The Attack of the Pod People

I discovered that an online newsletter, Podcasting News, had run a small piece titled “Professor: University Podcasts Are Totally Bogus.” The professor was me.

The piece included a link to our student newspaper, which led the reader to a mangled version of my opinion piece, reduced to a fifth of its original length and printed as a letter to the editor. The paper had gone at my text with a hedge clipper, then printed it when I was traveling out of state. I never caught my “letter.”

The shrunken, mangled piece made me sound like a Luddite, a curmudgeon railing against a technology whose self-evident usefulness lay just beyond his intellectual grasp. By the time I found the piece, various readers had added their comments. Most said I was antediluvian, and one cited a survey to prove that. Only the professor from UConn had had the courtesy to look up my e-mail address and contact me directly.

The online piece made no reference to the article that I had originally responded to, which led several of my e-readers to castigate me for neglecting to consider how valuable podcasts would be for handicapped students and students who couldn’t come to class because of illness or religious holidays — situations never mentioned in the article that first aroused my ire. —Robert SchneiderThe Attack of the Pod People (Chronicle of Higher Education)

This is a good example of what happens when student journalists let their biases get in the way of doing responsible reporting. Perhaps the students didn’t deliberately plan to make Schneider look bad, but because they did not contextualize his work properly, they appear to have made choices that had the end result of exaggerating and distorting his opinions. It’s not enough for a journalist to “not intend” that sort of thing to happen — you have to work actively to prevent it, and that careful work does not appear to have happened in this case.

Having said that, the professor who submits “a dissenting article” and expects the paper to print it in full as an article (rather than a letter or guest editorial) was probably operating on a misconception. (The professor’s submission would likely be just as biased as the original. A good editorial page editor might line up two dissenting essays side-by-side, but that’s not what happened here.)

Most papers also include a line about word length for submitted letters and guest editorials, and it sounds like Schneider was way over that limit.

Having said that, I find myself responding very positively to this quote from Schneider’s defense of in-the-flesh teaching:

Students have to participate in my classes — and I don’t mean “have to” in the sense that if they don’t participate, they won’t pass. They have to participate because I can’t teach if they don’t; I have to sense if my students are following me or not. Even if their participation takes the form of a blank look or a nodding head — as occasionally happens — I need it.

I can certainly imagine how Schneider and others (including me) could usefully make a static recording of that portion of a lecture that is static and non-interactive, thus leaving more class time for the interactive parts.

Especially when I am trying something new, it’s vital for me to be able to tell whether the students are following me, and it’s far more efficient for me to be able to gauge that in real time, by their facial expressions and what they are looking at (the clock, their fingernails, the homework that is due in the class right after mine) than for me to wait until they have taken a unit test or completed an exercise for me to grade.

So I agree with Schneider concerning the importance of the live culture of the classroom. By “culture of the classroom” I mean the social and intellectual atmosphere that each group of students develops. I mean intangible things, such as whether the students spontaneously applaud when their peers finish presentations, or whether I have to prompt them each and every time. If a student’s cell phone goes off, is it more likely to interrupt me in the middle of a monologue, or is it more likely to interrupt a discussion between students? (The last couple of times it has happened, it has been the student’s own phone going off while the student was out of her seat giving a presentation… is that because students are setting their phones to vibrate first and then ring, so that they can catch the phone before it makes noise?)

I know of colleagues who put most of their lecturing into their Monday and Wednesday classes, and reserve Friday as an optional discussion day.

[Whoops — I got interrupted at this point and when I got back to the blog entry, I had no idea where I was going with this… so I’ll just post it anyway.]