Rochelle Gold, Critical Digital Humanities
In one of my courses, students developed multimedia research projects that inventively engaged with critical theory. However, their engagement with digital technology, or lack thereof, took me by surprise. I had envisioned that the majority of the class would execute their projects using a variety of digital tools, from video game avatars to Photoshop to cutting-edge blogging software; instead, out of about 60 students, over half primarily used non-digital art and production techniques. This begs the question: why are these (mostly) traditionally aged college students, who are often portrayed as so-called digital natives, not using digital technologies in situations like this one, and is this evidence of the digital divide?
It might be expected that the digital divide would manifest itself at UC Riverside, a campus ranked eighth in the nation for ethnic diversity, where 46% of students are eligible for Pell grants, and the majority of freshman are first generation college students. While there are certainly obstacles to access, the digital divide that we witness is primarily characterized by what Jenkins et al. deem “the participation gap.” Many students, especially in the humanities, use digital technologies primarily for basic functionalities like word processing and interacting on social media sites. Recognizing this fact, a number of critics in the recent anthology Debates in the Digital Humanities suggest that technical skill building serves an important function in the humanities classroom. While this suggestion is indeed persuasive, it also has the potential to distract us from achieving our desired outcomes in the classroom, or, worse, to transform our classrooms into technical workshops.
Before we jump on the bandwagon of equating technical literacy with digital literacy, we should first ask ourselves: can students still achieve the desired learning outcomes for our classes if we do not bridge this skills-based digital divide? The answer, I think, is sometimes yes. It became clear in my class that some projects that might be nicely executed using digital tools can also be done quite well using analog ones. Of course, this is not always the case. However, as has been widely noted, the humanities are in a precarious position in the academy today (the theme of MLA 2014 is “Vulnerable Times”), and attempts to bridge the digital divide should proceed with caution so that they do not come at the cost of the critical humanistic skills that we want to continue cultivating in our classrooms.
Gold, Matthew K.. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.
Jenkins, Henry, et al. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. Print.
Image on front page from gregoryking2012 and available on Flickr.