Strengths in the Humanities

Jason Jackson is one of those people I wish I could be around more: he is principled, thoughtful, and acts for the long-term. So when he casually tags something on social media, I’ll almost always have a look. Most recently, he linked to an article by Helene Meyers in Inside Higher Education on How small liberal arts colleges can best weather the pandemic, noting that humanities scholars might take a few tips from Meyers.

The entire article is worth a read, but for the purposes of re-thinking my own courses for the fall, and just generally re-thinking how I teach, I want to focus on the following things that Meyer highlights as strengths of liberal arts colleges:

  • low faculty/student ratios and small classes “allow meaningful mentoring relationships with faculty members as well as peer education. What if a British-style tutorial were part of every first-year student’s experience? Among smaller groups, meetings powered by Zoom can foster intellectual community, while online discussion forums can require students to respond to one another’s writing.”
  • intensive research seminars “where faculty-guided independent work is supplemented with a cohort of peers who can help vet one another’s projects and learn to ask (and answer) critical questions about both the research process and its products should be provided for upper-class students.”
  • study pandemic-related topics “to [help students] process the experiences of this moment” keeping mind that some students “might need to lose themselves in a passion that seems distant from the horrors of the present.”
  • integrate career coaching throughout the curriculum because “the next few graduating classes will be entering a brutal job market, and we owe our students careful instruction in the development and transferability of marketable skills.”

I see all these things as possible and even within my reach — so long as I am willing to stretch — with career coaching being the weakest point for me. Here, I will have to do more research and, I think, I will also have to consider ways to highlight portable skills/methods/ideas. (I know, I know: it’s the commodification of knowledge and education, but nothing says that making things complex or emphasizing, and perhaps teaching, that all syntheses are dynamic and ever-changing can’t be built into any particular course program or disciplinary curriculum.)

*This post is part of a series in which I design a new course, ENGL 334: Digital Folklore and Culture, in the open. I do so for myself, for my colleagues, and for my students. They are all collected under the tag open course design.

Who is this course for?

This post is one of several in which I am designing a new course, ENGL 334: Digital Folklore and Culture, that I will also be teaching in a new context, remotely, and doing so completely in the open. Other posts are tagged open course design.

The Udemy How to Set Your Course Goals course begins with a consideration of who is the target student, with the understanding that courses that attempt to reach too broad of an audience end up reaching no one. Beginners feel overwhelmed and experienced individuals feel under-served. Target an audience.

After brainstorming on paper for a bit, I came up with, I think a basic list:

This course assumes that participants:

  • while fully enrobed in cultural, and folkloric, dynamics do not necessarily understand those dynamics,
  • but are interested in, and committed to, that understanding;
  • have a working familiarity with the research process — the development of an hypothesis, the collection of data, the testing of ideas against the hypothesis, and the eventual development of a syn/thesis — and need for clear communication of results;
  • willing to apply ideas and methods learned in this course (and elsewhere in the university) to materials that seem ephemeral, trivial, trolling, ass-holish (racist, sexist, classist, etc.).§

§ This course also assumes participants can handle language and/or cultural artifacts that are of intentionally or intentionally provocative/offensive in nature. Indeed, this course assumes participants want to understand why people say/do such things.

Why did I switch to Udemy? May was both busy and not, but the month slipped by and I lost access to the edX 101 course on designing courses for edX. (The edX model is that you can audit, take for free, a course for a limited time, but if you want access to it for more than a month or if you want it to count towards a curriculum, then you have to pay for it. The “if you want credit” model worked for me, but “if you want access for more than a month” appears not work for me.) The upshot is that I have switched to the Udemy course, which also means I have switched to a platform that is open to hosting courses by individuals: both edX and Coursera offer courses through affiliated institutions and organizations. I don’t know that what I do will end up on Udemy, but I can certainly take advantage of their “market aware” approach to sharpen my thinking about the course.

Designing a Course on Digital Folklore & Culture

This is the first post in a series entitled open course design in which all the design work of a new course, ENGL 334: Digital Folklore and Culture, is made public.

In Fall 2020, UL-Lafayette is going to offer for the first time a course on Digital Folklore and Culture. I will be teaching it alongside the American Folklore course, which I have for the past few years taught as “America in Legend Online and Off,” but which I have lately adapted to “collect some data and understand it.” There is, I think, a possible sequence to be had with the two courses: with the first one focusing on participants encountering a variety of vernacular forms and, perhaps, examining them as individual artifacts, and the second course then taking on more features of a course in culture analytics, with participants encouraged to curate a small collection, perhaps even imaginable as a corpora, and then making some forays into analysis “at scale.”

It would be nice to have them as a sequence, since that would mean that the introductions — to folklore and to folklore studies — could be safely housed in the lower-level course, allowing the upper-level course to move more quickly. Given our curriculum and the way our students encounter it, that isn’t going to happen any time soon, and so if I want to try this out, I will need to discover a path that allows people to enter in at the 400-level course and not feel like they are lost.

Some part of this could be satisfied by having a module introducing folklore studies, with a focus on digital folklore forms, available. I have begun the EdX 101 course as a way to help me think through how I might structure and script such a module: they are very fond of the lecture exercise model that delivers content in short bursts that are immediately reinforced. I’m also taking Microsoft’s DAT256x: Essential Math for Machine Learning on edX, and I like that the lectures only start with a talking head but then move to a series of slides. (And I note that the slides don’t have to be great to work.)

I don’t know if I need to think through the Digital Folklore and Culture course before thinking about the introductory module, but edX has the following questions as the first project activity:

  • What are the ultimate aims of this course?
  • What do we want learners to know after taking this course? What should they be able to do?
  • How does this influence (a) what is taught, (b) how it’s taught, and c) how students are assessed and graded?

What are the ultimate aims of this course? Ultimately, I want participants to have a folkloristic lens as one way to look at the world. All of us will have a variety of responses to various things others say and do, and we can examine both their actions and speech for veracity — myth busting in some places or calling bullshit in others — but I would also participants in any course I teach also to be able to ask “Why does this person think they are saying this or doing this? What is their understanding of this situation?” I don’t need, nor want, participants to excuse inexcusable behavior or beliefs, but the only way I think we have of changing behaviors and beliefs is to understand what underlies them.

What should learners be able to do after taking this course? Participants should be able to identify a vernacular artifact and to begin to sketch out its possible traditional, or perhaps simply cultural, dimensions.

How does this influence the course’s design? This is the hardest question. And it needs to be answered in parts:

One of the things I have consistently done in recent courses is to turn away from textbooks and books and towards articles drawn from scholarly databases, with the hope of establishing in the minds of participants what scholarship at least looks like if not the beginning of an ability to understand how it works and how they might interact with it. What I haven’t done is discover ways to assess how well they are mastering the scholarly/scientific paradigm, bar certain parameters of the final paper. There needs to be more, smaller, assignments: a single annotated bibliographic entry, for example.

But this does not address the central topic of Digital Folklore and Culture as outlined in the previous two answers: identify vernacular artifacts and explore their traditional dimensions. This should also be a series of discrete exercises that can be assessed early, often, and incrementally.