I am a historian of science and technology with a specialty in the modern and contemporary periods, and experience in a number of related fields. At present I teach in several units at U of T, in programs that place a high priority on innovative pedagogical methods. At New College I was a founding member of the teaching team for the New One program established in 2012; in the History Department I have taught HIS455 “Hacking History,” for five of the last seven years, and also teach HIS393 “Digital History”, as well as a number of occasional classes; and at the Faculty of Information I planned and taught core courses in the Faculty’s “Culture and Technology” stream of its professional Masters of Information program from its initiation in 2013 through 2017. For the past two years I have taught both 200-level core courses in the new Digital Humanities Program at Woodsworth College, WDW235 “Introduction to Digital Humanities”, and WDW236 “Virtual Worlds.” In the Department of Religion, I taught “Religion and Science” for three years, as well as two additional courses, “Himalayan Borderlands” and “Wild Waters” (repeated in 2018 in New College). These latter courses extend my interest in “immersive” experiential education, which was initially developed in my joint leadership in May 2016 of a Dean’s International Initiatives Fund (DIIF)-funded student trip to Sikkim, a Himalayan state in northeastern India. “Himalayan Borderlands” expanded that first teaching trip into a month-long Study Abroad course taught in the shadow of the world’s 3rd largest mountain, Khangchendzonga. A group of students from 2017-18’s “Hacking History” accompanied me and my co-lead, Frances Garrett, on a return trip to Khangchendzonga in April 2018. “Wild Waters” and the Himalayan projects were key parts of “U of T Outdoors,” a LEAF-funded project to explore immersive and extended outdoor education in the context of Humanities and Social Science teaching at U of T; Prof. Garrett and I were the co-founders of that initiative.
In 2018, I was awarded the Kathleen O’Connell Teaching Excellence Award in New College at the University of Toronto.
As an educator I am motivated by the following beliefs:
- almost every student is capable of understanding very difficult material, if it is presented in a sufficiently accessible and engaging manner;
- when we teach, the cultivation of skills and critical apparatus is at least as important as the particular pieces of information we transmit;
- learning is a goal in and of itself – an intrinsic good – but it takes place most effectively in practical contexts which harness external motivations and expectations.
The approach to teaching that I have developed over the last twenty-five years therefore couples skills-based curricula with intensive project work that, wherever practical, involves a component of research and community engagement. In the following teaching statement, I outline my views on technology in education, community work, outdoor education, and the cultivation of basic reading, writing, and research skills.
On Technology in Education
At this point, I am probably best known at U of T as a proponent of digital assignments in humanities classes. I have given a number of on-campus talks on the subject, including 6 in a New College series, “New Media at New College”, and several off-campus presentations in various fora, both academic (THATCamp Toronto, Roots & Routes, etc.) and non-academic (numerous presentations at the Mozilla Foundation, MaRS, Civic Tech Toronto, Toronto Teaching Tech, etc.). I have also written or co-authored a number of pedagogically oriented grant proposals on behalf of the history department, several successful (CRIF, HEQCO, ITIF), as well as one successful SSHRC Partnership Develpment Grant. In this respect my pedagogical aims align with certain trends in current scholarship and pedagogy, as exemplified, e.g., by SSHRC president Chad Garfield’s 2011 suggestion that Digital Humanities (DH) “is transforming every aspect of academic life by reconfiguring relationship networks both inside and outside academe […and] will change graduate education, job preparation, faculty evaluation, the structure of academic units, and the relationship of educational institutions to one another and to the communities they serve” (Pannacker 2011). My own work is somewhat eccentrically inflected, though, and some background may serve to clarify its distinctiveness.
During my hiatus from university teaching (2007-2010), my main pedagogical projects were organized around technical education in public schools and social housing. Indeed, for almost three decades I have been teaching skills such as bicycle mechanics, computer hardware maintenance, and basic programming to diverse audiences, including young people, new immigrants, people with disabilities, people suffering from mental illness and addiction, and the recently homeless. It was in the course of this community work that I developed the notion of “emancipatory technology”: a relationship to technological instruments that opens up new possibilities for creativity and self-determination. We live in a world of immensely powerful and open-ended technologies. It is tempting to view these technologies as intrinsically enhancing human potential, or as limiting it. But recent work in the history and social studies of technology assures us that the profound social impacts of technology are produced by the specific relationships they hold to other parts of the social system (Latour 2007). It is thus unsurprising that, for some, computer technologies have become engines of creative action, while for others, those same technologies act as insurmountable barriers. By reshaping students' relationships to technology – repositioning them as producers, not consumers – we afford them a wide array of opportunities otherwise lost.
I returned to university teaching in Fall 2010 with the goal of bringing those same opportunities to humanities students. A firm believer in the importance of traditional modes of learning (e.g., engagement with primary source materials, close and critical reading, careful research), I nonetheless also believe that the humanities face a pedagogical crisis. Our students are graduating into a world in which public discourse is increasingly captured by a complex technological infrastructure which mediates the distribution of information; yet the work they produce for us only rarely flows through those same channels. To participate in public life – to put to use the knowledge and skills they have labouriously attained through years of study – they need to understand the possibilities opened up, and foreclosed, by the media of communication.
The benefits of digital scholarship come at a price, as my colleague Prof. Frances Garrett and I discuss elsewhere (Garrett & Price 2014). It takes significant amounts of class time and extra supervision, both to teach students, and to convince them that they are capable of learning technical subjects which they have often previously given up on. Because of this, most of my courses in the History Department meet for an additional hour every week, and during crunch times I spend long office hours helping students with technical problems as well as with their writing. I have also expended rather a lot of effort maintaining technical infrastructure for these courses on my own time, and establishing and nurturing links with community organizations.
A cornerstone of much work in digital humanities is a strong commitment to the role of public and ‘participatory cultures’ in education (Jenkins et al 2006), and this forms a second theoretical framework that shapes my efforts. A focus on participatory education is at the heart of these courses, in which students study, say, theatre history, or Toronto immigration history, by conducting oral histories with members of local communities, conducting primary source research in local archives and private collections, and working as young ‘public historians' in collaboration with members of the public to engage a range of technologies to code, map, timeline and tag those stories. This approach sets the creation of technical learning within specific disciplinary contexts, and also within a theoretical context that explores the role of “networked publics” (boyd 2008) working in conjunction with students as knowledge creators or “knowledge workers” (Spinizzi 2006). McNely’s (2010) work on how sociotechnical networks enhance collaborative meaning-making in university classrooms is a model for this project, and I have been especially intrigued by his focus on the connection between “participatory activities and the notion of overlapping publics (Marks 2008; boyd 2009)” as a critical part of digital culture and education.
In Hacking History, for instance, students perform an intensive, sometimes fraught collaboration with a community partner. We have worked with municipal and non-profit organizations such as the Multicultural History Society of Ontario and the City of Toronto Archive, as well as smaller local history organizations like the Kensington Market and Parkdale Historical Societies, and even some on-campus groups such as University College and Hart House Theatre; in the most recent iteration of the course, we worked with a community NGO in Sikkim, India. The negotiation between the demands of our discipline and the desires of the partner render concrete the concerns our students have discussed in the abstract throughout their education: the demand for a “usable past”; questions of local and universal authority; the ethics of oral history sources; and so forth. The special difficulties of public history are made exquisitely manifest in a manner fundamentally different from reading texts and writing term papers. While this form of engagement does not appeal to all students, it is not uncommon for participants to describe the Hacking History project as one of the highlights of their undergraduate education. I believe that the course offers students a way to envision how they will integrate both their skills and their interests into the practicalities of future careers, as well as participation in public life.
“Community” does not, of course, refer only to engagements outside of the university. From 2011-14 I was the co-lead on a joint initiative between the Department of History and the Department for the Study of Religion, resulting in the creation of the community site Whiteboard funded by the Provost’s Office, and a research study of the project funded by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. The Whiteboard project investigated the efficacy of a social networking site organized at the level of the academic unit and intended to foster intellectual community, peer mentoring, and a sense of disciplinary identity. During this period I made design decisions about the website, supervised some 20 work-study students from the two departments, and oversaw qualitative and quantitative research on the effects of using the site.
Sometimes “engagement” also requires a direct response to the immediate conditions of existence. In 2017 I revamped NEW113, the second term in the “New One” sequence, to focus on “Technologies for Democracy.” We used the 2016 US election as an opportunity to explore the relationship between democratic ideals and technological means. A similar impulse drove my 2016-2020 work as technical contributor and former lead of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, where I worked with a team of ~40 volunteer programmers in an ambitious project to capture government data, and to monitor changes to the .gov top-level domain (which includes all US Federal Government websites). I also served on EDGI’s Steering Committee for two years. This work, which garnered tremendous media attention, and for which I have given talks to a variety of audiences, informed my mentoring of graduate students and has found its way into lecture materials in several of my courses.
On Reading, Writing, and Research
Even in a digital age, no skills are more important for a historian than reading and writing. There is compelling evidence that many problems in student performance are linked to deficiencies in critical reading skills; anecdotal evidence suggests that difficulty in reading academic texts persists even at the graduate level. My own background in philosophy impressed on me the importance of close, careful reading and precise, clear argumentation, and I endeavour to promote these virtues in all of my classes. This effort is perhaps clearest in my first year classes, in which we read short, often difficult texts from a variety of disciplines. A significant percentage of class time is spent interpreting specific passages, analyzing the use of evidence, and clarifying arguments. The same attention to careful reading and critical analysis is prominent in the graduate seminar I taught for several years, the Culture and Technology core course at the Faculty of Information.
In those same classes, I devoted great efforts – my own and my students' – to extensively scaffolded assignments that promote precise, careful argumentation and appropriate use of evidence. For instance, the “Implosion” assignment from Culture and Technology I requires students to move from speculative brainstorming, through various stages of research and creative exploration, to a final, carefully argued research paper. The “technology journal” assignment from NEW103 combined creative exploration with increasingly careful attention to details of observation and argument, skills which students went on to deploy in the final paper and project. In Hacking History students write a standard research paper which is then dismantled and rewritten for inclusion on a website designed for a general audience. All of these assignments explore the craft of writing in ways that challenge students to go beyond mere recital of facts, and instead to pay close attention to the rhetorical qualities of their writing.
The assignments also place a high premium on research skills. In New One, we devoted substantial class time to teaching basic library research skills, including, e.g., impressing on these newly minted scholars the distinctions between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Hacking History research projects nearly always involve research in local public or private archives. Culture & Technology I required students to undertake multiple stages of increasingly focussed research as their projects progress.
On the Outdoors
In collaboration with Frances Garrett, and somewhat separately from my work in digital pedagogy, I devoted considerable effort from 2016-2019 on a program we called “U of T Outdoors” (suspended during the current crisis). This project grew out our initial student trips to Sikkim, a Himalayan state in Northern India, which eventually gave rise to the Code at the Edge project. Just as my work in digital pedagogy encourages students to attend to the technical affordances of contemporary media, outdoor teaching uses the setting of a Buddhist temple, a mountain trail, or a riverside tent as an opportunity to explore intellectual questions in a mode rarely available in an ordinary classroom. Prof. Garrett and I have been awarded two internal grants (LEAF and ATLAS) to pursue this project more broadly. We pursue a set of pedagogical goals that have been described variously as “place-based education”, “land education,” or “expeditionary learning.” Such courses typically encompass experiential, service- and community-based, outdoor, and/or adventure education programs that combine intellectual and physical challenge. These two grants have funded the writing of a survey report on place/land-based and expeditionary learning models throughout North America, exploring administrative, financial, and intellectual bases for such programs at the university level (Garett et al, 2018). We have also piloted and evaluated two wholly new experiential education courses. My contribution, “Wild Waters”, melds traditional classroom studies of the history and culture of river dwellers with a set of experiential learning modules that has included whitewater canoeing and water-based tours of Toronto. I continue to explore ways to revive these courses in a new setting.
Research has demonstrated that student learning is particularly enhanced when learning opportunities are centered around principles of authenticity, agency, uncertainty, and mastery. With the hope that such courses may continue to flourish at the university, our project aims to pilot immersive experiential courses of this type, with the hope that such courses may continue to flourish at the university.
Since returning to U of T in 2010, I have been pursuing a series of experiments around the use of experiential methods and newer communication technologies in the classroom and in student projects. I have articulated and developed pedagogical practices that thrust humanities students into the maelstrom of the contemporary media landscape: building multimedia exhibits, coding websites, working with community groups. I have emphasized the development of practical skills and public engagement. I have suggested that history students should have the opportunity to learn computer programming and systems administration. It may therefore be surprising to hear me say that my pedagogical orientation is fundamentally conservative.
Yet I have been motivated throughout by a thoroughly 19th-century pedagogical premise: that the goal of education is a transformation of the self, achieved through the disciplined direction of attention to the contemplation of difficult texts and problems. The appearance of ‘novelty’ in the readings and assignments my students pursue comes not from some modification to the underlying goal or direction of an education in history, but from a conviction that the peculiar circumstances of our contemporary historical and technological situation require us to adapt our methods in order to achieve these same (old) ends. This conviction is itself rooted in a notion that has become so deeply entrenched in my own field, the history of science and technology, as to command nearly universal assent: that the tools we use exert a profound effect on the thoughts we can have and the actions we can take. My goal as a teacher has been to attempt to take this notion seriously, finding ways to give students mastery over the tools they must use to express themselves in the twenty-first century, while simultaneously affording opportunities for the kinds of self-transfomation which are, in my view, the main purpose of education. The materials assembled here testify to my efforts, largely successful, to marry the challenges of the digital humanities to these core commitments of a liberal education.
boyd, danah. (2008). Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning – Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 119-142
Garrett, Frances & Matt Price (2014). “Instructors' Reflections” in Practicing Oral History.
Garrett, Frances, Matt Price, Laura Burnett, Alysse Kennedy, Laila Strazds, & Salina Suri (2018). “University of Toronto Outdoors: Engaging Immersive Experiential Learning”.
Latour, Bruno (2007). Re-assembling the Social. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McNely, B., Teston, C., Cox, G., Olorunda, B., and Dunker, N. (2010). Digital publics and participatory education. Digital Culture and Education, 2(2), 144–164.
Pannapacker, William (2011). “‘Big Tent Digital Humanities,’ a View From
the Edge, Part 1” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 31, 2011
Spinuzzi, C. (2006). What do we need to teach about knowledge work? [White Paper] Retrieved from www.dwrl.utexas.edu/sites/default/files/060925-1.pdf