Teaching

The transition in the last year from being jointly appointed in English and Media Studies to being fully housed within the new Department of Media Studies has of course required some changes in my teaching as well. Up until the last year, my classes have been fairly evenly divided between literature (if with a theoretical bent favoring mediation) and media studies (if with a theoretical bent equally useful for literary studies); as of this year, all of my classes are in media studies, with whatever bent seems most appropriate for the course, the major, and our students.

This shift seems on the surface fairly small, and mostly administrative in effect, but it’s actually beginning to have a profound impact on my thinking about the nature of the field of media studies and my place within it. For one thing, I have been able this year, for the very first time, to teach an elective in media studies, rather than having my two courses restricted, as they have been for years, to the core introductory and advanced theory courses required for the major. This also means that I’m getting to teach what might, for lack of a better term, be thought of as “content” (as opposed to “tools”) courses — a shift that’s large enough that I’m having to rethink the ways that I approach my courses.

To back up a bit: the period since I received tenure has been a somewhat difficult period in my teaching; after a very successful assistant professorship, in which I felt myself supported in my various teaching experiments, and during the course of which I received a Wig Award recognizing the work I’d done in the classroom, I found myself overwhelmed with competing responsibilities. My scholarship suddenly acquired a kind of relevance — and a kind of audience — that made those projects not just important but genuinely pressing. And of course tenure at the college brought with it a series of administrative responsibilities — not least, chairing Media Studies, which in turn brings with it a couple of committee assignments and a whole big pile of advising — that utterly overwhelmed the important with the urgent, the meeting, the report, the task that must be accomplished right now.

As a result, for the last several years, my teaching felt crowded into a very small portion of my schedule; this crowding required that I recycle a lot of materials, and it demanded that I improvise way more often than I’d ideally like. And while the results weren’t that bad — my course evaluations were perhaps a little less glowy than they used to be, but on the whole they were still quite positive — the bottom line for me was that I simply didn’t feel particularly good about my teaching. My classes felt functional, and I felt a bit too distant from them.

Until Spring 2009, that is; then, I had the best teaching semester I’d had in years. The difference then certainly wasn’t that my schedule had lightened up any, however; it was in the classes themselves. One of my two courses that semester was MS 51, Introduction to Digital Media Studies, which I was teaching for the third time; I’d radically revised the syllabus between the first and second stabs at the course, but neither really accomplished what I hoped. In this third time out, I freed myself from a couple of key assumptions about the course — that it was primarily a theoretically-oriented class, and that it needed to present a full sense of the historical development of digital communication technologies — and instead let myself play a bit. I still presented a fair bit of the historical material exploring the development of these technologies, and I still explored the shifting theoretical assumptions that scholars bring to studying those technologies, but instead focused the course’s structure on a series of issues that I felt would seem pressing to the students: community, identity, peer-to-peer networks, and the like. Beyond this, I also placed more emphasis on the class’s hands-on components, making it primarily project-based rather than paper-oriented, thus making the students’ work more closely instantiate the theoretical and historical issues they were studying. The result was, overall, good; this version of the course was far more successful than either of the previous versions. Though I do wonder about the extent to which such success is always a matter of the peculiar alchemy of the classroom — was it really the course that succeeded, or was it the group that just worked well together? — I’m nonetheless excited about this course going forward.

The other course I taught during Spring 2009 was in certain ways all about that alchemy, and so wound up teaching me more than any other thus far about letting go of some of my anxieties about being “prepared”: this was not a class for which I could prepare, in the sense in which I ordinarily mean that. ENGL 166, David Foster Wallace, developed out of the profound loss that I felt after the death of my friend and colleague; wanting desperately to do something, but not knowing what on earth could be done, I thought I’d spend a semester with a group of students — many of whom were feeling the same loss I was — working our way through Dave’s writing, and thus exploring the legacy he left behind.

Getting to spend that extended period of time with his work, and with a group of amazingly bright, enthusiastic students committed to piecing through that work, was a genuine privilege — but, sadly, one predicated on his death, as I know I could never have taught that class if Dave were still around. One of my students asked at some point what he’d have thought of the class, and I had to respond honestly: he’d have hated it, hated knowing that people in his own building were spending that much time discussing his work, hated the self-consciousness that knowledge would have produced in him. And it would have been hard to blame him for that, as I’ve seen over and over, in many different settings, the ease with which a fascination with his writing turns into a cultish obsession with him.

This was a phenomenon we struggled with in the class itself, attempting to guard against the tendency toward a kind of hagiographic mode of reading, a reinscription of authorial intent in its most pernicious form, at once idolizing his genius and searching for signs of his self-destruction. It wasn’t easy, and I can’t say that we were entirely successful — but the struggle reminded me (ironically enough, in my final class taught in the English department) why the study of literature, and the methods used to study it, matter, in a deep sense: why it’s important to guard against equating the ideas in a text with the opinions of its author, but also what impact those ideas have on us, both as individuals and as a culture. This struggle made the course alternately exhilarating and terrifying, and quite possibly the most important course I’ve taught thus far.

What I’ve learned from these two courses — and I recognize on some level how ridiculous it is to say this, nearly twelve years into full-time teaching — is how much content matters, how important it is not just to present students with ways of reading, but to actually model that reading via a close engagement with primary texts, in a way that makes manifest not just how to read or write in those forms, but why reading and writing in these forms matters so much, not just in academic life but in the broader cultural sphere as well. I’m actively looking for ways to restructure my existing classes to take advantage of that excitement.

This is a big part of why I’m so pleased about the opportunity to teach electives that my move into Media Studies now affords me; being able to create new classes, like Fall 2009’s Television Authorship, that raise theoretical issues through an engagement with primary texts, presents new means for me to engage with both the field and my students, and new ways for me to convey some of my excitement to them.

Nearly all of my classes use some form of digital technology, whether blogs or wikis or other forms of networked communication, as a means of encouraging my students to think of the work they’re doing in these classes less as writing for me than as writing for one another, and as engaging in an ongoing dialogue with the other scholars working in the field. My students at times resisted my early experiments with these new forms — a resistance I’ve written a bit about in my essay for the MLA volume Teaching Literature and Language Online — but they’ve gradually come to expect, and to work extremely fluidly in, these forms. One real benefit for me in using these technologies in the classroom is the archive that results from it, material evidence of the work my students have done, and a kind of inscribed memory (much better than my non-inscribed one!) of what worked in any given class, and what didn’t. I’m continuing to experiment with new digital forms in my classes; during Spring 2010, both my Introduction to Digital Media Studies course and my Writing Machines course will be testing out a range of Google applications for collaboration, including Google Docs and Google Wave, as a hands-on means of thinking through the emergence of new modes of writing and reading. I’ll look forward to reporting on those experiments.

[updated 7 January 2010]