Is there an app for instinct?

September 13, 2009.

It was the day of the Wisconsin Ironman race. After training for a year, the day was here.  But it threw us some unexpected wrinkles.  My husband was racing with a fever, body aches, a headache, and fatigue (we now know he was racing that day with H1N1).  It was a struggle for him to wake up and get to the start but he did it without any complaint. When I saw him lay down and fall asleep 30 minutes before the start of the swim, I questioned whether he would be able to finish given his physical state.  I never said that aloud to him.

Fast forward eight hours—we were on the bike course holding court on what many referred to as the “Tour de France” hill.  He had done one loop of the bike course (and crested this hill once) and we arrived to cheer him up the hill for the second time.  We got there 30 minutes ahead of when we calculated he would start the ascent (according to his standard pace and split times from the swim).  We knew that by the time he got to us, he would have crossed the 80-mile marker, where his chip would have registered a second split time for the bike.  We had been on the hill for over an hour, and had not seen Karl.

“He should be here by now,” I said with a bit of worry in my voice.
My brother (a three-time Ironman) tried to reassure me…
“He’ll be here.”
“But I don’t see his splits posted on the website.”
“Don’t worry. Sometimes splits are a bit delayed.”
“His splits aren’t posting…”
“Refresh your iPhone, maybe they’ve posted now.”
“I keep refreshing…nothing.”
“He’ll be here—last time we saw him he looked strong.”
“But his splits aren’t posting.”

My brother—a much more mathematically minded person than I—tried to reassure me again:
“I might have done the math wrong.  Let me re-calculate based on his swim time and first bike split.  Give me a minute to do the calculations.”

I don’t know how, but I managed to muster up a bit of comic relief as I clutched my iPhone:
“Is there an app for that?”

We continued to cheer for other bikers and as each rider crested.  My brother, a friend, and I continued to squint down to the bottom of the hill—hoping to see my husband start the climb.  My daughter laid on the picnic blanket in the shade, waiting for my signal to come out into the hot sun to cheer on her dad. I knew he was sick and having an altogether unexpected race experience but the last time I had seen him he looked focused, determined, and strong.  But his splits weren’t posting.  I kept refreshing and refreshing.  I entered the website from a different program on the iPhone.  The phone itself was smeared with suntan lotion from my fingers continuing to attempt to refresh the browser, and had a couple of sticky sections where drops of race drink had spilled on it.  There was grass lodged in the edges of the protective cover from where I had dropped it a couple of times—seeing a far off rider who resembled my husband (but was not) and dropping everything (literally) to run and check if it was him.

He looked strong, I kept telling myself.  He’ll finish.
But his splits aren’t posting.
Which do I trust—the technology or my gut?

Scholars on technology in communication and composition suggest that we, as teachers and administrators, should have a critical eye towards technology in the classroom.  Some suggest we become “technology critics as well as technology users” (Selfe & Selfe, 2008); whereas others warn (based on observations and experience) that technology could come between teachers and students (Hawisher & Selfe, 2008); and could actually create a situation where students are psychodynamically separated from one another while living in the same physical space (Anson, 2008).  These warnings, in light of my recent experience with technology during my husband’s race, bring to the fore an important question for me:

  • To what extent do educational technologies (or any technology, for that matter, being used in the classroom content) create structures and networks of information that dull pedagogical instinct in adverse ways?

Let me explain.  My anxiety over my husband’s non-appearance at the calculated time was not dulled by the technology—it was increased by it.  Without the iPhone, I would have had to rely solely on my knowledge of my husband, his state of being that day, and his character as an athlete and person.  Sure, I would have had some of the same doubts that crossed my mind without the technology—my mind would have gone to the extremes with or without the iPhone (was he hospitalized?  Did he get a flat and couldn’t fix it?  Did he pass out?).  My response to these doubts, though, was to continue to try to make the technology reassure me.  When it did not fulfill its duty, I got more anxious.  Perhaps my anxiety would have continuously increased without the technology, but part of me believes that I would have drawn on something else to mitigate the nerves.  Call it instinct or intuition or simply my gut feeling—I probably would have been more in tune with it had I not been so concerned about getting my browser refreshed to see the split times.

After this experience, when I think about using technology in the classroom I hear the warnings of the scholars but tune into their concerns with a slightly different focus—a focus on the relationship of teaching, technology and instinct.  If I am to be a technological critic with regard to this topic, several questions arise:

  • When I use a net forum discussion, to what extent does the technological medium create a space in which I (as a participant) have less access to my intuitive sense of participation and power in discussion interaction?
  • As I have novice research methods students create YouTube videos of qualitative research processes, to what extent does the medium distract me from attending to moments where my gut tells me they are struggling?
  • When I ask new GTAs to engage in an online chat about their teaching concerns, can I tune into what my instinct tells me about students’ relative needs for independence versus assistance while at the same time trying to type quickly enough to give the discussion some direction?
  • To what extent could course blogs that detail students’ interaction with the readings move me away from moments when I look students in the eyes and almost naturally know where to go next as a teacher and mentor?
  • How will technologies like course wikis influence students’ instinct as peer learners and social partners in educational contexts?

In short, to what extent will the technology move me (and students) further away from a tool I hold as priceless in my teaching repertoire—my pedagogical instinct? I do not have the answers to these questions.  I ask them as a reminder to myself to tune in—to attend to the relationship between technology and pedagogical instinct and to explore for myself how they intermingle.

An hour and twenty minutes after the calculated time, my husband appeared at the bottom of the hill.  We ran up the hill with him, cheering him on.  Near the top of the hill, I managed to catch his eye.  He looked me in the eye, gave me the sign for “I love you,” and crested the hill and took off.  At that moment, I knew he was going to finish.  At that moment, when I looked him in the eye—I saw everything I needed to see to know that.

There is no app for that.

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One thought on “Is there an app for instinct?

  1. Hello Deanna –

    An interesting post – and rather serendipitous. While you were gathering app insight in Wisconsin I was talking to your class about Moodle, the Learning Management System [LMS] that will eventually serve most of our classes here at State.

    What I most wanted to convey to them fit in one sentence: “Decide what your objective for the class is and then see if the LMS can help.” The notion that pedagogy should drive technology seems in complete agreement with your post 🙂

    I am exploring an extension of that idea in a blog for one of my classes that I will share with you later. But here is the central idea: Technology contains information, but the container influences the information it contains.

    Consider children at the beach. We have moved far beyond the simple buckets of my youth. Toddlers now arrive with a host of containers in a myriad of shapes. The same sand goes into all the containers, but what comes out is a joint production of the sand and the container.

    I am not saying that technology totally transforms information but it certainly, as your post delightfully illustrates, influences its form and hence its potential impact.

    As far as keeping track of Karl is concerned, you might want to consider getting a GPS chip inserted in his arm – you know like people do for their pets? I KNOW there’s an app for that! 🙂