Computers, Pianos, and Cultural Capital

Along with standardized testing and back-to-basics reforms, computers have contributed to the trivializing of the content of the curriculum and the work of teachers in ensuring the quality of the substance of schooling. We need to examine current digital pedagogy in terms of unarticulated and implicit models of labor and the job prospects that students, parents, and teachers imagine computer skills will lead them to. There are clear benefits that access to technology can bring to disheartened and disenfranchised student populations. Computers can be a hook to do more sustained academic work for working-class students of color. Yet, the process of education cannot be made more cost effective through technology, and computers cannot teacher-proof the classroom. The enthusiasm among school board members and local business communities for high technology in public education was based on a desire to teacher-proof the classroom.

Practicing at Home: Computers, Pianos, and Cultural Capital, Ellen Seiter

As an online teacher, I’ve long been interested in the too-rarely noted connections among proprietary education, computer technology, and the rise of adjunct labor, particularly in composition. Corporations alway use technology to disrupt worker organization, of course, as the current writer’s strike illustrates. It’s not surprising, then, that the same thing has been happening even among the privileged halls of academia.

Seiter uses an unlikely but effective analogy with the history of the piano to emphasize one of the ironies of teaching with computers that recalls the now dashed hope for the paperless office: “Teaching with computers requires a smaller teacher-to-student ratio than conventional classrooms.” And, as she notes, now that the dot-com boom is a distant memory– and the recession looming– it is working class and poor districts that are least able to provide the low ratios or maintain equipment.

So computers further evolve into an effective tool for class management, in the economic as well as the pedagogic sense. Seiter goes on to list several other reasons why, as she says, it’s so difficult for working-class students to achieve that “cool job” in new media. Among the main reasons she includes “a reliance on public computers, a lack of access to “prestigious educational credentials,” as well to “the social networks crucial to employment in the “new” economy.”

In a strong sense, the dot-com boom in higher education has lasted nearly a decade longer than the speculative economic bubble which burst in the late 1990s. Administrators, though, seem to realize that while a teacherless classroom was unlikely, computers could be introduced alongside an increased reliance on adjuncts and graduate students. It’s not as cheap as automation, but its much cheaper than using full professors. The close fit between these two impulses is still not well understood.

Seiter’s research represents an important step in the ongoing deflation of the idea that the mere presence of computers can ameliorate the injustices of class. “The time for technological utopianism is past,” she writes, and the use of technology in the schools has to be rethought, “in the context of a realistic assessment of the labor market and widening class divides, struggles for fair employment in both technology industries and other job sectors, and the pressing need to empower students as citizens who can participate actively in a democracy.”

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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