In an epic game of chess, Darth Vader splits an ivory piece in two
17
Apr
2012

The Dark Knight Vs. The Ivory Tower

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An all-too standard lament these days is that teachers have been slow to adapt to students’ new modes of learning. This disjunction persists because so many of us have been trained in traditional pedagogical systems that privilege narrow foci and a top-down model of disseminating knowledge. We stand in front of a classroom and lecture, while they assimilate information by immersing themselves in a dynamic, constantly changing technological space. We ground our pedagogy in textbooks and preset lesson plans; they fly freely through the living, hybrid textual space engendered by texts, blogs, open-source databases, tweets, and hashtags. We are static; they are mobile. We are the past of education; they are its future. As teachers, we must broaden our pedagogical horizons to accommodate our student 2.0’s open-ended ways of collecting and processing information.

The problem is, as I have discovered from personal experience, that these open / closed dichotomies are not strictly true — at least, not in the university classroom. My idea in this article is to complicate the accepted ideology of the teacher / student binary by revisiting what happened when I taught an experimental, hybrid course to a group of highly intelligent, tech-savvy upper-division English majors. This past term, I created an English literature course called “Hollywood Knights,” which paired theories of the desiring gaze with medieval Arthurian romances such as Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, as well as modern Hollywood films like Monty Python’s The Holy Grail and the recent Batman flick The Dark Knight. The purpose of the course was to explore why medieval visions of knighthood remain such powerful metaphors for current conceptions of masculine sovereignty and artistic authority — how, in other words, the vibrant ideals of the Middle Ages continue to shape society today.

One of the major aspects of the course was a group project I assigned in lieu of a final paper. This project entailed the creation of an original short film on knights, which was shown to the class during our end-of-term “film festival.” I chose to create this assignment because the concept of knighthood has always been incredibly malleable: it adapts constantly to its changing times and places, while remaining utterly recognizable throughout its metamorphoses. Knighthood’s labile quality lends itself to countless Hollywood representations, which all translate antique concepts of chivalry into our modern times. Since authors from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries themselves revised the model of knighthood to suit their particular historical circumstances, our current culture is actually quite “medieval” in its adaptations of chivalry. Therefore, this assignment was the perfect way for us to participate in this long-standing multimedia collaboration on the human condition. It was a chance for my students to become experts and authors in their own right, and break out of the “banking” model of education. As Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel explain here, “mass collaboration redraws the role of the instructor, shifting power dynamics and forcing students to take ownership of their own learning.” With this film project, we would be united as scholars, and I would learn from them even as they learned from me and from each other’s work.

My students chose their own groups, and each group collaborated on every aspect of the project—from script writing, to producing, directing, acting, and editing. They began their projects just a few weeks into the course, and worked diligently on them with very little guidance from me. The film festival itself was a success, and I was impressed both by the quality of the finished work and the enthusiasm with which my students approached it. However, for many their passion for the task was linked to a deep anxiety. Although they staged an accomplished series of well-crafted, thought-provoking films (some of which could compete ably in professional film festivals), a large number of them expressed the desire to write a paper in addition to the project so that they might “prove that they knew the course material.” In short, my students were proud of the creative, collaborative work they’d produced, but they were uncertain that the product was recognizably “academic” enough to count towards their coursework. Their requests for a traditional writing assignment recurred so often that I decided to assign a voluntary final paper for which the writers would receive extra credit. Ultimately, I graded a fair amount of optional essays during finals week.

My experience exposed the flip side of our typical assumptions about our students: even as many professors explore new ontological linkages in our own research while neglecting to bring that synthesizing desire into our pedagogy, many students who take hybridity and technological innovation for granted in their everyday life find themselves hesitant about these accommodative forms of knowledge-gathering in the classroom. This course taught me that my students have already been trained into the same traditional, top-down educational system that we as teachers are trying to escape. For this reason and many others, it is crucial that we bring undergraduate students into this conversation about democratizing pedagogical practice by opening up the horizons of what constitutes “academic work.” (For an important beginning, see Jesse Stommel’s article here; his students’ responses in the comments reveal their willingness to turn away from hierarchy and towards crowdsourcing curricula.) We are all struggling to overcome the closed set of expectations about what should happen in a classroom; why not struggle together with our students? Hybrid Pedagogy would be a great place to begin bridging these ideological gaps—perhaps via a “special topic” issue on the promises and pitfalls of hybrid pedagogy from the perspectives of undergraduates?

[Photo by thrig]

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