Issue Thirteen

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From Addiction to Connection: Questioning the Rhetoric of Drugs in Relation to Student Technology-Use

Abstract

When describing students’ relation to digital technology, for the most part, educators employ the rhetorics of drugs and addiction without much hesitation. Students are considered hopelessly “hooked,” and in response to this state of affairs, many teachers adopt harsh in-class device use policies, along with attitudes of derision, anger, and fear, concomitant with the belief that technology is ruining young minds or even “deep” thinking as such. In response to such concerns, the following essay explores how one group of students—those in my upper-division Digital Writing course—described themselves and their relation to various media platforms. Students began by collecting a series of brief autoethnographic observations, which they then synthesized into blog posts which addressed the question “Am I Addicted to Technology?” Students were primed prior to writing by discussing an academic essay and watching a TED Talk that challenge employing the rhetoric of addiction/drugs, and when provided this alternative framework, many began to adopt it. In-line with Hari’s supposition that “[t]he opposite of addiction is not sobriety[;] the opposite of addiction is connection,” students continually highlighted the importance of connection in their lives, without automatically stigmatizing this need by couching it in pathological terms. Some continued to describe themselves as addicts, but those who began to explore alternative vocabularies suggest analyzing student/teacher behavior in relation to technology in a variety of new ways.

“For 100 years now, we’ve been singing war songs about addicts. I think all along we should have been singing love songs to them. Because the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”

– Johann Hari, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong”

“Instead of thinking about addiction, it makes more sense to explore how we are vulnerable to certain things that technology offers. The path forward is to learn more about our vulnerabilities and design around them. To do that, we have to clarify our purpose.”

– Sherry Turkle, “How to Teach in an Age of Distraction”

Introduction

The more digital studies/digital humanities has increasingly become the focus of my teaching and research over the past few years, the more I am convinced there is something deeply problematic about deploying the figures of addiction and drugs in relation to technology. In a recent article published in the journal Enculturation, “This Fragile Machine: Technology, Vulnerability, and the Rhetoric(s) of Addiction,” I outlined my concerns in some detail, but this analysis was based primarily in rhetorical theory with little discussion of the pedagogical ramifications of the argument. What follows here, then, is an attempt to articulate how my previous contentions might affect classroom attitudes and practices, so as to prevent teachers and students from unwittingly importing the draconian logic of the War on Drugs into the classroom, in particular, with regard to digital device usage.

A young woman with dark hair snorting a powdered drug that spells out ‘Facebook.’

Figure 1: Woman Snorting a “Line” of Facebook

My outline for investigating the above questions and concerns is as follows: I begin by briefly considering the prevailing attitude toward classroom technologies, wherein they are viewed as addictive substances, brain-damaging “drugs” upon which students (and certain teachers) are irrepressibly “hooked.” I then articulate my reservations with rhetorically framing technology in this way, while looking at how students in my upper-division Digital Writing course responded in academic blog-form to the question “Am I addicted to technology?” They were primed for this assignment by reading and discussing my Enculturation essay, along with watching a TED Talk by Johann Hari titled “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.” As I share these materials along with my own arguments, from the outset I will strive to articulate what pedagogical implications may be at stake if one were persuaded by them.

At the same time students were considering the question of technology addiction, they were tasked with collecting autoethnographic observations on their social/digital media behaviors (something Margaret “Peg” Syverson inspired me to do after introducing me to the qualitative assessment tool Learning Record Online). Throughout, I share some of the students’ most interesting field-notes in the form of textual interjections, and suggest how one might evaluate them according to different rhetorical frameworks. Sharing this quasi-anthropological data, information which attempts to be as “neutral” as possible, is especially valuable because it evinces how students can be legitimate co-producers of knowledge, and are not bound by the reductive characterizations of their media practices many foist upon them. Indeed, through this assignment many students came to see how “drugs” and “addiction,” when applied to technology, are bound to specific rhetoric and not obvious clinical or psychological facts.

Finally, I share some insightful remarks from students’ blog-posts on technology addiction, and speculate on how they might lead educators to transform their attitudes/positions and pedagogical practices. I hope that sharing these findings serves as a launching pad for further discussion and debate.

What’s Wrong with the Rhetoric of Addiction?

At the risk of over-generalizing, it strikes me that most people, professors and students included, apply the rhetoric(s) of drugs and addiction to technology with little hesitation, assuming the parallel is obvious, unaware of the problematic consequences of doing so. Oftentimes, such analogies are perhaps simply “slips,” like when Sherry Turkle describes student-users as “drinking the [presumably cyanide-laced cult] Kool-Aide” (Digital Nation). But others are far less subtle. For instance, Gary Small states:

“When we think of addiction, most of us think of alcoholism or drug abuse. But the easy access, anonymity, and constant availability of the Internet … has led to a new form of compulsive and dependent behavior – techno-addicts. The same neural pathways in the brain that reinforce dependence on substances can reinforce compulsive technology behaviors that are just as addictive and potentially destructive.”

Following Small’s line of thought, scores of materials have been produced in recent years decrying a new cultural epidemic, where digitization is framed as outright dangerous, even capable of, in Nicholas Carr’s words, “threathen[ing] the depth and distinctiveness of the self … [along with] the depth and distinctiveness of the culture we all share” (196). Works like Carr’s The Shallows, and others in its genre like Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, Nicholas Kardaras’ Glow Kids, and Damon Zaharides’ Digital Detox (the latter two of which have the term “addiction” in their subtitles), however alarmist they may be, have struck a chord and met with incredible commercial success. A quick Google search for “technology addiction” and “cell phone addiction” collectively result in nearly one hundred forty million hits, with hundreds of articles from sources ranging across the entire political news spectrum.

The medical community has gotten increasingly involved in the discussion as well, for instance, via debates over whether “Internet Addiction” is a medical disorder worthy of inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (Pies). And countries like South Korea have already declared “a public health crisis,” instituting programs to develop healthier tech-use habits for students of all ages (Digital Nation). By no means am I outright naively rejecting the claims of those concerned with digitization’s problematic affects/effects, but I do want to rigorously interrogate how such worries are troped or figured.

“The hospital lost my phone when I was admitted to the ER. During my hospital stay I kept reaching for it to check things. But I couldn’t look at it because it was lost. I felt very uncomfortable and disconnected.”

– Student Autoethnographic Observation (emphasis mine)

I imagine most people, scholars included, because they have no alternative rhetoric for framing this example, would think it obvious that a student worried about checking their phone while in the Emergency Room is an “addict,” with all the troubling conceptual baggage attached to the term. As will become increasingly clear, however, what if one were to focus here instead on the irrepressible need for connection or bonding, especially in a frightening or painful situation?

Given the possibility for alternative interpretations, it’s surprising one still finds even someone like champion of technology Clay Shirky making the following observation in a recent post: “Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption” (emphasis mine). So why should statements like this give one pause? In response, permit me to briefly summarize the claims contained in my essay “This Fragile Machine,” while extending them into pedagogical territory:

(1) “The Addict” has solidified into an identity that contains numerous problematic assumptions: identities are largely fixed and unchanging; the addict uses drugs to escape reality; the addict suffers from a deficiency of “will”; the addict’s life is in inescapable decline; the addict’s habits can be overcome only through resolute abstinence; hence, addiction/drugs, including digital technologies, must be harshly regulated and punishment can serve as an effective deterrent. [1]

When one refers to students or anyone else as addicts, without realizing it, one not only ascribes them an essentializing identity, but one with a serious stigma attached to it. And since identities are viewed as largely intractable, I heartily agree with Turkle that “discussing the power of technology in those terms makes people feel powerless. It is as though they are facing something that is by definition more powerful than they could ever be.” Ascribing someone an identity can make it seem as though there is no way to change or modify it, say, through an ethics of “hygienic” self-care, and so the only way to discipline/control the techno-addicted, supposedly weak-willed student is to force them to abstain from “using.”

“During my Physics [class], the teacher began talking about things that did not seem relevant. … About 2/3 of the class seemed to be using cell phones or laptops to do other things. Some were on both laptops and cell phones. I myself was scrolling through Twitter, Instagram, and imessage simultaneously.”

– Student Autoethnographic Observation (emphasis mine)

Provided observations like the above, it would be folly to ignore that sometimes classroom technology produces undesirable effects like distraction and detrimental cognitive modification, but ascribing identities can rob students of the opportunity to learn classroom-appropriate practices and to take responsibility for employing them. This is likely what Shelley Rodrigo has in mind when she contends: “[s]tarting with what the students already do works not only because we are going with the flow; … it is because it is going with their flow.” And it is not only a matter of going “with” the flow, but guiding that flow in an effective, insightful manner, versus, say, the above physics classroom, where it seems the problem is not addiction, but boredom, disengagement, disconnection, and ineffective pedagogy.

(2) Even if one views addiction as the cyclical or algorithmic repetition at the heart of all behavior, the rhetoric of drugs is saturated with innumerable “moral” norms and prohibitions; hence one will likely feel ashamed or guilty if one cannot abstain.

Scholars influenced by deconstruction such as Avital Ronell have suggested the stigma surrounding addiction might be lifted by seeing it as tied not to specific habits but rather all behavior. (More precisely, addiction is viewed here as an existential structure.) However, since the rhetoric of drugs/addiction is so tropologically loaded, I have difficulty accepting this approach will alleviate the “bad conscience” of students, absolving them of the guilt or shame they feel for “using.” After all, this approach still suggests tech-users are addicts, even if it moves away from viewing addiction as something attributable to the weak-willed. In fact, the universalization of addiction might even exacerbate the problem at issue.

(3) In contrast to specific technologically-oriented behaviors, vulnerability/“openness” to affection by technology is inescapable. A posthuman approach highlights this exposedness, and thus challenges assumptions regarding identity, will, abstinence, guilt, and more.

A liberal humanist view of subjectivity suggests rationality grants human beings untrammeled freedom to act (“will”) without regard for contextual material conditions—including everything from race, class, and gender, to technologies available within one’s environment. This approach not only doggedly continues to influence the whole of contemporary society, from politics to law to economics, but provides the assumptions necessary to brand students as addicts who can be seduced by the allure of technology and “morally” fail to resist. By contrast, in the words of Shirky, “I’ve stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention [or compulsively use technology,] and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences.” In short, if students are non-declinably open to affection by technology, not only is it unfair to stigmatize their compulsive digital inclinations, but as Shirky notes, the greater responsibility lies with capitalist technologies purposely “designed to distract” as opposed to some flaw in students themselves. Such an approach urges one to not make students feel ashamed for technology-use, and that punishing them for partaking will ultimately fail as a deterrent (just as it has abjectly failed to end the War on Drugs), as well as precluding critical discussions of how certain media platforms or specific facets of them are built to be “addictive.”

Three colorful syringes labeled Facebook, Youtube, and tumblr. respectively.

Figure 2: Syringes Labeled as Social Media Platforms

Although students seemed intrigued by my own claims regarding the rhetoric of technology addiction, it was clear from their blog-posts they were persuaded most deeply by Johann Hari’s TED Talk on addiction writ large. For one, Hari challenges whether the rhetoric of addiction is viable at all, suggesting “maybe we shouldn’t even call it addiction. Maybe we should call it bonding. Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond, and when we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond and connect with each other, but if you can’t do that … you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief.” The language of “bonding” that evokes the psychoanalytic concept of libidinal ties, not only helps diminish the stigma attached to addiction, it suggests students are driven to use technology—social media platforms in particular—not because they’re trying to evade reality or are looking for a dopamine fix, but because they’re simply doing what human beings are built to do: Connect.

In contrast to his progressive insights, however, one move Hari makes that gives me pause is he avers digital connections are “like a kind of parody of human connection. [Since if] you have a crisis in your life, you’ll notice … it won’t be your Twitter followers who come to sit with you. It won’t be your Facebook friends who help you turn it around.” Rather than considering digital connections unfulfilling “parodies,” I think it far less problematic to highlight the various affordances in connection across different mediums. For example, face-to-face connection provides the affordances of physical touch, eye-contact, smell, “chemistry,” and so on, whereas online connection provides the affordances of multimodal interaction that surpasses speech/graphical writing along with extending connection beyond one’s geographic and temporal proximity. In other words, one can posit the importance of face-to-face connections without suggesting said connections are somehow more “authentic” than digital ones. As twenty-first century educators, helping students to navigate and balance relationship-types and their specific affordances is key, and it’s far more troublesome than helpful to suggest certain forms of desire for connection are addiction-oriented whereas others are not.

Perhaps the most pedagogically-potent observations Hari makes, though, regard Bruce Alexander’s psychological experiments with “Rat Park.” The basic outline is as follows: in earlier twentieth-century tests, researchers placed rats alone in a cage with two bottles of water, one of which laced with either heroin or cocaine. In these experiments where rats were imprisoned and in isolation, they would nearly always become “bonded” to the drugged water and eventually die. Later, researchers like Alexander questioned this initial approach, and reproduced the experiments with a critical modification: the rats still had access to heroin/cocaine but they were no longer alone. Instead, Rat Park was a community wherein they could form social bonds, mate, play, and more. In these tests, the rats almost never drank the drugged water, nor became addicted and died in miserable fashion. Hari therefore asks: “What if addiction is about your cage? What if addiction is an adaptation to your environment?”

The chilling insight, then, that I had with regard to Rat Park was: What if technology “addiction” is about adapting to the “cage” of your classroom? What if it is about feeling trapped and alone, “not being able to bear to be present in your [educational] life?” For example, if students are expected to sit silently during lecture, work on assignments in isolation, or being “talked at” by the educator, that is, when they’re dis-connected, when forming social ties is not encouraged, is it surprising they would opt for the “bonds” of the Internet? Indeed, what if certain classroom spaces are even more tortuous than those of rats in isolation because students are in proximity to one other yet often explicitly forbidden to interact? Hence, I take responsibility upon myself if I notice a student checking Facebook during lecture/discussion, etc., because it signals to me said student feels disconnected from what’s happening around them. Furthermore, such occurrences highlight the need for new types of learning spaces that facilitate both analog and digital connection, dynamic environments like those Katherine Hayles has in-mind when she contends “[t]he classroom is no longer sufficient for the needs of web pedagogy; needed are flexible laboratory spaces in which teams can work collaboratively” (5). [2]

“The teacher split my Accounting class into groups to collaborate on a case study. Instead of collaborating, everyone looked for answers on the internet.”

– Student Autoethnographic Observation (emphasis mine)

Provided this example, again the rhetoric of drugs/addiction threatens to return. But what if one asked instead: Why does the student not view doing online research as itself collaborative? Is it because they’ve internalized the view that only face-to-face interaction counts as authentic engagement with others? And if the choice is between working with “strangers” in the classroom as opposed to “strangers” online–since most college classrooms don’t emphasize forming neighborly communities among peers–isn’t it less scary to engage with an “other” whose gaze one can escape?

Put another way, it seems that because collaborative practices break with individualist, humanist models of education, one cannot assume students know how to work together collectively; hence one task of contemporary education is to help develop this indispensable skill. As I often joke with students: “It’s okay—we’re all still learning how to Internet.” And I mean that in relation to face-to-face networking as well as writing online, especially since robust team-oriented projects/evaluation are still an outlier in the humanities and learning to excel at and balance various types of connections with different affordances is something that is rarely, if ever, taught.

Provided the above observations, then, there is great pedagogical significance in Hari’s concluding observation: “[I say] to the addicts in my life that I want to deepen the connection with them, to say to them, I love you whether you’re using or not. I love you, whatever state you’re in, and if you need me, I’ll come sit with you because I love you and I don’t want you to be alone or to feel alone.” As educators concerned with effective/affective bonding, isn’t this a vastly healthier message to provide students than to chastise or punish them for their so-called “addictive,” “weak-willed” behaviors? To sympathize with them for feeling caged?

“I heard my phone vibrate in my backpack while in class and resisted the urge to check the notification to avoid losing points in the class where phones are not allowed.”

– Student Autoethnographic Observation (emphasis mine)[3]

To make the analogy more explicit, if you’re a student “using” technology problematically in the classroom, I still love you; it’s apparent you’re not feeling loved or connected, so I’ll go out of my way to form a bond with you or encourage activities that lead you to bond with others, especially in contrast to the above punishment-oriented approach. In this regard, I think it’s obvious many classrooms are not emotionally sensitive spaces. To the contrary, they’re ultra-logocentric, implicitly presupposing education has nothing to do with pathos. As burgeoning pedagogues, we are rarely taught how to form healthy, meaningful connections with students, but in a society where people are lonelier and more isolated/alienated than ever, developing such connections seems increasingly exigent. Perhaps this is to suggest that concomitant with helping students/teachers became increasingly digitally literate, is a call to help them become more emotively reflexive and considerate of which types of connections are most fulfilling in which contexts and for what reasons.

“Am I Addicted to Technology?”

After being primed to question the rhetoric of drugs in relation to technology-use, what did students themselves have to say about digital “addiction,” and what might educators gain from these observations? For one, I hope it’s apparent that by valuing what students have to say about themselves, this highlights the importance of student/teacher co-invention of knowledge (and feeling!). Or as Kimberly Mair puts it, I see encouraging students to define their own relations to technology as “acknowledg[ing] the emergent shift from the expert paradigm of one-directional knowledge transfer to a collaborative model of knowledge production known as distributed expertise.” To cite and discuss the findings of students is not some mere research curiosity, but indicates a genuine desire to cultivate new frameworks for “seeing” technology in tandem with students themselves, especially since they often aren’t bogged down by traditional assumptions or vocabularies. When one is a non-millennial educated in a print-centric, humanist environment, it’s disrespectful and intellectually myopic to simply dismiss contemporary student attitudes and media practices with disdainful finger-wagging as though one Knows Better.

In fact, I contend valuing students’ experiences is one way of beginning to form the sort of emotive bonds and connections mentioned previously—especially since students were not given incentive for reaching any particular conclusion(s) and/or parroting back to me what they thought I wanted to hear. Some even explicitly disagreed with me, and I encouraged them to do so, such as Nick Konstantinidis, who remarked:

“[‘Addict’] is a vulgar word nobody likes admitting themselves to being. However, my social media usage along with the studies we’ve done in class makes me believe I am quite addicted to social media sites. When I say I’m addicted I’m not comparing myself to some of the people we’ve seen in videos such as those in [South Korea] who accumulate days’ worth of consumption at a time, wearing diapers to prevent time away from [a video] game while using the restroom. But I do find myself reaching for my phone extremely frequently checking my social media accounts, text messages, or surfing the web.”

Although the student is mostly reinforcing the view of those like Carr and Bauerline, what interests me more is the sentiment attached to this position, namely, that “addiction is vulgar,” and/or no one wants to “admit” they’re addicted to something. Hence one is provided a taste of the guilt, shame, and embarrassment unwittingly produced when one defines students as addicts: they feel dirty, unsophisticated, and so very “common.”

A young woman with blue-tinted skin smoking a smartphone as though it were a crack-pipe.

Figure 3: Woman Smoking Smartphone Crack-Pipe

Contrasting a more traditional, “bad conscience”-wracked response were students who tried to carve out a middle path, wherein they retained the rhetoric of addiction while questioning its accuracy, effects, and so on. One student, Cole Sanderson, posited “I think we are addicted to using social media and cell phones for communication but it’s not in a bad way. It just makes things get done more efficiently when communicating. … I don’t think addiction in this sense should be looked down upon because it [is] truly helping people communicate in a faster way” (emphases mine). This observation not only evinces having rejected the guilt/shame associated with technology-use, but suggests this sentiment is justified since such an “addiction” doesn’t involve breaking social norms. The question remains, however—in-line with concerns regarding addiction as a universal existential structure—can one truly deploy the rhetoric of addiction without it remaining contaminated, saturated by normativity? For as Jacques Derrida avers, “[a]s soon as one utters the word ‘drugs,’ even before any ‘addiction’[,] a prescriptive or normative ‘diction’ is already at work, performatively, whether one likes it or not” (229).

In other words, perhaps the *only* way out here, ironically, is to abstain from the rhetoric of technology-as-drug(s) altogether, a move one student, Rachel McCown, seemed to be shifting toward. As she explains, “[s]ome people claim that you can be addicted to technology … I think I fall somewhere in the middle of these two arguments. I don’t know that I would call it an addiction because most everyday tasks require the internet or technology to some degree, but I do know that people experience an impulsive need to check their social media, blogging sites, and emails” (emphasis mine). I appreciate the distinction made here, as no one would deny people feel “vulnerable to” and compulsively drawn toward certain technologies; it’s simply a question of how one figures that impulse. Moreover, McCown’s[4] observation about “everydayness” suggests asking one to imagine a historical classroom where print books had recently become available, and the instructor has become incensed at the student who loves text and can’t keep “his” nose out from between the pages, looking for information (rather than drawing on so-called “personal” memory). A behavior once chastised and stigmatized as breaking pedagogical norms, as proto-“addictive” (especially when someone like Madame Bovary, i.e., a woman), dared do it, is now looked upon by many with nostalgic longing.

Let’s wrap up, then, by looking at some contentions by students who explicitly challenged the rhetoric of tech-addiction. To this end, Camille Mountjoy writes: “Now, is my social media an addiction? I truly believe it is not. I can stop using social media in situations where an addict may not be able to stop using” (emphasis mine); hence, she draws a critical qualitative distinction with regard to dependency I agree is legitimate. She doesn’t stop here, though, but goes on to share an anecdote I think reveals her position as more informed than many in academia and the greater population. In her own words, “I find it a little insulting that social media usage can be viewed as addicted behavior because I knew people close to me with different addiction problems and it is vastly different. The only thing I could see that has similarities is the idea [that “addicts”] do not have that many strong connections so they escape by numbing themselves” (emphasis mine). Perhaps I am assuming too much here, but anyone who has struggled with “addiction” themselves, or loved and cared for someone who has, is likely going to be (or should be) more hesitant to employ the rhetoric of addiction/drugs in relation to technology.[5] The student has experienced first-hand the significant differences at issue, yet one of the only scholarly examples I have found along these lines is when Turkle states “[t]he analogy between screens and drugs breaks down … There is only one thing you should do if you are on heroin: Get off it. Your life is at stake. But laptops and smartphones don’t need to be removed. They are part of our creative lives. The goal is to use them with greater intention, to live with them in greater harmony.”

As opposed to “harmony,” however, many academics have developed and propagated an adversarial attitude toward technology, along with putative disciplinary measures, and have thereby unwittingly imported the logic of the War on Drugs into the classroom. Another student, Brianna Coggins, seems to sense as much when she writes “labeling urges to use a phone or computer as an addiction takes the situation out of context and blows it out of proportion to push an ‘anti-digital age’ propaganda caused by personal hesitation – fear of the effects the digital world has on humanity” (emphasis mine). Here, not only does the student’s observation resonate alongside previous ones with regard to eliding key differences between types of compulsive dependency, she spotlights how many over-generalize and transmute personal fears into apocalyptic universalizations about the degeneracy of contemporary culture.[6] Yet, despite this mass panic regarding technology-use among certain populations, one bright student dared arrive at an almost diametrically-opposed position, namely, that “[p]eople think that social media is taking away human interaction and physical contact[, but] in fact, social media is just giving us a new way to define what it means to be a human. It isn’t the end of humanity, it’s a new beginning” (emphasis mine). Here Mountjoy recognizes—even if she doesn’t employ the exact vocabulary—what is at issue is the question of affordance. Digital media technologies produce opportunities for new forms of human interaction and bonding, such that what it means to be human is expanding rather than disintegrating.

Such is the vision promoted by a posthumanist pedagogy and its accompanying classroom or lab: a space wherein the desire for connection and exploring/“balancing” affordances in bonding, whether via analog and/or digital modes, is not only encouraged and guided in emotionally-attuned fashion, it is viewed as an inescapable part of existing in relation to and through others—where it is recognized no “desiring-machine” functions on its own, independently of a network. Or to pose it as a question: what transformation takes place when one affirms that being irrepressibly drawn toward technology (or any “other”) is not indicative of failure to resist through resolute will, that is, to destructive “addiction,” but to the vulnerability of bodies affected by that which non-declinably grasps them?

Although technology-use may derail one’s initial educational aims, as teachers and students, it is within our capacity to redefine and reframe the rhetoric involved, not only putting into question our aims themselves, but cleansing our teaching and learning more generally from derisive moral judgment and retributive discipline, thereby vitally, “mercifully,” modifying our pedagogical attitudes and practices. For questioning is the blasphemy which drives the motor of invention.

Notes

[1] In reference to my initial reservations regarding the rhetoric of addiction, I cannot encourage strongly enough that readers check out Eve K. Sedgwick’s challenging and incisive essay “Epidemics of the Will” in Tendencies.

[2] I really appreciate Turkle’s insight that “[c]ollaboration is a kind of intimacy. You don’t just get more information. You get different information. … The most powerful learning takes place in relationship.”

[3] Question: What if one were to “legalize” all digital devices in classrooms, then take the substantial energy and resources spent on policing device (mis-)use and channel it into helping students form substantive connections? What might this look like, to respond to students not with punishment but by further facilitating connection?

[4] Near the end of her post, McCown adds “maybe calling it an addiction is wrong because it’s really people trying to stay active when life around them has become dull. There are always new things to read and do on the internet when you’re sitting in a boring lecture that you can’t listen to even if you try. In lectures and classrooms your attention is being forced to focus on things you’re not necessarily interested in” (emphasis mine).

[5] In Occupying Memory, I make a similar claim in relation to the rhetoric of trauma and “the traumatic,” namely, that even (and especially) scholars have a bad habit of throwing around the term, especially when it’s fairly clear they have never undergone being traumatized themselves.

[6] As an exemplar of this type of argument, I point the reader toward Nicholas Carr’s best-selling work The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Bibliography

Carr, Nicholas. 2011. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Derrida, Jacques. 1995. “The Rhetoric of Drugs.” Points… Interviews, 1974-1994. Translated by Peggy Kamuf and others. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Dretzin, Rachel. 2010. “Digital Nation.” PBS Frontline. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/digitalnation/

Hari, Johann. “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.” TED Talk, 14:43. June 2015. https://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong

Hayles, N. Katherine. 2012. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Hoag, Trevor. 2017. “This Fragile Machine: Technology, Vulnerability, and the Rhetoric(s) of Addiction.” Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture (24). http://enculturation.net/this_fragile_machine

Mair, Kimberly. 2016. “Participatory Culture and Distributed Expertise: Breaking Down Pedagogical Norms or Regulating Neoliberal Subjectivities?” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy (9). https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/participatory-culture-and-distributed-expertise-breaking-down-pedagogical-norms-or-regulating-neoliberal-subjectivities/

Pies, Ronald. 2009. “Should DSM-V Designate ‘Internet Addiction’ a Mental Disorder?” Psychiatry. Vol 6 (2): 31-37. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2719452/

Rodrigo, Shelley. 2013. “Can You Digg it? Using Web Applications in Teaching the Research Process.” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy (4). https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/can-you-digg-it-using-web-applications-in-teaching-the-research-process/

Ronell, Avital. 2004. Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Sedgwick, Eve K. 1993. “Epidemics of the Will.” Tendencies. Durham, Duke University Press.

Shirky, Clay. 2014. “Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away.” Medium (Blog). https://medium.com/@cshirky/why-i-just-asked-my-students-to-put-their-laptops-away-7f5f7c50f368

Small, Gary. 2009. “Techno-Addicts: Dopamine is responsible for the euphoria that addicts chase.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-bootcamp/200907/techno-addicts

Turkle, Sherry. 2015. “How to Teach in an Age of Distraction.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. http://www.chronicle.com/article/How-to-Teach-in-an-Age-of/233515

Student Bloggers

Coggins, Brianna. October 2017. “This is Not a Hit for Pleasure but for Connection.” Maelstrom: Writing Digital Humanities (Blog). https://maelstromdigitalactivismblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/this-is-not-a-hit-for-pleasure-but-for-connection/

Konstantinidis, Nicolas. October 2017. “Am I Addicted?” Maelstrom: Writing Digital Humanities (Blog). https://maelstromdigitalactivismblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/am-i-addicted-2/

McCown, Rachel. October 2017. “Auto-Ethnography: Are We Addicted?” Maelstrom: Writing Digital Humanities (Blog). https://maelstromdigitalactivismblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/auto-ethnography-are-we-addicted/

Mountjoy, Camille. October 2017. “Should We Be Throwing the Word ‘Addiction’ Around?” Maelstrom: Writing Digital Humanities (Blog). https://maelstromdigitalactivismblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/should-we-be-throwing-the-word-addiction-around/

Sanderson, Cole. October 2017. “Is Being Addicted to Your Phone a Bad Thing?” Maelstrom: Writing Digital Humanities (Blog). https://maelstromdigitalactivismblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/24/is-being-addicted-to-your-phone-a-bad-thing/

About the Author

Trevor Hoag, Ph.D. (@DrHoagCNU), is Assistant Professor of English and Director of the minor in Digital Humanities at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. His forthcoming book, Occupying Memory: Rhetoric, Trauma, Mourning, explores how memorialization, testimony, grief, and more serve as grounds for political/clinical struggle. His work appears in the journals Hybrid Pedagogy, Enculturation, and Liminalities. You can visit his website here: http://trevorhoagphd.org/

2

Teaching the Digital Caribbean: The Ethics of a Public Pedagogical Experiment

Abstract

In this essay, I discuss my methodology in choosing course content for a “Digital Caribbean” course at the CUNY Graduate Center and some of the challenges, expected and unexpected, that I encountered with my approach. In particular, I focus on some of the ethical and methodological questions I grappled with in melding the study of digital technologies with interdisciplinary study of the Caribbean. Formally a narrative assessment of the ways “not to” build a graduate humanities course that engages digital content, this essay primarily explores what it means to work publicly, in a digital format, with graduate-level research on the Caribbean in academia.

You have to be sure about a position in order to teach a class, but you have to be open-ended enough to know that you are going to change your mind by the time you teach it next week.
— Stuart Hall

In the spring of 2014, I taught a course entitled “The Digital Caribbean” at the CUNY Graduate Center. The course was run by the M.A. in Liberal Studies program (MALS) and cross-listed for the PhD certificates in American Studies and Africana Studies. As far as I could tell in doing my research for the course, it was the first of its kind to be taught at either the graduate or undergraduate level. As such, I found myself cobbling together materials for the course with no precedents or guidelines. This was somewhat easier when I taught the course a year later in the doctoral program in English (again at the CUNY Graduate Center) and then again in Spring 2017 as an undergraduate course at Williams College. In the patchwork essay that follows, I focus on that initial creation for the MALS course, discussing my methodology in choosing content and some of the challenges, expected and unexpected, that I encountered with my approach. In particular, I focus on some of the ethical and methodological questions I grappled with in melding the study of digital technologies with interdisciplinary study of the Caribbean. In part, this is a narrative assessment of the ways “not to” build a graduate humanities course that engages digital content. Mostly, however, it is an exploration of what it means to work publicly with graduate-level research on the Caribbean in academia, particularly with students who have set ideas about their own personal and intellectual relationships to digital technology and to the region.

There were several considerations in both setting up and running the course. Some were foreseeable at the outset, but others part of the learning process of working with living, variable (and often ephemeral) material. In building the initial version of the course, I worked from what at the time was the fifth chapter of a book in progress on Caribbean cosmology. That project has since changed, primarily I believe because of my experience creating and teaching the course. There was a symbiotic relationship such that what was once merely a chapter became pretty much the book. Nevertheless, the former project did shape my approach to the course in that the idea of cosmology (in the most general, universal, sense of the word) helped me to draw together material I was already comfortable teaching – on Caribbean literature and culture – with the Digital Humanities material that was either entirely new to me or new to me in a classroom setting.

Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning the Digital Caribbean

During the course proposal stage, I was not entirely sure what direction the syllabus would take, so, as many of us do at this stage, I left the course description relatively open. The following course description was part of that proposal and appears in slightly abbreviated form on the course website:

Text of course description for Digital Caribbean course

Figure One: Course Description for Digital Caribbean

Much like a presentation abstract months before a conference, the course description above sounded great ahead of time, but in reality I had no template ready for the course. I had not previously appreciated how much I rely on a literary tradition in my pedagogy. In teaching courses like “Caribbean Literature,” “Literary Theory,” and “Women Writers,” I had always had sample syllabi available to me either via the internet or departmental archives. I had also taken similar courses myself as a graduate student. With the digital component, I was charting new ground in Caribbean Studies; and I was teaching in an interdisciplinary program. Thankfully, there was a relatively established body of work on the intersection of race and digital culture by scholars such as Anna Everett and Lisa Nakamura, as well as a newer but also visible and growing body of work on global digital cultures by scholars such as Jennifer Brinkerhoff and Karim H. Karim. However, work that directly addressed digital technology and the Caribbean was much more difficult to find in 2013. Prior to teaching the class, I knew only of very few sources, most notably, Curwen Best’s 2008 monograph, The Politics of Caribbean Cyberculture, articles in the 2011 sx salon discussion “Caribbean Culture Online,” and Annie Paul’s essay in the 2011 Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature, “Log On: Toward Social and Digital Islands.”

Though few and limited to the Anglophone Caribbean, these texts spanned the disciplinary spectrum and so formed a good base from which to begin. My approach to interdisciplinarity has always been to begin with my strength – literature and close reading – and branch out from there. I was also guided by the description of the “second wave” of digital humanities posited in the “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0”:

The first wave of digital humanities work was quantitative, mobilizing the search and retrieval powers of the database, automating corpus linguistics, stacking hypercards into critical arrays. The second wave is qualitative, interpretive, experiential, emotive, generative in character. It harnesses digital toolkits in the service of the Humanities’ core methodological strengths: attention to complexity, medium specificity, historical context, analytical depth, critique and interpretation.[1]

Though I am sure there are scholars who would argue with the portrayal of the “first wave,” the rest of the description resonated with me because it spoke so directly to what I wished to achieve in the classroom and in whatever scholarship I produced on the topic. This class, this project, was to be generative in nature, for my students, my colleagues, my field, and myself.

But how to pull these varied texts together in a coherent way for these varied audiences? I began with a provisional syllabus that covered only the first three weeks. This decision was motivated by two realities: 1) I simply was not sure what to put in the following weeks as I was still hoping to seamlessly meld Caribbean studies and digital humanities, 2) I wanted to be transparent with my students about the experimental nature of the course and the need for their active participation in generating course content. For various reasons – professional and personal – I was hesitant about this as a pedagogical strategy, but later in the semester some of the students expressed appreciation for this contingent beginning. My openness about the course as an experiment allowed them to feel part of the creation of the course. Throughout the semester the students were comfortable enough to suggest sites, though not readings, for us to analyze. It also helped that I left space in the syllabus for them to do so and designed some of the assignments to require that they find their own examples to illustrate connections between the readings.

At the time, I was unaware of the wealth of research, case studies, and practical advice regarding co-creating course syllabi with students already amassed by scholars steeped in learner-centered pedagogy. The experimental nature of the Digital Caribbean course was not entirely student-centered, but the openness of the syllabus did allow for a foregrounding of some of the students’ interests throughout the semester. In particular, in response to our first class discussion about topics, I scheduled weeks for us to focus on Caribbean tourism online and queer sexualities in Caribbean digital representation(s), topics I had not previously planned to cover. For these especially, but generally throughout the semester, I became a “co-learner” with my students as the course progressed. Much of what I learned from students in this first iteration of the course shaped the next two versions, which were not quite so experimental in syllabus creation.[2]

Our first day was organized around the traditional discussion of the syllabus, texts, and what students hoped to get out of the class; however, I left the second half of class for setting up the course website. We used the CUNY Academic Commons, which is a robust network that offers members not only WordPress-based websites, but also backend privacy for file-sharing and discussion; this helped to avoid the question of copyright with the readings for the course and gave students a space to communicate as a group.[3] We had a lively discussion about what the URL should be for the site as we tried to take into account our current needs, the potential needs of future scholars, and the ways the site might be accessed and for what reasons. The discussion extended to a consideration of what dependencies we had on such tools as search engines, link condensers, and social media. In the end, we decided that though it may be long (so much so that the Commons site creation tool warned us that we would be better off with something shorter), we would choose digitalcaribbean.commons.gc.cuny.edu. It was easy to remember and had a distinct clarity of purpose – two qualities important for both current and potential future users.[4]

Platforms and Privacy: The CUNY Academic Commons

The decision that seemed in those early days to be the easiest – that of which platform to use – became in time one of the most troubling. The CUNY Commons has been a model for several organizations’ digital platforms in the near-decade since launching in 2009. Though there are always improvements to be made, the platform is well-developed and the community is welcoming and supportive. I had no doubts about it being the proper home for our course site. However, as the semester wore on, many of the assumptions that led to my choice of this platform – some of them about the very topic we were studying – proved to be short-sighted.

First, there was my assumption about students’ (and by extension other professors’) usage of the CUNY Academic Commons. During that first class I realized that several of the students had not yet set up their Commons accounts, even though this was the Spring semester and so all but one of them had been enrolled at the Graduate Center for at least one semester of classes. This highlighted the assumption I had made about my students’ technological savvy. It would become more clear throughout the rest of the semester that I would need to set aside time for a “practicum” at the end of some classes to cover some of the technical details of using the WordPress-based Commons to complete assignments. Of the eight students, about half had never blogged, even more had never blogged using WordPress, and the CUNY Academic Commons was new to the majority.[5]

As scholars we are inundated with information (and in some cases exhortations) about digital pedagogy and digital scholarship. Regardless of our field and topic, our research is increasingly done via screens rather than via printed material. According to David M. Berry in Understanding Digital Humanities,

Across the university the way in which we pursue research is changing, and digital technology is playing a significant part in that change. Indeed, it is becoming more and more evident that research is increasingly being mediated through digital technology. Many argue that this mediation is slowly beginning to change what it means to undertake research, affecting both the epistemologies and ontologies that underlie a research programme […] it is rare to find an academic today who has had no access to digital technology as part of their research activity.[6]

As such, we can easily make assumptions about not only about our colleagues’ usage of digital technology, but also the digital readiness of our students; we know they use computers to write for us and we observe them (sometimes during class) utilizing their ever-smarter phones. Additionally, advertising and mass media in general would have us believe that everyone is accessing the internet to conduct business and pleasure. But in truth, access does not mean use, and use does not mean full engagement.

This question of engagement, my first hurdle beyond creating a syllabus, was a peculiar reflection of what we were to study in the class. Six of my eight students were of Caribbean descent and the ways in which they used the internet to enhance their understandings of Caribbean culture was repeatedly a topic of discussion across the semester. More relevant for my purposes here, however, is the way in which they did not use the internet. The students’ lack of engagement with the CUNY Academic Commons spoke to their concerns about privacy and the distinction they imagined (or ignored) between their professional and personal digital lives.

Because the field of Caribbean digital studies could, at best, be termed small, one of my objectives was to build a resource for future teachers, students and scholars of similar material, a group that was at that time, and still is, noticeably increasing in number and visibility. This envisioned resource included, in large part, my students’ blogging activity, depending on these posts to convey some of the content of our discussion and the nature of possible connections between the materials. I had once before, as an extra credit exercise, assigned public blogging as part of a course, but that was with undergraduates, and optional. For this course I had, without proper forethought, made public blogging a requirement for students who were more invested in academia than my undergraduates and still had further to go on the track (I had one PhD student and the others were Master’s students, most of whom were planning to apply to doctoral programs). One student was vocally hesitant about blogging publicly, especially since our use of the CUNY Academic Commons meant he could not write pseudonymously.[7] I encouraged him to continue to participate, but I offered the option to delete the blogs after the course, which made him much more comfortable. In later discussions with colleagues I found that many offered the opportunity to blog privately. I could have offered this option, but I wanted the “pressure” of public writing to shape the students’ responses. I also, selfishly, wanted to build the site with curated content.

Despite this choice to stick with my original plan, I was torn about the decision as the unevenness of my students’ writing and abilities became more apparent. Public writing is its own genre and the students approached it in different ways; some with previous blogging experience took to the writing requirement easily, as did others comfortable with writing and/or public performance. The distance between these students and those more hesitant about blogging grew as the course went on. Included in my original course description was the objective to “consider the pedagogical and professional aspects of working with not only digital texts, but specifically those produced to represent a minority culture, particularly given the increasing digitization of academic work.” Somehow, I had not envisioned the work produced in the class itself to be part of this objective, but learned quickly that I needed to treat my students’ work as part of these “digital texts” as well. As Trevor Owens writes of his course site in “The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends,” my students’ blogging “was not simply a supplement to the course; rather, it played a cognitive role in the distributed structure of the class, moving it from knowledge consumption to knowledge production.”[8] Their blog posts were producing knowledge not just for our little community in the course, but for a larger (albeit still largely imagined) community beyond the classroom.

On the first day of class we had been optimistic enough to choose a hashtag for sharing our course materials on social media but my concerns about my students’ right to relative privacy kept me from directly linking to their work until the final projects at the end of the semester. The question that repeatedly haunted me was: to what extent are we responsible for shielding our students in this manner? It seems a bit silly to think of myself as “shielding” my students when their work was available on the World Wide Web, but given the relative obscurity of some (even most) web content, it is easy to forget about the public nature of material created for a small group. Could I strike some balance between public encouragement of their work and the traditional private safe space of the classroom? A related concern was that all my students were students of color and I did not know which approach to public writing would most benefit them in an academic system and space ill-designed for their success.  As a compromise, I began to suggest revisions in my reading of their blogs. Though I occasionally commented on their blogs publicly, I also periodically “graded” the blogs privately with comments about each. This resulted in more work but sat well with me ethically as it gave my students the option of going back to revise the blog posts both before and after the “grading.”[9] In retrospect, this was the best approach possible given the varied rationales for the course site: a conversation between the course participants, a contemporary resource for interested readers, and an archive for potential future scholars.

Sooner than expected, I had cause to question the ways in which the course was framed on the site for this latter audience. That summer, after the course had closed, I was contacted by Elena Machado Sáez, who was doing research on Robert Antoni’s As Flies to Whatless Boys. Her project was on reader responses to the text and its accompanying website and in doing research she encountered my students’ posts on the Digital Caribbean site. Antoni was one of our class visitors and so there had been significant activity on the blog surrounding his novel and its experimental website. Because many reviewers were ignoring the website (possibly due to how unusual and “out there” it is), my students’ online conversation represented the largest resource of rigorous engagement with both the novel and its website that a scholar could access at the time. Machado Sáez contacted me about the posts and the site in general. Her email and her subsequent usage of material from the site brought me up short and made me realize the ways in which I had not been careful enough in my creation of the site and contextualization of the course.

The irony here is that our last class was on how search engine optimization (SEO) – via Google in particular – affects one’s exposure to information. Therefore, I should have been more cognizant of how the site appeared to an outsider. But I was, again, operating under myopic assumptions about internet usage. Unfortunately, I did not fully realize this until my students’ work had already made it into Machado Sáez’s book. Her reference to the students’ writings begin: “The digital marginalia accessible via CUNY Academic Commons and produced within a classroom setting indicates the discomfort of readerships with the (im)possible intimacy of Antoni’s online archive, as well as its appeal.”[10] This was footnoted with reference to our email exchange:

Kelly Josephs taught a Spring 2014 graduate course at the CUNY Graduate Center on the “Digital Caribbean,” which produced the blog postings on CUNY Academic Commons (“Introduction”). Since I accessed the blog commentary via Google and the classroom context was not directly acknowledged by the posts, I contacted Josephs via e-mail on June 2, 2014, to see if she knew who had generated the posts. Josephs was kind enough to provide me with her course syllabus and a description of the blog post assignment, but she was unaware that the posts could be disconnected from the course content, or rather, read without accessing the relevant online course description and materials. As she noted, “The CUNY Academic Commons is a large conglomerate and this is just one site within it” (“Re: CUNY Academic Commons,” 2 June 2014). Our academic exchange speaks to how classwork may circulate digitally in ways that we as teachers might not imagine, namely, decontextualized from the pedagogical frame that produced that work.[11]

I quote the note in full here because it speaks to the various ethical, archival, and pedagogical dilemmas I highlight above. Machado Sáez raises a salient point about the circulation of digital material. My disconcertion here is not that the student posts were accessed without context, but that the content of the course could then be “decontextualized from the pedagogical frame that produced that work.” This was in part due to my neglecting to properly “brand” the course and its proliferating content, relying too much on the assumption that readers would navigate their way to the syllabus and the course description. Indeed, we had the public in mind when creating the site – that was in large part the point of our first class discussion about what to name the site and how to frame it – however, the prominence of the “CUNY” branding vis-à-vis the name of the site itself had not been part of that initial discussion (nor had it occurred to me during the course). The potential divorcing of student work from the entirety of the course experience raises for me the following questions:

  • What assumptions do we make about the holistic nature of a course when building a public site to house student work? Do these assumptions really matter to future “use” of the work?
  • What does it do to add the public as an audience for coursework? How does that reflect on content choices? How does this additional component shape assignments and “performance” in the course?
  • How does the choice of platform affect reception of the work? If we rely on platforms provided by our academic institutions, how does the institution continue to own our intellectual labor in ways we did not envision – or ways we do not mean to occur?

Three iterations of the course later, I am still grappling with these questions.[12] Before teaching the course again in 2015, I made small revisions to the course site in an effort to more clearly signal the course context for public readers, but kept the general structure and all the previous student work as part of the archive. For the 2017 undergraduate course I decided to build a new site with a different theme and organization, partly to speak to the distinct needs of my undergraduate students but also in an effort at embracing the ephemerality of a site hosted by an institution within which I was contingent faculty.[13] Rather than answering the questions above, teaching the course again has simply nuanced them, foregrounding for me the ethics of scholarship vs pedagogy, particularly when the Caribbean as subject matter and identity politics in the classroom – engaging underrepresented peoples and places – underlie these questions of ethics and public distribution.

We learn as we teach. As I teach this course, I am learning to err on the side of impermanence whenever my drive to build a site as part of the “product” of the course seems to be in tension with the needs of my students to learn in a private, safe space. I am learning to incorporate space and time for opacity in such ventures; space and time for students to create, and revise, and perhaps even refuse work in ways ultimately invisible behind the screens of outsiders. Impermanence and opacity – these are not easy choices for a Caribbeanist in the age of livestreamed conferences, recorded lectures, and hashtagged events. In the digital age, we want access to everything, archives of everything. As a Caribbean scholar, I also desire to build evidence of the complexities, the very existence, of our cultures; evidence against, as Derek Walcott phrases it: “the way that the Caribbean is still looked at, illegitimate, rootless, mongrelized. ‘No people there,’ to quote Froude, ‘in the true sense of the word.’ No people. Fragments and echoes of real people, unoriginal and broken.”[14] The lure of digital archives is their potential to make such evidence of history, of humanity, accessible in all senses of the word. I am learning to weigh this drive toward visibility against my students’ needs for invisibility, reminding myself each time that impermanence and opacity, difficult as they may be for a digital humanist, are longstanding strategies of resistance in Caribbean cultures.

Notes

[1] Jeffrey Schnapp, Todd Presner, and Peter Lunenfeld, “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” http://www.humanitiesblast.com/manifesto/Manifesto_V2.pdf. Emphasis in original. This citation is limited as according to Presner, “Parts of the manifesto were written by Jeffrey Schnapp, Peter Lunenfeld, and myself, while other parts were written (and critiqued) by commenters on the Commentpress blog and still other parts of the manifesto were written by authors who participated in the seminars. This document has the hand and words of about 100 people in it.” (Todd Presner, “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 Launched” 22 June 2009, http://www.toddpresner.com/?p=7, accessed 15 November 2017). Thus, while I note all three authors in the bibliographic record, I wish to also acknowledge that, in keeping with the gestalt of DH work, it is a collaborative document.

[2] For an illustrative discussion of the hows and whys of co-creating syllabi and course assignments with students, see Cathy Davidson’s 2015 HASTAC series “How Do I Get Started? A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom,” https://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2015/08/04/how-do-i-get-started-step-step-guide-designing-student-centered

[3] The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy is also part of the CUNY Academic Commons, though the site does not have a Commons URL or the Commons header.

[4] I was already using the simpler URL caribbean.commons.gc.cuny.edu for another site. It pays to be an early adopter in this field.

[5] The Commons team has since focused some of their resources on orienting new CUNY Graduate Center students to the platform and so both knowledge and usage of the Commons has increased in the past four years.

[6] David M. Berry, ed. Understanding Digital Humanities (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 1.

[7] I learned afterward that this is a possibility with the CUNY Academic Commons and have since offered the option to students, though none have yet chosen to blog under a pseudonym. In an unexpected turn of events, the student most hesitant about public blogging in this first version of the course later included his posts as part of his online resume of writings.

[8] Trevor Owens, “The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/6

[9] The course site remains public and as of this writing – as far as I could tell from the dashboard – none of the students have erased their blogs. This may, of course, speak more to their forgetting to remove them than any considered decision about their academic portfolio.

[10] Elena Machado Sáez, Market Aesthetics: The Purchase of the Past in Caribbean Diasporic Fiction (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), 207.

[11] Ibid, 228.

[12] The initial course ended with student digital projects (though I gave the option of a traditional paper, six of the eight students chose to build digital projects). The projects were extremely gratifying for me and I felt much more comfortable sharing these projects via social media because the students had “owned” them in a way they had not “owned” the blog posts for the course. What I found most interesting was that each of these projects was built “elsewhere.” That is, none of the students chose the CUNY Academic Commons to house their work. Perhaps they were much more aware of these questions of ownership and reception than I was at the time.

[13] This course was part of my teaching responsibilities as a visiting professor at Williams College. As of this writing, the site is still accessible, but my access to the administration of it will expire when my Williams College email account expires.

[14] Derek Walcott, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory” Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1992. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1992/walcott-lecture.html

About the Author

Kelly Baker Josephs is Associate Professor of English at York College, CUNY. She is the author of Disturbers of the Peace: Representations of Insanity in Anglophone Caribbean Lit­erature (2013), editor of sx salon: a small axe literary platform, and manager of The Caribbean Commons website. Her current project, “Caribbean Articulations: Storytelling in a Digital Age,” explores the intersections between new technologies and Caribbean cultural production.

An image of a Google map of earth featuring pins at all the locations mentioned in Díaz’s novel.
3

Beyond the Borders of the Page: Mapping The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Abstract

This article concerns a student project designed for a 200-level literature course titled “American Migrations.” Students used ZeeMaps (an application that creates custom maps using Google Maps data) to write entries about the 200-plus geographic locations mentioned in Junot Díaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Here I inquire how this non-software-intensive digital humanities project helped students fulfill the diversity general education requirement attached to the course. To that end, I argue that digital humanities assignments organized around questions of diversity can improve students’ understanding of difference while also helping them acquire practical digital literacy skills.

 

Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), explores the porousness of many borders: national, linguistic, stylistic, and generic. The book tells the story of how a Dominican-American teenager, Oscar de León, learns to cope with being more at home in science fiction and fantasy worlds than he is in his own skin. To give this personal drama more reach, the book also looks backward to chronicle the tragic events that forced the de León family to flee the Dominican Republic and the bloody Trujillo Regime. Surprisingly, Díaz refers to locations from over thirty countries on six continents to craft his multi-generational immigrant narrative. The book also alludes to dozens of imaginary places from alternate universes well loved by Oscar. By any measure, Oscar Wao is novel of epic proportions.The global ambitions of this book can be off-putting, though. I worried about this issue after deciding to assign the book in a 200-level literature class which I titled “American Migrations.” This course, which I taught during the Spring 2016 semester, explored narratives of immigration to the United States and people’s movement once there. To help make sense of Díaz’s geographical references, I asked my students to map them (see Figure 1, Live Map and Appendix). The course’s midterm assignment required students to plot Díaz’s 200-plus named locations using the ZeeMaps application, which allows users to create custom maps with data provided by Google Maps.

In this essay, I will argue that this process of creating a collaborative map encouraged my students to construct pathways into the lifeworld of the novel’s characters and also out to the real world in which they all live. Incorporating a relatively small-scale, non-software-intensive digital humanities project into this lower division undergraduate literature course allowed students from many different majors to approach novels and their digital lives differently. Ultimately, re-reading the novel with the aid of this map ultimately permitted these students to transcend the inescapable frontier of reading literature: the gap between the author and the reader.

An image of a Google map of earth featuring pins at all the locations mentioned in Díaz’s novel.

Figure 1. “Mapping The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” The references are color coordinated to match the character most closely related to each reference. The crossed sword and pencils in the South Pacific Ocean represent fictional locations from Science Fiction/Fantasy, Comics, and Role-Playing mentioned in the novel.

Essential Studies Requirements: Diversity and Information Literacy

Promoting diversity is an integral concern of contemporary university education. Many citizens, faculty, administrators, and even students themselves demand university populations that more accurately and fairly represent people from all backgrounds. Moreover, scholars and activists have concentrated on using required courses, particularly in the humanities, to introduce students to the stories, struggles, and perspectives of these groups. In the past fifty years, the concept “diversity” has evolved into a required learning outcome of many general education curricula (Chang 2002). In English departments, this means changing what books are taught, how they are taught, and who gets to teach them. That said, diversity is just one of many popular general education requirements. My university also expects students to complete classes that meet advanced communication and information literacy requirements, and rightly so. I responded by attempting to design an assignment that would help prepare students for the demands of information work in the global economy.

I chose to explore racial, national, and geographic diversity by teaching a novel about immigration written by a person of color, and then framing our interpretation of it using questions of distance, distance that can be easily mapped using digital applications. Google Maps tells me that the classroom in Grand Forks, North Dakota where I taught this novel is 1,498 miles from Oscar’s (and Díaz’s) hometown of Paterson, New Jersey; their birthplace, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, is 2,543 miles as the plane flies (see Figure 2). Suffice it to say, the majority of my students grew up in a very different world than Díaz and his characters. Few of my students came from urban centers, or even large towns, and the only immigrant of the group moved from Manitoba in Central Canada when he was very young. More importantly, none were born in Grand Forks.

I know all of this because the first assignment in the class was a short, written reflection on each student’s idea of home. I came up with this task as a way to encourage my students to take their own identity seriously within larger national and international contexts.[1] Because all of them had moved to Grand Forks, they too had migrated, albeit under different circumstances. I suspected that the drama of leaving home in the course’s narratives of immigration would resonate more clearly after students were allowed to describe how they visualize and construct their own sense of their origin. Their work over the course of the semester confirmed this suspicion. It is worth noting here that the racial make-up of the class was relatively homogenous. Most students appeared white with the exception of three students that appeared to be of Asian descent. There were about as many male-identified as female-identified students.

An image of a Google map of North and Central America. Solid lines representing the major migrations of the characters Oscar, Lola, and Beli connect the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, USA.

Figure 2. “Major Character Migrations.” The three main journeys made by the main characters are marked with solid lines. Notice the scarcity of references to the Midwestern and western US, from where many of my undergraduate students hail. The lone location in the upper Midwest is the University of North Dakota, which I placed on the map for the students’ reference. Our class-wide discussions afterward indicated that creating the map enriched students’ experience of the book.

The class was particularly diverse in disciplinary backgrounds. Its twenty-four students came from eleven different majors, unified chiefly by their desire to fulfill one of the two diversity requirements that they need to graduate. My course covered the “U” requirement, which is explained in the course catalog as a special emphasis in United States diversity. The class roster included more aviation majors than English majors. This disciplinary diversity added a level of complication in designing and implementing a digital humanities project in the course. Not only could I not presume these students would be confident interpreting literature and writing about it in the ways I would require them to, but I could also not expect them to have any experience with any software packages besides ones that are freely accessible and widely used. 56.4% of smartphone users rely on Google Maps to navigate through space (Statistica 2017). Anecdotal evidence suggests that my students’ usage was even higher. By filtering our reading of the novel through an interface that most of my students use regularly, I hoped that Díaz’s characters and their exploits could become more real and realistic to them. As this argument progresses, I hope to show how my understanding of how to best teach literature about diversity evolved alongside my strategies for implementing digital humanities assignments.

The Assignment and Student Work Process

Now, let me provide an overview of the goals and proposed learning outcomes of the assignment. In the most basic sense, maps help us make sense of the meaning of borders. Digital maps add functionality by modifying and filtering the data presented to individual users based on their specific needs and queries. A real-world example of this would be how Google Maps includes customer reviews and hours for restaurants as well as the time it takes to travel by car, foot, bike, or public transit from the user’s present location. For the purposes of this lower-level literature class, I wanted my students to seek out details that would flesh out the daily lives of characters living in the world of the novel. I asked pairs of students to research a set of locations, plot and describe each location, note which character was most important to this reference, explain the location’s relevance to the overall plot, and then check each other’s work.[2] I provided a step-by-step guide (see Appendix) to filling in the fields that I created using the ZeeMaps application. Nevertheless, a few students struggled to make the software work in ways they wanted it to, and thus I had to provide some training in fundamental digital literacy skills. This kind of support falls outside the purview of my explicit course and project objectives, but I consider it time well-spent nonetheless.

After looking through the various mapping application options, I chose ZeeMaps because it offers a straightforward, easy-to-use interface, and because it creates maps that look similar to Google Maps with which my students were already familiar. I decided against more complex applications (such as MapBox) for two central reasons: their steep learning curves threatened to intimidate students, and, more importantly, their flashy, fiddly maps might distract from a main goal of the assignment, to bridge “foreign” world of the novel to the “ordinary” digital lives of my students. As you can see in the assignment sheet (see Appendix), I structured the steps in straightforward as possible ways for students coming from many different educational backgrounds with varying degrees of digital literacy with software tools. Put another way, I tried to refocus the quotidian practice of on-the-fly smartphone research as a means to learn about the world of the novel’s characters, not the world of the students themselves.

A representative student location entry laid over an image of a Google map of the Northeast United States. The student entry includes a description of the location, its relevance to the plot, the page the reference appears, the characters involved, and additional notes.

Figure 3. “Franklin Diner (Somerset Diner).” A representative example of my student’s entries. Students’ names have been removed to preserve their anonymity.

The above entry (Figure 3) is representative of my students’ work. First, I will discuss some positive aspects of this example. When this student failed to find an obvious match for the diner mentioned by in the novel among his assigned locations, he returned to the text and used an interpretation of the character’s motivations to come up with a suitable substitute, reasoning that the diner should be “known to be a local hangout.” This phrasing demonstrates a clear identification with Oscar as college student like himself. In having to extrapolate in this way, it seems to me that student was compelled to compare his own motivations and experiences to the character’s. What’s more, this student returned to the text of the novel to ascertain the necessary context to address his hermeneutic challenge. Re-reading is a foundational analytical technique of all college English courses from Freshman composition onward but considering that most of my students were not English majors, I was heartened to see this student revisiting this passage to meet the expectations explained to him on the assignment sheet. Here, this student used his interpretation of a minor choice by Díaz to better explain Oscar’s decision-making.

Next, I will address what could be have been improved. I was disappointed to see that students’ writing in the project often came across as casual, even sloppy. This example highlights the class’ wider writing issues. Rutgers is misspelled, for instance. This particular student begins to analyze the choice of setting this scene in a local diner but fails to use the connection he makes to advance any claim about Oscar’s place in the narrative or directly connect it to his own experience. Overall, my students’ analysis was not nearly as rigorous as I had hoped given the complexity of the novel. Some locations are of more interest and import than others, of course, but I had anticipated that requiring them to investigate important and minor places alike, students could get a richer sense of the writer’s craft. Our class discussions afterward suggested that some students understood this idea better than their entries demonstrated, but I had wanted to see this more explicitly in their writing. As I will discuss below, I think that asking my students to write a bit more “around” the mapping assignment may have enriched their analysis and their textual engagement with the novel.

What often sets English department classes apart from other college courses is the attention paid to writing itself. This assignment (indeed, all assignments of this nature) threaten to distract students and instructors from attending to prose. At risk of oversimplifying an important debate for the benefit of a quick summary—more time spent with software means less time writing (Bosquet 2014; Schuman 2013). This is a valid concern, but one that I think this assignment and assignments like these can overcome through careful planning. That said, literature classes offer something more than writing and argumentation alone; they offer stories as compelling examples of lived experience. Getting students from a variety of majors to recognize this and develop a working understanding of the point of literature, if not a whole-hearted appreciation of it, must be an implicit goal of literature classes’ reading lists and assignment design. I planned this mapping assignment with that in mind, and I think, for the most part, it succeeded.

Student research methods suggested another possible shortcoming. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of my students conducted their research for their location entries with Google and Wikipedia even though I warned them that exclusively using these sources would undermine the accuracy of their work and, thus, my assessment of its quality. I accepted this trade-off because I predicted that this assignment would remind my students that these places mentioned by Díaz are inhabited by real people in the real the world. ZeeMaps’s close emulation of Google Maps directions interface likely pushed students towards repeating their regular “research” strategies. Rather than force them to behave like scholars, I tried to twist this possible danger into a moment of identification with the characters.

Literary scholars know better than to confuse quantity for quality, but students may not. With the completed map in front of us during our classroom discussion, students could begin to see how things mentioned only once, or even not at all, can impact the meaning of a text far more than things often repeated. Interpreting the motivations of characters, just like the motivations of real people, requires reading also what is not there. The hermeneutic method required to complete this mapping assignment therefore offers different ways to frame lessons that we already want to impart to our students. This project also reminds us of a lesson so obvious that it is too often forgotten: diversity comes in many different forms. The student-readers start off as distant from the lives and experiences of these characters, but once they have started to transcend that distance, they are able to be more receptive to the many other lessons about the difficulties of immigration, race, and authoritarian governments that Díaz builds his narrative upon.

By the time a contemporary student reaches university, she has undoubtedly been told about the importance of diversity; she may even be sick of the hearing versions of the same platitudes. I’d argue that the humanities are uniquely suited to succeed at overcoming this danger. Combining diversity education and technological literacy in many lower-level classes could offer ways to help students feel more connected, both in geographical and mediated terms. I do not claim to have produced a heightened sense of literary appreciation in all of my students, but I am confident that seeing these characters and places in this new way helped them develop a more cosmopolitan ethical outlook, putting them on the path toward what Viet Thanh Nguyen calls a “citizen of the imagination” (286). Reading literature alone does not make you into a good person, but it does force you to imagine the lives of others living on the other side of spatial, psychological, and cultural borders. Applying common digital applications to the study of any human problem offers more students the possibility of participating in this kind of community in ways they are already comfortable doing, namely navigating space with digital maps and looking up unknown references on the internet.

Supplementing Traditional Humanities Pedagogy

No matter how you decide to approach it, there is a lot going on in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Indeed, readers such as Kim Flournoy have created digital supplements like “The Annotated Oscar Wao” to help readers deal with the many untranslated Spanish words and the abundant geeky references. Rather than address this interpretative difficulty, the mapping assignment required students to come up with their own explanation for narrative details such as why Díaz might have his character apply to NYU knowing full-well that it was a “one-in-a-million shot” before choosing to attend Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey (33). Providing a rationale for the minor elements of the story seemed to help them grapple with central ones. Through this type of inquiry, Díaz’s characters stopped being just symbolic representations of something larger than themselves; they could start to become humans who the students could identify and sympathize with despite their clear biographical and geographical differences.

After we completed our group map, I asked the students to consult the artifact and compose a written reflection on how it affected their understanding of the novel they had already “finished” reading. One perceptive student concluded that the class was “forced to kind of abandon the stereotypes of where we pictured these locations or what we pictured them as, because we were searching for more information about these places.” By engaging Díaz’s fictional world using the same digital protocols they normally use for things as trivial as finding where to get a cup of coffee or some late-night Mexican food, my students could more easily identify with his characters, and, perhaps, start to see them as peers.

From reading student responses like this one, I came to appreciate a crucial oversight in my assignment design. By asking students to write a reflection about the novel only after completing the map, I may have neglected an opportunity to trace how their feelings about the novel changed in the process. Next time, I would try assigning an additional response to the novel before introducing the mapping project. Even a piece of writing as short and straightforward as a review modelled on a Goodreads post or Amazon customer review would have given students the chance to articulate their feelings of the novel at that point so they could later revise them. Indeed, perhaps this missing link is one reason why this student above hedges, using the phrase “to kind of abandon” stereotypes rather than critical thinking vocabulary such as “revise” or “complicate.” Of course, many of our classroom discussions gave students a preliminary chance to voice their responses to the novel, but a more comprehensive and formal opportunity may have made the discoveries and arguments explored in the final reflection that much more helpful.

Many college courses designed to meet diversity general education requirements surely state goals that sound similar to my student’s description above—particularly the part about challenging stereotypes. What this mapping project offers above and beyond that, however, is the process. The characters and the locations students explored with their map became situated in reality, thereby reinforcing the overall goal of asking students the recognize the shared aspects of the human experience. This humanizing of unfamiliar characters was additionally useful since Díaz’s style veers so widely from the traditional methods of literary realism. Mapping offers a supplementary reading strategy which fuses the power of Díaz’s linguistic experimentalism with realism’s concern for the motivations of living, breathing people, not too different from those who really do exist, in identifiable settings. There is great potential for incorporating digital tools, methods, and assignments to help accomplish the traditional goals of undergraduate literature classes that include non-majors and non-experts. Here I want to elaborate how digital humanities teaching methods can advance the goals of traditional pedagogy in the humanities and the liberal arts, and, what’s more, can help students better see the purposes of writing for digital environments.

For his part, Ryan Cordell stresses the creative and imaginative promise of skill-building as encouraging broader humanistic engagement. It “is one thing to be able to use a particular piece of hardware or software,” Cordell suggests, “and another thing altogether to imagine what it might do or mean if pushed beyond its typical use, or even more again to imagine what might be created in its stead.” I read Cordell’s argument as pushing instructors to think about innovation in the creative economy more broadly. We must remember that knowledge work, especially in the creative industries, is already software-based. Digital tools and software evolve rapidly, far more rapidly than any departmental curricula could, but this does not mean that English instructors should throw up their hands.

It is important to recall that undergraduates, even so-called digital natives, are primarily users of technology, not designers or programmers; there are thus technological and psychological barriers to the kind of “imagining” Cordell describes above. Employing these skillsets with tasks that students already have some fluency in, such as digital maps, may help erode some of their anxiety concerning digital assignments and computer-based knowledge work while also introducing them to stories and perspectives of people different than themselves. To my mind, moving digital humanities projects into lower-level literature classes offers students productive ways to develop their ethical and pragmatic digital selves at the same time.

Digital interpretation techniques have become increasingly powerful and popular in recent years. It should come as no surprise, then, that scholars have experimented with using this kind of method on Díaz’s important novel. Ed Finn, for one, scoured and compiled Amazon reviews of Oscar Wao to try and make sense of Díaz’s complex set of influences and references in order to better understand his place in the literary field. To that end, Finn used Amazon’s subsequent algorithmic recommendations to explain how Díaz’s network of authors and texts affect real reading habits of customers and fans. Finn contends that the novel is “ultimately a story about reconfiguring reading.” This claim makes good sense, given the vast array of literary and genre references within the text, but, I would add that mapping Díaz in the ways my class did permit us to take Finn’s argument one step further. Finn explains his method in spatial terms: “Like Díaz,” he seeks “to redefine reading by expanding the contested territory.” Here Finn speaks of territory only as a metaphor. He employs what we might call a “distant reading” of literary texts that, following Franco Moretti, allows him to “focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes––or genres and systems” (48–9). My mapping assignment, on the other hand, asked students to read distance, and thus, find ways to overcome the feeling that they share little with the characters in this novel.

At this moment, it is important to consider Lauren Klein’s revaluation of the technique after Moretti’s public accusation of sexual assault. She concludes that “it’s not a coincidence that distant reading does not deal well with gender, or with sexuality, or with race.” Here Klein reminds us that literary value is never neutral, and thus demands that digital humanities scholars continue to question the literary canon that is (re)produced by newly available research methods. Projects which examine the particular challenges that persons of color face in the contemporary literary marketplace such as Finn’s are a start, but digital humanities research needs to keep improving on this score. Incorporating mapping projects in classes “about” diversity could be a productive point of departure.

Finn’s claim that both his method and Díaz’s novel force us to read differently is obviously an exciting one for literary scholars; we read professionally. Students and other lay readers (many of the critics that Finn taps in his analysis of Amazon reviews for that matter) do not necessarily share the same imperatives for reading literature. Many students are familiar with digital product reviews; many have even tapped them for recommendations about all kinds of goods. However, extrapolating Amazon’s sense of the literary marketplace onto, say, Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of the literary field that Finn relies upon requires theoretical background that many undergraduate students, including English majors, lack.

This is a way of saying that many of the goals and objectives of humanities research, especially digital humanities research, remain opaque to even advanced humanities undergraduates. Furthermore, they surely remain hopelessly abstract to undergraduates outside the humanities who struggle to grasp the learning objectives of humanities education. The success of my students’ work in this context reinforces the argument that instructors can offer our students the benefits of the digital humanities research methods without having to explain them as such. Consider Mark Sample’s definition of creative analysis: “I don’t want my students to become miniature scholars. I want them to be aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines” (405). In projects like this mapping assignment, instructors can offer techniques that offer new lines of creative inquiry for students interested in literature, art, and creative practice without alienating students from other disciplines who have enrolled in the course for the chance to read some good books. Put another way, digital assignments like this offer students from a wide variety of majors the chances to actively participate in the information economy as creators and designers, not just as passive users. At the same time, assignments like this reinforce the idea that creativity requires careful observation, research, and analysis, not just ego. Writing papers have long modelled this strategy for future workers and citizens within the safe confines of a classroom and with a receptive audience of one teacher. Mapping projects, on the other hand, enable students’ products to circulate and serve others in ways that real-world writing and maps already do. This is not to say that mapping should replace writing, but it does seem to offer an exciting supplement to students who may not have as much experience or interest in artistic products and process as humanities or arts majors.

Conclusion: New Avenues for Reading and Teaching

Undergraduates, especially non-English majors, will only read so many novels during their academic careers. Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao addresses many of the objectives of English department curricula and will hopefully continue to be a mainstay. The accusations of sexual assault and misogyny made against Díaz surely complicate this wish. To my mind, interpretive methods that prioritize culture, context, and the reader rather than the author, are designed to expose sexual, economic, racial, and imperial violence in ways that may foster the kinds of difficult discussions that will help eradicate these kinds of violence; Díaz’s text was already problematic, and these disturbing allegations reinforce just how important discussions of difference should be moving forward. What the creation of this mapping assignment taught me is that the novel’s planetary ambitions are as important as supplementing of the reader’s “mandatory two seconds of Dominican history,” which Díaz lampoons in the novel’s first footnote (2). Indeed, Oscar Wao would not be as canonical, that is, it would not appear on as many undergraduate syllabi, if its concern with space were not so robust. Mapping this novel by digital or cognitive methods reinforces a central takeaway of Díaz’s fiction—people and their cultures do not travel on one-way trips or in straight lines. My students got the chance to discover where the undergraduate reader, where each of them, fits into this landscape.

As productive as I found this assignment to be for my students, I think that in my desire to make it straightforward for a varied group of students may have undercut some of the project’s efficacy. For instance, I may have erred by creating the spreadsheet of locations for the students, so that they could simply plug in the locations using the ZeeMaps interface. I did this to make sure that students would not miss any locations, and to make sure that they would all get an even amount of work, but I fear that it may have been too easy for students to simply search for locations out of context. On a related note, if one wanted to adapt this assignment onto a different novel in a similar class, I would suggest having students map their own migrations from home as a way to cement the connections between their own lives and the lives of the characters. ZeeMaps makes it easy to group locations, so these locations could be easily unchecked, and thus made invisible, for the sake of class discussion about the novel itself. Since this assignment was designed around fostering student identification, reinforcing how far they had travelled (in terms of psychic and physical distance) may help expand the lessons of the class, the project, and the novel.

At their best, humanities courses help students see things in new ways. The digital humanities should share the same imperative. With assignments like the one I detail here, humanities instructors may defamiliarize the common and familiarize difference. By eclipsing the frontier between the singular experience of reading and the real-world novels attempt to represent, readers can begin to create a higher relief image of the things that should be all but borderless: our imagination and our empathy.

Notes

[1] I did not directly relate this reflection on students’ ideas of home to the midterm mapping project, but, as I elaborate upon below, I think the next time I assign a mapping project I will aim to frame the purpose of the project a bit differently.

[2] Perhaps the best part of using ZeeMaps is the ease of creating posts. All users need to do is find the “Addition” tab and enter a location and type it in, just as if they were searching for driving directions. ZeeMaps’ reliance on real-world maps via Google, however, made the addition of the dozen fantasy references difficult to chart (See Figure 1 or the South Pacific Ocean on the live map). This discrepancy required students to further consider the “reality” of Díaz’s references.

Bibliography

Bousquet, Marc. 2016. “Keep the ‘Research,’ Ditch the ‘Paper.’” Chronicle of Higher Education, February, 14 2014.

Chang, Mitchell J. 2002. “The Impact of Undergraduate Diversity Course Requirements on Students’ Racial Views and Attitudes.” JGE: The Journal of General Education. 51, no. 1. https://doi.org/10.1353/jge.2002.0002.

Cordell, Ryan. 2015. “How Not To Teach Digital Humanities.” http://ryancordell.org/teaching/how-not-to-teach-digital-humanities/.

Díaz, Junot. 2007. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead.

Finn, Ed. 2013. “Revenge of the Nerd: Junot Díaz and Networks of American Literary Imagination.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 7, no.1. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/7/1/000148/000148.html

Hanna, Monica, Jennifer Harford Vargas, and José David Saldívar, eds. 2016. Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination. Durham: Duke UP.

Klein, Lauren F. 2018. “Distant Reading After Moretti.”

http://lklein.com/2018/01/distant-reading-after-moretti/.

“Mobile Audience Reach of Leading Smartphone Apps in the United States as of June 2017.” Statista.com. https://www.statista.com/statistics/281605/reach-of-leading-us-smartphone-apps/.

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. 2016. Nothing Ever Dies. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Phillips, Kristine. 2018. “Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz accused of sexual misconduct, misogynistic behavior.” Washington Post, May 6, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2018/05/05/pulitzer-prize-winning-author-junot-diaz-accused-of-sexual-misconduct-misogynistic-behavior/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6b43cdd95ae0.

Sample, Mark. 2011. “What’s Wrong with Writing Essays.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. edited by Matthew Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 404–405.

Schuman, Rebecca. 2013. “The End of the College Essay.” Slate, December 13, 2013. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2013/12/college_papers_students_hate_writing_them_professors_hate_grading_them_let.html.

 

Appendix: Assignment Sheet

American Migrations: English 229

University of North Dakota

Dr. David Haeselin

Spring 2016

Midterm Project:

Mapping The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

This assignment asks you to think about Junot Díaz’s novel in a different way than we did My Ántonia. Rather than interpret the text of the novel itself, for this project we will create a visual representation of the Dominican diaspora by building a digital map. This map will try to represent the “mental geographies” of the novels’ characters by marking the 200 places referred to by Díaz over the course of the book. Once we have completed this collaborative assignment, we will use this object to help us better understand the scope and meaning of this impressive work of fiction.

Expectations

This assignment will be completed with a partner. I have already listed the 200 or so locations that Díaz refers to in the novel. I will divide them up and send you a spreadsheet with your set of locations. You are your partner will be responsible for inputting all of these locations on our map using the web application ZeeMaps (follow the link on the Blackboard Site under Tools).

Preparation

  • Create a username for posting material on the ZeeMaps web app. Please select a name that you don’t mind sharing publicly on the Internet. You can use your real name or a pseudonym, it’s entirely up to you. I’m going to use david.haeselin.
  • E-mail me your chosen name.
  • Go to ZeeMaps.com and sign-up. You can use your UND e-mail, if you like. Please select a password that you won’t have trouble remembering.
  • Follow the link to the editable Oscar Wao map I’ve posted on Blackboard under Tools.
  • Open ZeeMaps make sure that your browser can run the app.

Spreadsheet Completion Steps

  • Check your e-mail for your assigned list of locations in a spreadsheet document.
  • Divide the locations listed on the spreadsheet between you and your partner.
  • Look up an assigned location on the Internet.
  • Draft a sentence or two long description of the place in the spreadsheet file. Be sure to provide attribution for whatever source you decide to cite.
  • Include a sentence of two long description of the place’s relevance in the novel.
  • Find the passage and include a short citation from the text of the novel.
  • Fill out all other applicable columns in the spreadsheet (e.g. relevance, allusions, relationships to other places).
  • Figure out which characters participate in this section of the text and include it in the spreadsheet.
  • Select which character is most related to this reference.
  • Enter the proper MLA citation of the source you found in the Works Cited column in the spreadsheet.

NOTE: Before editing the map, I ask that you re-read the pages you were assigned and make sure that you have accounted for all of locations Díaz includes. Duplicates are fine, I want this map to be complete as possible. If you do find an extra location, add it to your spreadsheet and follow the above steps.

Editing the Map

  • Follow the link to the map included on the Blackboard site.
  • Select the additions tab, and then “Add Marker-Simple.”
  • Enter a location and let the app find it for you.
  • Add the appropriate entry name.
  • Add your description.
  • Select the appropriate color to match the character as explained on the Oscar Wao Codes Assignment sheet posted on the Blackboard Site.
  • Find your marker on the map and double-click it.
  • Select the “Details” tab and add the additional information contained on your spreadsheet.
  • Enter your username in the “written by” field.
  • Select next location and repeat for all locations assigned to you.
  • Once you have completed all of your locations, please inspect all of the locations entered by your partner. If something seems incorrect or incomplete, contact your partner and fix it. Once they look finished, add your username to the “checked by field.”

For an example, see my post for Santo Domingo de Guzman.

Please submit all of your locations to the class map by Friday, March 11. Please also submit your completed spreadsheet via the link on Blackboard.

You will be graded according to the accuracy and quality of the information about your submitted locations and spreadsheet. They should match and provide useful additional information to the reader.

Once completed, you will submit a short 2-page essay describing how the completed map confirms and/or complicates one thing you thought you knew by reading the novel. This will be due Wednesday, March 23 and will account for 25% of the total grade for the assignment. Each student will submit their own unique essay.  

About the Author

David Haeselin teaches in Writing, Editing, and Publishing program in the English department at the University of North Dakota. His writing has appeared in Hybrid Pedagogy, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Tin House Online.

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