I just had the opportunity to speak at the 2012 MLA in Seattle on the topic of “Visual Studies in the English Classroom,” a panel sponsored by the Society for Textual Scholarship. Like many things MLA this year, the focus was distinctly digital, and I presented the collaboration Elizabeth Lee and I have been working on for a co-taught, cross-disciplinary Mosaic set of courses on “Transatlantic American Modernisms.” In particular, I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to ways in which students visualize what they learn, both as a conceptual tool and a memory aid, especially for memories with a longer horizon than a single semester. To accomplish this, Elizabeth and I want to map the students’ research, and take them to the two cities that will be the focus of our classes together: New York and Paris. You can see a PDF and view a PowerPoint presentation of what was said, and a working (if crude and unfinished) example of what this mapping project would look like is here. When it happens, I think it will be an engaging new way to approach texts and ideas that I’ve been teaching my whole career.
I delivered this paper alongside some amazing colleagues who are engaged in similar work. Ryan Cordell gave a fascinating paper on mapping the republications (and paratexts) of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad,” offering the beginnings of a quantitative account of the groundbreaking research from scholars like Meredith McGill. Using census data, he also gave an account of the geographical reach of different religious denominations in the mid-19th-century (spoiler alert: Methodists and Baptists are all over the map, Unitarians not so much… standing on its head the outsized role of Unitarian thought in the 19th-century canon). Most compellingly, Ryan was able to demonstrate that the “The Celestial Railroad” itself moved along extant railroad lines, that for all of the story’s ambivalence about technological change, technology was also the current that distributed the text around the country. What this might mean for our reading of the story itself is still in the works, and this challenge for the digital humanities to move from context to text is something I’ll be excited to see the digital humanities as a field wrestle with in the coming years (it’s as viable a critique of our plans as well, and while I make the claims for serendipity and unexpected proximity, how such an argument would look fully fleshed out isn’t something I’ll have access to until after the class is taught… it’s my hope that this class will produce exciting new research possibilities as well). You can read, and see, Ryan’s research here.
The other two papers were in part about curricular innovations, one at a major research university and the other at a liberal arts college smaller than Dickinson. Stephanie Murray talked about the BXA Program at Carnegie Mellon, where B stands for Bachelor’s, A for Arts, and the X for the variable between them. Students in this program are encouraged to think across disciplines and divisions with respect to the arts, and the program serves as a laboratory, or framework, for self-designed majors that don’t then exist on their own islands within the university (a major drawback I’ve seen for students pursuing self-designed majors at Dickinson, compelling as this work has been).
Perrin Kerns and Jay Ponteri spoke about digital storytelling and the Text:Image concentration in the English Department at Marlyhurst University in Portland. Perrin performed her own argument, producing a video as her paper and talking about the ways in which their focus on visual and digital literacies has led to a joint venture with the Art and Interior Design department at Marlyhurst (English has a Text:Image concentration, Art an Image:Text one). Jay talked about the ways in which student creative work is crossing these boundaries as well. The whole department was in the room; it sounds like an heady place to teach, collaborate, and learn.
In these two papers I was struck mostly by how other institutions have come up with structural and curricular responses—no doubt with their own complexities and complications—to the difficulties and rewards of transdisciplinary and co-taught projects. Precepting at Princeton back in the day, and wheedling my way onto American Studies team teaching assignments as the only viable way for me to get experience designing syllabi there, has meant that I’ve taught collaboratively since the start of my career (heck, even the teaching I did in Japan was with two teachers always in the room). Having had the chance to team teach with the incomparable Sharon O’Brien last spring, and planning this Mosaic with Elizabeth over the past year, has only ratified my conviction that my students and I both learn more not only when the structure of the class is dialogic, but when the instruction is as well. In conventional classes, this means bringing in guest speakers, placing classes together in the same room, and getting students out of the classroom and into the exhibition space/performance hall/public lecture as often as possible. I’m still hatching plans for co-taught classes in early American literature, image and text studies, Faulkner, and a raft of other possibilities, but have found that I have to essentially reinvent the wheel each time I do this. I’m inspired—not this year, or before the tenure process is completed, to be sure—to think about what a structural response to transdisciplinary, co-taught work might look like at Dickinson beyond simply cross-listing courses. How do you privilege, and incentivize, curricular innovation in structural ways without placing undue strain on the conventional disciplines (whose structures I admire, and whose boundaries can act as viable generative devices for students’ learning… something often lost in the millennial fervor around the digital humanities and interdisciplinarity)? Is this possible in a time of limited resources, and what do we trade in order to let such models flourish? Who’s with me?
Corollary: Stanley Fish and Kathleen Fitzpatrick on the changes wrought to the profession by the digital humanities. Responses here (all of Pannapacker’s missives from the conference are must reads) and here and elsewhere, coming to the interwebs near you.