I’m Bringing Paper Back (‘Cause It’s Still Sexy)

Iphoto credit: vl8189 via photo pin cc

In a recent article in Digital Humanities Quarterly entitled “Hacking the Yacking,” Paul Fyfe describes examples of what he calls teaching naked, a method that uses decidedly traditional media to encourage students to engage in a tactile relationship with course content. Fyfe poses an intriguing question: “Can there be a digital pedagogy without computers?” The answer, according to Fyfe, is yes, and the result can be both refreshing and freeing for those who embrace it:

Technology, at least in its electrified forms, can be a limiting factor in imagining how humanities instruction can be “digital”: something to get your hands on, to deal with in dynamic units, to manipulate creatively.

But what Fyfe is advocating is not a Luddite response to computers; in fact, I see his idea of teaching naked in the digital humanities as being more radical and disruptive to traditional pedagogies than the advent of open courses, gamification, or any of the other “progressive” technology-based innovations circling the proverbial educational reform drain. As pointed out by Peter Rorabaugh and Jesse Stossel in “What Does Hybrid Pedagogy Do?”:

[A]s we allow two things to rub up against each other, two things that might not otherwise touch, we incite them to interact, allowing synthesis (and even perforation) along their boundaries. As the digital and analog–the physical and virtual–commingle, we must let go of the containers for learning to which we’ve grown accustomed.

Scary stuff if you’re intimidated by uncertainty or perforated boundaries. But also encouraging if you’re hesitant to completely abandon traditional media or if, like me, you feel that you’ve taken technological integration to its limits (at least for now) and are ready to step back and reassess how best to remix your learning environments with the most effective and engaging analog and digital tools.

For me, writing is a heavily tactile experience. Just as I prefer a physical book to an electronic one because the smell and feel of the pages and the visual aesthetic of the cover image and particular fonts add to and are part of my reading experience, I prefer writing by hand to writing electronically. As a child, I loved the smell of white notebook paper and first, freshly-sharpened lead pencils, and later, ball-point ink. Even the transition to an electric typewriter was still a physically-engaging experience–the lulling hum and radiant heat of the motor, the indented keys cradling my fingers, the decisive clack as the letters became permanently engraved on the white canvas of the paper, the inky scent of the ribbon. While I’m sure that very few of my students share these visceral responses to the media of writing, I’ve always tried to encourage them to enter into a physical relationship with their writing. I’ve asked them to cut it up and paste it back together. I’ve forced them to brutally mark through entire sentences with a Sharpie. And these acts of homicide on their written words almost always cause emotional reactions-of dismay, grief, fear, and, if I’m successful, elation and enlightenment. By asking students to acknowledge the physical mortality of their writing, I hoped to encourage them to divorce themselves from it emotionally so that they could begin to see it from their readers’ point of view.

As I have asked students to write more publicly using digital media, I have, ironically, abandoned many of the activities that require them to digitally play with their words. The play time had to be replaced with workshops on blogging and social media. I still require students to bring hard copies of rough drafts to peer review (and I continue to stress the need to proofread from hard copies rather than a screen), but otherwise, I have succeeded in creating an almost completely paperless classroom.

But I’m not so sure that that’s a good thing. So, I’m re-thinking how to bring paper back.

Here’s some ideas so far:

Mining the Students’ Digital Texts
Fyfe defines the goal of text mining as “keep[ing] students’ attention on the critical labor that digital resources seem to dissolve.” I often require students to collaborate on Google Docs outside of class, but these texts have always remained virtual, viewed and discussed by the class via the intermediary of the computer screen. What I would like to do is to give these texts corporality, to bring them into the classroom so that they can be mined and manipulated. For example, next term I plan to have my students use Google Docs to collaboratively annotate Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart and brainstorm ways that we can integrate his techniques into our class. I plan to print out hard copies of the Doc and have students work in groups to mine it, highlighting the most important, thought-provoking, and disruptive annotations and ideas (in effect, physically annotating the class’s virtual annotations). Each group will then post their annotated copies around the room for the other groups to read and annotate further before we decide, via class discussion, which ideas are most significant and useful for us to put into practice.

Paper Blogs
Karen McMillan has her students create practice blogs on paper before creating digital versions. While McMillan’s students are 7th graders, I think that this is actually a good idea to integrate into the college classroom. Because they are unfamiliar with blogs, my students often struggle with creating effective blog posts. Some never get the hang of hyperlinking, quoting from other web sources, or embedding media. My idea is to have them practice these and other blogging skills on paper first–underlining hyperlinked words and manually cutting and pasting in images and passages from sources. The act of physically composing their posts, collage-style, mimics the kind of graphic manipulation that I think makes blogging so aesthetically engaging and challenging.

Many books on writing advocate play. The best writers learn to play with language, to recognize its utility and disposability as well as its transcendency. This playfulness is often difficult for students to adopt. The same can be said of teachers and pedagogy: whether we’re afraid of being seen as too old-school or as too susceptible to the latest fad, we forget that pedagogy is as utilitarian and disposable as it is transcendent. Sometimes, a pencil and piece of paper can be as liberating and intellectually stimulating as a laptop if the student is encouraged to ask the right kinds of questions and to play with the possible answers. It’s equally important for us to teach them how to use the laptop to make the results of their play permanent and public if they choose. But the virtual product might well be more critically refined thanks to the analog media.

Perhaps the right questions for us to be asking are: How can we create more perforations and synthesis at the boundaries between the page and the screen? And how can we encourage our students to play more at these boundaries?

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