4(2) p. 121

The Mobius Catch

Lee Roger Taylor, Jr.

Joseph Heller created the term Catch 22 to describe a paradox in which people become victims no matter what action they take. This can be taken one step further: composition teachers who want microcomputers for their classrooms frequently get caught in the Mobius Catch. A Mobius strip is a long strip of paper with parallel edges; the strip is twisted once then has its opposing ends glued together. The resulting construction has one surface that joins its opposing surface; the whole structure is twisted into an apparently infinite loop.

Composition teachers find themselves in the Mobius Catch when, on the one hand, they are suspected of using microcomputers because they can't teach, and, on the other, they're suspected of using microcomputers because they are trying to avoid teaching. In neither instance are they victims in any real sense; the grounds of their pedagogy merely become suspect. In one sense, it is an atmosphere that shifts continuously with unspoken glances and less frequent comments. No one, however, is actually

p. 122

prevented from using microcomputers in instruction. It is one of those odd paradoxes: teachers are pushed to use the new technology and viewed with suspicion at the same time for using it.

The Mobius Catch first came to mind recently when I read with considerable irritation a column in one of the computer industry trade journals. The title was "Schools Fail to Educate; Micros Fill In The Gap" by Jerry Pournelle (InfoWorld 15 Sept. 1986: 23).

Jerry Pournelle has distinguished himself as a science fiction writer, having produced a number of works in conjunction with the even more distinguished Larry Niven (The Mote in God's Eye, 1975; Inferno, 1976; Lucifer's Hammer, 1977). In addition, Pournelle has authored other works: Human Temperature Tolerance in Astronautic Environments, (1959); The Right to Read, (1971); and Escape from the Planet of the Apes, (1973). So, he is no stranger to educational ideas and trends, but what he has to say comes directly from the planet of the apes.

The column excoriated teachers in the public school system and colleges. The current educational system, according to Mr. Pournelle, "needs drastic changes . . . .we have, at great cost, built a swollen establishment whose major goal is to excuse failure, not produce success." He goes on to note that

We talk a lot about "education" but in reality we expect so little that if they can just teach some basic skills and cram in a few facts, we pretend that the schools have performed a
p. 123
miracle. We seldom demand anything complex before college, and we demand less and less there. What in the world will we use for education when knowing "facts" will be useless?

Mr. Pournelle notes that if microcomputers are the major facts suppliers then teachers will be meaningless. This situation will be even more true if parents stimulate the fundamental writing and reading skills at home. Who needs teachers then? The microcomputer will supply all students need to know whether they are in public school or college. Mr. Pournelle doesn't stop there; he gets darker in his prophecy and further out on a limb:

The education establishment is never going to permit any fundamental reform of the school system and probably has the power to prevent the government from using voucher systems to subsidize competition with the public meat grinder . . . .The micro came at just the right time: We may yet recover from the results of this "act of war."

I have little quarrel with the ideas Pournelle has for improving the overall educational system in this country, but he goes even further and lumps the colleges in with the public school system. We should all, of course, avoid overgeneralizations. Mr. Pournelle, however, conjures up images of low-browed

p. 124

teachers with knuckles dragging the pavement, dressed in animal skins (or less), who are ready to do battle to stop progress, reform, and advances or whatever synonym he feels appropriate. In his view, the valiant administrations in schools and colleges are fighting losing battles against lazy teachers who really care nothing about new techniques or ideas.

Somewhere, somehow, Mr. Pournelle slipped up. One could wonder when was the last time that he actually stepped into a classroom. Microcomputers are now ubiquitous in classrooms around the country from--kindergarten to the college micro/composition lab. And, worse, Mr. Pournelle would have us believe that the educational establishment, in its effort to retard reform or progress, resisted these heinous devices that, as a local resident in my community once said, "are merely a passing fad."

As teachers of composition who use the microcomputer to facilitate and enhance the composition process (not to mention developmental skills), we may laugh politely Mr. Pournelle's blind spots. What he says, however, carries a more subtle and seldom outspoken criticism in the college environment--particularly in reference to the composition laboratory. The subtlety lies in the ambiguity of the title of Mr. Pournelle's article: "Schools Fail To Educate; Micros Fill In the Gap." I had originally thought the title implied that in failing to educate, educators use micros to avoid further teaching. I confess that I am guilty of a knee-jerk response any time someone suggests that I am using computers to avoid teaching. This issue represents the other surface of the Mobius Catch.

p. 125

We now have a subtle reversal of Mr. Pournelle's suggestion. As he noted, micros will save students from teachers who don't teach. The reverse is that some teachers will use micros to avoid teaching. If the teachers don't use micros, they retard reform and, hence, progress. On the other hand, if they use micros, they are obviously trying to avoid their teaching responsibilities. The teachers are not victims of the Catch-22, rather, the teachers are the actively lazy participants in a scheme in which they must work harder to do less work.

I can't be certain how prevalent the assertion that teachers might use computers to avoid teaching is. I suspect, however, that it is fairly common and largely unvoiced.

One of my many committee responsibilities on my campus is the Computer Usage Committee, a large amorphous and much-hated body. Last year, the English Department made a valiant effort to obtain a computer writing lab of its own so that it would not have to share the deteriorating micros in the Independent Study Lab. Naturally, the English Department was expected to justify its need (which it had no trouble doing). Calculations of time usage, however, were insufficient. The question that kept recurring from one representative of the administration was "Exactly how are you going to use them?" As defender of the department, I felt uncomfortably like I was attempting to justify our pedagogy. Ultimately, the administrative representative blurted out, "Why don't you just concentrate on teaching and let the students play on the computers in the lab?" I smoldered rather visibly for a few minutes before finally laughing rather hollowly and patting my opponent

p. 126

on the arm gently and said, "Ha-ha, that's really very funny." (Hysterics, though satisfying emotionally, are usually self-defeating.) The problem, of course, did not go away, and the English Department is still seeking its own microcomputer laboratory. Meanwhile, computers mysteriously appear on the desks of secretaries without the secretaries having ever appeared before the Computer Usage Committee while faculty and laboratory requests struggle amid a sea of committee entanglements.

Implicit in this observation are three apparent principles:

  1. College administrations want to encourage the use of computers by students;
  2. College administrations distrust faculty who want to use computers in or out of the classroom;
  3. Secretaries rarely, if ever, have to justify the need for a computer.

The problem at my school has yet to be fully resolved; it establishes an undercurrent whenever faculty are linked to computers. It involves the suspicion that we as faculty want to avoid our responsibilities to the students. As faculty--in particular, teachers who must teach the fundamental principles of writing--we need access to the microcomputer technology both for our students and ourselves. The computer becomes the tool of learning to learn in our hands and those of our students. An atmosphere of distrust negates any progress

p. 127

that we could ever hope to achieve with our students.

As teachers, we once feared that we would ultimately be replaced in the classroom by computers. Jerry Pournelle, in his column, argues that we should be; on the other hand, the educators' struggle for the very machines they once feared are, in most cases, Olympian, futile battles. It is the Mobius Catch: the surfaces change subtly so that the teachers are never actually sure which surface they are on--one becomes the other. And, worse, the whole affair loops around so that they suspect they are back where they started but never really sure; bread I crumbs are the only obvious answer.

Lee Roger Taylor teaches at Western Wyoming College, in Rock Springs, New York.