Week 7 (October 6-10)

Changing Notions of Pedagogy

In recent years the scene of humanities instruction grows less like the classroom of the 1930s, when the remarkably successful teaching protocols of the New Criticism were invented. New Critical pedagogy centered in a single textual object—”The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” The SymposiumPride and Prejudice—that would be brought into the classroom for close reading and discussion. That model for a classroom procedure was so effective that it still dominates the way the Humanities classroom is conducted in high schools, colleges, and universities. Indeed, its procedures remain in certain ways foundational to any kind of effective education. But our classrooms now are populated by students for whom the book is only one kind of communication tool. [ …]. Because the Humanities have never been about specialization but about the training and education of broadly informed citizens, we are being called to imagine new instructional methods and procedures. IVANHOE is being developed to help answer that call.” – Jerome McGann with Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie, “IVANHOE: Education in a New Key,” par. 15

The promise of the digital is not in the way it allows us to ask new questions because of digital tools or because of new methodologies made possible by those tools. The promise is in the way the digital reshapes the representation, sharing, and discussion of knowledge.” – Mark Sample, “Building and Sharing (When You’re Supposed to Be Teaching),” par. 6

“A look around the Looking for Whitman website and its diverse array of assignments and projects will demonstrate the meaningful connections created through this pedagogical experiment. From videos that remixed Whitman’s work to detailed annotations and explications of his poems to a collaboratively built museum devoted to Whitman-related material artifacts, student projects demonstrated the power of networked academic study.” – Matthew K. Gold and Jim Groom, “Looking for Whitman: A Grand, Aggregated Experiment,” par. 5

“Constructionism, a theory developed by Seymour Papert, one of the founders of MIT Media Lab, articulates a theoretical foundation for learning based on creativity, tinkering, exploring, building, and presentation. Papert had previously worked with Jean Piaget, but felt that Piaget’s constructivism placed too much emphasis on the internal mental processes of learners. He insisted that learning occurs not only through learners constructing meaning, but also through constructing real-world inventions which can be shared with others.” – Jonan Donaldson, “The Maker Movement and the Rebirth of Constructionism,” par. 9

At the start of The Medium Is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore insist that electronic media is changing everything, and that is one of the key themes in this class: how computers and computer technologies are changing the way we do English studies and English studies even is. So far we’ve looked at the changing nature of texts and textual engagement and the changing nature of literature. This week’s focus is on the changing nature of pedagogy.

If one of my biases as a teacher and scholar lies in the work of Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, another bias of mine is a desire to incorporate hands-on, project-based learning. In this week’s readings, we’ll see it called building or tinkering or making or creative analysis or constructionism,1 or, in some cases, even deformation, I came to these ideas in much the same way as did most of the teacher-scholars whose work we’re reading this week: I stumbled upon it through intuition and practice. And much of it happened because I was actively trying to incorporate computers and digital technologies into the classes I taught, the activities we engaged in, and the projects we made. And sometimes the things we make – the things we have made – are entirely non-digital.

One physical project I’ve received included the student’s old ballerina slipper. Another was an elaborate remix-machine that involved three spinning poster board wheels attached to a wooden frame – the first wheel included a number of rhetorical theorists we’d read that term, the second wheel included a number of schools of rhetorical theory we’d read, and when you lined up any two categories on the first two wheels, you were then directed to a section on the third wheel. Each section of the first two wheels had a segment of writing associated with its subject, and the third wheel offered up a new idea based upon the mash-up the texts from wheels one and two. Maybe a better way to put it is that the machine worked as a collide-oscope that juxtaposed ideas from wheels one and two, and then offered an insight based on the juxtaposing of ideas. The machine was inspired by both The Medium Is the Massage and Paul Miller/DJ Spooky’s Rhythm Science.

I mention these physical projects specifically to make the point that the logic of the digital – the logic of electracy, to use a term we were introduced to last week in Hayles’ Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary and in the lecture on the first chapter of that book – is not limited to the digital realm. Just as you can “think print” in digital environments – last week’s Blackboard discussion about electronic literature as hot or cool media which brought up the very print-like nature of Buzzfeed articles is a key example of this – you can “think digital” in non-digital environments. If nothing else, last week’s OLUPIO readings should make that quite clear.

For whatever reason, computers led themselves to an interactive pedagogy of doing. To put that in McLuhanesque terms, in terms of developing computer-based projects, computers “foster and encourage” doing rather than passive reception. When I say this, I’m not referring to a large lecture hall were you might be handed a clicker, as is increasingly happening these days. I’m not critiquing clicker-based pedagogy, mind you. When you have to teach a class of 100 or 200 or even 500 students in a large lecture hall, that may be about as much hands-on interactivity as is possible. Instead, I’m talking about assignments that are the equivalent to a paper but engage and enact the logic of the digital in rather than the logic of print.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m most certainly not opposed to assigning essays and term papers. My academic speciality probably most closely aligns to that of rhetoric and composition, and I very much enjoy teaching writing classes in which we write with words. But I also dream of teaching classes like Mark Sample’s current Hacking Remixing Design and;History and Future of the Book. In the later, he’s asking his students this term to enhance a book “usingsoft circuits or another type of I/O sensor to “hack” a book.” While I play around with paper-based electronics and soft-circuits as well as Arduinos, and I’ll be presenting my own investigations in the physical-digital hybrid book and writing2 at the Conference on College Composition and Communication next spring, but do this with a class? Not yet.

In my 15 years of teaching, I believe this class is the least essay/term paper-based course I’ve taught. Our major assignments, the McLuhan Project, the Textual Interventions, and the Electronic Edition, are clearly in the realm of building, making, tinkering, and creative analysis. They aren’t easy assignments, and they can be challenging and frustrating, but they can also be incredibly cool once they’re done. I’ve never had a student show off an essay to friends, family, and other professors – or if they have, no one has told me about it. On the other hand, I have taught many students who have shown off their making-based projects. They didn’t do this just because the project looked cool, but because the project was meaningful. And those projects were meaningful because it was, to use Peter Stallybrass’ term, “work” that taught them something.3 But even as I note that our course is the least essay/term paper-based course I’ve ever taught, compared to Mark Sample’s courses with their assignments (classes that I think still fall within English studies), our assignments rely heavily upon very traditional English studies’ writing-based practices.

Even when I’m asking you to discuss in the Blackboard forums and post reading and community responses on your blogs, I’m asking you to do more than just write for me. I want you to do and make and contribute in ways that are meaningful for all of us. You writing an essay which then gets read and evaluated by me has limited value and limited circulation. Even if it’s incredibly great thinking on your part and you teach me a lot – and I love when this happens – it’s impact is minimal, limited to you and me. You’ve learned, hopefully, I’ve learned, hopefully, and that’s it. There’s value in that, but it’s also quite familiar to us. And, in fact, we have coping strategies involving taking shortcuts when we write traditional school-based essays. We learned those strategies early on, and we deploy them throughout our time in school because the traditional school essay simply exists to be read by one person, and “good enough” is good enough.

That is what many of these articles we’re reading this week try to get get beyond: They express a desire to develop a more authentic, more meaningful educational experience that values “work” over “thinking” even while not trying to reject the traditional and familiar Humanities values and practices we all know.4


  • McLuhan Project Mock-up: 10:00 PM, Mon. 6 Oct.
  • Reading Response post: 10:00 PM, Wed., 8 Oct.
  • Community Response post: 10:00 PM, Sat., 11 Oct.
    • Group 1 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 3.
    • Group 2 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 4.
    • Group 3 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 1.
    • Group 4 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 2.
  • Participation posts (3): During the week.


  • Read lecture posts for the week. The most recent lectures can always be found on the front page for the course or using the Lecture category. Short lectures will be posted throughout the week.
  • Review and begin weekly Participation assignment forum posts.
  • Reading Response and Community Response blog posts (Online Writing Activities).
  • Graduate students: Continue working on the Annotated Bibliography assignment. Due: Dec. 2, 10:00 PM.



  1. Constructionism should not be confused with the better known constructivism. As constructionism emerged out of Jean Piaget’s constructivism, the two are related, but Seymour Papert developed constructionism to address what he saw as limitations in constructivism.
  2. See, for instance, this article on making digitally-interfaced books with middle school students; Manolis Kelaidis’ Blinkwhich is a physical book printed using conductive paint to create touch-senstivie “buttons” in the text that act as hyperlinks to call up information on a nearby computer; TheWeise7 in/compatible Laboratorium Archive, which is a physical hardback catalog of a new media exhibit that includes a small wireless webserver built into the book that wireless-capable devices can connect to in order to access multimedia content; MIT Media Lab’s experiments in sensory fiction – books connected to a set of LED lights, sound, and a wearable harness; or the much more whimsical Circuit Stickers and the Telescrapbook. The Blink project and sensory fiction are beyond me, but the rest I have played with or will play some time this academic year.
  3. In “Building and Sharing,” which we read this week, Mark Sample discusses Stallybrass’s uses of the term “work” vs. “thinking” in Stallybrass’ 2007 PMLA article “Against Thinking.”
  4. I should note here that Stallybrass’ “Against Thinking” in which he places “work” and “thinking” in opposition isn’t actually an inditement against thinking or an argument not to think. What Stallybrass is advocating, really, is to do something with that thinking, or, put another way, to think things out by doing something. Work, in the Stallybrass sense might be best defined as “applied thinking” or an action of thinking-through-doing. And so too Mark Sample’s use of the term “creative analysis,” which he introduces in the essay in which he talks about Stallybrass. Sample is suggesting that we engage in a form of analysis that happens through the act of doing and making rather that through the traditional practice of mentally breaking something down into ins constitute parts in order to understand it.

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