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Technology and the Liberal Arts: an iPod touch in the lecture hall

January 22, 2011

Please turn that off, it’s distracting.

Last night I was very pleased to attend the kick-off event for Vassar College’s year long celebration of its 150th anniversary. The evening began with a reception for the opening of an exhibition at the library, “The Most Perfect Education of Body, Mind and Heart: Vassar and the Liberal Arts,” curated by archivist Laura Finkel and history professor Rebecca Edwards. This exhibition showcases a wonderful selection of items from the Vassar archives that help to tell Vassar’s story, from its founding to today, with a wider context for some of the key issues of women’s education. I look forward to reading the accompanying catalog.

This reception was followed by “Vassar and the Liberal Arts: Then and Now,” a lecture by Rachel Kitzinger, Dean of Planning and Academic Affairs and professor of classics. Rachel is an inspiring educator, and her advocacy for the processes of teaching and learning at Vassar has been extremely influential for the college, and for my own work. Ever since this event was announced, I had been looking forward to hearing what Rachel would have to say on this subject, and when her talk began, I immediately set to taking notes on my iPod touch.

Rachel began with the derivation of the word “liberal” and the significance of the liberal arts education as an education suitable to a free person. This moved me from the start. How we take our freedom for granted! And yet, how current socio-economics limit education. She discussed the manner in which it is not what, but how we learn. As a member of the Drama faculty, I was particularly touched by her discussion of Greek theatre as the first form of mass education. Her discussion of the art of asking questions took me back to my own days as a Vassar student, and reminded me of my constant concerns with my own teaching and with my concerns that theatre-making, like teaching, needs to provoke questions rather than answers.

But, not long after those notes were taken, the evening took a turn for me.

A gentleman sitting behind me tapped on my shoulder and asked me to turn off my device, that it was very distracting to him. I apologized and immediately turned it off. Then, the next several minutes of Rachel’s wonderful talk were lost to me, as my attention had turned to my embarrassment – mainly for a concern that this gentleman didn’t realize I was taking notes, but thought that I was texting or doing something otherwise unrelated to the lecture. I would not dream of being disrespectful to Rachel – in fact, I was immersed in her words until his interruption. Of course I did not want to be a distraction to him, which is why I did immediately turn off my advice, regretting that I had interfered in some way with his enjoyment of Rachel’s talk. The hall was darkened for her slides, and my screen was indeed distractingly bright – it didn’t occur to me until it was too late that perhaps I could just turn down the brightness on the screen. A few minutes passed and I collected myself, discreetly reaching into my purse to find pen and paper to continue my notes in a more traditional way, scrawled in the dark.

I was, I am, embarrassed. But should I be? As these thoughts have festered overnight, I have been thinking of our students’ use of technology in the classroom, in similar lecture halls. With my production-based work in the costume shop of the drama department, this is not an issue for me. The technology we use is needle and thread, perhaps a sewing machine, and the computer provides music in the background. But if I was teaching in a more traditional classroom, would I feel that students using technology were a distraction, disrespectful to me and to their fellow students? The short answer is no.

For several years now I have been working to digitize Vassar’s collection of historic costume, housed in the Drama department. That work has taken me on a path of discovery, entering the world of digital humanities. I have been concerned with the need for digitization to better represent the complex nature of three-dimensional artifacts, beyond the brief two-dimensional representations that are so common in digital collections today. All of this came out of my own memories of being a student, and the technology that was not available to me at that time. What if the slides that were shown in class could be consulted after the class was over, in a dorm room, at 2am? How wonderful to have that precious time in the classroom reinforced after the fact with digital access to classroom resources! How wonderful to listen to a recording of the class lecture, and rewind the part that you didn’t quite understand the first time, or look at that image of a painting more closely and really see more of the detail!

As I have worked with a variety of students with different learning styles, and as I have become aware of the differences between my own learning styles and those of my students, I have come to embrace the potential of technology to provide alternative forms of access to the same content. In short, I have come to see much of technology in the classroom as assistive technology. I have never been labeled with a particular disability, and I rarely have students who share that they are. However, over my years of teaching I have become very aware of the fact that we all learn in different ways, that our brains are very individualized in terms of how we process information, that students need to learn to advocate for the methods of learning that work best for them, and that teachers need to be open to multiple alternative methods coexisting in and out of the classroom.

Though I am now teacher more often than student, I am constantly seeking out opportunities for professional development, and for years I have been fine-tuning a system that is best for me to keep notes, both from lectures and from reading. I have gone back and forth between hand-written notes and device-assisted notes (laptop, iPod touch, iPad). Sometimes handwriting works better for me – after all my years of thinking I was a visual learner (and indeed I do have a somewhat photographic memory) I have discovered that I am more of a kinetic learner – the act of writing imprints the words on my brain as much as viewing the writing does. I have found it indispensable to have my notes in machine-readable form, so I can easily search through them, and cut and paste from them for longer passages of writing.

Perhaps I cannot say that my iPod touch is assistive technology, when my only disabilities are extremely poor handwriting and the negative effect of stress on my memory. It is a function of my age and career that I need something to help with my memory – between two different part-time jobs (both at Vassar, but very different) and being a mother and wife, I am constantly multi-tasking, constantly switching gears. I have read studies suggesting that my memory will actually improve with age, as I mature out of such an over-stressed period, and I can only hope that they speak the truth. But for now, I need all the help I can get, and my iPod touch is a huge help.

Perhaps I should have seen this event as the kind of lecture that is more of a sermon, more of a piece of theatre itself, either of which would render note-taking of any form inappropriate. But I experienced the moment as an active student rather than a passive audience member, and it was important to me to remember some of her words after the fact.

A key theme of Rachel’s talk was how a Vassar education helps with the important developmental step of acknowledging the validity of opposing views, yet being able to choose a particular point of view and move forward into action. So, here’s an example: I acknowledge my neighbor’s distraction, but my point of view is that I have the right to use my device to help with my learning.

Yet, even after saying all of this, I still feel embarrassed. So, to avoid that feeling in the future, how should I conduct my note-taking in the future? If I do continue to use some sort of device, how can I make it less distracting to those around me? Should I care? Even if you tell me I shouldn’t care, I still will.

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