Tag Archives: Re:Humanities conference

Teaching Humanities to digital natives who may know more than we do.

I remember a story about the advent of the New Criticism where one of those famous critic/scholar/teachers–I forget which one, but I want to say Cleanth Brooks or perhaps John Crowe Ransom–admitted to rushing home at night to read feverishly ahead in the texts he was teaching so that he was ready to go the following day.  On the one hand, this is a familiar story to any new (or not so new) professor who’s trying to stay one step ahead of the onrushing train.  On the other hand, its also the case that part of this was demanded by the fact that Brooks and others were trying to do something totally new for a literature classroom, the close perspicacious reading whose minutest detail nevertheless resulted miraculously in a coherent organic whole.  That kind of textual analysis was the meat of my own education, and to be honest, it hasn’t really changed all that much despite all the new (and now new old theories) that came in with the advent of deconstruction and its descendants.  We still, more or less, on the undergraduate level do the close reading, even if we now look for the way things fall apart or for hints and allegations of this or that cultural depravity.

But I am intrigued by just how hard Brooks/Ransom (or whomever it was) had to work to stay ahead of his students, in part because he really didn’t know entirely what he was doing.  He wasn’t building on the secure  corpus of knowledge that previous literary scholastics had received and passed on.  Despite the mythic and quasi-priestly status that some New Critics projected–turning the critic into an all-knowing seer, and thus setting the stage for the later assertions that critics were really the equals or superiors of the novelists and poets they read and critiqued, knowing what those poor souls could only allude to and  evoke–there was a very real sense in which the New Criticism was much more democratic than the literary scholasticism that preceded it.  (I am sure Frank Lentricchia is exploding about now, or would be if he ever actually would bother to read me).  While it may not have been more democratic in the sense that the New Critics seemed to cast a mysterious aura about all they did, developing a new and arcane ritual language to accompany it, it was more democratic in the sense that the method was potentially available to everyone.  Not everyone could have the time to read all the histories and all the letters and delve in to the archives and read the vast quantities of literature required for the literary scholasticism that characterized old style literary history .  But everyone could read the poem or the novel set in front of them.  And potentially a smart undergraduate could see a good deal that the prof had missed, or point out the problems in particular interpretations.  When the evidence of the poem was simply the poem itself, all the cards were on the table.  No longer could a professor say to the quivering undergraduate “Well, yes, but if you had bothered to read x,y, and z you would understand why your assertions about this poems place in literary history are totally asinine.”  The average undergraduate is never in a place to dispute with a professor on the place of this or that figure in literary history, but they could, in fact, argue that a professor had gotten a poem wrong, that an interpretation didn’t hold up to a closer scrutiny of the fact.  The feverish late night work of my Brooks/Ransom avatar, like the feverish late-night work of many a new and not so new professor, is sometimes cast as a noble inclination to truth or knowledge, or the discipline.  It is in truth, very often the quest to avoid embarrassment at the hands of our smarter undergraduates, the quest for just enough knowledge or just enough preparation to make sure we justify our authority in the eyes of our skeptical younger charges.

I was thinking about his again while attending the Re:Humanities undergraduate DH conference at Swarthmore/Bryn Mawr/Haverford Thursday and Friday. Clearly, one of the biggest challenges to bringing DH fully onboard in Humanities disciplines is the simple fact that undergraduates often know as much, and often know a great deal more, about the tools we are trying to employ.  On the one hand, this is a tremendous challenge to mid-career academics who understandably have little interest in abandoning the approaches to scholarship, teaching, and learning that they have developed, that they understand, and that they continue to use effectively given the assumptions and possibilities of those tools as they are.  It was ever thus and to some degree colleges remain always one step behind the students they are attempting to educate, figuring out on the fly how our own education and experience can possibly apply in this day and hour.

However, I also wonder whether the democratization of the technological environment in the classroom isn’t a newly permanent state of affairs.  The pace of technological change–at least for the present, and why would we assume that should stop in the near or mediate future–means that there is some sense in which we are entering an period in the history of education in which educators will, in some sense, never know any more about the possibilities of the tools they are using than do the students that they are teaching.  Indeed, given the nature of the tools, it is quite likely that collectively the students know a great deal more about how to use the tools available to them and that they are likely to be more attuned more quickly to the latest technological developments.  What they don’t know–and what we as educators don’t know either–is how to best deploy those resources to do different kinds of humanistic work.  The teleology of learning used to be fairly, if undemocratically, straightforward.  The basic educational goal was to learn how to do what your teacher could do–with reading, with texts, with research.  In our current age that teleology is completely, perhaps appropriately, disrupted.  But that doesn’t alleviate the sense that we don’t know entirely what we should be teaching our students to do when we don’t entirely know what to do or how to do it ourselves.

Mortimer Adler famously wrote a book on “How to Read a Book”  and though people bemoaned Adler as an elitist and a snob, the basic idea was still important.  Some people knew how to read books and others did not.  I still think its the case that we take a tremendous amount for granted if we assume an undergraduate actually knows how to read an old-fashioned codex well.  They don’t.  On the other hand, we have no equivalent book that tells us “how to read….”, in part because we don’t know how to fill in the blank, though perhaps “digital artifacts” comes as close as anything.  We’re not even sure what tools we should be using to do whatever it is we are doing as humanists in this day and age.  No wonder most professors choose to continue to use books, even though I think the day is fast approaching when students won’t tolerate that, anymore than an ancient would have tolerated the continued use of scrolls when a perfectly good codex was available at hand.  What the current technological changes are doing is radically democratizing the classroom on the level of the tool.

I did have a couple of signs of hope this past week at the Re:Humanities conference at Swarthmore. In the first place, if the educational system in the humanities is becoming radically democratized at the level of structure, I think it is safe to say there are many, many, many people using that democracy well.  The students at the conference were doings stunningly good and creative work that was clearly contributing to our knowledge of the world around us–sometimes pursuing these projects independently or, most often, in partnership with and in mentoring relationships with committed faculty.  (It is, of course, also the case that people can use democracy poorly, as I’ve suggested elsewhere;  this would be true in both the classroom and the body politic, so we should ask whether and where the democratization of our educational system is being used well, rather than assuming that because we use the word democracy we have named a substantive good).

Secondarily, one of the chief insights I drew from the different speakers was that if we put the tools on the table as possibilities, students will surprise and amaze us with what they can manage to come up with.  What if we found ways to encourage students to get beyond the research paper and asked that they do serious creative and critical work with the tools that they have everyday at hand on their iPhones, laptops, and etcetera.  What is we encouraged them to say we have to find the best way to answer the kind of questions humanists have always asked, and to identify the new questions and potential answers that new (and now not so new) technologies make possible.  We will have to do this regardless, I think.  The age demands it.  And I suspect that there will be many many more frantic late nights for faculty ahead.  But I think those frantic late nights will be built less and less on the belief that we have to get on top of “the material” and “stay ahead” of our students.  When they can bring in material we’ve never heard of with the touch of a finger on their iPhones, we have no hope of being on top of the material or staying ahead in a meaningful sense.  Perhaps what we can do is inspire them to charge ahead, guide them to the edges of the landscape that we already know, and partner with them in the exploration of the landscapes that we haven’t yet discovered.