“Getting Ready” was my chosen title for the blog post I was going to write last week, as I was finishing up the syllabus and website for my new class Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents—if I hadn’t been too busy actually getting ready, that is. I knew before even meeting my students, on the first day of our Stanford fall quarter yesterday, that this class would challenge me in new, exciting, and perhaps (I’ll admit it) somewhat terrifying ways, and so I spent quite a lot of time preparing for it. It is the first class I’ve ever decided to open up to the public, and the first time I’m blogging about an ongoing class experiment, letting not just my students but the larger public in on what usually happens behind a closed curtain. My pedagogical bag of tricks is wide open, visible, vulnerable, filling, emptying, and shaping itself as I go. (Scary. Awesome!)
Let me clarify and say that the class is only partially and not fully open—a M(inimal)OOC, so to speak—for several reasons. The most important one is that I want to experiment specifically with new forms of digital close reading that involve the public (such as crowdsourced close readings of poems and hyperlinked interpretations that do not use words but rather images, audio, and other media to transpose and interpret a literary text), but the course still needs to stay manageable and controllable for the sake of my Stanford students, who are my primary care and responsibility this quarter. We want to experiment, to interact, to try out new things, and it’s OK to fail from time to time, but this still needs to be a meaningfully non-chaotic university class, if you know what I mean. We’re not completely ready for MOOC MOOC Land in the humanities quite yet, if you ask me, especially since most of us still have very little idea how to handle the formidable questions and challenges around assessment in a MOOC. (I’m learning a lot about those challenges and pitfalls by taking a Coursera class right now, Al Filreis’s Modern Poetry MOOC.)
As far as my own class experiment is concerned, I decided to develop this completely from the ground up, with minimal tech support and minimal digital tools and skills, effectively making Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents a technically M(inimalist)OOC as well as a M(iniscule) one in anticipated size. I want to practically try out, experience on the ground and step by step, not just plan and speculate, how an ordinary, traditionally trained humanities teacher like myself can use digital components and social media (Twitter, Facebook, maybe Tumblr and Storify, nothing overly complex) to teach ordinary, traditionally taught humanities students right here, right now. The technology in this course needs to support and enhance the contents, not the other way around: no gimmicks for gimmicks’ sake.
So, as I prepare for this new adventure and am starting to send out notices about the course to my network of colleagues, academic listservs, and Twitter, I want to keep it pretty simple and focused. I cannot solve all the problems there clearly are with humanities MOOCs, and I certainly cannot handle thousands of students all by myself, nor do I want to, right now. I am most interested in figuring out what the digital tools (limited as they still are!) allow a traditional humanities teacher like me, and typical humanities students like my students (most of whom, when I asked today, did not have Twitter accounts yet) to do, with relatively little financial or technical support, in the real, messy, wonderful world of a rather typically organized analog classroom. We need to think about and experiment with many different ways we can use the new digital technologies online—and not just focusing on assessment, as most of my humanities colleagues (and I) agree, multiple choice and short essays just don’t cut it for us anyway. Let’s start dreaming up new exercises, new collaborations, new ways of teaching deep research skills, that draw on the unique structure (and make students aware of the many pitfalls) of the internet.
As I’ve written previously, I feel energized and deeply interested by the new possibilities the recent MOOC experiments have opened up: the untrodden new avenues and as yet unrealized chances for the humanities to disseminate their knowledge and skills more democratically and globally. But I also think that digital teaching in humanities courses will only be successful if it helps us do two opposite kinds of things at the same time: one the one hand, it needs to support and enhance the inherently humanistic classroom activities we already do well and passionately believe in—teaching close reading, critical thinking, and critical (skilled, persuasive) writing, the central pedagogical goals in most humanities classes—and on the other hand, it needs to show us notoriously skeptical humanists new (dare I even mention better?) ways to teach those things. If I—as a humanist who believes in the power of close reading as a tool to develop attention to detail, empathy, and ultimately a democratic mindset through complex, often paradoxical interpretations that students must learn to negotiate—if I, as such a humanist, discover that the digital toolbox opens up innovative ways of doing close reading, critical thinking, writing (you name it), what’s there not to be excited about? What do we stand to lose by trying to think this through, rather than not trying at all?
Because, you know, after all “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” (Oscar Wilde).