Even if they disagree on its value, digital humanists and other network scholars tend to agree that we are more connected than in generations past; we are more connected to one another, to information, and to resources. My research explores the ways in which individuals use the connectivity of digital networks to imagine new possibilities for governance and collective organization. My teaching follows the same trajectory in its orientation to students, to learning, and to connecting course concepts with lived-experience in preparation for engagement with a networked world. Ultimately, it is my intention to assist scholars in the transition from students to responsible, creative, and collaborative agents participating in civic life in the 21st century. By teaching students not only crucial academic content but also methods and tools for learning, researching, and applying information, I seek to provide a supportive but highly-intelligible and highly-connected space for students who will then participate in a networked world.
Communication, as a discipline, is concerned with the generative, material, and relational aspects of discourse. Drawing from theories of revolutionary pedagogy such as bell hooks and Paulo Friere, I seek to equip students with the ability to identify and understand digital discourses and then contest or intervene in the world around them. Learning in the digital age presents unique challenges. Today’s student has almost unlimited access to information. However, without strategies to find, integrate and interrogate that information usefully, students may find themselves drowning in a sea of data. Instruction that is thoughtful and deliberate about digital literacy can assist students in navigating a complex field of information and experience.
My goal in instruction is not only to transmit information to students but to equip them to use that information in a realistic and powerful way both inside and outside of the academy. To that end, in addition to teaching course content in stand-alone classes, I present a series of tools, tips and tricks called “Scholar Hacks” to students. In these “Scholar Hacks” presentations, I cover various topics for integrating technology deliberately and thoughtfully into the academic process. Two key topics discussed in the Scholar Hacks series are “Research in the Digital Age” and “Marginalia and Note Taking.” In the former “Scholar Hacks,” I assist students in using RSS (rich site summary) feeds and Google Scholar to find quality, peer-reviewed content for their papers and in-class assignments. In “Marginalia and Note Taking,” I suggest ways in which students can stage a conversation with the author(s) of their text in the margins of the text and through prudent highlighting practices. I have found that these skills, while critical, are often underdeveloped in students who have simply never had a moment in class to work through them. In addition to the “Scholar Hacks” series, my classroom is integrated with digital media such as YouTube videos, sound clips, and images that compliment course content. When I hold office hours, I hold simultaneous digital office hours where students can meet with me via Skype. In this sense, students are invited to engage with both technology and course concepts in a way that connects academic engagement with digital literacy both inside and outside the classroom.
I also attempt to connect a student’s information processing with cultural practice when assigning and evaluating students’ work. For instance, when given the opportunity to design a course on Communication and Environmental Advocacy, my assignments and course materials were planned with two goals in mind: to connect content with practice and provide students tools for disseminating their ideas thoughtfully into the world. Instead of relying on traditional methods of evaluation such as examinations or long-form academic writing, students investigated an environmental problem of local, national, or international import and brainstormed with others in the class to identify possible solutions from their political and social locations. This collaborative work was bolstered by individual (web)blog projects wherein students “lived” and documented the experience of being an environmental advocate for a period of several weeks.
The results were significant and made serious contributions to the local community. One student, concerned with a lack of cheap and nutritious food in the Triangle area, blogged about the relationships between food deserts and poverty. Her final project, instigated by her earlier investigations on the topic of food scarcity and community, was the construction of an online social network that could facilitate the exchange of locally produced, organic foods amongst neighbors and community members in a section of Durham, North Carolina. Another student, already very involved in her local community garden, wrote, filmed, and edited a PSA for the community garden that invited new participants to join. She completed this project while simultaneously writing an impressive critical examination of the current state of urban agriculture on her blog. Throughout these assignments, students were free to experiment within the parameters of course material and were evaluated on their integration of course concepts and their individual, intensive research into the actual practice of (digital) advocacy.
These forms of organic assessment connect content to the very work one might do if she were to continue on the path toward being an (environmental) advocate in the future. In addition to assignments which evaluated their ability to actually advocate based on key theories and concepts covered in class, students also had the opportunity to communicate with professionals and advocates in the field through group-tours to sustainable, LEED-certified buildings and guest speakers from local environmental groups. A local organic farmer debated with students on the future of sustainable farming with great success. Local representatives of environment groups discussed the financial and political structure of their advocacy work and invited students to work alongside them. Students responded quite positively to my engaged, active learning approach, noting in their final course evaluations that “Heather is a great instructor. I really enjoyed her class. The material could have been extremely dry, but Heather made it interesting and I actually liked going to her class.” One student wrote simply that the course was “Challenging, Interesting, Engaging.”
A typical day in my classroom includes traditional lecture-based instruction interwoven with a series of discussion-based activities to connect content with various applications. In my Organizational Communication class, students were highly encouraged to interject examples of course concepts from their own organizational experiences. The diversity of organizations represented in class (sports teams, non-profit groups, a cappella groups, employers and so on) fostered a dynamic conversation wherein we could evaluate the changes from fordism to post-fordism through myriad, student-given examples. In Environmental Advocacy, students were assigned a “thinking partner” with whom they discussed the readings and the lectures, often as a precursor to a larger discussion in class. In these thinking groups, students were given the opportunity to record their thought processes and discussions in a journal that was turned in at the end of the semester. These journals served two purposes: first, students constructed an in-depth log of the ideas they and their partner had over the semester that would serve as an addendum to their notes. Second, students received a portion of their participation grade from this journal, which kept them attentive to the readings and to discussion as a crucial, clearly graded component of the class.
My pedagogical style emphasizes making points of connection over the entirety of a class rather than being bogged down in minutiae. I am interested in students leaving my classroom with the tools and intellectual facilities to engage with information and others usefully, thoughtfully, and strategically. Because information is readily available to students, I work to construct a classroom where we carefully discern and/or intuit crucial components of a course, including themes, major movements and counter-movements, methods of acting and thinking, and ways to advocate for one’s self and others.