Recently, my advisor asked if I had been using any digital tools in my teaching. I said, feeling somewhat shameful, that I hadn’t, and that I was waiting to take a course on how you could use a WIKI to teach before starting to use it next year.
But as I walked away, I realized that no, I did use digital tools to teach last semester. But because they felt simple and easy, I didn’t think of them as part of any elaborate “digital pedagogy.” But of course, that’s exactly what I had been doing. I’ll write about some of the things we did here, but I also wanted to throw it out as a question to the HASTAC community: what quick and easy digital tools do you use in your classroom?
And by “quick and easy,” I mean: requires little or no prep, no infrastructure building, and something you can ask your students to come to class having prepared a little, without having to make an elaborate assignment sheet. I.e., something that you can be extraordinarily lazy about.
This is the sort of thing I was thinking of:
1. Google Ngrams. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a word-frequency charting software that draws from Google’s huge collection of Google books. You type in a word, or a few words separated by commas, that you want to see mapped over time. In return, it provides you with a lovely chart (one that ideally supports your hypothesis).
It can be quite an interesting tool for thinking about literature in a historical context. For example, we were reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Our impression was that Dracula was a relevant text because it was the first major vampire novel, had been very popular, and remained relevant because of what it did in popularizing and setting the stage for the prototypical horror-genre vampire.
Ah—but when you mapped “vampire” over time, there was no bump in the word’s popularity post-Dracula. Rather, there was a yearly bump (visible when you zoom in) that our class of 20 was utterly unable to account for until one of my students thought of Halloween. (“Ohhhhhhhh of course!”) So we played around with it, mapping “vampire” vs. zombie, witch, and other supernatural categories; vampire vs. Dracula and other horror texts; and finally, playing around with Anne Rice, Stephanie Meyer, and other more recent vampiric developments. We also tried other classic nineteenth-century monsters like Frankenstein and Dorian Grey.
Ngram of the word "vampire" (sorry for the low-res. The chart goes from 1800 to 2000; the big take-off near the end is dates to about 1980):
Ngram of the word "Dracula," big leap about 1960 (thanks to horror films, perhaps? Also, note that "Dracula" is apparently now more popular than he has ever been!):
The class session was quite fun, I thought, and it did a few things. It encouraged us to think of the text in historical terms, and ask why we should read it today—which led to a larger discussion about why a text should be considered “relevant” to a General Education Literature class. The process of thinking about what questions to ask of Google ngrams was also good—do we compare literature to other texts, words, cultural ideas? And finally, asking how ngrams might or might not reflect real historical trends was a good one. The fact that the connection between Halloween and vampires took a couple of minutes to remember was a good reminder of the need to read the chart critically.
I didn’t do this, but it would have been quite easy to ask students to bring ideas to map, or printouts of things that they had discovered.
2. Wordles! Wordle is a word-frequency program; you enter a text, and it provides you with a lovely image that shows the most-commonly used words. (You can choose to exclude common words like “the,” “and,” etc.) And for texts that are public domain and thus online, you can cut-and-paste an entire novel into Wordle’s text entry box. You can also play with the appearance of the resulting wordcloud—color, layout, etc.
We Wordled the entire novel of Dracula, and asked questions like: What words would you have expected to show up? What words were surprising? Do these words reflect what we talked about, when we read the novel?
Wordle of Dracula (entire novel):
We also did chapter-by-chapter Wordles, wherein every student Wordled a separate chapter. We broke into pairs and compared sections, and then each student presented what they found to the class, and whether they thought their Wordle adequately reflected the issues of the chapter.
Worlde of Dracula chapter 1:
Then, as an end-of-class “let’s see what happens,” we lined up, and each student said one word from their Wordle as representative of their chapter, trying to achieve a sentence that would reflect the novel. The result—amazingly—sort of worked, for at least the first 15 words. It was definitely goofy but also fun.
Both the ngram and the Worlde analysis also provided opportunities to talk about how we should study literature. We did these activities fairly late in the semester, and we had spent a lot of the semester doing more traditional classroom discussions about the texts we read. Before we started, I did a quick outline of current digital humanities trends and the discussion going on in the humanities about how or whether these digital tools should change the way we study literature.
I wish we’d had more time to talk about it, but several students asked very good questions along the lines of “why?” and “what about…” So it became a discussion of the discipline as well, and what we study/should study when we study literature. I had almost expected my students to embrace these techniques, because, in teaching a general education literature class, required of all undergraduate majors at the university, I tend to think of my students as largely scientific minds (this reflects my paranoia rather more than reality, of course). But, if anything, while we all enjoyed playing with these tools, I found my students had a somewhat skeptical initial response. They wanted a rigorous explanation of why we should approach literature using these digital tools. The resulting discussions were good, and well-timed for the end-of-semester slump (I thought, at least).
So—do you have any quick digital pedagogy tips? I was quite serious when I said I wanted to use a WIKI next year, of course, but… in the meantime? What’s worked for you? I can strongly recommend both Wordle and Google ngram as well worth some class time!