Given the rockiness of my start in digital pedagogy, it’s astonishing that I have become such an enthusiastic supporter.
When I first consulted with someone from DPR about five years ago, I couldn’t seem to convey my pedagogical needs. The young man I talked to didn’t really seem to understand university teaching in the humanities. He showed me some really awesome stuff such as how to produce brightly colored farm animals or copies of the Venus de Milo with a 3d-printer. The “coolnes factor,” however, wasn’t enough to move me from my more intellectual goals or to make me overcome my anxiety about learning new technologies. But I tried again. This time I met with Diane Jakacki who understood immediately how I hoped to use digital pedagogy to encourage students to learn more actively and to commit more deeply to their research assignments. She helped me create a class that culminated in a digital book on Frank Lloyd Wright’s renowned Fallingwater, Mill Run. This class was an extraordinary teaching and learning experience. I witnessed a level of student engagement and commitment to a project that was deeper than I ever imagined possible. The following summer, thanks to a Mellon Grant, I was able to attend the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria. This experience finalized my total conversion to digital pedagogies. Now, I have at least one digital assignment in every class I teach. These usually include creating a digital exhibition, writing a Wikipedia article, or blogging.
For me the great appeal of digital pedagogies, along with the way they foster student engagement, is the way the digital assignments move students out of their comfort zones, encourage them to discover their curiosity, and teach them how to navigate collaborative projects. These are skills that promote intellectual growth and likewise arm students with practical skills that can be used in the work world. Because they demand more than memorization or even a synthesis of ideas, active learning assignments help students discover and have confidence in their own voices.
I have gained new insights by working collaboratively with students on digital research projects. Their ability to see the world with fresh eyes and different values has helped me be open to new ideas and approaches. For instance, my ongoing research project at Lewisburg’s Packwood House was inspired when I overheard a student say how intriguing she found the museum. This continuing, community engagement project has involved students in a number of digital initiatives. These include a digital tour of the Asian objects in the collection, a catalog of the paintings of Edith Fetherston, the museum’s founder, the creation of an Omeka site for archival materials and works of art. My current class is creating a short documentary about Edith Fetherston and her small-town celebrity in Lewisburg.
Discovering digital technology at a late stage in my career meant learning new skills and new ways of thinking about knowledge. While this presented challenges, they were absolutely worth meeting. Using digital pedagogies revitalized my waning interest in teaching and shifted my research interests to exciting new areas.