This year, at the annual Clifford Symposium, the keynote address was given by John Palfrey, head of school at Phillips Academy and author of four books on education in the digital age. The conference’s theme was “Transforming the Academy in the Digital Era,” and Palfrey’s address touched on the need to blend digital tools and face-to-face pedagogy.
“When we figure out the sweet spot in the combination,” he said, “we can do some really interesting work together.”
People often think in either/or constructs. But at this symposium, as attendees discussed technology’s role in education, they consciously strove for more of a both/and method of thinking, something that was readily evident in all the lectures, exhibits, panel discussions, and performances. (The symposium concluded with a mind-bending performance by Paul Miller, also known as DJ Spooky, in which the artist channeled electronica to interpret algorithms that mirror the geometry in ice crystals and the math of climate-change data. He then melded this iPad composition with a violin solo to construct a suite of music that most attendees surely never thought possible.)
“What we wanted to avoid was the rhetoric of utopia or dystopia when talking about technology in the academy,” Jason Mittell said a few days after the symposium had concluded. Mittell, a professor of film and media culture and American studies, organized Clifford this year. As regards technology and pedagogy, he said he subscribes neither to “knee-jerk boosterism” nor “dystopian skepticism.”
“In my mind, it was critical that we approached technology within a context, recognizing all the other factors that affect teaching, learning, and scholarship,” he said.
“We’re living in an era of change,” he continued, “and all too often it seems that people are quick either to celebrate or blame technology in ways disproportionate to its impact. We wanted to bring a realist approach to understanding the role of technology in the academy.”
Mittell saw this year’s Clifford as the launch party for Middlebury’s new digital liberal arts initiative (DLA). This effort will involve people from geography, history, and library sciences working to foster a campus-wide understanding of technology and the liberal arts.
Throughout the year, DLA will host workshops and reading groups pertaining to open-access publishing, digital archival research, and emerging interdisciplinary movements such as the digital humanities.
Said Mittell: “We want to give visibility to new tools and approaches in teaching and scholarship while also providing support and guidance for faculty who’re interested in experimenting, trying different things.
“Digital transformations have caused us to rethink what’s a given,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’re putting technology at the center of what we do. We just don’t want ignorance to be an excuse or fear to be an obstacle when considering how technology can be best used in the academy.”