updating the ol’ teaching philosophy

I’m updating my teaching philosophy statement; periodically this is necessary for both cynical and genuine reasons. Cynical, because of paperwork requirements; genuine, because I think I actually believe this, when I see it written out. It helps me remember what the hell I’m trying to do in any given class, and reminds me that not everyone is going to buy into what I’m trying to do.

…ah, but when they do…!

Teaching Inside Out

a teaching philosophy for the digital humanities

My philosophy of teaching revolves around the idea that teaching needs to be done in the clear light of day. That is, I try to turn the classroom inside out. When the classroom is inside out, this necessarily transforms the relationship of teacher to student, learning and knowledge, recieved notions of ‘appropriate’ forms, and notions of ‘failure’ and ‘success’.

‘Teaching inside out’ emerges out a sustained research engagement with Open Access as praxis, and making as knowing. I am interested in exploring with my students questions such as, how do we widen the perception of what academic work can be, in history and the humanities? What is the role of the digital in all of this? There is a small-c conservatism in History that makes it difficult to move beyond the essay and the monograph as the ‘required figures’, as students resist when things ‘don’t look like history’ (Graham 2012). But, as Mark Sample (2009) argues,

Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking, be composed of words? Why not images? Why not sound? Why not objects? The word text, after all, derives from the Latin textus, meaning “that which is woven,” strands of different material intertwined together. Let the warp be words and the weft be something else entirely.

This is a strategy not without risk. It necessarily involves making everyone (myself included) uncomfortable. It interferes with the very well-established game of being a student, and the instrumentalization of the university degree (as something with given inputs that must necessarily lead to a desired output, a well-defined job). However, as this application will demonstrate, the rewards for my students who embrace this approach are vast.

Uncoverage and Archaeology

Given the arc of my career, my philosophy of teaching has evolved continually as I teach at different levels, in different contexts, to different kinds of learners. I was attracted to archaeology by the hands-on nature of the field, by the materiality of it. I became interested in distance education and continuing education for how these two modes opened up academia to broader audiences than a standard undergraduate experience. Working with troubled teens as a high school teacher (students whom the system had otherwise failed; see Graham 2015), I saw both of these strands come together in a program that offered a hands-on experience leading to a vocational diploma. Starting a business taught me that I had to relearn everything I thought I already knew. These experiences have pushed me towards the idea of ‘uncoverage’ and transparency in my teaching practice.

I first encountered the idea of ‘uncoverage’ in a blog post on Profhacker by Mark Sample. Sample defines ‘uncoverage’ by contrasting it with how we normally use the phrase in course syllabi: “…this course will cover the evolution of American public life from the publication of the Federalist Papers to…” In the race to cover everything on the syllabus, we necessarily end up covering in the sense of ‘protect or conceal, to hide from view’ (Sample 2011, citing Wiggins and McTighe 106). We do not teach understanding; rather we slip and slide over the top of the deeper issues that make these topics worth studying in the first place. For Sample, ‘uncoverage’ then is a kind of digging downwards, to reveal the assumptions and principles that we would normally cover. There is an obvious connection here with archaeology. In archaeology, one begins with the most recent layers and works backward, peeling away the events that form a site, understanding their associations and connections both in terms of breadth and depth. In the same way one would plan an archaeological excavation backwards from the idea ‘what do we wish to learn from this site?’ I implement backwards-design into my classes: in order to uncover that which is important, what must students understand as a result of having been in this course?

My ambition in every course is to teach for uncoverage, to show students how to weave. This has the effect of making my research and teaching two sides of the same craft. As a craftsman, I want my work to be visible, public and appreciated. My students therefore are both objects of my craft, and independent craftspeople in their own right. I seek out opportunities for my students’ work to become visible as together we work through the implications of digital media for historical understanding. I regard digital history as a kind of public history: therefore my students’ work is never conceived of as being done for an audience of one (cf Sample, 2012: 404-5). I have published papers, articles, blogs and projects with students as a result (e.g., Graham, Massie, and Feuerherm 2012), and have had students blog in public their learning journey (see for instance http://3812.graeworks.net). My students have built video games that they have shared with the world; interactive soundscapes to trigger memory and oral history; Twitter robots that contest received notions on the authority of museums; and much else besides.

My teaching does not stop at the classroom door; if my teaching is inside out, then my students are whoever engages with my materials. In the open access version of my online course (which you may enter here: http://slackinvite-hist3907oa.rhcloud.com/) I have learners from across the world coming together to explore the craft of digital history. Both they and my ‘formal’ students use the open access workbook I wrote and released on the code-sharing platform Github (where much digital history is performed) that you may view at http://workbook.craftingdigitalhistory.ca. The workbook supports a textbook that I wrote with Ian Milligan and Scott Weingart (published by Imperial College Press), the open access version of which may be found at http://themacroscope.org. I also engage the wider professional community of digital historians by actively contributing to the open peer reviewed journal The Programming Historian (programminghistorian.org); I am also contributing to an open peer reviewed volume by the MLA on ‘keywords in digital pedagogy’.

Failing Gloriously

I have blogged my own teaching and research for ten years now. I make not only my process but also my data available to the wider community. Not every experiment results in success; indeed, the failures are richer experiences because as academics we are loathe to say when something did not work – but how else will anybody know that a particular method, or approach, is flawed? This idea that it is ‘safe to fail’ at something, that sometimes what we try just might not work, is something that I try to foster in my classes, and in my teaching work to the wider community. If we try something, it does not work, and we then critically analyze why that should be, we have in fact entered a circle of positive feedback. This perspective comes from my research into game based learning. A good game keeps the challenges just ahead of the player’s (student’s) ability, to create a state of ‘flow’. Critical failure is part of this: too hard, and the player quits; too easy, and the player drops the controller in disgust. The ‘fails’ that happen in a state of flow enable the player to learn how to overcome them. Perhaps if we can design assessment to tap into this state of flow, then we can create the conditions for continual learning and growth (see for instance Kee, Graham, et al. 2009). What is more important is that these can be tailored to an individual student’s abilities. Why should assessment in a class begin at 100 points and then work downwards? Why not begin at zero and allow the student to rise?

Forward the Past!

My approach to teaching has changed over the years, and it will no doubt evolve into the future. What will remain constant though is a commitment to celebrate in public the excellent work that my students do, whether that is sharing their blog posts on Twitter, to finding opportunities to publish with them, to finding collaborative projects for them with the wider community. This was in part the motivation for my successful Future Funder campaign (http://futurefunder.ca) to establish an undergraduate research fellowship in digital history. The George Garth Graham Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Digital History (http://grahamresearchfellow.org) has now given five separate students space (in the form of money, to ‘buy’ their time) to pursue their own digital history research interests without the pressure of grades.

By teaching inside out, aiming for uncoverage, and by exploring the affordances of digital media for historical representation and analysis, I am able to weave the strands of my own evolution as a student, researcher and teacher, into the best opportunities for my students.


proper citation style will of course be observed when I submit this thing

Graham, S. On Teaching High School Medium https://medium.com/@electricarchaeo/on-teaching-high-school-109cb75caedc#.1cxrpz3g7

Kee and Graham 2009

Wiggins, Grant and Jay MctTighe. 2005. Understanding by Design. (Prentice Hall, New Jersey).

Sample, Mark. 2009. ‘What’s Wrong with Writing Essays’ samplereality Mar 12. http://www.samplereality.com/2009/03/12/whats-wrong-with-writing-essays/

Sample, Mark. 2011. ‘Teaching for Uncoverage’ Profhacker, The Chronicle of Higher Education Aug 23. http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/teaching-for-uncoverage-rather-than-coverage/35459