During a recent classroom visit of a visual artist, it occurred to me that we've reached a new paradigm in radical pedagogy. The artist entered the room, greeted the class, and began his lecture with a PowerPoint presentation about his work. While he was speaking, he noticed that the class — all of whom had their laptops open and connected to the internet — were furiously typing away. He flattered himself that, in the traditional manner, the students were taking copious notes on his lecture, devouring every word he spoke. But what he was not aware of was that the students were engaged in a simultaneous electronic dialogue with each other about what the artist was saying, all played out over the class listserv, which they all had instant access to. During the course of the artist's lecture, dozens of emails, links, and photos very blazing back and forth to each other; each email elicited yet more commentary and gloss on the prior emails to the point where what the artist was saying was merely a jumping off point to an investigation of such depth and complexity, that the artist — or any ideal of traditional pedagogy — would never have achieved. It was an unsurpassed form of student's active and participatory engagement, but went far astray from what the speaker had in mind.
When later told about this, the artist was very disturbed. His ego was mauled and when shown the blizzard of gloss, was more dispirited as he felt much of what had transpired was irrelevant and even irreverent (hastily Photoshopped detournments of images and concepts he brought up). He was flabbergasted that all of this "conversation" was happening and he, the authoritative speaker, was not privy to what was being said.
I had to explain to him the very positive aspects of this new pedagogy, that in fact his words were triggers for engagements and explorations that, while not wholly controlled by him, were catalysts for thinking in ways other than what he had planned. I told him that their engagement was a deeper one than what normally occurs.
And so we have a glimpse into the future. I can envision a class where bodies physically exist in the same space without a spoken word having transpired; where communication happens electronically and instantaneously — often concurrently — yet retains a semblance of community and continuity, even warmth and intimacy. What the electronic classroom does is give us new ways of being together. I often tell my students that they are smarter with a laptop connected to the internet than they are without one. And after seeing what the results of this are, I am more convinced that I can never go back to a traditional classroom pedagogy. The role of the professor now is part party host, part traffic cop, full time enabler.
University of Pennsylvania: PENNsound, writing.upenn.edu/pennsound and Kelly Writers House webcasts. A stellar project at Penn, PENNsound is “committed to producing new audio recordings and preserving existing audio archives.” Here you can listen to readings from 1950s to today and often find great extras and links to other exciting websites.
I produced a new PennSound podcast, the sixth in the series; it presents an overview of PennSound, its mission and its pedagogical assumptions and implications. In discussing how students, teachers and readers can use PennSound's materials, I use as an example Rae Armatrout's poem "The Way," about which I've written in an earlier entry here.
After we put up the Ezra Pound recordings, we got a raving fan note from poet Peter Gizzi (who has his own PennSound author page), and here is what Peter wrote:
I LOVE, I mean LOVE that Pennsound has put up all the Pound material. I have it all in bootlegs and tapes of course but it is wonderful to have it there, finally, I mean it is THE MOST OUT there of anything on that site or ubu web! EP is the best. I used to listen to those tapes over and over in my car in the late 70’s when I was a teenager. To me it was Punk. And hearing it now it brings back summer and my youth! Listening to the Spoleto recording, maybe my fav for its restrained intensity, I am taken aback just how his late syntax has totally effected me. Liz and I were listening and we could hear my poem Homer’s Anger loud and clear for instance. Amazing. And Richard’s head note makes me want to listen further.
In late spring/summer 2001 Jim O'Neil, then the higher education beat reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, interviewed me at length for a story about my electronic pedagogy. The essay would appear in the (now defunct) Inquirer Sunday Magazine in August of '01. In '99 and '00 I had taught three all-online versions of my modern & contemporary American poetry course, English 88. And I had for years been using chat rooms (the earliest was a MOO called PennMOO) and listservs to enable the students' discussion to be the central activity of the course. The six-year-old piece seems a bit quaint to me now, and Jim's focus (in several middle paragraphs) on my life and "development" as a teacher is a bit embarrassing, but the narrative is more or less right. Here's a passage from the essay, starting with the end of the biographical stuff:
In the early 1980s, while pursuing his doctorate in English at the University of Virginia, Filreis began to teach. At the time, the university purchased early-version desktop computers. "They were big white machines, in the shape of a huge space helmet," Filreis said. "They ran a word processor program called Magic Wand."
Filreis stored set pieces on computer, each describing a common student writing mistake. He gave each set piece a number. Then, marking student papers by hand, he put a number in the margin near each mistake, and attached the appropriate computer-generated commentary.
"This changed my relationship with the students," Filreis said. "I wanted to engage the students in a conversation." In effect, he had created a low-tech prototype of the teaching style he would later refine. He calls it "dialogic pedagogy."
When e-mail and the Internet appeared, Filreis, who arrived at Penn in 1985, easily integrated these new tools. The core of that teaching philosophy mirrors the course material of English 88.
Postmodernist poets focused on the process of their poetry, rather than on what the words in their poems actually said. The purpose was to make poetry and language new again.
There's no better way to describe Filreis' teaching style. He uses technology to free class time for discussion, which to Filreis is more important than the course material itself. The point is to develop his students' ability to think critically, not to have memorized every last fact about Gertrude Stein. And yet, he said, through that active engagement with the material, students end up remembering more of the content.
Here's Filreis' teaching style in action: By late April, the students in English 88 are studying the postmodern poets.
Shortly after class gets out one day, the English 88 listserv starts to hum. Some students like the postmodernist message. Others think a poem whose words made no conventional sense was ridiculous. At one point during the raging debate, Filreis e-mails everyone a brief message to guide the discussion along. He cites a quote from one student, who chafed at the postmodernist experiment: "I disagree with the idea that effective poetry can consistently be made by imposing an arbitrary set of rules on some subject and following them rigorously," wrote the student, Jacob Kraft.
Filreis' seven-word reply reads: "Is this not what a sonnet is?"The online jousting plants the seeds for an equally charged debate in class a few days later over an elegy performed in 1975 by postmodernist Jackson Mac Low, called "A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore". Mac Low took his friend's name, used a computer to churn out every word that could be constructed from reshuffling the letters of the name, and then got friends to read those 960 words aloud in a staged performance. The work generates intense give-and-take among the students on whether old-fashioned elegies did justice to the dead.
"Who's to say words can capture the essence of a human being?" says Laine McDonnell. "Who's to say these words of Mac Low's don't capture his friend more?" "Aesthetically, it leaves a lot to be desired," pipes up Jake Kraft. "The postmodernists are only interested in the process. They throw aesthetics out the window."
Now that Filreis has broken down the walls of the classroom, he wants to break through all other confines of the university setting. "I want to start recruiting 'teachers' from the extended Penn community," he said, clearly thinking back to Carl Peterson's influence on him at Colgate. "I want more electronic mentoring. I want to deepen the experiment. I'd love to be liberated from the semester so I could teach whomever, wherever, whenever."
Thanks to technology, he has already liberated himself. He has created a program through which faculty can mentor incoming freshmen over the Internet before they even get to campus. He has cajoled some faculty to participate in online book groups for Penn alumni. And his own Web site — which registered more than 2.6 million hits in the last six months and includes extensive resources on modern poetry, the 1950s and the Holocaust — has become a helpful tool for high-school teachers nationwide.
Filreis is one of a small but growing cadre of professors across the country who are changing classroom pedagogy — and not merely by turning the old-fashioned lecture into a glitzy PowerPoint presentation. Many colleges provide grants and training for professors interested in using the new technology, and on every college campus there's at least one professor harnessing the basic technology of the Internet to free class time for richer, student-driven discussion.
Last fall (autumn 2006) I taught my Holocaust course again. I love teaching the modern and contemporary American poetry course, English 88, and my annual spring Writers House Fellows Seminar, but I can't say I "love" teaching the Holocaust course. Do I feel obliged or committed to do so? Am I part of the "chain of witness"? That seems much too simple.
The Modern Language Association conference was held in Philadelphia last December (’06) and, as usual, the local newspaper feels obliged to cover it. Usually such stories devote most of the space to mockery at arcane, whacky paper topics and seem inevitably to have a jokey, anti-PC, antiacademic tone: how silly, all this.
PENNsound includes a page that lists and links audio and video files of me conducting interviews, giving introductions, and teaching poetry. The page is here and includes links to audio and video of my interviews with Laurie Anderson, John Ashbery, Cid Corman, Robert Creeley, Donald Hall, June Jordan, Carl Rakosi, Adrienne Rich, Lyn Hejinian, Richard Sieburth, Steve Evans, and others. These are just the poetry-related interviews.