ugly step-parents: teaching the digital humanities #dhdebates

In what has become my regular report on my seminar's slow march through Debates in the Digital Humanities, this week we discussed the "teaching" section (in which my own contribution appears, though I won't be discussing it here). On a personal note, it's been gratifying to see this blog quoted several times in the book, and I was even happier that this time around there weren't even any misspellings! (sigh). 

In this section, Luke Waltzer takes up Stephen Brier's claim that teaching and learning are "the ugly stepchildren of the university." As Walzter writes,

Even though many digital humanities think and speak of themselves and their work as rising in opposition to the traditional structures of the academy, much current work in the digital humanities also values research and scholarship far more than teaching, learning, and curriculum development. In this sense, the digital humanities are hard to distinguish significantly from other academic disciplines." (338, my emphasis)

Part of this may have to do with funding structures. Waltzer observes that the NEH specifically does not fund projects that deal solely with pedagogical theory or that are intended to improve writing, speaking, or thinking skills "apart from a focus on specific humanities content." This would be one of those lines, by the way, that suggest to folks in my field that the NEH is not interested in them. As if to say that research that focuses on the teaching of writing could not be "specific humanities content" unto itself! I mean, why would the NEH want to fund a project whose specific research goal was to develop ways of teaching digital literacy? That wouldn't be the work of the humanities, right? Perhaps the NEH doesn't intend that message. Perhaps they think that's the work of the department of education. Maybe that makes bureaucratic sense. And there are other agencies out there that will fund that work. Which is to say that I don't mean this as a "complain about the NEH" post. Instead, as Waltzer suggests, I think it is indicative of the way that the humanities situates itself in relation to teaching.

I don't want to go further with that digression. Instead, I want to go back to this idea of ugly stepchildren. As it turns out, my parents divorced. Not uncommon. And my mom remarried. (My father remarried several times, though I never lived with those women.) So I suppose I am a step-child. To be honest, I've never thought of myself as a step-child. Maybe some people take on that identity for themselves, I don't know. But I think, like me, teaching and learning do not imagine themselves as step-children, as some obligation that comes along with something that you actually want. However, they may look upon the university as an ugly step-parent. 

As a rhetorician, I happen to be in a field that is deeply interested in teaching (and researching pedagogy). Clearly we have schools of education as well, though in my experience, ed schools are primarily focused on K12 pedagogy, not on postsecondary teaching. The basic reason for this is that the sole qualification for a professor is demonstrated expertise in an area of disciplinary content. Without that expertise, one is not really warranted to say anything of a discipline, including about its teaching practices. So even though I will tell you here that lecturing is a fairly bogus pedagogical mode… in any discipline… no one outside my discipline will pay attention to that (and everyone inside my discipline already knows that). Now the common response to that is "Well teaching writing is different because its about skills and my field is about content." At which point one either tries to stop from laughing or screaming that the person is an ignorant fool. After all, how can a person be so apparently smart as to become a professor and yet so apparently stupid as to fall into such a facile distinction? How should we respond? By describing exhaustively the 25 centuries of rhetorical philosophy (to say nothing of the ever-expanding body of contemporary research) that make up the content of my field and constitute content that one might teach in a writing class? Or by listing the dozens of skills that are integral to any disciplinary undertaking? What skills are necessary to conduct a lab experiment? analyze statistical data? critique a text? and so on and so forth. 

Digital humanists are perhaps more aware of this trap than others. Is coding a skill or content knowledge? Yes. If we add digital humanities to the curriculum are we "just" adding skills? If you are an 18th century Brit Lit person who does coding and DH work, do you want to teach a course on how to code or in your literary period? I'm not sure what the answer is there. I'm sure you could combine both, but if the idea was to prepare students to do DH coding across literary periods (and maybe even beyond literary studies) then spending much time on the literature would likely be an ineffective choice. 

Or, as I said in our seminar, imagine our composition program redesigned. 2500 students and 80 instructors sharing a common digital space, organizing along lines of affinity, meeting F2F to propel the larger community forward, sharing content and points of view, etc. etc. How uncertain would you feel as an instructor in that context? What is your role? What is your relation to your students? Where/when does your work begin and end? But this is the world we live in now. What is your obligation to Facebook or Twitter? What is my obligation to this blog or the email lists I'm on? Conversely what are my opportunities? Where are my chances to learn and grow? To discover inspiration? To answer the questions that digital technologies present to us, it is not possible to continue to think of teaching and learning as things that just magically happen, as rituals that we can just continue to perform. We have to approach these matters with some scholarly focus. And not just some of us, but every discipline and specialization, because we must take up teaching as a disciplinary matter.

Of course I don't actually think that's going to happen. As we discussed in our seminar, I think that if you went up to most humanists and said that they could snap their fingers and become transformed into the ideal digital/21st century version of themselves that they would decline. Instead, they would prefer to go down with the ship, though I'm sure most think that won't happen, that they believe they will be able to continue with the status quo into the indefinite future. As I've said many times on this blog, it's a gamble that individuals are free to make. I think, however, that it is an odd gamble for the humanities to make on a whole. When the humanities, taken as whole, might choose between seeking to adapt to the changing conditions in which it seeks to thrive or remaining true to its 20th-century notion of itself and risk extinction, why would it choose the latter? I realize, of course, that "the humanities" is perhaps not an entity that is capability of making such decisions. 

Too bad for the humanities.