Saturday, September 21, 2013

The MLA and Continuing and Distance Education

This year I was honored to be nominated as a special-interest delegate for the MLA in "continuing and distance education." Now I am officially on the 2013 Modern Language Association Ballot that goes out to thousands of instructors in literature and language departments across the country to support the governance of the major scholarly association for the discipline in which I was trained.  The MLA handles influential publications, conferences, job resources, and policy statements and advocates for the role of the humanities in public life.

Adeline Koh has also been nominated, and knowing her work I have to say that she is a great candidate too.

No matter which nominee you choose this year, I would urge MLA members to do some research about the issues involved.  Too often the discussion about distance education has been dominated by snippets from op-ed columns or sound bites, but the issues are actually very complex, and technologies of remote instruction inevitably impact faculty at all types of institutions because the informal learning practices of students are very difficult to control.

The growth of university-sponsored MOOCs has spurred a national conversation about institutional practices in higher education. Yet even as the “massiveness” and “online-ness” of MOOCs seems novel, this kind of “course” does little to promote innovation in teaching or learning. Unfortunately many distance learning efforts often replicate modes of scientific management from the industrial age that are poorly adapted to collaboration based on social and ubiquitous computing.  Others remain willfully blind to the problems of plagiarism, cheating, harassment, and invasion of privacy that may characterize online learning environments.  Yet we can't divorce ourselves from huge archives of knowledge or ignore the desires and voices of our students without regrettable consequences, so we need to figure out sensible and respectful strategies to adapt.

As a candidate I combine the perspectives of theory and practice developed over a decade as a scholar of the digital humanities and new media theory.  I have published peer-reviewed criticism about digital pedagogy for over twelve years, and the rhetoric of distance learning is one of my major research areas. My forthcoming book from MIT Press, The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University, explores the assumption that digital media deeply divide students and teachers and that a once covert war between “us” and “them” has turned into an open battle between “our” technologies and “their” technologies.  It covers current trends that range from gamification to iPad distributions with a critical eye, and the work is grounded in substantive theories about new media, procedural rhetoric, embodied interactions with technology, and co-presence.

I also direct a writing-intensive interdisciplinary "core" program that satisfies the university's composition requirement devoted to the study of Culture, Art, and Technology.  Having come from a Humanities Core program in my previous position, I am sensitive to how the mission of a traditional English department may be under pressure to change radically in response to technology, globalization, and deskilling with little infrastructural support or long-term vision for preserving the values of an institutional culture.

I am an organizing member of two national efforts to support progressive experiments with networked learning: Reclaim Open Learning and Dialogues on Feminism and Technology. With my colleagues, I believe that it is important -- in a time of pressure for rapid adoption of new instructional technologies -- to consider the theoretical frameworks, historical legacies, pedagogical philosophies, and objects of study that have shaped our profession, even as higher education continues to be transformed by social interactions shaped by computational media and distributed networks.

As a longtime digital humanities practitioner who has engaged in many debates, I have had to negotiate conflicts created by new forms of digital labor and intellectual property with attention to complexity.  I am committed to representing the concerns of many different types of stakeholders and will continue to emphasize the mature scholarship and multi-campus collaboration that has characterized my career.  Feel free to e-mail with questions about my candidacy.

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