Dual Color and Barbed Wire

The Hybrid Scholar

 Published on January 5, 2013 /  Written by /  0

Negotiated hybridity — of the physical and digital, of the professional and social, of the individual and communal — is our natural state. Only since we launched Hybrid Pedagogy (at last year’s MLA conference one year ago) have I come to understand the professional binaries many of us keep knowingly unhinging.

My first grad degree came from a College of Education, my doctorate from an English department. Rather than decide that my Ph.D. should focus on literature or rhetoric/composition, I chose both and applied rhetoric to American novels. For the last two years, the classroom — and all of its digital and participatory potential — has become the site of my research. It comes from an academic and professional life spent as an outlier, critical onlooker, and idea splicer. A confronter of closed binaries.

In my interactions with Digital Humanities scholars, THATCampers, Ed Tech thinkers, cMOOC networks, K-12 educators, and digital literacy folk, I have developed a new facility, almost a second language, around critical and digital pedagogy. The joy of this work for me has its root in a central tension I am always working to unravel, the tension wound tighter every time research pulls rank over pedagogy. This dichotomy causes numerous effects: the sometimes insular and alienating language of “expertise,” a self-justifying reliance on publication in closed-access sources, and myriad hierarchical class distinctions (professors/students, TT/NTT, those who “only teach”/those who publish). In the networked academic circles we find ourselves, resistant to these traditional relationships, we see the disruption of these distinctions as central to principled pedagogy.

Jesse and I have called our thread of discourse “pedagogical studies,” and we’ve been carefully shaping, composing, and debating it together and with other colleagues for the last three years. The articles that I’ve been reading and writing look, at first, like the discipline called Education. On my campus, and on many others, there are two entirely different units — the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education — suggesting, somehow, that the activities of one are wholly separate from the other. “Learning how to teach” happens in one while “analysis” (or something like it) happens in the other. The problem is that all of those Arts and Sciences grad students have to do something else in addition to the scholarship they are being trained to compose. They have to teach, and, considering the current job market and the landscape of traditional academic publishing, they are probably going to rely much more on their teaching at the start of their career than on their research. Do these carefully groomed grad students ever set foot in the teaching college a block down the street during their four years (or six or eight) years as doctoral students? On my campus, they do not.

What the networked community has been teaching me for the last three years is that other peers see the instability of this position. They see the bankruptcy of approaching teaching uncritically, as a chore, while we approach the sacred “text” of our research with our critical armor on. One site is hallowed, the other mundane. This dichotomy is the one that trains us to think of our research as separate from our teaching, as loftier. Systemically, one’s research certainly carries a greater economic reward; why not think of it as “better” work? Yet, as an academic who approaches both loci with equal reverence, I want to share my own research activities with my students, and I thrive on watching them develop academic autonomy with their own. Pedagogy is a combination of theory and practice, of service and research, and demands that we become hybrid by merging critical and digital methodologies.

A year ago, around the time of last year’s MLA conference, Stanley Fish published a trio of blog posts in The New York Times attempting to define the Digital Humanities and pronounce his judgement upon the field. In one column he describes the Digital Humanities as the most recent iteration of scholarly insurgency (the last one was “postmodernism”). Then he focuses on Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s definitions of DH work, along with references to Mark Sample and Matthew Kirschenbaum, in order to reveal the theological and political motivations of most digital humanists. In his final, most cutting, entry Fish mocks what he sees as the most inane application of computers to the literary field — text mining — denouncing DH scholars as chaotic, thesis-less drones. Fish responds to the “new and fast-moving developments” he sees in DH and concludes by contrasting it with his own work. “Nothing ludic in what I do or try to do. I have a lot more to answer for.”

Enter the hybrid scholar. We’re ludic, and we have a lot to answer for. We’re playful because that stance facilitates engaging learning; student minds want to build and experiment more than they want to be measured. And the things many of us have to answer for are the conditions that academic institutions have created for our students, namely the debt-wall they’ve allowed and the barrier they’ve placed between “academic” and experiential learning. It’s useless snobbery to approach the humanities, as Fish does, as only an edifying pastime that doesn’t and shouldn’t also serve practical use. As Paul Jay and Gerald Graff write in “Fear of Being Useful”,  “To take advantage of the vocational potential of humanities study . . . is not to sell out to the corporate world, but to bring the critical perspective of the humanities into that world.” And, though Fish captures a strong quote from Kirschenbaum about what work DH is inspiring throughout the university, he misses the boat by not addressing the effects of digital methodologies on pedagogy, on network building. I embrace the idea that digital work in the academy is insurgent, as Fish describes it, but more appropriately and less romantically, for me it’s a hybridization of humanities training, digital competencies, and progressive teaching practices.

Let’s consider hybrid jobs. In scores of postings, we see the grafting of digital skills or “the digital humanities” onto job work in other fields (currently, you can find professorships in Nature Writing/Environmental Studies/DH, in Cultural Rhetorics and Digital Humanities, in Romantic Literature and Digital Humanities), so frequently sometimes that it can cause distress. The market itself is insisting that we become hybrid, but the impulse for the shift is coming from outside the academy. Consider the reign of postmodern theory over the job market two or three decades ago, the one that Stanley Fish equates with the current tilt toward digital humanities job postings. Postmodern thinking came from inside the academy itself, and that’s its difference. One movement is institutionally homegrown while the other has breached the ivory tower from the outside. Coding, digital culture, theories of networked knowledge and activism — these are topics taken up in the academy in response to larger cultural shifts, and, because of that, their DNA resists the elite branding that the university wants to assign. Until the last decade, when schools couldn’t resist the gravitational pull of open access, digital methods, and participatory culture, few pedagogues studied the pedagogical benefits of digital culture from within the university framework. Traditional scholars sometimes resist this migration — for example the use of social media in the classroom or for professional networking — on the grounds that it represents something shallow and banal about the world outside the academy, that it breaks down the gate.

It does break down the gate. That perforation is something most of us working in both academic and digital communities actively want to see, at least to the extent that it will drastically change how things like tenure/promotion, funding, and publishing work. It also will make the prospects of critical pedagogy less restrained — allowing the work of a class in anything (composition, biology, economics) to grow beyond the boundaries of the classroom into service-learning or gaming/simulations or ethnographic directions. (This last one is the one I am most interested in lately, a digital ethnography of living in urban spaces as a composition class.)

This work goes by many names (again: DH, digped, edtech, alt-ac, etc.), but it’s under the same general motivation — adaptation to the changes in how knowledge is built and shared. Some of us were or are being expressly trained to do it (the lucky students of Alec Couros, come to mind), but many of us got here because we added on. We buckled down, buried ourselves in new people, new texts, new practices, and became hybrid on our own. We decided to hybridize ourselves out of an interest in job security or pedagogical principles or both. In many cases, it didn’t take an institution to confer competencies on us, but we’re willing to drag those skills back into the classroom for the benefit of our students. Richard Utz supports this hybridization of student instruction in his recent article “The Trouble With English” in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “The English professoriate should embrace, accompany critically, and shape the new discourses its students sorely need to communicate and compete: blogs, video essays, Web comics, digital archives, data visualization, and the like. If these professors continue to hide in disciplinary dead-wall reveries, preferring not to grow with the academic culture and technological change that surround them, I predict students will vote with their feet, and parents with their pocketbooks, to usher in the end of degree programs and departments that rely exclusively on writing, print, and the allegedly carefree days of WordPerfect 6.0.” Utz chairs Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication where I and several of my closest colleagues were awarded the Marion L. Brittain Fellowship. Most of us arrived as traditionally-trained instructors and were required to retool our teaching for classes in multimodal composition. According to Utz, that kind of self-trained hybridity may just save us and our students.

Some hybrid scholars will not stay in the academy for a variety of legitimate reasons; many of us, as Lee Skallerup-Bessette points out, cannot sustain this contingent full-court-press forever. Those of us who stay, though, will have a profound impact on how the the profession will be made new by the networked epistemologies and digital methodologies already percolating up through the academic soil. The wall around the garden is perforated, and the stability of “expertise” will yield to the adaptability and collaborative potential of the hybrid scholar. As critical pedagogues, digital mentors, and scholars, it’s our job to stand in the gap and facilitate learning that empowers and inspires the student both within and outside the classroom.

[Photo by Norma Desmond]

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