In a recent New York Times piece, the critic Stanley Fish observed that the phrase “digital humanities” seems to be on everyone’s lips these days in English departments. He’s right. The most recent Modern Language Association (MLA) annual conference, held right here in Seattle in January 2012, devoted a great deal of attention to the ways in which scholars are using digital technologies in all phases of their work, from teaching introductory writing courses to sharing their latest research findings with peers around the globe. And most sessions at this year’s MLA provided tables reserved for professors who wanted to blog or tweet in real time. (She said what about Jane Austen? My colleagues in Poland, Argentina, and Taiwan have to know about this right away.)
Further big changes are coming. I’m currently on UW’s Teaching and Learning Technology Oversight Committee. We’re seeking to address questions such as: Do we want to digitally record faculty lectures? (Who would own these?) Will we—and how will we—make them available to students and the wider UW community? What kinds of digital environments promote “asynchronous learning,” that is, discussion, study, and skills mastery outside of the traditional classroom? My focus has been helping to evaluate e-textbook platforms. The textbooks of tomorrow are amazing things; professors, if they so wish, will be able to keep track of which specific pages students read, how long they take to read them, how often they revisit them, and even (via heat sensors) where on those pages their eyes longest lingered.
It’s tempting to jump on the bandwagon (starship?) and start tossing technologies into the classroom just to feel up to date and relevant. That, however, is a very bad idea. Gadgets can’t turn a poor lesson plan into pumpkin pie. Although I am a believer in the digital humanities, I always counsel instructors to begin by asking what they want a particular class to accomplish—and only afterwards start investigating how best to achieve that end. Computers might in fact be way down on your list of options. Face-to-face group work, seminar discussions, even old-school lecturing: these “analog” activities have hardly lost their pedagogical effectiveness.
But, yes, the digital can be magical, too. This past summer I set up a page on a popular social media site for the participants in a study abroad program at Oxford University. The students used the site to share photos, talk about excursions, debate course readings, ask questions, request help, and otherwise grapple with life abroad. It might have felt like “play” to the students, but it was much more than that. For instance, they collectively scoured Oxford for sites that appear in the Harry Potter films. They documented those sites, shared the history behind them, speculated on how different directors used them for what purposes, and otherwise worked to compile a body of research that someone could now use to write a very good paper about Hogwarts and the kinds of medieval architecture that inspired its “look.”
If that example doesn’t convince you, how about this one? Last fall, I had students in a graduate seminar save all their written work to a file online that they could access from any computer with an internet connection. I also required them to read each other’s work and comment on it. The students alerted the group whenever they first uploaded a draft—and then when they uploaded any subsequent drafts. The point was to encourage everyone to learn from each other and constantly improve his or her work instead of retreating into a study somewhere and feeling alienated and alone. At the quarter’s end, I graded only the students’ final drafts—as well as their comments on other students’ rough drafts. Since so much of the writing people do in life is necessarily collaborative, why not encourage team behavior instead of artificially pitting everyone against each other for the highest grade on a particular essay?
I’ll end here. You can follow my own digital adventures online, if you’re interested, at http://arcade.stanford.edu, a digital humanities website where I irregularly maintain a blog.