V. Teaching With Technology for a Sustainable Future

If we are to address the crisis of sustainability that we face at the dawn of a new millennium, we must re-imagine not only how we approach the teaching of writing and the uses of technology in our teaching, but also, and more important, how we understand those activities as part of our being in the world. If my central premise--that the environmental crises we face today ultimately relate to our prevailing Western sense of self as a fundamentally autonomous, intellectual being--is at all valid, then we must change how we understand ourselves as beings-in-the-world. Such a project is really a generational task and one that goes well beyond any specific discipline, theory, or pedagogy. But I am increasingly convinced that we are in the midst of a broad and profound shift in how we understand ourselves as humans and how we view knowledge-making--a change that is akin to the changes in our collective understanding of the world that occurred in the West during the Enlightenment. Accordingly, the pedagogical changes I am proposing here should be seen as one small part of a much larger shift that is occurring in human self-understanding at the dawn of a new millennium, a shift that social critic Charlene Spretnak refers to as "the resurgence of the real."

In this light and in the context of my analysis of the relationships among writing, technology, and our sense of self, what I am proposing here is a pedagogy that emphasizes experience in order to foster a self-awareness based on the notion of nonduality--a self-awareness that in turn fosters just and sustainable ways of being-in-the-world. Such a pedagogy is not directly concerned with specific skills, bodies of knowledge, or theories so much as with how we experience ourselves and others in the world through literate activity.

This pedagogy represents a critical practice, to be sure, promoting a certain kind of critical awareness of self and other, of place and context; it seeks to foster a connected and interdependent sense of self that undermines separateness, hierarchy, and anthropocentrism. In this sense, this nondualist pedagogy is not about knowledge or transcendent Truth but about sensitivity to our relationships with each other and with the world of which we are inextricably a part. It is about the consequences of our practices, ideas, habits, and ways of being for those relationships. It is a human practice in the sense that to be human is to be an inextricable but critically aware part of what philosopher David Abram calls the more-than-human world.

To create such a pedagogy requires that writing as a practice and writing as a technology (along with technologies for writing, such as computers) be understood not as tools for certain tasks but as integral to our ways of being in the world. As I have argued in this webtext, the activity of writing, as well as our uses of computer technologies for writing, is implicated in the prevailing Western sense of self that works against connectedness and sustainability. Our task as teachers of writing, then, is to promote ways of understanding and practicing writing that challenge that Western sense of self and support the broader goals of connectedness and sustainability.

This general project has, in a sense, already been initiated in various distinct but compatible ways by educators, philosophers, and compositionists. I see five broad strands of theoretical, curricular, and pedagogical work that, in one way or another, support the basic principles I have discussed here and can provide a foundation for a more coherent framework for re-imagining the teaching of writing in ways that promote connectedness and sustainability:

  1. Progressive or Critical Pedagogies. "Critical pedagogy" has become a contested term of late, but I am using it here to refer to a body of theoretical and pedagogical work that generally views education as inherently political and that overtly promotes change through pedagogical practices that focus on critique of existing social and cultural structures. This general approach to education, which encompasses the work of such diverse scholars as Paulo Freire, Michael Apple, Jennifer Gore, Carmen Luke, Ira Shor, and Kathleen Weiler, among others, provides a potential foundation for the nondualist pedagogy I am envisioning here, which is also a pedagogy for change in the way that critical pedagogies present themselves to be.

  2. Environmental Studies. In the past decade and a half, a number of scholars from a wide range of disciplines, including ecology, biology, philosophy, and ethics, have proposed fundamental and dramatic changes in contemporary education as a way to address the crisis of sustainability. Taken as a whole, this work represents a view of education as integral to our ways of being in the world in terms of our inseparability from the ecosystems within which we live; moreover, it offers workable proposals for curricular and pedagogical reform intended to help prepare students to reconstruct our communities and cultures in ways that can ultimately become ecologically sustainable and socially just.

  3. Ecofeminism. It is surprising that ecofeminism has not received more attention in recent years, because this branch of feminist studies effectively brings together important developments in Composition Studies and English Studies, especially feminist theory and critical pedagogy, with studies in ecology in a way that is directly relevant to the project I am envisioning here. What is especially important about this work is the way in which it goes beyond a critique of patriarchy to propose models of teaching that rest on a sense of connectedness very similar to the idea of nonduality that I have discussed in this webtext.

  4. Phenomenological Rhetoric. In her recent award-winning book Toward a Phenomenological Rhetoric, compositionist Barbara Couture draws on phenomenology to conceive of rhetoric as "intersubjective truth-seeking" (184), that is, "conceiving of truth as a shared value with a good end for others as well as oneself" (184). Although it would be overstatement to say that phenomenology is a "movement" within Composition Studies, Couture's project links the historical tradition of rhetorical theory and practice to phenomenology's effort to understand the self in relation to others in a way that intersects with the argument I am making here about the need to re-imagine the self as fundamentally interconnected. In this sense, Couture's book is a ground-breaking and crucial part of the broader effort to re-imagine rhetorical theory and education in the wake of poststructuralism and in the face of the social and ecological challenges we face today. It provides a sophisticated philosophical foundation for the kind of re-imagined self that I am suggesting is crucial for confronting these challenges.

  5. Critical Technological Literacy. In recent years, a number of teachers and scholars interested in technology have illuminated the ways in which technology and its uses can reflect problematic ideological agendas. These teachers and scholars have called for careful attention to uses of technologies in teaching that can oppress and disempower. Notably, Cynthia Selfe has argued that teachers of writing must promote what she calls a "critical technological literacy" to counteract instrumentalist views of technology as a fix-all and to help students understand how technology can influence the way we function in the world. Selfe's warnings are especially applicable here, because they reinforce the idea that technology can become invisble and thus exacerbate the social and environmental problems we face. Her calls for a more critical approach to understanding and using technology can usefully inform the pedagogical proposals I am offering here.

These bodies of work provide rich ground on which to build the nondualist pedagogy I am proposing here. Although the differences among the visions presented by these diverse scholars and teachers are obvious, the parallels among them are striking and reflect what I believe is a growing consensus about the need for fundamental change in how we educate and in the way we understand knowledge and literacy in the context of our lives.

Derek Owens has taken up this project more directly than any other compositionist today, and his work reflects not just the kind of specific pedagogical change we should be considering but the more fundamental shift in perspective that our teaching should strive to foster. In arguing for a composition pedagogy that promotes the idea of sustainability, Owens alludes to the Iroquois Indian practice of anticipating the impact of a decision seven generations into the future and suggests adapting that practice to current business practices, so that in developing a product, for instance, a business would "take into consideration the necessity of its product in relationship to its 'ecological footprint'" as well as its broader social worth (2001, 27). Whether or not the Iroquois actually engaged in such a practice, the idea can, as Owens suggests, provide a heuristic for contemporary living. I'd suggest that we teachers of writing--especially those of us interested in new technologies for writing--make this idea of anticipating the impact of a specific action integral to our teaching and our uses of technology for teaching writing. In doing so, we might not only identify potential effects of our specific literate activities and their consequences for our lives as members of communities and ecosystems (as seen in the example of the publication of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) but we would also be fostering a habit of mind that is critical, compassionate, and consistent with the idea of nonduality.

The sort of sensitivity to other humans and to the world we inhabit that is implied by the Iroquois practice of anticipating impact would be a central part of the critical awareness that the pedagogy I am advocating here would attempt to foster in students. What this pedagogy might look like in practice would of course depend upon a variety of factors. We must account for the fact, for instance, that each of us teaches in specific circumstances that shape or even determine much of what we do and can do--circumstances that include curriculum guidelines, working conditions, the demographics of our student populations, and so on. But I would argue that we can develop a variety of pedagogical practices that are founded on basic principles consistent with the idea of nonduality that I have attempted to outline in this webtext.

The key, I believe, is to begin re-imagining our work as teachers and writers in ways that foster this fundamental sense of connectedness, a sense of self as of rather than in the world. And technology represents a powerful vehicle for this effort. Ironically, computer technologies, in the context of worldwide networks, foreground the idea of connectedness even as they can reify our physical disconnection from our local existence. As David Abram puts it,

In contrast to the apparently unlimited, global character of the technologically mediated world, the sensuous world--the world of our direct, unmediated interactions--is always local (266).

I believe we can foster in our students a perspective on computers and on technology in general that foregrounds such local connectedness at the same time that it fosters a sophisticated awareness of the global context within which we all now live.

Like others who work for social change, philosopher David Loy casts the effort to realize necessary changes--including changes meant to address our looming environmental crises--in similar terms:

Perhaps the future of our biosphere depends to some extent on the quiet, unnoticed influence of those working to overcome their own sense of subject-object duality (304).

That can--and should--be all of us.