Digital Pedagogy: 2 Fears of Teaching Naked

I never realized that I was teaching naked. In fact, I’ve been doing it all summer.

Though there are all sorts of ways to construct a digital pedagogy, one powerful approach begins with pulling the plug. (Fyfe, 2012, para 20)

Paul Fyfe’s recent article in Digital Humanities Quarterly addresses some significant issues related to digital pedagogy. For him, teaching is “digital” not because computers are present in the classroom, but because it is hands-on, creative, dynamically emergent, and, for all intents and purposes, analogous to a place students and teachers want to be. Fyfe explores teaching strategies that utilize technologies beyond the walls of campus buildings, digitizing the whole experience of being a student. On their own, outside the classroom, students use technology to work on projects and collaborate. They blog, podcast, perhaps collaborate by annotating a shared document. This frees up time (and space) inside the classroom for learning in the “non-electronic senses” (para 8) where conversation carries the lesson, which emerges as students engage with each other about course content. Even with the use of minimal technology in the classroom – say, a screen projection of a text for collective reading – digital pedagogy is about peeling off the layers of institutional authority that normally conceal students’ desire to learn faithfully and teachers’ ability to really teach.

Hence the “naked” in teaching naked – being “exposed” together. Keep your shirt on, though – it’s not about skin and underwear.

It’s about finding ways to leverage technology for what it’s worth, freeing up the time people spend together, in the flesh, to expose the limitations and possibilities of learning. What results is a vulnerable situation where those involved – students and teachers – negotiate the tensions of learning together. This, of course, takes students who are willing to show up for more than just a grade – those who find value in the relationships they have with their own learning experience and their classmates – and teachers who don’t just show up to train students – those who abandon the “it has always worked” lesson plan and discover the lesson in the conversation with students, asking questions that guide group thinking and encourage participation.

As a teacher it’s scary to be in that sort of situation – where the plans are loose and the conversation can go wherever students take it. It takes a lot of trust and humilty. It also insists that they take it somewhere. The last things students want in a classroom is to be bored, and in this ideation, if they’re bored they share the burden. Excitiment from improvisational course content that emerges from student and teacher interest does, however, get a little scary because everyone has to tolerate a certain level of ambiguity. It’s sort of like white-water rafting – you have to trust the people in your boat to work together, paddling, steering and staying on board.

There are two primary fears that I’ve experienced this semester as I’ve (unwittingly) implemented Fyfe’s suggestions:

Fear of Participation

First, teachers have to be comfortable relinquishing some of their authority over the course, authorizing students to learn on their own and trust that they’ll remain engaged beyond the classroom. I’ve learned that a good way to guarantee student participation is to use blogs, vlogs, and wikis to explore course content. Asking my students to produce a 200 word blog each night (or to contribute minimally to a 20 sentence wiki) is the equivalent of a math teacher asking students to show their work. 200 words ain’t that much, really. Students know that both I and others can see they’re contribution and are waiting to respond – which is also part of the assignment. This leads to a rich conversation online the night before class, which usually builds on the conversation from the day before. There is a collaboration-driven ethos established among a small group of people working in this way – not unlike that discussed by Jono Bacon (regarding Open Source) and David Bohm (regarding Dialogue in small groups). The result is an ongoing conversation about course content that doesn’t feel like a class conversation; in fact, it feels like something that would happen on Facebook, but with better links to helpful sources and less inflammatory language. What zaps the fear of participation in this scenario is that digital tools expose whether a student does or doesn’t engage with the class. Of course, it won’t ensure that each student does every assignment, but it does mean that they learn at their own discretion, visible to everyone, which encourages others to follow suit.

Authorizing Student Expertise

The second fear stems from opening up class time for interaction, conversation, and constructive activities. There is, above all other things, a fear of engagement in any intimate group. Attend a high school dance or pep rally – you’ll see. Guiding a conversation among students, who are both excited and knowledgeable, takes a lot of energy and a substantial amount of risk. Sometimes I actually know less about the conversation at hand than the students do. It’s uncomfortable, certainly, to let loose the reigns and allow students educate each other, mainly because the expectations in a traditional learning environment involve the teacher  dictating course content and  authorizing the right answers. In fact, digital pedagogy necessarily rearranges these expectations so that each person decides what counts as “right” and “wrong” during conversation. Enter critical thinking skills. In nearly every instance, the validity of less-than-insightful claims made by less-than-involved students are regulated by others in the conversation. This often leads to rich debates – productive as long as people are respectful and prudent. Teachers have to trust their own abilities to intellectualize and mediate discussion as they roll with the conversation, nudging it toward important issues that  ought to be discussed. They are not, however, in control. Avoiding conversation-placebo – where conversation is promised, people sit in a circle, and the teacher still lectures, usually from a chair with more pronounced gestures – is the hard part. In my experience as both a teacher and a student, when teachers feel exposed and their authority is brought into question, they tend to work very hard legitimating themselves and the lesson. Nothing could be more counterproductive in a collaborative situation.What derails the assumptions that may lead a teacher to dominate a conversation is simple – sit back, let the students carry the conversation forward, and arrive at the silent realization that being a teacher doesn’t negate your being a student, ever.

In the very least, being able to identify these fears (more like strategic obstacles) can help a teacher approach a class in a digital way, encouraging students to take ownership over their learning, utilizing technology in ways that make the whole experience more engaging.  Now, teaching naked might not work for everyone or for all courses. I can’t imagine any way that science or math could be taught in this way; I also don’t see tenured lecturers dropping their drawers of PowerPoint slides and popping a squat in the crowd.  Then again, maybe I’m mistaken. What I do know is that courses in the humanities and social sciences can be more collaborative, engaging, and…well, digital.

Just don’t take off your clothes.
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Digital Pedagogy: 2 Fears of Teaching Naked by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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