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Digital agility: how a Humanities department’s pre-Covid strategy enabled lockdown operations

by Nathan Loewen

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The author’s statement can be found here.

My department was ready for “2020”. Not because we anticipated a pandemic in 2019. Nor because our courses were all online. A more pertinent reason was the matter of brand identity. ‘Religious Studies’ is not a US high school subject. College applications rarely include religious studies as the planned major. To retain its place in the pre-COVID university, my department started making a shift in the study of religion over a decade ago (see Implicit Religion). Some of the tacit knowledge and skills base required for the post-pandemic university were cultivated in part by sharing the tasks of creating media that point to and from the department website.

Going Public Online

What does it mean for academia to be ‘online’ in the sense of being public? Some sort of stable, unified entity is probably essential for most academics to continue their employment. Solidarity can be found in all sorts of places. Most social theories explain, however, the fragility of allegiances without institutional structures. But if higher education institutions are in crises of enrolment (pre-2020), endowments, much less a pandemic, Quit-Lit might not be the best collective way forward. There’s an opportunity for departments to think about modalities of coalescence. This piece focuses on the practical advantages of a department going public online as a measure towards securing the futures of its academics. “REL,” the term used for the department, adopts claims from theorists like Francois Bayart to purposely fabricate its public identity.

The constituency of a university is not limited to students and their parents. The University of Nebraska English Department isn’t likely alone in the political scrutiny of their website. At REL, there is pointing back and forth between the website and the department’s Facebook, TwitterInstagramVimeo, and SoundCloud (as well as projects such as Culture on the Edge and American Examples). Service responsibilities for these platforms are distributed across the department. Elected representatives and the general public can easily find what’s going on in the classroom and faculty research. The University’s shift to ‘limited business operations’ on March 17 was handled in stride partly due to the department’s identity fabrication approach to online platforms and digital tools. While monthly meetings through the summer established a consistent approach to teaching remotely, the stable location to advertise this approach was already in-play.

Publicly pragmatic

The above suggests there are pragmatic advantages to going online in order to go public. While ‘public humanities’ has a 50-year history in the United States, principles discovered there haven’t made it to department websites. Content should be written strategically to develop an audience. Jessie Stommell’s remarks about public humanities may be applied to the departmental website: doing public work is different from making academic work public. Online presence may be more than quick blurbs about courses, images of plucky students and faculty bios with informal photos from faraway places. XKCD made this point a decade ago. Post-pandemic academic departments might reconsider its point

It’s not just that departments ‘need social media.’ Rather, establishing an online presence may help academics and their departments realize a public-centred pedagogy that pays off in strategic planning. There is likely a correlation between the potential to engage the public and cultivating positive relationships with university administrators. An active online presence and online teaching are rarely paired together. Administrators likely think that ‘going online’ likely means ‘online teaching,’ where conventional higher-ed wisdom sees online teaching as an alternate revenue stream critical to their long-term strategic plans (eg 2013 Babson Report).

Broadly speaking, that thinking structurally alienates academics. Online courses – and their revenues – are usually housed outside departments. Online FTEs are rarely counted in faculty course loads or promotion. In the 2020-2021 academic year, however, the term “massive” is no longer connected to “online” via wishful thinking for university revenues. Overcoming the 75% faculty resistance to teaching online isn’t a stroke of managerial genius or a book about disruption (I used to think I was innovative to urge making use of our classroom portals through collaborative, globally-networked pedagogy. That moment of novelty is over). The urgency of this semester is an opportunity for academics within departments to make use of their new skills to develop an active online presence that supports their teaching.

Hacking Education

How might the shift to remote teaching be gamed and hacked to drive the interests of a department? Audrey Watters’ Hack Education blog continually reminds us to take a critical approach to education and technology. One answer is to employ those new skills to shift emphasis towards a public-oriented, online pedagogical strategy. A useful location to do so is through the department website.

Individual scholarly websites are not likely to serve the long-term interests of post-pandemic academia. They do have the advantage of developing a personalised approach to research and teaching. When maintained with a regular workflow, there is much potential for dynamic content development that serves an individual’s teaching. Their liabilities include issues of narrow topical focus and significant costs of individual time and money. Department websites, on the other hand, have the same potential to situate all the above in a wider context of that can more easily reference each other. Additionally, departmental websites can be useful to protect its people who invest in public scholarship, too.

We will survive

When the shift to remote learning took place, REL’s faculty already had shared, basic skills applying their knowledge of critical cultural theory to web design, image manipulation, layout, audio and video production, network and cloud file sharing and collaborative project work. They were already teaching themselves and their students how to engage a variety of publics. The department had long been asking the questions posed in James M Van Wyck’s 2018 review of English department websites:

  • Who is our audience?
  • What does this page need to say and do?
  • What kind of writing is called for in the moment? That is, how do we engage a skeptical public, members of which walk our halls, perhaps as they consider majoring in [X area of study]?

The original objective of REL’s going online remains. The website is a resource to shape the department’s academic persona. Linking that site to other online platforms increases the ability to reach a variety of audiences with specific narratives. We now teach this approach as a core course in our recently-launched graduate program. By March 2020, that history of faculty participation in online, public pedagogy developed a collective knowledge and skills base that simplified the shift to remote teaching. The take-away here for other departments may be the importance of leveraging their websites as an internal strategy for academic continuity.

Nathan RB Loewen is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, USA. Loewen teaches on philosophy of religion, Asian studies, and digital/public humanities. Loewen co-organizes the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project. His current research applies machine learning to support qualitative scholarship on cross-cultural religious studies.