As a university faculty member, I have taught undergraduate and graduate courses in folklore, literature, digital culture studies, digital storytelling, and text analytics. As a TRADOC faculty member, I taught senior civilian (GS13-15) and military (O5-6) personnel courses on social informatics and scenario building. As assistant director for Kelley Executive Partners, I developed courses on strategic management practices (and taught units on cultural dynamics) to F500 and international companies.
Teaching in so many contexts has helped me appreciate the variety of individuals who walk into a room. Meeting them where they are and then getting them to where they want to be and where an organization—whether the organization is a company, an agency, or an administration—thinks they need to be is the work of teaching. It has taught me both the importance of being involved in curriculum discussions, keeping abreast of developments in the science of learning, and being open to new ideas and methods no matter how they come in over the threshold.
For undergraduates, I have taught Introduction to Folk narrative, Digital Culture, Digital Storytelling, and Legends and Rumors Online and Off as well as offering, for the first time ever on my university’s campus, a course on text analytics (over in computer science). My focus at the undergraduate level is to spend the first part of the course introducing topics and methods of study and then to spend the second part with them working on projects of their own choosing. For most courses, this is a research project, and we step through the research process. Writing is important, and I have found that there is never enough time to work with course participants on their writing—I have found this to be true in undergraduate, graduate, professional, and national security courses! Depending on the course, and depending upon the needs of the participants, the proportion of preparatory to project work can shift.
As someone who enjoys using both traditional (for the humanities) qualitative and quantitative methods of analysis, I find approaching texts from both perspectives pulls back the curtain on the mystery of interpretation and aligns the work in my courses with work students do across campus. My goal is for participants to experience for themselves that texts are machines made of words: they produce distinct meanings that can be enumerated based on which words are used and the order in which they occur. It’s that simple.
For too many undergraduates, the practice of interpreting texts remains a mystic process conducted by hermeneutic priests. The demystification process can, in advanced classes, take on the use of either established tools, available in a variety of forms (websites or standalone software) or Jupyter notebooks. In lower-level classes, we start with printouts and lots of marking, compile various patterns into spreadsheets, and then enact our insights in a variety of seemingly simple activities that underline for students the effectiveness of such ways of thinking. One such activity assigns each student in a class a page from a text, and then asks them to determine the one sentence on that page that best represents what happens on it. Students then compile their sentences, checking for redundancy and combining for overlap (which also allows them to see the power of revision as well as complex syntax), to generate a summary that everyone can use and driving home that the analysis of texts can be determined by a process, an algorithm.
At the graduate level, I have taught seminars on narratology, the poetics of creativity, the intellectual history of folklore studies, research methods, and digital humanities. In all cases save the course on folklore theory, I am teaching courses to non-specialists, and my goal is to offer students a survey of the core ideas and historical moments in a domain. Because of the generalist nature of the program in which I currently serve, possible applications vary widely, and one of the opportunities is to find ways for productive cross-talk between individuals often working on projects with very different scopes and scale. E.g., producing a dialogue between a project focused on Moby Dick with one on conspiracy theories on 4chan.
Like the tension between qualitative and quantitative approaches, the diversity of texts is a productive one: what constitutes an object of study? How do we decide what to study? How many texts, how much data, do we need? Who are the people represented in this data, and who produced the data? What is the relationship between the people and the data? Do our methods ignore or diminish important differences, or have we overstated differences by the choices we have made? These are fundamental questions, and they are foundational to folklore studies, and I have found that by getting more texts, and more kinds of texts, into the analytical space fuels questions of inclusion and equity as necessary parts of our considerations.
All models are useful, as they say, but some models are dangerous. The importance of considering the models upon which we make decisions was made abundantly clear to me when I found myself in classrooms filled with senior civilian and military personnel drawn from all walks of our national defense organizations. From doctors developing new forms of wound therapy at Walter Reed to Red Team advocates at Fort Belvoir to individuals responsible for evaluating weapons platforms, I encountered men and women who took nothing for granted, because doing could have real consequences. Consequences not only for people “out there” but also for us “right here.”