“Living in Detroit, you can easily grow numb to the things that seem remarkable to people who live elsewhere. With so many journalists and photographers parachuting in over the past few years, we have allowed outsiders to document these things and define them. Detroiters are, after all, used to all the abandoned shit. We drive past the grand ruins without a second thought.”- Photo and text taken from the blog SweetJuniper!
This fall I’m teaching two new courses, Writing Detroit (LHSP 125) and The Rhetoric of Blogging (SCW 200). Both of them have required me to work with technology in ways I’ve never previously done, the latter more obviously. But then this isn’t saying all that much as in my ten-plus years of teaching at UM, I’ve usually cast a skeptical eye on technological intrusions—for that’s how I’ve often seem them—into my classroom. It’s as if I’m having an imaginary turf battle between some notion of writing that allegedly prioritizes the sacred values of teaching writing against the Johnny Come Lately of New Media Studies.
These divisions (“old school” that allows no program more gussy than Microsoft Word vs. hipster high tech) is, as I’ve long known even as I opt to play the curmudgeon, false and simplistic. And it’s also been convenient: I keep teaching the way I think works (“These whipper-snappers need to learn how to write. Damn the visual rhetoric!) without following the most basic precept of argumentation I lay out for my students: don’t condemn before you’ve tried to genuinely understand.
But that was then. And now that we’re three weeks into the term, I’m interested in the process—and my reactions to this process—of my admittedly simple experiments with technology in the classroom.
What follows I imagine as my recording of these forays into the world of technology + the classroom. Most other teachers will likely see my experiments as about as technologically advanced as smoke signals. They’re using PS3 or Wii—not that I know what these things are—and I have just purchased my first Atari.
The Luddite Makes a Power Point
Several species of apes have successfully produced Power Points but not the Luddite. The impetus behind the Luddite thinking “Power Point, maybe not a bad idea” came in prepping for the first class of Writing Detroit. There was the fact that few of the students would be from Detroit, and most wouldn’t have come any closer to the city than the airport. So some images of the city, the Luddite thought, would be nice.
But visuals of Detroit turn out, like much about the city, to be fraught.
(Michigan Central Station, Photo by Witold Rybczynski, Slate Magazine)
Trawling through databases of even the most talented photographer’s images of the city soon produce, at least in the impatient Luddite, a kind of existential fatigue. The reason is this. Whenever the Luddite drives around Detroit he’s struck by the ubiquity of beautiful architectural decay. Most any visitor has experienced this. The amount of once substantial buildings in disrepair or gutted or charred or simply no longer there, not even the foundation—and add into this the sheer size of some of these buildings, many of which were factories or warehouses or even skyscrapers… None of this is exactly news.
Yet when looking at photo after photo of this, there’s that fatigue. And a question starts to form: Can’t a photographer take a single picture that includes an actual human being? Can’t there be some images—and all right, granted, the Luddite’s image trawl is hardly exhaustive—that capture the idea that Detroit has 930,000 residents and that here too there is such a thing as normal, everyday life?
So then there’s this Power Point to assemble—and here, the Luddite should mention yet another gracious tutorial by Lauren Atkins of ISS. And there’s a cost-benefit calculus with respect to time, the start of the term, etc. These photos of Detroit’s ruins, they’re visually arresting, they can make the non-Detroiter, of which the Luddite is one, gasp. And that’s fine, he wants the gasp, it’s hard not to have a gasp or the suppressed gasp. But then that’s not all he wants, for the gasp alone ends up fulfilling the very thing the Luddite doesn’t want: namely, to treat Detroit like an extinct civilization, a Pompeii down I-94.
The results of the presentation, as you can see for yourself, aren’t entirely satisfying, not in the display of technological acumen—how quickly even the Luddite’s ego desires to be a Power Point maestro—nor in the visual communication of the course’s agenda. The photos of the ruins win, and the Luddite is left to turn off the projector and resort to old fashioned speechifying.