“[W]hat is broken and twisted is also beautiful, and a bearer of knowledge. The Deformed Humanities is an origami crane—a piece of paper contorted into an object of startling insight and beauty.” Mark Sample
The Digital Humanities are actively being invented in this very moment. They have not taken shape as a concrete thing, but evolve as an ongoing and collaborative process still taking shape. This can be seen in how the Digital Humanities are being negotiated as a debate between building and breaking. What’s being built: word clouds, wikis, blogs, maps, games, comics, prezis, films, crowdsourced articles, MOOCs, curated social media stories, and greater access. What’s being broken: traditional pedagogy, poems, images, borders, and potentially even the law.
While this has been the dominant narrative, I want to propose a counter narrative where transformation and invention occur not through the building or breaking binary, but rather as a result of folding, unfolding, and refolding. This origami metaphor, I think, aligns with Freirian Praxis as a process of “engaging in a cycle of theory, application, evaluation, reflection, and then back to theory.”
The need to develop this counter narrative was apparent after co-teaching an upper level English course. The course had two distinct instructor personas — a luddite and a cyborg — and we were on the path to creating another iteration of the dissonant building and breaking narrative. My assignments allowed students to build digital and multimodal artifacts. The other instructor urged students to break down texts from critically informed perspectives. However, by folding these two personal pedagogical approaches together, we were able to collaboratively realize Freirean praxis as a cycle of theory-practice-theory.
Such an understanding of praxis encourages us to question assumed knowledge, challenge habits of mind, and oppose unreasonable prejudices. This folding counter narrative not only invigorates the collaborative power of praxis, but it can also help to advance the ongoing invention of the Digital Humanities in more meaningful ways.
My first semester co-teaching was representative of the building and breaking narrative. My assignments asked students to build their own digital artifact using images, paintings, audio, and printed texts. It was a creative form of curation where students formed their own arguments through multiple modes of electronic production. My colleague relied more strictly on textual criticism, analysis, and interpretation through an elaborate process of close-reading. So while I had students digitally build things, my colleague had them break down texts. As someone who happily wore the title of a luddite, my colleague openly expressed his list of grievances with texting, Facebook, Twitter, as well as what he considered ten thousand other digital distractions. I struggled to convince him that these things might help to further the humanities in the 21st century while he struggled to convince me that the old methods couldn’t be strengthened by digital intervention. The result was a class divided.
After our first semester co-teaching, my colleague and I reflected on the negative implications of reinforcing the building and breaking narrative. While both of our teaching traditions were beneficial in their own right, the stylistic divide between my colleague and I resulted in a weakened classroom foundation. Many students felt that literary criticism mars the original artwork, but my colleague found that criticism as a practice actually helps to build something new. In a similar phenomenon, despite the fact that students were building digital and multimodal artifacts, I found that they were simultaneously performing an act of criticism.
As a whole, during our post-class reflection we discussed how we might combine our perspectives through more transformative practices. How could we coalesce our two methods to create an even stronger classroom pedagogy? From this discussion, we set out to fuse these aspects of building and breaking into one assignment.
A year after my initial co-teaching experience, the digital and analog humanities began to fold together through an assignment that employed the metaphor of origami. Students integrated the primary text of a novel and film alongside various interviews, reviews, and criticisms centered around these primary texts; they used numerous critical angles provided by literary and film critics in order to create a situated multimodal and digital practice. The goal was to demonstrate that literary critics could use word clouds, popular memes, YouTube videos, podcasts, blogs, timelines, comics, and websites to visualize their data and research. At the same time, I wanted to demonstrate how digital practices might integrate close-reading strategies as well as more traditional modes of literary criticism, analysis, and the array of other rhetorical affordances akin to print literacy. In short, the assignment was successful because it fused together our once divergent views of the humanities.
The spirit behind this collaboration corresponds with the tenets of “serious play,” which Robin Wharton models after how “Children learn — to communicate, to use tools, to count — by playing. Curricula in many early childhood educational settings are designed around this basic principle.” As a concept, “play” not only aided in the creation of the previous assignment, but when taken as a mindstate it can also help to unite the digital and analog humanities on one integral path. The collaborative process inherent to many forms of play allowed our digital and analog classroom practices to work together not as thesis and antithesis, but as two equally valuable processes that benefited from being folded together.
One does not necessarily need to build digital artifacts to take part in the invention of the Digital Humanities. It’s also not necessary to break apart the entirety of traditional pedagogy. Freirian praxis tells us that there is action in critical reflection. In other words, invention can mean following our classroom practice with critical reflection, which can help to further inform subsequent actions. This awareness is at the heart of the folding-unfolding-refolding counter narrative.
I am advocating for an approach that intertwines personal experience alongside collective or collaborative invention, particularly as it relates to the Digital Humanities. Freirian praxis defines the personal as systemic, and by generalizing from the personal we are enacting the folding-unfolding-refolding dialectic. Stated a different way, by questioning the motivation behind personal classroom practices, whether we profess to be cyborgs or luddites, those aspects of our teaching that normally go unquestioned can work to inform the ongoing invention and evolution of the humanities. Adeline Koh concurs with this sentiment when she says, “You are already a digital humanist, whether or not you know it.” Our contemporary human experience is mediated by digital technologies, and therefore to study the humanities is necessarily to study the Digital Humanities.
I would like to end by evoking the concept of the “unfolded fold,” which Henri Michaux writes about in his poetic musing, “In the Land of Magic” (1941). Michaux speaks of educated people, or “mages,” who see between the folds not as a result of some unobtainable or esoteric knowledge, but from practically interacting with the world in unfamiliar ways. In this context, inventing the Digital Humanities might benefit not merely from implementing new tools and techniques (i.e. esoteric knowledge), but more simply from seeing our pedagogy in new and unfamiliar ways. Similar to how a piece of paper can be “contorted into an object of startling insight and beauty,” so too does this practice take the well known elements of the Digital Humanities and fold them into something new.