Arts Week 2017: A look into “the everyday life of digital humanities”

laptop-819285_1920As universities are transformed by the constant presence of digital technology, there is a need to look at how this modifies higher education practices. Lesley Gourlay, from the UCL Institute of Higher Education, has studied the phenomenon of the “digital university” from a post-human perspective and, on Monday 15 May, presented some insights from her work. Her talk was followed by a panel discussion featuring Grace Halden (Department of English and Humanities, Birkbeck) and Tim Markham (Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, Birkbeck) who gave their own perspectives on the topic.

Theory: the post-human perspective on digital pedagogy

How should we go about studying digitalized pedagogical practices? Instead of unthinkingly placing the human at the centre of these technologies, Lesley’s post-human theoretical background challenges such naturalized perspectives. Lesley uses the work of Katherine Hayles (2012) to move towards a notion of extended mind, where the clear binaries between user and device are undermined. Lesley’s talk could in fact be given as an example of this extension of the human, and the movement towards the post-human. While Lesley was an engaging speaker, her talk was also made possible thanks to a presentation that included audio-visual elements from her research. The presentation functioned as an extension of her self, giving new context and meaning to the words she uttered.

Observing theory in pedagogic practice

The status quo of materiality within universities has changed. Lesley posits that the way to understand these changes is by rendering unseen practices visible and watching them unfold. Lesley’s research looks into what students actually do when engaged in independent study, revealing materiality as a dynamic process. Multimodal journaling records the ways in which students negotiate the boundaries between print and digital. This negotiation is personal but depends heavily on the settings, which are far from neutral. In the same way, materiality is not neutral to students. Some express a preference for markers, pens, and paper: they need the physical experience. Others prefer digital and go to great lengths (microwaving a book to separate the pages and digitalize them!) to obtain the material in the format they feel best suits their learning.

Through her research, Lesley brings Latour’s theory of the agentive importance of artefacts to life. Objects are mediators: they change the meanings they’re meant to carry. Recognizing this is necessary for studying the effect of digital objects in contemporary academic practice. Lesley’s presentation, in sum, sought to undermine certain binaries such as user/device as well as the ideal of neutral channels and stable human authorship and agency.

Multiple perspectives on technology’s multiple impacts

After Lesley’s presentation, Grace and Tim offered their own views on the impact of digital technology in academia. Grace adopted a practitioner’s perspective, as she questioned whether a traditional written essay continued to be the ideal assessment in an age that, as Lesley had described, was deeply multi-modal. Meanwhile, Tim discussed notions of education and identity, arguing that seemingly banal technologies such as departmental e-mail were constitutive of the community’s identity, and needed to be part of any understanding of technology’s impact. A rich discussion also took place during the Q&A segment, with topics ranging from the paperless office to the role of Wikipedia in research.

Today, it seems positions on the effect of digital technology in education often fall into either excessive pessimism or excessive optimism. The other speakers at this event shed light on what Lesley termed the “messy in-betweenness”, where richer insights can be found. In terms of the magnitude of impact, too, there is a need to get at this middle space. It is disingenuous to think digital text is only another neutral form of communication. On the other hand, it is unwarranted to predict a total transformation of learning practices where bookshops and lecture rooms disappear, and everything happens through MOOCs. Ultimately, this event illustrated the myriad ways in which the impact of digital technology on learning may be understood: ‘digital’ encompasses so many different technologies and practices that it does not make sense to talk about impact in sweeping terms in the first place.

Valentina Salvatierra is a writer and reader currently living in London. She is interested in literary theory, comparative literature, and speculative fiction.


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