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Feature: Dr. Jesse Stommel and Dr. Keri Behre


The Twitter professor

Dr. Jesse Stommel began his teaching career in the field of 19th century literary adaptations. A decade later, he is now at the forefront of blending English and the humanities with the digital landscape.

Jesse spent eleven years at the University of Colorado Boulder where he received his bachelor's, master's and doctorate. He went on to teach classes in film, English and rhetoric. He most recently spent a year at Georgia Tech as a fellow and analyzed digital artifacts and visual imagery. Jesse remembers a moment in his career when he needed to determine his research and teaching focus. He asked himself, "What do I do on my days off? What do I enjoy and get excited about?"

Open education, social media, blogging, Twitter chats, horror film, haptic interfaces, hybrid learning. These topics started to find their way into Jesse's courses. "I decided to incorporate the things that got me excited into my academic life," Jesse said.

The result? Jesse taught a class on monsters (Monstrous Bodies) and developed a website for the course. Syllabi and course assignments reside permanently online, showcasing student work as well as inviting anyone interested in the topic to peruse the material. He has developed the "Twitter essay," facilitated Twitter chats for online classes, co-founded the online journal Hybrid Pedagogy, and orchestrated a massive open online course about MOOCs. He is currently co-leading the month-long writing project DigiWriMo, in which participants work to produce 50,000 words of digital text.

For Jesse, he isn't interested in merely teaching about digital technology. Instead he utilizes digital spaces and technologies as pedagogical tools. "The digital is one possible access point to the humanities and literature," he said.

A touch of Shakespeare

Dr. Keri Behre agrees wholeheartedly about perceiving the digital as an access point, or methodology: "Digital isn't just a medium," she explained. "Rather than being solely about studying literary material in a digital format, we must also ask how the medium affects our use of those texts. How are these texts different objects when digitized? How does their new format affect the way we approach and respond to them?"

As a student at Florida State University, Keri wrote her master's thesis on the authorship of medieval medical texts. She took a two-year break from personal study and served as adjunct faculty before pursuing her PhD at the University of Kansas. Her thesis, "Renaissance Fare: Appetite and Authority on the Early Modern English Stage," examined--among other things--the role of blackberrries in Shakespeare's Henry IV. Her work explored the cultural integration of food and how the beliefs of a particular food affects one's identity, relationship and experience with that food. (She is giving a talk entitled Understanding Shakespeare's Apples at The Art Gym on October 25.)

To Keri, food is a material culture that offers itself as a methodology for scholastic and humanist inquiry. The digital is yet one more methodology that can be used to examine literature and the humanities. "At our core, all humanists are interested in what it means to be humans," Keri said. "History, philosophy, law, literature -- all of these disciplines seek to understand the human condition in different ways. As digital humanists, then, we work in any and all of these disciplines to wonder: What does it mean to be human in a digital age?"

An ideal partnership

Together, Keri and Jesse are fusing their respective areas of expertise to offer a truly innovative program: the BA in English and Digital Humanities. The EDH program integrates literature, digital technologies, the humanities and service-learning in a hybrid format. Students will take most of their courses online, as well as make two to three visits to the Marylhurst campus in Portland, Oregon.

It's still a traditional English program, Jesse pointed out. Students will study Dante, Chaucer and Brontë. Yet students will be using the digital space and digital humanities as their methodological framework. Jesse and Keri want to empower students to remake and recreate texts.

"This program opens up the English degree in ways it hasn't before," Keri said. "The digital creates a truly collaborative experience."

In past classes, for example, Keri had her students create an edition of a scene from Shakespeare through the use of Google Docs. Not only did the project give students ownership over the material, but it encouraged a robust spirit of collaboration.

"The curriculum of this program has been built entirely in 3D digital space. Students will finish as experts in the digital humanities," Keri said.

Filling a gap in online education

Both Keri and Jesse were attracted to this program because it presented an opportunity to fill a perceived gap in online education.
"I've always been dissatisfied with teaching online courses," Jesse shared. "It's a very controlled learning environment. Because of the small nature of Marylhurst as an institution—and the support I've received—I've been able to put together my dream program."

"There is nothing else like it," Keri said of the EDH program. She has experience in teaching online classes as well, and she observes a deficiency in many online courses.

"There is absolutely no reason online teaching has to be inferior to on-ground teaching," she added, noting that the EDH program offered the laboratory in which she could explore and experiment. "I wanted to be a part of that."

Bridging the digital and the public

In addition to the online coursework and on-campus visits, students will design and complete a service-learning project that connects coursework to their individual communities.

"Work is only meaningful as it relates to people," Keri said. "When students are asked to share their learning with their own communities, they gain a sense of responsibility and ownership of the material."

Keri's interest in public humanities dovetails with Jesse's interest in open education. He plans to facilitate Twitter chats with his students and post syllabi online where anyone can access them. Such public accessibility is not a publicity stunt, Jesse explained. Rather, it allows anyone who is interested in the topic to join in, even for an hour.

He likens the practice to a classroom door. "At the very least, you don't close the door to your classroom," he noted.

January launch date

The English and Digital Humanities program launches its first cohort in January 2013. What are the professors most excited about?

"It sounds so cliché, but I'm excited to develop relationships with the students," Keri said. "The program, in many ways, is them. I'm excited to see what they will bring."

"I can't wait for the students," Jesse agreed. "Keri and I have spent months building this program, but it won't come to life until the students arrive."

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