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

5 responses to “Scene: The digital education world. Enter: A traditional humanities teacher. Curtain rises.

  1. Petra,
    What a great post. Your excitement about the possibilities of online learning is really refreshing, and, I think, important. I wrote a note to myself last week that went something like: “The point is not to dismantle institutional education, but to make it relevant again.” Because I think it is relevant. I think that all the wandering talk in classrooms, in hallways, in libraries, and on sidewalks crossing the quad are ultimately irreplaceable, unique to their environs. I think that, as we move forward along this tricky path, we need to remain friends with what has worked (lively discussions of mind-blowing books, for example; excellent pedagogy; the social learning environment of the seminar classroom; the dust and white gloves of special collections; &c), and innovators for what doesn’t. Doing this, of course, requires enthusiasm, excitement, imagination, and a commitment to values within learning that are foundational — outside of the internet or the academy — and a willingness to look for solutions everywhere.

    • Thanks so much for the comment, Sean, and as I said before, I am so happy we have connected over our shared love of pedagogy. I truly feel that humanities online have to be figured out collectively and experimentally, with many minds and hearts. Things will go wrong, we will mess up, and that’s OK–that’s how learning happens. As I used to tell my writing students: you can learn as much from the negative comments and errors, possibly more, as from the positive ones. Not that I’m setting out to fail, but you know what I mean 🙂

  2. I share your excitement, your cautious optimism, and your feeling of being suddenly digitally awash. As a former high school teacher who began my career with an M.Ed. focused in critical pedagogy and urban education, I am a digital immigrant. The classroom, the chalkboard even, was my professional home. I was social-media averse until 2010 (I still don’t have a Facebook account) and, as I completed my Ph.D. in literature, I embarked on this migration to the digital because it’s practical. It’s about praxis for me more than identity. Reading Clay Shirky, Howard Rheingold, and even the jeremiads of Sherry Turkle over the last three years has convinced me that this is where we as humanists belong and, more importantly, where our students need us. Digital environments offer new communities, new audiences, and new epistemic perspectives. We should be here too, critiquing, challenging, and, as you wrote, making meaning.

  3. Thanks for your lovely post, Pete! Would love to hear more about which critical literature you’ve found really stood out for you in your journey. I look forward to interacting more with you and all the Hybrid Pedagogy folks. You’ve already taught me (or helped me learn so much during (Btw, we’ll have to get you on to Facebook …)

  4. Pingback: Getting Ready for a Wilde Ride | Literature Illuminations

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