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Teaching the Humanities as a Survival Skill: Session Two in the workshop series The University Worth Fighting For

On October 22, the CUNY Graduate Center held The Futures Initiative workshop titled Teaching the Humanities as a Survival Skill (#fight4edu). This was the second in the workshop series The University Worth Fighting For. These workshops discuss and explore student-centered and engaging pedagogical practices and their relationship or links to various social injustice issues, such as race, equality and gender. In this session, the speakers, Eduardo Vianna, Vanessa Bing, and Mike Rifino, discussed the difficulties community colleges face as being viewed as purely vocational training, and how there seems to be a movement away from the humanities and creative thinking in community colleges. In an effort to change this mentality, student-centered pedagogy and projects are encouraged in an effort to embrace the humanities. Deriving from Stetsenko, Freire and others, educators should approach student-centered teaching and encourage “learning [that] becomes personally transformative by providing tools for identity development and opening up to new horizons for personal and social growth.” This “transformative active stance” works towards the creation of student futures within a society, as opposed to being reproduced to be part of society.

One of the projects explored was done in one of Bing’s psychology classes, who discussed how many students come from a background of passive learners who often lack a voice within the classroom. Dialogue is encouraged within the classroom and Bing invites her students into discussion, alleviating herself as an authority figure. Her class did a digital video project where students utilized technology (such as their cell phones) to create a video about their neighborhood, using and drawing from their own knowledge. “This project gives students a chance to explore their communities in which they live and challenge the popular perceptions presented in the media.” The students were given free reign on what was included in the video and encouraged students to be creative.

Similarly, the Peer Activist Learning Community (PALC), which Vianna and Rifino are participants in, help encourage student involvement through discussion and dialogue. As stated at the workshop, it is often said many community colleges lack the “community” feeling, and lacks a genuine learning environment overall. In an effort to regain student interest in learning, PALC helps students and educators engage in discussion and active learning. PALC serves as “a space to connect what is often abstract academic knowledge and to connect that with real life and real social concerns and problems” where students and educators can discuss learning, professional and life goals, and overall engagement in socio cultural practices.

While this conference did not mention or refer to “digital humanities” specifically, there were many digital humanities (DH) elements present. All topics and projects discussed were collaborative and innovative, which is at the core of DH (Davidson, 2008; Burdick, 2012; Brier, 2012;  Bonds, 2014). For example, PALC’s community based structure harbors DH ideas. When reviewing various other academic communities, such as Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), The Instructional Technology Fellows Program,  “Looking for Whitman”, as well as many others, they are all community based programs that harbor collaboration and innovation (Brier, 2012).

Likewise, and more specifically, Bing’s student video project, which incorporated technology, can be considered DH 1.0; the project simply brings technology into the classroom and the students as a pedagogical tool. Bing stated several times the importance of the video projects and how they connect directly to the students, how project based learning is important for students because they engage with the learning tools and materials. Through videotaping their neighborhoods, students were able to be creative and engaged with their projects and in turn with their neighborhoods. Interestingly, Brier (2012) discusses the digital video project “Looking for Whitman” and it’s importance, stating: “[It] is a model of how digital scholarship and digital pedagogy can be combined to enhance undergraduate teaching as well as how social networking tools can help bridge very real geographical, economical, and cultural gaps among and between universities and colleges.” This idea directly correlates with the series of workshops in which Bing’s project is presented in, the workshops focus on the pedagogical practices and their links to various social injustice issues.

These ideas all correlate with other general pedagogical ideologies and DH views. It is clear here that the point is not the end result, but the process (Davidson, 2008). Bing explains her effort to deviate from being an authority/power figure within the classroom, in order to encourage the dialogue amongst students, and cites several scholars and educators, and specifically Freire. Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed discusses the traditional model of teaching, the banking model, where teachers are authority and students are receptacles (to say the least). Bing’s teaching methods help push towards the polar opposite, to what Freire calls the problem posing model of education, which encourages students to be “conscious” of themselves as learners (1975). Freire’s ideas can be connected to various DH elements, as seen in Presner’s Digital Humanities Manifesto (2009). The manifesto lacks any sort of authority, and instead thrives on the lack of authority, granting free range of thought and creativity not just among DHers, but to people as progressive learners.

Overall, the conference was engaging and overall rewarding. While there were technical difficulties (which affected those viewing via live stream), the conference was informative and inspirational for educators, as well as students who may attend community colleges or other general undergraduate programs throughout CUNY. It is comforting to see educators breaking more-traditional models of teaching in higher education, through the incorporation of DH elements, even if it’s through a simple video assignment.


Bonds, E. Leigh (2014). “Listening in on Conversations: ‘An Overview of Digital Humanities Pedagogy.” The CEA Critic 76(2): 147-57

Brier, Steve (2012). “Where’s the Pedagogy? The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities.”

Burdick, Anne, et al. (2012). “The Social Life of Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities, 73-120

Davidson, Cathy N. (2008). “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions” PMLA 123(3): 707-17

Freire, P. (1975). Chapter 2 Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Press.

Presner, Todd, et. al. (2009) “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0”


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