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The Humanities Go Digital

San Diego State University is offering a cutting-edge course in critical digital literacy.
The humanities encompass the classical studies: art, literature, language, philosophy and others which have shaped society since the beginning of civilization.
The humanities encompass the classical studies: art, literature, language, philosophy and others which have shaped society since the beginning of civilization.

This semester, SDSU NewsCenter will focus on the arts with stories of the creative endeavors of our students, faculty, staff and alumni.

The idea of reading Shakespeare on a Kindle or studying Van Gogh’s work on Tumblr might be enough to make classical humanists roll over in their graves.

The reality is college students today have taken to the digital world to enhance their learning — even the classics are keeping up with the trend.

The humanities encompass the classical studies: art, literature, language, philosophy and others which have shaped society since the beginning of civilization.

Humanities scholars are realizing that a lot of what they study is not hindered, but enhanced by digital communication. The challenge comes with holding on to the value of classical work while also making it relevant. 

Jessica Pressman in front of books
Jessica Pressman

The big picture

Lecturer Jessica Pressman has designed a course geared toward finding ways to better approach the humanities in our digital world. Formerly a professor at Yale University, Pressman came to SDSU with a vision of a campus-wide plan to educate both students and faculty about critical digital literacy concepts and practices.

“What is missing is a class that teaches students how and why they use digital technologies and how it affects the way they read, write and learn,” said Pressman, who specializes in digital literature.

The course mainly focuses on how to verify and validate online information and how to make arguments using these tools. One lesson teaches students to study the process of finding an answer to a question using Google.

“When you go to Google you expect to get the answer to your question, but that’s not what you get,” Pressman said. “You get the answer to a specific algorithm process that another human being has written.”

The global implications of the digital world is also an important area of study in the course.

“The World Wide Web, which by definition is supposed to be worldwide and democratic, is actually based in English,” Pressman said.

The class will explore the political impact this has on countries, such as China, with non-alphanumeric based languages.

A legacy of advancement

Students currently enrolled in the course are leading the way for upcoming studies of critical digital literacy. Pressman hopes to learn about how to teach the class in the future and gain new knowledge about how the digital age impacts academic study.

“The students here seem really excited about the opportunity,” Pressman said. “They want to make a change and leave an impact on the school and on other students.”

Re/Boot Camp

Pressman, along with the chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature, Joanna Brooks, is presenting a digital literacy workshop for faculty on May 21.

The workshop, titled “Re/Boot Camp,” will support faculty in thinking about the ways digital media impacts scholarly learning, teaching and research. 

Rather than changing the topics taught in the humanities, Pressman believes that adding a digital element will create greater appreciation for classic humanities studies. The long term goal for Pressman's and Brooks’ initiative is to incorporate a critical digital literacy component into freshman coursework.

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