I teach in a district with a 1:1 environment where each student that I teach has been issued a laptop.
The mission statement for our 1:1 initiative recognizes that “the integration of technology is essential to motivating and engaging in rigorous and relevant lessons.”  I appreciate that in this mission statement it is made clear that technology is to be used in the midst of rigorous and relevant lessons.  The computer is not a savior.  It is not the teacher.
It has been my experience that some educators are apprehensive about the 1:1 initiative and its implications on teaching.  One of my colleagues has done a nice job of addressing some of these concerns in a recent blog post.  In addition to the teachers comparing their use or understanding of technology to each other, I imagine that some part of the apprehension to use technology is very much a fear that is rooted in the narrative that the computer is the answer, as is seen in the “One Laptop per Child” campaign (See video).

On a pragmatic level–fear of being seen as obsolete–I can see how buying into these kinds of beliefs has the potential to stunt teacher growth in the area of integrating technology.

But, no matter what one feels about the new standards initiative, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) make it clear that technology needs to be successfully integrated into lessons.

According to the CCSS’ Key Points in English Language Arts page, “Just as media and technology are integrated in school and life in the twenty-first century, skills related to media use (both critical analysis and production of media) are integrated throughout the standards.”

As an English and rhetoric teacher, I want to know how to integrate technology in a way that fulfills the standards and supports the aims of my discipline.
Now, of course, just stating “aims” offers up a potential firestorm of opinions about what the discipline of English should be concerned with at the high school level.  But, on some level, if educators are responsible for implementing standards, then we need to do our job.
The Common Core claims that “the standards were developed…to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare…children for college and the workforce,” so that should be a driving force behind what is done in the classroom.  English class should be a place where students are doing things to be successful at the university and at a job.

Therefore, it seems that part of this implementation of new standards needs to be a concern not just for English content, but a concern for the skills that students can learn in an English classroom that will help them be successful no matter what they end up doing after they leave high school.

Technological literacy seems to be a major piece to this puzzle.

Recently, I’ve been obsessed with reading about the digital humanities.  I’m fascinated with what I’m seeing, and I don’t fully understand a lot.  I end up with more questions than answers, which means I’m having fun. Most of my reading has been posts on Hybrid Pedagogy, a digital journal.

This is where I found an article by University of Wisconsin’s Jesse Stommel about the digital humanities, and since then I’ve been reading as much as I can on the topic.  A lot of what I’m reading, including Hybrid Pedagogy, is a conversation among professors at the college level, but I’m curious about the implications this work will have at the secondary level–heck, even K-8.  These connections are starting to happen more explicitly with the implementation of the CCSS.  For example, an article linked above at the start of this post is to the talk that Diane Ravitch gave at this years MLA Conference about the CCSS.  A college conference talking about K-12 standards. Pretty cool.

So, I’m seeing a lot of natural connections between what I’m reading about the digital humanities and the 1:1 initiative at my school (integration of technology into lessons and planning, rigor, and relevance to college and career training) (This link is focused on the Phd’s utility.  Keeping with the whole university filtering down to the high school theme, this seems like an argument in the camp of approaching English class as a way to train for a future outside of academia as much as inside it.).

Last year I read Stanley Fish’s New York Times column right before the MLA Conference, and I remember being intrigued by what he was describing, but I didn’t think much of it.  I recently found my way back to those posts after searching for stuff to read about the digital humanities, and it seems that Fish has some criticisms of approaching the humanities in this way.  In a review of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book, Fish paraphrases Fitzpatrick, claiming that “the digital humanities can help…to confer on students skills that will be attractive to employers inside and outside the academy,” but quickly concludes the review by stating that his next column would take up whether the “digital humanities…facilitate the work of the humanities, as it has been traditionally understood, or bring about an entirely new conception of what work in the humanities can and should be.”

Here’s his conclusion about how to conduct research in the humanities versus the digital humanities:

The direction of [the] inferences is critical: first the interpretive hypothesis and then the formal pattern, which attains the status of noticeability only because an interpretation already in place is picking it out.
The direction is the reverse in the digital humanities: first you run the numbers, and then you see if they prompt an interpretive hypothesis.

But whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play. Nothing ludic in what I do or try to do. I have a lot to answer for.

I was surprised at Fish so easily dismissing the digital humanities–as he claimed he wouldn’t attend the 2012 MLA Conference because of its program’s emphasis on the digital humanities, but, as always, there are multiple positions to consider.  I really enjoyed reading University of Pennsylvania’s Mark Liberman’s response to Fish, where he basically shows how the interpretation Fish makes in his column about how his logical approach (quoted above) to research is different from the way an argument is formed in the digital humanities, is, in fact, using the same approach as the digital humanities.

So, to circle back to my concern at the beginning of this post about teachers using technology effectively to develop motivating and engaging lessons, I think it is worth considering the digital humanities because they 1.emphasize technology and 2. emphasize the work of the disciplines most of us love so much.  In other words, we don’t have to worry about giving up content for skills.  But, at the same time, the skills will necessarily be a part of what we ask students to do with the content.  An English teacher, for example, can still be a “classics” teacher, exposing students to the beauty of language, story, aesthetics, but while also considering the role of technology in “doing” interpretive work or making arguments.

Here are some great practical examples of what I mean by this:

Jesse Stommel explains that “[t]he digital humanities is about breaking stuff.”  He then explains how an assignment in his undergraduate digital humanities class asked students “to take the words from a poem by Emily Dickinson, “There’s a certain slant of light,” and rearrange them into something else. They use any or all of the words that appear in the poem as many or as few times as they want. What they build takes any shape: text, image, video, a poem, a pile, sense-making or otherwise.”  You need to click on the link and scroll to the bottom of the article to see some examples of the amazing work these students created.

Another example comes from a student at the University of California at Los Angeles. She is an English major, but she is doing some untraditional work:

In one course, on ‘literary Los Angeles,’ she attacked the reputation of Venice, Calif.’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard, which GQmagazine had called ‘the coolest block in America’ because of its variety of hip shopping experiences. Instead of simply writing her argument, she mapped it. Her project combined two sets of data—reputational comments about Abbot Kinney on Yelp and her own survey of its building styles—in an interactive map that highlighted the ‘superficial’ diversity of the strip’s architecture and businesses.”

For another class, on social-media analytics, [she] challenged Mark Zuckerberg’s claim that Facebook would collapse people’s work and social selves into one identity. She built a website that categorized and visualized the emotional tones of posts on Facebook and Tumblr. Rather than collapsing identities, her data showed, social media create a bevy of new personalities for each person.

Did I mention that this is the work of an English major?

If this kind of work is being done with technology at the college level, and part of our work at the secondary level is to begin preparing students to be successful at the next level, either in a career or college, technological literacy is probably something that we should be more concerned with in our English classes (and others).

I’m excited about digging into this more and seeing what the future holds for mine and other high school English classes.

A final note that I found useful, by Paul Fyfe, about distinguishing between instructional technology tools and the digital humanities:

For many teachers, especially early- or non-adopters, digital pedagogy is often presumed to be just something that uses electronic tools or computers.  This is unsatisfying as it often limits the teaching to the extent of its tools.  Two familiar problems arise.  First, if the tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat the problems as nails.  If presentation software makes it easy to share lecture notes, the lecture hall can turn into a place for showing bullet points instead of teaching.  The second problem is treating technology as merely a tool: something that accomplishes a task you were already doing, but with (electro-) mechanical advantage.  For the pedagogy, not much has changed.

Electronics are machines, and they can become fascinating interpretive machines.  But, at the risk of provoking the ire of engineers and programmers, the tools are easy.  What is hard is imaging how to use them and, harder still, imagining the social conditions they might enable and, hardest of all, creating the institutional structures in which they will flourish.  In terms of teaching, how do we work towards the learning environments we may have never had before?  How do we break the thrall to tools and technologies which may limit the horizon of our pedagogical creativity?  How might we even imagine a “digital pedagogy” without the potentially limiting factor of electronics?

Sounds like an opportunity to dream up some cool stuff.  Where do we go from here?