Dani Spinosa reflects on the relocation of e-Lit scholarship and pedagogy "in the remote classroom for the precariat writ large."
When I first proposed this paper, I had wanted this to be a closer analysis of learning management systems and their abilities and shortcomings in encouraging non-programming students to engage with code in critical and literary ways. But, as it so often does at the end of term, the grading took its toll. Indeed, this is particularly true for me as an adjunct instructor juggling the grading for more students than I care to admit while preparing for the next term to begin. So, this paper is in some ways less of an analysis of the platforms at play, and more of an analysis of their incongruity, and what that incongruity says about the role of electronic literary study in the remote classroom for the precariat writ large. Indeed, we might argue that as an adjunct instructor during the pandemic, I am in a rather unique position to speak to the use of the learning management system, or LMS, as a pedagogical platform. I currently teach at three different post-secondary institutions—York University, Trent University, and Sheridan College, all in southern Ontario, Canada—and I am currently teaching using three different LMSs (Blackboard, eClass [Moodle], and SLATE [Brightspace]). This pandemic has clearly laid bare several of the difficulties of precarious labour in the academy, and the need to fluently navigate several disparate platforms is just one. I would like to use this unique position to begin to speak to the role of pedagogies of digital literature to help students develop critical digital literacies, and how the proprietary LMS might influence or impede that process.
What follows is an equal parts scholarly and reflective pedagogical analysis and critique of the use of the LMS Blackboard for course delivery of ENGL4309 Digital Adventures in English: Engaging with the Digital Humanities at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. ENGL4309 is a fourth-year seminar that is marketed primarily as a course in digital humanities tools for the study of literature and the digital literary. As far as I understand it, this was the first year that Trent was able to mount such a course. Incidentally, they found themselves without a a digital humanities professor available to direct the course at the time of its offering and brought me on as contract faculty to prepare and direct the course. One of the DH tools that I used as a part of a module on digital literatures is Nick Montfort’s “Taroko Gorge” and the many remixes thereof. By situating this classic work of electronic literature in this way, my goal was to treat the programming language of “Taroko Gorge” and the popularity of its remixes as a DH tool, and to thus follow in the excellent arguments made recently about electronic literature as digital poetics.
These arguments are compiled exhaustively in Dene Grigar and James O’Sullivan’s recent volume, Electronic Literature as Digital (2021). In the introduction to this collection, Grigar argues persuasively that “electronic literature is the logical object of study for digital humanities scholars who have, by the second decade of the twenty-first century, cut their teeth on video games, interactive media, mobile technology, and social media networks; are shaped by politics of identity and culture; and able to recognize the value of storytelling and poetics in any medium” (3). Indeed, as Scott Rettberg has argued, “both ‘electronic literature’ and ‘digital humanities’ are loosely defined not by their attachment to a historical period or genre but by a general exploratory engagement with the contemporary technological apparatus” (127). So, as a part of one of the electronic literature modules for this course, I asked my students to remix “Taroko Gorge,” as we did when I first encountered the work through the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) several years before through Dene Grigar and others. And, indeed, as one reviewer of the proposal for this paper remarked, “The ‘Taroko Gorge’ remix assignment is an enduring piece of e-literary pedagogy for good reason.” I wanted to position the reading, adjusting, and remixing of the code of “Taroko Gorge” as a tool of digital humanities scholarship, to take for granted the fact that an ability to recognize and read code is a cornerstone of both digital humanities and electronic literature.
One of the most important difficulties of this assignment, indicating barriers to access for student and instructor alike, was attempting this project using the proprietary software of the LMS, including unique platform dependencies and an inability to have students collaboratively or separately work on and test the code within the LMS itself. There was also, of course, the problem of trying to share parts of the code in the forums which would not properly display because of translation issues with the LMS platform. I was getting frustrated and running out of time, and the students were starting to feel more instead of less alienated by the coding activity.
Essentially, the job of incorporating electronic literature when teaching using a learning management system involves a little of what Davin Heckman calls a “a patient strategy” (277) in his contribution to the aforementioned Grigar and O’Sullivan volume. In this essay, appropriately titled “Learning as You Go: Inventing Pedagogies for Electronic Literature,” Heckman urges burgeoning electronic literature professors to work compiling research that speaks to the specific institutional context that one operates in, seeking areas in which electronic works complement or complicate existing curricula in a meaningful way, and work diligently to create places in the curriculum that can include electronic literature as a standalone subject or part of a dynamic portfolio of rhetorical, computational, and/or aesthetic practices that make sense within a broader educational setting (277).
The call is persuasive and, I would argue, important towards fostering critical digital literacies in our classrooms. But, as Heckman nods to the extra work involved in creating spaces—literal, virtual, and metaphorical—for pedagogies of electronic literature, I cannot help but wonder how the lack of access, influence, and time of the adjunct professor affects the ability to incorporate digital literatures into existing syllabi, and to insist on e-literary study within our departments.
The workaround worked, and students were able to take the edited code, “fork” it, and start editing on their own. Most still found the experience to be frightening, but those that spent the time—and watched the Yuja © recorded Zoom © call between Orsi and me designed to ease them into the process—ended up producing remixes and feeling accomplished and a bit more agential in the digital realm. I considered the overall activity to be a success. But, upon reflection for this paper, I was struck most by the stark contrast, in interface, appearance, and implied audience, between the open-access JSFiddle I used as a workaround, and the proprietary industry-standard LMS that we used for the rest of the course. JSFiddle is dark and minimalist (see Figure 1), reminiscent of a ‘90s cyberpunk hacker film. It is clearly a place where programmers can adjust—and can even collaborate—on the code before moving it to the project itself, a necessarily temporary, liminal space, and one that is well-suited for the temporariness of the coding used by students remixing “Taroko Gorge.” On the contrary, Blackboard bears all the markers of a sleek, designed, and clearly proprietary LMS (see Figure 2). I am not blowing anyone’s mind to make such an observation. The two platforms differ radically in funding, size, and intended use. But the incongruity of the two platforms—and how much their appearance demonstrates this—brought to the fore the question of how and where students have become familiar with technology, and how alienated students from outside of technological disciplines are with code, with programming language, with the back end at all.
Bouchardon, Serge. “Mind the gap! 10 gaps for Digital Literature?” Electronic Book Review, 5 May 2019, http://electronicbookreview.com/essay/mind-the-gap-10-gaps-for-digital-literature/
Grigar, Dene. “Electronic Literature as Digital Humanities: An Introduction.” Electronic Literature as Digital Humanities: Contexts, Forms, & Practices, eds. Dene Grigar & James O’Sullivan, Bloomsbury, 2021, pp. 1-5.
Heckman, Davin. “Learning as You Go: Inventing Pedagogies for Electronic Literature.” Electronic Literature as Digital Humanities: Contexts, Forms, & Practices, eds. Dene Grigar & James O’Sullivan, Bloomsbury, 2021, pp. 275-86.
Rettberg, Scott. “Electronic Literature as Digital Humanities.” A New Companion to Digital Humanities, eds. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, Wiley Blackwell, 2016, pp. 127-36.