In his book The Electronic Word, Richard Lanham warns “[i]f we fail to understand the expressive environment of our time, we will have failed in our duty as transmitters of culture.” Included in Lanham’s definition of “transmitters of culture” are artists, politicians, educators, archivists, in fact any individual whose mission it is to add to the culture’s understanding of itself. As a professor of literature, writing, and digital humanities, I feel a particular responsibility to this (trans)mission. In the literature classroom it is my goal to introduce to students a catalog of extant transmissions through a critical lens. But in digital humanities and new media courses, the goal is more complex. Not only must students understand the historical and philosophical contexts of humanities computing, they must also be able to work within the digital medium they are examining. In the expressive environment Lanham refers to, one created by the personal computer and all its potential avenues of communication, text and context become more polyexpressive than ever before. Thus, it is an environment that literature and media educators must not only understand but also comfortably inhabit.
A corporate and technologically driven economy, along with, unfortunately, an increase in the corporatization of education has led to a student body that often seems to value a product of knowledge over the traditional educational experience that the liberal arts and humanities esteem. On the other hand, the technological resources offered by such a climate provide the tools by which the academy may reclaim its democratic objectives. I find that technology offers a common ground between instructors and students and that cultural transmission thrives when a class can use, identify, and discuss the technology that provides us the art, literature, and arguments we read. In fact it is precisely within humanities fields that students can gain a better critical understanding of modern modes of cultural transmission. It is with this in mind that I implement technology in my teaching for a variety of activities, from archiving to communicating to evaluating.
As both a Modernist and Digital Humanities scholar, I have a special interest in the intersection of literature and technology. I agree with Jessica Pressman, who explains in her book Digital Modernism, that modernism, both literary and digital, is “a strategy of innovation that intentionally employs the media of its time to reform and refashion older literary practices in ways that produce new art.” This notion of the inextricable connection between art and its technologies forms the basis of both my research and my approach to teaching.
My literature classes employ the relationship of text and technology as a thematic framework. For example, my British survey (since 1800) begins with a look at Romantic poetry, as well as Shelley’s Frankenstein, in the context of nature-and-machine, evolving technologies of orality, writing, and print, and the reliance of art’s permanence on the artist’s skill with her tools. We then turn to the Victorian writers who chronicle an increasingly global world running on finite resources and inhumane labor practices (Dickens) yet a world also interested in scientific enquiry and analysis as a means of revealing and understanding the human mind (Doyle, Robert Browning, etc.). Modernism provides especially fertile ground for observing art’s response to technology in examples like Woolf’s sky-writing airplane inMrs. Dalloway, Eliot’s grey harsh cityscapes juxtaposed with mythological assemblages, Joyce’s depictions of Futurism and technologically evolving yet mentally paralyzing transportation methods in Dubliners, Beckett’s play with and critique of audio and video recording methods in Film and Krapp’s Last Tape, and Imagist and Vortacist celebrations of hybridizing the visual and the textual. We explore the rest of the twentieth century with focus on multimedia works including graphic novels, drama, film, and spoken word before ending with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things which serves as a return to the political and postcolonial implications of language and how language itself as a kind of technology. In addition to traditional critical essays assignments, I also require students to engage with the technologies available to them in the digital age to create a multimedia project. Examples have ranged from basic websites exploring, for instance, pop-culture references to “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” to a World of Warcraft machinima production of Waiting for Godot, to an interactive Google map of Frankenstein, to a textual data analysis of linguistic signifiers in Frankenstein.
In addition to my experience teaching British surveys (both before and since 1800), masterworks of British literature, world literature, and introduction to literature, I have taken graduate classes in Modern Irish poetry, the 20th-century British novel before and since WWII, the 20th-century British novel since 1980, backgrounds of modernism, Joyce and Beckett, Modern British drama, bibliography and textual studies, methods of research, computers and writing, accessibility, and information architecture. I would be comfortable with and capable of teaching any courses on these or related topics, and I’m eager to develop additional courses in literature, digital humanities, and digital literacies.
Since my secondary interests focus on identity portrayal in online environments, I have also developed and taught several rhetoric and critical analysis courses on this topic. One of my most successful undergraduate courses, The Digital “I,” focuses on how identity is both conceived and projected in digital spaces. In this course, students analyze their own digital identities through social media, online games, and immersive environments. Along they way they create positive, conscientious, and professional public personas through blogs, websites, and online portfolios. My digital humanities courses would integrate some of these self-reflective aspects of the digital “I” while exploring and engaging with both historical and contemporary uses of computers and technology in studying literature and art.
Having taken and taught online courses since their advent, I am also skilled, experienced, and comfortable in that mode. I have designed, created, and taught online versions of composition, British and world literature surveys, introduction to literature, and mythology. I also developed and taught Oklahoma State’s first introductory literature class, a class that draws a variety of students in different majors since it is designated as one of a few possible required humanities and diversity classes. My philosophy in online classes is much like my general teaching philosophy, which emphasizes group discussion and thorough individual feedback. While simple and regular quizzes in an online environment might assure students read the material, also requiring that they write critically about the material ensures they are thinking about the texts in meaningful ways. Such a heavy writing load additionally ensures students are practicing their own skills of articulation and communication. Although it takes time and close attention, I believe an online professor should respond to every student, both to engage each individual personally and to model appropriate and professional communication in online settings. Responding to every student shows them they are being heard and that, unlike the stereotype implies, online classes are in fact just as engaging and personally interactive as onground classes. In fact, the online discussion format ensures every student contributes to the conversation and no one is left out. From what I have observed in my eleven years teaching online using this format, this democracy also leads to higher personal accountability among students.
While encouraging productive use of multimedia resources, I emphasize that personal interaction is key to building professional relationships and fostering intellectual discussion and growth. I have taught in diverse environments, from San Antonio’s largely Hispanic community college system to the University of Texas’s innovative and state-of-the-art Digital Writing and Research Lab. I have taught potential first-generation college students the importance of reading in UT’s Jumpstart program, a summer camp aimed at providing opportunities and support for at-risk low-income Austin eighth-graders. And in my current position at a rural land-grant research university in Oklahoma, I teach undergraduates not just writing and literature, but also how to empathize and communicate in a diverse world they may have yet to truly encounter. What I have learned from each of these experiences is that undergraduate students have diverse goals and expectations for their education. I believe in working with students to identify what those goals are and develop strategies with them that will foster the most challenging yet effective means of realizing those goals and introducing them to new ones. Every student has something to bring to a class, and I feel it is my privilege and responsibility to nurture self-awareness and accountability by both challenging and encouraging students’ individual expression in that environment. In onground classes, I make a point to engage each student both in class discussion and also in the thorough written feedback I provide on each assignment. I find that this kind of direct response to students’ writing is most effective in fostering improvement over the course of a semester, and it demonstrates my close attention to their unique perspectives. This attention in turn encourages accountability in their own continued efforts in the class.
While digital and digitally enhanced “expressive environment(s)” may cause certain fragmentations or organized chaos, it is an environment that is quickly appending restrictive environments like the physical classroom, which are limited by time and space. It is my belief that educators must claim a place in the digital environment to establish a presence and become examples to the students who already inhabit it. As an educator, I feel a distinct responsibility to speak the language of my students, to understand the tools they use, and to be able to guide them to think critically about, and with, the tools they will encounter in the future. In his 2005 “Information Technology and the Troubled Humanities,” Jerome McGann warns that “digital literacy puts many of us [educators] on the margin of conversations and actions that affect the center of our cultural interests (as citizens) and our professional interests (as scholars and educators).” It is important to me as an instructor not to be on the margins of this conversation. Because I am teaching not just language but also citizenship (can the two be separate?), it is necessary that I inhabit and utilize the environment where the humanities and citizenship have the potential to be so strongly influential.