12 Building in the Humanities Isn’t New

Robin Wharton

“For children can accomplish the renewal of existence in a hundred unfailing ways.”

~ Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”


“Turn your data into a story, into a game, into art.”

~ Mark Sample, “The Poetics of Non-Consumptive Reading”

I initially encountered Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Unpacking My Library,” during my first semester of graduate school. Ten years later, as my oldest daughter started kindergarten, and I prepared to teach my first upper-division seminar on Chaucer, I found myself returning again and again to Benjamin’s discussion of children and collecting. Charting a course from theory to praxis as both a parent and a teacher over the past several months has, for me, demanded the decomposition of many received binaries: personal/professional, K-12/”higher” education, consumptive/productive reading, student/scholar, pedagogy/scholarship.

Within the post-secondary academy, we often talk about building, curation, and creative production as if they are new methods for approaching the study of literature, history, philosophy, language. Learning alongside my daughter as she has built, collected, and created her way through kindergarten in a Waldorf school, however, I’ve begun to wonder if our turn to these methods in college and university classrooms is actually in fact a return — to pedagogical strategies already familiar to many of our students from their primary school days. I’ve also become concerned pedagogies of building, collecting, and creative play with texts and information in primary and secondary settings are endangered by a one-way “conversation” in which post-secondary educators are making increasingly strident demands that K-12 educators “prepare” our young people for college and the workplace.

Benjamin and Serious Play

One of the most striking things I noticed when I first visited the school my daughter now attends was the variety of activity in the classroom. At all levels, the curriculum involves engaging the body and senses as well as the mind. In kindergarten and the younger grades, instruction might require children to combine physical gestures with recitation of their multiplication tables, or a poem about how plants grow from seeds. In the older grades, material demonstration of scientific and mathematical principles plays an important role. Art, handwork, music, woodworking, and even recess are core parts of the curriculum. And, perhaps most relevant to my purpose in this piece, literature is a means of conveying information about self and the world, as well as the material of creative production. Children learn by listening and reading to, and also by reinterpreting, retelling, performing, and remediating stories drawn from a variety of cultural and historical sources.

Walter Benjamin says,

For children can accomplish the renewal of existence in a hundred unfailing ways. Among children, collecting is only one process of renewal; other processes are the painting of objects, the cutting out of figures, the application of decals–the whole range of childlike modes of acquisition, from touching things to giving them names.

As I prepared the syllabus for my Chaucer class this past Fall, and reviewed articles in my role as production editor for Hybrid Pedagogy, I became acutely aware of how impoverished most post-secondary pedagogy might appear to a teacher or a student coming to a college or university classroom from the methodological richness of this sort of K-12 experience. I recalled Benjamin’s beautiful image of children making the world new and newly available to their perception through the serious work of play. I also returned, via copyediting my own writing, to considering how digital humanities scholarship, like Bruno Latour’s compositionism, sometimes productively and problematically blurs the aesthetic boundaries we usually draw between the products and the objects of literary analysis. For the most part, the study of “literature” has historically produced literary scholarship, mostly non-fiction books and essays offering “objective” analyses of novels, plays, and stories. In the work of some digital humanities scholars, however, the end result of literary scholarship is often what Mark Sample would call an “expressive object,” something that is both a work of art and a scholarly artifact.

I wondered what might happen if I designed a syllabus whose object was to facilitate activity as well as discussion, to engage the hands as well as the mind. I tried to imagine what a “grown up” version of a Waldorf kindergarten classroom might look like. The result of all this musing was a course in which students learned about medieval literature and culture by reading, discussing, and writing about it, and also by producing their own manuscript and digital editions of Chaucer’s work.

For anyone who has ever been around children for an extended period of time, and especially for early childhood specialists, the idea of “serious play” is probably nothing new. Children learn — to communicate, to use tools, to count — by playing. Curricula in many early childhood educational settings are designed around this basic principle. In using my daughter’s experience in a Waldorf school as an illustrative example here, I’m not trying to advocate for the superiority of the Waldorf approach, but rather drawing upon my own admittedly limited and very personal knowledge to make a point. I see a potentially useful convergence between the long-standing and relatively well-studied use of certain pedagogical strategies in early childhood settings and the still-emergent, and relatively untested use of what appear — on the surface at least — to be similar pedagogical strategies in post-secondary education.

This convergence between early childhood and K-12 pedagogies on the one hand, and emerging post-secondary pedagogies involving building, curation, and non-consumptive reading on the other seems, as it was for me, to have resulted from serendipity for the most part. It is largely the product of “screwing around” (Ramsay) and a general alignment of interests and goals, an unexpected result that still requires a more carefully articulated understanding of influence and shared methodologies. For example, although some discussions do give a nod to the importance of play in early childhood development, I have seen few that treat seriously with the substantial literature studying how play as a pedagogical strategy is implemented in a wide variety of developmental curricula. Are we concerned linking what we’re doing in college and university classes to what is going on in K-12 classrooms might dilute the prestige value of university education? Why is making K-12 classrooms look more like post-secondary classrooms (often through the implementation of technology) decidedly a good idea, but thinking about how we might make post-secondary classrooms look more like K-12 classrooms (e.g., through learning by doing, integrating play, emphasizing social values like sharing and concern for others, etc.) doesn’t seem to have caught on in the same way, especially at the institutional or curricular levels?

Education and Its “Purpose”

One of the most important things we can learn from reading Freire or Thoreau — or Motessori or Steiner — is to ask the important questions: What is education doing, and what should it be doing? Should education be the means through which children and adults are indoctrinated in and made obedient to the dominant ideology? Or should it be the means through which political, social, and economic agency are more evenly distributed throughout a democratic system? Should kindergarten be the first step in preparing our children for college, and eventually, a job? Or should it be, as I think my daughter’s teachers might argue, a preparation for first grade in the short term, and for life (which may or may not include college, and may include a job that doesn’t exist yet) in the longer term?

In “The Poetics of Non-Consumptive Reading” Mark Sample states,

I want to advocate for a poetics of non-consumptive reading in the digital humanities. Scholars and students of art, literature, history, and culture ought to transform more of our non-consumptive research into expressive objects. Nonexpressive use of texts is a dead-end for the humanities. A computer model surrounded by a wall of explanatory words is not enough. Make the computer model itself an expressive object. Turn your data into a story, into a game, into art.

In “Unpacking My Library,” and in his other work on the figure of the collector, Walter Benjamin argues for the existence of subject-object (or maybe object-object) relations that, even though they cannot exist outside of the exchange economy, nevertheless resist the ontological consequences of that economy in highly productive ways. I see that potential in Sample’s description of non-consumptive reading. Non-consumptive reading resists the ontological consequences of the current regulatory system, transgressing distinctions between the products and objects of literary analysis upon which its operation depends. It blurs the distinction between producer and consumer, or artist and critic — categories with substantial legal, social, and economic significance. Because non-consumptive reading causes us to re-examine foundational and often implicit discursive assumptions, it has potential value not only as a scholarly practice in the digital humanities, but also as a critical pedagogical practice in the humanities, and perhaps even other disciplines more broadly.

To put it another way, digital humanities scholarship has caused us to examine more carefully how the discursive forms — including the channels of distribution — within our discipline perpetuate both a failing academic hierarchy and an out-of-control copyright regime. We should also be asking what our pedagogy, designed to teach students how to reproduce those discursive forms, is doing. Too often in post-secondary pedagogy we ask students to iterate discursive forms without asking whether that is the best way to teach them — either the forms or the students. Yes, certainly, it’s the best way to train students to become members of our own professional discourse communities, but given the precarity of the academic labor market, we should at least be questioning the wisdom of that justification.

We should be open to the possibility that developmental, K-12 pedagogies have been specifically designed to take advantage of and to foster what Benjamin identifies as “childlike” processes of “renewal.” And that, consequently, such pedagogies have something to offer post-secondary scholar pedagogues as we re-examine how current forms and methods may contribute to the commodification of learning and knowledge. As Audrey Watters and others have urged, we should be suspicious of overly simplistic narratives that erase the complex history of modern K-12 and post-secondary education to paint a grim picture of a uniformly languishing, antiquated system in need of a technological savior. Let’s stop simply taking for granted that the whole purpose of K-12 education is to prepare students for college and a job, and also that the social, political, and economic functions of the academy are all unquestionably good. Instead, let’s have a genuine, dialogic conversation about what the purposes of lifelong learning should be and how best to design our pedagogy to fulfill those purposes at every stage in a learner’s experience.

Transformed and Transformative Classrooms

Since this piece is just one of the initial phases of a research project in progress, I have done more to generate questions than to answer them here. I can give some insight into how reconsidering my own pedagogy in this way has transformed my classroom practice, however. For a start, rather than presuming serious discussion should be the model for every seminar meeting, I’ve become much more mindful of how what I want to accomplish in a given period, the learning preferences of my students, and the material under consideration should determine the methods I employ. I’ve also become more open to the possibility of field trips, games, physical activity, show and tell, and other “childish” things need not be left behind once students enter college. Similarly, the spaces in which learning takes place may be as variable as the activities that take place within them. I am more attentive to the affective dimensions of the learning experience. Ensuring learning is pleasant, engaging, and pleasurable — as well as challenging, sometimes difficult, and transformative — does not necessarily reduce a pedagogue to an entertainer.

Even while I have started to refashion my own pedagogy, I have also become increasingly worried about what might result from unreflective calls for increased “rigour” and greater “accountability” in K-12 education. Standardized testing, the controversial common core standards, proposed MOOC-ification of remedial education, these “innovations” are all arguably attempts to address students’ “underpreparedness” for college and the workplace. Meanwhile, art, music, physical education, and recess are disappearing from the curriculum. I fear in our zeal for “reform” we may be eradicating the very things about K-12 education that might teach us and our students about where curation, building, and non-consumptive reading fit in humanistic inquiry. Further, even where we have begun to acknowledge their value, our obsessive emphasis on end results may actually empty out their potential. For Benjamin, “childlike processes” and collecting — processes that work against or at cross-purposes with the logic of capital — are strategies of material and ontological renewal precisely because they are done for themselves rather than as a means to a consciously articulated and pre-determined end.

Let me be clear, essays, discussions, even quizzes — all of these still have an important place in my classroom. As a lawyer and legal scholar, I am absolutely aware of how essential the ability to interpret and reproduce the discursive forms in which power speaks to power can be. Yet, what is truly empowering is understanding such forms are constructed, contingent, open to interpretation, negotiable, and also knowing where they fail and when other forms are better suited to the task at hand. I have seen in a variety of contexts how process and methodology work to establish personal and professional identity in ways that can be liberating and also limiting. We should constantly be re-examining how our own processes and methodologies as teachers, students, scholars, and artists position us in relation to one another and the subjects/objects of study within our classrooms. Rather than simply allowing social, economic, political, legal, and disciplinary regulatory structures to dictate the shape of what we do, we should be more mindful of how what we do helps give rise to and reinforce such structures. I think questioning the continuing utility of the physical, conceptual, pedagogical, and rhetorical walls we’ve erected between K-12 and so-called “higher” education might be a great place to begin.


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Critical Digital Pedagogy by Robin Wharton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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