What Do We Want? Swamp Drainage!

In the following post, the names have been changed to protect the guilty…

As an ecologist, I was aware of the potentially disastrous consequences of ‘draining the swamp’ even prior to the emergence of a rogue twitter feed, captained by one Blonald J. Rump. Still, I reassured myself that this was politics; sweeping hyperbole and ‘catchphrase’ rhetoric are to be expected, if history is any judge. I don’t give it a second thought, and neither should you.

What does worry me though, is a similar rallying cry emanating from inside my own clique of higher education.  Teaching at all levels is getting an overhaul, and it seems to be WiFi-way or the highway. The attitude of young-career academics can be paraphrased thus: ‘If only the old fusty lecturers of a bygone era would hurry up and retire, we could all get on with fixing this mess’. Or in other words: ‘drain the swamp!’ In the absence of any comment from Mr Blump on the subject, I would like to offer my own reservations concerning this dissent.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the future. I direct any skeptics to my previous revelry for the technological revolution we live amidst. Soon, you will be able to browse the internet directly through your brain, read any book ever written, and instantly communicate with anyone around the globe. A brave new world perhaps, but one that I welcome with open arms.

Support for the new however, does not necessitate disdain for the old. For instance when I teach, I still make a point to move over to the chalkboard for noting equations and figures. Anachronistic perhaps, but I would argue that this is the period of the lecture when my students pay the most attention! They suddenly sit bolt upright, startled by the piercing noise of chalk on slate, perplexed by the white powdery drawing tool. As you might imagine, they have no trouble recollecting the equations (or such and such a figure) for their exam when the time comes, because they have vivid images of me fumbling around with this mysterious, antiquated technology; we wade through the swamp.

It is in its novelty that the chalkboard continues to succeed in engaging the students of today. One would assume that this phenomenon only magnifies in effect as it becomes rarer and rarer. This is why I implore young people to reconcile their ideologies with  traditional pedagogical practices; we are stood on the shoulders of giants after all, best not antagonize them. I support traditional methods not because they are tradition, but because they work! They have after all, got us this far.

Swamp drainage is irrevocable.  Swamps are delicate ecosystems, with each component being honed over millions of years to perfectly suit its role within the system. It is usually our own ignorance to blame, not the swamp, when things seem flawed or sub-optimal. We can modify the ecosystem for our own comfort, or we can be one with nature, the choice is ours. However if we turn our collective backs on the grand history of higher education, we risk throwing out the baby with the swamp-water.

3 Replies to “What Do We Want? Swamp Drainage!”

  1. I see what you are trying to say and there are definitely both advantages and disadvantages to any educational practice. I don’t think that the idea is to do away with “everything” that has been a traditional method. I believe the idea is to make sure we are able to be flexible with the new generation of students, that may or may not necessarily understand or appreciate the traditional methods. It is quite possible that the chalk and blackboard method still works for some…it is possible it doesn’t for others. I think it becomes a balancing act…definitely not one that disrupts that natural balance maintained by an ecosystem.

  2. We all talk about how we can engage students better…. Maybe chalk and board is a way to do it.. Or maybe it is something else. I agree with Jyotsana that we need to balance the expectations of the incoming students with the limitations of the traditional curriculum. Keeping up with the state of the art (or science) should be applicable to everything in academia, whether pedagogical or practical.

  3. I’ve always loved swamps myself, and I share your desire to protect delicate ecosystems. I agree that we shouldn’t jettison the old just because we can or assume the new and different are necessarily better. I don’t miss the chalk board, but I have gone back to taking some kinds of notes by hand. Using a pen. And paper. Yes, I type faster on the computer and it’s easier to manipulate the text. But the physical act of writing slows me down and helps me consolidate what I’m learning / remembering.
    Rather than swamp draining I think about the way I’ve modified my teaching recently more in terms of developing more effective filters and amplifiers. More to come…

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