MLA Special Session: Literature and Digital Pedagogies

MLA SPECIAL SESSION (chosen as part of the Presidential theme this year):

 795. Literature and Digital Pedagogies

Sunday, 6 January, 1:45–3:00 p.m., Fairfax A, Sheraton

Session Organizer:  Petra Dierkes-Thrun

Session Chair:  Anais Saint-Jude

General Description

In the wake of the recent successes of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in computer science and technical fields, it is time to think about what these new developments might mean for the humanities in higher education. While digital humanities experts have developed important new areas and methods of study and teaching, this session aims at traditionally trained teachers of literature and cultural studies who want to think through the most important creative opportunities, challenges, and necessary critiques of digital support systems and methods for traditional literature teaching. The major organizing questions for this panel are:

  • What could, should, and shouldn’t we do digitally, as traditional literature teachers, to make the humanities newly relevant and exciting to our students and ideally also the larger public in the 21st century?
  • How might established literary and cultural theory best meet emerging digital pedagogical practices?
  • What are some concrete creative ideas and practical opportunities for teaching literature digitally, as well as other theoretical or conceptual problems and developments that we should discuss today, so that our teaching can be smarter tomorrow?

Papers Presented

1.      “Teaching Modernism Traditionally and Digitally,” Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Stanford University

This paper will lay the groundwork and map out major pedagogical questions for the whole session before turning to concrete practical examples for digital strategies and resources for teaching comparative literature in a blended (hybrid digital and in-class) format.   The first part of the talk gives an insider’s perspective of last year’s Artificial Intelligence” MOOC taught at Stanford by Dierkes-Thrun’s husband Sebastian Thrun in the Fall of 2011, the formation of Stanford-originated for-profits such as Udacity (Thrun’s company) and Coursera, or non-profits such as edX, and the ensuing MOOC media craze, which has generated some unhelpful hype.

The second part of the talk turns to the questions, opportunities, problems and open intellectual and pedagogical issues that the current MOOCs format, which is surely due to change, pose for  traditional humanities teaching.  Can and should the three pillars of a traditional humanities seminar in a college or university–close reading, critical thinking, and critical writing in a relatively small, intimate classroom setting–be adapted for a “massive”, “open” audience?  What is applicable to the humanities, and what isn’t, from the current MOOC STEM course model, especially when it comes to the teaching of literature in addition to, or outside of, the seminar format?  For instance, what about the problem of (non-automated) grading, the chances of the one-on-one tutoring model (and rewindability) of short video lectures involving a hand and a pen, and new ideas more specifically tailored to literature teaching, such as the demonstration of close reading on video; different speakers offering competing interpretations of a text; comparisons of different translations of a literary text in hypertext; audio versions of poetry or drama, multimedia links and digital tools put right into the student’s reach; crowd-sourced, collaborative student projects; social media discussion forums built into the course and extending it across geographic and temporal boundaries, etc.

Taking the position that we have a lot of positive things to learn from MOOC strategies, and that digital pedagogy has to improve vastly before it can be successful in the humanities, the paper finally suggests some concrete examples in which a blended digital and classroom format can yield very positive results for students and the community at large, offering lessons from Dierkes-Thrun’s traditional humanities seminar and partially online class at Stanford this Fall, Oscar Wilde and the French DecadentsThe aim is to showcase exciting new possibilities of this format for literature teaching, while demonstrating some obvious potential pitfalls and encouraging more creativity and experimentation with close reading and community exercises such as a visual and sound interpretation or even a literary Twitter role play.


Petra Dierkes-Thrun’s talks at Duke University: “How to create a Humanities MOOC” and “Oscar Wilde’s Afterimages”

Salman Khan’s TED talk (February 2011)

2. “Digital Resources and the Medieval-Literature Classroom,” Robin Wharton, Georgia Inst. of Tech.

Before introducing any new teaching strategy, whether it involves technology or not, we must ask ourselves: what is the pedagogical imperative? After all, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. So, this paper will begin by trying to answer the question: what can multimedia resources, particularly digital or new media, provide that texts alone cannot? One possible answer stems from my belief any introduction to literary texts should include an introduction to literary studies as a discipline. My own domain, medieval studies, has long since entered the digital age.  Increasingly, the web houses important new media tools for medieval scholarship, such as the Middle English Compendium, and pedagogy, such as the invaluable TEAMS digital editions. A number of medieval scholars maintain individual and group blogs and Twitter accounts, experimenting with new modes of scholarly communication. I propose first to consider briefly the extent to which literary scholarship has become a multimedia affair, and the need to help students become familiar with how any discipline evolves with the assistance of and in response to digital and new media.

I would then like to examine how we might use digital technologies to bring literary texts to life for our students by immersing them, both texts and students, in rich historical context. We can access traces of that historical context online via digital images and archives, and other web-enabled technologies. As part of a unit on Chaucer, for example, my students and I might use Google Earth to take a virtual tour of Canterbury Cathedral, and plot the route Chaucer’s pilgrims might have followed in their literary journey. Exercises like this help students understand the text, an act of imaginative generation, nevertheless had a connection to a real historical context. More than six hundred years later, the historical context endures in fragments, like the text itself, that have been incorporated into our modern cultural environment. The conversation about what texts and artifacts have become versus what they may once have been can provide a point of access for close reading and analysis that moves students beyond plot and character summary.

Finally, I propose to close with practical discussion of how, in additional to integrating multimedia resources as secondary material to supplement primary texts, we can use digitized versions of primary sources to enrich students’ learning experience. Multimedia resources can be essential tools in an introduction to textual scholarship. Very few of us are lucky enough to work at schools with ready access to literary and manuscript archives. Fortunately, a number of projects are working to make archival materials available in digital form. Digitized primary texts and collaborative composition tools like wikis also enable the possibility of student-authored, crowd-sourced editions and translations of less widely-known primary sources that can then be used as teaching resources in other classrooms. In undergraduate classes such projects can be a welcome relief from formulaic essays in which many students reproduce well-worn arguments about “what {insert name of author here} was really thinking.”

3.  “Toward a New Hybrid Pedagogy: Embodiment and Learning in the Classroom 2.0,” by Jesse Stommel (Marylhurst University) and Pete Rorabaugh (Georgia State University)


All learning is necessarily hybrid.  In classroom-based pedagogy, it is important to engage the digital selves of our students.  And, in online pedagogy, it is equally important to engage their physical selves.  We live simultaneously in the realm of physics and data; maybe we forget that the latter is still governed by the former.  In the book Hybridity, Marwan M. Kraidy writes, “hybridity has proven a useful concept to describe multipurpose electronic gadgets, designer agricultural seeds, environment-friendly cars with dual combustion and electrical engines, companies that blend American and Japanese management practices, multiracial people, dual citizens, and postcolonial cultures.”  For Kraidy, and for us, the term “hybrid” is powerful exactly because it resists easy signification.

The smart phones and iPads we carry, the GPS we depend on, the YouTube clips we share at parties, all shape our understanding of the world. We don’t put the technology away when class is over. This is the realm of the Posthuman, which Sherry Turkle’s discusses in her 2010 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. Turkle forces us to reconsider the lauds many of us heap on digital culture; however, whether a more general hybridity is healthy for us or not, we cannot argue with its present ubiquity.

At its most basic level, the term “hybrid,” as we’re using it here, refers to learning that happens both in a classroom (or other physical space) and online. In this respect, hybrid does overlap with another concept that is often used synonymously: blended. We would like to make some careful distinctions between these two terms. Blended learning describes a process or practice; hybrid pedagogy is a methodological approach that helps define a series of varied processes and practices. (Blended learning is tactical, whereas hybrid pedagogy is more strategic.) When people talk about “blended learning,” they are usually referring to the place where learning happens, a combination of the classroom and online. The word “hybrid” has deeper resonances, suggesting not just that the place of learning is changed but that a hybrid pedagogy fundamentally rethinks our conception of place. So, hybrid pedagogy does not just describe an easy mixing of on-ground and online learning, but is about bringing the sorts of learning that happen in a physical place and the sorts of learning that happen in a virtual place into a more engaged and dynamic conversation.


Three papers (some with media enhancement).  There is no formal respondent; instead, audiences are invited to help us break new scholarly ground together.  These papers should provoke a lively audience discussion ranging from exchanges of concrete pedagogical ideas and best practices, to more conceptual, fundamental, and controversial reflections on the chances and dangers of teaching literature digitally.


Filed under MOOC musings

2 responses to “MLA Special Session: Literature and Digital Pedagogies

  1. Pingback: Married to the MOOC (Part 1) | Literature Illuminations

  2. Pingback: Married to the MOOC (Part 1) | HASTAC | Teachers TechTeachers Tech

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s