thinking about moocs and blended digital-embodied pedagogy.
“We’re all playing machines.” – Mel Lyman
As with many prominent research universities, Northwestern is beginning to explore the possibility of “massive open online learning” course offerings (MOOCs) through companies such as Coursera or Udacity. There are democratic arguments for MOOCs, such as the ones put forward by Cathy Davidson. There are, of course, fears out there that these kinds of digital courses will undermine the university system. And there are those who take the position that these approaches do not threaten traditional face-to-face teaching at college and university levels at all, particularly in blended configurations.
I am not going to speak directly to those vexing questions right now, particularly with regard to trustee or administrative imperatives to “leverage” university assets and determine new “deliverables” in the face of “disruptive innovation” (insert other corporate jargon here and the ideologies behind those phrases). I only wish to offer one on-the-ground (and I suppose in the ether) digital-humanities-course perspective. I think it affirms that the more subtle, blended approach to digital pedagogy is the best path forward.
Indeed, my experiences suggest how colleges and universities might draw upon the deep traditions of the humanities as a fundamental part of the preparation of students for the kinds of competencies and sensibilities they will need for the digital age. For the digital age is not about the replacement (the “systematic restructuring” as University of Virginia Board of Visitors member Helen Dragas believes) of the face-to-face with online interactions; it is about a new dialectic between the embodied and the virtual, the embodied and the digitally-mediated. It is this new dynamic on which educators should concentrate in terms of curricula and pedagogy.
In my undergraduate research seminar on Digitizing Folk Music History (related notes and posts here), students use digitized archival sources from the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Collection (housed here in analog form in the NU Library’s amazing Special Collections division) to develop interpretive digital history projects. They investigate long-running questions about historical method while learning about an important cultural, political, and social phenomenon from the American past while also developing a better understanding of the infrastructure underlying online software such as WordPress and a variety of digital tools.
The learning in this course isn’t about skills acquisition for short-sighted job marketability, it’s about developing knowledge for the long run: a better sense of critical thinking, the capacity to wield evidence in service of mounting a convincing and compelling argument, and not merely the blind use of digital software and tools but a far more powerful conceptual understanding of the programming logic undergirding online platforms. In other words, the course taps into what the humanities has always done but adapts it—nay, improves and extends it—by placing it within the digital medium.
None of this would work well without face-to-face seminar meetings. Nor would it work well without robust online interactions. It was when we moved between the embodied—sitting around a conference table talking and debating—and the virtual—writing and commenting on blog posts, working with tools such as timelines, annotation, geocoding in multiple formats (text, image, sound, film, material objects, maps)—that the intellectual sparks began to fly. There was friction in the movement between talking to each other in the same room and working over the Internet. There was frustration. There was illumination. There was real, tried and true learning.
This kind of learning is not an impractical or useless liberal arts education; it actually presages the future world that students will inhabit, that they already inhabit. It’s not a place in which the virtual replaces the face-to-face, but rather a social, economic, and political life in which the embodied and the mediated fold into and out of each other in unprecedented ways (though print is a good example of a prior technology that had something of the same effect, all the more reason to study its history closely!).
But it goes deeper. In my course, not only the pedagogical process, but also the topic has something to teach us about contemporary dilemmas and possibilities. While it is typically cast as a nostalgic, anti-technological movement, the folk revival was in fact always motivated by questions of how new technologies related to the politics of cultural heritage and personal authenticity. So suggests one source we study closely in the course, director Murray Lerner’s Festival, his documentary film about the Newport Folk Festival (clip below). In the playful opening sequence of the film, Lerner’s discussion with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band becomes an evocation not so much of how technologies are pure channels to knowledge, but rather how important it is to be aware of the forms of media through which we relate to issues of cultural tradition, individual autonomy, collective expression, critical awareness, cultural knowledge, musical pleasure, and, perhaps most of all, the technologies that shape our world. “You’re playing music on that camera,” guitarist and leader Jim Kweskin proposes to Lerner. As he surprisingly—purposefully—let’s the sound and image slow down and stop, breaking the fourth wall, as it were, Lerner seems to comment on the ways in which he has soaked up the ideas of the folkies: theirs was a search for a relationship between people and machines that, if explored with critical awareness, might lead to powerful modes of human expressivity, creativity, inventiveness, communal connection, and meaning; Lerner seems to have incorporated this sensibility into his own filmmaking.
“We’re all playing machines,” remarks harmonica player Mel Lyman to Lerner in Festival. While Lyman’s life did not go in the most savory of directions after Newport in the mid 1960s, his idea remains relevant. In our own moment, how, as folk music gives way to folksonomy, might we continue to play machines instead of getting played by them? Where will the boundaries open up between playing machines and becoming a playing machine oneself? And where should the lines be drawn? How might handicraft and mass technology, individual control and the power of digital systems, be integrated toward democratic ends? Can this even be accomplished? These myriad questions of people and machines, which the digital seems to intensify as no technology before it, are the ones we must prepare students to address.
This is neither to dismiss the democratic potential of MOOCs, nor to evade critiques of them, but rather to contend that the MOOCs debate misses the point. The future of the digital age does not mean that the analog world is irrelevant, that the virtual somehow substitutes for the embodied; rather, the two domains increasingly intermingle. Playing machines without getting played by them, working with them digitally while also getting worked up over them in person, these are the central issues. The challenge that educators face is to help students not only function in this emerging world of a rearranged relationship between the digital and the embodied, but also to learn how to understand it, do good with it, contextualize it, critique it, and find ways to flourish within it.
There is, as it was with the folk revival, a weirdly pastoral dimension to this vision of the digital age that I am proposing: it’s a new version of the machine in the garden, with all the utopian possibilities and troubling problems of that vision. Realizing this and grappling with the implications of it are tasks for which the face-to-face interactions of the humanities classroom combined with digital work can play a vital role.