Online writing instruction in the digital humanities

I attended Dr. Beth Hewett’s lecture Wednesday on “The Challenge of Online Writing Instruction.”  I found it intriguing that her talk was not billed as a DH event (and she did not frame it as such during the lecture) even though she discussed some topics that have particular relevance to our course readings last week and this week.  Hewett is primarily a rhetoric/composition scholar (as were many in her audience) and she spoke about the problems teachers may face when they are asked (as increasingly high numbers of them are — willingly or otherwise) to teach partially or wholly online composition classes.  She focused on several points for which she urges teachers to fight; among these were that online writing instruction (OWI) classes need to be capped at 20 students (ideally 15) because they involve a 200% higher literacy load.  Hewett feels strongly that online and in-person classes should be treated as having equal validity, but that, in order for them to work, it is necessary to realize that individual students’ learning styles may be much better met by one or the other of them.  Though she believes that OWI can be fruitful, she described a MOOC as “a big-ass classroom where people drop out like flies and nobody does the work;” she stressed instead that personal connection between teacher and students is necessary (for instance, she uses online course management software with a chat function by which she greets students — sometimes freaking them out in the process — and she feels that some difficult situations need a phone call to resolve them).  She also finds it very important to use platforms that enable students to talk to each other (though she cautioned teachers against using this increased visibility of student thought-in-progress to grade more harshly than they might in traditional classrooms) and — perhaps most importantly — allow OWI teachers to talk to each other.  Support for teachers who find themselves suddenly thrust into online classrooms (many of whom having been told in no uncertain terms that they will lose their jobs if they refuse), is crucial.  Hewett said “If you are teaching an online writing class and you haven’t received training, shame on the administration.”

I am curious about why there seems to be such a sharp divide between self-proclaimed DHers and rhet/comp folks who work in digital environments.  (Could this be echoing the making/critiquing divide in DH circles?)  The issues about which she spoke — social support between teachers, structural support from administrators, support for students via recognition that online and in-person environments address different needs — are at the heart of the MOOC question we will discuss in our next class.  The defining feature of MOOCs that Hewett condemns (their massive, impersonal character) is the problem, not the digital nature of the class itself.  This would seem to support Richard Grusin’s point in “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities — Part 2″ that administrators are wont to see MOOCs as shiny, easy things that fit into agendas of “quick fixes and bottom line approaches to the structural problems facing higher education today” instead of looking for ways to make their online course offerings actually helpful to students.  It seems that everyone would benefit if the people who make the online course management software and the teachers who use it were able to work more closely with one another.  (Perhaps rhet/DH collaboration could even help counteract the administrative neglect from which Hewett describes the OWI world as suffering?)

One thought on “Online writing instruction in the digital humanities

  1. Sounds like it was an interesting talk. The “divide” you note is real, and palpable, and largely an artifact, I suspect of tangled institutional histories. Rhet/comp has been some of the most forward thinking constituencies in university English departments (when those programs are housed in an English department, as is the case here at UMD though not everywhere) as regards computers and computing; at the same time, rhet/comp often finds itself marginalized within departments who opt to make literary history/criticism the center of their intellectual identity. I suspect some of the distance between R/C and digital humanities (and before it, humanities computing as it was once known) was an attempt on the part of the latter to align itself with the “research” side of their parent units, rather than teaching or support. Not the most generous move, but one that would have certainly seemed justifiable in a tactical sense.

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