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Can Technology Keep an Old Academic in the Game?

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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My physician's insistence that I am "normal," and do not have Alzheimers, provides only subdued comfort: the "senior moments" are real, they affect my productivity, and they bring me face-to-face with the chilling prospect that I may someday find myself unable to do the work that is my life's calling.


The posting below looks at an one academics struggle with the impact of age on performance - something I, and, I assume some of you, can relate to. It is by Michael Rodgers of Southeast Missouri State University and is #40 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 17 Number 3, March 2008.© Copyright 1996-2008. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Parallel Journaling: Students and Teachers in a Classroom Assessment Experiment

Tomorrow's Academic Careers


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Can Technology Keep an Old Academic in the Game

Senior Moments


After 22 years as a full-time faculty member, I recently took a new job at my university, giving up half of my teaching load in exchange for a half-time assignment as an administrator. Along with an interesting project, and a very competent administrative assistant, I was given an office about five minutes' walk from my home

department. Suddenly, I worked in two offices. Not every day, but often enough to be annoyed with myself, I would forget which office held the papers, CD-ROMS, computer files, textbooks, and articles that I needed to do my two jobs. During my many walks back and forth between the two offices, trying to get my resources in order, I reflected on other times that my memory has let me down: times when I forgot half of a quotation

during class, missed an appointment with a student, allowed a Monday holiday to induce in me the belief that a Friday was Thursday instead. Such moments were rarer five years ago! My physician's insistence that I am "normal," and do not have Alzheimers, provides only subdued comfort: the "senior moments" are real, they affect my productivity, and they bring me face-to-face with the chilling prospect that I may someday find myself unable to do the work that is my life's calling.

Needing a Good Memory

Now, I have known since high school that my memory is not my greatest strength. I typically performed best in courses that emphasized application of a limited set of foundational principles; courses requiring large amounts of memorization were manageable, but more difficult. Nevertheless, I accept the notion that a good memory is essential to the work of an academic. In moments of metacognitive reflection, it has been useful to

distinguish between recognition memory and recall memory: recognition memory seems to be more extensive, but at the cost of greater reliance on external cues. For me, recognition has always been stronger than recall, making an environment rich in cues a necessity for my memory to function well.

I wish I had an Academic Trainer

Recent neurological research (1) has been interpreted by popular health information outlets (2) as

justification for exercise regimens and diets designed to preserve one's cognitive reserves: crossword

puzzles, Sudoku games, and diets rich in fish are common suggestions.

But I already have a reasonably healthy diet, and my work continually presents me with opportunities to solve problems. If I had the academic equivalent of an athletic trainer, I would ask my trainer what I could do to remain in top form. How can I stay competitive, even as my capabilities change with age? Athletes in many sports know that speed is important, and so it is with academics: I use time efficiently and command respect when I can instantly answer a student's question from memory; my contributions to committee meetings are richer if I can back up statements with examples taken from memory; I waste fewer resources on trial-and-error approaches to problems when I remember what didn't work for others. But, as many athletes also know, agility is important, too. I need to maintain mental agility if I am to work skillfully with the

information at hand. A baseball analogy comes to mind: the pitcher who as a rookie won games with the fastball, continues to stymie batters late in his career, after the fastball has deserted him, by relying on

pitch selection and location. How can I, as an older faculty member, maintain a command of my discipline's special skills and knowledge sufficient to keep me productive, even after I have lost some of the mental quickness-the mental "fastball"-that I had as a younger faculty member?

Tying a String Around My Finger

In the absence of a trainer, and knowing of no suitable performance-enhancing drugs for my condition, I turned to some simple assistive technologies, in an effort to provide cues that my recognition memory could use. For example, in the chaotic moments immediately after class, students often ask to meet in my office later to review content. Rather than risk a failure to recall my agreement to meet, I began to require students to e-mail me to confirm our verbal commitment. Upon receipt of the e-mail, I would record the appointment in my computer's calendar. Thus, my students provided cues to remind me of my obligations. My

students did not complain, and I realized several benefits from my simple system:

* The e-mail exchange served as a contract, formalizing and symbolizing our shared responsibility for understanding course content.

* The e-mail responses often evolved into focused discussions of course content.

* Often, students were able to resolve the issue before the meeting; the e-mail requirement seemed to focus student attention on the problem, allowing them time to reflect and resolve it without further intervention from me.

Much more ambitious were the attempts to use my computer to assist my memory by organizing and

exploiting cues-names, dates, keywords, that I might remember, even if I lost the full recall memory of the information. The point was not so much archiving data as it was providing new cues for my mind to use when making connections between ideas and information. My plan was simply to scan important data into a searchable database. I used Microsoft Office Document Scanning and the sheet feeder on a Brother MFC8840D fax/copy/scan unit to scan images into a folder. I then used FileMaker Pro (3) to organize files into a keyword- searchable database. FileMaker handled different file types well, and keyword searching was easy. The database supported activities such as exam-writing superbly: I was able very quickly to get a reminder of the times and locations in which I used specific exam problems. Unfortunately, the demands on my time made even routine maintenance more than I could comfortably manage. Without an assistant to keep up the database, the database soon grew obsolete.

Inadequate time for maintenance was not my only problem. The cues that I would use to connect ideas and information might be unanticipated. For example, not long ago my daughter watched a brief portion of a film set in Savannah, Georgia. She liked the music, but could not tell me at the time that the film was "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,"(4) based on the John Berendt bestseller. (5) I remembered enough to know that Savannah was the home of a famous lyricist, but I could not recall who it was. Using only "Savannah" as my cue, I combined several Google searches to identify the lyricist as Johnny Mercer, and to recommend to my daughter that she sample in i-Tunes several familiar Mercer songs: "Laura," "Autumn Leaves," "Moon River," and "Midnight Sun."

The slight cue of "Savannah" allowed me to build a significant interaction with my daughter, despite little assistance from my memory. Google was robust enough to support the search, but I doubt that a personal database, full of my own information, would have been as useful, given the oblique nature of the cue. This is a real limitation, as cue-taking seems to be a very complex activity, often involving tiny and subtle items, such as syllables, colors, musical notes and other slight cues. No database design can anticipate all possible cues.

Preferring Action Over Inaction

Growing older is a source of anxiety for many people, but for academics, the fear of losing the memory and mental agility that we were hired to bring to our relation- ships with students can be powerful indeed. Add to this the possible loss of connection with students' cultures and values fostered by generational differences, and it becomes easy to see how age can erode an academic's perceived value, despite the rich stores of experience, perspective, and wisdom produced by a lifetime of dedicated service. The projects shared here are the first, but out of necessity, hardly the last, efforts that I am making to "stay in the game." Using technology to reduce my reliance on recall, in favor of recognition, is too limited to be my only strategy, but at least it gives me a place to begin.

And the problem of maintaining two offices? LibraryThing, (6) an online tool that allows the user to easily produce a Web-based personal library catalog, shows promise. By cataloging the books in each office, I'll be able to determine which office contains a needed item before I make the walk! I'll be looking for help from others as well. In her recent conference session, "Using Academic Games to Promote Learning,"7 Barb Millis of the University of Nevada, Reno, sent participants on a "faculty scavenger hunt." One of the goals was to locate a faculty member who "Can share an approach for learning student names rapidly." I didn't find a participant who could share an approach, but people are obviously thinking about it. On a larger scale, perhaps faculty developers can take up the challenge to offer programs that assist older faculty who are adapting to

changing capabilities. Such programs would undoubtedly generate effective strategies and best practices to address the need, but also, administrative support for such programs could, if marketed wisely, send a powerful message to older faculty that they are still valued. Are my efforts to stay in the game worth the trouble? I'll try to remember to let you know in a future column!


1 For example,

2 For example,

articlepage.aspx?cpdocumentid=100159466&GT1=10901, and

content/article/2007/12/05/ AR2007120501285_2.html


4 "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." Dir. Clint Eastwood. Perf. Kevin Spacey, Jude Law. Warner Bros., 1997.

5 John Berendt, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. New York: Random House, 1994.

6 Barbara Millis, Plenary Session. 2008 Lilly Conference on College

and University Teaching - Greensboro, NC. Joseph S. Koury Convention Center, Greensboro: 09

Feb. 2008.