On Digital Pedagogy…

http://historyrat.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/koterba.jpgThis semester, I have found myself thinking a lot about digital pedagogy, not only because I am designing a course on South African sport culture for my capstone project in South African History in a Digital Age, but also because I plan to integrate teaching resources into my CHI project, Imbiza.  Designing course plans, as well as materials for use by other instructors, has really forced me to reconsider how I, as an aspiring professional historian, approach materials and content versus how students, with limited knowledge and experience in historical thinking, experience and conceive of those same materials.

I have a fair amount of teaching experience, not only as a teaching assistant at both MSU and George Mason, but also as an adjunct instructor at a community college, but my experience with integrating digital methods and traditional historical instruction is quite limited.  As Mills Kelly reflected in a 2013 blog entitled “Teaching Digital History: Beyond Tech Support,” a large amount of effort has to be directed, in courses utilizing digital methods, towards the conveyance of practical knowledge.  “Every course I teach that has a digital humanities component,” Mills noted, “requires me to spend a significant amount of time getting the class up to speed with the technologies they need to use so they can create whatever it is that either I’ve assigned or they’ve determined they ought to create.”  I faced this head on last summer when I worked as a teaching assistant (along with my good friend Hikabwa Chipande) for Peter Alegi’s Culture of Soccer online course.

Though Charlotte Lydia Riley warns that “it is important not to overestimate the ability or inclination of the digital generation to produce internet content (150),” when I was faced with an onslaught of technical questions in the first weeks (and, actually, throughout the seven weeks) about using WordPress, blogging, commenting, setting up avatars, et cetera, I realized that I had, in fact, wildly overestimated the technical inclination of the students.  I was also struck by students’ hesitancy to engage with the course materials, as a result of both their technical maladroitness as well as the novelty of the course form.  In the first weeks of the course blogs, students expressed as much uncertainty about engaging with the course via blog as they did about technical issues.  They were being asked to engage with the materials; not simply to receive information and feed it back to us.  It was challenging for them, and challenging for me, at least, to try to teach them how to do this over email, Skype, and blog comments; a problem further exacerbated by the fact that very few of the students came from historical backgrounds.  We had students from supply chain management, kinesiology, sports management, and a variety of other fields.  Teaching historical skills, along with content on the history of soccer, proved to be a much more complicated prospect than I had imagined at the onset.

Ellen Noonan spoke to the difficulty of teaching historical skills to non-historians in her 2013 article for the Radical History Review.  Scholars, Noonan argues, have been proved to “approach evidence differently from novices by attending closely to source information, reading for detail, considering multiple perspectives, corroborating information, and testing hypotheses.”  Maintaining an awareness of these habits and findings ways to make “transparent these historical habits of mind is the foundation for devising ways to give students the tools they need to engage in the disciplinary processes of investigation and interpretation” (134-135).  While instructors “bemoan the fact that their students frequently lack the skills to accomplish” compelling historical arguments, Noonan points out that changes need to be made to both the mode of instruction as well as the assessments to dig ourselves out of this rut; for Noonan, “the general interactivity of current digital technology offers more effective ways to teach how to make historical arguments” (135).

Kelly builds on Noonan’s points in a chapter from Teaching History in the Digital Age (2013), calling for a new mode of assessing student’s comprehension of the materials, beyond the standard five-page historical paper.  “By and large, we demand from one another and from our students, written text that is precise, analytical, and that is embedded in the larger interplay of historical work we call scholarship,” Kelly explains, “We are so used to writing about the past, we are so much a text-based professional culture, that we almost always expect our students to replicate what we do adhering as closely to the forms we know and are comfortable with as possible.”  Instead of relying on the historical essay, which he admits “is a very important skill that students need to develop,” Kelly sees historians as bearing the onus for helping students “mine various forms of presenting historical information for all they are worth, while helping them remain true to the values of our profession.”

This imparting of a historians’ skill set has implications not only for the classroom, but also, as is made clear in Leslie Witz’s “Write Your Own History,” for making students active participants in the production of knowledge; a project which has clear political and moral implications in the South African case.  By promoting “a critical engagement with the past,” the Write Your Own History project not only worked to correct historical representations of South African pasts, but also aimed to “give ordinary people the historical tools to engage with the past; to empower ordinary people to become producers of their own history” (377; 378).

This emphasis on teaching students how to engage also emerges clearly in the examples of the Apartheid Museum, Overcoming Apartheid, South African History Online, and South African History Archive Workshop.  Building on the emphasis that other scholars place on the imparting of historical tools, all of these projects clearly illustrate that beyond just teaching critical skills to students, digital resources hold the potential to aid students in grappling with South Africa’s complicated racial and political legacies, providing a range of perspectives and attempting to provide the necessary tools to draw personal conclusions; skills which go far beyond traditional historical writing to building critical thinking skills which will serve students far beyond the confines of brick-and-mortar classrooms.

My teaching philosophy has always been centered on the development of assessments and exercises that offer practical skills for students, whether or not they plan to pursue a career in history.  Critical thinking, concise writing, and engagement with arguments are all key tenets of my teaching philosophy.  Most of us won’t always be teaching to history majors; survey courses are a professional responsibility that we have to deal with and, in my opinion, its key to not only convey historical knowledge to students in those courses, but also to teach them workable skills that will serve them beyond the confines of the classroom.  After reading more on digital history, I have to say that I come down on Kelly’s side in terms of using digital technologies to help students “explore new ways to combine what they do daily—create online content—with what we do,” as a way to show them what it means “to be historians in the digital space, to analyze historical information, and then present it in ways that are useful to others, that have staying power well beyond the end of the semester and the awarding of a grade, and that have relevance to the lives they are living now and plan to live after graduation.”

I would like to end this blog as Riley ended her chapter for History in the Digital Age (2013).  “The digital era,” she writes, “is not accompanied by harbingers of doom.”  Rather, “digital and online materials can revitalize History teaching to make it more relevant to the next generation of undergraduate students.”  Taken with this kind of attitude, she argues convincingly, “digital and online resources are the future of history; rather than eclipsing good historical practice, they can only complement it” (167).  So, why not build courses that are not only dynamic, presenting great information in compelling ways, while also teaching students skills that will be useful for them in whatever field they find themselves in?

Sources:

This post is one of the requirements for South African History in a Digital Age, a graduate course in history which I am enrolled in this semester, drawing on the assigned readings for March 13th.

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