Joseph says, "Well, the most rewarding part of my job, I think, is seeing this English Department grow out of the computer dark ages to the paperless, on-line future. I enjoy helping to build our academic programs and I enjoy seeing our research in computer-based classrooms grow. When I first arrived, only a handful of professors and graduate teaching assistants had e-mail addresses, despite the fact that the entire building has been ethernetted for nearly a decade. Now, I'm proud of such simple achievements as having all but two of our 77 graduate teaching assistants and all but three of our 35 professors using e-mail regularly. That's just one example of many that build up to make an overall successful effort."

Corey says, "simple maybe, but still an admirable accomplishment"

Joseph says, "The most frustrating part of my job is not being able to do 10 things at once. I'm by no means perfect, and so when people start lining up outside my door, I can be a bit snappish. Not good, not good at all. I haven't found the perfect way of dealing with the workload yet, though I keep trying."

Douglas doesn't expect Joseph's workload to decrease anytime soon -- and wishes him luck dealing with the overload.

Joseph knows Joseph's workload won't decrease anytime soon. Onward Ho!

Corey says, "hi-ho . . . hi-ho . . ."

Joseph now knows why Corey has a beard.

Corey says, "Well, I think that's a wrap, unless you have anything else to add."

Joseph says, "It's been a pleasure!"

Douglas thanks Joseph for his time--it's been good dialoguing with you!

Corey says, "Pleasure's all ours! Thanks Joseph!"

Joseph says, "G'night!"

KAIROS Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments.
Vol. 1 No. 3 Autumn1996