I have to talk to my History 240: The Historians' Craft class about doing digital research today. As this is a required "sophomore" level class, it will not be particularly in-depth, but will, instead, focus on basic research tools -- from better use of the library's electronic catalogue to Google Scholar and Wikipedia. The funny thing is this, the seminar room where I will teach this material does not have a digital projector. So, I will have to set up our portable digital projector and my laptop. The screen, however, is offset to one side of the room, so there is not an easy way to set the projector up so that it actually faces the screen. On top of this, I'll control the computer so it limits the extent to which the class has the opportunity to interact in a hands-on way with the technology. To be absolutely fair, the room does have a computer and old tube-style, curved-screen television, but for the past 5 years the screen on the old-school has been so bad that we can not show a website on it so that the text is legible. It was set up basically to show movies or videos.
The ironic thing is this. I teach my History 101: Western Civilization class in one of our wired classrooms. It's an auditorium style room with a fancy, high-powered digital projector. It is a slick set up with a document projector, video disk player, computer all controlled through a central panel. The problem is, to use the high powered digital projector, you need to have the screen down. When the screen is down, it covers the chalkboards! And I am one of those ridiculous people who use chalkboards in class as well as digital media. In fact, the other night, I was showing the students Athens on Google Maps during my lecture on Classical Greece, but could not entirely work out how to give them the spelling of Cleisthenes without moving the screen up and using the video-mute on the digital projector (which I could not figure out while giving the lecture).
On the one hand, these are rather petty complaints. We all confront some kinds of logistical challenges during teaching. On the other, these particular challenges reveal a bit about the archaeology of digital teaching at the University of North Dakota. First, the seminar room: the back wall of the room is wood paneled and covered with the austere (but kindly) portraits of the Great Men in the Department's History (Clarence Perkins, Felix Vondracek, Philip Green, Louis Geiger, John Harnsberger (!), Robert Wilkins, and Elwyn Robinson). Scattered about on other walls are various trophies and plaques for long discontinued awards and canvass maps of England the US. The south wall of the room is given over to the green chalk board with its off-set screen for projection. Several long tables are arranged into a rectangle in the middle of the room so that the students and professor can sit facing one another. Floor to ceiling windows cover one wall of the room. The room feels worn and evokes the comforting weight of the seminar tradition. Designed for the scrutiny of documents and intense discussions, the digital age projects awkwardly onto the make-shift screen on the intrusive light of portable data projector.
The place of digital teaching in the auditorium style room where I teach Western Civilization I is more striking. The screen literally covers the chalk boards (and these are the really nice "two storey" chalk boards that slide up and down on rails!). It has forced me (to a certain extent) to make a choice between the new and old media as the students look on from the comfortable, theater style seating. The 1970s orange wall coverings add a dramatic edge to the entire performance.