Pulling Threads Together, I

If you’re reading this post live, it’s Day of Digital Humanities 2013 – a project I discovered, as if by accident, during one of the sessions at this weekend’s Digital Classics Association conference.  It’s also the first day back at school after Spring Break, and the beginning of a new reporting period … and as I glanced at the school calendar for the week ahead, it’s the time when, as Ms. X sometimes puts it, “the madness begins.”  There are just over two months of school left, and they’re filled – to and sometimes past the point of endurance – with important stuff and necessary stuff and stuff that’s always been there.  And somehow, it seemed to me as I was driving home on Sunday, those different threads (the conference itself, Day of DH, the time of the school year, the fullness, and some others) can and should be woven together into … something.

But what?  Early last week, before she departed on her Spring Break adventure, I took my daughter to buy some yarn for a crochet project she hoped to accomplish on her long bus ride.  She’s making a prop for her school’s spring musical, and it required some “uniquely lovely” colors that she’d normally never buy, let alone combine.  As we were looking for the most perfectly awful pairs of orange and pink available, it struck me that her needlework projects are a pretty good metaphor for the work that skillful teachers do with and sometimes for our students.  There’s a desired outcome, or several.  Certain tools and resources are available … or not.  There may or may not be a pattern you can follow exactly.  But even when there is a pattern, the product itself (in this case, deliberately awful-looking golf club covers)  becomes your own because of all the minute-by-minute decisions you make.

And, of course, those needlework projects are also a reasonable metaphor for the work I’m trying to do now, to see and explain a pattern in seemingly disparate events over the past few days.  And they’re a great metaphor for the work of the humanities, and the digital humanities work that was featured, from so many perspectives, in the sessions, workshops, and conversations over meals at DCA.

But I wonder whether that fundamental focus on connections is compatible with the 20th-century factory paradigm that still organizes so many schools and universities.  When the model is knowledge transmission, the only permissible connections for novice learners are those that have already been seen, documented, and enshrined as important or canonical or generally accepted.  Connections, unlike discrete facts, don’t lend themselves well to standardized testing or standardized instruction.  As Geoffrey Rockwell put it in his closing remarks on Saturday, Classics is a “fundamentally interdisciplinary” subject: you can’t study the ancient world without looking at language and culture, written texts and artifacts, the archaeological and the literary record.  But in a knowledge-transmission factory, each field and subfield is seen as fundamentally separate.

Years ago, a colleague of mine took a rarely-used Official Course Description and Number and developed a remarkable, connection-seeking “World Humanities” course that students loved.  The course is still offered, but he no longer teaches it … because, according to the Powers That Be, he “can’t.”  The Official Course Number, you see, is a social studies course, and Mr. P isn’t a certified social studies teacher.  No one in that department really wanted to teach it, but finally someone agreed … and now the course is taken by students who “need another social studies course.”  It’s a pretty good one, I’m told, with attractive PowerPoints for the lectures and a nice-looking textbook … but it’s also a powerful symbol of how factory systems respond to the real or perceived threat of interdisciplinary work, boundary crossing, and pattern seeking.

At this mid-point in the semester, my Latin II students will be looking backwards and forwards as they discover new verb tenses and rewrite old stories from new time perspectives.  I’ve always loved re-reading … but re-reading, like pattern seeking, is oddly disconnected from the work that factory-model education aims to do.  Yes, if you’re “bad and lazy,” you should re-read The Chapter, and yes, everyone should “go over” Ms. X’s notes before The Test, but the mark of a “good” student is that you “got it the first time,” isn’t it?  As we build Joyful Learning Communities, and as we move beyond that factory-model pattern, perhaps one very important part of our shared work will be to remove the stigma of re-reading, revisiting, and rethinking.

How hard – or how easy – will it be to do that within those existing structures?  And what will we do today to invite colleagues, students, and others to lay down the tools of disconnection for a while and pick up those metaphorical crochet hooks, knitting needles, and other tools of connection?

Published in: on April 8, 2013 at 10:35 am  Leave a Comment  

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