It’s hard to believe that I flew home from Victoria a week ago yesterday. I’m still decompressing and wrestling with the last vestiges of jet lag. And I’ve been thinking a lot about what I learned over the course of DHSI, especially what I learned in co-teaching the Digital Pedagogy course with Katherine D. Harris and Jentery Sayers.
Tools Won’t Fix Bad Assignments
In the Q&A after Thursday morning’s colloquium session on “Games, Gameification, and Media Studies,” Matt Bouchard or Andy Keegan said (sorry guys, can’t remember which of you hit on this gem) that a game won’t fix a bad teaching assignment. By extension, the same should be said of pedagogy. All of the whiz bang tools in the world aren’t going to make a bad assignment good. In planning and executing the DP course, Kathy, Jentery and I tried very hard not to throw tools into the mix as we worked with participants on identifying objectives and learning outcomes. A few participants had expected – and may have been disappointed – that we didn’t hand them a toolkit with a set of instructions. I found it particularly hard not to say “oh, you could do that with a wiki” and was often the first to fall into our trap. I still think of myself as a tactician rather than a theorist when it comes to pedagogy, and since I am comfortable experimenting with digital tools and sharing what I have learned as a result of that experimentation, I tend to jump to solutions rather than teasing out approaches. The experience of constantly pushing back at participants who said that they wanted a blog without knowing what a blog really is, or who hadn’t fully fleshed out the assignment they wanted to develop, really helped me to re-think my own incorporation of technology into my courses. Looking forward to the fall, when I will be teaching another composition course hinging on production of a collaborative edition (this time The Famous Victories of Henry Fifth), I now know I need to lock in on the learning outcomes before I shoehorn them into a technology platform. More on that in a post to come.
Technology ≠ Digital
Speaking of traps: it is easy for me (as I expect it is for many) to assume that the invocation of “technology” means new or digital media. I’m not going to get all semantical (huh – that’s actually a word), but it is important to remind myself that all of my students submit their work electronically, using technology that has become in some ways invisible. I can’t think of a single student in any of my classes who isn’t facile with word processing or presentation software. Even when they submit a “physical” artifact as a final project, much of the development and execution of that project involves some form of technology (I’m thinking here of the group that submitted a modified game of Risk for the “Twisted Titus” project, printing out and laminating cards, and 3D printing game pieces). As a teacher, I believe I have a responsibility to help my students amplify their relationship with technological modes of communication, so that they are better able to employ the best medium for a particular task or audience. If I’m going to help them, I need to go through the same exercise myself. Sometimes a “traditional” word processing-based essay is the best mode for engaging with a text. While a wiki may facilitate my process (when it comes to tracking project submission for example), it may not provide the best approach to teach them about how best to structure an argument. I need to push back against my own comfort with digital media, and the excitement I feel in applying those media to pedagogical situations, and spend more time explicitly articulating what it is I want students to develop in terms of register and situation.
“Old School” May be the Best Solution
I worked with several course participants during the week who, as we hashed out the assignments they were developing, ultimately discovered that what they *wanted* was to have their students create a physical project. As we talked about close-reading and textual engagement, we realized together that the best solution for their learning objective was production of something that they might not consider to be digital enough. We talked about how various tools could help with process (in one case considering how application of advanced word processing could be used for heightened textual analysis; in another how students armed with camera phones could better understand Blake’s hypermedial composition by interpreting texts through photography in a physical book). Re-materializing the digital is sometimes more important than digitizing the material.
Assessment Starts at Home
We talked a lot about assessment, both in abstract and specific. How do you recognize “try” vs. “succeed”? How do you consider collaborative work and individual work in the same assignment? How do you assess a project that was produced using some platform or medium with which you are not familiar, let alone proficient? How do you articulate a rubric that encompasses different approaches to communication without privileging one over another? How do you respect a rubric that has been defined for you, and negotiate it for a particular assignment that may not – at first – seem to fit into those pre-defined categories? This all comes back to planning, reflection, and adjustment.
We spent some time talking about transparency and the freedom to fail. If we’re going to ask our students to be honest with us about their process, then we have to engage with them on a regular basis to make sure that the assignments we have given them work, and that we listen to students when they express confusion or frustration – as well as when they state that they have negotiated something successfully. Then we have to go beyond listening and re-fit the assignment (in terms of deliverables and schedule) to address and hopefully overcome those frustrations. If we’re going to use tools, we need to make sure that those tools can be properly learned and employed in the amount of time we’ve allowed. Kathy Harris described how she includes weekly lab days in her syllabus to ensure that students have ample time to experiment with tools. That’s a revelation for me. I’ve relied on students figuring things out on their own, intervening only when someone is completely exasperated (or can’t remember their password). I’m going to block out lab days this fall, just as I block out discussion days. All three of us talked about the importance of adjusting schedule and changing course when necessary to ensure student success. I try to do that with my classes, but I can be smarter about how I do that.
Evaluation is a Bitch
The educators who participated in our course are all professionals: teachers, librarians, administrators. I expect they are all used to receiving feedback from students. But for all of our encouragement that students frame their peer criticism (I do a lot of peer evaluation in my classes) in a constructive light, we forget that for whatever reason we tend to go for the jugular rather than engage in that same constructive commentary when reviewing their work. In late spring Katy Crowther, Christine Hoffman and I conducted a TECHStyle interview with Karen Head and Nirmal Trivedi. They talked at length about how to read between the lines when it comes to student evaluations, both formal and informal. In the DP course we asked participants to submit anonymous evaluations. It was in many ways a revelatory, and sometimes painful, experience to see where discussions and workshops that we thought worked didn’t, and sessions we struggled with ultimately led to valuable lessons that will help participants return to their institutions and better interact with students, faculty, and administrators as they develop new courses and assignments. I can’t help it: I want my students to like me. But I can always get better at thinking through why I’ve been given certain feedback, and how I can use it to design the next course, and make myself a better teacher. We have seen some measures of success; this week Vanessa Lent posted about the scaffolded project she and Emily Ballantyne developed during the course, creating a “mini digital anthology” for a 3rd year Canadian poetry seminar. It’s gratifying that there was some good take away from the course, and I hope we’ll hear about more.
Nothing I’ve written here is revolutionary or earth-shattering. It amounts to a particularly long reflection on how I need to think through why I teach the way I do, and what is really important for my students.