June 28, 2009

The purpose of seminars/discussion

I'm at THATcamp this weekend and having a great deal of fun. (Check the Twitter archive for tweets with the #thatcamp tag...) But there is a lot of serious stuff here, and I was hoping that it would confirm or undermine the way I'm currently thinking about the problems of teaching online. The demography of the group doesn't quite give me enough of that reality check, since I'm in the minority as an experienced teacher; the majority of attendees are graduate students, staff members at one of the digital humanities centers in the country, or library/museum staff, but it still was a first shot at this. 

No disconfirmation in the relevant session, but it's honed the way I'm thinking about the purposes of a seminar or discussion. What many great humanities discussions share is the entree into and development of skills in a specific discourse and in "academicizing" more generally (to borrow a term from Stanley Fish). In memorable humanities discussions, teachers model analysis and establish an environment within which students can learn and practice close reading, the identification of key issues in a disciplinary or interdisciplinary context, the articulation of critical perspectives, and engagement in a dicursive community. 

Several characteristics of face-to-face classes contribute to that: the ability of a teacher to take any issue and analyze it extemporaneously, the ability to annotate material for everyone present (if verbally), the probing of assertions with either questions or counterarguments, and the capacity to revise arguments on the spot.

There are online tools for some of this, if without the immediacy. Diigo is a great social annotation tool; while it's not the type of immediacy that happens in close readings in class, I have some anecdotal evidence that it can be powerful for students. Teachers could take issues that pop up in discussion boards and expand upon them by modeling analysis and should probably be careful to construct prompts that set the stage for that. And I've been thinking about requiring weekly recorded fishbowl sessions with small numbers of students in my fall online class, as a way to generate some immediacy in the engagement.

In other words, no great insights, but the honing itself is important. And it required a bunch of people who are very comfortable online getting together face-to-face to bat around some ideas. There was an ironic moment in the session related to that fact: One staff member from the Center for History and New Media left the room just before the session to address some technical issues. I started moderating, and we generated a list of functions for seminars and discussions in general. She returned to the room, and as she started to talk a few minutes later, she said, "I'm sorry if this was mentioned before... I wasn't here at the beginning of the session."

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Posted in Teaching on June 28, 2009 7:33 AM |