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Mindfulness: Creating Space in a Digital World

mindful

As we become more and more steeped in a technologically connected world, scholars are turning their attention and work toward understanding both the benefits and challenges with reading on the internet. Much of the conversation revolves around distraction, as noted by Nicholas Carr and Tony Schwartz. In the New York Times article “Addicted to Distraction,” Schwartz calls attention to “[t]he brain’s craving for novelty, constant stimulation and immediate gratification [which] creates something called a ‘compulsion loop.’ Like lab rats and drug addicts, we need more and more to get the same effect” (Schwartz). Ultimately, Schwartz sets out to break the compulsive cycle that he has attributed to constant connection to the internet.

Many of us can relate to the sentiments Schwartz expresses in his article, the compulsive checking emails, and clicking from article to article on the internet. We may even justify these behaviors, that we are reading something and it is entertaining, or informative etc. Schwartz, though, is concerned with the ways it shapes our life, and those of us who are compulsively using the internet have actually developed a sort of addiction to it.

As people we might have a difficult time acknowledging how the internet shatters our focus, as Carr deftly points to in his article. He writes, “[d]azzled by the Net’s treasures, we are blind to the damage we may be doing to our intellectual lives and even our culture.” Because it is often instantaneous, and always available, it is difficult to move out of that space, or that ‘compulsion loop.’ Ultimately, Schwartz commits himself to a detox ritual in order to shift his habit of mind toward a more healthy relationship with the internet.

Schwartz reveals that this was not an easy task. In fact, he did not immediately succeed in his internet detox. Eventually, he reveals that he has “retained [his] longtime ritual of deciding the night before on the most important thing I can accomplish the next morning. [Promising to work] for 60 to 90 minutes without interruption. Afterward, [he takes] a 10- to 15-minute break to quiet [his] mind and renew [his] energy” (Schwartz). This is a deliberate moving away from the allatonceness that the digital humanities often considers a strength. This shift toward technological mindfulness moves the scholar, the professional, the technologically engaged person into a slower paced environment. This new space allows for an active engagement with the digital world, but a more balanced and healthy one. How might we, as educators, incorporate some of Schwartz’s into our course objectives, activities, and teaching philosophies?

 

To Make Sense

 

Reading and writing go together, right? The general expectation in a literature class is that students will read, and then write about it. Generally, this is geared toward a literary analysis in which the student finds something smart to say about what they have read. Of course, this is the way it has always been structured. It makes sense.

Sheridan D. Blau contends that the problem with writing in the literature classroom is that “students don’t always cooperate by having the kind of intellectual experience we want for them” (152). This apparent lack of cooperation from the students often results in, to use Sheridan’s words, “warmed over versions of somebody else’s cooking” (153). Perhaps, we need a new recipe.

One compelling idea that Blau presents is an active and engaging journaling exercise which the professor devotes an hour a week to read aloud selected journal entries. This genre choice, one which the understood audience is the student’s own self, turned public is particularly interesting to me. It is more traditional with its materials, the pen and paper as opposed to the keys and a screen often employed in the digitally engaged class. However, it provides a productive means for students to generate their own thinking, or make their own sense.

I am a huge fan of handwritten work. I would argue it slows down the mind enough for the thoughts to really come through. Additionally, Blau recognizes that it is actively engaged with the literary tradition, as those of us in literary studies know those who produce literature often keep their own journals.

As scholars contemplate the shifts in the humanities not only through the digital age, but also the nature of criticism, and the act writing in the literature classroom—how are we meant to best balance these shifts in order to engage the students, but also ensure that they are actually making sense out of what they read?

 

Blau, Sheridan D. “Writing Assignments in Literature Classrooms: The Problem.” The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003. 151-63. Print.

Performativity

In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, and Performativity, Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick argues that “a particular intimacy exists between textures and emotions” (17). Borrowing British philosopher of language J. L. Austin’s term “performativity,” Sedgewick draws correlations among the word, the reader’s impression, and his or her relation of that word to a real experience, in essence, the basis of written communication and a fundamental, if not the fundamental building block of fictive writing. Freud and Foucalt are referred to for their attempt to place the human condition within the confines of language, both contributing thought to Sedgewick’s area of interest, human sexuality. Sedgewick relates “texture and affect,” to the phenomenology, or the real experience, of touching and feeling something in the real world, what every writer picking up a pen or approaching a keyboard wishes to impart to the reader (18).

One of the more interesting parts of Sedgewick’s opening to Touching Feeling, is her look at the performativity of prepositions. She stops to focus upon ‘beside,’ for example. How often do our eyes scan the page, building abstractions from an author’s phrasing, without pausing to contemplate the smallest components of language and their true meanings? Sedgewick stops at ‘beside’ to ponder its literal meaning. She claims the word possesses “an irreducibly spatial positionality,” while evoking metaphysical planes of immanence (8).  In other words, words and phrases perform, a thought that writers and speakers benefit from contemplating if not keeping at the forefront of their analytical and creative minds.

Works Cited

Sedgewick. Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, and Performativity. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.

*image courtesy of pinterest.com

[A]nything can be literature, and…any belief that the study of literature is the study of a stable, well-definable entity, as entomology is the study of insects, can be abandoned as a chimera…Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value, distinguished by certain shared, inherent properties, does not exist.

– Terry Eagleton, “Introduction: What is Literature?”

 

Is it necessary to define literature before one is able to teach it? While scholars such as George Levine might make this claim, Elaine Showalter asserts that such definitions often “mean[] entering a long dark tunnel from which few teachers, let alone clear ideas about literature emerge” (21).

Is this one reason to focus on method over content?

Works Cited

Showalter, Elaine. Teaching Literature. Indianapolis: John Wiley and Sons, 2003.

Knot So Fast!

Kathleen Yancey contends that “[l]earning…requires scientific concepts, spontaneous concepts, and  interplay between them. As in the case of tying a knot, we use this dialogue to focus on the end-the knot-as well as on the processes enabling us to achieve the end” (14). Knots can metaphorically represent the areas in our thinking that we might need to work out, to untie and expand. Knots are also tangible objects, things we can physically create. We can tie them and untie them.

In the literature classroom we engage multiple voices: theorists, critics, authors, professors, and students. Often times we jump from concept to concept quickly as we attempt to “untie” narratives with the tools at our disposal. What happens if we slow down that process? How about an activity in which we can literally hand our students some knotted rope on which each knot corresponds with the central themes of the primary text or class. As the discussions progress, the knots can be untied, and create a physical and functioning metaphor for the process of engaging literature, the value of research, and demonstrate the way ideas can be expanded once they have been adequately explored. Whereas Yancey uses the knot to represent the process, why not represent the process with actual knots?

Yancey, Kathleen. “Teaching Literature as Reflective Practice: Context, Vocabulary, Curriculum” Teaching Literature as Reflective Practice. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English,2004. 1-19.

Digital Humanities Pedagogy in Practice

In “Listening in on the Conversations: An Overview of Digital Humanities,” E. Leigh Bonds discusses several examples of digital humanists that have integrated both textual and non-textual projects into their curricula which implement the experimental methodology she describes, with an emphasis on “making” and “doing.” One example she provides saw two professors conducting a short summer course on digital editing, while another had doctoral students experimenting with web-based tools like W-Matrix, corpus analysis and comparison software that allows you to upload your own data and compile searchable frequency lists and concordances, and Wordle, a free service that creates visually stimulating ‘word-clouds’ of provided text. Other instances involved students exploring and critiquing existing digital projects, like the Periodical Poetry Index and the Perseus Digital Library. Bonds also describes a non-textual project, where students used a “free, flexible, and open source web-publishing platform” called Omeka to create online exhibits, becoming digital curators.

Bonds argues that “the critical thinking fostered by working with digital tools and techniques complements traditional humanistic inquiry,” and the projects described above serve to reinforce that notion (151). These projects offer inspiring ways to keep the humanities vital in the digital age, and also potential for other similar projects. Examples like the ones above also serve to work against the assumption put forth by Stephen Brier that teaching and learning are an after-thought for Digital Humanities practitioners, as Bonds points out. Offering students the opportunity to conduct research and present their work in various digital environments provides new and exciting methods for the humanities, while still allowing teachers to “create the ‘authentic situation’ that research in education advocates” (152).

Shifting Shapes in Humanities Pedagogy

In response to the conversations surrounding the Digital Humanities, E. Leigh Bonds writes the “methodology of experimentation-of teacher and student producing knowledge rather than delivering/receiving it—necessitates a pedagogical paradigm shift” (150). The methods employed by the Digital Humanists can help shape these pedagogical shifts within the Literary Studies discipline. While we are comfortable with our interdisciplinarity, and thus our personal research methods that we use to generate our own knowledge, what the Digital Humanities promises to provide is a method that might help bridge the gap between the researcher and the teacher that the Literary scholar inherently possesses.

As someone who is still developing their professional position in the field, these shifts bring with them a lot of anxiety, and confusion. Everything I thought I understood to be Literary Studies is shifting shapes into actual shapes, and shaping. That is to say, these things that we can produce as scholars, and work we can create alongside our students opens a door to something very different than what I have grown comfortable doing.

Bonds alleviates some of that anxiety when she contends that “the means may differ from text-based assignments, the inquiry, problem solving, and collaboration remain consistent” and that this shift “create[s] the ‘authentic situation’ that research in education advocates” (152). This newly forming authenticity expands beyond the traditional pedagogy that asks students to crank out another analytical essay. While I have an undying love for the essay, and all the blood, sweat and tears I have given over to the process of shaping one, this pedagogical shift does not ask us to abandon the essay, but to re-shape the journey we take to get there. If I’m being super honest, much of my research process already involves ‘screwing around’ and accepting a ‘productive failure’ when my argument moves into a direction I wasn’t expecting. Finding new and interesting ways to incorporate those processes in the classroom functions as a demonstration of the processes we all face as writers, literary critics, students, and humans—the most important focus of the humanist in the academy.

 

Bonds, E. Leigh. “Listening in on the Conversations: An Overview of Digital Humanities Pedagogy.” The CEA Critic 76.2 (2014): 147-157. Print.

Is There a Book in This Class? Literary Studies without Literature

One fascinating element of Digital Humanities are that they constantly strive to reinvent the way humanists work, often by using visual, aural, and other nontraditional methods and approaches. In doing so, DHers often push the boundaries of long-established fields, including literary studies.

An idea I have been mulling over lately is: can you teach a literature course without books? Yes, this includes eBooks, tablets, computers, etc. Say for example you showed movies, went to plays, and talked about books without actually reading them (something many people already do in literature courses). Could you theoretically teach without reading? Without speaking?

Literature is one of the few areas where no one in the field can precisely define what they study. The above questions, much like DH and multi-media projects, ask instructors and critics to really think about what literature is, what a “text” is, and what is essential to the classroom.

 

 

Thoughts on Alexander W. Astin’s “Student Involvement”

In the article “Student Involvement: A Developmental Theory for Higher Education” Alexander W. Astin effectively outlines what he considers to be the most effective ways for students to gain the most from the academic environments they inhabit. The notion of “student involvement” is a good one. The premise here is that those students who participate in various on campus activities are more engaged with the overall experience of college, and tend to perform better.

Astin criticizes “traditional pedagogical theories” like “the subject-matter theory,” “the resource theory,” and “the individualized (ecelectic) theory” (519-21). For his own theory of “student involvement” he claims that “the factors that contributed to the student’s remaining in college suggested involvement, whereas this that contributed to the student’s dropping out implied a lack of involvement” (523). While I can agree with a student’s need for attachment to a school and a full range of experiences associated with that school contributing to their overall success as students, I find it problematic as a pedagogical exploration to rely so heavily on what the students do with their time on campus. I would argue, however, that the most important involvement that a student might experience on campus is directly related to the courses they take.

This other type of engaged involvement functions in a two-fold process. That is to say, the instructor’s involvement is directly related to the ways in which the students engage a particular course-it folds over on them. Astin writes “the most important application of the student involvement theory to teaching is that it encourages the instructor to focus less on content and teaching techniques and more on what students are actually doing” (526). He follows this immediately with the assertion that “[t]eaching is a complex art…which may suffer if the artist focuses too much on technique” (526). From a pedagogical frame, this seems ill informed. Sure, teaching is an art form- it’s multi-modal-it’s performance, it’s idea generation, it’s application, and it is hyper-aware of audience engagement that makes it real. What Astin’s article seems to be fundamentally lacking is the necessity for an instructor’s involvement in their own topic, in their own class, or in their own work-whether that is their research or their teaching is irrelevant. What is relevant is that students do not inherently know how to navigate a university. Students do not automatically know how to want to be involved. Students learn these things through their experience, and the most important experience that they have is what they get inside the classroom. It is the involved instructor who brings that energy into that space and transfers it to their students.

Astin, Alexander W. “Student Involvement: A Developmental Theory for Higher Education.” Journal of College Student Development 1999: 40.5. Print.

 

 

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