Bradley Dilger’s “Ease and Electracy”

Bradley Dilger, in his essay, “Ease and Electracy,” (from New Media/New Methods: The Academic Turn from Literacy to Electracy) points out that his work is incomplete and therefore does not present a comprehensive pedagogy, which is understandstandable. Also, I feel that Dilger’s work around ease is very relevant to my chapter on the use of CMSs, considering the fact that many instructors choose not to use new media because it appears too difficult, too daunting for them and still others choose to use these ready-made CMSs because they offer ease of use. However, I was also left with many questions.

One of the divisions that I see in composition particularly around use of new media is the question of “to code or not to code.” In other words, there seems to be a split in composition between those who understand the underlying layers of the technology they’re using and those who rely on the ease of the user-centered, intuitive interfaces of course-in-a-box type software like Blackboard or Angel. Dilger addresses this type of user (both as student and instructor) who sees technology as a force beyond her/his control. Dilger suggests iteration, which he defines as, “repeating the same task with slight differences each time” because it harnesses “the modularity and variability principles of new media” (131). Dilger’s suggestion for using iteration as a pedagogical approach, which I don’t completely understand (probably because, as he says, it’s incomplete) “would also provoke student interest in the creation of technologies by offering direct connections between technologies and human agents. In this way, the simplistic view of technology typical of ease would be disrupted; it would be difficult for students to claim techonologies they shaped were natural forces beyond their control” (132-3). Primarily, it seems, Dilger is working, in this essay, to complicate technology and new media, which I think is important and lies at the root of my desire to see tech tools, in particular, course-in-a-box software studied as objects worthy of critical attention (by both instructor and student).

In his incomplete version of this iteration pedagogy, Dilger explains that he’s not suggesting we turn students into programmers but rather he wants to “disrupt two assumptions (1) some people are programmers, and some people are not; (2) progamming is an advanced form of computer usage exclusive to experts” (132). He’d like to see what we consider “programming” change, and he describes this change as already taking place in document production. His example: “Everyday word processors allow writers to make decisions about page numbers, font selection, and other book encodings previously restricted to expert designers or printers” (132), but clearly this is not “programming” (even, I think, if we consider that term in some out-of-the-box way). I get that he is comparing this shift from in-the-hands-of-experts to in-the-hands-of-the-everyday-user, but also, earlier in the essay, Dilger describes the What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (or WYSIWYG) editors that are used in so many current new media applications as an example of ease and its problematic nature and the transparency of technology that he is concerned with. Drawing on Marcel O’Gorman’s 2000 article, “You Can’t Always Get What you Want: Transparency and Deception on The Computer Fashion” that argues “as the desktop computer becomes more simple to use and more attractive to behold, the user is unwittingly faced with an increasing loss of power and control over the machine,” Dilger (who shares similar concerns) gives the example of creating a hypertext link: instead of learning how one functions, a person “learns how to make links with a certain program” (119). I guess my confusion stems from the fact that I don’t see a huge difference between this and the example of choosing font and page numbers in a word processing program. If we are going to attempt to erase, or at least blur, the separation between programmer and “not programmer”/expert and everyday user, then these functions are going to need to be…dare I say it…”easy” — usable with ease. But more importantly, I am left unclear as to what ultimately Dilger wants to see changing in terms of how we define “programming” or “programmer.” I get that he doesn’t want this digital divide of those who program and those who don’t, yet I’m not sure to what extent he expects teachers and students in a composition classroom to really understand and engage with code. I’m not intending this as a critique. I’m genuinely interested, because it’s something I’ve struggled with in using tech in the comp classroom. Dilger writes, “If, as I believe, ease shapes the way we understand the concept of technology, then composition instructors–who have always been ‘teaching with technology’–should understand ease” (110). And “ease” in the more specific context of this essay, focused on new media practices, “often means refusing to see the code: preferring a simple, pragmatic approach which doesn’t involve the complication of complete understanding” (109). Given then some of Dilger’s examples and his desire to rethink “programming,” I wonder if something as simple as revealing the code of a webpage or showing students the difference between the HTML screen and the standard WYSIWYG screen or the difference between using the code feature or not (I just noticed that wordpress has changed from the two screen options that used to be there) might begin to address some of Dilger’s concerns.

Another idea that I want to stress in my own work is the idea of dropping CMSs and LMSs entirely and and utilize the bits and pieces approach as an alternative. In this discussion of the Desire2Learn/Blackboard battle, readers are suggesting interesting combinations of PLE use along with “loosely joined possibilities”, “bits and pieces we find laying around the place,” etc. A commenter with the username Gardner suggests the ultimate first-year-writing experience: having a user created PLE. I think this type of assignment might be a response to the ideas that Dilger is laying out in his essay.

When Dilger describes the “lack of generalized knowledge” that “can cause serious difficulty if trouble arises,” he brings in Blackboard as an example: “widely used because it makes website production easy–with it, creating a sophisticated course website requires minimal technical knowledge of hypertext. To the instructor using it, the complex hypertext file structure is transparent” (119). And what if it wasn’t? (Again, I ask this ask of genuine interest, coming from place of my own concerns and confusions). What if the instructor had an understanding of the underlying system that makes Blackboard work, how would that change her/his relationship to the technology? Would that make her/him a more hesitant user? More willing to venture “outside the box” and use other available technology? Would it cause him/her to question the presence of corporate software on college campuses?

The more I write, the more I wind up with questions, so I’ll try to wrap up here. At the end of his piece, Dilger argues that the idea of ease need to be carefully considered “by composition instructors teaching the production of new media” (133). This is very different than the instructors who teach with technology (loosely defined) that Dilger mentions in the opening of the piece. And it is also different (I think?) than teacher who use new media practices in their writing courses. So I am curious as to exactly the intended audience/type of composition teacher that Dilger is thinking about here. All and all, I am just really trying to get out how we can complicate technology and the use of new media in the classroom and undo that transparency, which Dilger so well describes, while also not alienating faculty and other users. How can we actually teach that technology is not neutral to teachers who can then pass that on to their students, if so many of the faculty are unwilling to and fearful of these practices and/or opt for the course-in-a-box software that is so emblematic of “ease”?

11 thoughts on “Bradley Dilger’s “Ease and Electracy”

  1. Pingback: Is understanding the basics really all it takes? | the month of June

  2. So happy to see you back in action!! And I’m SUPER rusty on this, but your discussion of Dilger’s programmers vs. non-programmer’s split is reminiscent, in some ways, of Manovich’s new book, I think (or at least what I understood of it from his talk at Louisville). There, he argues that for “software studies” because software is the interface that determines our interaction with technology—ie, we NEVER see the thing as itself. My sense is that he would say that there is very little difference between a course-in-a-box and the page numbering functions in Word: both work to construct and delimit the expectations of what we can do within a given framework.

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