This week, I’m in a seminar at Brown University, participating in conversations about how we use TEI in the classroom. What a wonderful opportunity to think about so many topics: pedagogical goals and how we achieve them, what we know ourselves about the universe in which TEI operates, the importance of collaboration in Digital Humanities. Not to mention important things like what a stylesheet does and suggestions for how to distribute materials to students. The latter, of course, a distillation of years of teaching experience at the Women Writers Project.
As ever, I’m adding layers to my knowledge of and comfort with the vast set of stuff that comes with having taken my scholarship and teaching digital. I’m reminded that for my own learning, one TEI workshop has never been enough.
I’ll distill some of this into a post about plans for the first-year seminar I’m teaching this semester. The post will appear on Digital Culture Week, which I could be doing a better job of promoting….
During the NITLE Summit last week, some posters from the twitter stream asked what folks at the morning plenary session thought about a New York Times article on the use of online courses in public schools. I had read the article with dismay, as it described a trend towards using online courses as a way for schools to offer both Advanced Placement courses when there were too few students to fill a face-to-face course and “make up” courses for students who had failed courses in face-to-face settings. After the meeting, I appreciated the conversation NITLE Senior Fellow Bryan Alexander initiated on Facebook. I particularly liked the photograph that accompanied the post Howard Rheingold pointed to among his contributions to DML Central, though I would caution that there are likely to be significant differences in budgets between the schools featured in Rheingold’s photograph and the ones mentioned in the NYT article.
My initial gut reaction to the NYT article hasn’t changed. I am nauseated but not surprised every time I see an indication that people who think about the bottom line think of “online education” as a way to achieve efficiencies. My quick Twitter response to the question was easy: Technology is a tool. It can be used well or poorly. It cannot make decisions about its use. That’s our job as educators/edministrators.
Many issues arose during that morning plenary, including the conflicting purposes of colleges and universities, which are magnified in a climate in which increasing access to information undermines the traditional structures of professional scholarship and teaching. Professors come from graduate schools valuing research and unsure of how to graft teaching responsibilities onto apparently esoteric research interests. Students and their parents, concerned about the high price of higher education, nevertheless seek the credentials they know are minimal requirements for success in the so-called real world. Administrators must balance budgets, and admissions officers must make classes. Institutions compete for students even as many of the most interesting research projects require collaborations across institutions.
John Seely Brown, the speaker at our evening plenary, celebrates the opportunities for open learning and intellectual play offered by the abundance of information that is currently available and will only grow in the foreseeable future. My favorite of the examples he mentioned at a later session is MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), which allows students to receive course credit, be paid, or work on a voluntary basis, participating as colleagues in the research projects of their professors. JSB suggests that institutions would do well to cut half their courses from the curriculum and put the saved time to use in closer research collaborations between faculty members and students.
Education is not an efficient process. High quality education requires meaningful interactions among instructors and students. Including technology in the mix can contribute to students’ preparation for the learning they will continue to do after they leave the educational “bubble” or “tower” or whatever other protected metaphor we wish to use. Misusing technology to manufacture “efficiencies” does everyone a disservice.
College professors do a lot of writing that often goes uncounted in the various bookkeeping systems we use to tally performance in the profession. Letters of recommendation constitute one category of such hidden writing, and they can be a source of real pleasure. Recently, I wrote three sets of such letters for former students, and all three brought smiles to my face, each for very different reasons.
One student had majored in History and is applying to Ph.D. programs. Writing in support of her applications gave me an opportunity to recall not only the pleasures of working with her in courses that ranged from introductory level surveys of various periods in U.S. History and U.S. Women’s History to Senior Seminar but also a wonderful experience presenting with her at a conference focused on changing libraries. We talked about an assignment in which I had asked students to read some diaries that College Archivist and Special Collections Curator Zeph Stickney has collected and to contextualize them using class readings and books that had been digitized as part of the Harvard University Library Open Collections Program’s Women Working, 1800-1930, Collection. I described the assignment, and the student described her experiences working on it. She was the star of the conference. Other professors and librarians and academic technologists and administrators who attended were impressed with her ability to pinpoint key concerns about the online collection of sources, concerns that the librarians shared. The conference was a wonderful experience for me; I so enjoyed seeing this student shine.
Another student had majored in Women’s Studies and is applying to a Social Work program. She, too, had taken a range of courses with me, from introductory level U.S. Women’s History courses to an advanced course on Sex and Culture in the 19th-century United States. I didn’t have a conference experience to recall for this student, but I was delighted to have a moment to remember that course and her work in it. We read a lot of books in that course, and every week pairs of students led discussions. One of my favorite memories of that course was when this student and her co-leader asked their classmates to cast the movie version of a book called The Murder of Helen Jewett, a wonderfully researched and well-written narrative about a young woman from Maine who moved from a post as a domestic servant in her home state to remake herself in New York City, where she worked as a prostitute and–after she was brutally murdered–became the focus of a sensational trial in the 1830s. These were students who had been deeply affected by such movies as “Titanic” and “Gangs of New York,” so imagining this woman’s story as a film proved enormously effective for them as a learning exercise. And it was all their idea. Students are often more astute than their professors when it comes to finding ways to bring the past to life.
The final student had majored in American Studies and had worked as my research assistant on the Wheaton College Digital History Project. She is applying to Library School because it will prepare her for a profession in which she will be able to practice Digital Humanities. This student became a real colleague for me on the project. When the college awarded us funds from the Mars Foundation to take an introductory course on text encoding at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, she outshone me as a student. My brain remains pretty analog in this digital world, no matter how much I might prefer otherwise. But this student had already taught herself XML. And after the course, she studied the TEI Guide to figure out the details of the “measure” element. I am over the moon knowing that this student is ready to embark on her professional career and that I can look forward to encountering her as a colleague for a long time to come.
Teaching definitely has its rewards.