Humanities 2.0

On Monday, I spoke briefly as part of a panel titled “Humanities 2.0: Participatory Learning in an Age of Technology” at the MLA conference in San Francisco. Along with Black Cloud collaborator Greg Niemeyer, the other panelists included Cathy Davidson, Howard Rhiengold, Todd Presner with Zita Nunes chairing the panel.

In addition to getting to hear updates about other MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Competition winners’ projects, the panel explored what kinds of educational opportunities are either afforded or compromised by technological advance (a distinction established by one’s individual disposition toward things like social networking … see below). Howard Rheingold (pictured speaking in the background above, his hat in the foreground) gave a useful overview of his Social Media Classroom. Meanwhile it is exciting to see the possibilities for collaboration with Todd Presner’s Hypercities mapping project. Aside from the collaborative aspects, I’m seeing direct in-classroom use with Hypercities; it is accessible enough for my students and can fit in nicely with the graffiti mapping they have done in the past.

Primarily, the time in the panel Greg and I had was spent discussing and describing the work done via the Black Cloud game. However, my thoughts wandered throughout the discussions. From a critical perspective, I imagine Humanities 2.0 as an opportunity to get things right for our students. In imagining a 1.0 version of the Humanities, I imagine a privileged topography not all that accessible to my segregated students of color. In this sense, I would hope for Humanities 2.0, and its laborious steps toward the embrace of technology, to actually treat these students respectfully. Literally, it is an opportunity to restore humanity in the Humanities. I say that not to be pedantic but from a Freirean critique of disenfranchised, static learning models. In her opening remarks, Cathy Davidson helped expand the notion of Humanities 2.0 beyond simply an endorsement or utilization of technology; she discussed “humanistic attention to race, class, and gender.” For us to think of a more inclusive Humanities, H2O will need to start here.

A few days prior to the conference, I sat in an airport plagued by holiday travel conditions and read two short texts, both appropriate to the discussion of the H2O.

Walter Mosely’s Life Out Of Context helps expand notions of genre and accessibility for the Humanities. For instance, Mosley turns to the often-overlooked value of science fiction as a place of possibilities:

This form of fiction has many different ways of pulling us out of our everyday mindsets and putting us into contemplative modes. For instance, a book of this sort might move your consciousness fifty years into the future or a hundred years back. From that point of view, we can look back (or forward) at ourselves with the imposed objectivity of a removed narrator.

In discussing educational inequality with my students, our community of learners often gets to a place of increasing frustration and finds difficulty finding the steps toward actually changing the reality of unequal schooling. The notion of projection is one that I think helps unravel the limitations within the present day. The Ecotopias that the students created at the end of the LA iteration of the Black Cloud, for instance, remind students about actions they need to take now in order to realize their role as agents of change.

The second text read in the Burbank airport, Charles Homer Haskins’ The Rise of Universities traces the 12th and 13th century lineage of the modern-day higher education system. An entertaining overview, I am drawn to the role that students were placed within these early academies and parallels to their role in schools today. Describing the text of a student manual for early German university students, Haskins writes:

When the young man arrives he registers for Ulm; his parents are in moderate circumstances; he has come to study. He is then duly hazed after the German fashion, which treats the candidate as an unclean beast with horns and tusks which must be removed by officious fellow-students, who also hear his confession of sin and fix as the penance a good dinner for the crowd.

As we generally think of the networks of people and information made more readily accessible when discussion all things 2.0, I continue to dwell on the fact that this gate continues to remain shut for my students (I realize this issue is making me sound like a broken record on this blog); their cell phones and MySpaces the horns and tusks to be removed by “officious” schooling professionals. Yes, the Black Cloud members temporarily jumped over this obstacle via Twitter, but I get nothing but raised eyebrows and annoyed huffs when discussing cell phone use and social networking with the skeptics in the secondary education world.

A general curmudgeon-ish comment that was voiced at the end of the panel was in regards to the lack of “critical thinking” that is sacrificed in exchange for online, social activities. That is, ‘Those blogs and forums and videos and images are neat, but kids aren’t really thinking all that hard, are they?’ I get frustrated by comments like this as they feel like they come from a person only limitedly, skeptically experiencing what these new medias are offering. A brief analysis of this discussion as it took place in the panel can be found here. Jame Paul Gee’s breakdown of Pokemon in Situated Language and Learning helps demonstrate the complex systems and thinking involved by video games and networking and all of those things some educators see as wastes of time. Similarly, when addressing this question at the MLA conference, I mentioned that the educational system in general – at least in my context as a high school English teacher – doesn’t promote critical thinking skills. Standardized testing, high school exit exams, and the general low expectations our school system places on students encourages a minimum of critical thinking.

Finally, another commentor at the panel mentioned that in a college course she taught, she found limited success in implementing forums. Students simply weren’t posting regularly without it being a course requirement. This, too, is a challenge answered by Gee. Forums are “affinity spaces” for a community with an invested interest in furthering expertise. As a student, I’m not going to post on a forum unless I have a personal interest in giving and taking away from the discussion. Even if your course is about popular culture students will not participate unless they are actively engaged in the material. This is one of the key problems with the occasional classrooms I observe: just because you, as the teacher, are bringing in hip-hop or a popular TV show does not mean your students are going to engage beyond the minimum amount that they do on a regular basis. Unless students see themselves as participants with a specific purpose and motivation, forums, blogs, and other social networking becomes simply another hoop to be jumped through.

McKenzie Wark points toward the “Hacker Class” as including anyone involved in creating intellectual property. I imagine this as the critical and “legitimate” route for my students to become participants in humanities and academia in general. However, I also think of the multiple definitions entailed in “hack”: to gain both illegitimate access to something as well as to be seen in a pejorative light as creator of lowbrow work. Sure, both of these are definitions beyond the intentions of Wark’s original label. They are, though, useful in seeing the way a larger stream of poor students of color will be viewed in the post-secondary landscape.

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