Tag Archives: digital humanities

Mysteries of the classroom

What happens when we teach? It’s a more peculiar process than you might think.

To illustrate, here’s one of those True-Stories-That-Are-Also-Parables we writers like so much: My first term in graduate school, I landed in a research seminar taught by an old guy nearing retirement. Apparently he’d been hot stuff back in the 1930s, but in 1968, not so much. He hadn’t published anything in years, and from our fifteen weeks together I can remember only two classroom moments. One came when he hauled out from his desk some photocopies he’d made years earlier, of a seventeenth-century ship-building contract– he thought maybe he could publish the details in a model-ship-building magazine. The other time, he showed up twenty minutes late, wet from the rain, and mad because he couldn’t find on-campus parking. It was like a laboratory demonstration of Clark Kerr’s joke about the duties of a university president– to provide football for the alumni, sex for the undergraduates, and parking for the faculty. There were only four of us students. We crammed into his office for a couple of hours every week, listened to him ramble on, then went home and did our research.

So this was about as hopeless a teaching set-up as you could find– yet the seminar turned out to be quite the big deal for us students. All four of us wrote seminar papers that turned into dissertations, and all the dissertations became respectable university press books; we all got decent academic jobs, though one of us bailed out of the profession (and into law school) before getting tenure.

Every parable needs a moral, so here’s mine: we see part of what goes on in a classroom, but there’s lots we don’t see– invisible forces swirling around, electrical charges sparking and fusing at subatomic levels, multiple temporalities colliding and redirecting one another. Had there been teaching evaluations back then, we’d have given Professor X F-minuses, and the deans would have packed him off to teacher remediation boot camp. But then, check out his “learning outcomes”– meaning, did the course give us students what we signed up to get? That’s the big metric now in vogue among administrators, and according to it Professor X belongs in the Teaching Excellence Hall of Fame.

Now, I understand the objections to making anything much of my story. It’s just one example, and graduate school is a peculiar business; we were bright, proto-professional keeners, not disaffected freshmen. Anyway, it was a long time ago, when the world had more room for ineffectual bumblers like Professor X.

All fair enough, but I’ve encountered less dramatic examples of the Professor X story all my life– bad teachers from whom I learned a lot, certified teaching stars who left me bewildered and/or scared. Of course some of those stars were the obvious fakes, the bombastic performers with nothing to say, but some were the real deal– I just wasn’t ready for what they were offering. I see the same things happening these days among the students I encounter.

Obviously that explains some of the subatomic interactions going on in the classroom. People need different teaching at different moments in their lives. Sometimes a conscientious and brilliant instructor overpowers and discourages; sometimes the chance to feel snooty and superior about your teacher (as we did with Professor X) is just what the doctor ordered– it encourages intellectual adventurism, or just helps you survive a difficult stretch like the first weeks of graduate school. And then there are all the other logics– lucky encounters with the right mix of fellow students or with the right topics and books, no matter who’s teaching them.

But when we’ve said all this, there are still plenty of classroom forces at play whose logics elude us– and some that we don’t even see. Which is just to say, the classroom is a site of human interactions, much like other human interactions only moreso than most: more compact and intense, with more at stake, with more layers, more moving parts.

You don’t have to be inside the university to know this human-interaction model of teaching faces challenges nowadays– from online education, from students who feel they’ve already got too many human interactions in their lives, from shrinking university budgets, from measurement-besotted administrators.

All I can say is, check out those learning outcomes!

Do humanities professors dream of electric sheep?

Over the weekend, our graduate students put on a fantastic one-day conference, and it included a faculty roundtable discussing the digital humanities. The line-up included one super-enthusiast, two moderates, and me as the designated Mr. Negative– which in itself tells you where the window of debate is now located. I mean, I blog, I occasionally tweet, I push my students to consult Wikipedia for the background facts on what we’re studying. Take away digital photography, and I wouldn’t last a week in the archives; take away my morning dose of internet news, and I’m a wreck. The digital revolution has gone awfully far if someone like me gets cast as the voice of caution and doubt.

In the Teaching section here and on my Academia.edu site, I’ll post a cleaned-up version of my formal comments. Here I’ll offer a short version of those, mixed with some thoughts that came to me during the (outstanding) discussion that followed the panel’s presentations.

I won’t go on much about my own super-enthusiast side, except to say it’s real. As it happens, my particular weakness as a scholar coincides with some dramatic strengths of the new digital resources. I’ve always had trouble getting dates and details exactly right, and the old printed reference bibliographies have always just left me depressed and listless– anyway the specialized resources I usually need aren’t even available in the universities where I’ve taught. Think of it as my kinky version (not my only version, I hasten to add…) of a thrill we’re all experiencing these days: suddenly I’ve got a cheap, easy electronic solution to a dark, secret, personal weakness.

But the storm warnings also seem to impress me more than most of my colleagues. For the PG-13, super-scary version, check out the philosopher Tim Mulligan’s Ethics for a Broken World: Imagining Philosophy After Catastrophe. Among many other issues, Mulligan thinks seriously about the reality we all know lurks behind the digital wonderland– namely, it could go poof at any moment, because of a war, a breakdown of the electrical system, evil-super-hackers, an NSA Stuxnet-type operation gone wrong, or dozens of other altogether-possible scenarios

So Mulligan imagines his post-catastrophe philosophers having to make do with what he calls the Princeton Codex– scrambled bits and pieces of Princeton University’s paper library that survived climate change and its attendant disasters, in roughly the same messed-up way as ancient European literature survived the Dark Ages.

Except for one big difference. Everything from the ancient world at least had a fighting chance of making it through the bad times, and a lot was waiting there for people like Thomas Aquinas and Copernicus to sort through and build on when the dust settled. In 2015 we’re probably already beyond that point. A steadily greater percentage of our knowledge is now preserved only up there in the cloud, and pretty soon it will be most of our knowledge; if it goes, it’s gone for good.

So that’s the Total-Catastrophe worry, but there’s also the Right-Here-Right-Now worry: digital knowledge reshuffles the sociology of knowledge, in some ways for the better, in others for the worse. At this point we don’t know how much worse, but maybe quite a bit.

On the plus side, the digital world gives new reality to old ideals of equality and fraternity. Like everyone else, I now connect directly and easily with scholars all over the world, people I would never have encountered in the old days. And I get to publish my thoughts in places like this without awaiting the approval of editors or reviewers. Sure, the hierarchies and barriers still exist, but they’re way weaker than they used to be.

But as Alexis de Tocqueville explained long ago, the third element in the great French trinity doesn’t necessarily play well with the other two– and Tocqueville would have loved thinking about liberty’s tormented place in the new digital regime. “Tormented,” because our online doings are watched 24/7, by governments, insurance companies, angry teens, employers, and all sorts of others. Real havoc regularly ensues–health coverage rejected, jobs lost, visas denied, legal trouble, personal humiliations.

In the nature of things, life in this new panopticon entails controlling what we say and do, and even what we learn– multiple authorities now monitor our visits to informational websites. It’s the most effective kind of censorship, the kind where we do the real work ourselves, each of us monitoring our own utterances.

That seems to be part of a larger problem, which we’ve barely started wrestling with: digital culture binds us extra-intensely to our late-capitalist social order, not only because the individual bonds are so strong, but also because there are so many of them. Of course we rely on the corporations that supply our computers, browsers, storage, electricity, etc etc etc. But we also find ourselves slotted into mini-capitalist-entrpreneur roles– each of us bloggers now worries about generating traffic, attracting readers, speaking to our audience; nowadays we’re all minor-league versions of the hustlers who produce the Big Bang Theory.

Higher up the food chain, the resemblance gets even creepier. Here’s the former director of a major digital humanities project, a well-established project at a great public university, speaking some years ago about his job: “A main part of Thomas’s role as Director is to write grants, as well as to seek out appropriate public and private agencies, whose interests match the VCDH’s projects. He compares it to finding funds for a venture capital firm.”

So in this world of surveillance, audience-seeking, entrepreneurship, and venture capital, what happens to the humanists’ trouble-making functions, our capacity to raise harsh questions and social criticism?

My own answer is, so far, so good. Anyone who reads these posts will understand how liberating I’ve found the new media. But the storm clouds are there, and they may get very dark, very fast.