College Teaching and Research in the Digital Realm

The dirty little secret about college teaching is that not everybody is concerned with doing it well. No one is dedicated to doing it badly and all would rather be better at it than worse, but how much effort one puts into it is variable.  There really two parts of a college teacher’s job: producing scholarship and teaching.  There are certainly other aspects of it such as college administration through committee service, department chairing and even administration for those who have crossed over to the dark side.  Rarely do these however earn one the accolades, rewards and academic promotions of scholarship and teaching.  The degree to which either is valued depends upon the department, university and individual interest of the individual. Although the Holy Grail would be to do both well most of us fall short of that ideal. How much of each is expected varies from the major research universities where research and scholarship may be all and teaching is seen as a burden, to those colleges which see teaching as the mission and scholarship as just an extra garnish that may or may not be added. Most academic institutions lie somewhere on this continuum.

Excursions into the digital realm similarly lie along this path. I was reminded of this recently in a workshop I attended on the “digital humanities.” Most often this term is applied to either research in the humanities which uses digital tools or research that asks humanities questions about digital phenomena. (see here).  To be sure there has also been much work on using the digital realm to teach ranging from online education to “blended” education which combines tradition face to face teaching with digital extensions of it. In my limited experience those involved with the digital realm have been toward one extreme or another of the scholarship/teaching continuum.  The “digital humanities folks” have either been finding new ways to perform or present their research with little regard for its teaching value or they have been busy digitizing material so that research (including undergraduate research) can become easier. The “digital teaching’ folks have given little attention to the research aspect of what they do.  They have been more concerned with finding ways to reach an increasingly out of their “mode of thinking” college population.

I am not criticizing either group.  There are myriad reasons for their particular foci and theirs is a rational response to them. I am simply arguing that these are not the only valid responses to current educational conditions and wondering if there are not additional paths.  Can we find some way of incorporating digital humanities scholarship into teaching or new digital teaching into the humanities digital and otherwise? In some ways I an urging a dialectical response where digital humanities and digital teaching each act upon and therefore change the other rather than the gulf which now separates them.

In the workshop which I attended mine was the only project of the fifteen which tried to combine original and secondary research with the aim of producing a teaching platform rather than simply a presentation one for research they had done.  Of course this imbalance may have been attributable to the people who selected the participants in the workshop rather than the field as a whole.  However in talking to the NEH program officer who had funded the workshop I got the feeling that this imbalance was not unusual in his experience. Of course other program officers have different bailiwicks and different funding sources have different concerns. I would urge them not only to follow the digital scholarship/teaching divide but to at least examine and possibly encourage the projects that combine the two.

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