Before break, before diving into practicalities, aka DH tools and organizing-integrating DH into a class (the topic of April 7th and 8th), it seemed a good time to ponder what happens when digital humanities is thought of as pedagogy and/or what kinds of pedagogies DH enables. It was clear from ongoing and friendly debates I’ve had with colleagues at the college and elsewhere, that this is a vexed topic, pressured by the question as to whether digital humanities is simply a reinscription of the vague, usually administratively driven idea that the use of “technology in the classroom” is good because it reaches our students, those digital natives, and is a new way of teaching the usual content in the manner we always teach it, but somehow in a catchier mode. I had also had several quietly polite questions from colleagues as to whether my talks at the faculty center were part of other administrative initiatives on campus (no), and what it is that digital humanities wants us to “believe.” Could we talk about where these ideas came from at the same time as we explored the distinction(s)?
What immediately came to mind were some sentences from Ryan Cordell’s “How Not To Teach Digital Humanities” that I opposed to one another as a way of getting started (slide 2). There, Cordell writes of falsely assuming that our students will automatically greet the term “digital humanities” –or a course offering it– warmly: “Far from signaling our cutting-edge research and teaching, I suspect that the phrase ‘digital humanities’ often raises perfectly valid worries with our students, many of whom have spent their entire educational careers sleepwalking through ed tech nightmares.” And there it is, the opposition and the danger of conflation, of digital humanities with ed tech. This may be, as I pointed out in my talks that week, very unfair. I certainly had met Ed Tech people at DHSI and elsewhere who considered themselves to be digital humanists and/or technical supporters of the work, and who would be (rightfully) disappointed to to find themselves on one side of what can be an artificial divide. “Educational Technology” does function as rhetorical shorthand for whatever use of technology and things digital in the classroom feels imposed (upon students, faculty and staff) from without, an imposed uniformity that kills engagement ( and results in “sleepwalking,” as Cordell aptly notes). Cordell names endless power points, grappling with the latest LMS, and commercial versions of e-textbooks and their accompanying software as common forms of the nightmare. To which a colleague has since added, “too much jargon. I’m trying to get the students away from jargon.” This view is given further weight by Audrey Watters in “The Algorithmic Future of Education” (slide 4) when she observes that “Education technology is, despite many of our hopes for something else, for something truly transformational, often a tool designed to meet administrative goals.” She goes on to quote Seymor Papert’s The Children’s Machine, where he outlines the larger shift in the social imagination “from tech as transformative to ‘an instrument of consolidation’ ” (slide 5).
The difference between Ed Tech and Digital Humanities (and DH understood as a re-manifestation of Ed Tech), rhetorical and real, may lie in its distinctive imaginings, that is, as a set of transformational practices in pedagogy, research, etc., that the field asserts against the “consolidating” and corporatizing forces experienced at college and university. Running us back to slide 2, I elaborated this dichotomy and suggested that DH holds out this possibility for empowerment and agency, because, as Cordell writes, it is conceived of as “local and particular” in its practices [even if its products/projects are later meant to be publicly shared], that DH functions transformatively when its practice(s) “make[s] sense for a given institution, given its faculty, staff, and students, and given its unique mission and areas of strength.”
It may be a good time to repeat that this talk was all meant to be provocation, an occasion for thoughtwork about our own research and teaching and our sense of the college’s mission and how to make the most of it for ourselves and our students. I had under the quote from Papert on slide 5, juxtaposed what I thought might become the classic case of the forces of consolidation vs the idea of creativity and learning, and that is the story of Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child (the XO) project at MIT and how it was ultimately derailed or “consolidated” by Intel and its Classmate PC. I had myself acquired one via OLPC’s “give one, get one” program, where by donating money for an XO to go to a child in a developing country, the donor was also sent an XO. I had learned from it, delving into code beyond html for the first time. There are complex arguments about why the OLPC project failed, but what I stressed in my presentation was that this was a pedagogically driven design (the XO and its Linux based operating system, called “Sugar“) that valued interactive learning and learning how to learn. The laptop enabled, for example, mesh networks that could operate in the absence of wifi and would allow students within the same room or school to collaborate. A project after my heart that spoke to my own pedagogical leanings and modes of learning, OLPC was hailed as revolutionary but did not last. The argument about why is debatable and bitter, but one could claim that a clash concerning the goals and purpose of education looms large: Intel, with its Classmate PC running Word and other familiar software, argued to developing countries that this was the type of machine and software students would need to be familiar with in order to advance in the world, whereas the goals of OLPC at the outset where transformative: bring low cost, low power computing and laptops (they inadvertently may have started the netbook craze), and to teach children to learn to teach themselves as they discovered what was within the “black box” of operating systems and code and networks and connections, as well as to exploit the possibilities offered by the XO (which came with a camera and could record sound and video and play it back) in order to learn about the world. And thus to transform it. My example, spoken in fewer words than written here, hoped to lead us into a conversation about our thinking about the difference in these goals and where technology and the digital world, which is our world, come into play.
The questions raised here reached far beyond thinking about the digital humanities at the same time as it held it out DH as a pedagogy (-ies) in and of itself. How do we ourselves learn? How do we design learning experiences for our students ? The next slide (6), “Makerspace and Breakerspace,” recapped a few key ideas from the previous talk elaborated with the examples (slide 7) of what Cordell found students wanted to engage in with technology, and Jesse Stommel’s assertion that “[t]he keenest analysis in the digital humanities is born of distraction and revels in tangents. The holy grail of this work is not the thesis but the fissure.” It seemed that Negroponte had found a fissure and entered in, and as a segue to a conversation about STEAM on campus, I’d wanted another example of where “breaking things” simultaneously was about making things, and settled upon the work of Kate Armstrong (slide 8), a Canadian digital artist and writer. I gave an overview of the tech end of it: the digital work, the design engineering, the pieces themselves (slide 8) : what students could imagine making, the newly made things students could analyze.
I ended with my own provocation and request: in the middle of writing a proposal for a digital humanities course at the 200 level, Cordell’s article was never far from my thoughts and I wondered if one course description ought to be written for the catalogue, i.e. for students, whereas a different one ought to be written for the faculty who review the course. I’ve called the course “The Digital Life of the Humanities,” (see description, slide 9), and a few of the strongest reactions asked why it wasn’t called (perhaps with a colon), “Introduction to the Digital Humanities.” But that was fine – I wanted to answer that question; I wanted to put the proposal under the scrutiny of design and content questions I’ve raised here, to pressurize the idea of digital humanities as a pedagogy and to see what happens. Comments and critiques very welcome. I’ll be posting more of it, including how it must fit within the requirements of our college’s course proposal form.
I’d set up the talk to break things open, to raise contradictions and generate conversation about pedagogy in any class, to find some fissures. Comments invited below from my colleagues and the wider world.