The following interview was originally conducted by the Day of the Digital Humanities event hosted by the University of Alberta. I'm reposting it on Teaching Romanticism to give a sense of how digital pedagogy informs my own teaching. I don't really talk all that much about Romanticism, or even William Blake, until the end of the interview. I do think, however, that this interview provides an interesting look into the ways digital technology impacts our students and how they view digital assignments and applications like Twitter and blogs in the classroom.
The two students who participated in the interview, Pamelasara Head and Farhan Begh, lead class for the day. They were asked to research a topic (in their case William Blake’s influence on the practice of psychogeography), articulate a lesson plan with outcomes, then lead the class discussing their topic. I feel this model (along with my insistence that students tweet at least three times per class period) represents a form of digital humanities that places building a networked classroom environment as a central priority.
RW: We’ve been playing with various digital and social technologies in the classroom. How do you feel these technologies, and social media in general, have changed society?
PH: I think about this question in terms of online dating. When you date someone you have to really open yourself up to that person. With online dating, though, you have an easier time. You can talk to someone without worrying (as much) if they are going to reject you.
FB: Right, that’s my thought. You don’t have to confront the person in person. So, you might express something in the digital environment that you wouldn’t express in real life. I think this really changes dating because, as Pam said, it becomes easier but maybe it’s more difficult in another way to really get to know someone. After all, if you don’t see a person and talk to them, how can you really know if they like you?
RW: What about the digital environment do you feel really changes the stakes of online activities, like dating?
FB: For me, privacy and anonymity is key. In an online site, I can say stuff anonymously (at least to a degree). Either I can use a username that doesn’t really reflect my own name, or I can talk to people who I’ll never really meet in real life – so there aren’t any consequences. But it also gives you more pressure. You have this pressure to have more of an edge, to say something that is more radical or controversial than other people who are talking.
PH: Yeah, I’ve been studying personality theory recently, and personality theory says that how you act changes based upon the situational context. So, in a digital environment, it’s a totally different environment where there are different social rules. As people, we adapt to those different environments.
RW: How do you feel this change effects education? Is it a positive change? A negative one?
FB: I feel it’s mostly positive. You have more interaction, and digital technology gives you a more efficient way to interact. The internet gives you notifications all of the time. And more interaction furthers your knowledge and your opportunity to connect with other people.
PH: I agree. I get all of these updates on my smartphone almost instantaneously. If I need to meet with a study group, and I have an accident and break my leg or whatever, I can let them know immediately.
RW: And that would simply not be possible even five years ago.
PH: Right. And I think I’m unique because I didn’t even really start Facebook until recently. And even now I don’t really use it. But I have it there if I need it. And I think that’s really the advantage. You can connect with people whenever you want, so you have less of a chance to be late or to miss someone or have someone wonder where you are.
RW: Well, how does this impact attention? You know, many scholars have argued that the kind of deep attention needed for truly understanding a subject is much more difficult in an age where there is so much diversion: i.e. Facebook being open all of the time.
PH: Certain people do give into a Facebook addiction. My roommate has to check her Facebook every 10 minutes, and when she has a deadline – she actually gets someone to change her password so she doesn’t get too distracted. She changes her password several times a month! But, as I said earlier, I don’t really use Facebook all that much. So, I don’t really feel addicted or distracted.
FB: Well, I think you have to think about this issue not just in terms of Facebook but also other things like online television or newssites.
PH: Right! And it obviously goes back further than Facebook. Like when you watch television, you have commercials every 15 minutes. At least every 15 minutes, and it’s becoming such that less and less time exists between commercial breaks. People don’t watch commercials on TV, so we’ve trained ourselves not to pay attention every 15 minutes. I know people who can’t really pay attention for more than 15 minutes at a time, and they tell me it’s because they are so used to watching television this way.
RW: Let’s get more specific. How do you feel that this change in attention, in communication and in accessibility transforms the study and teaching of literature? In my class, for example, we have a constant Twitter backchannel to the class. Did you use Twitter in High school?
PH: No, no. I feel much more comfortable in your class than I did in high school, or even when I took English 1101 last semester. [Note: English 1101 is the freshman English course at Georgia Tech, and is followed by English 1102. Both of these courses are themed and my theme for 1102 was a course designed around adaptations of Blake.] In 1101, we used technology but not during class. We weren’t allowed to have our computers open during class. I feel that being able to use Twitter makes your class a more calming and relaxing environment. It’s okay to tweet your ideas about something and either be right or be wrong. It doesn’t matter what I say personally, because I know that someone will respond to me and correct me if he or she feels I need to be corrected. And I learn something rather than spend so much time worried that I'm not right.
FB: I agree. There is an ease in your class. We get to share our opinions on Twitter and on the web. On the other hand, I do notice that people are on other sites and are totally unaware of what you are teaching because they are reading Facebook or CNN.com or their email. There’s definitely more attention in a class that has no computer technology or doesn’t allow students to tweet. Further, I feel that about ½ of the class really sticks to Twitter and ½ of the class doesn’t really use it all that much.
RW: Why do you feel that some people don’t tweet? In regular classrooms, people sometimes don’t participate because they haven’t read the material, because they are shy, or other reasons. But it seems that people who are shy will use social media like Twitter because there is less pressure. So why are some people not Tweeting?
PH: I think some people just haven’t used it all that much. And I feel that some people get really uncomfortable multitasking. If they can’t listen and tweet at the same time, they felt that they’re going to miss something that will lower their grade later on.
FB: I feel that there are some people who participate in the oral conversation so much that they don’t feel they need to participate.
RW: Do you feel that knowing these technologies really gives you useful skills? The old adage of writing classrooms is that everyone needs to know how to write in order to be successful after graduation. Is the same true of Twitter, blogs and the other technologies we use in class?
PH: People should have experience with multiple types of communication. As technology accelerates, people are going to need to know how to move from one technology to another. And, it’s difficult, sure, but you need to get experience doing it.
FB: Right, you definitely have to keep up with the rate of technology. If you are programming with an old programming language, then you’ll have no idea what’s going on.
PH: For example, I’m currently applying for a summer internship, and people tell me that I need to show that I can use things like PowerPoint, Word, that I can code and use other basic digital technologies. Writing is great, and it’s definitely important, but it’s just not sufficient anymore.
RW: The idea seems to be that you need to be flexible. My parents, if they went to college, could pretty much guarantee that they have a stable career, once they graduate, for the rest of their lives. But that just doesn’t seem possible anymore.
PH: Well, I want to definitely be a geneticist for the rest of my life. I want to get a Ph.D. and run a lab. Maybe I’ll work in different research facilities or do different research, but I hope I won’t have to completely change my career during my lifetime.
FB: I think about it in terms of what Michael Crichton talks about in connection with Darwin’s theory of the edge of a cliff. So, he talks about this in Jurassic Park and in other books. We’re on this edge of a cliff and we have to adapt to everything that is thrown in our way. The dinosaurs didn’t adapt, and they died out. But if we don’t adapt to everything, we’ll be over the cliff. So, we basically have to keep changing ourselves just to exist.
RW: It’s very interesting because another group presented on William Blake and Web 2.0 the other day. And they argued that an essential part of Web 2.0 was filtering huge amounts of information. It made me think: isn’t that what we’re learning in this class? Blake’s particularly interesting because so many of his poems are really confusing. But it seems like he overloads us with information and we have to learn strategies for filtering that information.
PH: I think you’re right. Every time I look at a Blake poem I see something different. And we read all of these people who see different things in Blake. So, the interesting thing here is that we’re almost teaching each other to adapt to the huge amount of information we encounter every day just by reading Romantic poetry.