Teaching and Learning in Public

I’ve just been nominated for a teaching award by my students: it’s lovely to be appreciated.  However, since I finished last semester’s course, I’ve actually been mulling over whether I should change aspects of it and wondering about how best to tweak it for future iterations.  I don’t mean reading lists and seminar topics, which are easy to update and shuffle around. It’s more a question of balance between the assessments and, most significantly, whether to alter their public dimension.  In this course, students blog each week, sharing their insights into the reading and interesting/useful links to other material they’ve found on line.  They also work in teams to create a collaborative online project. Both of these are assessed, and students get feedback in shaping them over the duration of the semester.  I chose to give them free reign, not to edit their writing and to give feedback in private discussions. I wanted them to feel they were contributing to knowledge rather than just consuming it, to think about who might be reading, share with their peers and identify other interested groups online, and play around with formats and style.  I didn’t want to undercut their efforts by critiquing their writing in public comments and forums. On the one hand, I think it was a valuable exercise, encouraging them to take responsibility both for their  learning and their words. I found it gave them confidence and even the most reluctant among them had begun to cultivate a sense of an authorial voice in the process. On the other hand, in practice what it also meant was that they were exposed. Students at this level always make mistakes in their essays: they misread critical material, don’t give accurate citations, write imprecisely, express themselves badly. They are learning. As teachers we expect these mistake and usually we can gently correct them in private. I was asking my students to make these mistakes in public. Was this fair?   The narcissist in me also wondered if it reflected on my teaching: were my miscommunications making their way into their writing? Would people looking at these sites think that their errors were mine?  Could my students learning processes actually damage my reputation as a teacher?

The two alternatives seem to be to either retreat behind a firewall, which surely defeats the purpose, or edit what my students write. While this latter option might make sense in some scenarios, it seems problematic in relation to reflective blogging and adds a whole new level of correction/feedback/work into a curriculum which is already challenging. As I’ve been contemplating, I’ve also come to think that there’s a bigger point here: trust. When I walk into a seminar to meet a group of students for the first time, the main thing on my mind is establishing an environment where everyone feels comfortable enough to talk about emerging ideas and half-baked thoughts, to ask questions without worrying if they are silly.  Encouraging my students to write in public is about this same kind of trust, about creating a ‘safe space’ (the sites  indicate the nature of the contributions and the level of the course) in which they can begin to speak out and get involved with public discourse. I’m asking them to trust themselves and to trust that those reading their work will recognize it for what it is and respond in the spirit in which it was posted.  In my experience this kind of trust – a belief in the worth of your own contributions and a belief in the generosity of others – is what makes us feel able to take an active part in society. Fostering it is  important. It’s worth the risk of minor misunderstandings. So next year I’m going to be more explicit in what’s at stake in public writing and I’m going to talk through the process of writing and editing posts more often and more carefully. But I’m not going to do that editing.

On being ‘in’

In the last couple of months I’ve attended a number of conferences, met a lot of new people, taken up a new job, and designed a new course based on my current research interests, which I’ve now begun teaching. Given all this movement and activity, it’s probably not a coincidence that I’ve also been spending a lot of time lately thinking about how I want to position myself in relation to the various fields with which my research engages.

I definitely think of myself first and foremost as working on the cultures of modernism, broadly conceived, and my writing tends to focus on the relationship between literature, visual art and material culture. In the eyes of others, though, it’s been the how rather than the what  that seems to have defined me lately. It was with the promise of substantial new archival research that I won funding for my current project and it was on the basis of my skills and experience with digital tools and methods that I was hired. To me, archival work and digital work are intimately inter-related and mutually implicated. That isn’t the case for everyone, of course, as I was reminded at MSA 15, the modernism conference I attended last month.  There were many great presentations that outlined fascinating insights gleaned from archival work but, to my disappointment, there was much less discussion of the ways in which such work might be changing and the opportunities this might afford us as scholars of modernism, less still of the kinds of implications and assumptions inherent in our methodological choices. It’s important to go into the archive, and to historicise our research properly, but it’s equally important to me to be able to conceive of my work in relation to the contemporary and the future. I’m interested in issues such as preservation and accessibility as well as how archival formats (old and new) shape out work, what they allow and disallow. Through these interests, I find myself engaging more and more with the kinds of practices that are associated with the term ‘digital humanities’.

In fact, although I am officially a Lecturer in Digital Humanities at the moment, I’m quite ambivalent about the label. This is in part because it already carries so much baggage and has become deeply associated with structures and issues, many particular to the US (what is it with ‘badges’?), which don’t really reflect my own academic identity. Tactical moves and politicking would mark the emergence of any field — the stakes are high — but I’m turned off by recurrent discussions of ‘who is in and who is out’ and self-aggrandizing proclamations of ‘niceness’ (surely undercut by the fact that the major conference in the field feels obliged to remind its reviewers that ‘rudeness of any sort is destructive to the morale of the community’). In part, it is because of the way UK academia seems to be moving at present. Here, DH seems to be a buzzword thrown around more by administrators and funders than by academics: it is greeted with the same (justifiable) suspicion that is shown towards terms like ‘impact’. Digital Humanities is ‘in’, it’s fashionable and sexy and it apparently gets money thrown at it: it must therefore be a flash in the pan, a mere trend. Worse, it’s a trend that seems designed to support to what one UK academic has called ‘the managerial humanities’ and the centralisation of resources. Bound up with discussions about new electronic learning formats and MOOCs, it is associated with cost cutting exercises, opportunism and efficiency measures.  In this context, it’s hard not to have some qualms about being identified as a digital humanist.

I might prefer Martin Mueller‘s term ““Humanities in a digital world”,  were it not that this ‘gentler’ and more diffuse idea lacks a certain ambition. Like other people interested how our histories are written and shaped, I see the digital humanities as tackling a  “grand challenge”, which I think is perhaps the most important task facing scholars today. In the words of William G. Thomas, this is “to reassemble the human record in digital form, to shape its interpretive affordances, and to create discipline-based scholarship in digital form.” It’s in contemplating this challenge, what’s at stake and the opportunities that it might open up, that I can get excited about DH. But it’s vital to me, as it is to many others, that this potential does not become overwhelmed by other motivations (such as ‘impact’) and to prevent  that it’s vital that we bring our critical skills, as well as our reading and programming skills, to bear on digital humanities work. Stephen Ramsay and Alan Liu have recently exchanged ideas on how this critical approach might best take shape in a series of interesting blog posts. Ramsay’s original post ‘Why I’m in it’, discussed how one might make manifest a critical digital humanities through the practice of building (a more carefully judged piece than his original conference statement to that effect) , to which Liu responds, in a passage that perfectly captures the dangers and the affordances of DH:

“The digital humanities work on methods and tools that are the necessary technological bridgeway between the academy and powerful players in society–-one that cannot be knocked down if society is to have its future knowledge workers, consumers, and subjects of surveillance.  If it were up to the top-of-system power players, that bridgeway would communicate just technical “skills” and informational “content”–i.e., train professional-technical-managerial knowledge workers and seed harvestable information.  It would not also serve as a span for communicating the relevance, engagement, and activism of individual subjects who aggregate in groups and classes to counterbalance the capitalized and militarized aggregations of the power brokers.”

This vision of a counter-practice, emerging in the same channels but internally countering dominant practices reminds me of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, and seems to be a way of taking that critical gesture that I associate with modernism and the avant-gardes (which are my first loves, after all) and re-directing it at our own working environments and practices. This isn’t a new idea of course, and one would hope that all socially and politically aware scholars would be doing this. Many are. But on the evidence of another conference I attended this month–on critical pedagogy–it seems many aren’t. At this event, many papers focused on the experience of working within the exploitative systems of the neo-liberal university and speakers discussed how we might imagine teaching as activism, the difficulty of overturning entrenched hierarchies and value systems, and the kinds of practical changes this would require in terms of re-thinking assessments and training.  Often, I was struck by the convergences between such concerns and DH discussions. Staging a conversation between these movements might be a good place to start  developing that “ethics of engagement” which, as Ramsay says, DH needs.* We certainly need to carefully consider the implications and assumptions of our individual practices –the things we build and how we build them, the things we use and how we use them, the things we teach and how we teach them. Such an ethics requires vigilance and work, but its also a powerful opportunity to shape the Humanities and HE more broadly for the future. It’s exciting and, to me,  in a period in which I feel I have less and less control over my professional destiny within the rapidly changing and increasingly bureaucratised landscape of the UK HE sector,  it’s empowering. That’s why I’m in.

“Gaps in the archive?  Let’s fill them.  Co-opted by Apple and Google?  Let’s find ways to get out.  Frustrated with business-as-usual in university press publishing?  Let’s create new ways to do it.  Big tent?  Better be.” (Ramsay)

*18/10: As a little coda, I should add that I subsequently discovered this article in the great Hybrid Pedagogy blog, which pointed me to the work of several US scholars who are doing exactly that.