A Shameful Confession

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my first stint at Mary Washington, now close to 10 years ago. (wow!) I’m not sure why, except that a few things have reminded me about how different the job I have now is compared to the one I had then.

In early 2000, I joined the staff of the then Department of Instructional Technology at Mary Washington College. My job involved working out of an office in duPont hall, where I supported the faculty in the fine and performing arts. The job was a very different one from what we do in DTLT now. Located as we were in the academic buildings, we became, by default, the de facto user support system for the faculty. My job consisted more of fixing printers, installing software, and troubleshooting scanners than it did of consulting or partnering with faculty.

I worked in virtual isolation, only seeing my colleagues in DTLT once or twice a week for staff or project meetings. We actually collaborated on projects rather infrequently; our technical support duties didn’t leave us much time to imagine or create.

Professional development was pretty non-existent. At one point, my then boss recommended that I might consider becoming an Apple Certified Technician as a developmental step. I’m sure that’s a great certification, but it wasn’t really what I had gotten into instructional technology for.

All of this said, I deserve no credit for either challenging that situation or even thinking very far outside of the box. Whereas a year prior I had been in grad school in New York imagining how open source software development practices could inform education and the development of educational software and tools, I found myself at a loss of how I could continue to think creatively in my new job.

Recently, I remembered two examples of my failure in that job.

About a year into the position, a faculty in the music department approached me about a project she wanted to work on. Every summer, she and the other music faculty auditioned dozens of students for placement in the program. She really wanted to take the registration process for this activity online, allowing students to sign up and reserve slots through a Web site. She asked me for help.

I remember telling her there wasn’t anything I could really do for her.

I thought about this the other day when, searching for a good event plugin for our new WP-powered DTLT site, I came across one that allowed for the very functionality she was describing.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my response to her. Why couldn’t I help her? Was it because the technology wasn’t there yet? I didn’t have the technical chops that were required in 2000 to do what she asked? Or was it a failure of my own imagination and initiative?

Now, arguably, what she was asking me to do wasn’t *really* instructional technology (whatever that is), but it was a hell of a lot more interesting than un-jamming printers.


Around the same time, I was asked by my then boss to start leading a workshop we offered on computer-mediated communication. I remember trying to put together a plan for that workshop and being completely flummoxed. What was I going to show them? How to use email? In 2000, showing a professor how to instant message seemed ludicrous, unless it was the “virtual classroom” in Blackboard. As the workshop drew closer, I grew more and more anxious about my job. One faculty member signed up; on the day of the workshop, he didn’t show up. I was relieved.

Sigh. Sigh. Sigh.

I wish I could say I had risen to these challenges. I wish I could feel alright telling myself that it wasn’t my fault, but I have this nagging feeling that it was.

When I think back on both of those experiences, what I remember feeling most was fear. Fear at being asked to do something I couldn’t do. Fear of being exposed as a fraud in my job.

Occasionally, I find myself drifting towards the same fearful reaction when asked to do something that is new, uncomfortable, or now what I expected. I guess I need to try and keep reminding myself of how far fear didn’t get me before.

7 thoughts on “A Shameful Confession”

  1. Ah, but what’s different now is that you’re not isolated like you were then. Even if you weren’t in your current job, you’d have a support network of people who could help you brainstorm ways of teaching “computer-mediated communication,” people that you had met, in many cases, through, uh, “computer-mediated communication.”

    In any case, what your stories remind me is that so much of what we do that makes our work meaningful we’ve done because we’ve had a community of people supporting us in the risks needed to get there.

  2. Jeff is right on target. Being a part of a community that you have a history with is key to having the courage to try new things. The other consideration is that a decade is a lifetime in this world of educational tech. Back then you probably wouldn’t have been able to write php code on the college server, so even a simple registration program would have been impossibly complex. Also, fixing printers and trying to recover data from failing hard drives will *always* drive out creativity and community. Confession is good for the soul; fear comes with the territory we work in. No shame called for IMO.

  3. Hah! This *so* similar to my own experience here at Earlham it’s uncanny. But to me the real lesson is what you’ve been able to do recently. I’ve just been poking around http://umwblogs.org and wow, what a fabulous design! Can we pay you to do a design for us? Only half jesting. Very impressive work, well done!

  4. Mark,

    Thanks for the comment. It’s always good to hear that others are going through this same process as we struggle to figure out the best way to envelop emerging technologies into our institutions and our lives. And, Gene is right — confession is good for the soul!

    Glad you like UMW Blogs. The only credit I can take is for the current homepage design. The rest of that vibrant community is a reflection of the amazing faculty and students at UMW — and the blood, sweat, and tears of Jim Groom!

  5. Your story is similar to me own. And, you probably have experienced this too, it is a common theme for many educational technology professionals. When I get together with my peers from NITLE or at ELI, so many have the same “funny stories,” and “I feel so misunderstood stories.” And oddly enough, they tend to take on your same confessional tone.

    To my mind and with my own situation as the context, it comes down to placing the instructional technologists in with the computing group. Back when I was hired (at Vassar College) in late 1998 to support GIS, there was no one doing this kind of focused high-end technology support. Hell, I never really did a job like that before either. But the smart professor-types knew they needed someone to load software and find GIS datasets, keep the machines running and still be able to “talk shop” with the profs, to be able to support faculty members outside the primary user group, which was the geographers and the geologists. And over these past ten years or so the position has seriously evolved as the web and other emergent technologies have. I hate to sound like a snob, but you can’t do all that good stuff, be technically focused and still be able to mix it up with faculty on their level, with just a high school degree or with a background limited to technology training. I’d even go so far as to say, having an advanced degree in which primary research was conducted is essential for these roles on campuses.

    Anyway, your former boss, instead of encouraging you to take Apple Certification (?!), he/she should have encouraged you to give talks or write papers with faculty on the cool projects you collaborated on, work on grant proposals for bringing in some technology that faculty were asking for but lacked internal financial support, or to seek coveted, academic fellowships, all of these are critically important to the educational mission and are more beneficial to my professional development than learning the latest on how to image a PC lab, staunch out viruses and fix printers and scanners. The computing group and those who rise to the top and become CIOs do not know what to do with those of us in the academic computing world.

  6. Meg, interestingly, my unit back 10 years ago was positioned within the academic side of things — we reported through the then Provost. By comparison, my latest stint at the University (which has resulted in a job and a group of colleagues that are pretty amazing)was originally positioned within the IT department. Due to some reorganization, we now report through the Provost’s office.

    In my experience, the question of where instructional technology should live has as much to do with the people inhabiting certain key positions at the University as it does with the philosophical choice of institutional location.

    That said, I do recognize that so many of my colleagues at other institutions have NOT found hospitable homes within IT. I think this has more to do with the fact that many people in positions of power within IT aren’t necessarily sensitive to the academic mission of a University or College. I’m not sure what the solution to that is–but having worked for two CIOs in my career who were simply stellar, I do know it is possible for a CIO to both be effective IT leaders AND promote the academic (and research) mission above all else.

    All of THAT said, in my heart of hearts I wonder what this business of “instructional technology” is really about sometimes. I’m honestly not sure where we fit into our institutions, and the extremely varied experiences of my colleagues at other colleges and universities seems to be evidence that many of our institutions don’t know where we fit, either.

    Thanks for the comment!

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