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February 4, 2003

Tech Watch

By Joseph N. Tatarewicz, Associate Professor of History

Professor Tatarewicz will present "Night Sweats of a Geek Humanist Professor: Liberal Arts, Technology, and Labor" on Thursday, February 13 at noon in The Commons, Room 318.

I started my dissertation in the '70s at 300-baud with a Radio Shack TRS-80 hooked to the Indiana University main frame, and I have been the office Geek ever since. I have always gotten along well with gadgetry, am an "early adopter," and even made my living as a mechanic for a very long time. I watch Tech TV for fun. I'm proud to be a technological enthusiast.

At the same time, I consider myself a humanist -- a scholar firmly planted in the liberal arts, even though my field of study is the history of science and technology. I find particularly fascinating how technologyis a "Trojan Horse" filled with culture. Especially with complex technology, you don't just buy and use a gadget -- you enter into a long term social relationship with the whole community behind it. Using it forces you to bend your ways toward theirs, changes you.

Technology lets you do only the things its makers and programmers considered important, and often makes formerly trivial tasks more complex. For example, early word processors, aimed entirely at routine business needs, did not have automatic formatting and numbering of footnotes -- forcing us to scotch-tape printed scraps of paper together and photocopy them into whole pages with footnotes. As scholars, we were bound to ages of tradition and the Chicago Manual of Style, a far too narrow and idiosyncratic vertical market for designers at that time.

While I decry monopolies, I also never want to go back to the days of 20 word processing formats, all mutually incompatible. At least now we can all exchange documents and other files without worrying too much about who has what version of what. Standardization has its disadvantages, to be sure, but it does assist us in many ways. So I really like the notion of empowerment through common tools -- so long as there is always room for a diversity of approaches and a recognition that sometimes the best approach is just a bunch of people gathering around a book and discussing it.

While much is made of business's agility, businesses are also agile enough to go rushing off the edge prematurely. The very hidebound, traditional, and slow-moving ways of the university -- committees as a way of organizing work, for instance -- also mean that a lot of bad ideas die a well-deserved, albeit slow death. This makes for a clash of cultures, since universities have a lot of business, financial, and administrative functions that seem best approached with standard practices -- except that standard practices were never designed to take account of scholarship or learning. As a sometime manager and administrator, I respect my colleagues who make this place run, even if they never see the inside of a classroom. On the other hand, we're not selling widgets here-among other things, we're introducing young people to their cultural heritage, helping them find their way, cultivating their humanity -- and that's a very different game from most other "knowledge dissemination."

What worries me most as a professor is the balancing act of research, teaching, and service. Keeping up with the torrent of literature in one's field and staying at the research front in some specialty or another is a huge and unrelenting job, requires a lot of quiet time, and tends to make one a little peculiar. Being producer, choreographer, and performer for classes is similarly challenging, and showtime comes right as scheduled, each and every class. Service -- well, it's like looking at a long list of wonderful charities and having only a few pennies in your pocket. Anything that requires retraining, a large investment of time, has to compete with those three -- even if it promises to simplify or empower later on. I went cold turkey from overhead transparencies to Powerpoint in one semester, and it hurt. I'm transitioning from video tape to digital right now, and it hurts even worse.

Not only are we now writers, multimedia producers and performers, but we are all also doing a great deal of administration and management -- keeping the Web and Blackboard sites populated, keystroking student information to and fro, responding to e-mails, exceeding our disk quotas at the worst possible time, and often called on for tech support.

Traditionally, we have had physical and procedural boundaries to help us compartmentalize our time and availability -- office hours, class time, research time, etc. -- and, frankly, manage scarcity (Dave Barry oncementioned the "American Association of University Professors Who are Never in their Offices"). In a virtual, connected, 24/7 world we have yet to find the cyber-equivalents of office hours and closed doors, and we're all at least a little bit frazzled and anxious about it.

From one perspective, we are just the typical workers caught up in a vast technological change that is altering many familiar aspects of our world. For me, it's a choice: do I take the increasing overhead demands out of my research, my teaching, or my service?

Read Professor Tatarewicz' Community Essay on the space shuttle Columbia disaster in this month's Insights.

Posted by dwinds1 at February 4, 2003 12:00 AM