Teaching in Our Right Minds: Critical Digital Pedagogy and the Response to the New

Sean Michael Morris

As a child, I was a prolific liar. Or, storyteller. I improvised truth. In most cases, I did this in order to defy the orders of adults in my life; but in some situations, I did this to make the world seem like a shinier place. Happier. More full of wonder. School largely was a series of disillusionments. The relative lack of wonder I was educated into painted the world as a place in which I had little interest in participating. Adults didn’t seem happy. Teachers didn’t seem happy. Wonder and awe and curious mystery were the anathema to education and learning. So, I lied in order to make the world align better with my imagination.

I discovered dinosaurs very early in my life. Kindergarten? First grade? Certainly by the second grade, because that’s when I wrote to Fisher Price to ask them to create dinosaur-themed toys. By the fifth grade, I was spending hours in the public library poring over every book I could find on the beasts. I memorized the length and height and weight of every one. I knew the Cretaceous from the Jurassic. I understood the evolution from Allosaurus to T-rex to Gorgosaurus. I rebelled when Brontosaurus was renamed ApatosaurusI lived them and breathed them, I tried to imagine them walking the earth (an activity almost salivatingly tantalizing to the brain), I told my friends and family about them. And I never lied about dinosaurs. There was no need. They were wondrous enough already.

Sometimes, reality needs no elaboration.

Today, and for most of the last fifteen years, my work has been with and for teachers. Teachers of all kinds. Writing teachers, math teachers, teachers in K-12, teachers of teachers. What it looks like I do is help teachers come to grips with how digital culture and its tools have changed, shifted, made more or less sparkly the work of learning. But the truth is that the digital side of my job is just coincidence. It has to do with timing. Right now, the digital is relevant, present, and is that thing that seems to provide the most interesting possibilities and the most contentious challenges in the scholarship and practice of teaching and learning. But it would be a mistake to think that what I do is digital, because what I really do is human.

Take for example the friendship and collaboration that has grown between myself and Maha Bali, professor in the Center for Teaching and Learning at the American University in Cairo. Maha was instrumental in organizing the first international Digital Pedagogy Lab institute, committing time and energy to bringing Jesse and me — two educators she’d never met in person — to her university. On the surface, Maha and I talk a lot about technology… and we talk through technologyutilizing Twitter, Slack, Google Hangouts, and e-mail to communicate. But what we are truly engaged in, she and I, is an ongoing conversation about relationships — between teaching and learning, between teachers and students, between ourselves and the interface. Across the distance, our professional collaboration is haptic, she in my periphery and I in hers, with an asymptotic reach through the screen as our praxis.

That space of nearly reaching but never quite reaching our destination — a space my colleague Amy Collier would call not-yetness (“Not-yetness and Learnification”) — is tantalizing, tickling the brain in the same way it’s tickled when we imagine dinosaurs really truly actually walking the earth. When I am talking to Maha, I am only just barely (not)present with her, and in that just barely lies a sliver of wonder: I can be in Egypt and in my home office at the same time.And because I can communicate with her at any moment, unexpectedly, I am always in Egypt and in my home office. Likewise, as a resident of the Pacific Northwest, but an employee at Middlebury College in Vermont, I am also always in Middlebury and always in Portland. When my coworkers sit in a presentation in the auditorium on campus, and I watch the live stream of the event, we can pass notes by text message, and brainstorm with one another in the moment as revelations arise.

The digital isn’t magic. It isn’t mysterious. It’s regular human communication astride a new medium. There’s no need to make it more than it is. No need to lie or elaborateBecause in the digital, there’s wonder enough.

That wonder inspired the formation of Digital Pedagogy Lab (DPL), an educational offshoot of the journal Hybrid Pedagogy. Jesse and I founded DPL in order to provide both sustainable, flexible professional development for teachers and learners at all levels of education, and an environment of experimentation and fun (thus, the “Lab”). We didn’t want to bog down digital pedagogy with best practices and jargon, instead seeking to crack open the raw possibility inherent in technology-inflected learning.

For some who instruct with the digital, or who are confronted by others instructing with the digital, this wonder can seem more like a sideshow than a relevant methodology. In part, this is because the use of digital technology to widen the parameters of human interaction and knowledge production is still in its most experimental stage. It’s not kids reading about dinosaurs in books, it’s passionate paleontologists picking at the dirt in the middle of Wyoming. Where they will or will not find a dinosaur egg or two, where they will or will not discover a new species.

Take the example of the work of digital educators like Dave Cormier, Bonnie Stewart, Jim Groom, Audrey Watters, myself, and Jesse Stommel.

Or the collaborative poetry exercise Jesse and I have run, in which 50 participants in a Google Doc collaborate over 30 minutes and only contribute a single word. Participants ultimately remixed the rules, contributing videos, images, and writing poetry within the rules themselves. When I showed a video of this exercise to a friend of mine — a traditional, on-ground poetry teacher at a public 4-year institution — he stared at me and then he asked, “Why?”

My answer: “To see what would happen.”

This is precisely the kind of thing that looks on the outside like clumsy, un-academic behavior in the place of teaching. It’s the kind of thing that many instructors new to the digital — or leery of its experimentation — shrug off as teaching that requires no real effort and no real accountability. Many assume that posting to Tumblr or Pinterest isn’t or can’t be educational, and they are confounded or upset by teachers who use Prezi. What these more traditional professors don’t see is that something like this poetry exercise takes the same planning — and even more coordination — and even more critical reflection once it’s done — to pull off. And while the lessons learned are not necessarily predictable, the exercise is not without merit.

In our collaborative article, “Beyond Rigor,” Jesse, Pete Rorabaugh, and I argue that:

Intellectually rigorous work lives, thrives, and teems proudly outside conventional notions of academic rigor. Although institutions of higher education only recognize rigor when it mimics mastery of content, when it creates a hierarchy of expertise, when it maps clearly to pre-determined outcomes, there are works of exception — multimodal, collaborative, and playful — that push the boundaries of disciplinary allegiances, and don’t always wear their brains on their sleeves, so to speak.

And we say later: “Play is critical inquiry.” What is happening today — what happens when digital technology, media, and tools enter the learning space — is that learning has become more encyclopedic. It is beginning to shrug off the binding of disciplinarity and has become, frankly, less disciplined. We can no longer look for the old structures of rigor echoed in this more rambunctious learning. Where in a traditional classroom, the instructor holds the keys to knowledge, and they can lock it away whenever and in whatever portions they deem fit, digital culture hangs its hat on the ideal of openness and access: anyone who wants it can have whatever knowledge simply by keying in a search, or pointing to a specific URL.

Students with digital access can now go to the library and pore over the books they are most interested in, with or without permission, with or without curriculum, and generally entirely without a rubric, learning outcomes, or scaffolding. 

Dinosaurs were not a popular subject at my elementary school, and independent study for a fifth grader wasn’t rewarded. My motivations were entirely those of my hungry imagination. For many of today’s students, those dinosaurs of mine are everywhere. In every nook and cranny of their days. And in their back pockets.

And yet, not all students. And certainly not all teachers. Access and “open” aren’t solutions in themselves. When PowerPoint and Canvas and Twitter are bigger mysteries than we can solve, all this superlative talk about the digital does no one any good. We must find a practicable and more inclusive route into wonder. The work of scholarship should be the work of imagination.

And when we are in our right minds, we are creative, constructive, hopeful people. And we can practice our way into wonder. Paulo Freire wrote in his final work, A Pedagogy of Indignation,

If I am not in the world simply to adapt to it, but rather transform it, and if it is not possible to change the world without a certain dream or vision for it, I must make use of every possibility there is not only to speak about my utopia, but also to engage in practices consistent with it.

Neither is grungy pessimism nor unadulterated optimism going to pave the way forward into an educational landscape that will productively embrace the digital. What we require is a strategic hope, and creativity born from skepticism. It’s useless to badger on about how digital technology must never change the iron-clad traditions of the institution; but it’s just as useless to think that technology is somehow going to wake us from our thousand-year stupor and reinvent education. And this is what I mean when I say that it would be a mistake to think that what I do is digital. What I do is human. What Digital Pedagogy Lab does — what Jesse and Jim and Bonnie and Dave and Audrey all do — is as human as a child on the library floor, his nose deep in a book.

We learn. We commit to learning. For now, there are no texts, so we’ll go digging in the dirt. In Cairo. In Prince Edward Island. Online. Finding bones, imagining behemoths. It’s field work, fueled by that strategic hope and an unrequited inquiry.


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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Sean Michael Morris is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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