More Sentimental Education

I’ve long wanted to write about the notion of individual instruction, which I think is a harmful myth, a kind of nostalgia for something that never existed. It’s a scary thing to examine, though, simply because so many teachers hold this myth so close to their pedagogical hearts. This week provides an interesting case in point, in the form of a blog entry by Margate Soltan at Inside Higher Ed’s “University Diaries” (“Professormatronic“). Once agin the impersonal culprit is technology.

In this case, the idea of individual instruction arises from a discussion of a student complaint that professors no longer write on papers by hand. It’s very tempting to simply repeat Derrida’s famous deconstruction of the individuality of the signature, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go that far. I would like to know if the student had experienced this “personal” handwriting before, or if this was simply an idea he or she had about handwriting. My guess is that there are lots of people out there who remember the sharp sting of red ink.

I don’t have any complaints about the idea that students benefit from feeling that they have their professor’s full attention, at least briefly. If you ask a question, well, you want a good answer. I can’t see much practical differance between a professor and student pouring over a written paper, or a student and profesor pouring over a paper on the laptop. Much of this piece, though, seems to sentimentalize the technology of a few decades ago. (See this piece on the myths of online education, too.)

Ironically, the technology bemoaned by Soltan is attractive exactly becuase it’s a tool that many feel (perhaps naively) counters the alienation of U.S. culture by facilitating authentic connections. The myth of individual instruction wrongly sugests to students that because all people are unique, their learning is unique. Learning is social though, not individual; we share more than we differ. That should be a source of strength. Human relationships are the root cause of any alienation, educational or otherwise, not technology.

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 I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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