[Humanist] 28.262 making things difficult

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Aug 15 07:50:36 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 262.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 15 Aug 2014 06:38:28 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: on pedagogy

The Chronicle of Higher Education for 14 August features an article which
argues that making subjects less cognitively accessible is better than the
accessibility which current educational doctrine preaches. Steve Kolowich,
in "Confuse Students to Help Them Learn", uses the example of a physics
teacher who by trying out clear versus ambiguous presentations discovered
that "if you just present the correct information, five things happen....
One, students think they know it. Two, they don't pay their utmost
attention. Three, they don't recognize that what was presented differs from
what they were already thinking. Four, they don't learn a thing. And five,
perhaps most troublingly, they get more confident in the ideas they were
thinking before." In other words,

>  Confusion is a powerful force in education. It can send students
> reeling toward boredom and complacency. But being confused can also
> prompt students to work through impasses and arrive at a more nuanced
> understanding of the world.

When I was told this by my undergraduate advisor, also a physicist, I
suspected that he was making excuses for poor teaching. And perhaps he
was. But many years later, sick at heart from exposure to doctrines of
accessibility, customer-service approaches to education, rights to resit
examinations and so on, I am far less inclined to think my advisor could
only have been wrong. I am told by an early medieval intellectual
historian I know of strong evidence that an educational technique of
glossators then was deliberately to make their interpretations obscure
in order to force an enlightening struggle to understand. What they had
to transmit required a cognitive transformation in the reader. Isn't
that an ideal still of the humanities, despite current doctrine?

I'd like to think that Kolowich's argument provides a glimmer of hope
that a turn-around is beginning. In any case, it seems to me that the
confrontation with computational reasoning at the cross-roads denoted by
"digital humanities" provides us with an opportunity to help this
turn-around happen. It seems to me that pushing forward with initiatives
to bring the *making*, not just the using, of computational objects into the
humanities is more and more the way to go.

Consider these two books published 18 years apart: (1) Ian Lancashire,
John Bradley et al, Using TACT with Electronic Texts, in 1996; and (2)
Matthew L Jockers, Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature, in
2014. The former is a user-manual for a program that required a highly
skilled professional programmer a long time to write; the latter
instructs the reader in how to build text-analytic tools. Much has
changed in those 18 years. But considering both (1) and (2) as
exemplifying approaches to digital humanities, isn't it obvious which is
educationally more powerful, more effective -- because more challenging
intellectually? Yet to this day we are still largely attempting to hide
the difficulties.

For Kolowich's article see http://chronicle.com/article/Confuse-Students-to-Help-Them/148385/?cid=wc&utm_source=wc&utm_medium=en. And in the spirit of full disclosure
I must tell you that when I began with this note I mistakenly transcribed the
name of the publication in which Kolowich's article occurs as The Chronicle 
for Higher Education....



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney

More information about the Humanist mailing list