Teaching Humanities to digital natives who may know more than we do.

I remember a story about the advent of the New Criticism where one of those famous critic/scholar/teachers–I forget which one, but I want to say Cleanth Brooks or perhaps John Crowe Ransom–admitted to rushing home at night to read feverishly ahead in the texts he was teaching so that he was ready to go the following day.  On the one hand, this is a familiar story to any new (or not so new) professor who’s trying to stay one step ahead of the onrushing train.  On the other hand, its also the case that part of this was demanded by the fact that Brooks and others were trying to do something totally new for a literature classroom, the close perspicacious reading whose minutest detail nevertheless resulted miraculously in a coherent organic whole.  That kind of textual analysis was the meat of my own education, and to be honest, it hasn’t really changed all that much despite all the new (and now new old theories) that came in with the advent of deconstruction and its descendants.  We still, more or less, on the undergraduate level do the close reading, even if we now look for the way things fall apart or for hints and allegations of this or that cultural depravity.

But I am intrigued by just how hard Brooks/Ransom (or whomever it was) had to work to stay ahead of his students, in part because he really didn’t know entirely what he was doing.  He wasn’t building on the secure  corpus of knowledge that previous literary scholastics had received and passed on.  Despite the mythic and quasi-priestly status that some New Critics projected–turning the critic into an all-knowing seer, and thus setting the stage for the later assertions that critics were really the equals or superiors of the novelists and poets they read and critiqued, knowing what those poor souls could only allude to and  evoke–there was a very real sense in which the New Criticism was much more democratic than the literary scholasticism that preceded it.  (I am sure Frank Lentricchia is exploding about now, or would be if he ever actually would bother to read me).  While it may not have been more democratic in the sense that the New Critics seemed to cast a mysterious aura about all they did, developing a new and arcane ritual language to accompany it, it was more democratic in the sense that the method was potentially available to everyone.  Not everyone could have the time to read all the histories and all the letters and delve in to the archives and read the vast quantities of literature required for the literary scholasticism that characterized old style literary history .  But everyone could read the poem or the novel set in front of them.  And potentially a smart undergraduate could see a good deal that the prof had missed, or point out the problems in particular interpretations.  When the evidence of the poem was simply the poem itself, all the cards were on the table.  No longer could a professor say to the quivering undergraduate “Well, yes, but if you had bothered to read x,y, and z you would understand why your assertions about this poems place in literary history are totally asinine.”  The average undergraduate is never in a place to dispute with a professor on the place of this or that figure in literary history, but they could, in fact, argue that a professor had gotten a poem wrong, that an interpretation didn’t hold up to a closer scrutiny of the fact.  The feverish late night work of my Brooks/Ransom avatar, like the feverish late-night work of many a new and not so new professor, is sometimes cast as a noble inclination to truth or knowledge, or the discipline.  It is in truth, very often the quest to avoid embarrassment at the hands of our smarter undergraduates, the quest for just enough knowledge or just enough preparation to make sure we justify our authority in the eyes of our skeptical younger charges.

I was thinking about his again while attending the Re:Humanities undergraduate DH conference at Swarthmore/Bryn Mawr/Haverford Thursday and Friday. Clearly, one of the biggest challenges to bringing DH fully onboard in Humanities disciplines is the simple fact that undergraduates often know as much, and often know a great deal more, about the tools we are trying to employ.  On the one hand, this is a tremendous challenge to mid-career academics who understandably have little interest in abandoning the approaches to scholarship, teaching, and learning that they have developed, that they understand, and that they continue to use effectively given the assumptions and possibilities of those tools as they are.  It was ever thus and to some degree colleges remain always one step behind the students they are attempting to educate, figuring out on the fly how our own education and experience can possibly apply in this day and hour.

However, I also wonder whether the democratization of the technological environment in the classroom isn’t a newly permanent state of affairs.  The pace of technological change–at least for the present, and why would we assume that should stop in the near or mediate future–means that there is some sense in which we are entering an period in the history of education in which educators will, in some sense, never know any more about the possibilities of the tools they are using than do the students that they are teaching.  Indeed, given the nature of the tools, it is quite likely that collectively the students know a great deal more about how to use the tools available to them and that they are likely to be more attuned more quickly to the latest technological developments.  What they don’t know–and what we as educators don’t know either–is how to best deploy those resources to do different kinds of humanistic work.  The teleology of learning used to be fairly, if undemocratically, straightforward.  The basic educational goal was to learn how to do what your teacher could do–with reading, with texts, with research.  In our current age that teleology is completely, perhaps appropriately, disrupted.  But that doesn’t alleviate the sense that we don’t know entirely what we should be teaching our students to do when we don’t entirely know what to do or how to do it ourselves.

Mortimer Adler famously wrote a book on “How to Read a Book”  and though people bemoaned Adler as an elitist and a snob, the basic idea was still important.  Some people knew how to read books and others did not.  I still think its the case that we take a tremendous amount for granted if we assume an undergraduate actually knows how to read an old-fashioned codex well.  They don’t.  On the other hand, we have no equivalent book that tells us “how to read….”, in part because we don’t know how to fill in the blank, though perhaps “digital artifacts” comes as close as anything.  We’re not even sure what tools we should be using to do whatever it is we are doing as humanists in this day and age.  No wonder most professors choose to continue to use books, even though I think the day is fast approaching when students won’t tolerate that, anymore than an ancient would have tolerated the continued use of scrolls when a perfectly good codex was available at hand.  What the current technological changes are doing is radically democratizing the classroom on the level of the tool.

I did have a couple of signs of hope this past week at the Re:Humanities conference at Swarthmore. In the first place, if the educational system in the humanities is becoming radically democratized at the level of structure, I think it is safe to say there are many, many, many people using that democracy well.  The students at the conference were doings stunningly good and creative work that was clearly contributing to our knowledge of the world around us–sometimes pursuing these projects independently or, most often, in partnership with and in mentoring relationships with committed faculty.  (It is, of course, also the case that people can use democracy poorly, as I’ve suggested elsewhere;  this would be true in both the classroom and the body politic, so we should ask whether and where the democratization of our educational system is being used well, rather than assuming that because we use the word democracy we have named a substantive good).

Secondarily, one of the chief insights I drew from the different speakers was that if we put the tools on the table as possibilities, students will surprise and amaze us with what they can manage to come up with.  What if we found ways to encourage students to get beyond the research paper and asked that they do serious creative and critical work with the tools that they have everyday at hand on their iPhones, laptops, and etcetera.  What is we encouraged them to say we have to find the best way to answer the kind of questions humanists have always asked, and to identify the new questions and potential answers that new (and now not so new) technologies make possible.  We will have to do this regardless, I think.  The age demands it.  And I suspect that there will be many many more frantic late nights for faculty ahead.  But I think those frantic late nights will be built less and less on the belief that we have to get on top of “the material” and “stay ahead” of our students.  When they can bring in material we’ve never heard of with the touch of a finger on their iPhones, we have no hope of being on top of the material or staying ahead in a meaningful sense.  Perhaps what we can do is inspire them to charge ahead, guide them to the edges of the landscape that we already know, and partner with them in the exploration of the landscapes that we haven’t yet discovered.


9 thoughts on “Teaching Humanities to digital natives who may know more than we do.

  1. I am at work on a similarly themed article for my blog and you have given me another great reference to which I can direct my readers. The staff of the small to mid-size nonprofits with which I work are racing to keep up with the technological savvy and expectations of their constituents (especially the younger set). Professors are not alone in burning the midnight oil on this one, but for nonprofit folks, their future salaries and their organization’s ability to continue to serve depends upon them using technology well.

    • Great. I’m glad this was helpful. It is a broad issue, a difficult one for mid-career professionals to manage. I wonder if the issue of the democratized classroom I mention works in the same way for other non-profits. That is, in education we can legitimately investigate the ways in which our fundamental service—learning—is a cooperative effort between the institution, professor and the student. That is, the primary recipient of the service, the student, can be asked to collaborate in the process and in fact we probably deliver a better service if they do. There’s a lot of stuff out there about how students learn more if they actively participate in the creation of the knowledge they are learning. I don’t know how or if that model applies elsewhere, but perhaps it does.

      • The goal of every nonprofit is to see casual donors/friends become so engaged in and passionate about its mission that the individuals become evangelists for the cause, using their networks and social capital to spread the word and win other converts to the cause. Social media is the way many of these evangelists choose to spread the word — which is both good news and bad for the organizations. It means organizational leaders no longer control the message and if an evangelist goes rogue, there’s nothing that can be done about it. However, the amazing power of passionate folks using their networks on the behalf of a cause is worth the risk — at least from my perspective.

  2. While I very much like the notion that our students’ level of expertise in technology is somehow helping to “democratize” the classroom, my own experience has been that students are not nearly as tech-savvy as you seem to suggest. On the whole, they are reasonably proficient consumers of technology: they know how to use Facebook (more or less), load and play computer games, and send text messages . . . but beyond that, they are not actually particularly knowledgeable. As even the briefest glance at their Facebook profiles will demonstrate, few of them even know how to master their “privacy” settings.

    Still, the goal of “democratization” is a good one, and one of the reasons why technology — and more generally, an analytical and critical focus upon the materiality of “reading” — is an important subject in education. We should want to “democratize,” precisely through an introduction to the basics of the technology that they are increasingly employing in a day-to-day context. Most importantly, they need to taught that the electronic medium, like the codex, is not simply a transparent medium through which one can access fuzzily-defined “content,” but rather a complicated part of the ways in which meaning is produced.

    • Thanks, Mark. We may not be totally on opposite sides of the fence here. I think my use of the word “tools” is pretty generalized. Like everything else there are advanced tools and unfamiliar tools and simple tools and familiar tools. One thing that happens in a lot of humanities classrooms is that students aren’t given the option of using the tools they are familiar with in everyday life in an educational setting. Given the option of using an iPhone to create a movie about a subject at hand and uploading it to a class blog for ongoing commentary, I think students will, in fact, go to town on it. The payoff will be that they will figure out both more advanced uses for the tools they have at hand, and they will discover the limitations that are there and where they need to learn more advanced possibilities. I’m in the administration now, but my few experiments with this over the past few years have paid off handsomely, as have some of the curricular projects we’ve sponsored on the use of iPads.

      One example, a few years ago I had a class do a fairly simple wiki project. I didn’t know what I was doing since I had never done a wiki myself before, although I thought I understood the concept. And stepping back afterwards I realized how the project didn’t get half as much out of the experience as it could have if I had been more “on top of things.” On the other hand, I’ve had several students tell me this was one of the most exciting things they did in their English major. I think that was mostly because it showed them how some of the electronic stuff they play around with elsewhere actually could have some relevance to the study of literature.

      That was a pretty simple and elementary project and didn’t require a lot. But I think one thing professors need to be convinced of is that it is OK to give an assignment using a tool that you don’t know a lot about, and that you can work with the students to figure out how to use it, rather than thinking you have to have the kind of digital expertise that understands all the possibilities and the inner guts of all the tools you are using. Great knowledge if you can get it, but we shouldn’t assume we have to have that before letting students loose on some of these possibilities. I’d like all my profs trying simple assignments, even if they are worried that they are simplistic, and encourage the students to imagine other possibilities

  3. Let us not forget the good old tool, the dictionary, now available digitally. Here’s how it came handy in a situation when the outside reality was the surreal needing deconstruction:
    In 2001, in those tumultuous days following 9/11, I had to tackle several fronts all at once. First task was to calm down my students. Ignorance breeds fear. President Bush & Co. were targeting the ignorance of citizens and maximizing fear by repeating, “We are at war.” The phrase ‘war on terror’ was still not minted. I told students to look up the definition of ‘war’ in the dictionary. They did, decided by themselves to ignore the Bush & Co. baloney, and then wrote compositions on how the attack on the WTC towers was a criminal act of terrorism, perhaps a political statement by malcontent Muslims, but not a declaration of war. That class midtown at Hunter College, CUNY, consisted of entry level students, not quite the right audience for my detailed history and analysis of post-WWII US foreign policy idiosyncrasies in the Middle East. It must be mentioned, however, that Bruce Rockwood at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania e-mailed that week’s assignment to his Graduate Law class students saying: “Read Farida Majid’s essay in our book to understand why it happened.” By “our book” he meant Law and Literature Perspectives, ed. Bruce L. Rockwood. Peter Lang, 1996, where my essay, “Law, Literature and Islam” was one of the chapters.

    • Thanks for the comment. Do you think this assignment would look different now given the technological changes we’ve undergone in the last 10 years, maybe especially in the area of social media?

  4. I am hard-pressed to find an answer to your question. If by ‘this assignment’ you mean the traumatic event of 9/11 then let us hope and pray that there never will be another. Times were so fearful then in New York City that the only reason students came to class was because staying home or going elsewhere was no escape from the pervasive angst. Had the facebook, twitters, etc. existed then, may be the attendance would have been affected. Who knows! But I fail to see how I could have used the tools to enhance some understanding of an almost intolerable public trauma, some sense of ‘truth’ in the thick of all the political spin, that would bolster confidence in the students. And self-confidence isn’t a tool, it is the first brick in the foundation of a writer.

    When I design an assignment, the available means or tools, the content (usually a current affairs topic for my English Writing classes), and the ILO (intended learning objective) are all inextricably integrated.

    Also, as indicated in my previous post, usage of technological tools depends upon the level of the class. My colleague in Bloomsburg could set assignments and carry on group discussions with his Graduate Law students on the internet without even attending a class.

    If I were teaching a kind of English 101 type of class today I would be tempted to assign them to a writing project describing the media coverage of the case of Trayvon Martin murder.

  5. Pingback: Opportunities for Undergraduate Research in the Digital Humanities | Read, Write, Now

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