Today, most students in higher education are problematically referred to as “digital natives,” who were born when digital technologies were already popular. And indeed, the everyday lives of many students are rife with technologies that stretch information beyond the classroom. Yet being born in a digital age is not synonymous with being techno-literate, and using technologies is not the same as producing critical media. A current challenge I face as an educator, then, is how to integrate technologies into my pedagogy not as instruments, but as objects of sustained inquiry—in short, how to translate living in a digital age into being a digital scholar.
My pedagogy engages this challenge by prompting students to combine media theory with practice. Ultimately, I want students to learn how to compose persuasive multimodal scholarship (e.g., web-texts, participatory maps, and digital video) with confidence and agency. In the humanities, one of the obstacles I face in achieving this goal is that students are rarely trained to treat technology as anything other than, say, a concept in a novel. Consequently, they may balk at mark-up, scripting languages, or any software beyond the word processor. Meanwhile, instruction in technical competencies is generally reserved for science, engineering, and information studies. From my perspective as someone who has taught over fifteen original courses at the intersection of technologies, media, and the humanities, this ostensible divide only limits the forms of knowledge students can produce—and not because I believe print is obsolete or all scholarship should be digital. Rather, the primary reason humanities students should combine media theory with practice is that their everyday communications and learning modalities now demand it. As the very notions of literacy, text, and writing expand, so, too, should humanities pedagogy.
Although often alarmist, rhetorics surrounding the so-called “digital revolution” need not imply that the humanities are at risk. In fact, one way I help students learn is by demystifying the alarming auras in which technologies are—and have long been—enveloped. For example, in my writing-intensive course, “Modernism Now: Digital Platforms for Studying Fiction,” students and I examined the representations of technologies by modernist authors such as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, and Mina Loy. We noted how, in fiction and poetry, technology often assumes a life of its own and is imbricated in questions of race, class, gender, and sexuality. We also researched authors who, like Woolf, were curious about expanding their media practices, looking to film, radio, and audio recordings. And, as the weeks progressed, students slowly transitioned into designing web-based projects and authoring multimodal essays of their own. In collaborative research clusters, they used Zotero to aggregate bibliographies, the Modernist Journals Project to locate primary sources, and the Library of Congress photostream on Flickr to find images from the period. A typical day in the classroom thus ranged from talking about The Secret Agent in a circle to conducting modules on metadata and scholarly communication. By bundling these activities together, we were able to avoid splitting technologies from technoculture and media from media theory. Before the quarter’s end, students incorporated digital audio and video into web-based essays on modernist keywords of their choice, including “noise,” “alienation,” and “consciousness.” Throughout the quarter, they were able to iteratively develop these essays, circulate questions, and comment on drafts via a multi-authored WordPress site I designed. This online space also became a means for them to organize and communicate outside of the classroom.
However, the inclusion of social media and collaborative technologies in humanities courses does not in and of itself enable an inclusive learning climate. That said, in classrooms at the University of Victoria I foster sensitivity to how students identify by encouraging them to incorporate their own educational investments, learning styles, and cultural backgrounds into their research. During class meetings, we actively discuss these investments, styles, and backgrounds and articulate them with the course material, which examines the complex politics tied to technologies and media practice. This approach emerges from my experiences teaching many University of Washington English composition courses, such as “Service-Learning, Sonic Culture, and Media Activism,” where we considered how theories of service and representation, including Linda Martín Alcoff’s “The Problem of Speaking for Others” and Ivan Illich’s “To Hell with Good Intentions,” might inform the production of community-based audio. Elsewhere, in my composition-based introduction to Cultural Studies, “Technoculture and the Senses,” we asked—along the lines of Donna Haraway’s, Shelley Jackson’s, and Katherine Hayles’s work—how the Internet simultaneously enables hybrid critiques of the unitary subject and an informatics of domination. And in all of my classes, we stress how the technologies we use in higher education are not somehow devoid of these politics. Consequently, many of my courses, especially “Introduction to Digital Humanities,” “Mapping the Digital Humanities,” and “Composing a Virtual Campus,” have involved students interrogating digital archives, determining what is missing, arguing for its addition, and then adding it. From these classes, some of the most persuasive projects include geographical maps of: (1) the diaspora of Overseas Filipino Workers, (2) diversity campaigns in the Pacific Northwest, and (3) entrances inaccessible to people with disabilities on the University of Washington campus. This mobilization of theory through media practice brings to the fore how representation, education, canons, the classroom, and digital collections intersect at all points.
With these examples in mind, I know students are meeting the learning goals I set because, broadly speaking, they become noticeably invested in their research. Yet more specifically, I use at least one of the following three assessment tools in all of my classes: the proof of concept, the public symposium, and the student-generated outcome. During my introductory digital humanities course, “Designing Literature,” students at Cornish College of the Arts collaboratively designed an e-book consisting of one abstract and one chapter per student. While the e-book was published online, it was imagined by all involved as a work in progress—a proof of concept that (with more time, funding and materials) could be fully realized in the future. As an instructor, I find the proof of concept to be a worthwhile end-goal for students who are new to media theory and practice. Technically, a proof for something like an e-book chapter has to “execute” properly. The media has to function, play, or transmit. Similarly, a proof’s abstract must concisely speak to the project’s methodology, stakes, and trajectory. Often, I will ask students to also demo their proofs in a public symposium, as I did during the 2008 Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities on “Media and the Senses” (co-taught with artist Carrie Bodle, designer Axel Roesler, and historian Phillip Thurtle). These events usually add a public speaking component to the project, and I work with students as they prepare their formal presentations. As a former adviser for the Undergraduate Research Program at the University of Washington, I have come to especially appreciate the symposium process. Once students consider the content and duration of their talks, their target audience, and the conventions of academic presentations, they have a tangible opportunity to publicly reflect on how they learn, write, and research. This experience is only augmented if they are also prompted to write between one and three of their own learning outcomes. I integrate this exercise into most of my classes to assess not only whether students understand the aims and motivations for a course, but also whether they have learned how to translate the material into the context of their own needs and expectations. In a media production course like “Animating Print Texts,” students have revised these outcomes several times, since the genre is new to them and—perhaps more importantly—I use their outcomes to evaluate their final portfolios and projects.
How I establish learning goals, enact them, and assess student work at the University of Victoria are all influenced by my teaching persona. I play several roles in the classroom: facilitator, webmaster, theorist, and fellow inquisitor. As a guide rather than a lecturer, I draw attention to these identities on the first day of class, highlighting how being “critical” about technologies and media differs from one perspective to the next. I also rely quite heavily on humor. In courses where students are frequently wrangling with computers and complex texts, I remind them that I, too, am learning to be a digital scholar. I joke about how I lose files, break code, and take reading breaks to watch Battlestar Galactica. Showing students that I am aware of my inner geek adds levity to frustrating moments when technologies appear inflexible and theory seems obscure. What’s more, I hope it makes them feel welcome in the classroom, where we can collectively determine what, after all, is a humanities approach to this digital era.
(All images on the left are drawn from my portfolio. More details on my teaching there.)