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Hybrid Academy, or How #altac Changes Pedagogy

I’ve been following some of the very different, but complementary conversations about hybrid pedagogy emerging from this journal, as well as from the postdoctoral seminar at Georgia Tech. Most recently, two ideas have really intrigued me. The first comes from Jesse Stommel, as he attempts to define “hybrid pedagogy” by contrasting it with the blended classroom.

When people talk about “blended learning,” they are usually referring to the place where learning happens, a combination of the classroom and online. The word “hybrid” has deeper resonances, suggesting not just that the place of learning is changed but that a hybrid pedagogy fundamentally rethinks our conception of place.

Katherine Tanski takes this concept further by relating it to fan-fiction and, in particular, slash fiction.

It was slashers who taught me that cultural critique does not occur solely within essays canonized within the ivory tower, but can be found in the fictions, vids, and art posted on online community blogs.

I’d like to move this conversation in a different direction, discussing how I believe the #altac movement to be an attempt to create what I call a “hybrid academy:” an academic model that bridges traditional divisions between academic practice and the public sphere. #altac originally started as a hashtag on Twitter, but has evolved to include an amazing edited collection published on MediaCommons, as well as numerous presentations at MLA and THATCamps across the country. The #altac movement is primarily about giving students more job opportunities, but it is also about broadening the reach of the humanities in such a way that it impacts people far beyond the ivory tower.

Such a discussion is crucial right now when departments are busily slashing graduate education to ebb the flow of graduates flooding the market. Most recently, Mark Bauerlein has argued that the core mission of the humanities should be undergraduate and not graduate education since the latter “we shall realize 20 years hence, was a three decade (say, 1975-2005) excursion, and it’s unlikely to arise ever again.”

I find such pessimistic approaches to graduate education alarming, because they signal an inability of some prominent humanities scholars to see how graduate education can and should change to meet the challenges of the 21st century. I offered some suggestions for potential changes in my post “A Plea to Graduate Advisors and Programs,” but I also believe that the #altac movement represents a clear and new direction for graduate education. In my mind, graduate education should be about applying theoretical and humanistic insight to problems that exist beyond the academy. In other words, any graduate program worth its salt must emphasize the public humanities. Hybrid academics are already showing the power of the public humanities, waiting for graduate programs to catch up with them.

Todd Reynolds finished his Ph.D. in American Literature, with a dissertation on the rise of labor and the criminal justice system in 19th century American culture. At the same time, Todd worked regularly with Graduate Assistants United to establish a working health care program for the graduate students at the University of Florida. Upon graduation, Todd worked for two years at Georgia Tech as a Brittain Fellow, before accepting a position as a union organizer at Maryland Teachers and Researchers. To be sure, Todd already had experience organizing unions in Florida, but I would argue that his dissertation work makes him particularly valuable for his current job. Todd’s dissertation identifies the unique way 19th-century literature divides the “law-abiding” protester from the one that transgresses the law. This phenomenon sets up a dichotomy that “reframed political activity within a new schema of citizenship in order to both diffuse the social antagonisms forged by the dynamics of production under the flag of nationalist sovereignty as well as to prepare capital for a global expanse through that new notion of nationhood” (14).

The implications of Todd’s study are broad, and include everything from the cultural distinction America makes between nonviolent protest and militant action to the rise of transnational organizations furthering the cause of capitalism by bringing American values to other countries. In a more specific way, however, Todd’s dissertation helps him navigate a University system that has recently used the very distinction Todd outlines in his dissertation to legitimize police action against graduate students on campuses like UC Davis. I admire Todd because he uses his research to better the lives of students.

Laurie Taylor is another hybrid academic that has applied her research to further the cause of the public humanities. Laurie is a known scholar in the field of video game studies and new media, but she also works as the Digital Humanities Librarian at the University of Florida. Her dissertation explores how the representation of gender in horror video games presents an opportunity for understanding the interface as an essential part of the game’s narrative. As a digital humanities librarian, Laurie knows not only the specifics of different coding languages and programs, but also how to leverage different resources to help connect research at UF to the public. The understanding of procedural rhetoric she gained from writing her dissertation, along with the way that horror games “alter […] the manner in which game space is presented and the way that the game interface is constructed and operates,” encourages a kind of flexible thinking and creative problem solving that is indispensable in her work (5).

Take, for example, the Digital Library of the Caribbean – a project that Laurie helps oversee. The dLOC archives “Carribean cultural, historical and research materials” from over 18 institutions that digitize and make freely available their materials. Further, the dLOC has played a central role in preserving public materials, most recently with the the Protecting Haitian Patrimony Initiative. The PHPI has raised $12,000.00 in donations to help safeguard and digitize collections made vulnerable by the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Laurie’s work directly impacts the fate of public memory, and helps to preserve a cultural identity threatened by political instability and natural disaster. She is also a generous scholar, encouraging collaborative authorship and helping younger scholars learn the intricacies of academic publishing.

Both Todd and Laurie are trailblazers. They completed a traditional degree, thought for a while that they wanted to land a tenure-track position, and learned that their work could take them to different places. Both had moments of doubt and guilt. I know academics in my graduate program that considered both scholars “failures” for not landing a teaching position. But these two scholars represent the future of graduate humanities education: one that is grounded in the very best historical and theoretical research, and which applies that research to important public problems. Without knowing it, Todd engaged in what was essentially an internship program when he worked for the union. Laurie informally developed procedural skill as a result of her dissertation, and was able to apply that skill to urgent archival issues.  A targeted internship program in graduate education would do wonders for broadening the kinds of positions that are available to students, as would developing research projects that get students to think practically about resources, time, and investments.

Hybrid pedagogy is about more than giving students access to technology. As Franky Abbott recently argued in a THATCamp SE session devoted to “Rebooting Graduate Education,” the kind of humanities work that’s needed now “requires different ideas about production and labor. It involves thinking about process, product, and what makes things successful or not.” In my mind, both Todd and Laurie have taught me that success in teaching the humanities must take a hybrid approach: one that embraces an expression of humanities values, but applies those values in ways that benefit people.

Questions for Discussion:

  • How should a graduate program devoted to the public humanities change specific outcomes to give students needed skills?
  • What is the role of service-learning in graduate education?
  • What aspects of literary or media studies could be leveraged in service to the public?

[Photo by @Doug88888]

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