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Digital Humanities Made Me a Better Pedagogue: a Crowdsourced Article

Pedagogy is inherently collaborative. Our work as teachers doesn’t (or shouldn’t) happen in a vacuum. In “Hybridity, pt. 3: What Does Hybrid Pedagogy Do?,” Pete and Jesse write, “Teaching is a practice. Good teaching is an engaged, reflective, and generous practice. Pedagogy is not just talking and thinking about teaching. Pedagogy is the place where philosophy and practice meet (aka “praxis”). It’s vibrant and embodied, meditative and productive.” There is an important distinction here between teaching and pedagogy, between work that is productive and work that is productive and also reflective.

More Hack, Less Yack:
We believe praxis also describes what we do as digital humanists. Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell see most of the theoretical experimentation of the digital humanities as what Ramsay calls “nondiscursive” and Rockwell refers to as “knowledge that cannot be adequately captured in discourse.” Digital Humanities scholars, according to these thinkers, are closer to carpenters, builders, and craft-makers than traditional academics. They focus less on talking and more on building things, aka “more hack, less yack.”

Members of the #transformdh collective, notably Adeline Koh, have critiqued “more hack, less yack,” as a form of tacit understanding. According to Koh, “we need to invest in the creation of a metalanguage that will allow us to see the ideological foundations that undergird our ‘common sense.’” Natalia Cecire makes a similar point by appealing to “students who may have not had the luxury of developing their ‘tacit knowledge’ by way of unlimited access to a computer.” We cannot hack databases or create Omeka sites without access to technology, just as we have trouble understanding postmodern capitalism without access to Fredric Jameson. Indeed, the question of how to instill in students the values of cultural analysis that are so central to a humanities education is difficult to answer, especially in a turbulent academic environment where scholars in the digital humanities are given grants while philosophy departments are cut.

As Bethany Nowviskie points out in a thoughtful response to Koh, the invective “more hack, less yack,” originated at THATCamp as a “rallying call for a different kind of conversation-having — not a desire to shut down conversation.” At its best, THATCamp has the potential to become a place where we have a nice (but also challenging) mix of productivity and reflectivity, more hack and more yack. For that reason, THATCamp has become a productive place for improving our pedagogy. A good pedagogue doesn’t use tools for the sake of using tools. (See the GoogleDoc from a THATCamp Southeast 2012 session Leeann organized about the “Technology of Human Interaction.”) Setting up “more hack / less yack” as a dichotomy ignores the fact that teaching frequently involves both: we must hack our lesson plans while also reflecting on the specific cultural and social situations from which we hack.

Digital Humanities vs. Digital Pedagogy:
At THATCamp Liberal Arts Colleges 2012, in a session about the relationship between digital humanities and digital pedagogy, the participants co-authored these working definitions:

DIGITAL HUMANITIES: (rhetorical opportunity) reflexive engagements w/ digital tools and methods to investigate the human.

DIGITAL TEACHING: Using digital technology to teach.

DIGITAL PEDAGOGY: engaged and reflexive practice and scholarship of teaching and learning through digital technologies.

Almost immediately, the discussion turned toward what was missing: their “plural, disruptive, and collaborative natures” and “the sense of building a learning community with shared values.” Terms like “digital humanities” and “digital pedagogy” are shifting and idiosyncratic. While we might be unable to nail down their relationship via consensus, such discussions remain useful, allowing each of us to develop our perspectives by rubbing them against the perspectives of our peers. In this way good DH and good pedagogy are metonymic and relational; thus, many digital humanists are also innovative digital pedagogues. The “digital” in “digital humanities” and “digital pedagogy” refers less to tech and more to the communities tech engenders and facilitates.

At THATCamp Southeast 2011, Robin proposed a session called “Where are the digital humanities in digital pedagogy?”. Framing the context for that question, she turned to Alex Reid’s “The Digital Humanities Divide.” He observes that some rhetoric and composition specialists have been studying how writing and writing pedagogy have evolved in the wake of digital technology since the PC arrived on the scene nearly 30 years ago. At the point he was writing in 2011, though, one wasn’t likely to find computers and composition studies in DH journals or at DH conferences, suggesting a disconnect, or at least a less than productive relationship between what some might argue are complementary disciplines.

In the year since Robin asked her question, digital pedagogy has gained more traction within the digital humanities. With THATCamp Pedagogy, we saw what was perhaps the first digital humanities un-conference organized entirely around pedagogy. With the inclusion of sessions on digital pedagogy at MLA 2012, a seminar at the University of Victoria’s 2012 Digital Humanities Summer Institute, and another week-long workshop at the inaugural Digital Humanities Winter Institute sponsored by MITH, digital pedagogy is clearly emerging in more formal channels as a central topic in the digital humanities. For the session on Digital Pedagogy at DHSI, Katherine D. Harris, Diane Jakacki, and Jentery Sayers assembled an extensive collection of notes and resources that show the breadth of the field. As the above definitions suggest, digital pedagogy can be an even broader, more inclusive category than digital humanities, because pedagogy in any discipline has the potential to be digital. For this reason, digital pedagogy may offer one of the best opportunities for the digital humanities to inform — and be informed by — other disciplines.

Collaboration and Insubordination:
THATCamp provides space for exactly this sort of interdisciplinary collaboration. Librarians, teachers, scholars, and technologists learn from one another, building valuable academic resources through productive (and public) collaboration. During a session on Gamification at THATCamp Pedagogy, several participants emphasized one of the differences between gaming systems and educational systems: games are built by a conglomerate of programmers and designers, while classes are built by individual teachers. Gamification in the classroom can hardly be successful as long as individual minds are competing with collective minds. The question that emerges is: Why do teachers continue to teach alone? While professors have all kinds of institutional support in the form of curriculum designers, boards of education, and textbook writers, they continue to carry the burden of classroom design and practice alone. With the evolution of digital pedagogy, collaboration among professors is becoming more possible — and more imperative.

It is not incidental that we have assembled such a large group of official and unofficial authors for this article. Crowdsourcing as an intellectual strategy is an important point of convergence between digital pedagogy and digital humanities. We build our pedagogies from the pedagogies of others, not out of convenience, but because teaching and learning thrive in community. So, how does THATCamp and the un-conference format (Edcamp is another model) help facilitate this sort of work?

Networking is a primary function of most conferences, but the work of an un-conference can turn that networking on its head, forcing sudden and intimate interactions, when like minds turn toward shared goals. At THATCamp Southeast 2011, Brian Croxall, Miriam Posner, and Stewart Varner encouraged attendees to skip a session if they found collaborators for an interesting project. They cited “Hacking the Academy,” a book proposed at THATCamp CHNM 2010 and crowdsourced in one week. Another example is the “More Hack Guide,” which was conceived and composed by a group that went rogue during a single session at THATCamp LAC 2012. The suspension of traditional conference culture at THATCamp opens productive space for experimentation. The unruly format of the un-conference encourages attendees to question their tacit understandings about what academia — and learning — should be.

Good pedagogy is also insubordinate. In “Notes Toward a Deformed Humanities,” Mark Sample writes, “I want to propose a theory and practice of a Deformed Humanities. A humanities born of broken, twisted things. And what is broken and twisted is also beautiful, and a bearer of knowledge.” While this notion of the deformed humanities is not explicitly about pedagogy, it can serve as a useful metaphor. Teaching must also be remade in light of our current digital intersections — NOT to resemble a data-driven educational utopia, but because the game has changed, and old and new variables need to be resituated, made to mean new things.

Mills Kelly’s session “Pedagogies of Disruption” at THATCamp CHNM 2012 gave birth to an excitingly skeletal set of crowdsourced notes in a Google Doc and was given further iterations in a Storify and a series of blog posts by Tanya Sasser. Kelly, Sasser, and the participants who contributed tweets and notes to the session embody one of the central unwritten rules of our work at Hybrid Pedagogy: that disorientation breeds valuable critical habits. One of Kelly’s notes from the Pedagogies of Disruption session is identical to one of Jesse’s regular classroom habits: teach a book that you’ve never read before. In her blog post summarizing the session, Sasser applies disruption to her composition classroom: “As writing becomes digital, many of the assumptions about the rhetorical context and the process that is used to negotiate that context are laid bare (and, sometimes, come up short).” Each of these approaches mirror a tweet by Karen Alexander during Brian Croxall’s presentation at MLA in January:

Moving from a traditional classroom practice to a constructivist one is disruptive, as is moving from being a static digital consumer to a dynamic digital prosumer; both Hybrid Pedagogy and THATCamp collect audiences that want to tap that disruptive, deformed, insubordinate energy.

It seemed fitting to us, then, that this fledgling journal, itself an experimental academic project, should host its own THATCamp. On October 20 and 21, 2012 in Portland, OR, THATCamp Hybrid Pedagogy brought together teachers, librarians, coders, historiographers, students, and the other assorted hybrid citizenry of the academic world. We worked to continue the conversation and cultivate a community of critical digital pedagogues.

[Photo by fiddle oak]

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