Device-ing a humanities pedagogy

A recent local study revealed that the typical UB student brings 5 wi-fi enabled devices to campus. Five devices? What could they be?

  • Smartphone (obviously)
  • Laptop/Tablet (almost certainly)
  • Gaming Console (xBox, PS, Nintendo DS)
  • iPod/MP 3 player
  • Kindle/ebook reader
  • Desktop computer (though I’m thinking that would be hardwired)
  • Roku/streaming media player
  • Television?

Clearly some of these are more interesting to us as faculty than others, or at least they are differently interesting from a pedagogical perspective. We are all already familiar with the phone and the laptop in the classroom and the still prevalent pedagogical response of forbidding their use. On the other hand, not long ago, I would have argued for the importance of building computer classrooms for the purposes of a composition pedagogy. Computer labs are likely still necessary for certain kinds of specialized work, where students may not have the software or hardware capacities on their own devices. And, for some schools, it is still the case that students might be as technologically flush as UB students appear to be. From our program’s perspective (and I don’t think we are unusual as a state university in this respect), the composition curriculum is really a BYOD environment, as is the typical humanities classroom.

What does it mean to be in an environment where thousands of students and faculty carry devices that connect them to one another across a wireless network (to say nothing the broader internet connection)? Next fall on Mondays at noon, over 200 students will be taking composition simultaneously in nine different sections across campus. What could this connectivity mean for them? What should it mean? As I’ve asked before on this blog, what should this connectivity mean for the 2500 students enrolled in composition courses next semester? Should we be facilitating ways for them to connect to one another? Do they have something to say to one another? Should they? If our current outcomes and pedagogy have no place or value on such communications does that mean that there’s something wrong with what we are doing?

The very first classroom in which I taught was a non-networked computer classroom (not even a LAN). That was 1992. I’ve taught in many computer labs in the intervening years, and when I was at Cortland I taught almost exclusively in a Mac lab. Teaching in that lab transformed my view of pedagogy and in many respects put me out of step with the mainstream humanities view of pedagogy that holds the tiny seminar as the ideal learning space. In the computer lab with its 20-25 students, the class meeting was a place where work was done. We might spend a few minutes talking through some issue and getting organized. If there was a common concern, I might even spend a little time lecturing. But mostly students worked on projects. They collaborated, gave feedback, and supported one another. I would move around the classroom engaging in the different projects.

I’m not sure how such a pedagogy translates when one moves from a curriculum focused on procedural knowledge to one that understands its object as declarative knowledge. I just finished teaching a graduate seminar on media theory that mostly falls into the latter category: we learned about media theory. We read media theory, and we discussed it. The students are completing their final projects now, and many of them are involved in doing digital work, but the classroom itself wasn’t a place where that work happened. Perhaps that’s my shortcoming. I’m still trying to figure out how to make a graduate seminar a place where students will come and do work in much the same way as my earlier undergrad classes did.

Undoubtedly, in the pre-BYOD Wi-fi era, lecture and discussion were sensible responses to the available technological conditions. The invention of mass printing created textbooks and altered what we might expect students to do outside of class, but typically we haven’t used class time to read textbooks. As such, the lecture/discussion format has remained the same for a very, very long time. Before the BYOD era, a student in a classroom had far fewer options for activity. The lecture/discussion format was the best available option for pedagogy, and the student in a lecture hall might do a crossword puzzle, read a magazine, or just daydream but really there wasn’t much to do besides listen and maybe speak. At the very least, lecture/discussion seemed purposeful. Today, they seem more contrived.

We all already know that for the most part the lecture can be offloaded to video. On my campus, and I imagine yours, we have these huge spaces devoted to lecture. In a time of austerity, these seem like a horrible waste to me. What was once a mechanism for efficiency has become an emblem of inefficiency. Face-to-face in-class discussion, on the other hand, still seems useful, but really as one of many possible modes of engagement. The problem with the BYOD environment and class-wide discussion is that the unengaged students are in fact engaged elsewhere. The same thing might be true for small group work, though it strikes me as easier to imagine group work activities that make productive use of these devices both as means of doing research and reporting back to the class as a whole.

So here’s my example. In my graduate Teaching Practicum one of the topics we address is “responding to student writing.” I will assign some readings on the subject (e.g., Nancy Sommers). We have a class blog, so students write in response to the readings prior to class discussion. Then we come to class and spend time talking about the reading. Depending on my mood (or whatever) we might break into small groups for a while to look at specific parts or think through a particular question, and then report back. I’m assuming you’ve seen this movie before.  We might even bring in some student papers and talk about how we respond to them. And everyone is happy with this, at least from a structural perspective, because reading something and then sitting down to talk about it is our definition of a classroom learning experience.

And then, lo and behold, we go out and replicate that experience.

Should we be doing something different?

Well, I’m going to guess that there will be several thousand graduate students in the US taking a Teaching Practicum similar to mine next fall. And I will further predict that nearly every one of those practicums will address the concern of “responding to student writing” at one point or another. Is there any point in engaging with this topic as a rich, ongoing, disciplinary concern on a national scale? Instead of us just talking to one another, could we be communicating with the rest of you as well? Could we be in a conversation with TAs and faculty across our own university in other disciplines who we might hope have similar concerns? If so, might we spend our time in the classroom working out how to engage in those conversations? The great thing about the Teaching Practicum, and the reason I’ve come to enjoy teaching it so much, is that it already has a tremendous amount of exigency driving it. Those TAs have to go back and face their students in their classrooms. There are consequences for doing a bad job. But we could still strengthen that exigency.

I might have been able to do the same thing with my Media Theory class but it would have required more substantial changes to my approach. It would have meant saying that the purpose of the course is not to read some things and talk about them. Instead, it would have meant saying the purpose of the course is to answer a specific question or solve a particular problem or reach out to a community. It would have meant saying that the way that we learn is by doing something.

I think maybe, once upon a time, listening to a lecture or having a discussion was a way of doing something. And it still is, I suppose, but it is a very limited kind of doing, and one that we are no longer restricted to in the classroom.


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