Electracy What a Tangled Web We Weave

Peter Wood

“Higher education is transitioning from literacy to electracy.”   So says an academic librarian at the University of Connecticut in a memo to fellow librarians in which he summarizes a meeting of his university’s Online Education Taskforce.  Electracy? That’s an arresting and ominous neologism. What lies behind it?

The memo was forwarded to me by one of the recipients.   The task force sounds as if it speaks with authority at UConn: it was created by the provost, and co-chaired by a professor of chemical engineering and the Director of Instructional Design and Development. Its mandate appears to be “the expansion of online learning” at Connecticut’s flagship state university. 

The Expanding World of Online Education

UConn hopes to do what many other colleges and universities have already done. It wishes to incorporate more and still more online technology into existing instructional programs and to launch more and still more online-only instruction.   This is driven partly by the rapid expansion of online universities, some of which are for-profit and are indeed proving highly profitable.   Administrators of traditional bricks-and-mortar universities are looking over their shoulders at this emerging competition and seeking ways to blunt it.

But those administrators are also driven by the belief that online technology promises genuine improvements in higher education. At the National Association of Scholars’ recent national meeting we included a panel discussion of these technological horizons. One of the panelists, Scott Jaschik, the founder and editor-in-chief of Inside Higher Education, spoke persuasively about the emergence of “hybrid” models of higher education, in which students may live on campus and attend some classes in person, take some courses online, and take still other courses that combine in-person and online components.  

Some of this hybridity is so common now as to pass without notice. Students more or less expect that syllabi, assignments, course notes, study guides, and PowerPoint presentations will be available online, and that there will be online discussion groups, wikis, and the like. Moreover, some topics lend themselves particularly well to self-paced online instructional approaches: accounting 101, macroeconomics, the classroom portions of introductory chemistry. 

The champions of this technology argue that students benefit from this style of instruction but there is room for doubt. NAS’s Glenn Ricketts, who teaches some online courses at Raritan Valley Community College, observes, “These courses can work very well for a few highly-motivated students.   Most students, however, take online courses because of their convenience. They do not realize how much these courses require self-discipline and time-management, and many end up quickly falling behind and dropping out. The lowest attrition rate I’ve encountered is about 50 percent.”  

The drawbacks, however, seem unlikely to slow the pace of adoption either at places like UConn or in the form of whole new institutions. This week Tamar Lewin writing in The New York Times reported on the creation of a “free global university” based on open-source courseware, social networking, and peer-to-peer teaching. The project is the idea of Shai Reshef, an Israeli entrepreneur living in Pasadena. Mr. Reshef once headed a test-preparation company (later sold to Kaplan), built a successful online university (later sold to Laureate), and currently heads an online company that helps college students with their homework.   His new venture, the University of the People, sounds like an exercise in global altruism.

Anxieties about Online Learning

There are, however, skeptics. One anonymous blogger noted, “Shai Reshef's main enterprise, cramster.com, appears to be a website designed at least in part to facilitate cheating on homework.” Another blogger, Seb Schmoller, points out that The Times seems to take The University of the People’s press release at face value. The supposed institution still lacks accreditation. 

And accreditation is the major speed bump for online universities. The traditional universities, which dominate the regional accreditors, make it very difficult for new online universities to get accredited. Another participant in the technology panel at the NAS national conference was Richard Bishirjian, the founder and president of Yorktown University, an online institution based in Colorado. (I’m on the Yorktown Board.) Bishirjian noted that it took Yorktown ten years to clear the hurdles to accreditation. The alternative, embraced by several entrepreneurs who wished to start online universities, has been to buy up existing colleges that already have accreditation but are near insolvency and to convert them into platforms for their online curricula. 

Online education as we have come to know it in the last fifteen years has an air of expediency. It has been seen as an efficient way to deliver courses of a certain type, where the emphasis is on mastering material that can be fairly easily routinized or at least standardized. Thus the breakthrough enterprise in online education, the University of Phoenix, is best known for offering technical programs to adults looking to enhance their career prospects.   This doesn’t mean that online education cannot be adapted to general education, the liberal arts, or more intellectually complex pursuits.   Yorktown University, for one, is aimed at this market, and other visionaries such as NAS’s Tom Wood have spent considerable time trying to imagine how a sophisticated high-end online university might be organized. 

So when UConn convened its Online Education Taskforce it was joining a discussion that is shot through with anxiety about whether this technology can be made to yield educational excellence. Are online courses likely to remain the all-night convenience stores of higher education? Will they end up serving students who are in a hurry for academic credits and credentials and not so worried about furnishing their minds? 

Shocked by Electracy?

That anxiety isn’t lessened by observations of college professors now encountering students brought up during the age of the Internet. Mark Bauerlein’s book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008) depicts students whose idea of excellence is a high score in the video game Halo or a good run in the latest edition of Grand Theft Auto.   Bauerlein argues that online technology erodes both taste and verbal development. Another NAS member, Thomas Bertonneau, has recently reflected on similar phenomena. In a series of essays titled What, Me Read? Bertonneau observes that his students have not only lost the capacity to attend well to the written word but seem to be stunted as well in their capacities to speak and to listen. And many seem to suffer from an “inability to remember things in an orderly way.” 

Possibly that’s what growing up in a hyperlinked reality cultivates. The ease with which the individual browsing the web links from topic to topic, freed from any compelling logic to return to the original thought and follow it through may be at work here. It is one thing for someone who has mastered disciplined thought to attend the footnotes and side paths. But what if an individual mental landscape is nothing but an ever-diverging network of trails?

This brings us back to that strange declaration by the UConn librarian that, “Higher education is transitioning from literacy to electracy.”   Fond as I am of nonce words, this one has the appeal of a water moccasin in a wading pool. 

But if you clicked on the link in that last sentence, you already know that “electracy” isn’t exactly a nonce word.   It has been around for twenty years and is at the center of its own academic cult. It has even achieved that summit of respectability, a Wikipedia page, according to which we owe the word to Gregory Ulmer, a professor of English at the University of Florida at Gainesville. It is perhaps not coincidence that the person who introduced “electracy” to the UConn Online Education Taskforce, Fedro Zazueta, is also from the University of Florida at Gainesville, where he is professor and director of the Office of Academic Technology. There is electracy in the air of Gainesville. 

Professor Ulmer’s original idea for electracy appears to be more an analogy than a precise concept. He declared electracy “is to digital media what literacy is to print.” That would seem to mean that electrary is the basic capacity to use digital media. (Here’s the “on” switch; this is a mouse; here’s how to open a file, etc.) But Ulmer intended something much grander. Electracy (electrical literacy) is supposed to conjure (in Wikipedia’s words) “the broader cultural, institutional, pedagogical, and ideological implications inherent in the transition from a culture of print literacy to a culture saturated with electronic media.” 

A Common Thread: Anti-Rationalism

It is hard to read that sentence without hearing the ghost of Marshall McLuhan telling us “the medium is the message.”   But it is other tutelary spirits that Ulmer’s acolytes invoke, such as the arch deconstructionist Jacques Derrida. What precisely are those engineers running UConn’s Taskforce doing in the intellectual vicinity of French post-structural theory? Has the Nutmeg State decided that knowledge is, after all, a tissue of illusions and contradictions best approached through the incomprehensible maunderings of English professors who have traded in literature for turgid ruminations about culture? 

Most likely, they have no idea of how Ulmer’s theory plays out. But I’m certainly arrested by the snippet quoted on Wikipedia: 

"What literacy is to the analytical mind, electracy is to the affective body: a prosthesis that enhances and augments a natural or organic human potential. Alphabetic writing is an artificial memory that supports long complex chains of reasoning impossible to sustain within the organic mind. Digital imaging similarly supports extensive complexes of mood atmospheres beyond organic capacity. Electrate logic proposes to design these atmospheres into affective group intelligence. Literacy and electracy in collaboration produce a civilizational left-brain right-brain integration. If literacy focused on universally valid methodologies of knowledge (sciences), electracy focuses on the individual state of mind within which knowing takes place (arts)."

My right brain, that engine of analogy and association, is working right now and notices that the distinction Ulmer draws here between the “affective body” and the “analytic mind” is very similar to the distinction argued by (A) the proponents of educating the whole person” in university student affairs programs, who depict the curriculum taught by faculty members as addressing only the analytic mind and hence fundamentally hostile to human flourishing; and (B) the proponents of putting “sustainability” at the center of higher education, who argue that reason needs to make way for a form of “reenchantment” with nature that will evoke among students “wonder, delight, and awe.” 

As it happens, the National Association of Scholars has been tracking these two movements—the residence life and students affairs power grab, and the effort to refocus the university on “sustainability”—for about a year. They sometimes converge. The University of Delaware’s lefty-indoctrination-in-the-dorms program was officially a program to promote “sustainability.” But even where the effort to make student affairs into a primary educational enterprise and the effort to turn campuses into boot camps for radical environmentalists are separate, they seem to share an eagerness to derogate the rational mind in favor of stimulating emotions.  

Romantic rejection of the supposed sterility of science and the narrowness of reason is nothing new. Hamlet was on the case when he told Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” But the dramatic testimony of a man who has just conversed with his father’s ghost isn’t really a very good basis for a college curriculum. Maybe we need actually to learn some philosophy before we decide that it is inadequate for the important decisions. Hamlet, after all, doesn’t fare too well in Shakespeare’s play, and it is the rationally-minded Horatio who is left standing at the end.

The therapeutic impulse in residence life programs that attempts to encompass “the whole person” and the desire of eco-radicals to turn students into awestruck admirers of the radish are, deep down, repudiations of higher education in favor of something else: togetherness, social justice, pantheism.   We seem to be in the midst of a new and widespread embrace of irrationalism. A lot of people are tired of logic, reasoning, evidence, and the open-minded search for truth. Ideologies that offer intuitive certainty and an emotional rush are on the rise.

American Schooling’s Anti-authority Ethos

Electracy is yet another assault on the central place of reason and rational inquiry in the university. Here too the goal is to overthrow the basic structures of intellectual inquiry as we know them and replace them with something that is, we are told, either urgently needed or just plain inevitable.   One of Ulmer’s followers, Alan Clinton, is quoted by Wikipedia as writing, “Ulmer’s pedagogy ultimately levels the playing field between student and teacher.” Students empowered by IMing and cell phones are certainly competing with teachers. To the extent that students, such as those encountered by Bauerlein and Bertonneau prefer to revel in their ignorance than actually learn anything, they have indeed “leveled the playing field.” But I doubt that this is a welcome development.   The authority of the teacher is important if a university is founded on reason. That’s because the person who knows more, in breadth and depth, and has honed the craft of leading others to advance in their own understanding needs to stand a little above his students.  

The demotic impulse in America is never far beneath the surface. We like to “question authority” and we have been inundated with theories in schools of education for several decades that encourage teachers to minimize their own authority. Would-be teachers are counseled to be “the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.”   Vapid advice like that has helped to foster in students an attitude that they never really need to listen—attentively and with implicit respect.   But not listening simply makes learning more difficult.    The best way to learn in many cases is to rely on authority initially until you know enough to frame meaningful questions or doubts.   Students who are denied this kind of guidance wander directionless in a frustrating search for a place to begin.  Meanwhile the adults congratulate themselves for not imposing “rote knowledge” on the students and letting them instead learn by “discovery.” 

Indeed it is nice to discover things for yourself. But even Columbus had a compass.

Cogency and Wholeness

Electracy seems to bundle these bad ideas together. It is the name that proponents of a new kind of anti-intellectualism have used to dress up slacker illiteracy and make it not just respectable but desirable.   Ulmer may have originally thought that electracy would complement literacy, and get the right and left brain working together—as if they ever really had parted company. But his teaching has evolved for his followers. As the UConn librarian put it, we aren’t looking to supplement literacy. We’re looking for a substitute. “Higher education is transitioning from literacy to electracy.”   If we are, we’re in trouble. 

This article, in which you have now reached the next to last paragraph, is an artifact of our online age. It grew from an email, which prompted multiple Google searches and reliance on Wikipedia. I wrote it on a computer and embedded links to various sites, including a couple of my own essays that reside on a website I help to maintain. When it is posted, it will be accompanied by digital photographs attached. It is possible that someone reading it will even use it in a college course and make it part of an online college course.   In that sense, it is a display of my and my readers’ “electracy.”   But far more importantly, this article is an exercise in rational literacy. To write it, I have had to read material and synthesize it. I have had to compose a sequence of ideas that, if I have done my work well, come together cogently.   I have asked the reader to stay with me as the focus shifted from UConn’s Taskforce; to the expanding world of online education; to the anxieties educators have about online learning; to the criticism that students raised on digital entertainment have trouble attaining genuine literacy; to Ulmer’s concept of electracy; to the anti-rationalism and elevation of emotions this concept shares with the “whole person”   student affairs pedagogy and the “re-enchanting” sustainability movement; to the anti-authority ethos in American schooling.   That’s a long train of ideas for an article posted to the Internet, and it is a sure thing that some readers have dropped by the wayside, distracted, bored, or impatient. But others have stuck with it and are, even now, considering the whole.  You don’t get to the whole if you do not possess the degree of literacy needed to comprehend an argument like this. Ironically, the whole is forever over the horizon to the skilled electracians who are not, first of all, literate. 

UConn’s Online Education Taskforce has a large and worthy problem on its hands. Higher education is destined to incorporate more and more online technology, and the students reaching college in the years ahead are destined to be less and less literate in the traditional sense.   A great many of them will be expert at social networking and completely adept ay clicking their way through the entire universe of linked this and that. But these skills will only entrench them more deeply in the proud ignorance and educational indifference that we see in many students today. They will have few natural defenses against the rising tide of irrationalism and the emotional appeals of we-have-all-the-answers ideologies. If UConn’s Taskforce, by dint of imagination and rational thought, devises a way to help these students escape the prison of their own electracy, it will have made a major contribution. 

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