In an article on digital pedagogy in Hybrid Pedagogy, the authors argue that “The ‘digital’ in ‘digital humanities’ and ‘digital pedagogy’ refers less to tech and more to the communities tech engenders and facilitates.” My experience with digital pedagogy as a Brittain Fellow at Georgia Tech confirms this: the most important impact that bringing digital tools has had on my teaching has been to broaden not only my own network of teaching partners and resources but also to broaden the communities my students construct and reside within.
I agree with digital humanities scholar Jessica Marie Johnson, who succinctly explains that, “The digital has provided us new ways of organizing knowledge.” It is crucial that we become nimble in adapting to these new ways of organizing knowledge, both in the knowledge we seek as well as in the knowledge we create. As a teacher, I can’t predict what sources of information my students will be interacting with even five years from now. However, I can teach them fundamental skills such as critical reading and analysis and creation of multimodal artifacts so that they become adept at decoding multimedia texts. For example, even bringing my students’ attention to the visual conventions of the traditional academic essay—double-spaced, 12-point, Times New Roman font—makes visible the histories of technology and production inherent in what is often uncritically presented as an unquestioned “standard.” Once they are able to analyze genre conventions such as these, they are equipped to be critical readers of televised news stories as well as social media trends.
It’s not that I want my students to become dismissive of tradition, but rather to be conscious of their own agency as both scholars and consumers of information. My role in the classroom is to create, facilitate, and support learning communities which have at their centers both canonical and non-canonical texts. The combination of traditional and contemporary texts along with traditional and contemporary assignments challenges students to develop strategies for understanding a variety of modes and contexts of communication. For example, in my first year, multimodal composition course “From Mockingbird to Watchman,” my students began with the novel and film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and read them along with not only canonical texts of second wave feminism and the Southern Gothic, but also with the newly-released Go Set a Watchman and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (which was released the same day as Go Set a Watchman). Assignments ranged from a traditional academic essay to the more contemporary genre of a research-based, group podcast. By reading Lee and Coates together, students understood the Civil Rights Movement in America in a broader, more complex historical and literary context than had we read either author alone. And by presenting their academic research in the genre of a podcast, the nature of the assignment itself underscored the complexity of argument and analysis, while emphasizing that comprehensive understanding of a subject requires more than simply a pro/con list. Students worked together to synthesize and analyze the ways in which critical discourse around issues such as civil rights, feminism, authorial intent, and publishing were in the process of changing even as they were coming to their own conclusions about these issues, which highlighted the students’ own roles as creators of knowledge.
Classroom activities which emphasize semester-long arcs help foster a sense of course cohesiveness and community. On the first day of class in “The Many Souths: Introduction to Fiction” class, for example, students compiled a list of characteristics which might be considered to make something “southern,” as well as a rough list of “different Souths”: Appalachia, Atlanta, New Orleans, the Delta, and the Gulf Coast (to name a few). Students compared each text we read to these characteristics, as well as identified “which South” the text illustrated. Over the course of the semester, we revised our list of characteristics, clarifying (and at times calling into question) our original list and adding new information. We also accumulated an increasingly complex understanding of the different regions which are often considered to be part of a homogenous South. What began with a rather broad (and often stereotyped) list of characteristics such as “courtesy,” “family,” and “racist” by the end of the semester had grown to a much more complex list of descriptors such as “marginalized voices” and “narrative structures which focus on memory.” This semester-long exercise not only unified the course structure and required students to sharpen their analytical skills, but it also modeled the importance of being willing to continually question our own assumptions and hypotheses—practices crucial to the development of critical thinking.
Even in larger, more lecture-based courses, I supplement more traditional readings and lectures with other multimodal forms of learning such as Google docs and Padlet collaborations. As in the previous examples, multimodal learning even in larger lecture classes encourages higher levels of student engagement, particularly by giving their work a strong sense of relevance through collaboration. My emphasis on collaboration and multimodal learning often requires that students do work they're unfamiliar or uncomfortable with, such as creating videos or working with classmates on substantial projects. It is my responsibility to create policies and procedures which foster a sense of safety in the classroom, so that students are willing to take chances and experiment. In upper level courses, I expect students to be willing to engage in inquiry that is even more experimental, as they engage even more fully in analysis and research which takes them deeper into formulating hypotheses and the construction of new knowledge. The trust and vulnerability which such experiences require creates a strong sense of community. Students become more willing to take risks in the classroom: they begin to respond directly to each other rather than wait for my direction, for example, and they often form study groups outside of class.
Further, a foundation of trust allows students to feel comfortable going beyond simple observations to more complex assertions and arguments. Trust is also a result of the seriousness with which I take evaluation and assessment—both of the students’ understandings of the material as well as their feedback about the class. My current role as a co-facilitator for a faculty learning community at Georgia Tech in understanding feedback has encouraged me to seek out new sources of feedback on my teaching, as well as consider new ways of providing feedback to my students on their work. Though I realize that student grades are to a certain extent a reflection of my class management as well as student work and study habits, I gain as much insight about student learning from regular, informal student feedback on the course (which I solicit anonymously several times each semester) as I do from more formal evaluation methods such as quizzes and exams. Striving for transparency in my teaching, I work to be very clear not only in the goals for the class, but in the reasoning behind what we do in the class. Ultimately, I want students to feel confident in these processes of evaluation and grading so that they can worry less about their grades and focus more on engaging in the work at hand and engaging as a full member of a collegial environment.