Humanities Matter(s)

As an academic in the field of English, I am hyper-aware of cultural conversations about higher education and the humanities. It seems not a day goes by without another media missive on the need to make higher education have more “value,” a word that is meant emphatically in an economic sense. Higher education should provide a “return on investment” as the new U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard makes clear in its prominent display of cost to post-graduation salary data for colleges and universities across the country. Looking at the data for my institution, the University of Georgia, you’d not learn much about our mission (“to teach, to serve, and to inquire into the nature of things,” for the record) or our foundational charge (“As it is the distinguishing happiness of free governments that civil Order should be the Result of choice and not necessity, and the common wishes of the People become the Laws of the Land, their public prosperity and even existence very much depends upon suitably forming the minds and morals of their Citizens” – The University of Georgia Charter, 1785) from the bar charts that focus primarily on financial information: “Average Annual Cost,” “Salary After Attending,” “Typical Total [student] Debt,” and, my personal favorite, “Percentage Earning Above High School Grad.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do understand and appreciate the need to ensure that students are not being bled dry for an education and then set adrift on the roiling seas of the 21st century global economy. We’ve all got to earn a living and college has long been viewed by our society as the ticket to a better life, economically, and the shift to information/knowledge work has meant that, increasingly, a high school diploma is not enough (of course, in many fields these days, neither is a bachelor’s degree). The jobs of the present and the future demand a lot of intellectual and professional training and we do need to be vigilant in making sure that training is accessible to all who want it. While I do believe that higher education has a higher purpose than simply vocational training, I readily acknowledge that we all need to survive and thrive in a world that becomes more complex and competitive by the day. Despite the fact that my university’s home is in a town called Athens, I can’t pretend that this is the Akadimia Platonos. We all gotta eat and that means we all gotta work. Ideally, that work should be engaging and gratifying, but how we each define that can give rise to tough choices, particularly for young people trying to find their paths through life.

It is here in this space between the hard realities of daily life and the need to earn a living and the ideal of a fulfilling and meaningful life and career that controversy over the value of different disciplines rages. The STEM vs. the humanities debates have been going on for a while now, so I’ll not rehash all that here. I think we all know that there is increasing pressure on students to major in scientific and technical fields and a concomitant disparagement of fields like mine as useless and anachronistic in today’s labor market. Those of us in the humanities spend a lot of time justifying our existence in terms of the skills and knowledge we inculcate in our students and we often feel under siege. But the picture is not so bleak. Here at UGA, we have a thriving English major, so clearly a lot of students at this university (and perhaps even some of their parents!) believe there is value in pursing that degree. As a teacher of writing, I have never lacked for justification for what I do – I hear all the time from every possible quarter how important writing skills are and I know from my past life in the business world that it is true. But here’s a rundown of just a handful of recent articles from major media outlets about the value of humanities/liberal arts study:

Back in September, the Washington Post published Steven Pearlstein’s piece on parents who pressure their kids not to study English, philosophy, history, and the like. In it, he takes on the stereotype of the un/deremployed liberal arts major with data that shows that there is little difference in jobless rates between humanities majors and business students. Here’s some more of this conversation from various quarters

Inside Higher Ed:

“Creative and independent thinkers are attracted to the English degree, and that course of study helps to develop their creativity and their initiative — the same personal qualities that serve them so well in the working world after graduation.”

USA Today:

“We need folks who can jump in, quickly see the issue, think critically and solve the problem . . . sort of like someone who was given some dense literary passage and had to read it, analyze it, and write intelligently about it in 45 minutes.”

Wall Street Journal:

“Looking back at the tech teams that I’ve built at my companies, it’s evident that individuals with liberal arts degrees are by far the sharpest, best­-performing software developers and technology leaders. Often these modern techies have degrees in philosophy, history, and music – even political science, which was my degree.”

“Philosophy, literature, art, history and language give students a thorough understanding of how people document the human experience. Technology is a part of our human experience, not a replacement to it.”

But the best way to make the benefits of humanities study clear is to look at what humanities students can do. So I want to show you some blogs from some English majors who wanted to share their work with the world. Take a look at the critical thinking and writing skills on display here. Notice how their backgrounds as English majors show their ability to read critically and communicate ideas effectively. They bring their knowledge of human experience, developed through study of all those “old books,” to bear on their analysis of digital media and technology and remind us that it’s not enough to build new tools and tech – we have to think critically about WHY we build what we build and HOW those tools get used and go on to shape how we communicate with each other and think about the world. These humanities students are doing vital work – let’s celebrate them and appreciate the important work they are doing instead of buying into the cultural narrative. “What are you going to do with a major in English?” Anything they want! Just take a look:

Company Kept

Catching Krazy

The Tea-Loving Ginger

The Digital Pagan

Transformational learning

Trent Batson’s blog post (The Edinburgh Challenge) earlier this summer on the rhetoric of ePortfolio – that it is a transformative, disruptive (popular buzzwords these days) – got me thinking about this idea of transformational learning. Namely, what is it I want (need?) to transform in my courses (particularly Writing for the Web, since that class is dealing with the main thing considered both transformative and disruptive in much of popular discourse these days, digital media/technology. And also part of the larger question about ePortfolio that Batson engages with in this post:

if it’s not about the technology, what is it about? And what is “it”?

Part of what needs to be transformed seems to be what Batson is talking about in his discussion of “authenticity” (another popular buzzword!) in learning and we’re certainly in the thick of that transformation here at UGA with the new Experiential Learning requirement. But there are clearly things to be concerned about with the emphasis on “real world” learning experiences. Why are classrooms not part of the “real world”? They are. But, I admit, that they aren’t in certain ways either and that is good. They are – and should be – a space “apart” in which we are free to experiment, fail, take risks.

I think that is what needs to be transformed and what I have been working on in the last few semesters in my experiments with approaches to assessment. The goal is to open up that “safe space” of the classroom to risk. To give students more permission to fail by taking the pressure off. The pressure, in my estimation, comes largely from grades and what David Brooks recently called “GPA culture” in this Op-Ed column for the times.

But, when I make a culminating ePortfolio, which will be graded, 50% of the course’s final grade, am I just shifting the stakes rather than lowering them? As a proponent of ePortfolio as both a tool and a method, I do think that ePortfolio is the most effective approach to writing assessment and, even when one counts for a high percentage of a course grade, it should still allow for the kind of risk-taking and experimentation throughout the semester that I want to see from developing writers. Yes, it does mean that they have to step to the plate at the end of the term and perform, as it were. But I hope that, by that time, students will have failed and messed up in all the ways that will allow for the emergence of new understanding and realizations about what makes for effective writing for the Web.

I guess the right people to ask about this are the students in my class! I hope to develop a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning instrument (a nice survey?) with the new Director of SoTL at our Center for Teaching and Learning. I need some feedback and the only ones who can tell me if this approach is doing what I hope are the folks in my class.

 

 

DRC Wiki-ing

I was asked recently by a graduate fellow at the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative to write a blog post for the site’s “Wiki Wednesday” feature about my use of the DRC Wiki in my Writing for the Web classes.

This was a project I started back in Spring 2015 when my colleague, Sara Steger, and I team taught that course and used the DRC Wiki as a “research” project (and also as practice in writing in the wiki genre). I won’t go into much detail here since that is what the blog post for the DRC is all about – my critical reflection on the project and its pedagogical implications. Take a look at my post, “Authoring, Audience, Authority: Lessons from Student Contributions to the DRC Wiki,” and let me know your thoughts!

Save

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Been a book reviewing machine…

lately! I was invited recently by two journals (both of which have homes here at the University of Georgia) to review books for upcoming issues and those reviews are now published.

The first is for the International Journal of ePortfolio, (whose co-Executive Editor is UGA’s Center for Teaching and Learning Director, Eddie Watson) and on which I serve as a reviewer. My review of and Katherine V. Wills and Rich Rice’s edited collection, ePortfolio Performance Support Systems (2013), is available in Volume 5, Issue 1 (2015).

The second is for the Journal of Language and Literacy Education, published by the Department of Language and Literacy Education in UGA’s College of Education. I reviewed Paul Lynch’s After Pedagogy for Volume 11, Issue 1 (Spring 2015).

I really enjoyed reading and thinking about both these texts and I can already see the way some of the ideas from both are working their way into my teaching and research interests. And, bonus, I was asked by IJeP to use a revision table in making my manuscript revisions per the reviewer’s comments and suggestions, and that technique is one I brought into my technical and professional writing classroom this semester. I think it was extremely effective in helping students identify and articulate specific actionable revisions from my feedback and then taking action on each item. Will be using revision tables more often in my own classes!

Museums, Exhibits, Websites

From 9/9/2014 (drafted; edited & published 5/4/15):

In light of some of my recent thinking about space and curation and digital media, I scheduled a class trip with Writing for the Web this semester to the Georgia Museum of Art. We have just begun work on a project designing a new website for Hawkinsville/Pulaski County, GA, so it was a bit of a detour to take a break only a week into that project to go wander through an art museum and thinking esoteric thoughts about space and arrangement and juxtaposition and display, but I hope the method in the madness pays off. I wanted to just get down some of my ideas from today’s visit before they start losing their initial brightness.

  • Mary Kirk Wallace exhibit – actual magnifying glasses available for museum-goers to look more closely at the fine detail of her small pieces (direct connection to the zoom in digital space – even the visual metaphor of the magnifying glass)
  • Shapes That Talk to Me (part of Art Rocks ATH) exhibit – integration into permanent collection was good and problematic to me
  • 3 dimensions – sculpture and decorative arts – how can this aspect of RL exhibits be captured in digital space?
  • juxtaposition of disparate makes similarities – gestalt principles at work

UGA Department of English Graduation: Faculty Address 2013

I was honored to be selected by the English Department‘s Student Advisory Committee, which represents the undergraduate majors in our department, to give the faculty address at the departmental graduation ceremony in May 2013. The ceremony was held at the beautiful UGA Chapel and was a lovely event to honor our great students and their achievement in earning their A.B., English. In thinking about what to say, I was influenced by the cultural conversations around big data and the relevance of the humanities. I decided to return to a favorite author’s work for inspiration and would like to share the text of my speech.

2013 English Department Graduation: Faculty Address

Futures of the Book: Faculty Panel Talk, April 2013

Futures
It was my pleasure to participate in the Faculty Panel at the April 2013 “Futures of the Book” Symposium at the University of Georgia. The Faculty Seminar on the Book is sponsored by a grant from the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts and is run by my English Department colleague, Miriam Jacobson and Anne Myers Devine of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which is a very cool part of our larger Russell Special Collections Library. I was joined on the panel by Chris Eaket (English), Eileen Wallace (Book Arts), and Mark Callahan (Ideas for Creative Exploration). The plenary speaker for the symposium was the great Brian Croxall, Digital Humanities Strategist and Lecturer at Emory University. There was a lot of great synergy between all of our talks. Here’s the text of mine and a link to my Prezi for a little visual stimulation!

[De]Composing the Book: Distribution, Degradation, and the [Dis]Embodied Digital