- Purchase/rental options available:
Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 263-266
[Access article in PDF]
Technologizing the Conflicts:
Graff and the Web
Gerald Graff's work resonates so widely because it ranges beyond questions of classroom practice and university curricula to consider the nature of university culture and its political and fiduciary relationship to society. Indeed, Steve Benton and Jane Tompkins use this symposium to examine the impact of Graff's idea of productive conflict on classroom culture. David R. Shumway, Robin Valenza, and Jeffrey Wallen question how those of us in English studies might best represent our academic and pedagogical work to the general public and how these problems of representation might point to opportunities of reform. My own piece of this discussion stands back from this conflict about conflict and addresses the material and infrastructural context of these questions. Graff's work of the 1980s and 1990s maps and theorizes a cultural territory that was being reshaped by information technologies. It is even tempting to see in the structural transformations wrought on campuses by LANs, e-mail, threaded message boards, and Web pages the harbingers of the "paradigm shift" toward greater and more publicly accessible intellectual interaction for which Graff has called (Graff and Herman 2000: 216).
One can argue, for instance, that information technologies provide the infrastructural means, the operational metaphors, and the new institutional practices that enable college campuses to become more authentic sites of intellectual foment and debate, rather than remain, in Graff's (1987: 257) Bierceian definition of a university, "a curious accretion of historical conflicts that it has systematically forgotten." Most of us still remember the sounds of drills grinding and rattling through cinderblock walls when crews first installed Ethernet cables in faculty office buildings. Did that racket signal the first breaching of what Graff has called the "systematic nonrelation" among disciplines (8), which keeps the university from realizing its social and intellectual mission, or were we hearing only stopgap dental work performed near the end of the century to keep the old university from losing its teeth altogether?
Rather than deal with this question abstractly or even historically, I wish to offer simply my own experience—my testimony. I first overheard the phrase "Teach the conflicts" in graduate school in the 1980s—coincidentally, about the time I began to teach writing in computer classrooms—and was [End Page 263] enthusiastically using it months before I even knew Graff's name or had read his work. Like DNA or an Emersonian epigram, this motto seemed to contain a microcosm of the whole philosophy.
Graff's critique of university culture has been compelling to me since then, not only while teaching in English departments in Kansas and Minnesota but, particularly, while advising faculty from across the curriculum in the design of Web-based classes at San José State University in California. Graff provides a useful way of theorizing the interdisciplinary convergences and collaborations that the creation of on-line classes requires. My work at San José State, for instance, entailed bringing faculty together from across campus, raising issues of pedagogy and instructional design among them, and guiding them through the collaborative conception and production of text-based courses—courses, I would add, based on social and verbal, rather than just technological, interaction. At least in the case of on-line education, therefore, it was not the arrival of the Ethernet connection in itself that brought faculty together to discuss and debate across disciplinary lines, but the institutional and economic need to work more cooperatively to use the technology in the competitive higher-education marketplace. In essence, a number of faculty and academic programs felt the strategic need to leverage their fast connections to reach and hold on to their students off campus before they became someone else's on-line students.
During my sojourn in the world of distance education, I was disappointed to find that scholars from English have little voice in theorizing or developing the interdisciplinary field of on-line "instructional design," or in envisioning university-wide "on-line education," or in constructing such an initiative to extend, rather than undermine...