Reading all of the tweets and blog posts about teaching with digital tools and constructing Digital Humanities courses, I’m reminded of a very simple, collegial practice: acknowledgement.
Among other suggestions, Lisa Spiro offers a model for this type of syllabus citation in her Digital Humanities Conference 2011 presentation slides for “Knowing and Doing: Understanding the Digital Humanities Curriculum.” (Updated to add: The acknowledgement itself comes from Rob MacDougall’s Digital History syllabus.) Though my post is by far not the first discussion on this topic, it serves as a reminder to me to incorporate the practice into my Fall 2012 syllabi and assignments.
Why? you ask…
The acknowledgement acts as a citation and is a marker of the intellectual rigor and scholarly communication that’s inherent to the construction of any syllabus, assignment, or rubric. A syllabus is, in essence, a research project — or that’s what we’ve been asking for of late, especially in terms of “getting credit” for this intellectual, pedagogical work. In a traditional department, the yearly review asks about your impact on your fields. If you’ve been collaborating on curricular matters, that is a great impact on the field. If you can prove it, that’s even better.
As teachers, we don’t create courses in a vacuum, especially with Digital Humanities and digital pedagogy. But, we don’t always have time to be innovative. Taking Mary Shelley’s thoughts here: it’s better to create from chaos than nothing. Re-mixing an assignment is a smart move, not because it saves time (which inevitably it doesn’t because we’re all tinkerers at heart). Collaborating on or re-using/re-mixing another instructor’s assignment allows you to integrate the successes and failures of that other instructor’s work. And, it frees you from beta-testing what could be a massive failure. And, in this time when we are being assessed out the wazoo by our students, we can’t always afford to fail massively. By acknowledging each other, giving credit, we build a community for further discussion when things go awry. In addition, students and administrators have a visual link to your conversations. And, this type of acknowledgment helps to avoid the dreaded isolation that some instructors often feel when they try something new, especially with digital pedagogy.
For instance, I swiped David Silver‘s Twitter assignment and revised it slightly for my Death of Print Culture/Digital Literature course. Meanwhile, in my Food & You First Year Composition Course, we were blogging about recipes and holding in-class tastings of whatever food topic we were on — both assignments that David tested with his Green Media course. At some point, David and I tweeted about the liberal re-mixing I performed on his assignments. The collaboration continued right into the classroom where our students ended up commenting on each others’ recipe blog posts. Evidence of this collaboration wound up as part of David’s article for Digital Campus in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Twitter Meets the Breakfast Club.”
This was in Fall 2010/Spring 2011. How much has changed since then! David and I had discussed these re-mixings before I had implemented them into my courses, but I didn’t think to add him to my actual course syllabi and assignments for either course, though both courses lived in online spaces. I wasn’t sure that students needed to know that information. Now I see that it’s helpful for students to understand that someone else has already tested these assignments and that a different set of students has already played around in these new forms. What it all amounts to is, in library terms, provenance.
The history of the collaboration with David became relevant in an article, but a reflective or descriptive piece of writing might take awhile to produce. Because teaching moves at such a rapid pace, it’s difficult to go back and synthesize after the semester has concluded. The Looking for Whitman Project coordinators, technologists, and instructors did a great job writing about process while the multi-institutional project was in full force. That was a massive, NEH-funded undertaking; you don’t have to do a massive assignment, course, or project when doing digital pedagogy. Think smaller. But acknowledgment is still key.
The same goes for a course idea. I taught/teach a course on TechnoRomanticism that’s based on Laura Mandell’s graduate course, also titled TechnoRomanticism. Laura’s course inspired me to think about ergodic and radial reading practices and then construct my reading list with these practices in mind. So, we read Frankenstein for 10 weeks, 10 weeks! Each week heralded only 1 or 2 chapters and accompanying material as a way to read into the chapters. For instance, we read a lot of Wordsworth, especially “…Tintern Abbey,” during one week. Laura’s graduate course provided the background theory to teach my undergraduates about technology within Frankenstein. I then asked undergraduates to become those technologists and build their 21st-century versions of Frankenstein, complete with reference to recent re-mixing and re-using of Frankenstein material. (I write about this in a Journal of Victorian Culture brief article.) But, I failed to acknowledge Laura’s work on my syllabus because her course provided the fodder for thinking through the construction of my course, not any exact language borrowed for the assignments, reading list, or course description. Instead, Laura’s course contributed to furthering this idea of TechnoRomanticism in such a way that it was digestible by undergraduates.
I really wish I’d made those acknowledgements because, as it turns out, Neil Fraistat taught a version of this course back in 2003! He and Andrew Stauffer are reprising the course this semester (Spring 2012) but as networked courses running in tandem at University of Maryland and University of Virginia — perhaps mimicking the Looking for Whitman strategies or the House of Leaves networked experiment conducted last semester by Zach Whalen, Erin Templeton, Brian Croxall, Mark Sample, and Paul Benzon. (Neil has promised to write up his semester’s finds; looking forward to it!)
Now, I keep track of the curricular thought process over at the Teaching Romanticism Romantic Circles Pedagogy blog (edited by Kate Singer) and even crowd-sourced a graduate course on Gustatory Romanticism over there in 2011.
So, here’s a suggestion, add acknowledgements (like Natalia Cecire does here with Mark Sample’s blog assignment), to your online syllabi and assignments. And, Mark Sample reminds me (via Twitter), to also let that person know about the use of his/her assignments, rubrics, reading lists, etc. In the end, re-using, re-mixing, re-vising all of these teaching materials demonstrates to department chairs, administrators, tenure/promotion/merit review committees that you are indeed working within a community that values these types of contributions. Think of it as citation statistics; you would highlight those for your scholarly writings, right?
Also, more than you know, it goes a long way to generate good will in the community. Like with all things in Digital Humanities, there’s a long, long history of practice that needs to be/should be acknowledged.
You might also think about assigning a Creative Commons license to your syllabi, as suggested by Spiro in the above slide. Bethany Nowviskie writes about this in terms of blogs and scholarly communication, but the reasoning is just as sound for your pedagogical materials.
Ok, so you’ve done the acknowledgements, are thinking about improving the course for next time, and have written the collaborative process into your yearly review documents. How do you report all of those successes — ahem, more likely some failures? Write up and submit to the Failures section of the Journal of Interactive Technology & Pedagogy. Other than in the ephemeral space of a conference presentation, I’ve never told anyone that story about Laura’s TechnoRomanticism course. But, it’s a good story; one that connects me and my undergraduate students to someone who teaches graduate students in a research-intensive community. For Laura, the acknowledgement thanks her for sharing her syllabus online and connects her intellectual rigor to a different type of institution.
You might also consider writing a brief article on the overt or implied connections among courses. The success or failure of your curriculum might rely on your institutional culture or type of institution. David teaches at a private, Jesuit university ultimately with anywhere between 8 and 30 students in a single course. I teach at a large, public university with a guaranteed enrollment of at least 30. In addition, because the faculty are so dispersed and, quite frankly, overburdened, we’re often isolated from each other. If David, who is way more adept at using social media in the classroom than I, can offer his insights about best uses of these tools, I can revise towards my types of courses. As an example, Diane Jackaki managed to teach mark-up to 75 (75!!) students in a single semester, which resulted in a wikified digital edition. I want to know how she achieved that on such a large scale — and will find out at our Digital Pedagogy Seminar this summer at Digital Humanities Summer Institute.
Finally, if you happen to be teaching graduate students, it might be a good idea to model acknowledgement as a practice.