Monthly Archives: August 2012

Close reading: A love letter

I live in Silicon Valley, where many close friends have a strong technology or science background.  I’ve heard them talk about the “beauty” of math, the “elegance” of code, when it is “perfect”, “bug-free”, “brilliant”.  These are aesthetic judgments of appreciation for the power of the human intellect (the brains that dreamed up math, that came up with code) that resonate deeply within me, not because I’m good at math or know how to code, but because I am a literature reader, teacher, and theorist.  Like these friends, I know and appreciate the wonders of deep immersion into an abstract world not of my own making.

The analogy of doing math and reading a demanding piece of literature may seem a little far-fetched at first, but consider this: numbers and formulae are nothing else than signs that make meaning. They build it, sustain it, transfer it, can inhibit it, obscure it, or let ideas shine with clarity.  Ideally, they communicate, they enable further thoughts or morph into the realm of the practical, letting us do or say things that we did not think of before.  They enable communication with other human beings that can, ideally, make things better, reach further, be tested, corrected, made alive through new sets of eyes.

Reading a piece of important literature deeply, closely, is just like that.  Entering into a demanding, intriguing, perhaps even forbidding old or new text feels like opening a door to an unknown room or stepping into a new landscape.  It demands focus and self-control, a strong grip on what I know and what I realize I want to learn.  I have to orient myself, find my footing, take in the big picture, zoom in on details, let ideas and observations suggest themselves, hop around, note things that don’t immediately make sense, acknowledge things I recognize.  I need to concentrate, be still and open to let thoughts rise and bounce around, look closely, wonder, work with what I’ve already understood to approach what I don’t yet understand, recall tools I need for comprehension (such as the form and function of a rhetorical figure, a meter or rhyme scheme, my knowledge of the 19th-century novel, a philosophical concept, a feminist theorist who may help me interpret specific aspects of the text, etc.), all in order to connect a network of observations and ideas that ultimately (ideally) build up a rich picture in my mind.

In the college or university classroom, my own scene of collective close reading, successful moments or sustained close readings of literature have spawned amazing new insights and connections for me and my students.  Like a string of math or code done well, they are hard work, but they are very rewarding.  They make us feel like we’ve conquered (albeit not mastered forever) a little corner of the universe where things now make more sense, connections have become obvious, learning has happened. They create empathy with other worlds, other contexts, other histories, other individuals.  They show us that we are not, in fact, the masters or mistresses of Everything, and that our views are among many possible ones with which we have to negotiate in good faith.

In my upcoming Fall quarter course at Stanford, the biggest task I’ve set for myself is to try to use the new media to model and expand close readings of the kinds we do in the classroom in a larger public forum, and not to do this in the form of teacher-centered lectures. My students and I will experiment with taking some of our close readings online and invite the world to think, talk, and be still with us to take in words and let us ask questions we didn’t know we had before.  New digital tools will help us do this in (some) new ways, but the core of what literary close reading can and must do individually and together shall remain: making meaning.

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Filed under Literature musings, MOOC musings

Scene: The digital education world. Enter: A traditional humanities teacher. Curtain rises.

I’m a traditionally trained literature  teacher and researcher.  I still work a card catalogue like a pro, know several languages (some of them dead), love printed books, texts, images, and I absolutely dig archives–real ones, that is, of the dust-and-paper (and potentially white-gloved) variety.  Heck, I just spent almost a whole summer–five weeks–happily immersed  in the Oscar Wilde archive of the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in Los Angeles, and relived grad school group discussions with 16 wonderful fellow NEH seminar “Oscar Wilde and His Circle” participants.  Needless to say, I love thinking and talking about ideas, histories, texts, contexts, interacting with people, listening, arguing.  I love teaching literature and cultural studies, learning from my students and colleagues.  I care deeply about the embattled state of the humanities and their supposedly reclining relevance to our social, political, and technologically über-connected lives today, and you’ve heard me moan and groan about the state of the academy on more than one occasion.

So what am I doing spending so much of my precious analog time recently fantasizing and obsessing about online education, that whole digitally wiggly can o’ worms–and my own first foray into it, with a small comparative literature seminar on Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents, of all topics (nothing earth-shattering new with “digital humanities” in the title)?

I’ll tell you why.  For one, I currently teach at Stanford, where lots of exciting things have been happening in recent months, and lots of people are excited (but also understandably wary) about the chances and challenges of some of our newly opened-up classrooms: free to the world with amazing potential  for a better educated, more democratically connected populace that extends to lifelong learners, individual learners in other countries, and new international networks.  It’s hard to resist that pull of adventure and the knowledge that no one has really figured it out for the humanities yet.

Secondly, online education is actually an inescapable personal topic for me that I’ve had lots of conversations about–lots and lots of them–over dinner, in bed, brushing my teeth in the morning, making coffee, on playgrounds and ski slopes, sitting in the car, catching up with friends.  This is because I happen to be married to Sebastian Thrun, who, together with Peter Norvig, taught the first massively open, free,  AI class (parallel with his  real-world  course at Stanford), and who soon afterwards founded the online learning startup Udacity with Mike Sokolsky and David Stavens, that continues to make headlines almost every week.  (Don’t get me started on what all this media attention means for our private lives.  Just don’t.)

Most importantly and seriously, however, I have come to realize what a truly amazing chance the new technological and educational developments offer to my beloved humanities.  We could. Become. Relevant. Once. Again. Or rather, I know we are.  The world needs to see and experience what we do, and why, and how.  We humanities people need  to demonstrate, live, and model our own beliefs, expertise, and skills so they become visible, relatable, and useful to the wider world beyond our classrooms, offices, and libraries.  And students and teachers need to become better digital citizens to get ready for the 21st century. It’s an ideal match waiting to happen.  We need lots of smart heads and engaged hearts to figure this one out; we have not even scratched the surface of what suddenly seems newly possible, and newly precious.

For all the reasons above, for all my love of the humanities and literature and teaching and talking shop about Big Ideas, I can no longer sit back.

Stay tuned. The learning starts now.


Filed under MOOC musings

Teacher-Imposed Structure in Participant Pedagogy

The Case for Creative Paradox

In the swirling debate about the “openness” component of the MOOC acronym, participant pedagogy is perhaps one of the most problematic concepts.  Teachers in higher education  know pretty well how to define, encourage, assess, and measure student participation in face-to-face or hybrid courses. But such practical and theoretical knowledge is not easily  transferable to the MOOC format–nor should it be, since MOOCs offer entirely new sets of challenges and chances for individual as well as peer-to-peer as and  group interactions that implode the confines of the traditional “Participation/Attendance” grade.  What forms can, should, or must “participation” and “attendance” take in a MOOC to be successful, both on an individual level, for each student, and as a contribution to the success of the course, as an individual and group learning project?  And more importantly, what should the “pedagogy” be that informs these new forms of participation online?

In particular, what does this mean for humanities MOOCs, which are still such a new and undertheorized phenomenon at this point? As a traditionally trained humanities teacher of literature, cultural studies, film, and writing courses, I wonder what to do with that “massive” and “open” component online, when so much of my own best teaching and learning focuses on the details and nuances of texts, delves into contexts in depth, and thrives on interpersonal debate and argument where ideas are weighed, compared, and contrasted, accepted or rejected, added to or thrown out, and bounced off of one another in creative interchange.  Participation and presence are absolutely vital to the success of a traditional humanities seminar, but these only become meaningful if the points made, and indeed the participants themselves, can be identified and followed within an argument or debate.  As humanities courses are starting to wake up to the possibilities of MOOCs and online higher education and starting to explore the new tech tools, how do we make sure teachers and students do not fall into chaos, drown in the cacophonous chorus of too many voices all speaking at the same time, lose sight of important threads of thought and writing in discussion fora, when faced with all these discussion trees, twitter hashtags, Facebook pages, online aliases, barrages of possibilities and invitations (not to mention irritations)?  How can we find a productive balance between true openness, with the results of students’  learning and interests not fully predictable, and our wish as teachers–I would actually say, responsibility–to help guide them through the fray?

As the etymology indicates,  the concept of “pedagogy” (at least in its Urform in ancient Greece) involves the idea of “leading” (>ἄγειν, to lead) or actively guiding students: from ignorance to knowledge, passivity to activity, theory to practice (or practice to theory), initial insecurity to independence and a sense of self-possession, and so on.  Is there still a place for such active leading and structured guiding on part of the teacher in the wide-open participant pedagogy of the MOOC?  And does “wide open” necessarily mean unstructured?  Not teacher-led, only student-led?

I wouldn’t pose these questions if I didn’t want to make a case for the place of structure and for the teacher’s role here: not always (not everything should be structured like this, all the time), and not thinking of the teacher as the sole arbiter of wisdom and knowledge, of course.  Rather, I think of the teacher here as an informed, experienced arranger and leader of participatory activities that can become better and more productively open, precisely because of the teacher’s skilled initial arrangement of questions and tasks.

Let me illustrate what I mean, with the start of a list of concrete, structured online activities that build on “traditional” literature and cultural studies teaching ideas but could potentially work really well for the MOOC format, all geared at TEACHING CLOSE READING (a topic I’ve committed myself to for next year).  Feel free to add your own!  I will add more to these in the future.



Set up shared Google document (or use online discussion forum). The task is to draft a spontaneous group essay that delves into a particular text (it could be a passage, a poem, a scene in a play or film, etc.–need to specify ahead of time) and develops a coherent line of thought, with each student building upon previous students’ ideas.  (Initially, a specific passage, a short scene, or a short poem might work best since the text to discuss is more contained that way; eventually, you could experiment with writing about a whole work of literature or film that way.)  The rules: each student can only write one or two sentences, then it’s on to the next student (over and out).  There does not need to be a formal “end” to this crowd sourced essay.  The value of the exercise lies in the brevity/clarity of each individual idea, and in students’ connectivist skills, as well as in the variety of things in the text that can be discovered or debated in such a close reading.  After activity closes (deadline, or next f2f class session), there should be a discussion on learning outcomes, of course.  I’ve just made this exercise up today, but I can’t wait to try it out in class this fall.  I expect surprises!  Please let me know your experiences if you decide to adopt this idea for your course.


Filed under MOOC musings

Learning Outcomes and Assessment

By Petra Dierkes-Thrun (@petradt) and Robin Wharton (@rswharton)

This week, I am participating in a pedagogical experiment called MOOC MOOC, organized by the folks at Hybrid Pedagogy.  Robin Wharton (Georgia Tech) and I contributed the following post, and the questions underneath the article indicate the day’s MOOC MOOC participant activities. Feel free to leave comments and questions here!


As Cathy Davidson argues in Now You See It, our current assessment methods are conditioned by the needs and values of the industrial revolution (Ch. 4, “How We Measure”). Teachers grade students in the way the USDA grades beef. We are expected to sort students into categories so prospective employers, graduate institutions, their parents, and even the students themselves can see how “well” they did in our classes. The grading model presumes the audience for the grades we assign are consumers of, not agents or participants in, the learning process. It also assumes the teacher is still the sole arbiter of wisdom and judgment when it comes to assessment.

Yet why does the system automatically assume that we, the teachers, are in a better position than our students or even a broader public to evaluate the results of their learning process? If actors beyond the classroom are interested in the outcomes of our classes, then why don’t they participate in helping students comprehend and meet those outcomes? Shouldn’t taking responsibility for one’s learning necessarily imply acquiring the ability to assess it? And shouldn’t students feel a sense of accountability for their own work that goes beyond “pleasing the teacher” and shows their awareness of a larger public arena of readers and thinkers on the internet who can see their work?

Assessment is an essential part of pedagogy. We need to assess our students in order to understand where they are in their learning process, so that we can best figure how to meet their needs as learners. We also need to provide them with feedback and with opportunities to give and receive peer feedback in order to help them understand how assessment works, model the process for them, and give them space to practice it. We question, though, whether we need to continue “grading” in the traditional sense — that is sorting students into categories for audiences beyond the classroom.

We need to reconsider our assessment tools and processes, not abandoning the vital work of assessment but updating it to meet 21st century educational goals and challenges. Our assessment methods should also take advantage of 21st century learning technology. The advent of the MOOC changes the way we consider assessment, its purposes and applications.

Reinventing Assessment

We need to invent new, creative, challenging forms of assessment that address not only individual but also group- and project-based learning. For example, given the recent experiments with rubrics training and peer grading in humanities MOOCs, it is already becoming clear that the traditional essay format doesn’t work well. This is not just because one professional teacher, a teaching team, or a handful of peer graders won’t be able to give expert individual feedback or grade large numbers of essays in a short time.

Problematically, some of the current peer grading experiments want to train peers to grade just like the teacher would, effectively assuming that producing teacher clones should actually be the goal of peer review.  As a recent New York Times article stated, in this model “students first hav[e] to show that they can match a professor’s grading of an assignment, and then grade the work of five classmates, in return for which their work is graded by five fellow students”.  But “what would happen to a student who cannot match the professor’s grading has not been determined.”

Even more important than critiquing the pedagogical shortsightedness of this particular model, however, is thinking about the traditional essay format itself in the MOOC context: it may actually not be the best tool to use in humanities MOOCs, since it does not fully capture the multi-faceted, multi-pronged, versatile nature of online learning. It is typically a teaching and assessment tool geared at individual, in-depth writing and research skills and does not measure or encourage collaborative, spread-out, project-based writing. We need a larger toolbox for assessment methods and critical thinking in MOOCs that more adequately meet the demands of the digital age.

Personalization matters: giving students choices (but not letting them drown in them); making sure they get feedback on individual as well as on group and project performance; making them feel supported and heard on multiple levels — not only the teacher, but other students and occasionally, the larger public outside the MOOC, which may become the addressee or the prompter of individual or class writings and research projects.

We need to take the challenges MOOCs present as a chance to radically question, debate, and enlarge accepted pedagogical best practices. Many things we already know about good higher ed pedagogy — we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We can draw upon sound portfolio- and studio-based pedagogy when thinking about how to give students more agency in learning environments and designing new assessment tools. Service learning pedagogy can teach us how to involve the public beyond the classroom in productive, pedagogically sound ways. Writing and composition pedagogy provides literally decades of experience from which we can learn as we design peer-to-peer assessment methods. And there are amazing new ways to use the new technology to teach close reading of literary and other cultural texts (such as films, images, objects) online.

Wide Open Classroom

We should welcome, explore, and exploit the power of large numbers and diverse backgrounds in open discussion. Forum conversations, social media networks, blogs, and other forms of participatory media demonstrate how interactive debate thrives and amazes with the sheer variety and diversity of participants’ interests, questions, expertise. When the physical classroom is thrown open to the world, it makes itself vulnerable to some chaos, but it also explodes with creativity and new thinking from which all participants can ultimately profit. This is a huge strength, not a threat to traditional humanities learning, which values and encourages different viewpoints and the honing of rhetorical and argumentation skills (the power of words and imagery to persuade and prompt empathy in another).  At the same time, we may need to think up new ways to keep discussions productive, not to control but to creatively mine chaos.

Giving due attention to the scholarship of teaching and learning can help us to meet those challenges common to traditional classrooms and MOOCs alike. It can also help us to appreciate those attributes truly unique to the MOOC environment. For instance, MOOCs present us with the dazzling diversity and uncertainty of students’ knowledge levels, personal backgrounds, purposes, and motivations for taking the course. They also pose new, but nevertheless mundane technological challenges to the traditional teacher who has to rethink “business as usual” when preparing class. And they showcase students’ often amazing ability and motivation to get involved and help each other (for instance in debating and answering peers’ questions before the teacher or TA gets a chance to weigh in). In this, they unwittingly practice another old pedagogical truism: that one only truly knows well what one has taught another.

The Questions at Hand

  1. How might reimagining assessment prompt us to rethink not only our pedagogical processes, but also the law and policy that governs traditional academic environments?
  2. What are some major chances and challenges of MOOC-style learning when it comes to traditional (as opposed to digital) humanities classes, specifically those that focus on such seemingly elusive, long-term outcomes as the honing of close reading and critical thinking skills, as well as sustained writing and research?
  3. How would you describe the desired learning outcomes for this course, the MOOC MOOC? How would you assess and document your own or your peers’ achievement of those outcomes?
  4. Should our ability to assess certain kinds of student work in a MOOC environment determine whether or not we assign that sort of work? If we can’t assess it, can students get credit for it in other ways?
  5. Who should be allowed to enter, observe, and participate in a MOOC? How does the kind of radical openness present in some MOOCs change our pedagogy? Should it change our pedagogy?

Some Articles to Explore

And the Task

  1. Create a Storify document that reflects what you’ve learned during MOOC MOOC thus far. (If you are unfamiliar with Storify, read How to Storify. Why to Storify. for some helpful ideas.)
  2. When your document is complete, tweet about it under the hashtag #moocmooc and include a link.
  3. Follow #moocmooc throughout the day to see other participants’ Storify articles. Read carefully, and assess in the comments section of their document. You can also “like” individual components that you find particularly cool or persuasive.
  4. Join the Assessments and Outcomes discussion in the course and contribute your thoughts about your own criteria for assessing today’s assignment, as well your ideas about assessments and outcomes in MOOCs.

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Filed under MOOC musings