Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, July 26, 2010

technologies of the seminar room

There’s a really interesting conversation at Brian Croxall’s site on integrating digital technology into English classes — more particularly, into graduate seminars. Turns out that that it’s hard to think of ways to do this well. And while Brian is anything but a thoughtless technophile, there is something rather telling in how he poses the problem: “We had a lively discussion, but at the end we felt a bit stumped. What was getting in our way was the format in which the English graduate seminar tends to be taught. . . . Any way you take it, the result is that much of the seminar’s time ends up being devoted to discussion that is centered around a couple of texts.”

The implicit assumptions here — which Brian in the comments says he does not endorse — are that (a) we have these technologies available, (b) available technologies need to be used, and (c) a method of teaching that doesn't invite these technologies is “getting in the way.” In the post’s comments Amanda French picks up on these assumptions and responds to them very helpfully:

I think you’re bang-on that “The integration of technology into an English graduate seminar classroom, in other words, poses questions about how we’re training the next group of scholars, about our pedagogy, and about how we’ve done things for the last X-number of years.” “How to do grad education better” is a very different conversation from “What’s the role of technology in the classroom,” though, and I think the former is the conversation you should be having, because I have to say that this post is a bit tech-foisty. To write that “it will be difficult for faculty to integrate the new tools into their graduate seminars” implies that faculty are under some kind of mandate to integrate the new tools, which I for one would emphatically deny. It wouldn’t be difficult for some people to integrate new tools, but they don’t want to, and are right not to, given that their goal is teaching “the methodology of literary studies.” Which is another way of saying that the point of most grad seminars is to professionalize the grad student.

Amanda goes on — I’m using first names as if I know these people, though I don’t; hope that’s okay — Amanda goes on to describe the problems with this model of socializing the graduate students into a profession that is rapidly becoming unrecognizable, so this post and its comments give us a twofer: a thoughtful discussion of technology in the classroom and a thoughtful discussion of how my profession is changing. And of course those two themes are linked in ways that we scarcely yet understand.

(By the way, Brian just talks about “Technology in the Graduate English Seminar” — I added the adjective “digital.” I wish people would think more of all classroom experiences as experiments in technologies: after all, the traditional English grad. seminar is deeply invested, though often unconsciously, in exploring the widely varying technologies of the book and of print culture more generally. My own inclination, which I should probably spell out in detail some time, is to say that digital technologies are most helpful to the student of the humanities in her work outside the classroom: blogs, wikis, multimedia assignments, etc. All of those are great additions to the pedagogical toolbox. But in the classroom the best use of our time is usually to investigate books together.)

3 comments:

  • First names are fine with me! It's worth mentioning here that one of the conclusions Brian came to in his post is that a terrific use of inside-the-classroom-technology for graduate seminars is to bring in remote guest lecturers and/or discussants. That way you might be able to have a discussion (if you like) enriched by, say, the presence of the author of what you're reading. That happened a couple of times, informally, via Twitter, in the graduate class I taught last year.

    And yes: I'm a fan of investigating books together, too. :)

  • Yeah, those books are darned good things!

    Amanda, I've been thinking about the remote-guest-lecturer thing, and it seems to me that the challenge is to make it something more and better (or at least other) than having a guest lecturer either actually in the classroom or through a telephone conference call. I'm inclined to think that the way you do that is to create a webpage somewhere that contains the visitor's interactions with the class — an embedded video, a re-presented stream of tweets — and then invite annotation. Students can link to similar statements, by the visitor or by other people; they can spell out in more detail what they mant by the one question they got to ask and then say whether they think the question was well-answered; they might even write follow-up emails to the visitor and then report on any answer they got. More added value is what we need.

  • First names are fine with me as well, Alan, and I apologize that it's taken me as long as it has to respond to your post.

    My own post has an unusual history in that the English department had already made a decision to upgrade its seminar room with a projector and computer connections. Since this was going to cost several thousand dollars, they asked a number of us to think about how they might use the room's new tools effectively. (In some ways, I think they were hoping that we could help them justify the costs to themselves.) Having been through this very PhD program, I wasn't sure that technology--digital technology as you rightly note--was really all that useful for grad seminars as I'd experienced them. Still, it seemed a provocative question in that so many people I know IRL and on teh Twitterz use technology in interesting ways in their undergraduate work. But I haven't seen much discussion of how digital technologies inform the graduate seminar, apart from using it for what I call "the work of the class." I think that your feeling that digital technologies can be most useful for outside-of-class discussion in the humanities is generally apt, although I've had fun and success in using Twitter as a backchannel, which allows students to extend the conversation (through links) in ways that I wouldn't have thought of doing.

    I also like your idea of expanding a guest lecture into something more than just a substitute for an actual class visit. I don't know if all guests would be willing to submit to such treatment, but it seems like an exciting possibility.

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