I’m going to make a bold declaration about what I teach.

But first, I want to begin with a common misperception you encounter when you teach communication. People think that what you teach can be reduced to technical skills. I’ve taught, say, non-linear video editing. I give people cameras, and I tell them how to focus the lens or adjust the white balance, and I show them how to upload video and edit it and make — I hope — a decent-looking video. Technical skills matter.

But they don’t matter the way people think they do, or at least, their value is not limited to what’s immediately at hand. Knowing how to edit video might get a student a job, and if it does, I’m happy to have played a role in someone else’s success. But technologies change. A new version of a video-editing software suite comes out, and it looks nothing like what it’s replaced. (Final Cut Pro X, anyone?) If all I’ve taught is how to use version 1.0, and my student is flummoxed by version 2.0, I’ve failed.

This happens all the time. Planned obsolescence is a great business strategy. In fact, whatever technology I’m teaching at any given moment is probably already obsolete. (Budgets are tight at universities, and they’re outpaced by the rate of change. Who’s going to buy the new update when the old one still works?)

So here’s my declaration: I can teach technologies that are so new they haven’t been invented yet. I can equip students with the skills they need before we even know what those tools look like.

What we have to do — what I began to do in my last post, and in my manifesto — is rethink the value of technical skills. They are not merely instrumental. (Nor is education itself, in case my broader point isn’t clear.) If we pay attention to the ways technologies mediate our encounter with the world outside of ourselves, we can speculate about what other, newer technologies might do. The real value of technical skills lies not in their ability to get someone a job but in the awareness they bring to the logics of mediation.

In the language of philosophy, what I’m suggesting is that we move away from ontology — the inquiry into the nature of existence, where we ask, “What is this technology and how do we use it?” — to phenomenology — the inquiry into the nature of experience, where we ask, “How do we encounter this technology, and how does it mediate our experience of the world?” These are meaty questions, ones I want to bring into the classroom. But first we’ll need to find a way to ask them without the intimidating apparatus of philosophy itself. If words like “ontology” and “phenomenology” get in the way of the work they’re meant to do, we should abandon them, at least in the undergraduate communication classroom.

How we do that will be the subject of my next post.

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