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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  1. #1 by Kathy on July 6, 2010 - 9:45 am

    Brian, there is often less “play” in graduate courses than undergraduate courses for some reason. I teach with Moodle so graduate students in my course participate in creating a glossary and a weekly discussion forum. The weekly writings are by far he most useful. Not only do they write weekly and post but they also respond to each other in this forum. It’s an easy way to “out” graduate writing which tends to be so hidden. This is almost like crowdsourcing notes, but it’s much more formal.

    A discussion forum might be one of the easier ways to introduce faculty to using more technology in the classroom. Layering is key here, especially for those who are resistant.

    One other thing, if you can swing, every student in this particular room that I teach in receives a PC or Mac when entering the room. The bay of laptops was donated by HP and Mac and has been the most useful equipment in the room. Also, Teamspot (or Tidebreak) is by far the best software to use with these laptops. With it, students can take control of one of the three Smartboards in the front of the room. It requires a dedicated server in the room, though.

  2. #2 by Mark Sample on July 6, 2010 - 10:01 am

    Brian, thanks for getting this conversation/party started. It’s odd how innovation in undergraduate education is so sought after, while most graduate programs and classrooms have been content to rattle along with the same old methods.

    I’ll have to draw up some ideas in greater detail, but for now, I’ll say that I’ve been trying to push my graduate students as much as my undergraduates in terms of social pedagogies. I think the graduate students themselves, though, are often just as resistant as faculty when it comes to trying out new things. We’re all very comfortable with the standard discussion model you outline. There’s the sense of, well, this is how my esteemed professors taught me as a graduate student, and it worked damn well for me, so I’m going to teach the same way. Maybe I’ll even teach from the same notes I took as a graduate student.

  3. #3 by Amanda French on July 6, 2010 - 12:19 pm

    I think you’re bang-on that “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.” “How to do grad education better” is a very different conversation from “What’s the role of technology in the classroom,” though, and I think the former is the conversation you should be having, because I have to say that this post is a bit tech-foisty. To write that “it will be difficult for faculty to integrate the new tools into their graduate seminars” implies that faculty are under some kind of mandate to integrate the new tools, which I for one would emphatically deny. It wouldn’t be difficult for some people to integrate new tools, but they don’t want to, and are right not to, given that their goal is teaching “the methodology of literary studies.” Which is another way of saying that the point of most grad seminars is to professionalize the grad student.

    Call me crazy, but I do still think that the three basic pedagogical goals of most graduate English seminars can’t be helped much by technology. First, the grad student just needs to read the texts primarily so that s/he is familiar with the texts. You could mess around with Kindles and whatnot, but ultimately the point is to read them, some how, some way. And second, the grad student needs to firm up her understanding of the issues the text raises, through discussion, lecture, and secondary reading; I firmly agree that a better discussion question than “What do you think?” would help here, as would a bit more lecture and more reading of secondary literature (I definitely discovered the latter in the grad seminar on Victorian Poetry I taught, but, too late, sadly). But that could be solved just by, you know, lecturing, with or without PPT, and by assigning secondary lit. I’ve taken great non-tech grad seminars that do both. Third and last, the model grad student in a lit seminar needs to learn to write well in that special uptight grownup scholarly way, producing if possible a seminar paper that could be published, and that’s a matter of voice and technique and all kinds of ineffables.

    During and after the single grad lit seminar I taught, I realized that I couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance that came along with knowing that 1) the point of a grad seminar is to professionalize the student, and 2) there was little point in that point, given the job market. So the other grad classes I’ve taught have been *not* seminars teaching the skills you need to be a lit professor, but courses teaching other skills, skills that *do* require technology. I loved teaching the research skills graduate class, in which I needed a projector so that I could show them how to search particular databases and so on. I loved teaching Creating Digital History, because I was teaching them how to build websites, and I needed a projector so I could show them how to FTP and use the phpMyAdmin interface and so on and so on. In both those courses I used various kinds of tech (not just projectors) to “do the work of the class,” as you put it.

    I don’t have any examples of all of having seen any kind of technology transform a graduate classroom experience. And frankly I still like just having discussions, sans laptops and projectors. Cynicism and disillusionment aside, I took some great grad seminars on that traditional model.

    But you asked for examples, so I’ll give you a couple of small ones from that single grad seminar on Victorian Love Poetry I taught (blog here: http://blogs.lib.ncsu.edu/eng560/). I can’t actually remember whether there was a projector in the room; I think there was and that it remained unused most of the time. I do have the entirely non-transformative habit of using a laptop and projector to illustrate what I’m talking about; sometimes it’s as simple as, “Here’s that website on prosody I told you about. See? See?” I also really like putting passages up on the projector when we’re doing close reading, especially of poetry; it’s great to have the text up on the screen at the front so that we can all stare contemplatively at it together. We can do that with their books, of course, too, but it’s a little more communal with a projector.

    I think your idea of using Skype to bring in guest lecturers is a good one, and if I had been comfy with Skype back then I might conceivably have done so — always assuming that I actually knew a germane scholar far away who was also comfortable with Skype, which I emphatically didn’t then. I asked Christina Rossetti scholar Antony Harrison to guest lecture for us on Christina Rossetti, for instance, because it seemed silly to waste the opportunity of his being in the department. But later, when I taught Creating Digital History, I asked a remote scholar if he’d guest lecture using Skype or similar, but he didn’t know how to use it, so we figured we’d better not chance it. I’d also never ask someone to do that whom I didn’t already know.

    Finally, I’ll say that I introduced the innovation of workshopping; yes, Virginia, I asked the grad students to read and comment on one another’s papers, which I had never been asked to do in my own grad classes. It went over really well, and I do think it made their papers better (though not much better, because they were already great), but the main point was getting them to write for people besides me, to think of an actual public who might actually critique or praise. We didn’t need any tech besides e-mail to do it, though. If I were to teach that class again, I might carry principle even farther and asked them to post their papers online and solicit comments, in which case Google Docs or a blog would’ve come in handy. Though, as you say, one doesn’t need *classroom* technology for that. The same is true for our class blog; we didn’t really need a projector and laptop to use that.

    Good luck, Brian!

  4. #4 by Brian on July 6, 2010 - 12:55 pm

    @Kathy: It makes a certain sense to me that there is less “play” in grad courses since the grad courses are eventually aimed at securing the students some sort of employment. This is serious work that we’re taking on in graduate seminars. (And no, my tongue is not in cheek with that statement.) Do you actually use the Moodle discussion forum *in class* apart from referring to it? I do think that workshopping writing and ideas is something that we could use more in grad school than we currently do as a way to practice what it means to be a professional writer. And coming with some discussion–albeit short and tentative–under one’s belt could be a great way to make the opening of grad seminars more meaningful.

    Our classroom here is not going to use smart boards or have anything like a dedicated server, but I’m interested to hear what exercises you use in these cases. Can you say more?

  5. #5 by Michael J. Altman on July 6, 2010 - 1:00 pm

    As someone who just finished course work and is still in a graduate program (at Emory) I thought I’d toss my two cents in.

    Brian, I think you’re on to some great stuff here. While I’m in religious studies, our seminars are pretty much on par with what you’ve outlined here. We read a book. Then we discuss. Then in the last few weeks we might workshop papers.

    For me, as Amanda said, the Skype ideas are the best ones for really making technology help professionalize graduate students. There are times we’ve read texts by scholars who I know the professor knows, who I even know, and who we could easily talk with but haven’t.

    I also think Amanda makes a good point about the teaching of skills in graduate courses. What little digital humanities skills I’ve learned in the past 3 years of graduate work were gained either through Ed. Tech workshops, stuff I read online, or just fooling around with things on my own. I wish there had been more practical training woven into my course work. Now that I’m studying for exams and then on to the dissertation, I don’t see myself taking much time for more training until I get done. (Though I am waiting for THATcamp Southeast to emerge.)

    In the end, if the goals are proficiency in the field and professionalism, then the technology should work to those two ends. The proficiency takes reading, writing, and yakking with others–some of which can be assisted through technology. The professionalism takes training in specific skills and networking which technology can also facilitate. But I don’t think anything can replace a tattered monograph, a pencil, a notebook, a group of smart colleagues, and a cup of coffee.

  6. #6 by Brian on July 6, 2010 - 1:05 pm

    @Mark: I agree that there will likely be resistance on the part of both students and faculty when trying to change how the graduate classroom works. And tradition has something to do with it for the faculty, but I find it less persuasive that that is the case with the grad students themselves. After all, the grad seminar works in a pretty different way from the undergraduate classroom–even upper-level courses. (I say this having not been an English major myself, so my exposure to these classes is limited to the one that I took in undergrad and the few that I’ve taught.) In fact, I think we should expect that undergraduate students who are becoming more used to innovation in some of their undergraduate classes–English or otherwise–might reasonably expect to have many different types of activities and approaches within the classroom. Matt Thomas and I were having a conversation about just this point on Twitter this morning (see this tweet and work backwards). Where I think the resistance will come from grad students, then, is not in the realm of tradition but more in the realm of, for lack of a better term, laziness. Who wants to do more work? No one. And you can’t blame them since there’s a lot to be done in grad school.

    Not having taught a grad seminar, I anticipate that I too would incorporate some of the same social technologies that I favor in undergrad classrooms. Using Twitter can help them understand how to network outside of the department. Blogging is a chance to practice writing. And so forth. Although by the time I teach a grad seminar, we probably won’t have the Internet anymore.

  7. #7 by Kathy on July 6, 2010 - 1:08 pm

    @Brian, yes absolutely, we refer to their writing at the outset of class. In fact, the due date is usually the day before so we can all read each other’s work. And, typically, the person who is leading the day’s discussion/presentation (after I lecture a bit to give them some historical context) is required to lead the discussion based on the group’s posts. During the meeting, I pull out specific quotes from various writings by each student. Sometimes, if they’re really struggling in their posts and responses, we return to the discussion board for the first 15 minutes of class to respond again to another post with a series of “furthering” questions. Or, I’ll post another question to guide them then we spend some time discussing their responses and the gaps in understanding. (I use classic composition strategies to get into their ideas and writing.)

    As a caveat: I’m a *not* training doctoral students. My work is with MA students, most of whom already have jobs at the local K-12 schools. 1 out of 60 goes off to a doctoral program or aspires to do so.

    TeamSpot is the most utilized tool in our classroom. It releases me from being the authority in the room. And, it’s useful to enhance our information about any particular topic or curiosity. Both grad and undergrad students have really enjoyed access to databases and the Internet in general during class. Someone asks, for instance, what did a mastectomy look like? What about experiments on the female body? While someone looks around, we continue with our discussion. For grad students, it inspires a sense of play and curiosity with the material. Of course, I teach from a New Historicist perspective so these strategies might not work for others. (I envision a close reading of poetry being enhanced by its musicality or using the SmartBoard to mark up a poem.)

  8. #8 by Brian on July 8, 2010 - 11:10 am

    @Amanda: Thanks for this detailed and thoughtful response. I especially appreciate how you opened up. It’s not my intention to suggest that (classroom) technology must be part of the English graduate curriculum nor that those who do not use it are necessarily tech-phobic. Teaching “the methodology of literary studies” is what graduate seminars are supposed to do, and anything that does not help a faculty member reach that goal is probably a distraction. It’s for this reason that Emory’s English department isn’t foisting the technology on faculty members. But they also recognize that they have some new tools and have consequently asked us as collaborators to help them imagine how these tools could be used. It is precisely the difficulty of coming up with approaches that make use of the new tools and that meet “the three basic pedagogical goals of most graduate English seminars” that inspired this post. If, then, we take it as granted that technology need not be a part of a seminar, how can using it improve things?

    And if all this can change how we go about doing graduate pedagogy writ large (which is a separate but related thing, certainly), then that’s all the better. In fact, I’m hoping that this new space can provoke such a discussion among the English faculty members themselves. (Although since I’m not in that department at the moment, I’m working a bit sub rosa, using this classroom update as a space to push such questions while still hewing to the assignment I was given.) Your cognitive dissonance could make for an interesting sea change if all grad seminars took it as an a priori that they should be preparing students for different career paths than simply the university. I know that it’s a lot to ask those who “succeeded” and got a tenure-track position to think about how to do a different sort of job. But recognizing the realities of the job situation should already be driving us to do things differently.

    I like the idea of displaying texts on a screen for people to close read together. Do you think working in small groups to annotate versions of the text before coming back together is too against the grain of grad school’s emphasis on romanticism individualism?

    I remember workshopping papers in groups in just one grad seminar. Three other people read my paper and then provided feedback, which was helpful and gave me insight into how important a writing group would be when tackling a longer project. Since much work in the Digital Humanities, for example, is collaborative in nature, I wonder how we can change the work of the seminar to encourage people to experiment with collaboration in a way that we haven’t done effectively in the past. Scholars need to be able to work independently; but PhDs need to be able to work with others.

  9. #9 by Brian on July 8, 2010 - 11:28 am

    @Kathy: Thanks for these insights into how your seminars work. Do you have students respond to a particular question each week? Or is the topic of their writing more self-directed? I had only one grad seminar IIRC where we did weekly writing, and the assignment was without exception to write an explication of the literary theory chunk we’d just read (it was the intro to theory course). We never discussed what we had written specifically, although I’m sure that having been required to explain the text to ourselves made our in-class discussions more lucid.

    I do like the idea of getting students who are leading the day’s discussion or giving a presentation drawing on the others’ writing. In my seminars, this didn’t happen, and I think it could have been a richer discussion/presentation if I’d been forced to consider others’ ideas in connection with my own. Doing so becomes a chance to practice the lit review in class or to situate oneself in a conversation while not becoming obstreperous.

    The use of TeamSpot sounds intriguing for creating the collaboration that I would like to see used a bit more in graduate education and for de-centering the classroom. When I’ve used Twitter with undergrads in the past, they’ve used it to link to related materials to our discussion, but handing the screen over to them is something that I haven’t tried. I certainly will the next chance that I get, however.

  10. #10 by Brian on July 8, 2010 - 11:37 am

    @Michael: I think you’re probably correct that the tools/technologies we have been using in graduate seminars to this point are very likely the ones that will continue to be best suited toward developing proficiency in the field. If the Kindle and the iPad can’t yet beat the book as an efficient technology, I very much doubt that anything in the English graduate seminar will either.

    I also think that you’re right to split the goals of graduate education into proficiency and professionalism. Obviously the former is in some ways a function of the latter (and vice versa). And while faculty members are aware of the need to help grad students professionalize, I think that this has meant helping them understand the need to publish and to be presenting on a national stage. These are key, of course. But adding some technology into the professionalization mix is worthwhile too. It bears noting that every interview I’ve had in the last year has been due more to my technology skills than my ability to read literature. And like you, I came by these approaches and abilities through my own interest and things like Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching’s “Technology, Pedagogy, and Curriculum” course. I don’t think we should expect English professors to become experts in instructional technology…but there surely can be a middle ground between expert and not participating at all.

    More on THATCamp Southeast in the near future, I hope.

  11. #11 by Kathy on July 8, 2010 - 12:10 pm

    I just want to take a moment to discuss the desire to inspire/invite graduate faculty to use technology in the classroom. I think those of us who are on Twitter or in contact through other social networking arenas have an idea about the future of literary studies, at least where it intersects with technology. But, I want to caution everyone that while we have much momentum and excitement among ourselves, the profession at large is somewhat of a minefield when it concerns using technology or even with the mention of Digital Humanities.

    @Brian, I’ve gone a bit off topic with this comment; sorry about that. But, we (DH) have to be really cautious about enticing faculty to use technology in the classroom. It would be incredibly phenomenal if every university had a team of Instructional Technologists who guide faculty. We had one at SJSU and lost him to Stanford 2 years ago. We’ve been coddling together a team ever since then but there’s no consistency. If the admins don’t fund this type of position, then they don’t understand the importance. Brian is in a wonderfully, influential position!! If only we could all have this in our universities!!

  12. #12 by Brian on July 8, 2010 - 3:00 pm

    Thanks for this most recent comment, Kathy. And I think you’re right to sound a note of caution that those of us who are already plugged in to some aspects of digital scholarship might not correctly apprise how it plays with others in our respective fields. I think that in many ways, this point is what Michael and Amanda are raising in their comments. Graduate study in the English classroom has worked for a very long time with a minimal level of technology, and faculty members should not feel as if they are being required to embrace the use of technologies that they do not feel will help them reach their overarching goals. Ironically, this post grows out of the English department’s making a decision on their own and then reaching out for suggestion on how to best use the new tools its faculty will have at their disposal.

    And I do feel fortunate to be in my current position and hope that I can show it’s a worthwhile one.

  13. #13 by Davin Heckman on July 8, 2010 - 3:03 pm

    I think this is a great discussion. For my part, I teach undergraduates. And I actually prefer the “sitting around talking while occasionally putting something up on the board method” for my seminar classes.

    But there are two times when I break from this pattern and turn on the computer: 1) Whenever I bring a piece of electronic literature into the discussion (I try to touch on a piece in every lit course I teach, whether it is an e-lit course or not). I know you mention this, but I think that those of us who are hip to what’s going on in the realm really can push the discussion of literature forward by letting e-lit into more traditional courses. I like to talk with students about how various conventions develop across time, so a good, but challenging, contemporary example can make some of these discussions move in unpredictable directions. And, 2) whenever I can find a reading from one of the poets we are discussing. Last time I taught Ginsberg, I pulled up a reading from Archive.org, and let the students listen. It’s just plain pleasurable.

  14. #14 by Brian on July 9, 2010 - 10:00 am

    @Davin: Thanks for jumping in. When teaching undergraduate seminars I too have often opted for the teaching method that you describe. We play around with a lot of technology as a function of these classes. But we don’t often foreground that within the class sessions themselves. And I went into English specifically because I liked such discussions, the ability to argue for seemingly any point and from any angle, provided I could back it up with the text.

    I also really like pulling in readings of poets. You don’t really understand Ginsberg’s poetry until you’ve heard him read it. There’s something about the urgency in his voice through much of it that doesn’t carry across quite in the printed words (although those look pretty frantic too). At the same time, it always seems a bit of a cop-out to think that the poet’s own reading is the correct one, so listening to readings is a great way to get students thinking about authorial intention.

    And e-lit is a no-brainer (either for the use of tech or for including in a wider range of classes).

  15. #15 by Millicent on July 24, 2010 - 7:47 pm

    Brian et al,

    I’m late to this discussion but stumbled across it while I was thinking through similar problems that inhere in the deadening process of professionalizing for its own sake, namely, the difficulty of hosting useful conversations in the majority of academic contexts. Thought I’d toss my two cents in.

    Re: Skype: FWIW, used it in my undergraduate course, which was structured around fiction, technology and the author function. We finished the class by reading an experimental novel (VAS: An Opera in Flatland by Steve Tomasula) and finally spoke with the author himself via Skype videochat. The students were astounded by every aspect of this: what with all the Calvino and Borges and Benjamin and Foucault I hammered them with, the idea that we could actually *talk* to an author had receded into a near-impossibility. It was fantastic.

    It would also, I hasten to add, have limited value in a grad seminar. If I’m being honest, its main effect on my students was to smash their sense of authors as (dead) gods and the world of books and publication as otherworldly and inaccessible—something graduate students know all too well, and firsthand. My model, like many mentioned in this thread, doesn’t apply to scholarly training.

    But neither does the traditional graduate seminar, which too often *does* devolve into a semi-smart set of statements that don’t much need to engage with each other or support their assertions as long as the professor allows him or herself to anchor the room. Real-time conversation is almost definitionally unrigorous.

    All this is a preface to what I really want to do, which is to second (and third!) Kathy’s suggestion about discussion forums as an initial step in initiating grad students to technology and an essential one if we want to improve graduate education. Here’s why: as a student, I could take or leave the conversations in seminar, which often left me confused or frustrated at how little we’d covered or at how persistently one angle of inquiry foreclosed on others. What I missed (and miss) most was an opportunity to substantially engage with my colleagues’ points of view.

    Now, that’s possible on a comment thread. It’s possible on an internet forum. It’s possible on a blog. To make that possibility available in the context of a class would be a hell of a way for graduate students to cut their teeth as they learn to speak acadamese. Because one of the things we avoid talking about at all costs, and teaching—despite the fact that it comprises most of our work—is academic writing.

    It wasn’t until my prospectus workshop that I got a chance to actually read my colleagues’ academic prose and got their feedback on mine. That’s absurdly late: these are people I’ve known for four years. By that time, the usefulness of a “workshop” is limited–to actually give someone feedback on their “writing” is tantamount to telling an old friend they’ve got bad hair.

    Far be it from me to suggest dispensing with the grad seminar; it’s an important part of academic socialization. You have to learn to talk the talk. But it’s not (at least in my experience) where good thinking or good writing or good discussion usually happens. What the discussion forums (Moodle for Kathy, bspace here at Berkeley) offer is a site for an academic conversation about the primary and secondary texts to develop the way they should: over a realistic timescale (a week, say), and giving the parties involved the time they need to craft—not a high-stakes paper, not a thesis—but a thoughtful comment on a text with care.

  16. #16 by Brian on July 24, 2010 - 9:53 pm

    Thanks very much for joining the conversation, Millicent. I think it’s interesting that most of those who have commented thus far point out the importance of the grad seminar for what is essentially a norming experience. As you put it, the seminar is where graduate students learn to speak academese. And while this unfortunately often involves those semi-smart statements that do not really engage one another, this is useful training for how to deal with people who make comments following your presentation at MLA. So getting that practice in early is useful.

    It’s also interesting that almost everyone thus far has indicated that they are unclear where the technology could comfortably fit into the English graduate seminar. Instead, we seem to be calling for more shared experiences, whether that take place via writing ahead of time (something that I will definitely include, should I ever have the chance to teach a graduate seminar) or through more engaged conversation. If we could figure out a way to get technology to provide that shared experience, then we’d be happy with that solution.

    To that end, I’ll offer a new suggestion. One of the difficult things about responding to one another in a graduate seminar is that people tend to speak for great lengths of time. If someone makes a five-minute comment, it can be very hard to respond to all of the points that she makes. There’s a reason for these comments in that people are frequently working ideas out as they are speaking. They do not know where they are going when they start to comment. But I wonder if we could institute portions of grad seminars where we have lightning rounds. People only get, say, 2 minutes to say something and then others have to respond. The lightning round would be timed (and here’s where the technology comes in) using something as simple as a kitchen timer or something like presentation timer for the iPhone or iPad. When your time is up, someone else gets the chance to respond to what you’ve said. I don’t think it would be useful to run an entire seminar in this format, but it could be a great way to start the conversation, especially when students were speaking about the reflective pieces that they had written ahead of time about the assigned reading. They would already have something to talk about and to respond to rather than working out new and complete ideas. One could also invoke lightning rounds at other points of the seminar to force people to become more concise in their formulation of points.

    Does a lightning round require a lot of technology? No. Does it foster conversation? Yes. I think that shifting even a small piece of the graduate seminar format would prove enormously useful for making us more agile in thought, speech, and writing.

  17. #17 by Millicent on July 24, 2010 - 10:49 pm

    Brian:

    “There’s a reason for these comments in that people are frequently working ideas out as they are speaking. They do not know where they are going when they start to comment.”

    True of online comments too, worse luck.

    Quick point of clarification: when you say this…

    “Instead, we seem to be calling for more shared experiences, whether that take place via writing ahead of time (something that I will definitely include, should I ever have the chance to teach a graduate seminar) or through more engaged conversation. If we could figure out a way to get technology to provide that shared experience, then we’d be happy with that solution.”

    …are you counting online course management systems like bspace or Moodle (which offer discussion forums where students can post and respond) as happening “ahead of time” and therefore outside the grad seminar? This seems like one of the “backchannels” you mention under Social Media. Am I understanding that correctly?

  18. #18 by Brian on July 24, 2010 - 11:17 pm

    @Millincent: Yes, I would count the writing on discussion boards of any sort as happening “ahead of time” if it is not during the seminar’s actual block of time. However, I don’t know if I would count that as happening “outside the grad seminar.” It’s probably splitting hairs, but the prep work is explicitly part of the seminar if it becomes a point for discussion. It could also be a part of the backchannel if it were being used during class. And I suppose one could consider the outside work on it as a sort of backchannel, but I normally reserve that term for in-class/seminar use of social media.

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