Public scholarship and undergraduate teaching

“Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful.  They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion.  For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. …But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing  good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.” (George Eliot)

I’ve been participating–with varying degrees of engagement, though with unflagging enthusiasm–in #connected courses this fall. As with so many other MOOCs and mooc-like online learning experiences, I find myself most engaged by the small conversations that happen around the edges of the organized course content. This is why I like Twitter, I think. I like to dip my toe in the endless stream, to be aware of what people are talking about, to engage, to meet others, to browse some of the blogs I would never otherwise encounter. I am, I suspect, a fox by practice even if a hedgehog by conviction, to abuse Isaiah Berlin’s immortal metaphor.


In other words, I like to separate myself intellectually and physically from the task at hand and move to another before the first is finished. Catch up with my own teaching and research obligations. Reconnect with my family life and my personal goals. Some people call this juggling. I think of it as an extension of my pleasure in browsing used book store shelves: even if I find a book I want to purchase right away, I love to look at all the others, to gather a pile of potential purchases and weigh them against each other before purchasing more than I can read in the near future.

One thing I love about online learning is that I can engage in it in fits and starts; it gives me the pleasure of browsing among an endlessly fascinating variety, and putting off committing to any individual endeavor that will necessarily narrow–and deepen–my engagement.

And this kind of self-paced engagement is, I am realizing, something my own students would love to do as well. Every semester, about halfway through, the energy in all my classes flags. I know that I need to step up my game this time of year, to plan a bit of a tap dance or sales job to help my students focus and commit to the topic at hand. Sometimes I’m more successful than others; but I always know I need to do more, to become not only professor but also entertainer-in-chief.

I often try to plan “fun” assignments for mid-semester. When I teach Jane Austen, I schedule “Dance like Jane Austen” day at this point. Or this is when we watch a film in class and live tweet our comments rather than discuss them. Or learn to enrich the visual and aural and design-based elements of whatever multi-media blogging platform we’re using that semester. This semester, for example, my students will be playing a game on Twitter, though that won’t begin for a couple more weeks.

I’ve always accepted the mid-semester doldrums as necessary evil of the academic calendar. Much like the halfway point of a long run, it’s the most difficult from a motivation standpoint, even if not the most challenging or difficult. (And if it IS the most difficult, then it’s sure to be even worse. It needs to be a time when students gather their energy since they don’t have reserves to spend.)

What does this have to do with public scholarship?

I’ve been thinking about how to inspire my students to redouble their efforts and reengage in the academic challenge, which has caused me to consider, as I so often do around this time of year, how to teach better next time around.

My lightbulb moment:  I want to propose for next year: Seminar in Public Scholarship. I was thinking about “connected scholarship”, but while Mimi Ito’s work and all I’ve learned via this #connected courses experience is a huge influence on my thinking, I think my potential students will intuitively understand the word “public” more easily, as they browse their choices in the catalog.

What would be the purpose, the “why” of this course?

I teach at a small, private liberal arts college in California. Our students are the products of a public education system in California that has suffered decades of neglect and worse. As the Connected Learning Network’s “Agenda for Research and Design” points out, parents of children from wealthier backgrounds are pouring ever-greater resources into their children’s lives to compensate for the gaps in public education, while parents of less wealthy families do not have that same ability. Our students are often from California’s less wealthy families. Our students are often first generation collegians, seeking a college degree for the promise of a future that will catapult them into the kinds of jobs and careers that they desire–careers often defined by autonomy, flexibility, prestige, and relatively high financial remuneration. Unfortunately, as Ito et al state succinctly: “A college degree has become a requirement for most good jobs, but is no longer a guarantee of acquiring one” (17).

Even if college is not a direct route to a “good job,” as many of my recently graduated students have discovered to their woe, I still believe that the work we do here, the learning that happens here, can be transformative and helpful in our students’ lives.

But how? That’s the real question, and that the question that so many private colleges are asking themselves in today’s market, with the manifold burdens of rising tuition, skyrocketing student debt, and a meandering or uncertain path from liberal arts into the “good jobs” that so many of our graduates need and desire.

I, a modest English professor who studies nineteenth century literature, am not going to solve all these social problems (though I am so very glad to read and benefit from the great work of folks like Mimi Ito, Elizabeth Losh, Cathy Davidson, Howard Rheingold, Gerald Graff, and many many more who together, I believe, will make a huge difference), but I do want to change my own teaching practice so that I address the real needs and concerns of my actual students. No surprise there, that’s a baseline value I imagine all #connectedcourses participants share. So, why do I imagine that a course titled something as obscure as “Seminar in Public Scholarship” will accomplish this?

But first, a “digression” into what students want:

What do my students want from their college classes? They want to learn, to have access to a world larger than they understand and older than any of us can imagine. They want to have a teacher who is a guide and a mentor who will make sense of that world, who will shine a light that organizes all the seemingly unconnected or disconnected strands into a coherent and knowable package that will directly impact their own lives. They want an entertainer, who will transmit to them knowledge in delicious and endlessly various nuggets. They want a warm and caring human being, who will forgive them their human failings, and inspire them to become better versions of themselves.

At least, that’s what I imagine they want. (Gosh, I think I need to ask them! How have I taught this many years and never actually asked!)

What I want, on the other hand, are students who do the learning themselves. Who look to me as an expert, but who enjoy the process of making new knowledge for themselves. And what I’ve realized is that these two concepts are not so very disparate. A few times in the past few years I’ve felt at moments that students’ needs and my own teaching desires were energizing each other. Twice now, I’ve felt close to achieving a surprising approximation of this kind of learning. This semester, teaching my connected courses class, and last year when teaching an Austen seminar which connected to both scholarly discourse and Austen pop-culture life online. In those two classes, especially, there were periods where students own interest was driving the content. This level of engagement was uneven among students, and waxes and waned during the semester. But the possibility that student interest could motivate class discussions, could enrich assignments so that students worked well beyond expectations, could obviate the need for “edutainment.” Now those are moments I savor.

Finally: why a seminar in public scholarship?

What I now think I want to try is to build a seminar that leads students through a few steps toward taking control of their own education. I keep working at this, and I think I’ve realized the missing ingredient. Students NEED access to all those qualities I listed above as their ideal teacher. And I, flawed and limited human that I am, cannot fulfill all those roles. On good days, maybe I’ll embody one or two. On bad days…well, enough said.

I alone am not enough to enable my students to envision themselves into their own personal ideal, and stimulate them to work toward that ideal, and give them all the resources they need to get there, and console them for the difficulties they encounter along the way…etc. I think no single teacher actually is enough (though I know there are amazing teachers out there who get a LOT closer than I ever will). Maybe that’s why most academics I know live with a low level of “imposter syndrome” always at work in our souls. We see the need, and our inability to fill it, and we wilt a bit.

But, here’s the thing: somewhere, at some point in history or on the map, someone exists who can be the perfect mentor for each individual student at each moment of her learning trajectory! Voilá! That’s the promise of connected learning, and, especially, of personal learning networks. But there’s a catch:

What is clear from the existing literature is that currently it is generally educationally privileged youth with effective learning supports at home who are able to take full advantage of the new learning opportunities that the online world has to offer and to translate these opportunities to their academic and career success. …[but]…

The emerging hypothesis that undergirds our approach is that the majority of young people need more supports to translate and connect their new media engagements toward more academic, civic, and production oriented activities. We advocate for more focused research that examines both in-school and out-of-school supports for self-directed, interest-driven, and technologically enabled learning through the lens of equity and opportunity around envisioning various ways to interact with the world as a scholar. (25)

So, my “Seminar in Public Scholarship” is born. I want to scaffold in a process by which students can find role models (in the largest sense) to help them articulate what kind of post-graduation person they want to become. Then, after they have created their own “why” for their education (or at least for their engagement in the individual course) then we can work on the literacies of twenty-first century connected learning. In the past, I’ve started with ideas, and skipped directly to skills. This time, next time, I will start with asking them to create their own “why”, their own image of their future “best self” so they can then learn those things that will help them become that self.

Perhaps, like Eliot’s Dorothea, most of us spend ourselves in diffuse avenues. But maybe, if we are very lucky, we can become, like Dorothea, a positive benefit to the world we inherit. I know that the language I use of “best self” comes loaded with Ruskin’s assumptions and Victorian oversights, and that Dorothea is hardly a heroic role model. But these ideals live in my mind and inspire me to continue to work. And maybe–maybe my students need to find their own guiding light, who though limited and imperfect, might embody the values and strivings that inspire them?

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? As I type out these final sentences, I realize that many of my #connected course colleagues are probably already doing versions of this. Please share your strategies in comments!

A few of my inspirations for this (way too long) blog post:

5 Replies to “Public scholarship and undergraduate teaching”

  1. The idea of a “your best self” class sounds fascinating, Andrea – what a great way for the students to get to know themselves, and also such an opportunity for them to get to know each other too. Some, but not all, of my students are looking for role models in the stories we read in class, inspiring wisdom, the proverbial moral compass. Some students go a different route, choosing stories to retell in which they get to pretend to be someone very far removed from our lives, from this world, experimenting with events and ideas in that “otherworldly” way of dreams. As I see it, that’s all good because it is all open-ended, creative, imaginative, a way to discover things that are not written down in any book… and which are certainly not on the final exam, ha ha, because there is no final exam… because life is NOT an exam. Thank goodness!

    So, I am very curious to hear where you go with this, and where this “self-directed, interest-driven, and technologically enabled learning” will take you and your students! And who they will connect with as it happens!

    Oh, I just thought of something, a friend of mine at G+ was sharing something about a project she does with her students, where they work on exploring their “future community,” a community they want to be part of in their futures. Look for the comments by Karen M on down in the discussion here:

    And here’s her page at Google+

    1. Thanks for the warm comments, Laura. That future community project is fascinating! I’ll definitely check it out. Thanks for the link.

      The course would be about connecting the study of (Victorian) literature to students’ more pressing life questions. Trying to help them feel empowered to make new connections by finding ways that they can be authorized “speakers” or scholars.

      I am doing a course focused on students developing their own PLNs for their undergraduate reseach projects this semester, and I realize that many are struggling because they still think of themselves as receivers of information rather than full participants in a scholarly community. So this proposed course would focus on helping them develop a sense of themselves as “scholars” by finding others to emulate, first, and then by developng their own voices through blogging, etc. I guess it’s really taking a technique from creative writing classes–first emulate, then challenge.

      1. That sounds so exciting, Andrea! I teach Gen. Ed. so the goal is not so much to get students to see themselves as literary scholars, but instead as storytellers – not just reading stories, but telling them. It’s so much fun to be able to get them to connect in that way to the storytellers we read for class, so that I can say to them: great, you are being like Homer when you use that first-person narration of the adventure… or you are being like Scheherazade by pausing the story there and making us wait. I look forward to hear more about how the class takes shape!

  2. This is a rich and wonderful post, Andrea (if I may). Before I make some remarks let me introduce you to Rohan Maitzen, whom I met at a now dormant group blog, The Vavle. She’a Victorianist at Dalhousie who’s deeply concerned about reaching a public audience. Here’s a recent interview. And here’s (the first page of) a project she did at The Valve, a group reading of Adam Bede. She scheduled the chapters, provided links to secondary sources, and wrote a series of posts to which we all responded.

    You might want to look at this interview w/ Alan Liu, Reengaging the Humanities. As you may know, in the past two decades or so Liu has become perhaps the primary evangelist for the so-called “digital humanities.” He says:

    Engaging, or reengaging, the public to make a persuasive case for the value of the humanities will need to be a long campaign over many generations – a far longer time horizon than the longest typical time line for activism in the contemporary humanities (going back to May 1968).

    Second, I say “reengaging” in the sentence above because the issue of how the humanities should present themselves to society is part of a broader theme today: the great change in how institutional expertise of many kinds (e.g., in higher education, cultural or heritage institutions, journalism, government) engage with the new public networked knowledge (exemplified by Wikipedia or the blogosphere). There is no longer a one way flow in which experts send their knowledge to the public (mediated by journalism and other agencies) while the public sends back only mute feedback in the form of tax dollars, tuition, subscriptions, membership fees, and so on. The flow is increasingly bidirectional or multidirectional. Presenting the humanities afresh to the public today will mean helping to create the new institutional structures, practices, incentives, discourses, and technologies needed for reinventing the role of expertise in the world.

    Further on:

    Finally, imagine that yet another set of tools helps us solicit and harvest public feedback, crowdsourced knowledge, and crowdfunding. The basic idea is that we ought to equip the humanities – whether individual scholars or programs – with the means for generating from their normal workflow an accompanying wave of public materials and public message streams. We want to expose to public view – in process as well as after the fact – some of the actual living stuff of what we do: our discoveries, our ideas, our best classroom questions, our best student projects, and, as it were, our best doubts and weaknesses as well, the existential and practical ones that show us to be thoughtful participants in, and not just commentators on, the shared human drama.

    And then:

    In the end, it may all come down to that loaded word in your question: “instrumentality.” What do we in the humanities think instrumentality can be? … But the humanities have their own rich, deep, full-throated tradition of instrumentality, originating in a far past when higher education had not yet divided from religious institutions – or, rather, when there was a mix of older institutions and newer polytechnic and other institutions. I am myself a stranger to religion. … But we don’t need to be religious to know that the humanities have a deep relation to the humanistic version of a mission, which is service to humanity. Service is the instrumentalism of the humanities. If today’s neoliberal informationalism runs on client-server data architectures, then it’s the mission of the humanities to renovate, expand, and humanize the idea of service buried latently in the servers of neoliberalism. The purpose of those servers is to serve human beings, not “clients.” If the humanities are increasingly proletariatized in “service” positions in universities, where their faculty do more teaching, etc., then their long-term mission should be to convert a position of weakness to one of strength by growing both the academic and public awareness of the capabilities, range, and status of service until it seems a fundamental function of all expert activity – one in which the humanities can not only be a partner but, as befits any true partner, a leader when called upon.

    I’ve got some comments on this interview over at my own blog, New Savanna.

    On mentors, is your institution affiliated with Mentornet? The organization uses the web to provide mentoring to students interested in STEM careers and is particularly interested in helping women and minorities.

    Finally, and as an aside, back in my undergraduate days, when a course “clicked” with me I usually found some topic or project by mid-semester that grabbed me more than the scheduled course content, so I tended to follow that and neglected the course proper.

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