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Jesse Stommel

Pedagogue, Technologist, Open Educator

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Free college; Free Training for College Teachers

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I am a huge proponent of free college. Especially free community college. Especially free community college for returning non-traditional students.

There is much to read on this front. You could start here in the New York Times, where Sara Goldrick-Rab writes, “How we finance public higher education is a matter of political will. Universal public higher education recognizes that college must be affordable for all if it is to help drive our economy and our democracy.” You could also read this piece by Tressie McMillan Cottom in Dissent Magazine, where she writes, “I do not care if free college won’t solve inequality … Today’s debate about free college tuition does something extremely valuable. It reintroduces the concept of public good to higher education discourse.”

The gist: free college is possible, it is a political decision, it is not a solution to all the inequalities of education, but it is an opening to an important conversation.

I am also strongly in favor of free Bachelor’s degree “finishing” programs designed and suitable for “continuing” adult students. Many of these students have attended multiple colleges in several states and have amassed a degree’s worth of credits in all manner of disciplines. The moniker “continuing” has an almost Orwellian ring, since many of these students are struggling hard to finish but finding their path frustrated by bureaucracy, accreditation standards, or curricular inflexibility. In fact, the continuing students most determined to finish are often the same ones finding themselves unable to finish (or deterred from finishing by inadequate curricula, course formats, and scheduling) within traditional 4-year institutions. Those most likely to take ownership of their own education also seem more generally unwilling to suffer the absurdity of mindless box-checking and hoop-jumping.

And the students most dedicated to finishing their degrees frequently end up in online / hybrid courses where they face the worst of what Sean Michael Morris describes as the “monkey see, monkey do, monkey hit submit” of bad instructional design. I have worked with these students at the community college level and in a 4-year liberal arts program for non-traditional adults. I currently have one of these students among the very close circle I call my “family.” Every one of these students is brave, brilliant, and persistent. They deserve the best possible education we can collectively muster.

What I would propose.

If we are to make higher education a public good, and I think we should. If we are to open education to those for whom it might not otherwise be available, and I think we should. If we are to make college free, we must also offer free training for college teachers — as part of and also beyond graduate degree programs.

Adjunct teachers must no longer be required to attend unpaid required job training, as they are by many institutions. Any required training should be subsidized. Kathi Inman Berens takes this one step further to say, “Don’t just make tools freely available. Pay adjuncts and other teaching-only faculty for their *time* to learn them.”

And if graduate programs and employers of faculty are currently unable to offer free pedagogical training (or to pay adjuncts for participating in this training), how about offering any pedagogical training at all?

Graduate programs should incorporate more courses focused explicitly on pedagogy. If teaching is 40 – 90% of most full-time faculty jobs in higher ed., pedagogical study should constitute at least 40% of the work graduate students do toward a graduate degree. I was recently laughed at by someone in a traditional academic discipline when I offered this as a provocation, but it feels hardly provocative to me. For some programs, even requiring a single graduate course in pedagogy would be a step in the right direction, but 40% of coursework seems an incredibly reasonable bar (even if also well out of current reach for many programs).

It would mean offering more courses (or components of required content-focused courses) dedicated to pedagogy. It would also mean discipline-specific pedagogies would be a significant component of comprehensive or qualifying exams. It would mean 40% of the dissertations or research projects in a field would focus (at least in part) on pedagogy. And it would mean the culture of every department would acknowledge pedagogy as a respected sub-discipline (as well as a discipline in its own right).

And, if 75% of university faculty are adjunct, graduate programs should be helping prepare students in very specific ways for this work. Or, even better, helping prepare “future adjuncts” to resist the increasing adjunctification of higher education.

Through my work with Hybrid Pedagogy, I have engaged many folks at many different kinds of institutions across the country and around the world. I have myself taught at a community college, three public R1s, one public liberal arts institution, and one private liberal arts institution. What I have heard most commonly from other college instructors is that they received zero training in pedagogy as part of their graduate degree programs or upon starting a faculty position at another institution. What I have heard less frequently are accounts of one or two seminars, courses, or workshops incorporated at some level during their work as a graduate student. I recognize that the culture and conversations are different at different kinds of institutions and in different disciplines. And, of course, there are outliers we should hold up as models.

I myself took one required pedagogy course in my own graduate program, two elective graduate courses, and also a handful of workshops that added up to a graduate teaching certification. I certainly wouldn’t diminish the amazing work already being done at a few institutions to offer training in pedagogy for future or current college teachers.

But it isn’t enough.

Digital Pedagogy Lab, which I co-direct, has begun offering low-cost opportunities for professional development including online courses and in-person institutes. They are offered as part of the outreach mission of the Hybrid Pedagogy 501(c)3 non-profit. We give significant discounts to adjuncts and full fellowships. We have also offered entirely free professional development opportunities since 2012. There are a few other groups offering similar opportunities, some for-profit, some not-for-profit, some within institutions, some peripheral to them.

But it isn’t enough.

Until 40% or more of the courses in graduate programs are pedagogically focused, I would argue we are doing a disservice to graduate students.

Until continuous, not continuing, education in pedagogy becomes the norm for college teachers, we are doing a disservice to all college students.

By “pedagogy,” I mean something much broader than just preparing graduate students to teach in university classes. I also mean preparing graduate students and new faculty for outreach, activism, work in libraries, instructional design, public scholarship, educational journalism, etc. Work that moves beyond content to consider how our study of that content gets shared with others or inflected in the world.

Training college teachers can’t be an afterthought or an add-on (and by “training” I mean engaging future teachers thoughtfully in praxis-focused pedagogical work).

Ultimately, this work is for the public good and should be supported by our public educational institutions.

If college is ever to be “free” in any broad or expansive sense of the word, we must start by fostering pedagogical work as an ethic.

I recently offered a keynote inspired by this piece at University of Delaware:

This topic is the subject of a recent Call for Papers at Hybrid Pedagogy, “CFP: Preparing Graduate Teachers.”

[photo “scaffold” by flickr user Erik Refsdal]

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Twitter and the Atomization of Teaching and Learning

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Twitter was declared dead this week. It was declared dead last week. It has been declared dead before. There are important questions afoot about how the platform will evolve. As I prepare to teach an online course about Teaching with Twitter, I find myself thinking increasingly about how my focus in this course is both about what we might do inside this one particular platform and also about pedagogical approaches not specific to any one platform.

I have taught with Twitter since 2007. I began teaching “The Twitter Essay” in my classes in 2009. I have watched the platform grow and change and thrive and fester. Twitter has been the place of my most rigorous scholarship. The medium can be kind. It can also be cruel. Twitter has never been neutral. It has never been a safe space, a democratic space, or an egalitarian space. It has, for many, been a hacked public space. It has, for me, demanded I bring to it always a careful and considered pedagogy.

Pedagogy is fractal, contained at once in something as large as a course or program and also in something as small as a tweet or the first sentence of a syllabus. Its structure functions similarly at all these scales. Pedagogy emerges when we work to construct sentences and curricula in recursive and reflective ways. And the work of teaching well demands our pedagogies be flexible, not predetermined entirely in advance. Learning can not be reduced to or packaged inside a series of static, self-contained “learning objects.” Rather, learning happens in tangents, diversions, interruptions — in a series of clauses (and parentheticals) … and gaps.

Twitter offers space for dialogue. The 140-character limit leaves no room for monologues. Even a series of tweets strung together in succession creates opportunities at every turn for discussion. Each individual tweet becomes an addressable object, always a beginning and never a conclusion. In this way, nobody ever has the last word on Twitter. And a single authoritative voice doesn’t command (or drown out) the fray.

I hope Twitter’s talk of 10,000-character limits and its increasingly algorithmic timeline does not fundamentally change these things about the platform. I hope a tweet never becomes cousin to some unlovely, pre-packaged, instrumentalized “learning object.”

I have written previously about my disdain for the discussion forum inside most learning management systems. More specifically, I have written about my disdain for how discussion forums are used for many online and hybrid courses. “Write at least 250-words, citing two sources, submit to Turnitin, then post in each of two discussion threads.” As though a dynamic discussion can be scripted and rudely bureaucratized. Twitter has been a respite, the place of my most engaged and dynamic work with students. Both because of what the 140-character limit affords, improvisation within constraint, and what it doesn’t afford, paragraphs-without-break leaving no room to get in a word edgewise. Dialogue on Twitter is all edgewise.

Over the last several weeks, Digital Pedagogy Lab has been hosting an iteration of MOOC MOOC focused on what we’re calling Critical Instructional Design. From the outset of this course-like thing, Sean Michael Morris has warned against blind obedience to the pillars of instructional design. He has warned against blind adherence to constructs (like Bloom’s taxonomy or Quality Matters) that can turn digital learning into a mere exercise in “Monkey see, monkey do, monkey hit submit.”

Bloom’s Taxonomy was one of the first things I encountered as a new teacher, and it was for me rendered hollow, a recipe to follow and not a theory to critically engage. Bloom’s is too often delivered to new teachers as though it were gospel. The cruel irony is that many are asked to accept Bloom’s as established fact before they are allowed to analyze or question its use. More than once, I’ve watched an entire room of new teachers have their spirit killed by a misrepresentation and misapplication of Bloom’s taxonomy.

What would Bloom make of Twitter? What kind of taxonomy might we create for the work we do on a platform like this? The work we do on Twitter can’t adequately be contained inside a neat and tidy rubric. (A quick Google image search for “Twitter rubric” will reveal the mostly absurd things that happen when people try.) There is no established fact on Twitter, only constant churn and sway. Twitter is a space of ideas in process. The medium is all application, all analysis, all creation. It sidesteps the lowest levels of Bloom’s altogether, and blurs the rest.

Sean Michael Morris and I once wondered what might happen “if Paulo Freire made a MOOC” and, then, “if bell hooks made a learning management system.” I find myself wondering now what might happen “if Emily Dickinson made a model for instructional design.”

Twitter would be its habitat, a series of what she calls “infected sentences,” a string of words that prove to be bigger on the inside than the outside. Each word, each tweet, gesturing to something else. A series of rabbit holes. A map that looks a lot like learning. Dynamic. Playful. Networked.

Each tweet is a tiny course, a syllabus, of its own. Much madness is divinest sense.

From July 11 to July 29, I will be teaching an online professional course focused on “Teaching with Twitter.”

[Image “nun nun nun nun nun nun nun” licensed CC BY-NC 2.0]

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Who’s There?

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I wrote this piece as the opening “lecture” for the Shakespeare MOOC I taught for UW-Madison with R L Widmann, Catherine DeRose, and Sarah Marty. I’m publishing it here along with a link to the series of videos I produced for the course. I wrote about the course’s pedagogy in an article for Hybrid Pedagogy, “The Course Hath No Bottom: the 20,000-Person Seminar.”

Shakespeare begins Hamlet with the words, “Who’s there?” The question is deceptively simple, but it is one that opens a whole host of potential rabbit holes for us to tumble down. What I know is that how we begin something new is important. The first thing we say. The first question we ask. The first part of ourselves we show.

The first words of a work of literature have a certain weight. In the 2002 film version of The Hours, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf says after days of writing, “I believe I may have a first sentence.” The import of first sentences is clear in the assertiveness of her declaration and also in its uncertainty: Not “I have the first sentence,” but “I believe I may have the first sentence.” That sentence is: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” And some other first sentences:


Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. ~ Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. ~ George Orwell, 1984
Call me Ishmael. ~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick
124 was spiteful. ~ Toni Morrison, Beloved

There are others. The first words of a work of literature are an author’s way of saying hello. This piece—these words right here—are my way of saying hello, my way of beginning. The first words of a work of literature give the reader instructions on how to read, a blueprint of sorts, a map to what matters, to what questions the work aims to ask. The first words are also the thing, the stuff of a work, that will be most read. Many readers won’t get past first words to second words, so those first words function almost like an arm, reaching out, hoping to lead the reader down a potential rabbit hole.

Shakespeare’s line, “Who’s there?,” does several things: quite literally, the speaker asks the listener on stage to identify herself; when performed, the line is also spoken to the off-stage or off-screen audience, calling attention to their simultaneous presence both within and outside the world of Shakespeare’s play; finally, it is a deeper question from Shakespeare about the nature of being. The question takes on a new and different set of potential meanings when it is read on the screen of a computer, iPad, Kindle, or smartphone, forcing contemporary readers of Shakespeare to question the nature of their own humanity in the face of rapid technological changes. Just as who we are as humans could be contained and expressed in the language of a theatrical play, now we must also consider who we become when our selves are reduced to the flurry of 1s and 0s that constitute us in our Facebook profiles, Tweets, and text messages. No matter which medium or device we use to encounter a play like Hamlet, no matter what self we bring to the encounter, Shakespeare continues to ask these questions of us, continues to ask who we are, what we see, and how we know.

The second line, “Stand, and unfold yourself,” is a command in response to the first question, “Who’s there?” It is a response with a handful of assumptions—that whoever’s there is capable of standing, that whoever’s there is folded, and that whoever’s there is self-reflexive, a self that recognizes itself as a self. Taken together, the two lines offer uncertainty, curiosity, and also distrust. They wonder at humanness but worry at its edge. The lines query and assert, calling out and recoiling across and beyond the space of the stage.

Delivered to a contemporary audience, the second line is a very particular kind of demand, asking from the outset of Hamlet for the audience not to remain seated, not to remain passive. In the Renaissance, the line, “Stand, and unfold yourself,” would have had a different flavor. The lower-class audience members would have already been standing in a pit, “groundlings” as Hamlet later refers to them in Act 3, scene 2; whereas the middle and upper classes would have sat along the sides of the theatre and in the balconies. So, the direction, when spoken to the audience is for everyone, all at once, to stand together.

That is what reading demands. That is what watching a play, or a film, demands. That is what a course demands, what learning demands—that we stand together. These are not solitary acts, not lectures from mere experts or mere literary geniuses, but collaborations, starts to conversation.

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The Beginning of the Digital Humanities

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My dear friend Sean Michael Morris insists he is not a digital humanist, and then he writes the most important piece of digital humanities scholarship that I’ve read to date. He also hides it in an announcement and discussion prompt (which I find incredibly apropos). Always his scholarship arises from his pedagogy and not the other the way around.

Sean asks, “Is there a need for a radical revision of the way we each behave and speak online?”

This is where the work of digital humanities starts and where it is at its most lively. When it honors humans more than tools. When it gathers us together by asking critical questions. When it considers how we read data, rather than merely producing more of the stuff. When it looks around a room (physical or digital) and wonders who’s not there and why?

Digital Humanities is at its most lively when it recognizes, as Sean writes, that “writing scholarly articles that will grow pensive as the uncracked spine of the collection they inhabit ages under flickering fluorescent lights is not enough.”

As I head to the MLA in Austin today, I find myself pondering the presidential theme, “Literature and its Publics.” I find myself cocking an eyebrow at the arcane titles of literally thousands of presentations at this MLA that will speak not to publics but only to an insular crowd of academics. And not just because “publics” mostly won’t attend but because they have been written right out of the language and conventions academics too often use. And it is not merely absurd. It’s harmful.

I have sat on panels about public work. I have written about public work. I have given presentations about public work.

This is not enough. Yesterday, I shared an account from Annemarie Perez of her attendance at one of these conferences, and her piece sits alongside Sean’s in my brain this morning. As I said yesterday, Annemarie’s piece has in it some of the best academic writing I’ve read, exactly because it feels so immediate, so spare, so human.

Annemarie writes about her experience at the 2012 MLA, “The [digital humanities] panels and workshops I attended were a shock. Not only because the work was so exciting, especially, for me, the pedagogy, the mapping and time lining and other amazing projects. But because even at MLA, even at a literature conference, I had never experienced a stronger sense of being racially / ethnically other.”

And Sean ends his piece asking, “How do we make the digital a raucous space without making it a dangerous space?”

If there is to be anything resembling a public digital humanities, this is where it’s conversations must begin. With hard questions. With generous openings to dialogue.

[Image “becoming slow” by Fio]

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2015 Recap: Student Shaming, Plagiarism Detection, and a Shakespeare MOOC

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For the past few years, I’ve been assembling my published digital work at the end of the year. Here are the previous years’ digests: 2012, 2013, and 2014.

2015 has brought lots of fascinating adventures. I started writing a column at the Chronicle and very quickly stopped writing a column at the Chronicle. Me and my husband were featured in Time magazine on my birthday when the U.S. legally recognized our marriage. I left my position at University of Wisconsin-Madison, moving my family cross-country. And I have settled into what is so far proving to be my dream job at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA. (I seriously adore the folks I work with — if you’re looking for a job in edtech, we’ve currently got a position listed for an Online Learning and LMS Specialist).

And, beyond what I’ve written on my own blog, here is what I’ve been up to elsewhere on the web:

Chronicle Vitae
1. 10 Things the Best Digital Teachers Do (w/ Sean Michael Morris)
2. Who Controls Your Dissertation?

Educating Modern Learners
3. Learning is Not a Mechanism (republished on Hybrid Pedagogy)

HybridPod Podcast
4. Play in Education (w/ Chris Friend, Stephanie Vie, and Kyle Stedman)
5. The Twitter Essay (I recorded an audio version of this piece for HybridPod Replay)

Hybrid Pedagogy
6. The Course Hath No Bottom: the 20,000-Person Seminar
7. Twitter and the Locus of Research
8. I also wrote lots of announcements and discussion prompts over the year, but this one co-authored with Maha Bali is my personal favorite: Radical Pedagogies; Pedagogies of Care

Other Academic Journals and Publications
9. The Loveliness of Decay: Rotting Flesh, Literary Matter, and Dead Media in Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
10. Hybrid in Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities from MLA Press

Teaching in Higher Ed. Podcast
11. Teaching with Twitter

Slideshare
12. Stand and Unfold Yourself: MOOCs, Networked Learning, and the Digital Humanities
13. Critical Digital Pedagogy
14. Open Door Classroom
15. Emergent Learning (w/ Amy Collier) (Video of this Joint Keynote)
16. Learning is Not a Mechanism

Other Keynotes and Talks
17. Innovation, Iteration, and Student Agency
18. Promoting Social Justice in Scholarly Journals

Shakespeare in Community
19. And, last but not least, my biggest project this year, a series of 20 short videos about Shakespeare that I produced for the Shakespeare MOOC I co-created for University of Wisconsin-Madison. The goal of the course was not to teach Shakespeare, but to read Shakespeare together with a global community. The discussion forums are now closed, but you can still view the course and read the article I wrote about creating the course. I’ll conclude with my personal favorite of the videos.

[Photo by Fio]

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Dear Student

Three sheeps

Almost a year ago, I wrote a blog post responding to a series of student-shaming articles published at the Chronicle of Higher Education. The post was ultimately read by 45,000 people and spawned more than a dozen responses, some from the darker corners of the web. I hadn’t intended my little 750-word piece as a massive public pillory and didn’t expect it to be read by such a large audience. As I wrote in several places over the days following its publication, my piece was not meant as an attack on any specific individuals and was certainly not an attack on teachers. I wrote,

“This series plays to the insecurities of its audience in a way that feels opportunistic. Academic job seekers are concerned about their current and future livelihood. They are oppressed by a system that calls 75% of its labor-force ‘unnecessary,’ ‘contingent,’ ‘adjunct.’ ‘Dear Student’ turns that oppression, and the most snickering part of it, upon students.”

The Chronicle profits directly by encouraging a culture that pits vulnerable students and teachers against each other. The “Dear Student” series was not the first of its ilk, and not the last. What I see are teachers with genuine anxieties being asked to put themselves in a compromised position from which they are very publicly belittling students. Nobody wins. Not the students. Not the teachers. Not education in the eyes of its detractors. The fact that this kind of shaming often gets encouraged and defended by teachers is a structural problem. The fact that the Chronicle promotes it and profits from it is a decidedly corporate one.

What I listened to most intently during the aftermath of “Dear Chronicle” were the student voices, a number of whom commented anonymously on my piece:

“Part of the reason why I never asked for help was because I saw what my professors thought of those who did.”

“I dropped out of college, in large part due to the hoops I had to jump through to get my disabilities recognized. I was always so tired of having to justify myself and I didn’t want to have to argue ‘but I’m not like *those* students’ because then I’d be no better than the people judging me.”

“It’s a lot easier to stay motivated when you’re not made to feel like you’re stupid or a liar. It’s a lot easier to focus on studying when you’re not focused on having to justify yourself.”

This is where the conversation starts. By listening seriously to the voices of students and recognizing that students can be drivers of the conversation about the state of education. Teachers have anxieties. Teaching is one of the most emotionally difficult jobs I have done and can imagine doing. Of course, we need to vent. But it is not productive for us to continue creating spaces for teachers to vent that students can eavesdrop on but feel excluded from. I agree that we need to talk openly about real concerns, but there are better ways to have those conversations than by stereotyping, mocking, and shaming.

Some stats from a few recent studies of bullying in higher education:

  • 62% of professionals stated they had been bullied or witnessed bullying in higher education vs. 37% in the general population. Women, African Americans, and members of the LGBT community are disproportionately bullied.
  • 51% of students claimed to have seen another student being bullied by a professor/instructor at least once and 18% claimed to have been bullied themselves by a professor/instructor at least once.

These statistics are definitely in sync with my anecdotal experience. I have heard stories or seen students mistreated by faculty (and faculty mistreated by faculty) at every institution where I’ve worked. If you haven’t seen this bullying running rampant, you may be the bully. And it may be unintentional, because the problem is systemic.

The Milgram experiment famously put its participants in three roles: “experimenter,” “learner” (an actor), and “teacher” (the subject of the experiment). It was as much an experiment about education as it was an experiment about compliance. In short, the experimenter would order the teacher to give shocks to the learner, for getting a wrong answer, and more often than was expected the teacher complied. This was not a nice experiment, and I’ve found the videos genuinely harrowing. The results were compelling but flawed.

In the epilogue to Obedience to Authority, Stanley Milgram argues,

“Each individual possesses a conscience which to a greater or lesser degree serves to restrain the unimpeded flow of impulses destructive to others. But when he merges his person into an organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority.”

Milgram was ultimately denied tenure because the ethics of his experiment were rightfully questioned. Still, Milgram’s experiment has been continually re-created. Perhaps, what is most telling is not Milgram’s results, but the fact that the experiment continues to be repeated and debated and supported and refuted. When faced with an oppressive authority figure, we wonder how we’ll act, what we’ll do, who we’ll obey. The answers, unfortunately, aren’t clear. Even good teachers, kind teachers, given an oppressive hierarchical system, will misuse their authority.

Milgram concludes his book with this line, “the condition of freedom in any state is always a widespread and consistent skepticism of the canons upon which power insists.” Whatever else we might say about Milgram and his experiment, there is something useful here. His call was for a constant vigilance, flushing at any onset of unthinking, uncaring obedience. And yet his call was couched within an experiment that was itself mean, callous even, desperate for results — the same sort of educational system we see today in K-12 and Higher Ed. A precarious labor force is an obedient one. And ill-fitting cogs do not make for better machines. A system of standards, outcomes, and measurement (in which assessment drives learning) is well-served by adjunctification, casualization, and corporatization — a well-oiled experimenter demanding the intimidated teacher abuse hapless learners.

Who in this system is most vulnerable?

It’s important to think about intersectionality when talking about power and hierarchies. Teacher / student is a binary that needs deconstructing but never at the expense of the other identities in play (race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.). No binary exists in a vacuum.

If a straight white male student harasses a gay teacher, that is an example of homophobia. If the same teacher gives the student an “F” in retaliation, that is an example of misused institutional authority. If the gay teacher has a conversation with the student or all the students about systemic gender and sexuality bias, that would be a direct response to those dynamics without an abuse of the student / teacher hierarchy.

When we talk about “ranting up,” as I did in my “Dear Chronicle” piece, students are not “up.” If a teacher is targeting a student publicly, calling out their student-ness from a position of authority, and belittling them, I’d call that “ranting down,” no matter the other positionally involved. And too often it is the most vulnerable students (the ones facing multiple oppressions) who get the least compassion in our educational system.

Kindness does not mean sugarcoating. But neither should “professionalism” excuse cruelty. Being frank and honest is essential. Students are not undifferentiated masses of positivity. Each of them is unique and worth my acknowledging and engaging individually and respectfully. Some of those interactions are difficult. None are easy. We have to approach our interactions with students from a place of care. Like when my dad let go of my bike for the first time even though he said he “had me…” It was a loving gesture. And he did have me. Just not the seat of my bike. As a teacher, I want students to “show up” because I value their contributions — because I (and the other students in class) learn as much from them as they learn from me. Advocating for students doesn’t mean being blindly permissive. It doesn’t mean having no expectations.

Marty Bickman writes, “We often ignore the best resource for informed change, one that is right in front of our noses every day — our students, for whom the most is at stake.” And, to that, I responded, “We have built an almost ironclad academic system — and I acknowledge myself as one of its privileged builders — a system which excludes the voices of students, which calls students ‘customers’ while monetizing their intellectual property, which denigrates the work of learning through assessment mechanisms and credentialing pyramid schemes.” This is not a system that empowers students.

We can’t get to a place of listening to students if they don’t show up to the conversation because we’ve already excluded their voice in advance by creating environments hostile to them and their work. Listening to students is not a gimmick. Sean Michael Morris writes,

“At some point, we need to stop blaming students for the state of education. If, after so many years of controlling student behavior, analyzing their data to understand and curtail that behavior, we are still unhappy with their performance, perhaps it’s time we turn education over to them.”

We can’t get to a place of listening to students if we continue to create us/them dichotomies — as I have done in this very sentence — that position teachers and students against one another.

The work of educating from a place of care might seem abstract, or might be dismissed as touchy-feely, but if our goal is truly to resist the corporatization and standardization of education, we must recognize the ways that the failure to acknowledge students as full agents in their learning is a process that runs immediately parallel to the failure to acknowledge teachers as full agents in the classroom. The process that makes teachers increasingly adjunct is the same process that has made students into customers. And the gear that makes this system go depends on the pitting of students and teachers against one another.

The gear that makes this system go is obedience — mere compliance at the expense of critical engagement and complex human understanding.

For education to work, there can be no divide between teachers and students. There must be what Paulo Freire calls “teacher-students.” Specifically, he writes, “no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught.” So, “teacher” becomes a role that shifts, and learning depends upon a community of teacher-students. Any authority within the space must be aimed at fostering agency in all the members of the community. And this depends on a recognition of the power dynamics and hierarchies that this kind of learning environment must actively and continuously work against. There is no place for shame in the work of education.

[Photo by Franck Vervial]

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Leaving Wisconsin

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Increasingly, I think the work of education is activism not teaching.

I was born in Madison in 1976. I left Wisconsin when I was 6 years old and grew up in Colorado. I came back to Madison in 1999. After a year working at a bookstore and living on Blount st. near James Madison park, I decided to turn down an offer from the UW-Madison English graduate program and went back to Colorado for my Ph.D. I was offered more funding at CU Boulder, more teaching, and (most importantly) more opportunities for training in teaching.

Two and a half years ago, I moved back to Wisconsin for a tenure-track faculty position at UW-Madison.

It has been fraught. And now I find myself leaving again.

For anyone following the news about the gutting of public education in the state of Wisconsin, this announcement probably doesn’t come entirely out of the blue. But I’m surprised at how quickly I’ve found myself surrounded by cardboard boxes.

I’ve accepted a non-tenure-track position as Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Technologies at University of Mary Washington, a public liberal arts institution in Virginia. I will be starting in October. Taking this job was an easy decision. I’m challenged by the shoes I’ll fill and excited about the people I’ll work with. Because of them, I knew within one hour of the start of the campus visit that I would accept the job if it was offered.

But leaving Wisconsin is still hard. Some of the first words I wrote to a close colleague in May when the dominoes here began to fall: “I’m intensely loyal. I don’t abandon ship, but I looked around today and just saw water — no ship.”

There are many reasons I’m deciding to go:

  • In a few short months, Wisconsin has gone from being the only state to protect tenure and shared governance in state law to being the only state to limit tenure and shared governance in state law. I’ve been less disheartened by the fact of this and more by the lack of response from University of Wisconsin leadership, in spite of nationwide calls for active resistance.
  • Our leaders have insisted we’re “safe.” It is one thing to take down tenure. It’s another thing to take down tenure while insisting tenure is “safe” and “nothing will change.” And it’s yet a third thing to take down tenure while saying tenure is “safe” and have people actually believe it. We are in George Orwell territory in the state of Wisconsin. I am concerned for UW-Madison, and I am even more concerned for how this will impact other UW institutions, the state system, and public higher education as a whole.
  • I have said before that I believe tenure is a red herring. This is a politically-motivated attack on the values that underlie tenure at the University of Wisconsin: job security, academic freedom, and shared governance.
  • About six months ago, when UW started to feel pressure, I was told to “be careful.” Since then, I’ve been advised many times to compromise my work for tenure (or to just do different work altogether).
  • The institutional climate at UW-Madison has suffered. It has become, quite frankly, an unfriendly environment, and my own efforts at collaboration have been repeatedly frustrated. Public scholars have come under direct attack. In our work as educators, we must leave no stone unturned, and suddenly there are snakes under some of the stones. And, in order to do our work, we now have to put our jobs at risk.
  • The Wisconsin Idea, the principle that the work of UW extends beyond its own borders, is what brought me to this institution, but the commitment to it is being directly challenged. Again, the harder part has been the lack of a strong and collective outcry. Many have been caught up in abstraction, guarding the words — ones like “tenure” and “truth” — while their meaning has been stripped.
  • My work — the work I was hired to do — has not been supported. While I was initially assured that digital work for broad public audiences would count, I was later told I should wait to do that work until after tenure and focus on traditionally peer-reviewed publications for academic audiences. In January, the following bolded words were sent to me in a letter for my official file: “The Committee wants to send a clear message that what matters is tenure, what matters for tenure is peer review, and work posted on the web is not considered peer‐reviewed.”
  • Finally, because of the current budget cuts, my husband is being laid off from the spousal hire position he has held at UW-Madison. He was officially notified about his impending layoff in the subject line of a calendar invite: “layoff meeting.”

This is not what I expected when I moved my family to Wisconsin two and a half years ago. When I took this job, I thought I’d be here for life. I was born in this state, my closest mentor was born in this state, and I have some of the most daring and brilliant colleagues here. We have collaborated in spite of systems that have made that increasingly difficult. I remain awed by what we’ve built together.

I’m awed by Sage Goellner’s resolute calm. Sage is doing the kind of outreach scholarship and teaching that brought me to UW-Madison. Few understand the Wisconsin Idea as deeply as she does. I’m awed by Sarah Marty’s ability to keenly balance what would drive anyone else into a frenzy. She has taught me to build things bigger than I thought I could build. I’m awed by Chuck Rybak’s resolve and moved by his sadness. He has spoken words I couldn’t find. I’m awed by Sara Goldrick-Rab’s willful optimism. I’m awed by Brianna Marshall, Joshua Calhoun, Lisa Hager, Jason Lee. I’m awed by every single one of the students I’ve met and worked with. These people are the reason leaving is hard.

Still, the community of UW has changed, and the changes will have a direct effect on the learning that can happen here. The attacks on shared governance, tenure, and academic freedom are part of a divide and conquer mechanism that deters all of us from advocating for each other. I am in favor of lifting up non-tenure-track faculty, students, and staff so that universities are not caste systems with an oppressed contingent labor class. I am not in favor of making everyone and everything in education adjunct.

I keep seeing the word “unfortunate” used to describe the situation at UW. This is not the right word. What’s become of education in the state of Wisconsin is not fate, accident, or misfortune, but has been carefully coordinated and calculated. How about instead we use words like “horrific,” “appalling,” “insidious,” “treacherous”? There is nothing strategic about understating what’s happening to the UW System.

This announcement is more anthemic than I intended it to be. I’ve been incredibly passionate in my love of this place, and so I find myself equally passionate now as I think about my next steps.

Many of my UW colleagues are fielding similar offers or are also thinking about next steps. Some will make the decision to leave. Some will have that decision made for them. Students will be left without mentors. Faculty will be left without collaborators. Education will be left without advocates. Not everyone will leave. Not everyone can leave. And, hopefully, all of us that do leave — and those that stay — will keep fighting.

[Photo, “Still Silence,” by GollyGforce]

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Dear Chronicle: Why I Will No Longer Write for Vitae

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Dear Chronicle​–

I recently accepted a job as a columnist for Vitae from the Chronicle of Higher Education, where I’ve published two columns in the last two months. A draft of my third column is due today. I won’t be submitting it.

Unfortunately, Vitae continues to publish “Dear Student,” its student-shaming series, also referred to as “professorial tough love.”

Here’s some tough love of my own.

The concerns the series has focused on are petty and pedantic, and nobody is being well-served by the content on display (not students, not professors, editors, the Chronicle, the other writers for Vitae, the job seekers visiting the site, or the job advertisers using the service).

The great concerns of teachers featured in this series:
“it’s February and you didn’t buy your textbook,”
“no I won’t change the grade you deserve,”
“my class began two weeks ago and you just show up now,”
“your ‘granny’ died and I have absolutely no compassion.”

On textbooks. Education should be about dialogue, conversation, community. We do not invite students into an educational environment by admonishing them. Our classes should have more valuable tickets for entry than textbooks.

On grades. They’re a red herring. Any teacher that regularly gets caught up in power and control struggles with students over grades has missed the point.

On a student showing up for a class that started two weeks ago. The work of gatekeeping is anathema to the work of education. Our classrooms should have more doors and windows, not less.

On grandmothers. The statistics are compelling: “grandmothers are 20 times more likely to die before a final exam.” Here’s a better statistic: it is 100 times kinder to err on the side of giving students the benefit of the doubt when it comes to dead grandmothers. And we need to consider whether there is something about the educational system that has put students in the awkward and uncomfortable position of feeling like they have to lie to their teachers.

Everyone that comes into even casual contact with Vitae’s “Dear Student” series is immediately tarnished by the same kind of anti-intellectual, uncompassionate, illogical nonsense currently threatening to take down the higher education system in the state of Wisconsin.

The word “entitlement,” used pejoratively about students in two of the four articles, needs to die a quick death. College students ARE entitled — to an education and not the altogether unfunny belittling on display in the “Dear Student” series.

This series is not effective satire, not a useful kind of venting. This series plays to the insecurities of its audience in a way that feels opportunistic. Academic job seekers are concerned about their current and future livelihood. They are oppressed by a system that calls 75% of its labor-force “unnecessary,” “contingent,” “adjunct.” The “Dear Student” series turns that oppression, and the most snickering part of it, upon students.

What everyone working anywhere even near to the education system needs to do:

  • Treat the least privileged among us with the most respect.
  • Recognize that the job of a teacher is to advocate for students, especially in an educational system currently under direct threat at almost every turn.
  • Laugh at ourselves and not at those we and our system have made most vulnerable.
  • Rant up, not down.

Giggling at the water cooler about students is one abhorrent thing. Publishing that derisive giggling as “work” in a venue read by tens of thousands is quite another. Of course, teachers need a safe place to vent. We all do. That safe place is not shared faculty offices, not the teacher’s lounge, not the library, not a local (public) watering hole. And it is certainly not on the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, especially in Vitae, the publication devoted to job seekers, including current students and future teachers.

I won’t stand beside this water cooler. I won’t encourage anyone else to come near to it. Until “Dear Student” has ended its run and the Chronicle has published a public apology to students, the words right here (in this “Dear Chronicle” letter) are the only words of mine the Chronicle has my permission to publish on Vitae.

While I’ve closed the comments for this space, the original conversation is archived here. I wrote a longer follow-up post about a year later.

[Photo by perlaroques]

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2014 Recap: Critical Pedagogy, Zombie Pedagogy, Digital Pedagogy

Emily

First, if you haven’t already, meet Emily Dog.

In addition to the stuff I wrote here on my own blog, I published a hodgepodge of stuff elsewhere in various media in 2014. I’m gathering much of it here. I started doing this in 2012 and then again in 2013, mostly as a way for me to keep track of what I’m up to. But it’s also turned into a way to introduce people to some of my favorite places to hang out on the web (and to the amazing collaborators I’ve worked with over the year).

Keep Learning
1. The rest of this list is in no particular order, but if I had to pick a favorite of all the stuff I wrote this year, it would be this: The Pedagogies of Reading and Not Reading
2. Collaboration — Learning Collectively (w/ Sean Michael Morris)
3. Tools for Collaborative Writing (w/ Sean Michael Morris)
4. E-mail Pedagogy and the Cascade Effect
5. What is Good Writing?: A Meditation on Breaking Rules and Grammar Pedagogy
6. Is It Okay to be a Luddite? (w/ Sean Michael Morris)

PhD2Published
7. Hackademic Guide to Networking (w/ Charlotte Frost)

HASTAC
8. Technologies of Meta-Learning, Trust, and Power: Interview with Jesse Stommel
9. MOOC MOOC: Dark Underbelly; or, How a Cave Troll Can Help Revise the Syllabus of Education

Storify
10. The Adventures of MLA Dog (w/ Mary the Dog, my favorite collaborator of all)

In Print Books
11. “Monsters that Matter: Things that Rise in the Contemporary Zombie Film” in Unnatural Reproductions and Monstrosity: The Birth of the Monster in Literature, Film, and Media
12. “A Kaleidoscope of Variables: The Complex Nature of Online Education in Composition Classes” in Critical Examinations of Distance Education Transformation across Disciplines (w/ Chris Friend and Sean Michael Morris)
13. “The Course as Container: Distributed Learning and the MOOC” in Global Innovation of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Transgressing Boundaries (w/ Sean Michael Morris)

Hybrid Pedagogy
14. Critical Digital Pedagogy: a Definition
15. If Freire Made a MOOC: Open Education as Resistance (w/ Sean Michael Morris)
16. Hybrid Pedagogy, Digital Humanities, and the Future of Academic Publishing (w/ Sean Michael Morris)
17. Toward an Interactive Criticism: House of Leaves as Haptic Interface
18. One of my favorite things I wrote wasn’t actually an article at all, but one of the prompts for MOOC MOOC: Dark Underbelly, a course-like thing I co-taught at the start of the year. I wrote several prompts for the six-week MOOC, but one in particular has stuck with me: MMDU: “I Would Prefer Not To.”

Slideshare
I’ve never been a fan of slides (aside from showing a film still here and there), but this year, I decided to get my head under the hood of the form, so I made 12 sets, all of which I published openly to the web. Here’s a few which I used for keynotes in Manchester and Colorado, a workshop in Singapore, and talks in Switzerland, Wisconsin, and D.C.:
19. Rewriting the Syllabus: Examining New Hybrid and Online Pedagogies
20. Zombie Pedagogies Embodied Learning in the Digital Age
21. Digital Pedagogy is about Breaking Stuff: Toward a Critical Digital Humanities Pedagogy
22. 12 Steps for Designing an Assignment with Emergent Outcomes
23. New-form Scholarship and the Public Digital Humanities
24. If Freire Made a MOOC: Open Education and Critical Digital Pedagogy (w/ Sean Michael Morris)

Wisconsin Public Radio
25. Don’t Dismiss Those Tweets as Frivolous

Wisconsin Public Television
26. Horror Film and the Body

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12 Steps for Creating a Digital Assignment or Hybrid Class

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For a series of workshops, I devised the following prompt for creating a digital assignment or hybrid class. (Most of these tips can apply to any assignment or class, not just digital ones.) Digital Pedagogy is a recursive process, a constant interplay between building and analyzing what we’ve built — between teaching and meta-level reflection on our own process. While step number 6 below explicitly suggests bringing students into the process, I would advocate bringing students into the conversation as early as possible, even from the outset — helping to build the syllabus, outline the objectives of the course, design activities and assessments, etc. I always start my planning for the semester or quarter at the end of the previous one by asking current students to help reconsider and redesign the course for the next term.

Questions I ask myself when creating a digital assignment or hybrid course:
1. What is my primary goal for students with this course / assignment?
2. What is my digital pedagogy? How does my goal for this assignment intersect with my broader teaching philosophy?
3. What tools that I already use (analog or digital) could help me achieve these goals? (It is often best to use the tools with which we are already familiar, rather than turning to the shiny and newfangled.)
4. In order for this activity / class to work, what gaps do I need to fill with other tools / strategies?
5. Is my idea simple enough? What can I do to streamline the activity?
6. What is my goal beyond this assignment / course? How will the activity (and my pedagogy) evolve? (In other words, don’t feel like you have to meet all your goals during the first attempt — think of the process, from the start, as iterative). Think also about how you can bring students (their feedback and the fruits of their work during the first iteration) into the continuing evolution of the activity / course.
7. Go back to step 1 and work through these steps (and likely several times).


The next steps are pointedly “below the fold” and outside the first recursive loop, because assessment should never drive our pedagogies. Rather, good assessment is driven by good pedagogy. Thus, I continue by asking myself:
8. Does this activity need to be assessed? Or does the activity have intrinsic value? We should never assess merely for the sake of assessing. As I’ve said before, teachers often grade in many more situations than grading is actually required, but we should avoid with a gusto any impulse that turns students into mere columns in a spreadsheet.
9. Is there a way to build the assessment into the assignment? For example, can I have students reflecting on their process inside the activity itself? Can my assessment arise organically from within, and as part of, the learning activity?
10. What additional assessment strategies should I use? (These might include peer-assessment, self-assessment, narrative feedback, peer review, points, a rubric, letter grade, or some combination.) External summative assessment should be a last resort, a necessary evil (in some cases). I firmly believe the goal of education should always be better learning and not better assessments.
11. What is my goal in assessing student work?
12. Go back to step 8.

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What is Good Writing?: A Meditation on Breaking Rules and Grammar Pedagogy

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From all the jails the Boys and Girls
Ecstatically leap—
Beloved only Afternoon
That Prison doesn’t keep

They storm the Earth and stun the Air,
A Mob of solid Bliss—
Alas—that Frowns should lie in wait
For such a Foe as this—

~ Emily Dickinson

Discussion forums and other spaces for online commenting should focus on building community, not pedantic concerns like word counts, formal citation, and grammar. Policing grammar and style is a shortcut — a way to avoid actual engagement. When the goal is reflective dialogue, critical thinking, content mastery, or even good writing, grammar is usually a red herring.

In an annotated bibliography on the grammar instruction debate, Chris Friend writes that the current argument is

“in the same state of stalemate that existed in 1904, when debate over the efficacy of grammar instruction began in earnest […] This battle has been long-fought, and it shows no sign of abating. Studies will be done, and they will have their validity questioned. Rallying cries will be raised, and they will fall on irreverent ears.”

And so, my goal in this post is not to police the policing of grammar but to present an argument about grammar pedagogy for teachers outside Composition Studies, for whom this debate is not yet asked and answered.

I frequently ask students deceptively simple questions about “good writing,” what its “rules” are, who determines them, which ones we can break, and how we can break them. Students take to the discussion quickly, throwing out examples of various rules they’ve been taught, while I furiously fill a chalkboard with their comments. We talk about fonts, 12-pt type, theses, paragraphs, concision, the (always mysterious) flow, revision checklists, and grammar. I ask students how the word “grammar” makes them feel, and they say, “terrified,” “nervous,” “bored,” “controlled.” We debate pronoun agreement, comma usage, “its” and “it’s,” and dangling participles.

Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in “The Poet,” “The argument is secondary, the finish of the verses is primary. For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem” (245). On first glance, Emerson seems to suggest two quite different things, a quandary that lines up with the common debate: Does good grammar follow upon good ideas, or is good grammar the foundation upon which good ideas are formed? Do we start with grammar when we teach writing, or is grammar the happy and seemingly accidental product of carefully-considered ideas?

For Emerson, the first task of a writer is to write. If a piece isn’t finished (i.e. done), the argument doesn’t matter, the grammar doesn’t matter, the finish (i.e. surface sheen) doesn’t matter. Later, Emerson continues, “The poet knows that he speaks adequately then only when he speaks somewhat wildly” (255). This line offers another conundrum, suggesting that we break the rules (and “wildly”) — that we deviate from what is expected — but only “somewhat,” only some of the time. It isn’t that our writing should spin listlessly but that it should push very intentionally at the edges of our readers’ expectations. A wildness in kind and not always degree.

In “Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language,” Mike Rose writes, “Composing calls for open, even adventurous thinking, not for constrained, no-exit cognition” (399). And Nancy Sommers, in “Responding to Student Writing,” highlights some of the problems that arise when teachers focus too much on grammar and mechanics in their evaluation of student writing:

“Most teachers of writing have been trained to read and interpret literary texts for meaning, but, unfortunately, we have not been trained to act upon the same set of assumptions in reading student texts as we follow in reading literary texts.”

As teachers, there is a loathsome efficiency in reading uncreatively. There is convenience in having students produce writing we can read once and neatly assess. My suspicion is that many teachers demand students adhere to “rules,” because too much flexibility makes grading inconvenient, requiring teachers read for quality, rather than merely look for errors to “fix.” Routine 5-paragraph essays are, frankly, easier to read and evaluate. But writing pedagogy (in any discipline) should be about experimentation, not efficiency — about meditating on and employing forms, not adhering to them.

So, how can we teach grammar conventions, while encouraging students to engage with grammar in a second-order way? Joseph M. Williams, in Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, argues that “nothing is more important than choice” (9). It is one thing to make a choice to conform to a writing standard, another thing entirely to be obedient to an inflexible and uncompromising rule. The same is equally true of writing pedagogy. As teachers, our approach to the teaching of grammar should be flexible, maybe even disobedient, deviant, compromising, but certainly conscious.

Most grammar rules aren’t as hard and fast as they are made out to be. Williams discusses various kinds of writing rules in his book, two of which I’ll paraphrase here:

Real Rules: The basic structural constraints that form the foundation of standard English, such as articles precede nouns: “the apple,” “the elephant,” “the computer,” rather than “apple the,” “elephant the,” “computer the.” We aren’t conscious of these rules most of the time when we write, and we generally only violate them by pure accident.

Invented Rules: These are the constraints invented by grammarians, the ones we’re told incessantly to follow. The shoulds of writing: a colon should precede a list, don’t split infinitives, an independent clause should be followed by a comma, etc. The word “invented” doesn’t necessarily suggest these rules are “wrong” (although some are), just that they have been normalized by writers and grammarians.

In “The Phenomenology of Error,”Williams writes, “what good is learning a rule if all we can do is obey it?” (165). Skilled writers don’t “obey” rules; they exploit them. They understand rules have both instrumental and intrinsic value, that they’re neither arbitrary nor imperative. They know the rules but also know when to break them in the service of good writing.

Many instructors draw a hard and fast line here, demanding students know the rules before they can break them. As a student myself, though, I’ve discovered that academic writing often becomes a mere exercise in proving a knowledge of the rules and conventions (rather than an opportunity to create intrinsically sound compositions), an exercise that continues through each course, with each instructor, from one academic journal to the next, in each new writing task. The when in which we can begin experimenting with rule-breakage keeps getting put off, again and again, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

We should, instead, teach the rules and how to break them simultaneously. It seems sensible to keep these two teaching moments as close to one another as possible. We can more consciously break rules when we’re intimately familiar with them, and breaking rules is an excellent way to better understand their purpose and function.

Ultimately, I would argue that the best way to learn grammar is through the practice of writing — through the willful and conscious application of the specific rules that fit the specific situation, what I would call a grammar as toolbox approach. This becomes all the more true as the mediums in which we write continue to proliferate. As I’ve observed previously in “The Twitter Essay,” instructors are terrified by the presumed deterioration of language in e-mail and text-messages, and students are terrified by the preemptive strikes loosed upon them by their terrified instructors. I was, myself, terrified to encounter the statistic that a college student produces an average of 42 pages of academic writing in a semester but over 500 pages of e-mail. What terrifies me is not the sheer enormity of writing being produced, but the fact that too many teachers quibble the details of academic form rather than emphasizing pedagogical approaches that transfer to all the writing students do. As the nature of our work continues to evolve in the digital age, we should embrace the various alternate modes of communication in which students (and we) are proving so prolific.

In my epigraph, Emily Dickinson begins, “From all the jails the Boys and Girls / Ecstatically leap—”. For me, the “Boys and Girls” are Dickinson’s poems. She ends with “such a Foe as this,” referring, reflexively, to the poem itself. For Dickinson, good writing ought to “leap” and “storm” and “stun.” Good writing is a “Mob,” a “Foe,” that “lie[s] in wait” and “doesn’t keep.” The “jail” or “Prison” are the grammar and convention from which Dickinson’s lines emancipate themselves. The poem describes students in school, all the more ecstatic for being also unruly…


[Photo, “IMG_0350“, by illum licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0]

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The Postapocalyptic Humanities and the Decay of the Digital Human

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This video was created for the Higher Education Academy #teachDH summit. It is also a preview for my upcoming keynote at the Higher Education Academy’s 2014 Arts and Humanities Conference: “Toward a Zombie Pedagogy: Embodied Learning in the Digital Age.” For the video, I was specifically asked to imagine a utopian or apocalyptic vision for the Digital Humanities, and I responded with a bit of both. In the process, I also highlight the amazing work of students I’ve had in Digital Humanities and Multimodal Composition courses, including short films like “Zombie Proof,” a custom font inspired by House of Leaves, a digital remix of a poem by Emily Dickinson, and more.

The Decay of the Digital Human from Jesse Stommel on Vimeo

Some sources for the video:
The Digital Humanities is About Breaking Stuff
Hybrid Pedagogy, Digital Humanities, and the Future of Academic Publishing
Vulnerability, Contingency, and Advocacy in Higher Education
My chapter “Toward a Zombie Pedagogy” in Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education
Pity Poor Flesh: Terrible Bodies in the Films of Carpenter, Cronenberg, and Romero

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And the text of the video:

The entire educational system is undergoing a swift and certain decay. We usually attribute the word “decay” to dead things: road kill decays; a fallen tree decays; cadavers decay. Whether living or dead, all human bodies also undergo decay. Our hair decays, our skin decays, the teeth in our mouth decay. The process of decay is, in fact, necessary for the breakdown and replacement of dead matter with new life.

We are in a state of constant reanimation, reinventing ourselves intellectually, emotionally, and culturally, but also repairing physical damage, replacing dead cells with live ones, and collecting more and more layers of flesh all the while. We grow old, wrinkle, rot, reek, and break little by little; our organs fail, our skin cultures fungi, and our guts host hundreds of bacteria species. Our body contains more dead cells than live ones. And 90% of the living cells in our body are critters like this one, the follicle mite, which lives in the eyebrows and eyelashes of 50% of adults.

Many of our technologies live upon us like these parasites.

We’re losing our individuality, our singularity, more and more as our identities proliferate like screen names in the glow of our computer screens. And, going against the grain, I would argue that none of this is such a bad thing after all, and instead offers increasing opportunities for mutiny — to rise, not from the dead, but like the dead.

Specifically, the humanities help us reconsider our embodied relationship to technology. The digital humanities, then, must be both about using digital tools for humanities work and using humanities tools for digital work. Far too much work in educational technology and Digital Humanities starts with tools, when what we need to start with is humans.

The digital humanities is about breaking stuff. And the post-apocalyptic rubble of higher education offers an opportunity, not to start entirely from scratch, but to sift thoughtfully through the rubble, examining the pieces as we rebuild.

What we have is a moment of play, in which some will mourn the radical decay of the humanities (as we once knew them or thought we knew them) even as others fiddle gleefully with the haptic interfaces of their mobile devices.

Literature, film, and other media are continually changing, and the ways we interact with them are also changing. As we imagine a digital approach to the humanities, we must look back even as we look forward, considering what media has become while we simultaneously examine the hows and whys of its becoming.

And at the center of the digital humanities should be an emphasis on individual and collective agency, which means advocating for marginalized teachers, scholars, and students. This is how DH can and should innovate, not through competition, clearcutting, and hype cycles, but by listening intently to more (and more diverse) voices. The digital humanities needs to be about generosity — about breaking brains not hearts.

This potential is captured here by a former student and collaborator, Lans Pacifico Nelson, who paints with the words of Emily Dickinson to reveal the ways our work in the digital humanities becomes an archeological dig, a nibbling at the stratum of the digital to discover in our technologies what is voraciously humane.

[Photo by Thomas Hawk]

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Zombie Class

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Digital Humanities

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This course looks back even as it looks forward, considering how printed texts and reading practices are transformed by the digital, in addition to examining more revolutionary digital media. Throughout the course, we will ask the following sorts of questions:  How is literature and our reading of it being changed by computers? What influence does the container for a text have on its content? To what degree does immersion in a text depend upon the physicality of its interface? How are evolving technologies (like the iPad) helping to enliven (or disengage us from) the materiality of literary texts?

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The Posthuman

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Hypertext and Electronic Literature

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Film Analysis

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Monstrous Bodies

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The Haptic Interface

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The Dead and the Undead

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First Year Writing and Rhetoric

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About

I play with my dog and do digital pedagogy, public humanities, and critical edtech

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Jesse Stommel is Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at University of Mary Washington. He is also Director of Hybrid Pedagogy: a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology and Co-founder of Digital Pedagogy Lab. He is a documentary filmmaker and teaches courses about digital pedagogy, American literature, film, and new media. Jesse experiments relentlessly with learning interfaces, both digital and analog, and works in his research and teaching to emphasize new forms of collaboration. He’s got a rascal pup, Emily, and two clever cats, Loki and Odin. Click for CV.

© CC-BY-NC 4.0 Jesse Stommel

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