Day 1 Minus 730: Rethinking Undergraduate Methodological Training

This past weekend, Bethany Nowviskie published “It Starts on Day One,” a provocative call to reform humanities education by summarily “kill[ing] all the grad-level methods courses.” “Think,” she stresses, “asteroids clobbering dinosaurs” or “Choking weeds ripped from vegetable gardens.” Such courses are “dinosaurs and weeds,” Nowviskie claims, because they fail to introduce graduate students to either the methodologies or the intellectual debates that are shaping and will continue to shape the academy in coming years:

Some are an abbreviated introduction to journals databases and the mysteries of inter-library loan. Others have little to do with research and production “methodologies” at all, and are instead a crash course in the jargon and en-vogue theories of a given discipline. The intra-institutional level of coordination in developing and teaching these courses, even among closely-allied humanities departments, hovers around zero. Within single departments, they are catch-as-catch-can, shaped almost wholly by the individual faculty who teach them (often as they themselves were taught a generation or two before) and sometimes vacillating wildly in content from year to year as instructors rotate to make more equitable the “burden” of a course generally construed as service. Is it any wonder they’re a mess?

As a recently-minted Ph.D., Nowviskie’s critiques ring true. Were I not, fortunately, situated so proximate to the intellectual energy of UVA’s (and Nowviskie’s) Scholars’ Lab, I would have missed the most vital and formative pieces of my graduate education. But this was, to borrow another of Nowviskie’s phrases, “catch-as-catch-can” formation, not the work of any innovative, carefully planned graduate curriculum. I had to seek out digital humanities training and work through it, by and large, independently. On a side note, I deeply envy those in the new Praxis Program at UVA, whose inception I missed by a year. Nowviskie’s reimagining of graduate methodological training (which, if you have not yet read, you should), is forceful and compelling. Were I a professor at a research university with doctoral students I would seek, at the very least, to start a conversation about reforming its graduate program to include the pressing issues Nowviskie raises for the profession.

As a professor at a small liberal arts college, however, my thoughts turned toward undergraduates. Say 3 or 4 schools immediately adopted Nowviskie’s suggested “top-down, apocalyptic wiping-out…of existing graduate methods courses in (say) four to six core humanities departments” and produced a cohort of interdisciplinary academics attuned to “current humanities research skills”; “intellectual property and open access”; “public humanities”; “publishing, preservation, and scholarly communication”; and so forth. Unfortunately, that revolution would very slowly trickle down into the humanities departments of small colleges—or, for that matter, the humanities departments of regional state universities and other institutions outside of the R1 circuit. The vast majority of undergraduates wouldn’t begin to benefit from these new approaches for many years, when this new generation of scholars finally began circulating beyond the few incubatory programs that took up the graduate methodological challenge.

Perhaps, then, a similarly apocalyptic event must reshape undergraduate methological training as well. Let’s call this one a pandemic, because I suspect widespread reform of undergraduate humanities programs must spread virally rather than thundering down from on high. Entrepreneurial professors in humanities disciplines must begin reforming individual courses—or even sections of individual courses—and likely must do so, at least initially, alone. At my school, for instance, the idea of an interdisciplinary methods course seems far out of reach. Few of my colleagues in English or related disciplines are very aware of, say, the innovations of the digital humanities, much less prepared to begin teaching them.

With that said, what could be done at the course level that might trickle up and, eventually, meet the broad-based reforms Nowviskie advocates as they trickle down? Or, to extend the apocalyptic metaphors one notch (too far?), can we incubate a disease that will weaken the dinosaurs so that the meteors can more speedily extinguish them? Each spring, for instance, I teach “Literary Theory and Writing,” a required methodologies course for English majors at St. Norbert College. Students take LTW during their sophomore or junior years, and the course is designed to prepare students for their major coursework. They read criticism from a variety of critical schools (e.g. New Criticism, Feminist Theory, Postcolonialism) and they write and revise—a lot. The course aims, ambitiously, to:

  1. situate students’ literary study historically by introducing them to the movements that shaped literary theory through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,
  2. help students develop their own skills analyzing and writing about literature, and
  3. prepare students to enter into professional conversations in their field of study.

In short, LTW aims to give our undergraduates the tools, both intellectual and practical, of our trade. And therein, many of you no doubt are already protesting, lies the problem. Just as Nowviskie argues much graduate methodological training simply replicates what professors “themselves were taught a generation or two before,” so does LTW replicate undergraduate training a generation or two removed from our students. The course largely ignores the most current movements within the field and the most modern tools of the trade—not deliberately, of course, but just as effectively. The course is certainly insular rather than interdisciplinary. Perhaps most problematically, the methodologies that the course ignores are those most likely to benefit undergraduates when they enter the job market—by which I mean the market market, not the academic market. The majority of our students do not go to graduate school, but instead into a variety of fields where they would benefit from a nuanced understanding of issues such as intellectual property, web-based research practices, or modern publishing and communication—not to mention from gaining technical skills that would supplement—or empower—their research and writing abilities.

I do think it’s important for students to be exposed to a range of theoretical perspectives. As new members of a discipline, they should learn both the discipline’s history and the current debates surrounding its practice. Moreover, digital scholarship builds upon many of the inquiries of previous theoretical schools and many digital humanists argue the field should engage more directly with theoretical issues. One need only read Natalia Cecire’s recent “When DH Was in Vogue; or, THATCamp Theory” or the many posts responding to it to see how the schools of twentieth- and twenty-first century theory continue to shape the field of literary studies. “Literary Theory and Writing” needn’t trudge through these schools linearly, however, but could instead incorporate the foundational work of theorists into a methods-focused investigation of why and how we study literature today.

And that’s the good news. Unlike vast, multi-departmental overhauls, this course is within my immediate power to change. All of our English majors and minors take this course, and roughly half of them take it with me. If I want to reallocate some of the course’s time to discussing, say, intellectual property, I can. I’ve already begun modifying the course. Last spring, for instance, we wrote collaboratively in Google Docs, created public scholarship for The History Engine, and read a few foundational digital humanities articles in the final unit of the course. However, we could be doing much more, and I’m resolved we will do more starting this spring.

Such revamping won’t be easy or happen without challenge. Some of the subjects we currently teach in LTW will have to go in order to make room for new topics and tools. What must be included in any vital undergraduates methodologies course? We need to do more with archives—both using them and building them—and we need to talk more frequently and more honestly about the challenges and opportunities of humanities study in the twenty-first century. We need to talk about intellectual property; we must practice writing that breaks the term-paper mold. We should probably think about graphs, maps, and trees in addition to (or as a supplement to) thinking about race, class, and gender. What else might a reinvented and reinvigorated undergraduate methodologies course include? What features of current training must be discarded? I would certainly welcome suggestions in the comments.

But this must happen, and not only at St. Norbert College. There are many, many times more humanities undergraduates than there are humanities graduate students. If “so much is at stake” in our approach to graduate methodological training, how much more is at stake in our undergraduate classrooms? We must intervene long before day one of graduate school.

  • Katherine D. Harris

    Ryan, this is a super-fabulous proposal for undergraduate curricular reform. And I certainly agree that reform of the term paper (linear, written document) needs to occur. However, I’m a bit unsure about having this be a grassroots movement where faculty demonstrate the efficacy of digital literacy with these new styles of writing. At some point, it needs to be institutionalized; otherwise, the grassroots movements go on for years without recognition (and risk burning out that particular innovator). Can I add to your proposal that we (faculty) need to host more departmental-level fora explaining this type of move? It seems that some of these issues of change lock horns at that level.

    I’m excited to see where you take this style of excavation and asteroid dispersal. Rock on, my friend!

  • http://ryan.cordells.us Ryan Cordell

    Kathy, I agree that at some point department-level reform must happen. One benefit of working in a smaller department, however, is that individual reform is, on some level, departmental reform. As I write above, I teach this class to half of all our English majors, which means I have some clout (not— never—Klout) in the aggregate formation of our graduates. As you point out, however, were I to spend years teaching students methodologies they were never encouraged to use outside of my classes, I might get frustrated and burn out.

    How do we begin larger, departmental conversations if we’re alone in those departments? In my case, it’s not even an English Department. The seven English faculty constitute a discipline within the larger Humanities and Fine Arts Division, which is roughly akin to a department at a larger school. But that adds a new layer of complexity to these discussions–do you have any suggestions about how to germinate these necessary conversations?

  • http://twitter.com/sallystamper Sally Stamper

    Ryan and Kathy, it’s interesting to read this post and exchange as one of Ryan’s colleagues in a neighboring humanities discipline (Religious Studies).

    I teach only gen ed courses and in the process, a fair number of the students at our small-ish liberal arts college. While most of my courses are in RS, they are not gateways (in any meaningful sense) to the major or minor, instead fulfilling a broad RS requirement. Moreover, I also teach courses listed in other – interdisciplinary – programs. I’m forever pondering how to go about supporting students’ grasp of skills that are generalizable to various majors. It seems to me that if we can start thinking about this question of theory and method from an interdisciplinary (speaking of buzz words…) perspective at the beginning, some of the undergraduate curricular pieces would fall into place more quickly.

    If all of us humanities-types who work in general studies begin to operate as if we’re humanities faculty – and the faculty teaching specialized courses see that as positive: (1) we might move past the scenario in which I have to explain that the theology paper I’m assigning is “like an English paper” or that what we’re doing is “like history” and (2) we might be able to establish a foundation in the kind of skill set that students need across the humanities (at least). At that point the individual disciplines could address in their upper-level courses their internal debates about emerging theory and any specialized methods as they see fit.

    I suspect that for intro courses, at least, theory and method are all but indistinguishable at the undergraduate level and are not nearly as discipline-specific as some of us might think or wish.

    I’d also like to suggest [humbly - really] that some of us who are less digital-savvy might be in an ideal position to facilitate such a shift in pedagogical theory and method (ahem), in that we are more or less learning alongside the students: there are worse positions from which to promote change.

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