Myodicy, Issue 2, December 1996

End-of-Term Report:
Fall Term 1996-97

by Theodore Plantinga

So what's new at Redeemer? What follows is my informal answer to that question. I will focus especially on the events that involve me personally and on my own work.

This term it's been heavy going on the whole. There are two main reasons why I felt, at times, as though I were wading through molasses. The first is that I moved into a different house while the term was in full swing, which is something I have never done before. On Friday, October 18, I transported my worldly goods to a different address in Dundas. Now, I didn't manage absolutely all of it in one day, for it was 1 A.M. on the next day before I ceased shuttling between the two places. Moreover, prior to the day of the actual move I had engaged two storage locations -- one in Hamilton and one on Redeemer's campus. Therefore, by the time moving day rolled around, a lot of my stuff was already out of the old place; for the moment I could forget about the stuff in storage. The moving crew consisted of the immediate family plus one Redeemer student -- Vince Beerda. For some weeks after moving day I was hauling boxes from the two storage places back to the new home. Thus the term was characterized by substantial physical labor. It was good exercise, but it didn't contribute greatly to the larger task of thinking great thoughts.

The other factor that has made for heavy going this term was the financial crisis at Redeemer. For specifics and details and the College's official account of what went wrong, I refer interested readers to Reflections.

The problem, in brief, is that we budgeted for more students than we had last year and then it turned out that we got substantially fewer. The result was a salary rollback, the elimination of staff positions, and seemingly endless discussion of the idea of eliminating faculty positions at the earliest possible date. Now, it appears that the faculty will still be intact as of the coming academic year, but we are not yet out of the woods on this score.

Throughout the ordeal the profs seems to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner as they went about their normal duties, and they were even complimented on this score. But I suspect that many of them could not help feeling tired and somewhat discouraged throughout the term. In my own case, It was hard to judge whether the fatigue was due to the manual labor made necessary by the move or to the emotional labors triggered by the cutbacks and the prospect of more to come.

In any event, we got on with the work, as usual. I taught a section of Intro Philosophy, a class in Philosophy of Language (where I invite students to dip into the writings of Walter Ong), and the course in Philosophy of Education which I have been offering on an annual basis for about twelve years. In the case of the latter course, the current term represents the last cruise, so to speak. Current plans call for the elimination of this course as a program requirement for students in education. In the new order of things, the substance of what the students should get in such a course will be made available to them in a course on foundations of education taught by John Vriend. Vriend's course will include more history of education than mine ever did. Naturally, I regret the end of my formal involvement in Redeemer's teacher training program. Those who take their entire training at Redeemer will still be required to take my Intro Philosophy course, but those who come for the one-year program leading to the Bachelor of Christian Education will not take a course with me.

I still plan to be active in the education field by offering a philosophy of education course every second or third year, a course which will not be part of the education program but will count toward the philosophy major. I took a course of that sort myself while I was in graduate school at the University of Toronto, and it did a good deal to stimulate my long-standing interest in the field. Whereas the course I have been teaching these past twelve years places a great deal of emphasis on Christian distinctives in the Christian school, the new course will be more abstractly epistemological in nature and will especially explore the philosophical implications of the changing technologies of learning and teaching. In particular, I plan to explore the question of the impact of such technologies on what the learners and teachers of the future will take knowledge to be. I'd love to hear from readers and former students who have ideas on this score or who can supply me with references to things I should read as I explore these questions.

The new class will also overlap with committee duties. This year I was added to the College's Continuing Education Committee and was made its chairman. I had already been given an informal mandate to promote and explore distance education -- especially the kind that makes use of the modem and some other new technologies. In fulfillment of these duties, I have been talking up the new potentials and trying to get people on campus to offer electronic correspondence courses. John Vriend has a non-electronic correspondence course on the go, and it has been fairly successful, but we have no such electronic courses as yet. I finally got one person interested -- yours truly. And so I am now slated (pending some final approvals) to teach an electronic version of Intro Philosophy this coming fall to students who prefer to stay home in the far north.

Many things remain to be decided. Will it be a text-based course for which one needs no fancier a netbrowswer than Lynx? Or will fancy graphics and visuals be included, in which case the latest version of Netscape will come in handy? I suppose it will depend in part on how much "worldview" and visualist stuff is included in the course. If I were to judge by the instructor's past record in this regard, I would predict that Lynx will suffice.

The term that is now ending is the first one in which I made course materials available in HTML format, making heavy use of hypertext links. Through the 1994-95 year I printed the course materials and had them photocopied and sold in the bookstore. During the year prior to this one, I put them on floppy disks and gave them out, with only a nominal charge for the floppy disk itself. The format was Word Perfect 5.1, with straight ASCII also available. Later I added Microsoft Word for Windows, version 2, as an option. (By that point I had switched from Word Perfect to Word myself.)

At the beginning of the current term, I offered the students three options in terms of the study materials. First, they could use the internet to get access to them. I had placed them on the Hamilton-Wentworth Freenet computer, which is the one I use for my personal internet access. Secondly they could obtain or download the HTML files relevant to their course, install a netbrowswer like Netscape (available for free) and study the files in their own computer without being connected to the internet. Or third, they could obtain an ASCII version of the materials, with manulinks in place of the hypertext links. (Manulinks are simply indications that there is more on the topic in question in file such-and-such: one is then supposed to look it up in that file. It's much slower than clicking on a hypertext link, but it can be done.) Naturally, students using the ASCII files could either study them in the computer using a word processor or print the material and study it the old-fashioned way.

I have not taken a formal survey, but I would say that the third option (manulinks files) has proven the most popular. But there is a technical reason why my preferred option (the first) was not pursued by all that many students, namely, that many of the computers being used by my students had difficulty handling HTML files over a certain size. I don't know exactly what the threshold is, but I do know that various students working in Redeemer's computer lab decided that my HTML study files were nifty in theory but not in practice.

What's to be done? I've pursued two remedies. One was to try to unearth a netbrowser that made fewer demands on memory. Mark Coolen has helped me with technical advice on using the internet technologies in my teaching, and he proceeded to look for a netbrowser for low-memory computers. Late in the term he came up with a piece of shareware called NavRoad. I will announce its availability to all of my students when the new term begins.

The second solution is to break up my larger HTML files into small files. This I have now done in the master copies at home. This solution does have a drawback, namely, that the students have more files to manage and keep track of. But the quick review dimension of studying HTML documents is substantially enhanced through the use of the smaller files, even when a computer with adequate memory is available.

Redeemer alumni reading this report may get the impression that classroom life in the college has changed greatly since their day, now that these technologies are being used. Not so. I'm told that there are universities classes where the sight of a student setting up his laptop computer at the beginning of the lecture session is perfectly normal, but Redeemer is not one of them. This term only two of my students brought their computer along to class so that they would have access to my HTML files in their proper format while participating in my class. For the most part, Redeemer remains a mildly technophobic college. We have computer enthusiasts, but they are relatively few in number. Most notable among them on the faculty is my colleague in philosophy, Danie Strauss, who, sad to say, is leaving our ranks to return to South Africa.

Which brings me to a final topic, namely, goodbyes. It has been very stimulating and enjoyable to have Prof. Strauss on campus, and I hereby wish him well as he continues with the work of the Dooyeweerd Centre while also carrying a full teaching load back home in South Africa. Leaving the staff this month are two former students of mine who served the College in the finance area for quite a number of years: Judy Vanden Broek and Gilbert Langerak. Both have accepted other positions in the general vicinity and will be missed. [END]

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