A Journey Through Computers and Writing
From the Inside Out and Back Again
Kairos Talks with Paul LeBlanc
Tue Feb 18 08:30:13 1997 PST
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Claudine says, " Good morning, Paul. I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk with Kairos about Computers and Writing this morning. While Mick works on his connection, let's begin and he'll jump right in with us in a few minutes."Paul says, "Working in the C&W community for so long and then interacting with lots of innovative people developing software for tomorrow's classrooms, I was struck by how uneven remains the progress of technology in the classroom. There are many, many institutions getting their first labs up and running, grappling with software purchase questions, working through questions that preoccupied the C&W community some years ago.
"Paul, most of our readers know that you've spent a few years with Sixth Floor Media, the electronic publishing division of Houghton that created CommonSpace software, so we'd like to begin this morning by talking a little bit about that experience before we move on to more recent events in your career, such as returning to the academy as the President of Marlboro College."
Claudine asks, "You've had the unique opportunity to travel extensively and visit with Composition teachers from all over the nation. What were some of the most surprising discoveries you made about classroom teachers during these visits?"
I was also struck by the inability to generalize about where innovation is taking place. Money doesn't always drive innovation (though it helps a whole heck of a lot). Indeed, I visited schools that were doing very impressive things as a response to tight budgets and difficult challenges.
Claudine says, " When you say "uneven" are you referring to hardware or training?"Paul says, "Both really, as well as broader pedagogical and theoretical thinking regarding technology. "
However, in almost every case, support for teacher training is lacking. It seems the first thing cut from the budget and it often makes the integration of new technology a burden for many faculty, not the exciting adventure we would like it to be. That really isn't a surprise, but it's an important point.
Claudine says, " So you saw many institutions that need to implement broader thinking. "Paul says, "That's not a criticism. They are where they are for lots of reasons: budgets, resistant administrators, what they have been doing works really well for them,... "
Claudine asks, " Was that primarily from the administrative or from the instructional end? "Paul says, "From both, though I think administrators are generally on board (No, I haven't gone native.) Administrators have lots of incentives to support technology, it's just that they hear the demand from so many within the institution. "
Claudine grins at the non-nativePaul says, "No administrator can ignore technology today, but that begs the question of the incredible expense that technology adds and until technology saves costs in other ways, it simply adds to overhead. "
Claudine says, "So meeting vying demands becomes a reason to place writing instruction low on the as-needed scale? "Paul says, "Here's the dirty little secret of new technologies and the economics of education: the single biggest expense in the budget is staff and faculty. Given the economic pressures now exerted upon colleges and universities, there is a great deal of interest in ways to use technology to lower cost. Put two and two together."
Claudine says, "that's chilling."Paul says, "I don't want to overstate the case. There are not a lot malevolent administrators out there, rubbing their hands and thinking about how to do faculty in."
Claudine says, "If we're asking for more financial assistance to buy hardware and software, we have to show that eventually this will save money, when in reality, we may not?"
Claudine nods, understanding that it's always the bottom-line dollars, not the people who administer them.Paul says, "Look, if the expensive thing to do is to put a teacher in a room with 20 or so students, how does putting a teacher on-line with the same number of students only means adding the expense of the technology. "
Claudine nodsPaul says, "You have a lot of interest in open entry/open exit systems for basic or remedial education (a huge burden on instructional budgets that many schools resent). Writing is better insulated from this dynamic; it still requires a teacher/coach/respondent."
Mick has arrived
Claudine waves to Mick as she moves on to a question about other educational models.
Claudine says, "Let's leave the academy for a few minutes and move to some alternative environments that you've seen..."
Claudine asks, "You've noted that you've seen some "pretty awful" models of technology in education across corporate and private institutions where there is very little evidence of theory or research, yet it seems as though these institutions are not only thriving, but multiplying. To what might we attribute this growth?"
Mick says, "Paul, I want to jump right in with a
question that's been
percolating on ACW-L
this week (I'm not sure if you're subscribed) ..."
Paul says, "I am not on ACW-L. fill me in."
Mick says, "Eric Crump has been talking about
"secession" (his term) from the academy in terms of finding a new place for instituting
technology in education. And he's been citing your presentation to C+W last year as a place
where he started thinking about these things."
Paul says, "Oh, oh."
Mick asks, "Is "secession" -- moving on to some third place that is neither academia nor business a good idea? An inevitable one? In other words, whattup with that?"Paul says, "I'm not sure what Eric has in mind. What I said is that technology is actually integrating at a very fast rate. As a result, the notion of C&W's separateness may not make very much sense to the field at large. As a result, there may be an erosion of support for the more cutting edge work of the field."
Mick says to Claudine, "you see that I like to ask very formal questions."
Mick says, "but does that erosion of support in the
elsewhere? In business, in society, in the popular press? "
Paul says, "There are other places -- technology businesses are one area -- where there is more support for the kinds of work people like Eric are doing. This is not to say that he and others can't stay within composition, but they will have to grapple with the rules of the game as the academic field of composition defines them."
Mick says, "Integrating technology into tenure decisions in the
humanities has, according to
those in the process, been damnably hard."
Mick says, "So let's think a bit about those rules of the
Mick says, "Integrating technology into tenure decisions in the humanities has, according to those in the process, been damnably hard."
Paul says, "I think C&W folks have the same basic choice they have always had: make a choice about what kind of institution and what kinds of work they want to do and understand the rules that will govern their work. Less traditional venues for that work will allow more license. Bottom line: innovation takes place more easily away from the mainline culture."
Mick asks, "What kind of responsibility (-ies) does the
faculty have in working with technology and "translating" it for more traditional
Paul says, "They of course have to translate that work in a way that makes it available to the field at large -- or else, why should the parent field hire them, support their work, and reward their efforts? There's a kind of arrogance that says we want to push the limits and WE'LL decide if this is sound or not. And, oh yes, support us while we do so."
Claudine eyes Paul warily.Paul says, "I'm not suggesting you guys are of such arrogance, of course. It's a theme I observe in the debate."
Mick asks, "Hmmm, recently Marcy
Bauman -- also on
ACW-L -- suggested that the question we're begging is "how are we showing that online
scholarship, be it teaching or publication or anything, is valuable in terms of what we've
traditionally valued? Or is that the wrong question?"
Paul says, "It's exactly the right question."
Mick asks, "But it's a question we've only answered
anecdotally so far. Is
Paul says, "I disagree. The C&W field has a
history of answering
that question in the venues that make most sense to academic culture: books, articles, chapters,
panel presentations, and so on. These mechanisms for validity need to be part of every C&W
person's work if they want to continue in traditional academic culture. If they feel that those
efforts get in the way or they aren't as exciting, there are other places to work with technology
won't demand that of them."
Paul says, "some of those places, by the way, are
still attached to the
institution, but not traditional departments."
Paul says, "some of those places, by the way, are still attached to the academic institution, but not traditional departments."
Claudine says, "OK, speaking of jobs outside the academy, let's hook back to your time at Sixth Floor, then . . . "Paul says, "Okay."
Claudine asks, "during which you probably spoke to more teachers than you had when you were teaching yourself, huh?"Paul says, "Zillions, it seemed. Think about what three days at a booth at 4-Cs looks like."
Claudine grinsPaul sighs, happy to be in his little school in rural Vermont.
Claudine says, "While you were there, what was your vision for the CommonSpace software? "
Claudine asks, "Did you have difficulty fulfilling the vision you'd established?"Paul says, "In my view, CommonSpace was intended to provide a better take on functionality I liked in existing products. I also thought the design better fit the ways teachers and students interact over writing. For example, every writing teacher has commented in the margins of student writing. No other product allowed that basic function to be replicated in an electronic environment. Using the original PrepEditor design, we allowed that. No other program allowed internal histories of drafts, with easy moving from one to the next. We built that in. Another example of responding to how people really work is the comparison function. I think that one function can cut deeply the amount of time it takes to review a new draft. I could go on; the basic point is that we tried to create a product that supports the ways teachers work and that asked for minimal change in their practice. "
Claudine waits as Paul types...
Claudine . o O ( this is gonna be BIG)
Claudine asks, "And do you feel that you've achieved that goal?"Paul says, "I think we came pretty close. There comes a time with every new software product where you bite the bullet and say, "there's more we'd like to do, but this needs to get out the door.""
Paul says, "I know the new version makes important improvements in speed and stability."
Claudine says, "That's great--and I hear there are plans to make internet more integral to the package?"Paul says, "I also strongly feel that CS should be deeply integrated with the Web, whatever that means. That's SFM's call now."
Claudine asks, "So how about you, then, Paul? You've described your time at Sixth Floor as a journey, one during which you had a chance to see the academy from 30,000 feet in the air, so to speak. Now that you've "landed" again, how do you see yourself in terms of your time in the academy and at Sixth Floor?"Paul says, "I loved my almost three years at SFM. It was a tremendous learning opportunity, it allowed me to get outside the boundaries of my field for a while, and it enabled me to compete for the position I currently have. "
Paul says, "That said, it's great to be back on a single campus and investing myself in our students and working closely with faculty."
Mick asks, "Why make the move back to the academy? What is it that either drew you back to academia or pushed you away from business and publishing?"Paul asks, "Nothing pushed me back -- I can honestly say that my time at SFM was great, start to finish. It's a question of what drew me back. I never questioned for a moment that I would return to academia. There's no better place to be: smart colleagues, the excitement of learning, a sense of purpose, the pace of academic life (though sometimes frustrating, I'll admit). Where else would one want to be?"
Claudine asks, "So then, as President of Marlboro College, what vision for technology have you initiated at your institution? How have you promulgated that vision so far?"Paul says, "I also think we are in a cataclysmic period in higher ed, so it's an interesting time full of change, problems, and opportunities."
Claudine nods emphatically to thatPaul says, "Marlboro College has a wonderful liberal arts program. In our recent accreditation, the visiting team wrote that MC represents the soul of liberal arts learning. I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to offer a liberal arts education in a time when knowledge making, knowledge storing, knowledge sharing, and meaning making or changing so profoundly. I think the challenge will be to make this wonderful program responsive to those changes in the noetic economy of our culture, to borrow Walter Ong's term."
Claudine nods, wondering how you plan to meet that challenge, then?Paul says, "I've started to ask those questions. The curriculum is properly the territory of the faculty; I think a president can ask provocative questions, issue challenges, and find resources to support the faculty's efforts."
Claudine says, "particularly in a smaller institution, and in light of our earlier conversation about high costs and integrity."
Paul says, "We are doing it by creating new satellite programs that can function as R&D sites for the traditional undergraduate program."
Claudine asks, "Well then can you draw any parallels between your vision for Sixth Floor and for academic leadership roles, such as the role of a college president in innovation?"Paul says, "I believe change it occurs more effectively at the periphery of organizations and filters back in. The C&W community knows firsthand the difficulty of changing organizational culture from the center out."
Claudine says, "Oh, as in your address to the C&W community?"Paul says, "My thinking on this is greatly influenced by Clayton Christensen at the Harvard Business School, a brilliant guy and old friend who helped us on SFM's strategy."
Mick asks, "Hmmm. Can this change occur within the
you mention? Or maybe, do they *have* to occur there?"
Paul says, "C&W has benefited from being on the edge, not at the center. I argue that change occurs more effectively when innovation takes place at arm's length. But, what happens when the center does finally catch up. you need to move the boundaries again."
Claudine says, "Moving boundaries. . ."Paul says, "Using the Christensen model, I would argue that the new generation of C&Wers are like the young engineers at a company that has innovated well , but settled into their new way of doing things. They then resist innovation and the new generation has to remake the field, but it often means leaving the core organization and setting out again. "
Claudine asks, "don't the people involved in doing that often get hurt?"
Claudine says, "the risk-takers, the boundary-movers--if they don't already have tenure--what happens to them?"
Mick says to Claudine, "as in, shunted into non-tenured, less-powerful positions? ;-)"
Claudine grins at Mick
Mick notes that Paul has suggested we are in a
for higher ed; maybe within that metaphor, the *most* stable people are the ones likely to get
hurt. If you can't move in a cataclysm ...
Paul says, "Well, they are getting hurt. We are seeing dramatic changes within the field. Tenure track positions are disappearing, grad schools are cutting back on openings, ..."
Mick says, "So does the field have to maintain a
constant state of flux?
Maybe due to the
inherent fluidity of the technology? It sounds like you're saying as soon as one group gets settled,
the next has to, well, forcibly marginalize itself."
Paul says, "Technology, by the way, is helping institutions make some of these changes."
Claudine asks, "but those changes were happening *before* C&W got started--and for very different reasons, right?"Paul says, "Yes, many of those changes were underway, but technology is seen as a way to continue quality without the same expense and the most expensive line in the budget is the faculty salary line. No, technology hasn't forced any real change. The economics of higher ed, erosion of public support, and changing national demographics have had infinitely more impact."
Mick . o O ( "helping"? or "forcing"? )
Claudine says to Mick, "I'm thinking they were happening anyway. Downsizing was already the mantra before the 'net ever got a GUI."
Mick hears Paul-the-Administrator in that response
Mick asks, "Do you think technology does "continue quality without the same expense" ...?"
Claudine grins at Mick-the-Tenure-Tracker-To-Be
Mick says to Claudine, "not necessarily! "
Paul says, "Yup. Students and their families have borrowed more in the nineties than they did in the 60s, 70s, and 80s combined. The administrators deals with very painful financial aid decisions almost every day."
Paul says, "No. I think it CAN improve quality and it adds considerable expense."
Paul says, "I've seen as many poor uses of technology as positive, frankly."
Mick points out that this kind of question might inform a teacher who has to
sell the point to an
administrator, as well ...
Mick thinks that's a key point. Can you elaborate, Paul? If
there is an
assumption that it can save
expense and maintain/improve quality -- and you don't necessarily agree, apparently -- then what's
being done well? Badly? How should an administrator approach the issue?
Mick points out that this kind of question might inform a teacher who has to sell the point to an administrator, as well ...
Paul says, "Look, if I have a writing class with a teacher, 20 students, and a classroom, it costs X dollars. If I add computers, it is now X plus Y dollars. Does quality go up. Yes, when people are thoughtful and work at it, as does the C&W community. Does expense go up? Yup. Is the quality that much better? Interesting question for what the answer suggests about all those colleagues and all those years of hard work so far."
Mick says, "so the answer is "it depends on the
... which takes us
right back to the fact that faculty lines are the highest expense a department faces
Claudine asks, "but what about after we overcome the "r&d" break-even point? After you've re-couped Y through student use fees, through fundraising"
Claudine says, "won't the results be all benefits *for those who use the technology well* anyway"
Paul says, "Wait a second, Claudine. User fees merely cover consumables. If it adds to already substantial fund raising demands, it is not so good either."
Claudine nods to Paul--the fundraising is clearly a NEW campaign objective, one that alumni buy into based on IDEAS, right?Paul says, "Now we're on to something. Technology efforts have to be sold on the promise of the future: that we are preparing students for tomorrow's workplace, for a new literacy, ... We need to argue that knowledge making is changing in fundamental ways and that we are not merely taking about quality, we are taking about the relevancy of our institution's degree and education in the next century. No one likes to give to need; they give to promise."
Mick hmmms. Sounds more and more like a political
ComputerGate. Or, heh,
depending on your platform, Computer"Gates" ...
Paul says, "This goes back to my point about saying we need something. Get in line. We have to build something. Give your administrator something he or she can sell. "
Paul says, "It's absolutely political - and marketing."
Mick asks, "so to bring this back to "showing
valuable," we can bottomline it -- the demands of the student to survive in the webbed
community forefronts our efforts to bring the writing classroom upweb?"
Paul says, "Yes, Mick. And the language of faculty culture and scholarship is different from the discourse of administrators, budgets, and fund raising. So, you have to validate to both cohorts and you have to do it in language they understand. "
Mick asks, "Paul, it strikes me that what you're talking
about leads back to
your other comment about Ong's conception of "noetic economy" in our culture.
That changes, and the academy must change with it. Can you explain what you mean by bringing
this idea to the conversation? Am I misinterpreting?"
Paul says, "It's the point I made a moment ago: the nature of knowledge-making, knowledge sharing, knowledge storage, and knowledge consumption is changing rapidly. Liberal arts education is based on a model of that noetic economy that is being changed, thus the educational model must change."
Claudine asks, "Change. Change from *outside* the walls...Paul, you've suggested that the C&W community graduates should broaden our impact across disciplines, that we "can play an extremely important role in the models of education emerging today." And that you "would love to see a future C&W conference that explored these possibilities." As we all prepare for the upcoming C&W in June, can you elaborate on this exploration further for us? What important markets do you see us beginning to tap as C&W scholars?"Paul says, "Education is being rethought on a number of fronts. For example, I am serving on an accreditation Task Force for the New England Association Schools and Colleges and we're looking at distance learning guidelines. My C&W background serves me well. New institutions are springing up, virtual universities. There are a number of places outside the traditional field where we can play a part and those places may be more supportive of what we do."
Mick whistles at Claud's "question."
Mick thinks it reminds him of the recent prelim exam question which essentially said "define everything you know.
Paul says, "But I am only suggesting that for those who are tired of meeting the rules of traditional academia and struggling with the lack of support they find there."
Claudine says, "Outside the traditional field in places, like, say, an academic publishing house? Or a software division of such a business?Paul says, "I suspect you are focusing on product creation in your question."
Claudine asks, "What you were able to do after your travels in developing CommonSpace suggests that you are uniquely qualified to answer this next question, then: You're starting a higher education publishing house from scratch. What does the electronic arm of that business look like?"
Claudine says, "yes"Paul says, " I would want the following areas covered: deep thinking about Web-based technologies and on-line teaching tools. I would want people thoroughly trained in pedagogy and how teachers think and work. This last one is critical, because educational markets still require a tremendous amount of hand holding."
Claudine asks, "do you see those "hand-holders" as sales reps? support staff? or teachers who also work in the publishing?"Paul says, "I think the best people at it are those who lived it; so teachers, I guess."
Claudine asks, "What *kinds* of people do you want to see involved?"Paul says, "The best creative people and developers are those that push us to the edge and then know how to pull back to make a product viable for the market. We can get easily excited about new technology ideas, but if I the guy putting up the dollars, how will I see a return on that investment? The bleeding edge is fun, it rarely pays outside of an R&D function."
Paul says, "There's a great deal of discussion about on-line publishing, making content universally available, and so on. No one has worked out a viable economic model and with out that content creation -- a very expensive activity -- won't be supported."
Claudine asks, "do you see those "hand-holders" as sales reps? support staff? or teachers who also work in the publishing?"Paul says, "I think the best people at it are those who lived it; so teachers, I guess."
Mick smiles and says, " OK, can we go back to those
teachers who're developing right now, though? The graduate students? What more do you want
to say about our development to *become* those teachers?
Paul says, "Well, I think it's important for me to say that I really am raising the question of fairness. Are we as a field being fair to graduate students who push the envelope for those of us who are established? Who's pushing the edges? Almost all graduate students. "
Mick says, "By fairness, do you mean, how are they
(we) being rewarded
Paul says, "When they seek admittance to the "club," they will have to change their priorities."
Mick asks, "change them? or just
"translate" them, like we
talked about earlier?"
Paul says, "Not really. I think they mostly won't be
pushing unless they translate that work into more traditionally rewarded forms. There's only so
much time in the day, so the field relies on grad students to do the pushing, and those who are
more established write about those efforts, but don't usually do the actual pushing."
Paul says, "When you go from grad student to
faculty member, you will
your work priorities to survive -- OR, you fail to do so and it catches up with you at tenure and
Paul says, "When you go from grad student to faculty member, you will shift your work priorities to survive -- OR, you fail to do so and it catches up with you at tenure and promotion time."
Mick whistles. Interesting. This is sort of like the
traditional scientific model of
having his graduate assistants do an experiment, then writing about it for a journal where his name
is the only byline, huh?
Mick comes from a family of social scientists. They know this model and because it's accepted traditionally, they aren't bothered by it (so far as I can tell) ... it amazes me.
Paul says, "Somewhat, though this is a field that has been particularly great in its acceptance of graduate students. Charlie Moran was my mentor and he was wonderful. Cindy's students feel that way towards her, as do Gail's, and so on. "
Mick nods. David Porush, same with me. But effective
mentoring does not
translate into accreditation ... necessarily.
Paul says, "Yet, Charlie, Gail, and Cindy (and me, Fred, and others) know that we are rewarded for traditional academic work. So we stay in the heart of the dialogue, but we don't push the envelope."
Mick says, "So the mentors act as the translators for
envelope-pushers? (Try decoding
that cryptic statement out of context!)"
Paul says, "Nope, effective mentoring means pushing you to publish and present and to help you to understand the behaviors that will get you the job you want and to keep it."
Mick says, "Nonetheless, the fact that Andrea
Lunsford, Fred Kemp, you,
and others like
you have both contributed to _Kairos_ and have treated it as a legitimate academic outlet is part
of what makes it so. You're the established scholars."
Paul says, "No, I do not think there has been the exploitation you alluded to earlier. Mentors in this field have pushed grad students to do their work and to get credit for it. I mean that we should look at where people put their efforts. I hear members of this community railing against the expectations imposed upon them when they go from grad student to faculty member and I'm not very sympathetic; you want to play the game, you buy the rules. That's why so much of the innovative working in this field is accomplished by graduate students; they still have freedom from the rules: they can play with MOOS and write software because they are yet being asked to write chapters and books. They should be writing dissertations and some number of C&Wers forget that or defer it and they suffer for it."
Mick thinks that (above) is a marvelous point. Playing the
game means buying
the rules, or at
least understanding them well enough to break them! ;-)
Claudine smiles and thinks this is a perfect note for our wrap-up.
Mick says, "Thanks very much!"
Paul says, "Thanks guys, this was fun!"
Logging is turned off by Claudine.