Jennifer Hardwick is a 5th-year Ph.D. student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s. Her research interests include Contemporary North American Literature, Indigenous Studies, Rhetoric, Youth Culture, and the Digital Humanities. Jennifer is currently teaching a class on Youth and Digital Culture, in which she models her pedagogy on the concept of multi-literacy: that the emergence of new cultural technologies (New Media, Web 2.0) adds to and enriches the existing technological and cultural landscape (books, poetry).
Your class focuses on youth and cyber cultures. How do you feel that the class intersects with or informs your or your students understanding of the Digital Humanities?
The relationship between youth culture and digital culture has been a source of popular and scholarly fascination over the last few years. Cyber bullying, social networking, #occupywallstreet and #idlenomore, the growth of youth-generated artistic production online… all of it has created a great deal of curiosity and controversy. Do we need to save the children from digital media? Or are the children going to use digital media to save us? Books like Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation and Don Tapscott’s Grown Up Digital really tap into that debate.
Of course, the truth of the matter is far more complex and nuanced, which is really the point of my course. Digital technology is a tool, and as such, it is used differently by different individuals. A lot of academic and popular rhetoric surrounding digital media treats it as though it is this force in and of itself — something that has the power to corrupt or save — but the truth is technology needs users. If we want to understand why and how someone uses technology, we should probably look at that person’s social, cultural, political and economic contexts. In that sense, this course definitely leans towards the social end of the digital humanities spectrum. It seeks to better understand youth cultures, and to critically examine how those cultures both inform and are informed by technology and media.
What were some of the challenges that you and your students encountered?
I think both my students and I took our knowledge for granted going into this course. We all use digital media every day, and we know how it functions. We know intuitively that blogs and books are different, and that multimedia changes how we read. However, articulating those differences and changes is surprisingly hard. I struggled to build coherent lectures when dealing with material that was not remotely linear, and I watched my students struggle to draw comparisons and apply their analytical skills in different contexts. Sometimes I felt like we were all in the classroom looking at each other going “we know this. We do it every day. Why is this hard?” I think a lot of it has to do with language — we don’t have a scholarly vocabulary yet to describe so much of DH work. It’s developing, but it’s not standardized in the same way it is for something like literary analysis. As a result, talking about digital humanities work can make us feel inarticulate in a setting where we want to seem intelligent and well-spoken.
What were some of the surprises?
Two of the biggest surprises were related to the challenge of language I noted above. The first one is how adept all of my students were at media analysis, even if they’d never been trained in it. Once they were given a vocabulary and framework they blew me away. It came very naturally. It was like watching 99 people go “oh, this is what we’ve been doing. Cool.”
The second surprise was how unwilling my students were to state the obvious. I would ask in class about the differences between a novel and blog, and they would immediately jump to theme and narration and other familiar elements. No one put up a hand to say “you have to click through one and turn pages on the other, and that changes how you read.” It was like that wasn’t smart and analytical enough, it wasn’t exemplary of the kind of analytical thought we taught them was necessary. But it is so, so necessary to talk about those “simple” differences.
How do you think using or analyzing technology in the classroom equips students with skills that they might not gain elsewhere?
My course started with a very simple premise: cultural materials are not passive. Nothing is put out into the world without purpose; it is all designed to do something. Sometimes those purposes are obvious and sometimes they are not. Regardless, we need to think about it because there will always be an impact. The things we see, hear and read influence how we see ourselves and how we see the world around us. We know this. But we don’t often think about it critically when it comes to digital media.
Students have been taught from an early age to think about books, and to ask themselves what literature is doing. Reading is an exercise in critical thinking from the time you are about 7 years old and your teachers ask you about plot, characters and setting. It’s not the same with digital materials — we treat those very passively. Students are not given tools to think about the elements of multimedia, or to close read a music video or YouTube clip. That’s what this course asks students to do; to take those same critical thinking and close reading skills we teach in English, and to apply them to the digital media and technology they engage with every day. To ask the big questions: what is happening? How is it happening? Why does it matter?
How do you think DH or technologically informed approaches to scholarship have shaped your students’ understanding of the humanities?
One thing a number of my students have commented on is that they wish there was a more technologically informed approach to scholarship, particularly in the humanities. I have had a number of students say “I was so glad to see this class. It’s weird that we don’t look at this kind of material more often, considering we see it every day.”
A great deal of the human experience plays out online these days. The digital realm is home to large and important social, cultural and political movements, and it is a site of innovation and dialogue. In short, it is a humanities scholar’s paradise. All of the questions we ask about what it means to be human, about the relationships between the social and political, about how cultural shifts occur and why they matter… all of that can be found online. That is why I’m so excited to see things like the DH field school. There is so much work to be done.