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The No-Reading Seminar

In my digital humanities classes, I always try to combine the technical with the philosophical (which, I believe, is one of the things that characterizes dh as a discipline). So, we’ll often study control structures on Monday and Wednesday, and then spend Friday talking about new media theory and digital humanities more generally. In the first semester, we read mostly excerpts and articles (McLuhan, Bush, Licklider, Turing, Hayles, Bolter, McCarty, Manovich, Kirschenbaum, and Rockwell show up pretty regularly). In the second semester, however, I usually suggest that we focus on one or two texts — preferably, some very difficult texts. Last semester we read a good bit of A Thousand Plateaus (we planned to read Badiou’s Being and Event, but didn’t get to it).

This semester, I had a bit of a brainstorm and suggested to the students that we might read Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology,” but read it only in class with each other. In other words, no one is allowed to read the text outside of class. We all bring a copy of the essay, but then we put a version up on the screen for everyone to read, and we each take turns reading paragraphs. They liked this idea.

We’ve now done it twice and have made it all the way to the eighth paragraph of the essay. I’m not at all bothered by the slow pace, because I truly think that this is one of most enlightening class discussions I’ve ever been a part of (either as a student or a teacher).

What do we talk about? Mostly, we try to make sure that we understand Heidegger (this is a very difficult essay even relative to Heidegger’s already demanding corpus). But the real thrill, is that we end up thinking deeply about whether we agree or disagree with him, about our own definitions of technology, about causality, definition, ontology, and the tradition in which we’re reading. I walk out of the room thinking, “Now that’s a discussion,” while firmly believing that the professor is only a very small part of what’s going on.

As far as I can tell, the students are also finding it enlightening. We may burn out as winter turns to spring, but for now, I am being reminded every Friday of what the classroom is all about.

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