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Saturday, July 16, 2016

How a course about violence changed the way students are taught and assessed | Times Higher Education

Photo: William Watkin
Photo: Will Self
"A literature module developed at Brunel University London has moved away from the traditional essay format and embraced the digital age" according to William Watkin, professor of contemporary literature and philosophy at Brunel University London and Will Self, professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University London and is the author of nine novels.

‘I saw a strangely zombie-like response to the gathering impact of bi-directional digital media’

When I began teaching at Brunel University London five years ago I’d had little but glancing contact with the academy since I left higher education myself. My experience of reading for a politics, philosophy and economics degree at the University of Oxford in the late 1970s and early 1980s, may, even for the time, have embodied anachronisms − but the theory and practice of arts and humanities pedagogy I found at Brunel in 2011 remained in essence the same.

Photo: iStock/Getty montage
 At the core of it all, it seems to me, lies the text. At Oxford, I often studied in Duke Humfrey’s library, the dark and woody 14th-century cell deep in the dense honeycomb of the Bodleian. Here, surrounded by ancient tomes, I did my best to impress upon my memory the outline of the canon while at the same time shading in a fraction of its content.

The entire system of learning at Oxford, so far as I can recall, consisted of the combination of mnemonics, composition and argumentation. Reading lists were prodigious: often 20 or 30 items − both entire volumes and journal articles – so redundancy was a given: hours needed to be spent in the library to extract the pith from acres of paper. I took two courses (as modules were then called) every term, and the coursework requirement was an essay of 3,000 words per week for each of them; the sheer amount I had to write gave me the core facility needed for an entire adult working life as a professional writer.

The argumentation was, of course, astonishingly thorough when compared with the meagre “contact hours” most contemporary students are mandated: a full hour vis-à-vis, usually one-to-one, reading out your essay and then picking it apart. Lectures were plentiful and accessible, but I confess: with two hours of tutorials a week, and a minimum of 12 to write my papers, I needed all the remaining ones simply in order to read, if I were to be able to absorb sufficient information to substantiate the sort of large-scale theoretical paradigms I was being introduced to.

As I say, when I arrived at Brunel I found the lineaments of this system still present: reading lists and essay assignments; lectures, seminars and tutorials. I also realised immediately the deep commitment many of my colleagues had to serious, effective pedagogy, and their preparedness to do right by students facing massively increased pressures owing to the marketisation of the sector. However, what I also saw (and I believe this, in part, to be one of the many unforeseen consequences of the 2010 Browne “reforms”, which ushered in the tripling of tuition fees) was a strangely zombie-like response to the gathering impact of bi-directional digital media (BDDM) on the study of arts and the humanities. This is at once a vast subject − and just one aspect of the technological revolution we’re living through; one of such scale, rapidity and obvious transformative potential, it deserves to − and does − generate ever more baroque and reflexive forms of appraisal and criticality. That being noted, there are simple things to be said, and for me they coalesce around a single conceptual object: the skeuomorph.

‘My students chose to look away not out of fear or moral revulsion but out of ennui’

This was the first year of my new, final-year literature course at Brunel, entitled Violence. It is, I believe, a unique course in the UK, allowing English literature students the opportunity to engage with the art, theory, politics and technology of violence.

Photo: Getty/Alamy/iStock montage
The course is an innovation in how to study literary production in that it is not determined by a particular period, “ism” or theoretical approach. It is not even dominated by the need to study works of literature, taking, as it does, textual study in its absolutely widest possible sense. Novels are texts; paintings are text; philosophy is text; film is text. But YouTube is also text; Twitter is text; wolf whistles can be text. In the final week of the course, the reading set for the class said simply: “the internet”.

The idea behind the course was to let urgent issues dictate the nature of its design, rather than apply already tested frameworks of study to, say, representations of violence online. I envisage that this may be one way forward for literary studies and the humanities in general: let the topic dictate the course and then discover new methods and materials to answer its call. It is a form of curriculum design not dissimilar to the much-discussed phenomenon-based learning, which is centred on real-world phenomena rather than the abstractions studied by traditional academic subjects. Areas we covered included founding violence (or the role of dramatic acts of violence in founding and protecting states), discursive violence (how language and representation can be a form of violence), animal violence, sexual violence, sadism, cannibalism, scapegoating, punishment, surveillance, decapitation videos and, of course, zombies.

I also attempted to develop novel ways to deliver and assess the content. The lecturing team – which included my colleagues Will Self and film studies lecturer Daniele Rugo – were given three hours to present, interact, challenge and discuss whatever material they thought fit. I wrote original pieces of journalism, spoke from my blogs and used a complex set of platforms, including YouTube clips, feature films, internet image curation and Twitter, to discuss, say, the concept of founding violence or capital punishment. At one stage, I presented my zombie walk to introduce a discussion of the ontological issues surrounding the undead. This wasn’t just a joke. Performative lecturing techniques are essential if we want to keep the students in class and off their phones. A middle-aged man who should know better doing a, frankly, rather brilliant, zombie shuffle which segued into an admittedly inexpert moonwalk (the link being Michael Jackson’s Thriller video) is at least one way to get the students’ attention. But don’t worry: in the same session we also studied the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s ruminations on the homo sacer (a Roman criminal whom anyone was permitted to kill without being considered a murderer). I am not a complete charlatan.
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Source: Times Higher Education