The following is the text of a paper I was supposed to give for the “Twenty-first Century British Studies Pedagogy: Using Early Modern Digital Resources in the Classroom” panel at the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies in March 2014. Unfortunately, and at the last minute, I was unable to attend the conference so the wonderful Kim Mclean-Fiander read the response on my behalf.
In 2009’s Debates in the Digital Humanities, Matthew Kirschenbaum asked, “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” A variation on Kirschenbaum’s question, and one that resonates here for this panel is, “what is digital pedagogy and what does it have to do with British Studies?” This question, I think, is in many ways more complex and fraught than Kirschembaum’s.
While many assume that digital pedagogy equals technology in the classroom (everything from smart podiums to clickers to MOOCs), and while I advocate for experimentation at the assignment level (blogs, timelines, simple mapping exercises) for instructors who are “digi-curious”, I believe that the real point of difference comes when instructors make the digital an intrinsic part of course design. And yet even for dyed-in-the-wool digital humanists the incorporation of critical engagement with digital modes and methods can seem daunting. Still, I would argue that – as demonstrated by these presentations today – the digital affords us creative and (more importantly) rigorous ways to challenge our students to participate in critical and professional ways with our subject matter.
From earliest days the digital humanities have been rooted in historo-literary research, and many of the notable examples continue to focus on British subjects – canonical and extra-canonical analyses of text and context, such as the Auchinleck Manuscript, the Internet Shakespeare Editions, Mapping the English Lake District, to name but a few. Certainly projects like the Map of Early Modern London are pushing forward sophisticated and important ways to associate place and text that could not be accomplished through more traditional “analog” research methods.
For several years I’ve been experimenting in my classes with how to integrate scaffolded digital assignments into undergraduate early modern drama courses. I’ve had students build collaborative “knowledge bases” about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century society to help them understand the world for which Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. I’ve had them build complex interactive timelines to help them conceive of the importance of the Medieval (in my case Henry V as a model prince) to the late Elizabethans. I’ve had them produce digital editions of The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth – not only to challenge them to think about the collaborative nature of editorial process, but also to break their assumptions about Shakespeare’s plays as completely original works.
Note: all of these courses were undergraduate, and none of them were courses designated for English majors. All of these assignments were predicated on strong humanistic learning goals related to critical analysis and knowledge creation. All of them required access to digital archives and databases, and were accomplished through intensive experimentation with digital tools and platforms.
What I learned from these courses has, I believe, changed and strengthened me as a teacher and scholar, while at the same time empowering my students to reconsider their relationship to the assigned subject matter and their participation in the scholarly process. But I needed to accept and acknowledge three things:
(1) Recognize that this type of scaffolded assignment design would require dedicated teaching and experimentation time in class for students to become competent in the digital forms required for successful completion of assignments.
(2) Related to that, identify means for realistic access to technology (e.g. I had to assume that students could bring an internet-connected device to class or make arrangements for classes to be taught in lab spaces)
(3) Accept that technology has a tendency to fail when I most needed it, and that I had to be prepared with a back-up plan
For me this meant confident preparation of the syllabi; readiness to adjust those syllabi as necessary; the knowledge that people in my department, in information and instructional technology, and at my university most broadly had my back; and that I had to be absolutely transparent with students about why I was assigning these projects and why this was important.
That word – transparent – is one that I think is extremely important as we are learning to teach in digital registers. The digital requires a particular form of intellectual honesty of us as teachers. There is a different type of risk at play than when our courses are rooted in more traditional long-form lectures and one-to-one writing assignments. The introduction of digital assignments or modes of engagement means that we have to be more prepared for things to go not as planned. Students will rebel. Tech will fail (because it can, and always at the moments we think we need it most.) Our assignment design will groan under the strain of one more set of requirements. It means that we have to mediate the rebellion and resist the temptation to tell them to just do what we’ve assigned them to do. It means that we have to improvise when the Internet goes down or discover that the software platform we so want them to use doesn’t work with their operating system. It also means that we can – and should – express the kind of joy and frustration we feel when we are working on our own research. Sharing our research projects (and those of our colleagues) with our students provides them with an opportunity to try and understand why our work is so important to us – and to them. It is crucial then, that we state at the outset that these forms of digital engagement really do constitute experiments for us as well as for them. When they balk – and students will balk – we need to work through why these experiments are important when they fail as well as when they succeed. The classroom is our crucible as well as theirs. When I assign a digital edition as the final project in a couse on Shakespeare’s Histories, it’s because I’m trying to make sense of the idea of an edition, and how a digital form is like and different from print forms. It’s because I’m editing one myself, and asking myself questions about rigor and structure and audience. But it doesn’t help any of us if I don’t explain why I am asking these questions or why I want to work through the questions with them; I think (I hope?) it shows students that I respect them enough to ask them to participate in my process. It *does* help, I think, that we consider what happens when an envisioned edition does not appear as we thought it would. The experience might be successful for all of us, even if the assignment doesn’t go as planned. Gauging that success involves my willingness to work with students, to surrender a degree of control to students over the course I so carefully prepared, and when necessary to ask for their help in redefining assignment parameters. It can be unpleasant to admit to students that you don’t know what you’re doing, or that your vision for how something might play out over the semester hasn’t come to pass. It can be transformative for us as we consider our strengths and abilities as teachers, just as it is transformative to students as they realize that their opinions and actions matter when they are thoughtful and constructive and articulate.
Good teachers have always been resourceful and creative and ready to take risks with subject matter; I think this moment when technology is becoming so pervasive and yet is still not really understood as a form of learning engagement offers an opportunity for good teachers – especially those in core humanities disciplines generally and literary courses most specifically – to be creative and take risks in ways that they might not have been encouraged to do with more traditional pedagogical approaches. Yes, it’s about introducing technology into the classroom and yes, it offers new forms of consideration and collaboration and yes, it’s about pushing students to become thoughtful interlocutors as opposed to passive respondents in media exchanges. But a good teacher doesn’t need the first in order to establish the second and third. If incorporating a digital edition or a visualization or a mind/thought/spatial map into a humanities course affords us the opportunity to revivify our scholarship in a pedagogical framework, then we feel free to experiment and break and build again. The next iteration of a course is almost always better than the previous. The next incorporation of a research-based learning module will be that much stronger – and stronger still if students see that their participation transcends the semester, that their contribution to a project like the Map of Early Modern London project is **published** and viewable by them and the world for years to come.
Does this mean we know what digital pedagogy is? Certainly not. Does it propose reasons for why we should embrace it? I think so. But none of this is easy. None of us has been trained to teach this way. We can’t always look to our colleagues for inspiration, because oftentimes they are behind rather than in front of us. There has to be a point of engagement and someone who can help us to figure out the how to incorporate digital methods and tools into pedagogy before we get to the why. Those moments of transformation, from what to how to why, make teaching and learning so compelling. As early modernists working with digital tools and platforms we deconstruct and refashion, and challenge our students to become real partners in that process. It gives all of us in the classroom the freedom to do and to make rather than to spit back facts and figures. The digital should help us to, yet again, be resourceful and creative and risk-taking with our course design and learning objectives.
I hope you will have the chance to discuss how the panelists dealt with these challenges, regret that I cannot be there to take part in that discussion, and that perhaps you will live tweet this so that I can follow along at home.