[See my article in Polymath about my teaching philosophy: “Play, Collaborate, Break, Build, Share: ‘Screwing Around’ in Digital Pedagogy.” 3:3 (Fall 2013) Polymath Special Edition on “Doing Digital Pedagogy at a Non-R1”]

Since January 2012, I’ve been going around and promiscuously talking about practicing. Steve Ramsay’s version of Digital Humanities, screwing around. But, I’ve been talking about it in terms of pedagogy, Digital Pedagogy — more specifically into my kind of institution’s classroom (Master’s comprehensive non-R1). After lots of workshops and talks delivered, it’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is. So, this semester, I’m back in the classroom with four courses, all of them different topics and student levels:

  1. Introduction to Literary Criticism: It just so happens that almost all 25 are seniors who will be graduating in the Spring. I love it when this happens. They are mature, inquisitive, a little hesitant about my reputation as a hardass, but nonetheless ready to tackle such a difficult course even in their final year.
  2. TechnoLiterature: This general education class is filled with 37 frosh, most of whom are experiencing SJSU for their first time. Only half are residential students. In the third week of classes, almost all 37 show up each day. If they don’t, they text, email, Facebook each other about missing class. We had to do a little shifting in the room because they looked like sweaty sardines in a semi-circle. So we re-arranged the tables into clusters (their idea). Our first texts have been Byron’s “Prometheus” and now Shelley’s Frankenstein. This class is fabulous so far. I’ve always found that frosh are more capable of playing around and inviting of my (sometimes) whimsical nature and wacky sense of humor.
  3. British Literature 1800 to Present: I completely revised this course to make it about problem solving, collaborative work, and material culture. Their first task is to get through the Romantics with me and work on a serial or poetry volume or magazine in a collaborative project. Yes, they’re working on originals….from my personal collection…yes, I let them take these objects home. My idea was to have them get into the 19th-century literature via these material objects, including looking at bindings, paper, images, and the literature. But I’m stuck. The mojo of the room of weird, and it’s been throwing me off since we started. Some of the students will have an opportunity to play with a real live hand letterpress at a friend’s house. Others are completely uninterested and yawning in the back of this tiny, stuffy room. I have an idea though.
  4. Introduction to Digital Humanities: I’m moonlighting in the School of Library and Information Sciences this term to teach this completely online course in Desire2Learn. As a first-timer teaching in SLIS and a completely online course, I was somewhat skeptical about the absence of intellectual jousting in a graduate course. So far, so good. I’ve resisted adding more stuff to the course, though I’d really enjoy posting videos that introduce the week’s material. But, as I well know, with technology, take it slowly especially in developing a new course. (Also, 26 graduate students in any graduate course need lots of attention; I don’t want to overwhelm myself and neglect their ideas.)

But it’s been bothering me that I haven’t really been able to institute screwing around into my class meetings — simply because I’m completely and utterly overwhelmed. I still have things from my sabbatical to clean up (revising my entire MS into Chicago style; writing up articles on digital pedagogy; submitting my promotion dossier to correct the Tenured Assistant Professor moniker; hyping the forthcoming collection of Gothic short stories). And, I’m struggling to become as involved in my career as I was prior to sabbatical and the tenure stuff in my department. (P.S. It all turned out okay.) In other words, I can’t be consumed exclusively by my work though I love it so.

Ok, then how do I revise these pedagogical imperatives and give more freedom to screw around? So here’s what I came up with, and I decided to implement it with my playful frosh (from a series of tweets this afternoon – scroll through):

I’m not sure how this will pan out, but if I’m asking them to take a risk then I’m also willing to take a pedagogical risk that they can suss out issues of technology, evil, good, science/religion, essentialism, and more in Frankenstein AND post to their blogs. The idea is that they will discuss each person’s point of view and then read through the final result before linking to the separate blog posts. We could have done this with pen and paper, but really, it wouldn’t have been the same considering that I encouraged them to mine the Internet for media. The posts, 400-500 words, are due on Thursday at 12pm. Then we’ll have a bigger discussion about Frankenstein. Really, this will set them up for our final 2 weeks of class where we’ll play the RPG, Diablo III.

In 45 minutes, I’m headed to the British Literature survey meeting where I’ll try to implement this style of literary engagement through their 19th-century materials collaborative project. One of the collaborative groups is working on The Boys Own Paper, another on facsimile serials of Dickens’ Hard Times. Yet another is delving into a literary annual, The Comic Offering. I don’t want to have to stand up front and goad them into responding to a discussion about my favorite Romantic-era poem of all time, “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” The concept is about Nature and the Romantics. Can they get into that through their material objects? Isn’t this part of the Digital Pedagogy that I’ve been espousing? If I roam around the room, will they ask why there are so many images of masculinity in the engravings or if the literature matches the visual? Then, only then, can I pop open my Norton and my laptop to show that group “…Tintern Abbey” and explain the value of the movement.

I’m headed over to that stuffy classroom with the idea that all failure is productive. Let’s see if they appreciate it and will delve into the British Romantics.

Caveat: Not everything I’m excited about excites my students too. Aye me.
P.S. Thirty more minutes before class. As I prep for today’s reading material, I’m struck by how bored I am: deliver key words, go over concepts, open Norton Anthology. I ADORE the Romantics. This is my field. Why am I being so boring? So, I might do this thing where I chuck the reading material and we focus on their 19th-century materials completely for the next 3 sessions. Gathering together in the same room. Talking about the literary perambulations. Giving them the resources for exploration (the Norton) and asking them to come to me. Let’s see if this works in the Brit Lit survey. I just can’t go back to the delivery style I was using pre-sabbatical.


[This blog post cited in Active Users: Project Development and Digital Humanities Pedagogy by L Thomas, D Solomon – CEA Critic, July 2014]