Archive for July, 2010

Whither Technology in the Graduate English Seminar?

This week I was asked to take part in a meeting about some improvements to the classroom where Emory’s English department teaches its graduate courses. Specifically, the department has decided to make the space “smart” by adding a computer and a projector to the space. As far as I know, this classroom has been one of the last holdouts on this campus–and certainly in its building–for adding these tools. Up until this point, the technology of this space has been limited to a blackboard, a whiteboard, and a 27-inch, CRT television that hangs precariously in one corner of the room. So the improvements are certainly welcome.

But this meeting wasn’t about debating the technology that would be added. Instead, we were there to think about how the faculty in the English department could use the new technology effectively in graduate seminars. Our group met to brainstorm before giving a presentation to the department on different strategies they could use, and it represented people heading up a humanities digital scholarship initiative, librarians, and instructional technologists.

We had a lively discussion, but at the end we felt a bit stumped. What was getting in our way was the format in which the English graduate seminar tends to be taught. Speaking from my own experience–at Emory, no less–English graduate seminars tend to follow a pretty predictable pattern.[1] Students are assigned to read a primary text–a novel, a volume of poetry, etc.–and one or more secondary texts–articles, chapters from one or more books, or a monograph (although this last one is shockingly rare, as Cathy Davidson has recently discussed in the ADE Bulletin). The seminar sessions themselves varied on the faculty member. It wasn’t uncommon for the faculty member to walk in and say, “Well, what did you think?” (What did I think about reading the complete Wallace Stevens in one week? Plus two articles? I don’t know. I really don’t.) Others would begin by discussing the secondary texts and then move on to the primary texts. Still others would encourage individual students to take the lead for a portion of the class, either giving an oral presentation or speaking about a paper that he or she had written and distributed ahead of time. Seldom did any of my professors start with anything resembling a presentation or lecture that covered concepts or history. Any way you take it, the result is that much of the seminar’s time ends up being devoted to discussion that is centered around a couple of texts.

But if the discussion is around a few texts, around their close reading and their discussion by what can often be very small groups of people, what role is there for classroom technology, even if it is something basic like a podium computer and a projector? Obviously, one can use these tools for displaying films or images. These are certainly germane to the work and pedagogy of some of the department’s faculty members. And if one is working on electronic literature, then having a computer in the classroom is certainly advantageous. But what else is there?

This is the question that our group found itself wrestling with, as we tried to think of some approaches that faculty members could find useful. Here’s some of the ideas that we came up with:

  • Skype-ing in guest speakers: If grad students are reading a couple of current articles, imagine how interesting it would be to invite the authors of those articles to participate in a discussion with the class. Not only do students get a different perspective on the article (although still being wary of authorial intention), but they would have a chance to make real connections with people in the field that are outside the institution. In addition to the authors of secondary material, faculty could also invite experts on various topics to engage the class in additional dialog.
  • Co-teaching / co-learning across institutions: Extending the previous point to perhaps its logical conclusion, one could ask whether it would be possible to co-teach an entire class with someone at another institution and to have students enroll from each institution. Connecting budding scholars not only with advanced persons in the field but also other budding scholars could only do wonders for the profession, in my opinion.
  • Enhanced student presentations: Given the increasing emphasis on professionalization in the last decade within graduate school, students are more and more aware that they are enrolling in a PhD program as a stepping stone to having a particular career. Instead of simply giving an oral presentation in class, students could practice presentation skills that will be useful in conferences, classrooms, and job talks. Becoming familiar with tools such as PowerPoint or Prezi or formats such as Pecha Kucha will help the students polish what they will need to do on larger stages. As anyone who has been to an academic conference or attended college can attest, presentation skills are not bundled with the Ph.D. The more time students spend speaking in the front of a room and hearing from their audience, the better they will be at crafting engaging (and therefore successful) presentations and classes.
  • Social media in the classroom: Those who know me know that I am very enthusiastic about the use of Twitter and other social media tools in the undergraduate classroom. My experience shows that such tools increase participation in class due to the students’ knowing one another better. Once you know what someone eats for breakfast, it really does become easier to talk with her about Faulkner. There isn’t any reason that graduate students couldn’t make use of similar backchannels within and without the seminar. Doing the former provides another venue for presenting ideas and furthering discussion outside the classroom with the inclusion of what David Siver calls “thick tweets.” There are two potential limitations to this approach. First, my experience in seminars (which is, admittedly, five years old at this point) suggests that most English graduate students don’t bring their own computers, opting instead to take hand-written notes. A cultural shift can alter this, however. Second, since many seminars are so small (I took one with only the professor, one other student and myself), there is not necessarily the adequate numbers required nor the dynamic in place to sustain social media interactions.
  • Crowdsourcing notes: Those who know me know that I am even more enthusiastic about Jason Jones’s wiki-notes assignment than I am about Twitter. I think there’s great value in asking students to collectively decide what was important about the day’s work in the classroom. And I would argue that this might be even more important in the graduate classroom. Since the faculty members from whom I took classes tended not to present/lecture in the beginning of the seminar, I often left the seminars not sure if I’d latched onto the most important concepts. Having to put into writing what I’d learned that day would have been a very useful exercise. Doing it in conjunction with my classmates would have been still better. Of course, one need not have classroom technology in place for this assignment. But bold faculty members could experiment with allowing students to take collaborative notes about the class within Google Wave or a wiki. Potential problems with live note-taking could occur if, again, the seminar is small and/or if the note-taking got in the way of discussions. That being said, becoming conscious of the “text” of the classroom could be instructive (it has always been so for me) and provide another text to analyze.
  • Re-thinking the secondary reading assignment: If, as mentioned previously, Cathy Davidson is right that we do not assign enough monographs in our graduate seminars, one might rethink how the secondary reading is assigned with a class. A faculty member could assign an entire monograph to the class to be read in conjunction with the primary text. To lighten the load on the students, however, the faculty member could ask each student to be in charge of individual chapters and to write summaries of those chapters. These summaries could be collected in a class wiki that could be referred to throughout the class. If a professor was worried that there wouldn’t be enough common ground for a discussion, she could ask all the students to read one chapter and then assign the rest.
  • Doing the work of the class: While graduate seminars in English tend to be focused on discussions of the texts at hand, this is not the only activity that takes place, as mentioned above. Consequently, other uses of technology within the graduate seminar could include examination of primary materials (images), facsimile editions (displayed on a document camera), film, doing text mining analysis, or marking up texts in with TEI’s XML standards. Some classes, such as University of Maryland, College Park’s Matt Kirschenbaum’s Spring 2008 seminar on simulations, might go so “far” as to use Second Life or games within the classroom and others, such as Yale’s Pericles Lewis’s “Moderns, 1914-1926,” is in part devoted to creating an electronic resource for the study of modernism. Todd Presner of UCLA has his students contribute to geospatial archive and publishing platform Hypercities. Doing the work of the class, in other words, can be dependent upon particular technologies, especially when particular technologies (not always the same as those in the previous clause) are the subject of the course.

Apart from this last point, in which the technology is explicitly a part of the work of the class–albeit classes that stray from the standard model of the graduate seminar [1]–I’m willing to bet that each of these ideas will seem radical and disruptive to how English seminars are normally taught. But why is that?

I believe that English seminars are taught not so much to convey information (stuff the professor knows that the students don’t) as they are to teach the methodologies of literary studies. The most important methodology of literary studies is the manner of thinking about literature, since it is this thinking that spurs us on to ask particular questions. The give and take of the seminar, then, is an exercise in training graduate students not in particular information but in a particular thinking method. And since thinking method is the primary research method for literature students, the seminar room becomes a de facto space for teaching research methodologies. Using technology in unexpected ways in a graduate seminar becomes a challenge to the traditions of the discipline’s research methodology.

The integration of technology into an English graduate seminar classroom, in other words, poses questions about how we’re training the next group of scholars, about our pedagogy, and about how we’ve done things for the last X-number of years. This is not to say that it’s a bad thing. In fact, it might be a very, very good thing. But I think it underscores why we had such a hard time coming up with this list and why it will be difficult for faculty to integrate the new tools into their graduate seminars.

But I also know that my experiences in the English graduate seminar are not universal.[1] And I’m willing to bet that many of you have thought of or seen other ways to integrate technology–even on a very small scale–into the English graduate seminar. I’d like to collect as many of these possibilities as I can in the comments. Both our discussion group and the English department believe that faculty best learn and innovate by seeing examples of other things that other faculty are doing.

So. How have you imagined or seen technology transform the English graduate classroom experience? Please share.

[1] It’s worth noting that my portrayal of what an English graduate seminar is and looks like is obviously influenced by my own experiences. Conversations with those who attended other institutions tend to confirm these experiences. But I’m sure that there are also plenty of places where the structures are very much different from what I perceive to be the “norm.”

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