In 1983, Ruth Schwartz Cowan published a seminal work in the social history of technology, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, in which she dismantled the seemingly commonsensical notion that the introduction of modern household technologies radically unburdened the average housewife.
Cowan’s book tackles three related but distinct phenomena: the history of household technologies (and to a lesser extent the systems that support them), the social factors that shaped their development and adoption, and the evolution of gender roles. To borrow an analogy, the household is not unlike a complex ecosystem. The introduction of a new factor, such as a new technology, is bound to have multiple consequences, some paradoxical and some unintended, and its absorption into the ecosystem will be shaped by existing conditions. New household technologies entered an ecosystem in which existing gender-based divisions of labor, for example, meant that initially men were relieved of more (household) work than women. The household ecosystem is also shaped by socially constructed expectations such as those disseminated by popular magazines and, later, television programming. As some tasks were made more efficient and less arduous by certain technologies, popular media tended to create expectations which undermined those gains.
In the following paragraph, Cowan gives as concise an overview of her argument as one could hope for:
“Some of the work that was eliminated by modernization was work that men and children — not women — had previously done: carrying coal, carrying water, chopping wood, removing ashes, stoking furnaces, cleaning lamps, beating rugs. Some of the work was made easier, but its volume increased: sheets and underwear were changed more frequently, so there was more laundry to be done; diets became more varied, so cooking was more complex; houses grew larger, so there were more surfaces to be cleaned. Additionally, some of the work that, when done by hand had been done by servants, came to be done by the housewife herself when done by machine …. Finally, some of the work that had previously been allocated to commercial agencies actually returned to the domain of the housewife — laundry, rug cleaning, drapery cleaning, floor polishing — as new appliances were invented to make the work feasible for the average housewife …”
More Work for Mother remains a classic in the field and deservedly so. It reminds us of how much can be obscured by our collective historical memory. It also suggested to me what might be the title for a companion volume: More Work for Teacher.
The assumption that new technologies make things easier certainly applies to more than just housework. In the case of education, technology may not so explicitly present itself as labor saving, but it does typically present itself as an unalloyed enhancement of the classroom while the question of labor remains surprisingly muted. In my own experience, the introduction of the new technologies almost always leads to more labor for the teacher that is hardly ever acknowledged, much less compensated.
Just to be clear — because I certainly don’t want to come off as a coddled, whiny teacher that is simply resistant to change and hard work — this is not intended as a critique of educational technology in general, nor is my point that teachers are overworked and underpaid, true as that may often be. My point is simply to make an observation and to draw attention to what seems to me to be an insufficiently commented upon dimension of educational technology.
Consider the introduction of online educational platforms used by schools to post homework, grades, and other class related materials. These platforms, on the whole, increase the teacher’s workload by requiring the teacher not only to announce homework and post it in the classroom, but now also to post it online. This may seem like a small thing, but consider a high school teacher who teaches six sections a day and must go through the several steps necessary to enter in homework for all six classes each day. Depending on the software, this is often a less than user-friendly or streamlined experience.
These platforms also tend to generate what may gently be termed heightened grade awareness on the part of a small number of parents and students. Again, don’t misunderstand me, we do want students and parents to care about learning. But, for one thing, caring about grades is not always synonymous with caring about learning, and there does come a point when one more email interrogation regarding the reason for an A- rather than A gets a bit old.
Teachers in the past were asked to tabulate their grades at the middle and end of the quarter, now they are expected to keep grades up to date to the day, in some cases to the hour. But, you may ask, raising a skeptical eyebrow, don’t these platforms typically tabulate the grades for you? Yes, but teachers have to record them and this again amounts to added time because, in my experience anyway, a teacher is asked to keep both a hard copy and online grade book. Again, not a huge amount of time considered independently, but we’re concerned with the aggregated total.
The matter of emails alluded to earlier is also worth mentioning. Teachers are now asked to field emails from parents, students, and administrators and as anyone who receives a heavy volume of emails knows, this is not necessarily arduous work, but it is, once again, time-consuming. Ironically, these email sometimes involve questions regarding assignments that had been explained in class and also described online.
If in class lessons are expected to take advantage of available technologies, projectors or smart boards for example, then more time is added to the planning of each lesson. Again, this is not a commentary on the effectiveness or desirability of technologically augmented lessons; it is only to point out the added time requirements.
Some teachers I know are also expected to post summaries of lessons online or create and post podcasts of each class. Wonderful perhaps, we’ll let the efficacy of all of this go for the purpose of this post, but again time consuming. All the while remember that the work of grading, preparing lessons, tutoring, staying after school to help students, myriad administrative duties, extra-curricular responsibilities, committee and faculty meetings, keeping up with the field — all of the typical work that teachers are expected to do, and much of which more often then not gets taken home and worked on over the weekends — none of this goes away, more work just gets added to it.
Most of these observations have been made with the high school teacher in mind. The college instructor may face similar circumstances with the additional possibility of being expected to teach online classes. These classes, much like household technologies, may appear to be more convenient. The teacher doesn’t have to go to a physical class two or three times a day, all of the work can be done from the office or even the home. But the amount of work that goes into setting up an online class, or at least setting it up well, is not at all insubstantial. And the maintenance of a class throughout the semester, again if it is done well, takes considerable more time than showing up to class two or three times a week. In large measure this is due to what must be done online to compensate for the absence of face to face time. Usually this amounts to online “discussion” and this means faculty members read and perhaps comment on student posts throughout the week. In a class of thirty, say, in which students are expected to post and respond to other students twice a week, this quickly adds up to over a hundred posts a week, and often much more.
Cowan wrote More Work for Mother to scrutinize the assumption that new technologies made life easy, simple, and unambiguously better for housewives. Her scrutiny revealed that such was simply not the case. I’ve written this post because teachers are encouraged or pressured from several directions to incorporate more and more technology into the classroom. The most important question to ask is whether or not the particular technologies actually enhance learning. Not far behind, however, is the question of time and labor. What sorts of demands have new technologies placed on teachers who already are expected to do a good deal of off the clock work? And because time is ultimately a finite resource during a school week, what is being crowded out by the aggregated time demands of educational technologies?
If you’re a teacher, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Does this ring true, or is there more to the story? On balance, how would you evaluate the demands of technology on your time in and out of the classroom?
And to wrap it up on a positive note, here’s a little inspiration via Taylor Mali: