Hazards of Legacy Technologies

So budget problems have arrived here at the U of Louisville. Unfortunately, the response has been some pretty significant changes in our document reproduction policies. Effectively, please don’t make copies unless absolutely necessary. Please scan-and-post whenever possible instead. Photocopy limits; consequences beyond those limits.

I find this a fascinating example of the hazards related to legacy technologies. It’s not a new or uncommon theme in academic settings. Some people are on the cutting edge of their fields of knowledge and they invest their energy there. Smart. But too often, I think, not enough energy is devoted to the material practices within which those same academics operate. Photocopying is expensive. Photocopying is what most of us already know how to do. We already incorporate photocopying as a practice into our classrooms. Short-term, it’s most efficient to keep photocopying. But… do you know this is the way it’s been done since the 80’s? Twenty-plus years!

PDF’s. Scanners. Course management software and email attachments. Requiring in-class paper copies is old news. That’s not to say it’s a bad idea. I think paper copies still have their place. Min-Zhan Lu explicitly asked us to bring paper copies to her class so that we could have discussions about specific practices of distribution and note-taking. Pedagogically sound, I think. And she made them available to us via Blackboard anyway. Scanning and distributing is more efficient in terms of time, paper, departmental budgets, and repeated material practices. Scanning takes time, but it’s highly efficient in so many ways, even over the course of two course iterations.

The big problem, of course, is asking people to change. People in all industries resist it. Age has little to do with it, I think. It’s values. It’s the way we think about technology. We see technology making demands on us, instead of helping us. Why? Because we so often don’t participate in the design or implementation of those practices. Administrators can change that. Include more people in the process of technology decisions. Instructors and students can change that. Ask to be included in these decisions. Ask what happened and posit alternative scenarios where more distributed participation might have altered the decision, implementation, or reception of technology changes. In other words, if you want things to change, propose something better. Trust me, most administrators would welcome the input and assistance.

I also want to say right away that I think the people in charge making these decisions are doing a great job. I’m not critical of them or these new policies. I actually think they are smart and respectful decisions by smart and respectful people. No complaints from me. I simply want to think through how complex a simple, though significant, change can be in the context of a Composition Department.

So, the simple message right now is: Scan-don’t-copy. Needless to say, scanning hasn’t exactly been a popular practice in our department up to this point. Although plenty of tenured faculty have had documents scanned and placed them onto Blackboard, this scanning has been completed almost exclusively by a work-study student on a single scanner. There had been two scanners available for instructors, but both of them were located in computer labs. However, these computer labs are booked all day long with classes, thus limiting instructor access. It didn’t take long, either, for our tech support person to realize that one of the scanners doesn’t even work. So one scanner for more than 75 (I think) instructors, and it’s stuck in a lab where no one can get to it. Clearly, we needed a solution.

As soon as the administrators became aware of these conditions, they immediately okay’d a plan to move the scanner to a more accessible location (the grad student computer lab, seven computers) and to purchase a second scanner. They also offered a training session on how to make PDF scans on our pre-semester workshop training day.

This might seem a bit boring, especially if you’re not in our department, but I think it’s going to be a pretty big deal. I’m thinking about the instructors who traditionally distribute dozens and dozens of pages of copies (usually out of convenience for their students, mind you) to their classes each semester. Or what about those people new to the program who are just figuring out where their mailboxes are. Or those instructors who’ve never used, or rarely used, Blackboard before? What sort of arguments will they make about this whole situation? What sort of training will be available to get them up to speed?

There’s going to be some grumbling. I wonder if there will be more than grumbling. I wonder if people will recognize how hard the administration in working to meet the draconian cuts with which they’ve been saddled. I wonder if the administration will attempt to sell their efforts to mitigate the circumstances. I wonder if the divisions between part-time lectures, term lecturers, graduate students, and tenured professors will cause much friction.

Should be an interesting year.