AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

10. Postmodern and Poststructural Theory

10.1 Read me first
10.2 Postmodernism
10.3 Realism and the Symbolic: Two Ways of Knowing
10.4 Poststructural Feminism and Research in Educational Communications and Technology
10.5 Postmodern and Poststructural Theory
10.6 Conclusion
10.7 Envoi
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10. 7 ENVOI (Andrew R. J. Yeaman)

Chapter 10 ends, by way of an envoi, with a personal voice. As remarked in the introductory section, there is some difference between metaphorical and supposedly straightforward language. It is a theme that has been present throughout, and it resurfaces in this contemporaneous essay.

10. 7.1 Apple Pie with Mustard

References to Derrida, Foucault, poststructural, and postmodern are becoming no more unusual in current academic prose than the salt, pepper, and sugar found on cafeteria tables. These names and terms represent general concepts. Like condiments, they have specific functions, are used in established rituals, and convey general meanings. They may be applied ungrammatically by people who have not yet learned the appropriate cultural associations. Like pouring salt into a cup of coffee, Latour's insightful exploration of modem scientific knowledge is marred by overreacting to extreme postmodern criticisms (1993). It is Jean Baudrillard in particular whom Latour overrates as representing all postmodern thinkers in not only totally condemning science but also accepting media representations as the only tangible reality. [An article by Baudrillard (1975/199 1) has been included in the book of educational technology readings edited by Hlynka & Belland.] Like shaking sugar onto a plate of french fries, Papert spices up structuralist thinking derived from Piaget with "It is necessary to do a little deconstruction . . ." (1993, p. 136). In contrast, Turkle's (1995) connections to Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard make sense, but it is reasonable to question how much readers to whom these ideas are new will be able to comprehend. Just as foreign students may at first scoop chocolate pudding onto their plates of roast beef, Webster assembles various postmodernisms (1995, p. 175). [Webster's list seems derived from Poster's response to postindustrial totality (1990), which aligns Baudrillard with television and consumption, Foucault with digitization, Derrida with hypertext, and Lyotard with the politics of computerization.] Abstractions from quite different thinkers have been sampled by Webster as if they come from a smorgasbord at a technoboosters' conference for social, technological, and aesthetic change. However, in Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard, the emphasis remains on the activities that Webster values: cultural continuity, the persistence of history, and the undiminished importance of seeking to understand rhetoric and power.

These generalizations deserve to be read cautiously, Re a browser's hypertextual path. There is at present no intellectual cartographer who has thoroughly mapped the positions of Adomo, Barthes, Benjamin, Derrida, Foucault, Habermas, Horkheimer, Lacan, Lévi-Strauss, Lyotard, Marcuse, and Sartre, among other important contemporary thinkers. The chart would show relationships in terms of points of agreement, disagreement, and indifference such as May (1995) answering Dews (1987) on the left. It would show theories in terms of influence and interaction over time such as Derrida (1994) responding to Fukuyama on the right (1992). The enterprise is complex and could not be undertaken without reading, verifying, and cataloging many diverse works. It would be worthwhile but as, in all visual and verbal representations, much would necessarily remain undecidable (Yeaman, 1995b).

Oversimplifications continue. The following example shows how postmodern, poststructural seasoning in educational communications and technology can be no better than sprinkling salt and pepper on the pages. Tossing in a postmodern reference can be no different from serving apple pie with mustard.

Wright's creed seems to be that school library media specialists must convince everyone to computerize now and forever (1993). The message of The Challenge of Technology: Action Strategies for the School Library Media Specialist is along the lines of Promise people anything to get them to cooperate because technological changes are unavoidable, necessary, and for the good of all. [For diverging views see Crawford & Gorman (1995), Stoll (1995), and Talbott (1995) among other authorities critical of library automation as technolust.]

Wright writes: "Postmodern critics are concerned that technology will allow meaningful consideration of only that which can be treated objectively and computerized, treating all other aspects as meaningless" (1993, p. 14) and then refers to Damarin (1991)..In suggesting strategies for taming "philosophic critics" and "postmodern critics," Wright misrepresents Damarin as a reductionist who believes culture is shaped by the tools available. Wright patronizingly accommodates Damarin: "This philosophical criticism is helpful where it raises questions about any technological drift toward dehumanizing the educational process" (1993, p. 15). Wright misses Damarin's point by completely leaving out the "feminist unthinking-rethinking-energizing-transforming of educational technology" (Damarin, 199 1, p. I 11).

The structure of Wright's writing (1993) draws comment beyond the fact that sentences are quoted from Damarin (1991) out of order. Wright's page 14 parallels Damarin's article (1991). Wright follows Damarin in quoting a definition of educational technology as solutions that are more than hardware (AECT, 1977, p. 1) but bypasses Damarin's criticism that the sources of the problems are unspecified. Next, Wright incorporates another quotation exactly the same as that used by Damarin: "The underlying premise of modern automation is a profound distrust of thinking human beings" (Garson, 1988, p. 261). Wright takes this for speculation and does not seem to know that Garson writes about work, not school, and that Garson's words are a summary statement from a data-driven book of case studies, interviews, and reflections on site visits. After a couple of more sentences, Wright acknowledges Damarin's work but not the feminist thesis: In a cultural mesh valuing males over females, educational technologies may be gender biased and should be reconsidered.

The, photograph on the front cover of 7he Challenge of Technology shows three girls in computer training for carpal tunnel syndrome. The computer station is set up too high for the girl at the keyboard who has her wrists pressed against the sharp edge of the table. That Wright (1993) has no comment to make on this obvious problem confirms Goodall Jr.'s fieldwork in highly technological industries: "Technology is sorcery, word-magic, the secret tongues of a burgeoning civil religion. It is something its adherents believe in rather than do" (1994, p. 167).

Although it is not illegal to eat your apple pie with mustard, nor with ketchup and pickles, it is possible to rethink the social aspects of design processes. More of the people affected can participate in planning without being sidetracked and silenced. There is a very positive review by Napper in ETR&D (1994) of Design at Work, edited by Greenbaum and Kyng (1991). Although mostly influenced by Frankfurt School critical theory, rather than Derrida and Foucault, the procedures demonstrated in the book are an excellent alternative to unreflective, uncritical, technological illiteracy and infatuation with whatever is new.

10.7.2 Coda: What on Earth Is Going to Happen Next?

In this chapter, Hlynka and Muffoletto write about paradigms. They are not making socio historical statements but are employing figurative conventions for engaging readers. If you are tempted to read explanation for events into Hlynka and Muffoletto's paradigms, you should disregard that feeling. As much as Nicholas Copernicus wrote to Pope Paul III in 1543, in regard to establishing a system that agrees with the phenomena (Kuhn, 1957, 1966, pp. 136-38), there are about a dozen competing theories of socio technical change at this time (Bijker, 1995, pp. 303-04). In addition, there are theories available from other disciplines such as anthropology, history, and sociology. The explanatory power of paradigms is deficient much as the Copernican solar system is deficient when compared with astrophysics. A descriptive model is being offered but without explaining why planets formed and spin around the sun or why scientists' beliefs orbit around points of consensus.

The positivist idea of paradigms lacks currency and is approaching intellectual bankruptcy. Popularizers aim at both predicting and shaping the future (Tapscott & Caston, 1993). Popularizers admit that their broad applications to the human condition are utilitarian (Barker, 1992, pp. 38-40). Popularizers combine the authority of the Ancient Greek etymology of paradigms with instances from history and science so they can sell books and seminars for managers (Covey, 1991). Through a poverty of understanding, the paradigm myth is a modem, structuralist grand narrative. On the grounds that nature is adequately reflected in the mirror of mind, it justifies the unfolding of the truth through society as it stands today. Invoking the paradigm metaphor gives reassurance that there is a subject to be examined, but it is not a productive explanation; see Robinson (1990, 1995) and Yeaman (1989, 1990a) for further discussion of the overreliance on empiricism in this sociocultural and creative profession.

When Hlynka and Muffoletto write about paradigms, it is not to offer a social theory but to describe their views and preferences. The academic timbre of the second half of the 20th century is revealed. There are days when it still seems almost impossible to express oneself in a college of education except in language inflected with a scientific tone of certainty. Ironically, to discuss paradigms introduces postpositivist uncertainty (Lather, 1991; Yeaman, 1990b). For example, there is as much literary theory in the creation and consumption of hypertext as underlies Advent calendars, job aids, and traditional scholarly prose containing references and footnotes. The link between communication technology and the humanities is congruent because scholarly work has always been hypertextual. Engineers writing technical reports and academic philosophers in the third millennia of philosophy both need to reference those who have written before. Not only may the concepts be deep but also there are connections to reading other texts. In business, research, and the academy, making a connection between literary theory and hypertext serves to benefit those particular groups of social actors in the 1990s. Behind the smooth facade of textbook facts is the uneven reality of knowledge being relativistically shaped by personality clashes and the politics of negotiation, and produced through the social causation of material and economic circumstances. Scientific pretensions are detected and uncovered when interrogation shifts to the deconstruction of frames of meaning.

10.7.3 Postmodernisms and Poststructuralisms

As in Agger's review of sociology (1991), intertextuality blurs the boundaries between educational communications and technology and other disciplines. Jurisdictions over territory may be renegotiated with theory. In this context, the contribution of postmodern and poststructural theory appears not in a new social theory but as a sensibility modulating existing theories. It is demonstrated by the refocusing of measurement and evaluation, one of the most conservative areas in the educational research establishment (Moss, 1994, 1995). No posturing about an age of revelations is necessary. Despite social change there is continuity in culture. The present-day computerization of society and the medieval cathedralization of society should share the same explanations. While its definitions may develop and overlap with other fields, educational communications and technology continues as "a web of beliefs, activities, and products" (Yeaman, 1995d, p. 73).

10.7.4 Cadenza

Anderson and Damarin's feminist section in this chapter has an overtly self-reflective, political position: Instructional technologies should be evaluated on their ability to introduce ethical perspectives consistent with social ideals. Note that their reference list contains first names in order to improve the visibility of women.

A sea change in theory and practice is already underway in educational communications and technology from being technical to becoming more ethically minded. If people are to know for themselves instead of in obedience to authority, then instruction should be assessed for implicit values (Yeaman, 1995c). A similar development has taken place in composition studies where there is a resurgence of interest in rhetoric (Jarratt, 1991). Postmodern, poststructural, critical theory (along with constructivism) enlarges the "debate about the purpose and role of education in designing and delivering instruction" so that "social, ethical, and cultural responsibilities must be addressed" (Walster, 1995, p. 254). The ECT Foundation has established an award to sponsor and recognize such qualitative work in educational communications and technology (Yeaman, 1995a). The renewed focus on purpose acknowledges that there truly are realworld problems to solve. For instance, the diversity issues facing the United States in the next decade may be comparable in severity to the dilemmas experienced by the South African people in the 1970s.

The tools for postmodern rethinking and poststructural criticism are already present. If you missed them, turn back into the pages of this chapter. Designing, managing, and delivering good instruction is different from creating instruction that is materially and intellectually beneficial for people. The ethical question we should always ask is not about doing our work well but "Are we doing good?'

Updated August 3, 2001
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