Digital humanities—a phrase that’s been floating around academic blogs, conferences and publications for at least the last decade, if not longer. But incorporating digital into our classrooms to benefit our students can be tricky. Technology at times fails to work during key moments of a class—or the new digital platform that promises better learning outcomes just leads to frustration and confusion for instructors and students. However, as many of our study fields date back to before the advent of the printing press, we’re uniquely positioned to show our students the value of technologies while likewise modeling when a pen and piece of paper might be a better choice.
In considering how we can leverage digital humanities in our classrooms, it’s important to first spend just a moment reflecting on who our students are. As I pointed out in a previous post, many of our students were at an impressionable age when the financial crisis of 2007 hit. 2007 is also the year the iPhone was first introduced. Because of this, students we’re teaching now have been dubbed the iGen by Jean M. Twange. In September, Twange published an article in The Atlantic sharing some of her findings about this emerging generation. Millennials may have grown up with the Internet, but iGen are growing up with it at their fingertips. One of the defining features of this generation is access to technology and its impact on their social lives. Teenagers today—across all socioeconomic classes and ethnicities—spend less physical time with their friends than even Millennials did. Instead their interactions are increasingly happening online through social media. Twange’s research reveals that the more screen time teenagers have, the more anxious and unhappy they’re likely to be.
Clearly the answer to the question of how to best bring digital in the humanities classroom is not as simple as more technology is always better. While instructors shouldn’t be afraid to embrace new digital tools as students will need digital literacy just as much as they’ve always needed how to read and write effectively, a middle ground is needed. Instructors should start small—perhaps by testing out one or two new digital products a year or incorporating digital on low-stakes assignments. Also, instructors should consider where digital makes sense and where it doesn’t. For instance, having students create an eportfolio of their work that they can show during an interview or use to market themselves might be of greater benefit than redesigning an entire course to utilize the latest software.
But also, instructors need to stress to students when technology may not be better than other methods—especially given the issues of this generation. A 2014 study revealed what many instructors already knew: taking notes with a pen and paper leads to a deeper level of understanding. Students taking notes on a laptop tend “to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words” as they do when writing by hand. In my own classroom, I’ve banished laptops except when we need them for a specific activity and shared this research with my students to justify why I’m breaking what’s become a cultural norm. Though resistant at first, I hope they recognize the benefits of less screen time and more engagement with their peers. Though digital may always be a balancing act in our classrooms, we owe it to our students to try to strike that balance successfully.
Elizabeth Martin is an Instructional Specialist in the Writing Studies Department at Montclair State University in New Jersey and a staff writer for American Mircoreviews & Interviews. She received her M.F.A. from William Paterson University. Her journalism has appeared in Parsippany Life, Neighbor News and The Suburban Trends. Her creative writing has been published by Neworld Review, Hot Metal Bridge and Menacing Hedge—among others. She’s the recipient of two New Jersey Press Association awards. Currently, she’s at work on a collection of essays.