Necessary smarm

I just finished drafting an email to be sent to faculty, inviting them to use our Movable Type blogs in their classrooms during the Spring semester. Writing these sorts of general-audience appeals is tough. The language we’ve used in the past has felt kind of smarmy and usedcarsalesmanesque to me. Check out this Incredible program we’ve got going on! Imagine all the Amazing things you can get out of it! And boy, do we Provide Support! I tried scrapping the whole thing and starting from scratch, but gave up and used a slightly modified version of the old pitch.

My discomfort with the whole thing comes from a couple sources. For one, I don’t particularly like the idea of selling the technology. The blogging initiative is housed within the Writing Across the Curriculum program, and with good reason – student blogs are only valuable insofar as they provide some benefit to the goals of the course, which usually ends up having something to do with writing. So there’s a sense in which I’d like the email to say “Do you want your students to accomplish academic goals x, y, and z? Here is a tool for you!” But this kind of pitch feels disingenuous, making the tech tool sound like a magic elixir that will simply, you know, “get the job done”.

At the same time, if I scale back the rhetoric and talk in more measured terms about the kind of benefits that students might get from blogging, I’ll probably limit my audience. Faculty members get a ton of requests to try new things, and if my request is riddled with conditionals and hedges, it’s not clear that it will shine through as something worth doing. The only people who will be persuaded by that kind of talk are people who are already warm to the ideas I’m pushing – the “low-hanging fruit”, as a colleague of mine once called these faculty members. And while there’s nothing wrong with this low-hanging fruit, I want to broaden the base of bloggers a bit each semester.

In the end, I rationalize the smarmy sales pitch to myself as follows. The point of the pitch is to get them in the door, thinking about what blogging is, and maybe giving it an earnest try in their classes. The benefit for their teaching, if there is one, will make itself apparent, regardless of whether this benefit is as Incredible and Amazing (or perhaps totally Different From) what was “promised” in the original pitch. I don’t think this makes me cynical, I think it makes me pragmatic. Or at least I hope so.

4 thoughts on “Necessary smarm

  1. Luke

    This is a familiar feeling.

    I tend to go with the “get them in the door” approach, and do this in a couple of ways… we try to refer to our installation as a personal publishing platform, and emphasize that the strength of the software is that it elegantly interacts with other communicative technologies. So, more than pushing blogging, we’re pushing Blogs@Baruch as a path into teaching or communicating with Web 2.0 throughout the college.

    I also tend to keep emails short and sweet, and have them go through existing channels for communicating with faculty and staff (the AVP’s office, for instance). The emails briefly describe the platform, link to the portal, and encourage inquiries. We’ve designed Blogs@Baruch so that a variety of models across the disciplines are accessible to faculty and to administrators looking for a communication solution. Word of mouth is now doing some of our recruiting work for us, which we’re happy about.

    There’s nothing wrong with the low-hanging fruit. Gotta start somewhere, and a serious level of want-to is necessary to make these suckers fly. I think there’s only so much good that can come from confronting skepticism (it’s inevitable when doing fac dev, but it’s usually absent in the most exciting projects… faculty who are imaginative, willing to experiment, and who value experiential learning are the best to work with). Anyways, getting faculty to speak with one another and reflect upon their teaching with these tools is also better than you evangelizing them.

    I also guess I feel that instead of selling the technology, or in addition to selling the technology, I’m offering my collaboration in solving a pedagogical or communication problem; that makes me feel a little better about my work. It helps to make faculty see you as a teacher and a scholar who works with technology rather than a just a tech guy. You know, the whole instructional technology v information technology thing…

  2. Boone Post author

    Thanks for your thoughts, Luke.

    I like your stance of promoting B@B as “a path into teaching or communicating with Web 2.0 throughout the college” and promoting yourself as a collaborator in “solving a pedagogical or communication problem”. The more thoughtful instructors and those of us working in instructional tech will likely share a (rough) vision of what these pedagogical problems are. But this kind of approach won’t work for promoting more general adoption – convincing an instructor that, for instance, blogging helps students to develop a sense of audience is very difficult if the instructor’s main problem with student writing is confusion between their, they’re and there. I think you’re right that evangelizing is not the most productive use of our time (it’s certainly not very fun). Yet at some point, ideally, we would be able to leverage our IT tools and know-how to enlarge the number of faculty members who appreciate the kinds of pedagogical problems we find important. A big job, I suppose.

  3. Ed Webb

    Speaking from thw low-hanging fruit side of this, I think a productive approach is to engage us as partners in modeling this stuff. If colleagues see that we’re having fun, the students are learning well etc., they will be more inclined to try some of the tools.


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