Teaching Philosophy

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

From what I remember of my younger days, I used to consider myself a “teacher.” I was someone who “instructed” students in the arcane arts of reading, writing, literature and history. I grew up a medievalist and nurtured the image of the dusty scholar in his library professing on Beowulf.

Academics call themselves by many names, such as educator, professor, teacher, and so forth. It’s a jumble. And it’s not really that important how one perceives oneself in a job, unless that perception grows dangerous, whatever that might mean. In any event, I see myself now as simply being in a position to offer opportunities for people to learn a particular framework or set of methods or ideas. These opportunities are dressed in assignments assessed after completion by standards of evaluation in a particular “course” of study.

I don’t worry so much anymore about whether students want to learn, care about the work, or even do the work, as the opportunities are offered and left at that. Students will jump in and get wet or stay out of the water and find something else to do. Those who are excited about the work dig and in and go to work. Over the years, I’ve learned that my own worries matter little to a person who isn’t interested. I can’t make people like or be interested in something. This can be tricky, as it may sound like indifference.

Here’s a case. Sometimes we show examples of new media to people and they get excited about it. But when the work comes, people turn away, wanting to jump right into the “creating” part: how do I animate a ball; how do I make that kind of film; how do I do that cool stuff to photographs? They don’t want to know about the real work and some don’t care about knowing it. Those that do care are “students.” Both kinds of people want to do the cool stuff the authors or teams of authors of which have gone through thousands of hours of academic or self-study to create. The “student” is willing to be patient. That’s why we like those people who will work for hours on a problem and rarely show evidence of conceding.

Second case. I still find “new media” a useful rubric to describe web work, games, world simulations, film, electronic literature, digital graphic design, and programming. “New media” as the rubric describes a host of human concerns–methods, concepts, and objects–that have found fruition in the digital. We develop plans, evaluate those plans, prototype, follow disciplined production, and evaluate, fix, then try something else. For me, “new media” describes a method of work, a describable tool set and vocabulary, a community, an ecology, and an economy. New media as an ecology is a set of concepts and structural apparatus. Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson captured, I think, the basic ethos and ecology of new media in their conceptual flourishes. Facebook’s TOS issues are a good example of an ecology in action: thousands of years of law, communication, machines, and human discourse.

Third case. “New Media” has very little in the way of pedagogical history. There are lots of programming text books. These books are good for tracing pedagogical history. But “New Media” is hard to capture in a text book. Rather, it’s a collection of nodes: from the writings at A List Apart to books published by O’Reilly to the work done at the hundreds of labs around the world and by software developers and engineers, librarians and artists, and the archivists of emulators. That list also includes architects who plan for media and data; city planners who embed computing into their street lights; and researchers who dig into the potentials of nanotech. Our friend Ted Mikulski is a “new media” person because he works with Second Life and connects that work to architecture, design, and communication tools; in his work, he uses multiple systems and evaluates problems for fixing (such as SL’s method of human scaling). But he’s also a painter “New Media” pedagogies are, therefore, related to the traditions of communication and architecture.

If I want to have deep discussion with students on the subject of e-literature, then what’s the prerequisite? Lots of literature courses? That takes time. Some coverage of the “memex”? How does one have a conversation about linking when a person may not have a lot of experience with poetry in the first place? What will the added aesthetic burdens mean? Here’s an example. In our Digital Narrative course at the college, a student asked me what I meant by analyzing 253 for a project he’s working on. I asked him if he’d had any literature courses and he answered no. Thus I learn. We’re developing the course and we need to know what proper prerequisites to add to the course. But is literature a proper prerequisite? In an ideal situation, a student taking digital narrative would have an intro to programming course, a design course, some history and literature courses, a creative writing course, a math course, and an intro to computer graphics course. Wow, that’s a lot of prerequisites. But the list makes a case for the ideal “new media” student: a student involved in a multi-disciplinary, inter-dsciplinary way of looking at the world.

Tools vs Concepts
In our new media approach at the college, we don’t emphasize tools, though we introduce students to them. We want to provide students opportunity to think and make decisions in new media contexts that require problem solving, literacy, and collaboration. Given this problem, what’s the right tool or collection of them? In this context, comparison comes from some amount of practice with a number of tools and their “intrinsic” functionality. I had a student ask: can I animate an image in Tinderbox? I said no. Flash is our animation tool, but you can also animate with (fill in the blank). Why animate when you should be thinking about link effects? But it’s a good question, whose better answer will come when the student has a range of “projects” under his belt (and lots of additional courses). But the question: what’s the best tool for the job at hand is a problem for “every professional” and every “carpenter.” Our process, therefore, takes universals seriously.

We want students to respond positively to a range of problems and to work and life solutions through on paper or in the proper software, then seek out the answers by finding the right set of relationships. We don’t want them to be experts at Photoshop.


3 responses to “Teaching Philosophy”

  1. Mary Ellen says:

    You go surf the wave. I’ll do Beowulf for you :-) Your “old” job is my goal beyond the goal. You sound more like a Constructivist than you used to–and you never sounded indifferent.

  2. Steve says:

    If I understand constructivism correctly, that would assume unguided learning as a “design” in the fabric of curricula. But I distrust “designed” curricula alas because it must make assumptions beyond a body of knowledge, often a body of knowledge that informs the very theory promoting the contrary.

    Great to hear from you, ME.

  3. Mary Ellen says:

    Self-guided learning within a framework is what I was leaning toward. One can’t represent every learning style within a curriculum, so you present the works, and let the students find their own way to understand them. But still we hold them to standards, and those are not self-created or assessed.