Digital Humanities in the Classroom

As I get my feet wet with this public-blogging thing (intentionally public, anyway–this isn’t the first time I’ve blogged publicly, but it’s the first time I’ve done so while trying to capture the attention of a specific audience and string a common thread through my posts), there is a growing pile (digital and otherwise) of things to think and write about. I find that I am accumulating post topics at a much higher frequency than I have time to write about them! This forces me to be judicious with words and space (believe it or not), to critically think through how I might thread several disparate concepts together, and to consider how I’ll use various media to convey the heart of my message.  As informal as blogging can be, the project of maintaining a blog for a specific professional purpose becomes a formalized act that follows a distinct process, much like that of writing a research paper or article manuscript. Which brings me to what inspired this post: last night’s CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative talk with Shannon Mattern and Mark Sample.

Shannon’s presentation in particular, “Beyond the Seminar Paper: Setting New Standards for New Forms of Student Work,” gave me things to think about when it comes to my research.  While I (and many other K-12 public school teachers in NYC) have a knee-jerk reaction against the word “standards,” it was refreshing to hear someone discuss evaluation and assessment in the context of why.  It’s not that I haven’t heard other academics speak about assessment in productive, logical ways; it’s just that so much of my time as a 5th grade teacher was spent producing pretty, neatly formatted assessments because I was forced to, not because it made sense.  One year, using an informal system of notes on a post-it was the accepted form of evaluation; another year, the focus was on rubrics; our heads spun with the rapid changes that seemed episodic and disconnected to the goals of our lessons, and in the interim, the whole purpose of evaluating was lost on many of us. While Shannon has developed a series of evaluative tools along with each project she has developed with her students, it was clear from her presentation that her evaluations were not seemingly random rubrics or checklists like the ones I once compulsorily produced–her evaluations have a specific purpose, and are connected to the larger learning goals of her students’ projects.  I appreciated being a part of this conversation at the higher-ed level–particularly the part that took up questions around support for practitioners.  (And I’d like to see more spaces for conversations like this at the K-12 level.)

So what do we do if we want to use a technological tool we don’t know how to use?  What are the resources available to professionally develop your own skills as instructors–at all educational levels?  And how can the growth of our society’s do-it-yourself (DIY) culture support those endeavors?

Shannon’s talk last night touched briefly on what I hear mentioned often in professional talks lately: getting an academic job is no longer a guarantee once you get your PhD.  I feel like I’ve witnessed the development of this phenomenon first-hand over the last decade, and have to wonder at how it has paralleled the development of technology.  At age 26 (eight years ago), with but two years of teaching 5th grade under my belt, I was hired as an adjunct to teach a course called “Assessment and Evaluation” at a local university.  Not only were the students in my course teaching in grades K-12 (I’d only taught elementary school at that point), the course text (which was dictated by the department) was unbelievably dry and disconnected from most of my students’ daily work, and my students were rightfully frustrated by the course content and my teaching of it.  I had not yet developed the wisdom (which would come several years later and is still evolving) to logically develop a purposeful assessment tool that was accessible to my students and made sense for the larger goals of the project or assignment.  At the time, there were few impressive lines on my CV that related to teaching at the Masters level, and other than being an ambitious, personable young woman with lots of energy and a brightly decorated classroom, I didn’t seem qualified.  So why was I hired?  Surely it couldn’t just be because I was cheap at $2,250 per class (or thereabouts), or that I was referred by an advisor through the New York City Teaching Fellows–I still went through an interview! Was something else happening at the time?  Was it the start of what we are witnessing now, with the disappearance of full-time, tenure-track positions? What does it all have to do with the advances of technology?  I realize I’m tangenting, and again, raising threads that I will want to return to, but all of these thoughts were descending upon my brain last night as I sat and listened to Shannon and Mark talk about their work at their respective institutions. (You can read more about my K-12 teaching experience in my previous post if you’re interested.)

Toward the end of the discussion, someone asked a question about the boundary between teaching tech and teaching content–for instance, at what point does teaching how to use a blog platform detract from the content-specific point of the activity?  I appreciated that both speakers had already intimated in their respective talks that the boundary is blurry and increasingly so–that as pedagogues, we will often be required to move our technological knowledge along independently, and make use of the advances available to us whether there is a PD session to support it or not.  I admit I’m out of the loop when it comes to debating the identifiers of “digital humanities.”  It seems that technology and teaching are so inextricably linked at this point that you cannot teach without bumping into technology somewhere along the way, and vice versa.

If I had more hours in the day, I would spend time looking at how developments in letter-writing and the postal service, television, telephones, automobiles, radio, and other technologies have impacted policies and practices around teaching and learning–this tension surely existed before computers, right?  I can’t imagine the development of automobiles having had the same impact on classroom learning as computers and the internet, but I’m curious about how the education system catches up to advances that move quickly around it.

I’m looking forward to continuing this discussion with you and other friends and colleagues involved in the project of education.

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