Faculty Perspective: Teaching the Humanities to Humanity

Summary of a presentation by Peter Struck

I (Peter) am coming from a background as a practitioner, beginning especially with web 2.0 courses. We then offered a course over Coursera, 50,000 clicked ‘ok’, and about a quarter of them are active – it’s more in one course that I taught in a whole career at Penn. There’s clearly something happening and we need to be involved in it.

Let’s take a look at a picture of the ‘future’:

This picture obviously appears quaint, and not predictive. But why? Not because the medium couldn’t handle it – obviously TV could perform as described. But this function was not condusive to doing long-term serious intellectual work.

Now we’re moving into a new ‘future’, characterized by the microchip. We have a new kind of thing that’s happening in this new medium. But no one has answered the question of whether this medium is capable of helping us perform long-term intellectual work. I value most these long-form open-ended questions that allow us to interrogate ideas and each other’s words over an extended period of time.

The main problem is that the medium is mainly build on a form of distraction. It’s made with lots of things happening all at one; it’s a very low bar for people to respond to any twitch of curiosity that happens at one. In addition to this window, there’s any number of other windows. There’s email. This is what this medium does well.

The things I value most in the humanities might not survive in this new medium.

Cliff Naas, Stanford: I refer to his work. He talks about euphemisms in the contemporary setting, eg., ‘multitasking’, which is a euphemism for distraction.

Presenting to a video camera: I need to gin up my enthusiasm when speaking before a blank camera. My ‘classroom’ is a green screen. My course outline is a number of things – video is a big part of it, multiple-choice quizzes with radio budgets (because they can be graded ‘at scale’ – I’m really unsure about that). We have ‘peer-reviewed writing’ that’s a wonderful thing Coursera came up with, but it’s not good for high-stakes evaluation.

All of this is based on the premise is that what’s happening in the normal face-to-face class has been replaced, in the ‘flipped classroom’. This is a euphemism – but what we’re really doing is taking the live lecture and flipping it into the dustbin. But I don’t agree that the live lecture is broken and needs to be tossed out.

The live lecture is like the play, compared to the TV program. But we need to look at our lectures more critically. Are they any good? I think if I replaced my lectures with Coursera videos, I think my students would find the live lectures preferable.

The tradition as it’s handed down says that 50 minutes is the perfect amount of time to do what we’re doing in the humanities. But now we’re questioning it, which is good – but only because we have a new orthodoxy, which says that the idea time is 12 minutes. Or 8 minutes. But that’s what suits the medium, not necessarily what leads to a more vibrant learning experience.

My purpose, indeed, is to get my students excited about spending really long periods of time with people like Homer and Plato. If I can do this over Coursera, then maybe I’m doing the same thing at scale. I got lots of people emailing saying ‘this course changed my life’ – well that’s the sort of thing I care about it. People have their narrowness pointed out to them, and they explode beyond that. This format may allow us to do that at scale.

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