THE (VIRTUAL) TEACHER
The essay will be an attempt at reassessing the role of teachers and at redefining college teaching in the electronic age. I am a lecturer teaching a large Intro to the Humanities/Writing Core course, which, like many other freshman-level courses, is a complex structure requiring attendance to lectures and to discussion sections. Both parts are essential to developing important skills: listening and following an oral argument, in the lecture part; mastering and applying analytical and argumentative skills, in the discussion-section part. I teach in a ‘smart’ classroom, where I can evoke written texts, images, and sounds right there on the spot; my students carry their laptops—and even when they sit side-by-side they email each other their drafts for peer review. Conversely, they can work at common projects via wiki no matter where they are; we all can review for finals via chat room. It is impossible to ignore the impact of technology on our everyday practice—if only for the way it matters for our audience, the student body, and their way of communicating with each other. But the question is: over and above the great wealth of data available and the easy connectivity and constant reachability of the members of our classroom community even outside the classroom, to what extent is technology helping teachers to achieve their pedagogical objectives—or is it rather forcing us to reconsider them? In an attempt to provide a balanced answer to this question, my analysis will go back to the classic models of teaching presented in Plato’s Meno and Phaedrus and in Augustine’s De Magistro and Confessions. I am interested in these texts for three main reasons:
1. They represent the philosophical archetypes of modern psychological and pedagogical theories, so in them the philosophical stakes of such theories are at the forefront.
2. The figure of the teacher in them performs an intriguing double rhetorical gesture: while on the one hand he denies his function as a ‘transmitter of knowledge,’ on the other he still poses himself as instrumental to learning—and I would like to explore how (as it could prove relevant to address our questions concerning technology)
3. They address problems arising from the technology of their times; specifically, Plato discusses the relation between writing and memory; in Confessions, the hot new ‘technology’ is reading silently. So they can provide clues— by contrast—concerning what our technology is doing to us—or what we can do with it