Message to the Dickinson Board of Trustees

19th-century scientific apparatus once used in college science laboratories.

19th-century scientific apparatus once used in college science laboratories.

The Dickinson Board of Trustees was in town for one of its annual meetings last weekend. In addition to a farewell to our extraordinary President Bill Durden, who is moving on after 14 very successful years, there was the usual slate of committee meetings and so forth. I was given the chance to speak to the committee on academic affairs for a few minutes about academic technology. MOOCs have been much on their minds, and were discussed at length at a previous meeting I did not attend. Rather than address this macroeconomic issue that is in important ways out of our control, I gave them a faculty perspective on what’s going on currently with academic technology at the College. Here is what I said:

Among faculty there is a growing realization that the internet, technology, and social media are not just things that distract our students, give them short attention spans, and allow them to do superficial research for papers—though the internet enables all of those things. New digital tools can actually help us do our jobs better, help us teach and do research more effectively. But how, exactly? That’s the question that hangs over all the many discussions regarding technology and education in a liberal arts college setting. The answers are discipline specific, and vary even from class to class in a given subject. But I think there are three broad benefits. In the liberal arts college environment, academic technology can

  1. Develop students into public scholars. Podcasting, blogging, and collaboration on faculty-led projects puts students in a situation where the audience is now not just me. I become the coach, not the judge. This has powerful benefits for the teaching of writing. My own experience with podcasting is that the initial drafts of the scripts are in a traditional, stilted academic style, but the second drafts involve massive re-writes and improvements, into a style that more closely approximates the kinds of writing they will have to do after college. It’s the best way to teach writing that I know of.
  2. Show publicly what the liberal arts can do. Traditionally, what the liberal arts does has been behind closed doors, very cut off from public scrutiny. In the age of $50k tuition it’s more important than ever to share the products and innovative teaching methods openly so people can see them. What liberal arts students learn to do is contextualize, analyze, and present information. These are things the internet really needs, and we can provide, a real social benefit that is consistent with our mission.
  3. Enhance collaboration and sharing among scholars. This is a true revolution, and I have experienced it over and over again with my own project, the Dickinson College Commentaries. People from all over the country and the world have come forward to contribute to this project. It has attracted everything from Oxford professors to freelance app developers to grad students, undergraduates at other institutions, high school teachers, amateur enthusiasts, and even a lieutenant in the US army. The kind of public impact one can make with a quality website in some cases outstrips–is of a completely different order than–what one can do in a print scholarly journal. Which is not to say that print is going away or is irrelevant.

The Dickinson-based projects listed on the DHAC website are doing these things in various ways. We are among the most active liberal arts colleges in the country in this realm, which is reflected in our winning the Mellon grant. But there is a lot more to develop. The Mellon grant allows for a postdoctoral fellow, and this will be extremely helpful in nurturing new projects and pedagogical techniques that will arise organically out of what we already do. Not all faculty are heading this way. These kinds of projects are often not viewed as earning promotion and tenure; we were all trained to go after the print publication above all; and of course there is widespread distrust of distance learning, and awareness of the downside of social media in terms of decreased attention span and focus for detailed academic work. But when it comes to doing things that genuinely enhance our mission, we have great support from our Academic Technology unit, and I think with increasing faculty leadership on these issues digital technology will be more and more seen by faculty as the great intellectual opportunity that it is.

–Chris Francese

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