The Struggle of the Luddite Professor

As I was scrolling through Twitter the other day, I came across this tweet from the account @AcademicsSay:

Tweets by professors joking about not knowing how to use the technology in their classrooms

Can you relate?  Apparently a lot of people do relate, based on the hilarious responses:

Tweets from professors joking about not knowing how to work the technology in their classroomsShit academics say-technology2

As an instructional technologist, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase “I’m not good with technology.”  However, instructors’ perceived deficiency has little to do with competence; rather, it’s a lack of confidence.

Often, faculty who reject instructional technologies do so because they fear its supposed unpredictability.  Perhaps they were burned once and that embarrassing or frustrating experience tainted their perception.  Conditional psychology then takes over: the presence of technology or the suggestion they use it becomes a trigger for anxiety, causing normally intelligent and open-minded individuals to become stubborn and crotchety.

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to escalate situations to their worst possible outcome, what psychologist Albert Ellis calls “awfulizing.”  What if the WiFi in the classroom goes out?  What if the speakers in the room don’t work and the students can’t hear my video?  What if I can’t get my laptop to connect to the projector?  What if the app I want to use suddenly isn’t available for download anymore?  These “what ifs” escalate until the professor feels an utter lack of control, leading her to give up on even trying.

Comfort With Discomfort

I’ve often heard tech evangelicals claim that “technology will not replace teachers. But teachers who don’t use technology will be replaced by those who do.”  Perhaps this is true.  But I think the more important point to make is about being comfortable with discomfort, not necessarily being comfortable with technology.  Education is constantly changing with each new generation of students, learning theory development, technological advance, and government election.  Teachers who cannot cope with such changes are the ones who will burn out and be left behind by the hardier teachers.  What distinguishes these two groups of instructors?  (hint: it’s not the difference between those who use technology and those who don’t)

Landmark research by Dr. Suzanne Ouellette and her colleagues identified three factors that make someone better able to cope with stress and uncertainty.  They are commitment, control, and challenge.¹

Commitment refers to possessing an attitude of curiosity and an appreciation of new experiences.  These individuals remain engaged and intrigued when facing challenges, uncertainties, or conflicts.  They constantly seek explanations or answers.

Control is the tendency to believe we can influence events in our own lives.  Thus, these individuals focus on taking action rather than feeling victimized.  Utilizing their knowledge, skills, and imaginations, they believe they can make a positive difference in the world.

Finally, challenge refers to the belief that change is the essence of life.  These individuals believe change leads to innovation, progress, and excitement rather than being a threat to comfort and security.

Ouellette’s research found that people characterized by the three Cs tend to react to stressful events by increasing their interaction with them in order to better understand and learn from them.  According to biologist and psychologist, Joan Borysenko, this approach transforms the stressful event into something less distressing because it’s viewed as an opportunity for personal growth rather than a threat.

In contrast, those who are not characterized by the three Cs tend to feel powerless to change stressful situations, try to hide from uncertainty, and resist anything that challenges their status quo.

How does this relate to technology?  Well, those who are characterized by Ouellete’s three Cs will approach new technology with curiosity.  They will embrace the unpredictability, the frustration, and the potential embarrassment of learning something new because it presents a challenge to overcome and a chance to grow.  In contrast, those who are not characterized by the three Cs will reject implementing a new teaching strategy or tech tool because the outcomes are unpredictable and, therefore, threatening.  But this doesn’t mean a luddite professor cannot become more comfortable with new approaches to teaching with technology.

Developing a Growth Mindset

Anyone can develop the attitudes and outlooks represented by the three Cs.  There is fascinating research about “growth mindset” that supports this claim.  According to psychologist Carol Dweck, those with a growth mindset believe their intelligence, skills, and abilities can be developed through hard work and dedication.  This attitude leads to a love of learning and encourages resilience in the face of difficulty.  Doesn’t this sound like most PhDs??

Professors are likely a breed of individuals with growth mindsets, which is what made academia seem attractive in the first place.  That mindset continues to be strengthened from years of tireless dedication to their research.  So the necessary attitudes are there, just waiting to be tapped into!  While it may take conscious effort and motivation to apply one’s growth mindset to taking risks on a new technology or pedagogical strategy, it is possible.

Remember: the more we try to control life, the less control we have.  Embrace the fact that technologies are built by fallible humans and operated by fallible humans.  

Errors happen.  

Equipment breaks.  

Strategies fail.  

That’s simply a part of teaching.  Don’t let fear of the unknown block you from trying something new.  Don’t let a lack of confidence in your abilities hold you back.  As Joan Borysenko argues: “It’s fear that masquerades as the need for control, and fear that deprives us of the chance to be free” (p. 37).²

I am willing to take risks. I invite the fear of failure. I embrace making mistakes. The Peaceful Professor affirmations.

For more mantras, affirmations, guided meditations, and research on mindfulness, visit The Peaceful Professor.

  1. Stressful life events, personality, and health: An inquiry into hardiness.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1979, Vol 37(1), pp. 1-11.
  2. “Minding the Body, Mending the Mind.” 2007. MJF Books: New York, NY.
  3. For helpful suggestions on developing a growth mindset, check out Carol Dweck’s website and her TED Talk.

About pastprof

Recovering academic. Starting a new adventure as a college instructional technologist. Ph.D. in Communication & Information. Reside in the lovely Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
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