The Evolution of Enlightenment

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By John Syme

As communication watersheds go, the emergence of technology is right up there with the written word and the printing press. But has the way we learn really changed?

Associate Professor of English Paul Miller was musing aloud about the evolution of human communication. The time was 2003, the occasion a serendipitous conversation of the kind that blooms by the steps of Chambers when the weather is nice. Behind Miller, the college’s signature academic building vibrated with renovation, an interior facelift with a full array of new teaching and learning technology—out with the overheads and chalkboards, in with remote controls and software! Miller was pointing out that e-mail, and how people use it, seems more akin to the ancient oral traditions of Socratic dialogue and storytelling than to the written traditions of recorded civilization.

Now, flash forward seven years to the present. E-mail seems almost quaint. Campus bandwidth burgeoned by 100 percent in 2008–09 alone to keep up with the explosion of laptops, gadgets, and apps emitting their endless bit-streams of data into every square nanometer of campus airspace, not to mention into the assembled brainpans of students, faculty, and staff. Texting and social networking have blurred cultural and academic lines of communication, and OMG what’s next?

Ask a student and you will get a blank stare. For them technology is like breathing: what’s next is the next breath. So, a deep breath for the rest of us, and a bit of historical perspective. Miller notes that in ancient Greece, Plato himself initially condemned the written word on grounds that it would destroy our memories and fossilize the exchange of ideas. He had a point. He was, after all, Plato.

Similar authoritarian harrumphing likewise greeted the second big communications watershed, the invention of the printing press in the 14th century, which nonetheless led to the decline of the monasteries’ cloister farms of illuminating manuscripts, and the rise of the university as the center of Western learning. Now we have computers, and all that. “Many of the historical figures we study are the people grouped around these three transitions,” Miller posits. “I tell my students sometimes they are at the cusp of the third moment: Will we have our Plato or our Shakespeare? Will we know? I don’t know. Will it be everybody?… Has our curriculum integrated a response? Some professors have.”

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Professor of Political Science Pat Sellers’ classes are expertly leveraged through collaboration with Davidson’s Information Technology Services, to access the full benefit of all the blogosphere can offer the modern policy wonk, news junkie, and survey maven. Sellers calls this approach, which is at once both broad and deep, a “phase shift.”

“Media and advertising don’t need to hit listeners and viewers over the head anymore, just create viral buzz,” Sellers said. “Ideas used to travel from one to many. Now it’s from many to many.”

Navigating the incessant buzz of the “many-to-many” model requires careful differentiation between what is knowledge and what is merely information, Sellers cautions. But whether a given Davidson classroom experience is facilitated by the latest Blackboard software (“a fancy blog,” explains one campus wag) or an old-school chalkboard (a few remain in these hallowed halls), the college itself unquestionably remains a crucible for evaluating and assimilating information, looking for patterns, and drawing conclusions.

In a word, thinking.

In two words, liberal arts.

“[Nothing can beat] a small group of people who are face to face, talking,” says Miller. “In many ways, that’s essential to what we do.”

It is so essential, thinks Peter Krentz, the W. R. Grey Professor of Classics and Professor of History, that he asks students to turn off all electronic devices before his classes. Krentz’s favored tools are a well-worn classics book stuffed with a couple of decades of notes, and a coffee cup. “I think it’s important that we still be able to spend 50 minutes talking about ideas.”

Krentz’s kicker to the old-school approach is this: when students have finished their term papers, the rest of the assignment is to edit and revise a page on Wikipedia.

“Take that, I say,” he says.

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In the sciences , as one might imagine, technology rules with a silicon fist.

“There are very few ‘chalk talks’ anymore,” says Verna Case, Beverly F. Dolan Professor of Biology.

Indeed, computing power and high-tech lab equipment, yoked to the Internet, propel Davidson science departments to greater heights. For instance, biology experiment results posted online last semester generated international queries for more information from professional researchers. Students had to post a disclaimer that the research was “just” the result of their undergraduate research.

That kind of scope means that information management is more important than ever, in the sciences as across the academic board.

“It isn’t the quickest route to information that’s always the best,” says Case. “We have librarians in class all the time.”

Indeed, the concept of “looking it up” is in perpetual evolution at E.H. Little Library, staunch guardian of liberal arts raw materials and quick catalyst of academic inquiry. Where scrap paper and stubby pencils once perched atop card catalogs, now “discovery system” software provides an analogous degree of top-down user management of the virtually infinite digital databases “out there,” as well as the 600,000 hard-copy volumes, 400,000 e-books and 50,000 e-journals in house, says Susanna Boylston, head of library instruction and collection development.

“We try to telescope the time it takes students to find information, so they will have more time to evaluate, apply, and synthesize what they find,” she said.

Student and faculty conversations with the front lines of library staff, just as in “help” discussions with the Information Technology Services personnel, unfurl today on a variety of tech-enabled platforms:in person at the reference or help desk, by phone, text, Facebook, Twitter, and yes, even good old-fashioned e-mail.

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Fluent information management also helps safeguard the mother of all Davidson hallmarks, the Honor Code.

“Technology makes shortcuts shorter, and a careless student could copy, paste, and forget,” says Hansford Epes, registrar and professor of German and Humanities. Epes discourages carelessness.

Dean of Students Tom Shandley has observed several shifts in how information technology has affected plagiarism issues. First, the Internet made cheating easier. Then, professors across academe put search algorithms to work for themselves at sites like www.turnitin.com, and cheating got harder. The bottom line has held over time: Davidson’s Honor Code works. Recent numbers of Honor Code cases remain consistent at around a dozen per year, Shandley says, even as admitted high-school cheaters in one recent national poll topped 64 percent. “We make it clear,” Shandley says of the Honor Code: “This is who we are.”

“And we try to lead them not into temptation,” adds Epes. “A student who’s determined to cheat will find a way. But we have damn few such students.”

Whatever the latest and greatest app or gadget to come barreling down the “information superhighway,” Davidson makes sure that students have what they need to figure it all out, with honor. Those 1,800 students have one thing in common: “disciplined and creative minds,” just like it says in the Statement of Purpose. If you haven’t read it in a while, it’s worth checking out online as a reminder of who we are and what we’re doing here, whether through oral tradition Socratic dialogue, hard-copy books, or the latest in computer technology, changing to stay the same.

Just search for it at www.davidson.edu.

Or we can e-mail it to you.

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