Digital Pedagogy

Where is the Digital in the Pedagogy?

There’s writing to be done: a book chapter, a journal article, a conference paper. All due within the next two months. All on some aspect of digital pedagogy. There is a weeklong DP workshop syllabus to rebuild. Plus, Andy Famiglietti and I will be giving four brown bag lunch talks this week about … wait for it … As often as I say that it’s not about the toolkit, there has to be a point of engagement and if that point involves talking about the toolkit and thereby helping someone figure out the how before they get to the why, then I’m ok with that. Those moments of transformation, from what to how to why, make teaching and learning so compelling. If it is only about doing a better job of introducing technology into the classroom, then ok. But I want it to be more. Where do I go from there? What the hell is it that I’m writing and talking about? What does the Digital have to do with Pedagogy?

Knowing that I may be spending time with you, dear reader, talking and planning and shaping how digital assignments and approaches might (or might not) fit into your course design I must be honest here and say that I really cannot define digital pedagogy. There you have it. If I show up at my office tomorrow and find security asking for my keys back, I’ll know that this was all a terrible mistake. But I keep talking about transparency, so …

Good teachers have always been resourceful and creative and ready to take risks with subject matter. I took a course on law in high school; the teacher had his classroom laid out as a courtroom, complete with wooden judge’s bench, witness and jury boxes. That courtroom was there for years. He was the only one who taught there (he may have taught other related courses … I hope so, otherwise it was an indulgent use of high school real estate.) It was a brilliant decision, because he rooted his course in legal case studies that we then had to argue, first as prosecutors, then as defenders, then as jury members. But he wasn’t doing it to be cute; his approach to the course required that he establish that environment for us, a space in which he could effectively challenge us to question our preconceptions about blind justice. By doing law, we realized that our legal system is muddy and imperfect; that justice is elusive. The way in which we learned from him would not have been possible if we had just read  about those cases in a textbook. Smart man. I think there was a TV in the room … that was as close as we got to media, let alone digital media.

Digital humanities tools and methods offer us similar opportunities to exercise those same pedagogical instincts. Introducing technology into our course design provides us an opportunity to be playful (perhaps you prefer another term, but hopefully you see my point), even with the most serious or complex or (God help us) dry subject matter. We can 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.1  There’s so much room for collaborative experimentation – not only among the students, but perhaps more importantly between us and the students; the classroom space is reinforced as a place of and for mystery, in which students are recognized as intellectual initiates. Of course and again this is not reliant on anything digital, but perhaps the digital allows for an inclusiveness in the process of discovering and developing knowledge that is not so transparent (or revelational?) in more traditional environments.

That word – transparent – keeps pinging for me. 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 suck it up, it’s university. 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 means that we have to own it when our assignments fail. Those are actually good things that can reenergize us.

As I’ve been reminded recently, it’s crucial 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 class 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 them, 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.

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.2 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 or social sciences 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.

So where am I going with this? I’m not exactly sure, but enjoy teasing it out. Certainly this is not driving me toward a definition, and I expect it is too abstruse for a workshop environment (certainly one conducted over lunch.) It’s becoming increasingly clear that I end up bracketing the digital when talking about the pedagogy. Hopefully I won’t be anathematized for this.

And hopefully I have not just talked myself out of a job.




  1. In Teaching History in the Digital Age, T. Mills Kelly considers how the digital allows us to encourage students to “do” and “make” history rather than to regurgitate facts that they think we want them to master, through the introduction of richer learning environments predicated on digital engagement. (University of Michigan Press, 2013, 25.
  2. And yes, I know that I’m just the latest in a long line of teachers struggling with what this all means. But I need to work through it, too.

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