You Can’t Navigate out of a MOOC

My career in libraries began as a detour from religious studies, with a part-time graduate student job at the UVa Library’s Electronic Text Center. Once I started down this path, for better or worse, I never returned to a traditional academic career. It was for the most part a happy change, absorbing XML and becoming initiated into the secrets of the command line. Having otherwise happily drunk the DH Kool-Aid, there was only a trace of the lingering aftertaste of concern for me. As much as I was a proponent of encoded texts, digital humanities, and the potential for transformation of scholarship through them, that did not make me, as it turned out, automatically a fan of all things digital. (Nor did it make me, as I was introduced to Tim Berners-Lee by my dad, “a fan of the internet.”) Despite otherwise qualifying as a techno fan-boi, the exception to the rule for me was online education. On further reflection, I realize I was not merely unenthusiastic about online education, but in fact quietly loathed it. What exactly was so off-putting about it to me remained unclear for some time. Not that it was just not the same as face-to-face teaching. Was it perhaps for the opposite reason: exactly because of how close it was? So close as to show how discontinuous they really were? Like the computer-generated Tom Hanks character(s) in Polar Express (the example from the NPR show on the subject) close enough to the original to be palpably too close. Unsettlingly close. So similar, but simultaneously and indeed precisely because of the similarity, manifestly dissimilar. The MOOC for me was the uncanny valley of higher education.

My undisputed fair-minded- and evenhandedness prompted me to then ask if the same couldn’t be said of electronic books, relative to their paper-and-ink originals? It could, but usually isn’t. Physical books are more often praised than electronic texts denigrated. Perhaps one reason being that the better the electronic reading experience becomes, the less there is to complain about. And it’s worth noting that the virtues extolled by digital humanists with respect to encoding are often and somewhat surprisingly, not for the deliverables produced—edited electronic texts or curated exhibits or collections—but for the process through which they are created. And it is the process—the making—that they especially want to share with students.

The apparent logical inconsistency bothered me more than it might have because I have been regularly—less so more recently—called upon to defend all things digital to colleagues mostly still bound to a codex paradigm. (Hey, you’re the ‘digital’ guy, right? What do you think of [insert digital-based non sequitur]…?) I had not really considered the source of this logical inconsistency, however, until I attended a lecture by Michael Suarez in the spring of 2012. As Editor in Chief of the Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, director of the Rare Book School and Honorary Curator of Special Collections at the University of Virginia, holder of a doctorate and several masters degrees, there is no one more qualified to speak on books, digital and otherwise, than him. I knew several colleagues would be attending, where for once I would not have to be the digital guy. And my colleagues were unlikely address him with that honorific. That night, I could let someone else defend electronic texts, and let the digital pessimists try to dismiss the arguments of the esteemed speaker with a smug platitude. I would not have missed this lecture for the world.

Suarez began: “The digital world is upon us, and that’s a good thing.” And that was the extent of his defense of all things digital. That statement was shortly followed by the start of the accompanying slide show, and an image projected on the screen. He continued: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Antonine-Jean Gros’ painting, ‘Napoleon Visits the Plague House at Jaffa.’” He expounded on the history and iconography of the painting for a few minutes, seemingly building up to a point about the painter’s use of symbolism from the gospel of Luke, or the secular appropriation of messianic imagery. But just short of such a payoff, he instead stopped, and advanced the slide to a different photograph of the same painting, one with a noticeably yellowish cast to it, and began again: “Ladies and gentlemen: this is Antonine-Jean Gros’ painting, ‘Napoleon Visits the Plague-stricken at Jaffa…’” with a nearly word-for-word recitation of the commentary accompanying the previous slide. The misdirection had the desired effect, and there were a few giggles from the audience. Though color values and aspect were obviously different, both were clearly photographs of the same work of art. A third slide appeared, once again a noticeably different photograph of the same painting again: “Ladies and gentlemen: this is Antonine-Jean Gros’ painting, ‘Napoleon Visits the Plague-stricken at Jaffa,’” continuing this time slyly amid the laughter with “and I see from the flicker of recognition in your eyes that a number of you are already familiar with this painting…” Not how I had hoped the evening was going to go.


His presentation was less a criticism of digital remediation per se, than of the entire class of derivative representations, for instance, including images of paintings in art textbooks (real books!) an academic staple long before ‘the digital age.’ That said, his lecture had mainly digital representations in its sights. It was less formal argument than rhetorical flourish, through the presentation of a series of examples that could speak for themselves as to the impoverished experience of digital representations that (sometimes literally) paled in comparison to the originals. His graciousness and intellectual even-handedness somehow made the whole experience even worse for me. He acknowledged throughout his presentation, for instance, the validity of other positions, asking for instance, “isn’t something (a digital representation) better than nothing?” But he was persistent in his assertion of a loss in the transition to the derivative digital image, and digital text, which he had, it’s true, anticipated in his introductory remarks: “We spend so much time talking about what the digital world can do for us…that I worry that we lose sight of what the digital world can’t do for us.”

At the same time, he made a positive case for what he believed engagement with the tangible original can do for us: seeing paintings in person, handling (well, very carefully handling) incunabula. There’s no denying he made his case, as far as that goes. Perhaps he dwelled a little too much on the visceral pleasures of the physical text, expressing moderate indignation at a writer referring to the ‘fetishization’ of the printed book. While certainly the term ‘fetishization’ undoubtedly has itself become fetishized, I think there is something to its application to the awkwardly P.D.A. descriptions of physical texts. And it has to be conceded one is able to make the point much more forcefully about the inadequacy of the digital surrogate using paintings as exemplars, as compared to books (because the content—words—of a written work can be much more readily extricated from its physical form than the image). And like the TEI itself, Dr. Suarez’s discussion focused mainly on antique works and digital surrogates of them, setting aside for the most part the fact that many new books and other works are now themselves born digital. The argument is weakened when talking prospectively about what might be lost in deciding whether to publish a new book in a digital format instead of print.

Still, these complaints don’t really detract from his main point: things can be learned from originals that can’t be learned from surrogates, analog or digital. And felt, and sensed and experienced. And there is a loss in the experience of reading in moving from paper pages to the screen, from analog media to digital technology. This is something we all know. Don’t we? But in fact Suarez was less than explicit in describing what the benefits of direct experience of such objects actually are, and so fell short of describing exactly what the nature of the loss is. I suspect this is in part because such benefits are very difficult to articulate, if they can be articulated at all. And also because it’s possible these ephemeral benefits are only partly derived from experiencing the objects. Perhaps the benefits are derived as much (or more) from the teacher who shares the object with the student, as from the student experiencing it?

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I have a number of pet peeves about the way the word ‘technology’ is used in the 21st century. The one that grates most is the truism that millennials ‘understand technology’. When really all that is meant is that they’re comfortable using Facebook, Instagram, or the platform du jour. Not that they’re any more capable of developing a Facebook, web site, or database than previous generations. To my mind, being an intuitive user of technology falls pretty short of ‘understanding’ it. Another, somewhat less domesticated peeve of mine is that ‘technology’ seems often to be used in a much more restricted sense, of electronic or digital technology exclusively, as opposed to the broad range of meaning the word really possesses—as though ‘technology’ didn’t really exist prior to the digital era. Which you begin to appreciate when someone starts talking to you about the technology that was used to build the pyramids, which you gradually realize refers to the lasers and spaceships the aliens employed in the construction process, as opposed to slave-powered lever and pulley systems.

This use of ‘technology’ as synonymous with digital technology suggests a historical discontinuity that isn’t really there. Of course, the technology of the 20th and 21st centuries is dramatically different from what had gone before. But it’s manifestly not the case that prior eras lacked technology entirely. And of course, I would not suggest Dr. Suarez traded on this ahistoricism to make his point. Still, it may have provided a more receptive context for his argument, in which technology is primarily modern and alienating, while its counterpart—craftsmanship?—belongs more to a more human past. The assumption of a radical discontinuity between the digital and previous eras exaggerates the sense of the discontinuity between between codex and eBook. By extension, the greater the discontinuity, the greater the theoretical loss in the transition from one medium (or technology) to another. While I acknowledge a loss, it may not be much more than the loss of today to tomorrow.

It was with some of these considerations in mind that I raised my hand during the question and answer period at the end of Dr. Suarez’s lecture. If there is a loss in the transition from the codex to the electronic text now, I asked, wouldn’t there also have been a corresponding loss for Christians who adopted the codex format for their scriptures over the scroll much earlier than the rest of late classical culture? I added that it was Harry Gamble, also of UVA, who framed the preference of the early church for the codex over against the scroll as deriving from the former’s capacity for random access, needed for theological purposes to associate Old and New Testaments passages.

Dr. Suarez was extremely gracious in his response to the question (and in conversation after the lecture) re-phrasing (and improving) my question to clarify it for the rest of the audience, supplying the pertinent theological term—typology—I had failed to recall. The point was that the random access afforded by the codex meant the reader could enter the Biblical text at any point (as opposed to the serial access of the scroll) and at multiple points in succession. For early Christian interpreters of the Bible, this easily allowed the association of key prophetic passages from the Hebrew Bible with those from the New Testament in which the prior passages were seen to be fulfilled. As Dr. Suarez put it:

“People wanted to be able to put a finger in a passage in John, and go back to a passage in Jeremiah and say, ‘Oh, I get it’—flip, flip, flip—and you can’t do that with a scroll, right? It’s a lot harder to do with a scroll. Anybody who’s used microfilm understands the problems and possibilities of a scroll, because that’s what microfilm is, is a scroll, right?”

As he continued he did not shy away from the real import of my question:

“But then I think the truth behind the question is: ‘Well, that was a form of remediation, and there was great gain there.’ And I think that that’s right, there was profound gain there, even as there’s great gain in the digital environment—tremendous gain. Let nobody leave this room and think we must become luddites any way. The digital domain is here to stay, and it’s a good thing for us. But as I began at the beginning to say, it will change the structures of knowledge, and it will change the structures of the academy…”

As thoroughly as Dr. Suarez acknowledged the point, he did not further unpack the character of the gain, at least for Christian theology, in the adoption by the church of the codex as a piece of information technology. The comparison of transitions from the scroll and codex, and then from codex to electronic text, makes the technological dimension of the codex more obvious. So it isn’t a matter of technology vs. something not technological seen this way. Just a matter of one technology displacing another. And I thought Dr. Suarez would at the very least have to acknowledge here was an exception to the rule of loss in the transition from scroll to codex, due to what I assumed to be his theological commitments. The prophecy-fulfillment structure was an essential component of the orthodox faith, which bound together the Hebrew Bible and Christian gospels and epistles to make the Christian Bible, comprised of Old and New Testaments. A parallel structure bound the God of the Hebrew Bible with God’s son, witnessed in the New Testament, making the codex of the Christian Bible itself an analog of sorts of the Trinitarian faith. The Biblical codex thus arguably became a structural model of and parallel to the content contained in that particular volume.

Despite this, Dr. Suarez maintained there was a loss in the Christian adoption of the codex for the Bible. Perhaps he was willing to live with one set of theological commitments being challenged in order to protect another. Which is to say, I think that the ineffable important something he alluded to that was threatened in forgoing experience of the physical original—painting or text—for the digital surrogate, was in some sense spiritual. And if so, I agree that there is a loss. But I think the potential loss has less to do with the physical objects themselves (though something to do with them too) than with important human connections mediated through those physical, visceral experiences of originals. The loss in the transition from physical book to ebook is less the loss of aroma and tactile pleasures of the codex, so much as the loss of the experience of one person handing that book to another, physically and metaphorically in one deft act.

*        *        *        *        *        *

I always assumed an inconsistency in my commitment to electronic texts on the one hand, and disdain for online education—MOOC or 1.0—on the other. That despite being forward-thinking in some areas, I had regressive, luddite tendencies in others. I no longer think these tendencies are in conflict or even inconsistent. At DHSI 2014, I went to dinner one evening with a group from my class, and I took an informal poll. All the others at dinner were currently teachers or recently had taught, and not one had anything good to say about MOOCs. And yet they were all there to take a class in XSL as a tool for transforming TEI-encoded texts—not luddites. What I have come to realize about digital humanities, which has brokered an encounter between literary works and XML, and other works in the humanities and other technologies, is that its technological dimension is not in contrast to, but explicitly supports, its pedagogical dimension. Because to a person, these scholars all involve their students in projects to encode and remediate texts through any number of technologies. And in involving and engaging their students in this way, with these projects, they share the works with them and afford them new perspectives on the works and their structure not possible before these technologies. But the emphasis here is not on the technology, but the handing-on, the traditio of humanities scholarship.

I love the TEI. For me, the process of encoding texts has everything to do with making the implicit explicit, capping a process from which first emerged spaces between words, punctuation, and then chapters and other readerly instruction above and beyond the narrative itself. But there are other things that do not lend themselves to explicit articulation. In the background of my dissertation lay a conviction I could not bring fully into to the fore (precisely for lack of explicit evidence) that the primary character of tradition rejected by Protestantism, was not of some specifiable content or other, which happened by historical accident to be transmitted verbally instead of textually, but instead of content—if it can even be said to be that—that was possibly inconsequential relative to the significance of its being literally handed on. This conviction derives for me from a number of sources, but the most immediately relevant was pointed in Harry Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church, which referenced an article by Loveday Alexander, “The Living Voice: Skepticism Towards the Written Word in Early Christian and in Greco-Roman Texts.” In it, Alexander explores the skeptical disposition in antiquity toward written texts. In it she includes a remarkable quote by one of the best known thinkers (and educators) of the classical period. Whether or not Galen held that there are no stupid questions, he clearly believed some questions facilitated and others inhibited learning:

Ἀληθὴθς μ`ν ἀμέλει καί ὀ λεγόμενος ὐπὸ τῶω πλείστςν τεχνιτῶν ἐστι λόγος, ὠς οὐκ ἴσον οὐδ᾽ὅμοιον εἴη παρὰ ζώσης φωνῆς μαθεῖν ἤ ἐκ σθγγπάμματος ἀναλέξασθαι.

The people who ask this sort of question [i. e. theoretical questions] are those who are not learning from a teacher, but are like those who—according to the proverb—try to navigate out of a book.

[De libr. Propr. 5, Kuhn XIX 33/
Scripta Minora II 110. 25-27]

Throughout the talk, Dr. Suarez repeated his concern with the materiality of books, noting for instance that “materiality always instantiates meaning. Materiality effects meanings, and materiality affects meanings. It makes meanings and it influences meanings…” And it is largely in the loss of this materiality, in the transition from printed to digital book, that he locates the potential for loss. (Even though he also acknowledges that even the digital has a physical dimension.) My issue ultimately is not whether or not there is a potential for loss of meaning in the transition to the digital domain, but where the greatest potential for loss of meaning is located. Suarez locates it in the physical interaction between the person and object—book, painting or other work of art. Despite a shared appreciation for the original, I want to suggest the greater potential for loss is not in the loss of the physical object, but in the loss of the physical (I don’t know what else to call it) interaction between people around objects (like texts).

It is not that I have been remiss in unduly delaying the proper subject of the post—MOOCs—to this point. MOOCs are instead a convenient example of the more substantial threat to meaning as we enter the digital world. And of course, it’s not MOOCs per se. The more sinister threat to meaning—to education, at least, but certainly to knowledge and definitely wisdom—is from for-profit, online education, the payday lender of higher education.

In a context where the escalating costs of higher education have caught the attention of the White House, and institutions like the University of Virginia (incidentally, Suarez’s institution) are concerned to follow the example of Liberty University’s profitable online course offerings [Sullivan oustermath: A timeline of UVA in tumult] the threat to meaning, I think is even more to the personal interaction in education, than in the transition to the digital book.


About Andrew

I have a job. In a library.
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