Jim Mussell (University of Birmingham)
Hacking the Book’ is a third-year undergraduate module run in the English Department at the University of Birmingham. The module came about after a discussion on Twitter between myself and a colleague, Oliver Mason in the summer of 2010. I was at a conference in Edinburgh and had just tweeted that I thought lecturers needed to ‘integrate digital humanities research and teaching in undergrad classes.’ Oliver’s response was to suggest that we put on a final year module at Birmingham that could provide some sort of background in digital literacy. After some discussions between ourselves and then quite a bit of negotiation with the department, we developed ‘Hacking the Book: Skills for the Digital Age’, a final year undergraduate module offered as part of the University’s Module Outside the Main Discipline system. This meant that the module, although taught by staff in the English department, would be available to any final year student whose programme permitted them to take a module outside their home department. Although we had initially conceived of the module as providing English students, whether studying language or literature, with the skills they needed to work with text in the digital age, we were pleased to be able to offer a broad-based digital humanities option to students across the whole university.
In ‘Hacking the Book’, we are committed to teaching skills through practice. What we wanted to avoid was the sort of contentless skills modules common in undergraduate programmes and instead offer a course where students would learn by building things that, hopefully, worked. Blogging was one of a range of ways that students could learn about an aspect of digital culture by trying it out. We ran a class blog, to which all students had to contribute at least one post or comment a week, and individual private blogs that would allow students to reflect on what they had learned after class. For our course, we chose to host all the blogs externally using Blogger rather than host them locally. We wanted to avoid the university’s virtual learning environment, WebCT, and so had used Google Docs to produce course syllabi and reading lists, opening the latter up to the students so that they could contribute. As students needed Google accounts to work with these course materials, it was straight-forward to add Blogger accounts, allowing them to contribute as registered authors to both the class blog and their own individual blogs.
Discussions of blogging tend to assume all blogs are similar, yet even the paired down versions hosted by companies such as Google (via Blogger) and WordPress (WordPress.com) are highly customisable and so allow different types of authorship. Only the class blog, Hacking the Book, was published openly on the web; the individual student blogs were kept private, open only to their respective authors and to Oliver and I as module convenors. Blogging thus played two important roles in the course. Firstly, it allowed students to discuss issues raised in class in a public forum. This meant that they were writing for both the class (their fellow students, as well as Oliver and I) and a the wider unknown public, out there on the web. Participating in the ongoing discussions meant that students had first-hand experience of writing for different audiences, as well as the different forms of discourse – what used to be called ‘netiquette’ – appropriate to online discussion. Secondly, their individual blogs were places for critical reflection. These were formally assessed, with students required to submit the posts along with a reflective essay as a portfolio at the end of the semester. The blogging platform here served as a way for us to monitor the posts as they were being produced, offering informal feedback during the semester and making sure the portfolios were on track prior to submission.
We learned some lessons from the first run of ‘Hacking the Book’ in 2011-2012. Although we required participation in the class blog each week, we offered no reward or threatened any sanctions and so many students simply did not bother. The individual blogs, which were assessed, were completed much more regularly. The obvious answer is to make participation in the class blog part of the assessment, but this seems crudely instrumentalist. An alternative solution is to build the class posts into class activities a little more closely. We found that students were more likely to post on the class blog when they knew posts and comments would serve as matter for class discussion: next year, we’re going to try and do this more often, using the class blog as a means of getting the students to report on their progress, particularly with the ongoing group projects that form the other part of their assessment.
Eventually, ‘Hacking the Book’ will become a key part of the undergraduate English curriculum at Birmingham. Next year, it will be running as a second year module to a much larger cohort in the Module Outside the Main Discipline system; the following year, it takes its place as one of three optional trans-historical modules in the English programmes. The changing demands of the course mean that its content will necessarily change. This year the students worked in small groups to produce their own digital projects; next year, the class will come together to produce its own app, which we hope to publish for others to use. The blogs, however, will remain at the heart of the course, providing a space for students to reflect upon their work, as well as a space to discuss and present that work to others. English departments tend to train students to write for one very particular audience, their lecturers, and in a form that has little relevance beyond the academy, the essay. At Birmingham, we make students write essays by hand in examinations and give in word-processed coursework printed on paper. On Hacking the Book, blogging allowed students to write and publish digital text and, using the analytics software provided with most blogging platforms, see that it was being read around the world. By making students blog, we make them think harder about the role of text, and the technologies that permit it to be read.