Culture Clash

/ 15 April 2004

Ed Ayers gave a wonderfully funny and somewhat touching plenary address about the tensions between “Academic Culture and Computer Culture”. His own work includes the well regarded Valley of the Shadow. He described the “communal autonomy” of the university as a defining characteristic. The heart of our institutions is the “mysterious exchange between student and teacher,” that “intimate bubble” in which learning happens. He described this activity as a flame, both intense and vulnerable, and our universities as “massive structures to protect those flames.” His suggestion was that we build lighter, smaller things that “simplify the vastness,” things like instant local class nets that don’t rely on the broader campus network. His mantra was “scale down.” As he spoke of the intimate bubble of interaction between student and teacher, I began to wonder whether technology is not beginning to pierce that bubble with tools that allow for action in the world from the classroom and feedback from the world into the classroom.

I was really struck by Ed’s flickering flame. I get awfully frustrated by the scale and scope of the University of Minnesota. I lament that its mission seems to be: “Everything to everyone!” The bureaucracy can seem endless, the commitment to excellence often lacking, the message muddled, on an on. But I stay here, and this flickering flame reminded me why. This academic enterprise is rather counter most of American culture, it is rather precious. In a culture where profit and individual heroism are prized, we operate an enterprise which spends every penny we are given in the name of creating moments of intimate, hidden victory. People discover who they are on our campus, they encounter mentors, they open their minds to one another. Sure, there is a lot of bureaucracy, not to mention a whole lot of drinking, backstabbing, and just getting by… but what if those things are the cover need to protect the flickering flame. If our culture actually realized how radical an enterprise this was, would we be allowed to get away with it? We all break the wind so that the flame of learning has a chance to move from one candle to another; maybe not every time we fire up the PowerPoint slides for another class, but maybe enough. Maybe this behemoth of an institution is what it takes to make this opportunity available to more of our neighbors.

Then again, that’s pretty dreamy stuff. Quite the rationalization. I still want to stir up our University enough that we don’t settle for less than excellence. The Libraries is where this starts for me. And more specifically our IT division and the work we do to put appropriate technology into the hands of our staff, students, and faculty.

Yikes! It’s a good thing I’m not doing this blogging stuff more often!

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