Air Date: Week of December 1, 2000
Commentator Linda Tatelbaum reflects on the state of a professor’s life. It’s getting more digital, more remote, and faster every day.
CURWOOD: Commentator Linda Tatelbaum is a little busier than usual these days. She teaches English at Colby College, and she says that high-speed, high-tech everything is finding its way even into the once sedate soul of academia.
TATELBAUM: I was the last one to give up purple ditto masters at the college where I teach. I still prefer climbing into the library stacks. I demand hardcopy from students. I don't do attachments, or surf the Web. My problems began with the friendly info-tech guys, who are always trying to make me catch up. They haven't a clue they're dealing with an old hippie who doesn't know an ATM from a hole in the wall. They're fooled by the briefcase.
They were assisted by the librarians, who scorned me for my aversion to information. But it was our secretary who shamed me into it. She'd send out attachments to the whole department, even though we're all on the same corridor. Sitting in my office I'd watch helplessly as my sluggish computer downloaded the unreadable document, then crashed. She cajoled me into a newer word processing program.
This meant, number one, that I don't know what I'm doing any more, and spend my once-productive workday calling for help. It also required giving up the old computer that sat quietly in one corner of the desk. Now I'm dwarfed by a monitor that hums and blinks. I can't see out the window any more. It's not just the old computer but my vintage 1950s plastic desk chair that had to go, lest the ergonomic police convict me of a workplace hazard. They've got me bolted into a padded, rocking, rolling armchair that's hard to get out of, but why would I want to when I can click my way through a workday without ever leaving my chair?
This upgrade frenzy is intended to make us more productive. Instead of wasting hours advising students in person, I can now clear them to sign up for courses online. With the time saved I could correct papers, but there's no longer any space on my desk. I could read, but I have e-mail to answer. That's all right; I'm used to taking papers home. It's quiet at home. Or, used to be. I do have a solar-powered computer and Internet access, but we're selective about our technology. Twenty-five years using hand tools makes us wary of one thing leading to the next. Like how getting electric lights makes dirt show up better, necessitating a vacuum cleaner instead of a broom.
It comes as no surprise that the work upgrade has outmoded the home system. The home computer can't read documents created on the work computer. And the work computer won't accept disks from home. The old modem chugs and sputters when I check e-mail, which I have to because students expect an immediate reply. And goodness knows they're paying for it. Even a junior living in Nepal, who rides a bike to the one computer in her village, demands a timely answer to frantic questions about next year's courses.
So I ante up for a faster home computer. Spending less time waiting for the download gives me time to load the wood stove or stir a pot of beans, or take out the compost. But guess what? I'm behind again. The info-tech guys are plotting another upgrade. They're putting more of our professorial functions online. Soon, perhaps, I'll be teaching extra courses from home, by posting lessons on the Web and holding e-conferences in the middle of the night. After all, the Internet never sleeps. So why should I?
(Music up and under: graduation music)
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Indeed. Linda Tatelbaum lives in Appleton, Maine, and is the author of "Writer on the Rocks: Moving the Impossible".
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