The three-ring circus teaching paradigm.

I was a Reclaim Hosting devotee before I ever opened the account there that currently hosts this blog. The amazingly, revolutionary idea of faculty AND students maintain domains of their own has great appeal to people like me who don’t like being consistently thwarted by faceless, nameless IT bureaucracies. In this post from a few weeks ago, Jim Groom of Reclaim Hosting, DS106 (and so much else) catches people up on the progress of this idea. However, what I want to cover here is this philosophical difference between him and Tom Scheinfeldt:

I included a minute and 15 seconds of the discussion before [Stephen] Robertson mentions Reclaim because I’m interested in what Tom Scheinfeldt suggests is the paradox of teaching digital media: you can’t teach it online. I think one of the greatest learning experiences for me over the last five years of teaching ds106—it’s really been that long!—is that you actually can teach digital media online. But it requires the right platform and a lot of time and freedom to experiment. Giving students their own web hosting space and a domain is one way at it, and ,as Robertson notes, it provides the platform for both an individualized and distributed online experience that institutional learning systems aren’t even beginning to imagine.

If I had all the time in the world, I would devote a good chunk of it to DS106. However, I know enough about it to believe Groom when he says this is all possible. Having a professor in the room would certainly help you learn digital anything (it sure did when I was in Virginia), but motivated, intelligent students can pick a lot up over the Internet working mostly by themselves. Here’s the thing, though: If you want to teach digital media, history or even basket weaving – isn’t it better to have a professor in the room than not?

But that doesn’t mean that the professor has to profess in the same old ways. Leslie Madsen-Brooks of the Clutter Museum has had two really good posts on exactly what this might entail over the last few days. Interested people should by all means read them both, but I want to stress her embrace of the willingness to improvise that appears in both of them. From the first:

I completely blew up my digital history course a few weeks into the semester. I began the course with a traditional syllabus packed with readings and marked by some practice, but on student request, I changed the course so that 85% of the work—and thus of students’ grades—is connected to a single large project. You can check out the new syllabus, but you’ll find most of the course now consists of in-class work days for the 11 undergraduate and 5 graduate students in the course.

And the second:

I pointed out that history, and the humanities more generally, provided students with plenty of opportunities to take initiative in research and communication, and that we tried to cultivate independent thinking in our students. Plus, I try to model this spirit of inquiry in the classroom. I pointed out (once again) that I’m a history professor without any degrees in history, and I’m a technologist without any formal training in that field. I’ve decided to eschew impostor syndrome in favor of openly making up my projects and career as I go along.

I’ve said many times that I don’t want to be that old guy lecturing off the same yellowed (not yellow, but yellowed as in old) lecture notes decade after decade. Digital history has given me the opportunity to do the exact opposite.

Luckily, at least for now, my impostor syndrome only surfaces in one course: a new class based upon the contents of the Colorado Fuel & Iron archives, which will eventually become my take on Colorado History (because I can’t think of anything more dull than explaining who was governor when). This is the class where I’ve been experimenting all the digital tools that I learned about – but certainly didn’t master – when I spent two weeks at George Mason this last summer.

Like Leslie, I just threw out most of my syllabus last week. [Unlike Leslie, I’m not on top enough of things enough to have produced a replacement already – so no link.] I can tell, you this though: My original syllabus was sort of a grab bag of projects with a grab bag of tools. It turns out, that the students all wanted to do more work with Scalar so that they could produce digital projects that they could cite as a sign of their tech skills when they’re eventually on the job market. How the heck could I refuse that?

More interestingly, the first student who worked with Scalar gave everyone else in the room (including me) the tutorial they needed to convince them that they could master this new thing. As a result, I’ll be starting my first Scalar project soon so that I could do a better job of helping students learn the program in the future. Gotta start somewhere, right?

Does this mean that I can be replaced by a computer, or even worse, by one of my own students? Well, for one thing, I don’t plan to teach ALL of my classes this way. The existence of a new paradigm does not make the old paradigm prima facie bad. However, I sure as heck plan to teach some of them in this manner moving forward. I guess how many depends upon the programs that suit me. But my role in the classroom is more important than just being the ringmaster of my own personal three-ring circus. It’s kind of like the difference between getting a computer at the other end of a 1-800 call and getting a living, breathing person. The living, breathing person who’s willing to help you solve whatever problem you’re having (whether they actually can or not) shows our students that somebody cares.

4 thoughts on “The three-ring circus teaching paradigm.

  1. Dear Professor Rees,

    I very much appreciate your blog, which I’ve been reading for a while. I wanted to note that we’ve developed an embryonic site, at Illinois, called “Scalar for Historians” that has handouts we use to teach Scalar basics in our classes.

    Here’s the link:

    In case you or any of your readers might find it useful.

    Best wishes,

    John Randolph
    Director of Undergraduate Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

    1. John,

      Of course, I don’t know you, but (now imagine me tearing up slightly while saying this) I love you, man.

      What do you want for Christmas, or should I just come over sometime and wash your car?

      1. Thanks a lot, I’m glad it might be useful to you! We’ve only just begun, to quote the Carpenters, so no car cleaning or Christmas presents necessary. But if and as you or your readers develop suggestions or materials, we’ll be happy to incorporate them. Scalar is an interesting tool whose classroom uses are beginning to develop, and I’m hoping it will become better for that purpose as we all experiment with it.

  2. Thanks, Jonathan. And yay for blowing up the syllabus! I enjoy the improvisational aspects of teaching, and this semester I love taking it to a new level.

    Getting students to teach each other technology works really well for exactly the reasons you mention. I had a student volunteer to show my class tomorrow how to edit video in both iMovie and Windows Movie Maker. I’m so grateful for such generosity.

    You’re spot on too, when you write that we must show students that somebody cares. I think teaching digital history takes more emotional energy from me than other courses because I need to show up (in every sense of the word) even more than usual.

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