I think that digitization can and should transform how our students write about images as much as it has transformed how they read images. This last post in the series is especially focused on how I want to develop this assignment in the future, in part because of my experience grading my students’ analyses of the images.
When I assigned the papers for this assignment, I did so like we almost always do in traditional classrooms: students submitted directly to me, and I graded in isolation. I found myself wishing that the students were reading each other’s papers, because they often differed in terms of how they thought an artist was interpreting the text and whether the artist was interpreting in a way that seemed appropriate to the play given the actual language of The Tempest. Because the papers were focused on a limited collection of images, the papers all spoke to each other in interesting ways—the papers seemed to be a conversation, really, rather than a dialogue between an individual student and a single reader, i.e., the teacher.
This made me think about the core humanist principle that underpins our profession: reading is a social activity. When we read and write, we contribute to a scholarly dialogue through conferences and peer-reviewed publication. We read each other’s work and we situate our own responses in relationship to each other. If digital technology allows students remote access to images and classrooms, it should also allow students access to a modified form of the scholarly community that we all enjoy, and which enriches our intellectual life. Here and elsewhere, my thinking on this subject has been profoundly influenced by Katherine Rowe.
Using the Digital Humanities in the classroom allows for a model of reading that is based on co-authorship and turns students into co-producers of dialogue or discourse rather than as individual consumers of knowledge or text. Rather than presenting the “Jane Eyre” model of reading (wherein readers withdraw to read in seclusion), teachers can use digital formats to offer students a gateway to social experiences, so that they come to see reading and writing as forms of social experience in their own right.
As Jeffrey Schnapp argues, this requires teachers to “design” knowledge through experimenting with the traditional forms of the essay:
When you move from a universe where the rules with respect to a scholarly essay or monograph have been fully codified, to a universe of experimentation in which the rules have yet to be written, characterized by shifting toolkits and skillsets, in which genres of scholarship are undergoing constant redefinition, you become by necessity a knowledge designer.
My plan for next semester is to use tumblr as a platform to publish a class “Ariel Project,” since tumblr allows for both images and text to be shared. I will submit to the class tumblr paragraphs from scholarly essays related to Ariel, and students will submit self-selected paragraphs from their own essays and images related to the painting that they have chosen (there are higher resolution versions readily available for all of the paintings archived at Shakespeare Illustrated; these higher-resolution images can be manipulated by zooming in on pertinent details and cropping out extraneous details).
I will ask students to post their submissions and read each other’s paragraphs after they have turned in their final papers to me. Then, I will dedicate the next meeting after the paper is due to an in-class conference. Students who write about the same image will be respondents to each other, drawing attention to how their classmates combined interpretations of text and image in ways that surprised them. My aim is to show students their work alongside others, so that they can start thinking of themselves as experts in training, scholars of Shakespeare and of visual rhetoric who have a voice to contribute to the conversation.
Although I have outlined detailed plans for a very specific lesson plan and writing assignment for only one of Shakespeare’s plays, I believe that the core concept of the assignment can be extrapolated outward to Shakespeare’s other plays and to classrooms outside of advanced high school courses. Even larger lecture classes could employ a class tumblr, and the in-class conferences could be conducted in the discussion sections. I think that this assignment is actually ideal for an undergraduate classroom, since it is at this stage of their education that students first begin to situate their close-readings in relation to scholars through conducting MLA research. Thinking of a painting or an engraving as an interpretation of a text and then situating their own arguments about Shakespeare’s play in relationship to that other “scholar’s” (i.e., the artist’s) interpretation will help students to transition away from isolated close-readings to research-based papers. The Digital Humanities offer us a way to empower our students so that they can become producers of discourse who act collaboratively in a social reading practice.