Three professors from across the University of Southern California took part in a thought-provoking conversation about technology’s place in teaching the humanities Tuesday, moderated by USC Shoah Foundation director of education Kori Street. The panel was co-hosted by the USC Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics.
The panelists were Holly Willis, chair of the Media Arts + Practice Division and director of USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Institute for Multimedia Literacy; James Collins, assistant professor of classics; and Mark C. Marino, associate professor of writing, director of the Humanities and Critical Code Studies Lab and director of the Electronic Literature Organization.
The panelists each shared their different experiences using technology in the classroom. Willis led a short-lived initiative to make digital learning a mandatory part of general education courses at USC. Marino uses different digital learning tools in his writing courses, and Collins said the classics discipline was one of the earliest adopters of computing tools and digital texts.
Street first asked the panel what they thought of the “myth” that technology and the humanities are not related.
“I see it more as a misunderstanding,” Marino said.
In the technology sector, there is often a fear of the humanities or resentment toward them – the feeling that “code is a subjective-free-zone,” without time for humanities-style debates, Marino said. Collins agreed that the “division is often contrived.”
Willis pointed out that technology has to be “organic” to the discipline itself. If digital tools don’t truly fit into the lesson at hand, they can be seen as imposed.
When Street asked about the challenges and opportunities for incorporating the digital into the classroom, Willis spoke about visiting a classroom in a technology-oriented high school. The teacher was giving a quiz, but conducted it with an interactive, performance-like routine that totally engaged the students.
Though Willis was fascinated by the lesson, others at the school dismissed it because it didn’t incorporate technology. Willis said that technology shouldn’t automatically replace such powerful low-tech learning experiences.
Collins said that in a discipline like classics, technology can get in the way of learning. Learning ancient Greek and other subjects requires “slow reading,” and digital tools can distract students from truly understanding the text. He said using the Perseus Digital Library Project, an online database of Greco-Roman texts, actually hindered his own learning even though it seemed like it would accelerate it.
“I could ask questions but I couldn’t use the text to answer those questions,” Collins said. He added that while he believes students can distinguish between productive and distracting technology, it’s the instructor’s responsibility to slow students down and “get their attention in the right way.”
Marino used his daughter as an example of a student who’s “tech savvy enough to know when not to be tech savvy.” She created a Blogspot website about her visit to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam complete with a 3D rendering of the interior, but kept her focus on the physical experience of being in the museum space, not fancy digital tools.
“Our job is to teach the creative and critical re-appropriation of these tools,” Marino said.
(l-r in the photo above: Kori Street, Holly Willis, Mark C. Marino, James Collins)