In the months following my velvet hooding, I had the wonderful experience of reading Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar,1 a Harvard lecturer on positive psychology. According to Ben-Shahar, there is no formula for happiness, but being happier is a function of self-actualization and the fulfillment found therein. That premise revealed to me the principles that characterized my best classes as a student. Moreover, it explained why the writing stage of my dissertation was an extraordinarily enjoyable and fulfilling experience. Admittedly there were moments of frustration, but in all, I thrived on the challenge and looked forward to working on it each day. Having seen how self-actualization produced such a positive experience for me, I believe that Ben-Shahar’s principles will help me to instill the same functions into the courses that I teach.
Ben-Shahar believes that boredom and/or anxiety will prevent students from enjoying the learning process and performing at their best. University language requirements conceivably stand to trigger both impediments when students select Spanish out of a belief that it is an easier or more pragmatic choice of languages. I believe boredom and anxiety can be minimized through relevance, which is achieved in allowing students to bring their interests to Spanish and Spanish to their interests. For example, situational minidramas invite students to group themselves with others of similar interests and to develop a personally appealing topic. I remember several minidramas where students incorporated props. However, the props themselves do not define a memorable minidrama but rather reflect the students’ enthusiasm and creativity. Those students engaged the learning objective and experienced an increased internal momentum.
According to Ben-Shahar, being happier lies partly in continually challenging oneself with self-actualizing goals. Challenges must be relevant and incremental, but not so great as to become daunting and discouraging. One way to facilitate the challenge is allowing students to demonstrate the skills they acquire individually rather than the skills they acquire relative to peers. This is to say, a variety of composition topics allows students to select their most comfortable balance of structure and creativity. While one student might choose to write a detailed narrative about his Thanksgiving break, another might prefer to write a sonnet about her wrecked car (which was indeed written by one of my Spanish 101 students). Both examples challenge a student’s expressive competence, but those two students were free to capitalize on their own talents and intentions for using Spanish in the future. Similarly, after showing a foreign film, a music student might choose to respond to its score, but a history student might discuss factual accuracy. Self-actualization is demonstrated when the student calls upon his or her talents, capacities, and potentialities in order to meet an objective. In this way, carefully designed objectives mean that the increment of the goal can be elongated without becoming daunting and discouraging.
By way of personal example, I came to graduate school with my dissertation topic already in mind. A dissertation, however, is not a goal but rather a guide. Ben-Shahar compares this to mountain climbing. The peak is a guide, not an objective. Each leg of the trek (traversing chasms, scaling faces, etc.) is its own challenge and objective. Ben-Shahar refers to such events as being self-concordant because they occur in synchronicity with the broader ambition to scale the mountain. In turn, self-concordance produces satisfaction in the incremental accomplishment. In terms of my dissertation (arguably a mountain), I had wrestled with a learning difference for two decades that I managed to camouflage with studies of math and science. My father taught me rudimentary programming as a child; I later taught myself several programming languages and web design. Normally, computer science and humanities dissertations do not coincide, but my intrinsic talents meant I was able to create my own research and writing framework that not only compensated but also made the overall task more accessible. This vehicle for synthesizing and structuring information enabled me to traverse each source, each chapter, and each defense. Each accomplishment added momentum to the journey. For me, technology will always be synthesis-oriented—not only in how students process instruction, but also in how I deliver that instruction.
There has been a lot of pressure for the last fifteen years to incorporate technology into the language classroom, but without clear directive as to how technology complimented language learning. The utility of modern technology has been to increase productivity. Technology facilitates the exchange of ideas and resources, it mitigates the drudgery of mundane tasks, and it delivers consistent and uniform content. However, a cumbersome or unintuitive technology can be self-discordant if it associates negative feelings that lead to boredom, anxiety, and disengagement. So I feel that implementing technology is best when and to the extent that it promotes the subject-specific learning objective. In the lower levels, web-based applications such as Quia are intuitive and cost-efficient, reduce time spent grading, and provide students with instant feedback (which in discipline-specific practice, supports the accepted theory on the role of grammar in language learning). This in turn better informs the student of her or his content mastery. The expected result then is confidence, which reduces anxiety, which improves engagement and self-actualization.
Unfortunately, platforms such as Quia and Blackboard implement technology according to the antiquated teacher-centered model. It represents utilization but not synthesis. Instead we need a model that I would call student-centered technology. By this I suggest that students propose their own uses of technology that are relevant to their interests and abilities. Moreover, in order to engage the emerging domain of Digital Humanities, higher level courses must harness technology as a means to an end. For example, cross-disciplinary studies with journalism (analyzing online target-language periodicals) or public relations (producing target-language digital media) harness technology to accomplish the objective rather than merely utilizing technology to package content. The Digital Humanities, notes Kathleen Fitzpatrick, are not “just about rendering stuff digital […] taking books and scanning them or what have you.” Rather, the Digital Humanities represent “a nexus of fields within which scholars use computing technologies to investigate the kinds of questions that are traditional to the humanities.”2 We cannot continue to advance a model in which we valorize technology on the basis of its novelty as if that alone magically renders our teaching more efficacious and relevant. Instead, the educator utilizing student-centered technology constructs incremental self-actualizing objectives that lead digital-native students to harness technology in order to (re)solve the query. As a consequence, this leads me to argue that the evolution from mere educational technology to the Digital Humanities will dispossess the existing evaluative rubrics such that the assessment of an educator’s use of technology will be more appropriately geared toward a portfolio of student projects rather than an abstract of the educator’s online courses and use of content management systems.
In closing, I would mention an interesting quote by David Haney of Appalachian State University who estimates that nine out of ten teaching philosophies throw in a token statement like “I run a student-centered classroom.” Haney’s response is “Duh. If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you.”3 For the most part, the ideas I have articulated do reflect a student-centered approach. But what I would like to communicate more is the idea of leading a self-actualized classroom where students do not simply take initiative in their learning experience, but one in which they establish intrinsic relevance for life-long usage. And while this may seem an overly humanistic perspective to some readers, one must keep in mind that language studies are indeed humanistic inquiries and, by extension, the domain of digitally native students who are uniquely positioned to innovate their learning experience.
1 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007. Print.
2 Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “What Are the Digital Humanities?” School of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Lecture. Columbia College Chicago. 2 October 2013.
3 Montell, Gabriela. “How to Write a Statement of Teaching Philosophy.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 27 Mar 2003.