I like to think of myself as a 21st century independent woman balancing my professional life as a teacher with my personal life as a mother, wife, sister, and daughter. I think I’m pretty tech savvy, but then I talk to my nine-year old, or my high school students, or my niece and nephew and I am reminded that at my core, I am a child of the 70’s and 80’s who never had a foundation in technology, let alone the digital humanities. Growing up, I studied from books, magazines, and journals, never from a screen. However, through my forty-plus years on this Earth, I’ve come to learn and appreciate the digital humanities and what it has to offer. This essay will discuss how the digital humanities has affected my life thus far and how I feel it will be relevant to my life over the next five years.
Scholastic Experiences: The Past
I was born in the early seventies at a time when the digital humanities did not yet exist (at least, not the way we know it today). The closest I came to working with technology was when one of my friends received an Atari gaming console for her birthday and we could play games like Pong or Asteroids on it. I thought this was the future, and it was … at the time. By the time I started high school, computers were just being introduced to the curriculum. I remember taking a computer programming class in Grade 11 and thought it was the most boring thing in the world. To be honest, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to learn this unless they planned to study computer engineering. We learned the BASIC programming language; by the end of the semester, I could make a lightning strike appear on my screen. Not exactly NASA level learning. I was immediately turned off.
At university, I was enrolled in the Humanities program, with English Literature as my major. This was the early 90’s so the Internet was still in its infancy and personal computers were just beginning to catch on. I typed my assignments on a computer and printed them onto paper using a Dot Matrix printer. This was the extent of my experience with technology. When I graduated, jobs were scarce, especially for those of us with English Literature degrees, so I went into business for myself, buying and selling antiques. My shop was close to the university campus so I would often get students who would come in to browse. I distinctly remember one day when a student came in asking if I’d be interested in setting up a website for my store. He said he could help me with this and that it would increase my business by going online. I refused. I still could not see the value in having an online presence. No one I knew had a computer at home, so I couldn’t imagine how this would help my business. My naiveté as a student and business owner contributed to my inability to see how technology could help increase my business.
Scholastic Experiences: The Present
I consider myself fortunate to have started my Masters program as an experienced adult and not as a student holding a Bachelor’s degree fresh out of university. I feel that I am able to use my past experiences to help me through these courses; it certainly helps to have a Humanities background. Through the readings for this particular course, I’ve learned that “[digital] humanities is an extension of traditional knowledge skills and methods, not a replacement for them” (Burdick et. al. 16). I can actually use my experiences with literature, language, and cultural studies to further my knowledge of these areas of study. Watching TED Talks like “How Algorithms Shape our World” to understand how Netflix uses formulas to determine what kind of movie we’d like to watch or using Wordle to visualise how the language across three seemingly similar articles can differ has shown me just how far digital humanities has developed to “supplement … scholarly interpretation [and] informed research” (Burdick et. al. 16).
I do wonder, however, if perhaps there is a better way to engage in the MAIS courses other than using Moodle. I find it to be somewhat clunky and not as user-friendly as it could be. At my current school, we use an online learning platform called Teamie. It’s set up for both students and teachers to use and can be customised according to your needs. It is similar to Moodle in that you can still post units, readings, assignments, and information, but it is more visually appealing. Students can post questions, use hashtags to filter topics, and tag other students/teachers in their responses. Students can take quizzes and polls and view their results in real time. It’s still a work in progress at our school but it’s much better than what we used to have (which was essentially, nothing).
Scholastic Experiences: The Next 5 Years
As I continue to take courses towards my Master of Arts, I’d like to see a more deliberate use of the digital humanities in my studies. In my experience, I’ve found that the humanities in general often get swept to the side when it comes to academics. It’s not taken as seriously as the sciences, for instance, or the maths. However, when one considers the variety that the digital humanities encompasses, it’s sure to come into its own as an area worthy of academic study as “digital humanists can now use networks and interoperable file-sharing standards and protocols to test new approaches … [and] encourage prototyping” (Burdick et. al. 21). Just like their peers in the sciences and maths, digital humanists have the “capacity to ask, design, and model new research questions” which “opens new possibilities for those who are willing to take risks” (Burdick et. al. 22). What really appeals to me is how “failure is part of the life cycle of innovation;” it’s not seen as a form of defeat (Burdick et. al. 22). Because the digital humanities “is still in its early stages,” it is “driven by the need to extend the reach and impact of … technology,” thus eventually “[passing] another exponential milestone” (Burdick et. al. 22).
Collaboration is certainly one way of making the digital humanities more part of the mainstream. One example of this is the work that Jeffrey Schnapp launched at Stanford University (Hayles 52). He began a project called “Big Humanities” which “[required] diverse skills, including Traditional (sic) scholarship as well as programming, graphic design, interface engineering, sonic art, and other humanistic, artistic, and technical skills” (Hayles 52). I become really excited when I read things like this; it fills me with confidence that more schools will begin to see the value in connecting the traditional humanities skills with newer technological skills, thus increasing the relevance and the acceptance of the digital humanities as a serious discipline.
Professional Experiences: The Past
I became a high school teacher in 2000. My first full-time job was in a working class neighbourhood in southern Ontario, teaching the likes of students who had no intention of going to university. Shakespeare and other forms of classic literature were part of the curriculum; the problem was how to get students interested in these texts. The closest thing I had to technology in my classroom was an overhead projector, and that was definitely not interactive. There was no way for my students to use “digital media … to understand [literature’s] histories, contexts, and transmission pathways” (Hayles 50). Written assignments were pen and paper; creative endeavours were markers and poster board. This isn’t to say that students weren’t interested in what they were learning, it’s just that they could have used more of what we have today in order to envision the material. As Hayles points out, “the interactions between print and digital media may be synergistic” but most people require “visualisation tools” to “[help] sort the information and … [begin] the work of interpretation” (51).
Professional Experiences: The Present
Fast forward to the present day when I can’t imagine teaching my classes without the aid of the digital humanities. I work at a 1:1 school; all students are provided with a MacBook Air which they are required to bring to class every day. Teachers have access to class sets of iPads as well, and we can request certain educational apps be added to them for our students to use. Our administration has recently decided to have students create blogs starting in ninth grade (if they haven’t already) and use these as a means to reflect on their learning. Our university advisors have also suggested that these blogs can be used as part of the university application process to show potential post-secondary schools the capacity to which our students are using their blogs. As Tech Mentor for my department, I’ve offered to use my grade nine students as part of a trial in introducing blogs. Our Digital Literacy Coach (DLC) worked with my students in setting up their blogs (we use WordPress), explained widgets, introduced Creative Commons, and gave them their first assignment: “Note to Self.” These blogs are not exclusive to my class; rather, students will be using their blogs across all disciplines so that their reflections, posts, and photographs are all in one online space.
I’ve attended conferences on Google Apps for Education to learn more about the various applications Google has to offer and how they can be used by educators in and outside of the classroom. I then use what I’ve learned to assist other teachers who would like to use more technology in their classrooms but are not sure which ones would be best or how they would apply to their discipline. For example, I provided a workshop on creating Stop Motion videos and how they can be effectively used in diverse classes such as the Sciences, Humanities, and Languages.
In my IB Literature classes, I still use traditional texts, but I also make use of various online applications and social media sites to help my students further understand and engage with the material. When my students began reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I had them each select a character from the novel and create a Facebook account for them using the online tool, Fakebook. The characters had to update their profiles on a regular basis and interact with one another as the novel indicated. By bringing these characters to life, students engaged with the text and actively collaborated with one another to see what they could add to their characters’ profiles.
I’ve also used Twitter as a way for students to make connections with authors. One of my former students is a fan of science fiction so I introduced him to the works of Robert J. Sawyer, a Canadian author. My student had some questions that I couldn’t answer so I tweeted Sawyer and asked if he would mind sending my student an email. Much to my surprise, he responded and said he’d do it! Sawyer and my student thus established an online connection which lasted for a few email exchanges. This experience reaffirms my belief in the importance of the digital humanities, especially as a teacher.
Professional Experiences: The Next 5 Years
I am in the process of designing a multi-touch book (or an iBook) that can be used with IB students. Once again, in collaboration with our DLC, I am collecting and organising material for the IB Literature and IB Language and Literature classes that can be found in one centralised location. Currently, we use Google Drive and Teamie, but even these platforms can sometimes become disorganised or difficult to navigate. Ideally, I will be able to put together a multi-touch book available to all students who can then use the Table of Contents and click on the hyperlink of the section they want to access.
I would like to use podcasts more in my classes. I often send students links to podcasts they might find interesting or relevant to class. Recently, I asked my IB Language and Literature students to create their own podcasts on the topic of language and gender in lieu of an oral presentation. As a teacher, it was exciting to watch them create something using online tools and their own voices. I feel there is room for teachers to create and publish their own podcasts as well, and this is an area I’d like to explore further in the coming years.
Personal Experiences: The Past
As I’ve stated before, I am relatively new to the digital humanities game. I am a lover of literature, languages, art, and culture, but I didn’t really connect it all to technology until around 2007 when my daughter was born. We were living in Kuwait at the time and I wanted an easier way to send photos of our daughter and connect with family and friends in Canada. This is when Facebook entered my life. Once I signed up, I was hooked. Instead of sleeping when my infant daughter slept, I would be sitting at our desk, surfing Facebook to see what others were up to. Indeed, it caused some tension in my household; I was tired all the time, but instead of resting, I was posting photos or status updates. My life had “turned into a database” (Lanier 69). It was the only social media platform I was using, but it was enough to monopolise my time.
Personal Experiences: The Present
I am a regular user of social media, and since those early days of Facebook, I’ve joined other online applications including Twitter and Instagram. I try to keep my use of social media organised so that I’m not using the same apps for the same purposes. As stated earlier, I use Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends; lately, I’ve also been using it to post various political updates as well. I started using Twitter as a means to connect with other educators around the world. I continue to use it on a professional level, but I sometimes veer into the realm of politics (in my defence, the recent political and social struggles around the world relate very well with some of the units in my IB Language and Literature class). Instagram is mostly used for fun, showcasing my cooking and baking skills. I am reluctant to sign up for other apps like Pinterest or Tumblr because I don’t want to fall into the trap of having my time dominated by social media. I can appreciate what Lanier has to say regarding our use of social media; for example, he suggests that when we use Twitter, we should “innovate in order to find a way to describe [our] internal state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define [us], as they would define a machine” (21). Over the years I’ve learned that our digital footprints can be easily researched and used against us. Nothing is temporary and thus we must “manage [our] online reputations constantly, avoiding the ever-roaming evil eye of the hive mind, which can turn on an individual at any moment” (Lanier 70).
Personal Experiences: The Next 5 Years
I often wonder how the use of technology will affect my daughter’s future education. At nearly ten years old, she’s already much more tech savvy than I am, but that’s because of how she’s learning to use it in school. She knows the applications much better than I do. She takes Spanish as a second language and often uses YouTube videos to practice her grammar and vocabulary. She has also downloaded Duolingo onto her iPad to practice pronunciation. I imagine that by the time she enters high school, much of her education will be made available online. By extension, this would mean that much of what I teach will also be made available to students online. There is already talk about regularly utilizing a flipped classroom experience, where students watch screencasts or listen to podcasts about a particular lesson the night before. In class the next day, the teacher is made available to answer questions regarding what students have watched or listened to. It’s a type of self-directed learning.
In terms of my personal use of social media, I am trying to picture what the future might hold. The more I think about it, the more I believe that someone will create an all-purpose app meant to make our lives infinitely easier. I’m picturing something that I will be able to download that offers messaging services, keeps track of my appointments and upcoming events, organises my photos and videos, provides me with a daily workout depending on my individualised needs, and creates a meal plan from which I can order the groceries necessary to make the day’s meals. I expect this type of app would be customisable depending on an individual’s needs, almost like selecting various Google Extensions for your laptop. Our smartphones would thus only require one lifestyle app rather than a multitude of various apps that all have different functions. It’s as if Marshall McLuhan’s concepts have come true; he believed that “media embraced the totality of technical, social, and aesthetic reality” (Mitchell & Hansen xvii). Although he was accused of being a “technical determinist,” there was certainly some truth to what he expressed (Mitchell & Hansen xvii). Our ever-evolving technology is working concurrently with the fabric of our society in order to enhance and further develop our cultural existence. Whether you believe in the apocalyptic idea of the Singularity at one end of the spectrum, or the Rapture at the other end, the digital humanities will continue to progress (Lanier 24-25).
I embrace technology. I get excited when someone shows me some new technology that will make my life easier, or my teaching more efficient. I am certainly not a Luddite. Having said that, I understand why some people are afraid of technology or are not as plugged-in as others. There is a very real fear that they will reveal too much, or that others will be able to steal their personal information. Hacking and mass marketing fraud exists; certainly we must be vigilant in creating and maintaining passwords and personal information. However, avoiding technology in fear of this is both irresponsible and naïve. There is a wealth of information available to us that will make our professional and personal lives that much easier. It’s our responsibility to support the progress that has been made.
Having said that, I do believe that it’s healthy to take a break from technology, but only for short periods of time. Maybe it’s because we’re on a family holiday or because we’d like to read a paperback rather than a download on our iPad. Slowing down is certainly good for both mind and spirit, but not to the point where we revert back to a time without technological advancement. Instead, as digital humanists, we must “appreciate that which design has to offer, to build the shared vocabulary and mutual respect that can lead to fruitful collaborations” with others (Burdick et. al. 13).
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