analog humanities.

One of the more jarring facets of my tenure as an instructor inside a prison has been the complete absence of computers in the course. There is no computer in my classroom– and thus no YouTube videos, and no slideshow presentations, and definitely no chance to Google things during class or pull my lesson plan out of Dropbox. As my students have no access to computers, there are no typed assignments, and I cannot say “the article is on Blackboard” or “check your grade on Blackboard” or “submit a post to the discussion group on Blackboard.”

I didn’t realize I relied on Blackboard so much.

Initially I viewed the lack of computers in negative terms. Our textbook (DOC could pay for one) is Lawrence Freidman’s Crime and Punishment in America, a really readable book that is especially useful for talking about the course subjects up to the early 20th century. To fill in the gaps on my syllabus, I assigned articles and book chapters. No problem, right? In my first round at the copier, I  photocopied close to 5,000 pages worth of course materials, which, if you didn’t know, is an entire box of paper, and can take at least 2.5 hours. Since then, I have copied at least 500 pages of primary sources for in class learning activities.  But alas, I had to have all my readings in the facility on the first day of class, I’m supposed to bring in as little stuff as possible when I’m coming into the facility, and my students have few other resources to draw upon. In the age of paperless, I am now a paper maximalist.

I’m coming to appreciate the lack of technology in our class. All of this photocopying requires a fair amount of planning– no more planning class at 10:00pm the night before. There are no cellphones or laptops to distract, no essays copy-pasted from Wikipedia.  As their folders bulge beyond capacity, my students groan at the quantity of paper they now have in their possession– but I see it as a physical expression of the fact that we’ve covered a lot of material. And by and large, they’ve done most of the reading. Without slideshows to rely on, we work rigorously through printed primary sources because they are the one way to access voices of the past. With this emphasis on text, documentaries feel more vivid and powerful, but also a little less necessary.

Without pictures of places like Eastern State Penitentiary, we do guided visualizations of what it was like to live there. When somebody asks, “Where exactly is Attica?” I don’t go to Google Maps, or any map, because we don’t have one. As a class, we put our heads together, muse on the geography of New York, and finally one of the students says, “Oh, it’s right here in the reading.”

Teaching this course has been instructive. In the age of digital humanities, there is so much information available that it’s easy to overwhelm our students with everything we can get. I’m realizing that it’s a strange luxury to get to focus only on what we have. Instead of placing the burden of knowledge on the internet, it’s placed where it should be– on me and on the students. I can’t kill time with video clips and pictures. I have to have a really good grip on what I’m teaching that day. Discussion really feels like an opportunity to learn from each other– because it’s all we have, this community and this sense of trust that we can figure things out together.

I like the digital humanities. I like that as a student and a teacher, I can use technological tools to navigate the very digital world I live in. But I have a new appreciation for the analog humanities, and I can’t help but wonder if my generation of junior scholars might benefit from some of these “old-fashioned” teaching methods as we create 21st century syllabi and classroom cultures.


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