On Becoming a Phoenix: Encounters With the Digital Revolution

Joyce Hesselberth for The Chronicle

October 01, 2012
On Becoming a Phoenix: Encounters With the Digital Revolution

Joyce Hesselberth for The Chronicle

Last May, I accepted the ballyhooed invitation to potential students to "Become a Phoenix." I enrolled in the University of Phoenix's online, five-week course in creative writing as a nondegree student. By Visa card, I paid my tuition of $1,215 and an application fee of $45.

The digital revolution had come upon me in midcareer. I was aware of how rough and not very ready my electronic skills were. I was also increasingly irritated by a dual triumphalism, proclaiming the global omnipotence of digital and distributed learning, and the global benefits of for-profit colleges. Linking them is the dependence of for-profits on technology. Maybe, I warned myself, you are snarly because you are no longer a young rebel but an old stodge.

The existential reality of being a student in an online course would, I figured, add to my digital tool kit and test the legitimacy of my bad feelings.

The process of enrolling was the easiest part of my five weeks. I belonged to a prized demographic: the provider of a dollop of private money to help the university prove to its regulators that no less than 10 percent of its revenue streamed from nonfederal sources. My admissions counselor and my student services/academic counselor were friendly and forthcoming. My copious online introductory materials mixed academic idealism, good cheer, lucidity about expectations, firmness about the rules, and a hardheaded pragmatism about money. About money, Phoenix never joked. A consumer guide included a near-encyclopedic list of financial-aid resources.

Studying those materials, I missed the visceral camaraderie of fellow students with whom to talk over coffee, to moan, whine, argue, and sort out confusions. Where were the slips, nuances, and beauties of the artisanal classroom to which Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had given birth? I remembered the creative-writing class I once taught at a state university with a diverse student body, how we had sat and pored over one another's work. Joining my nostalgia was a flux of attitudes and feelings: frustration, fascination, admiration.

I liked our introductory materials. A well-produced video stated that Phoenix's goal was "to ensure that your decision to attend the university is one you are excited about, and you are prepared for your commitment and success as a student." That was a forerunner of two consistent themes that all higher education might more forcefully emulate. The first is to encourage a certain affect about being a Phoenician: excitement, engagement, a sense of empowerment, and the too easily despised pleasures of a work ethic. The second theme is the university's desire to be a partner in its students' quest for success: Phoenix will play its role.

I had online access to such services as a well-stocked Center for Writing Excellence, 24/7 tech support, a nifty PowerPoint about the differences between the formalities of academic writing and the slack casualness of other rhetorics, such as texting. In turn, we students were to play our role. I was to provide "time ... energy ... financial resources"—and a computer.

Phoenix is crystal clear about its mission: "to provide access to higher-education opportunities that enable students to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their professional goals, improve the productivity of their organizations, and provide leadership and service to their communities." Again I felt a twinge of nostalgia, this time for the rhapsodies to character formation of the liberal arts.

The "Course Syllabus," our "ruling document," was grandiose, even risibly so, in its aspirations. Among the first week's objectives (three of six) were "to examine the purpose of fiction, discuss the types of fiction, describe how setting is the necessary backdrop for storytelling." Simultaneously, the syllabus was meticulous, even picky. A point system determined our grades. Cover sheets were to be accurate.

Without Skyping or videoconferencing, my linguistic screen persona carried my "real" e-mail and name. I wanted to be reserved, polite, responsive, helpful. Who I was to the other students beyond that persona was a mystery to me—as I was to them.

At first the architectural design of the electronic classroom baffled me. Gradually I fumbled and stumbled among the Main Forum for class discussions; a Chat Room for the getting-to-know-you salvo; the Learning Team Forums; my Individual Forum; and tabs for assignments, grades, and services. Despite tips from my admissions counselor, I never quite got the hang of following the multiple threads of our discussions. I broke some threads and knotted others up, as if I were once again in my disastrous knitting class in junior high.

The assignments were demanding. To schedule them along with a job and family would entail the self-directedness that Phoenix extols. Each week we had an individual assignment, writing never fewer than 1,050 words, usually much more, tied to big chunks of reading in our solid introductory textbook. I wrote a reaction piece to a visual object in order to "spark" my creativity; identified "imagery, metaphors, rhyme, and structure" in three poems; used a worksheet to plan and write a short story; and composed a personal essay, in my case lamenting the changes in newspapers as the Internet took hold.

Each week we also posted a minimum of 200 words at least twice a day, four days a week, to a Discussion Thread (DT). We were to respond to one another's work and to two discussion questions (DQ's) per week. Like the syllabus, the DQ's ranged from the grandiose to the picky, or both at once. What is the relation between subject and verb? I was infuriated when one of my posts received a bright-red, point-detracting "U," or "Unsubstantiated," Phoenix-speak for too short.

Compliant though I learned to be, my heart rose up in rebellion against a final assignment: participation in a Learning Team (LT). That was 25 percent of our grade, for heaven's sake! I believe in creative writing as the work of the self-forged single voice. Of course, for years, I had read and accepted postmodern theory about the death of the author and the overwhelming power of discourse, but my commitment to the individual talent, if situated, was unquenchable.

Phoenix stresses team learning as good pedagogy and preparation for the work force. Diversity and tolerance are respected. And what of the tension between any "spark" of individual creativity and compliance with the collective will? The spark will be snuffed out.

Putting bite into the bromides were Learning Team Charters, which codified our rules, and peer evaluations, which gave each team member some potential power over everyone else's grades. My team leader was an older student, a patient, diplomatic, efficient instructor in interdependence. She gently reminded me that many writers had ghosts or acknowledged collaborators, and to remember the power of "the we" in "the I."

Our first task was to write a Found Poem. We were to select a painting by Monet or Picasso, using Internet images. We settled on Monet's "Water Lilies." Each of us wrote 10 sentences about the painting. Our team leader and another member took two sentences from each of us and combined them in a free-form but rhythmic poem. I confess that I contributed "Ropes of flesh hold the lilies in their place." Then each of us offered some thoughts to a one-page group analysis of the poem's figurative language and rhythm. Creative writing was the means to the end of team coherence.

The Found Poem was a pretty warm-up for the second Team Project. We were to select an "outrageous event." Then, showing how much we had learned about genres, we were to write a fictional account of it, a journalistic account, and a PowerPoint presentation, with slides, speaker's notes, and music and art if we wished. The underlying task was to show the differences between fiction and nonfiction.

Our outrageous event was an unsolved crime, and our posts had a pith and purpose that the asynchronous rambles of our discussion threads had lacked. We were proud of our work, and I felt myself succumbing to the lure of team feeling and virtual affection.

We submitted all required work to the plagiarism checker, Turnitin, and to WritePoint, a writing checker. Turnitin is remarkable, the grim beat cop of contemporary writing. I fantasized a multitentacled robot crawling through deserts of e-data to match them against my puny assignments. Occasionally I yelped at the robot. If I said, "The cash was found by a river," I was simply stating a commonly held fact, not stealing an original insight. Yet I was grateful to Turnitin's relentless surveillance—of my own writing and in the struggle against student misappropriations.

At first the use of WritePoint was unsettling. It is designed to catch grammatical and stylistic errors in academic essays, but we were asked, for the most part, to write imaginatively and, in our personal essays, to provoke emotion. In blue type, WritePoint caught every one of my self-conscious stylistic games. "Overuse of the passive voice can make paragraphs officious and tedious to read," it rebuked me.

I began to talk back to WritePoint but then became grateful for its fussy, imperious, know-it-all, corrective spirit. More accurately, I became fond of it. How many living writing instructors spend so much time explaining the differences between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses? I had almost given up on that. Or make so much effort about the proper use of commas? WritePoint is a guardian of grammatical propriety and of the etiquette of English in a global age. At Phoenix, I had found standards.

A no less important but more tender discovery for me was about my classmates, at the end 18 in number. Mirroring Phoenix's demographics, the majority were women. Ages ranged from the mid-20s to the mid-60s. I could only guess at their racial or ethnic identities. They were self-aware about why they wanted a college degree: whether their motives were financial, to gain economic security; or psychological, to gain the self-esteem that a college degree might bring; or professional, to get published. Phoenix was convenient.

But I also sensed in my classmates a yearning that higher education perilously ignores and that the liberal arts are meant to gratify. In part this was for education, but it was also for culture, for reading and music and art, especially reading. Among their favorite genres were fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Stephen King was iconic. So, among characters, was Harry Potter. Some were devoted to romance novels. They might prefer one genre over another, but they deeply admired authors, people who publish, who give us their passions and visions.

Some of my classmates were themselves excellent writers. Their discussions of reading lacked the scaffolding of literary theory, and this course did not provide one iron pipe toward building it, but they were shrewd and perceptive about such questions as the appeal of horror fiction and the nature of genre. How much could a writer change a ninja without losing its generic identity as a ninja?

My classmates were not monolithic. They differed about literature and music as moral forces. We rarely wrote about politics, but we had our common ground, and it was cultivated and beloved: the written word. Our comments to one another were nearly always kind and encouraging. They were far less about the craft of our pieces than about their relatability. Did we speak to one another in recognizable but renewing ways?

The role of our instructor—or Facilitator—was at once active and circumscribed. The university's 2011 annual report both disparages traditional faculty who ignore e-learning and calls for robust faculty interaction. One sentence piqued me. Students, it said, "need to be encouraged and led toward deep learning and reflection by the faculty through deep teaching." I experienced facilitation, but no plunge into "deep teaching," whatever that is.

Like a majority of the Phoenix faculty, my instructor/Facilitator was female. I have no evidence that she had a graduate degree, but she did share her experience in public relations, marketing, and writing for various non-highbrow publications. She was teaching more than one Phoenix class. She posted our discussion questions, offered technical advice, and intervened tartly and effectively when one of the Learning Teams was fighting. She was not an intellectual broker, nor did she pretend to be. She was timekeeper, umpire, and upbeat coach. If she had suggestions to make me more successful, they were more about the protocol of the course than about my stabs at craft.

Our electronic classroom was open to inspection by university administrators. Like having a Facebook page or Amazon account, being a Phoenix provides the system access to an enormous amount of your data. The 2011 report praises technology's ability to create "ambient intelligence," which "knows the users, serves them, responds to them, and does so unnoticed." That is less awesome than creepy.

Becoming a Phoenix did improve my digital skills, so necessary for time present and future. I am a more-knowing citizen of the higher-ed sector now, and that surely will improve my productivity and teaching. I have the rudiments of a banal short story, an analysis of three poems, and a promising personal essay.

My suspicion of an overweening triumphalism about the digital future, however, is deeper than ever. Technology is only as strong as the infrastructure that supports it. Having been a Phoenix, I feel more strongly than ever about the need for a lively, powerful faculty presence in the design and teaching of e-learning.

I am also more negative about for-profit educational institutions. I began by admiring John G. Sperling's entrepreneurial vision and energy. I still do. I appreciated what my classmates wrote affirmatively about their experiences. They were excited to be "in class," even if they were sometimes annoyed by an instructor with a different way of doing a running header. But while the quality of my experience in learning about online learning was robust, the quality of the teaching about creative writing and applied poetics was barely adequate.

Now, I imagine writing a short story that deploys our introductory worksheet for plotting one. Map the conflicts, it instructed us. For Phoenix, a conflict, still unresolved, would be Sperling against that distinguished public servant Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which he chairs, recently detailed how for-profit colleges took in $32-billion in student aid in 2009-10 but, in many cases, failed to graduate a majority of their students and poorly prepared them for jobs.

The logic that has evolved from the "disruptive technology" of the for-profits appalls me: Cut back support for public institutions, help individuals with financial aid who will then turn it over to for-profit corporations. Ah, but these corporations will pay taxes on their profits, the logic reminds us. But how much am I, a taxpayer, ultimately subsidizing the profits of a stockholder?

To be fair, Phoenix has changed in response to Senator Harkin's investigations—although its 2011 report grumpily notes, "This change in our approach to recruiting, which among other things reduces the emphasis on enrollment and increases the emphasis on improving the student experience, has adversely impacted our enrollment rates and increased our operating costs."

I did get my A in creative writing, 98.4 points out of a possible 100, despite being sloppy about cover sheets and one deadline. Significantly, in an alphabet of emotions, an A can stand for anger.

When I regard the corporate and financial designs of for-profit colleges as a whole, I cannot minimize my anger. I watch the receding financial support for our great public institutions, a vulnerability that for-profits seem eager to exploit. I remember the history of disdain for continuing education at many private institutions, even if that disdain seems to be receding. I am dismayed by the incoherence of provisions for universal access to higher education.

My Phoenix classmates enrolled in good faith in an industry leader. Many of them seemed to find their experience satisfactory, at least "good enough," to use that phrase applied approvingly so often now to the quality of the products of "disruptive technologies" or "disruptive innovations." For my classmates and their peers everywhere, surely good enough can never be good enough. We are talking about education, not a remote-controlled toy.

Catharine R. Stimpson is a university professor and a professor of English at New York University, a faculty member at NYU's Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy, and a dean emerita of the graduate school at NYU. She is also a former president of the Modern Language Association.