As a literature teacher increasingly implementing pedagogy informed by the digital humanities, I’ve been trying to pay attention to what happens to student and teacher emotions and embodiment as I move more assignments and interactions online. The internet is notorious for flame wars, trolling, and hate speech—much of it using body-centric language about gender, race, sexuality, size, age, etc. And the classroom is a space of embodied performativity, from the teacher’s persona, to the arrangement of the furniture, to the pitch and volume of the many participating voices. But both the classroom and the web can easily also become spaces where the body and its affects are ignored or dismissed in favor of a mythical standard of objective, disembodied, implicitly male intellect. This is the “digital divide” I’d like to focus on: the division of words and ideas from their embodied authors exacerbated by online communication.
In an ideal world, moving some of my class’s discussions online in the form of a class blog should allow even shy students to have their say, should require students to think about their audience and choose their words more carefully than when speaking in person, and should facilitate linking to outside resources and intertexts. Our course blog should be a middle ground between formal, graded essays and spontaneous, open-ended class conversations. I should be able to set aside my role as instructor and participate as one voice among many. Even when writing online, we should remember the actual, physical people behind the usernames and be mindful of how our online interactions will affect our relationships.
Those are the “shoulds”; on to the reality. Was I naïve to think I could participate in blog conversations as my students’ peer while also evaluating their work and assigning them grades? Was I even more naïve to think they’d post more than the bare minimum and come into class eager to continue conversations they’d started online? Yes and yes. But the blog has worked very well at a few specific things. The final item on my wishlist, that when we blog we remember the real people with whom we’re blogging, seems to be happening. Although they don’t come to class bursting with excitement over the blog, I have overheard students tell each other that they enjoyed something that was linked, or check in to make sure that their online disagreement hadn’t been taken personally. In that sense it’s all been very calm and respectful—the only person I’m aware of getting upset over the blog is me.
During our time reading Lolita, some of the online discussions of sexual assault the book generated veered into territories I would characterize as rape apology and victim-blaming, and I found myself wanting to respond the way I would to such comments on any other site, which is to say with all the anger and intensity of a feminist activist-scholar who’s come across someone being Wrong On The Internet. I have had to remind myself that I’m responding to my students, not to strangers, and that my primary objective is not proving them wrong. I’ve also questioned whether requiring this kind of writing—not as formal or as well thought out as papers, and more public than reading journals/responses—was a huge mistake, transplanting conversations that we should be having in the embodied classroom onto the disembodied blog.
I believe when dealing with this kind of subject matter (uncomfortable, controversial, political, and potentially deeply personal) there is always a challenge between hearing students’ voices and shutting down offensive statements, between encouraging them to try out unorthodox readings of a fictional text and being a strong and vocal ally for real victims of real violence. When those conversations move back and forth between the classroom and the internet, that balancing act takes on even more complications. When responding to students’ writing handed in in hard copy or via a drop box, I have the luxuries of privacy and time. When responding to in-class comments, I have the advantages of tone, of body language, and of a live back-and-forth that can end with some kind of consensus—and no one has to worry about a written record of the conversation available to the whole world. On the blog I have found myself ill at ease, trying to navigate these concerns especially carefully. It was just when I was most distraught over what I was reading on the blog—Lolita was the aggressor of the relationship, she manipulated Humbert, she only pretended to be physically injured and emotionally distraught by the assaults—that we read further in the book, and suddenly they all seemed to come around and see Humbert and Lolita’s relationship differently. Class discussion made it clear that some students had taken my suggestion about trying out bold theories on the blog, and very few if any of them actually believed those readings, especially as they finished the book. I was suddenly very glad that I hadn’t cracked down on them the way I had wanted to. They had still arrived at an understanding of Lolita that I find more accurate with regard to both the novel and sexual violence in general.
Thinking about the implications of digital pedagogy practices for teaching, and asking how we can retain ethical and conscious embodiment in a disembodied medium, I don’t know if I’m any closer to clear answers after my experience with this blog. What I do think it’s shown me is the importance of situating online work within a larger context that also includes face-to-face conversation. We need to continue conversations over the span of weeks, across different modes of communication. As much as I want to make space for our affective responses to readings and to each other, that affective space is only productive and respectful when we know and feel connected to the people we’re responding to.
Image on front page by Thais Silvestre and available on Flickr.