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.




'Teaching the Digital Caribbean: The Ethics of a Public Pedagogical Experiment' has 1 comment

  1. June 11, 2018 @ 6:36 am Table of Contents: Issue Thirteen /

    […] Teaching the Digital Caribbean: The Ethics of a Public Pedagogical Experiment Kelly Baker Josephs […]

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