All Humanists Will Be Assimilated

May 31, 2005

Humanities professors who know something about computers and the Internet are relatively scarce. Even a small amount of proficiency in technology is likely to be rewarded at a higher rate than the most hard-won theoretical knowledge.

My relationship with the Internet began about a decade ago, as a graduate student, when a career counselor told me I should have a personal Web page on which to advertise my "accomplishments and availability," like a mail-order bride. The academic job market was so bad, she could have persuaded me to learn to juggle chainsaws. My university did not provide computer training, so I took a one-week course at a community college.

The course taught me only how to set up a basic Web page using HTML code. It was not much harder than learning Microsoft Word. But back in the mid-90s, a little bit of technical knowledge seemed to impress older professors the way a transistor radio seemed to terrify headhunters on old episodes of Gilligan's Island. Within a year, I was the "Webmaster" for my department, and I found myself being asked for small favors by people who never knew I existed before then.

The same thing happened when I began my current tenure-track position at a small, liberal-arts college. I volunteered to become the Webmaster for our department, mainly because I was unhappy with our Web page, and I didn't think anyone else wanted to work on it. The department -- tolerant and somewhat bemused -- was happy to comply with my newcomer's enthusiasm.

A lot of colleges have been slow to recognize that the Internet is probably the most visible -- and least expensive -- venue for marketing their services. Web sites are the first places that many students and their parents go for information. I suspect that most prospective students recognize that the sites are more indicative of institutional quality than all the glossy portfolios that fill their mailboxes and typically go straight to the trash.

Even our small English department's Web page gets about 60,000 hits a year, most of them from beyond the campus. How much would it cost to reach that many prospective students by direct mail? Could that money be better spent?

I evaluate institutions on the basis of their Web sites far more than on their rankings in U.S. News & World Report. A sloppy, out-of-date departmental Web site suggests a badly managed, individualistic, and probably dysfunctional department. Who are the faculty members? What do they teach? What have they written? What kinds of opportunities are there for students? What kind of campus events are taking place this month (as opposed to three years ago, when the site was last updated)?

Students may not think explicitly in those terms, but they almost certainly have an instinctive ability to recognize the difference between a quality institution and one that is just drifting. Nearly all of them recognize a package of generic half-truths assembled for educational institutions by people who know everything about marketing and nothing about education.

"Teachers of excellence." "Learning life's lessons." "The pursuit of greatness." "Be a winner." Yeah . . . right.

I imagine the people who design those marketing materials plagiarize their slogans from the cheesy motivational posters that are installed in the cubicles of telemarketers all over America. Would you really want the kind of student who might be attracted by those ploys?

In my view, the best online services produced by colleges are motivated, above all, by the honest desire to serve students and provide information (backed up by a good team of full-time Web specialists).

Quirkiness is a good thing, provided it is not accompanied by technological incompetence. Once a functioning infrastructure is created and supported, Web sites are better when their content is produced on a continuing basis by people who actually work in the department, reflect its culture, and regard their work as a legitimate form of faculty service.

I suppose, by now, that I am preaching to the choir. My own institution is exemplary in those respects. Nevertheless, I find that a substantial percentage of faculty members resist the possibility of integrating distance education into our regular curriculum, even in the most preliminary and experimental forms.

That is a matter of some concern to me since I am in the process of developing an online version of one of our traditional humanities courses. Our interdisciplinary survey of Western civilization has been suffering from declining enrollments due to an increasing substitution of transfer credits from study-abroad programs and summer courses at community colleges. Our college is reluctant to disallow those transfer credits because that will make it much harder for our students to graduate in four years. But a large number of transfer credits substituting for what should be a cornerstone of the curriculum is beginning to undermine our students' preparation for other courses, and even our overall institutional mission.

Several years ago, I would have reacted to the prospect of online courses the way some of my colleagues are reacting now: "Online education has no place at a residential liberal-arts college. Online courses are part of some nefarious scheme to outsource the faculty and destroy the essence of humanities education: human contact. Before long, administrators will replace us with MPEG files and reduce us all to a state something like the Morlocks in H.G. Wells's Time Machine!"

The prospect of humanities professors as subterranean humanoid cannibals is not without a certain dystopian appeal, but it is not likely to happen unless, I think, we fail to consider the judicious application of new educational technologies. I think computer-aided teaching has the potential to help us meet even more challenging educational outcomes. And I know from experience that some technologies can make teaching more enjoyable, intellectually exciting, and personal.

For example -- although I have not yet tried it -- I think my writing-intensive courses could be improved by a new program like SAGrader.

It seems hard to deny that paper grading is often a poor use of time for faculty members with highly specialized professional training. Most undergraduate papers make the same mistakes over and over again: irrelevance of materials, misused vocabulary, citation errors, lack of conclusion, and so on. I once considered having a set of rubber stamps made for those kinds of repetitive corrections, but I worried that I'd look like an outraged, overworked postal clerk.

Wouldn't it be better to have students correct drafts of their own papers with an online program that can be customized for different disciplines and faculty preferences? Students could remove most of the errors -- beyond the simple mistakes underscored by ordinary word-processing software -- before the paper is even submitted.

We could reduce the temptation of Internet plagiarism by using software that identifies suspicious strings of words that appear in other papers or elsewhere online. How much wasted administrative time dealing with honor-code violations would that save?

Of course, there will always be ways to trick computers (just like people), but that seems like a minor objection, provided faculty members do not use grading software in an impersonal and absolutist manner. Programs like SAGrader would allow professors to make better use of their training by focusing their evaluations of papers on higher-level skills such as research methods, analysis, and creativity.

I can already hear the moans of disapproval at the big faculty meeting. Someone shouts, "The Borg Collective has arrived! Resistance is futile. We will be assimilated!" A cluster of faculty members dressed in fair-trade macramé and denim start to make high-pitched keening noises. A hand-printed placard rises above the crowd: "Keep the 'Human' in the Humanities."

As a human, I am sympathetic. But, if SAGrader means that I'll never have to write "what is your thesis?" in the margin of another undergraduate paper, then sign me up for my cortical implant.

It is not surprising that some humanists are suspicious of technology. Professors have been threatened by automated replacements since the middle of the last century: language instruction on records, audio- and videotapes of "superstar professors," TV broadcasts linked to community-college courses, computer programs, computerized grading, and now -- most threatening of all -- online distance education. And of course the sky is falling, again.

I suppose the resistance of professors to educational technology is at least partly based on a longstanding and not altogether unjustified mistrust of academic administrators. As a group, administrators seem all too eager to find ways to reduce the cost of teaching while spending more and more on marketing, landscaping, sports facilities, support staff, and, of course, new administrators with outrageous salaries. Those new expenditures have been accompanied by a steady flow of money into wave after wave of now-useless technologies that promised to turn every Gopher Prairie Teacher's College into the "Harvard of the lower-upper Midwest."

No doubt, the mistrust of administrators extends to rank-and-file faculty members who get too involved with educational technology. So in addition to the complexities of developing an online course, there is a real possibility that my project could be scuttled by the concerns of other professors, who fear I've gone over to the dark side.

So let me begin in the classic manner of an undergraduate essay:

"Before one can create an effective online course at a residential liberal-arts college, one must address how that course will fit into the institutional mission; next, one must address the justified concerns of the faculty that online education is just another method of reallocating resources away from the core purpose of the institution -- namely, teaching."

But those will be the topics of next month's column.

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes occasionally about academic culture and the tenure track and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at