Monday, May 6, 2013

Geek Chic in the Classroom

I generally don’t think of myself as a person who is “web-savvy.” While I have dabbled here and there with various programs and I took some programming classes in high school, mostly I stick to the “holy three”: MS Office, Internet browsers, and some very user-friendly photo-editing programs. With the advent of “Digital Humanities,” a movement in the academy that functions mostly, I think, to make us Ivory Tower dwellers seem like credible sources of income to University administrators, I have felt somewhat behind. My web presence is minuscule and cannot, I thought, compare to that of even the most backward of Millennial-gen kids out there.

This meme sums up my usual feelings for the term "digital humanities."
I mean, no one really knows what it means...So stop using it!
I mean, this new generation, the generation I’m currently teaching—you know, the kids who never breathed a minute of the 80s?—never lived during a non-Internet era. They grew up AIM chatting, emailing, and texting. 9/11 is something that happened when they were ten years old—or younger. They probably never used dial-up internet, never used mIRC or ICQ, never had to worry about mom and dad picking up the house phone and disconnecting them from a Very Important chat room discussion.

From what I read about on the web and hear on the radio and TV, this generation is connected: Facebook is the least of it. They Twitter, they Instagram, they blog, they code, they make podcasts and seek fame through YouTube videos. In class, I see them frequently take a photo of what I’ve written on the board instead of writing it down. They use Ipads to take notes on (if they bother to take notes), and nearly all of them have smart phones. They freely admit to being addicted to their phones and most of them walk around campus with an ear bud or two connecting them to their playlists.

So I am consistently flabbergasted when students display a basic lack of computer and Internet know-how. Without fail, they don’t know how to insert page numbers, alter margins, or run spell check (though that last one might be pure laziness). Despite having a powerful resource in their purse or pocket, they regularly forget? refuse? can’t be bothered to? look up a word in an assigned text that they don’t know. Even if the word is in the title of the story we are reading.

Now, you might say, well, these examples merely point to the laziness of the Millennials, their sense of entitlement, or their lack of basic learning skills that resulted from No Child Left Behind and its emphasis on testing over teaching. So I now progress to the more pointed examples. In the last two years, the writing program at my institution has changed over from paper portfolios to ePortfolios through a website called “Digication” (terrible word). This saves pounds and pounds of paper and is much easier to grade as well, as instructors are liberated from having to carry around said portfolios. The portfolios take a little bit of manipulation on the part of the students, as they require one to use Google Drive, to change the privacy settings, and then to link the documents to the appropriate spot in the ePortfolio.

Mind you, Digication is a very intuitive. It’s been years since I built my own website, but the interface on Digication is probably easier than that of MS Frontpage, which I used back in 2003. Pasting in the links consists of highlighting the word you would like to function as the link, pressing the button that says “insert link,” and then pasting in the hyperlink—much like on a blog interface. I was somewhat stunned when students had me running around the classroom today, troubleshooting the most basic of issues. Suddenly I felt like a real web babe, capable of figuring things out on my own in the wacky web world! I felt something I had never felt before: I know web stuff! And more importantly, I’m not scared to learn more if called on to do so. I grew up tinkering with the web and computers: maybe not as much as others who might have what we call a “natural talent” for the thing, but I've had my fair share of tinkering.

My students seem to have no sense of tinkering, of fiddling with something long enough until a solution emerges. They simply raise their hands when they can’t figure it out and ask for the answer. In the case of the ePortfolios, the answers were so simple, I wondered that my students weren't somewhat embarrassed to have asked. One student even asked how to insert page numbers into a Google Doc, to which I replied, “Hit the ‘Insert’ button.”

Aside from my frustration with their over-reliance on my hand-holding (I showed them how to do this as a class, first, and they still needed my help for the entire class period) and my disappointment in their lack of “tinkerage,” I ended up feeling quite proud of myself. I can fiddle! I can tinker! I could take a class and learn more about different kinds of software if I wanted to! Don’t get me wrong…I’m not going to take up any kind of hardcore programming any time soon. But I felt enlightened by seeing their limitations. Their limitations reminded me of my own skill set, and that I am not as limited, technologically, as I thought I was. Digital humanities? Bring it on! Web presence? I’ll show you web presence!

I’m one viral video away from a full-on interweb takeover.