Photography & Sociology

Unfortunately my blog seems to be turning into a harsh critique of the Digital Humanities. It wasn’t what I intended to begin with, it just seems to have happened, and at the end of the day I have to be honest: The Digital Humanities are seriously problematic for me.

However, I’m going to keep my critique minimal this week and turn towards a topic that this week’s reading is making me think about: What is the role of technologies for us the educators? But, first one critical point.

The term ‘digital humanities’ has been bothering and finally I figured out while reading ‘What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments?’ why it bothers me. It’s exclusive. As stated in my previous post I came from Science & Technology Studies. We take people of all sorts of backgrounds and interests. My friends in graduate school had bachelor degrees in areas ranging from anthropology, computer science, history, chemistry, literature studies, and electrical engineering. All were welcome.

Digital Humanities. So where does the social scientist fit in? I don’t like the name. And, sorry, but names matter. Names send a message. This name sends a message that I’m not wanted. Which hurts my feelings.

On to more positive things! ‘Picture my Gender(s)’ by Maloy, Poirier, Smith & Edwards was genius. They tasked students with creating photo essays reflecting on gender. Some of their measures of success are different than ones I would use but the overall project, implementation and results are stunning.

When I used to teach Introduction to Sociology I made my students examine the visual cues we use to make assumptions and determinations about others. They would be put in groups of four to five, and would have to list the status symbols they saw on other students in the room. At first they were extremely uncomfortable examining each other in such a manner, and I would always have to break the ice by pointing out that by wearing a Star-of-David pendant (which I made sure to do that day) I was sending a message about my ethnic-religious status.

Slowly they would start listing things, starting with religious jewelry – follow the successful example, right? – and then move on to things like wedding bands or engagement rings. From there they would move to other jewelry. Then to other accessories like handbags. Or cell phone covers. From there they would eventually go to clothing, hair, and the brave ones would go as far as to comment on glasses or tans.

Sometimes these led to very humorous moments. (All names and specific details have been changed.)

Student: Clearly Jack is a fan of the Lakers because he’s wearing their T-shirt.
Jack: Actually I hate the Lakers, but I’m out of clean laundry so I borrowed my roommate’s shirt.


Student: Megan is willing to spend a lot of money on a handbag, or someone paid a lot for the Coach bag.
Megan: Um, this is a really good knock-off, I paid twenty dollars for it.

I would like to think that I helped them become more aware of the snap judgments they (we) make when we see people.

And so I say, this project of photo essays about gender is in the same family as the exercise I conducted. It goes towards the application of these new technologies to enhance student understanding and learning experience. Or, put more bluntly, digital photography is a tool here towards learning new concepts, a tool and usage I heartily approve of.

This segues into a question I’m pondering this week, namely the conflicting responsibilities of educator, specifically at the college level.

In my mind we have dueling responsibilities, we are meant to teach them content/skills/competencies (both to make them more informed individuals and to prepare them for the work place) and then evaluate if they have learned these things. It’s a tremendous pressure, because if they come away not knowing these, if we have to serve in our gatekeeper capacity as a barrier, then we have to ask ourselves if it was the students or how we taught. And if the fault somehow lay with us, do we let them pass through the gate as it wasn’t their fault, or do we still keep the gate locked because the knowledge hasn’t been acquired?

Of course most of the time this isn’t much of an issue as we have generally learned how to impart both the material and the methods of evaluating the learning. Still, it’s a dichotomy worth keeping in mind.

Enter these sexy new technologies. Assuming we start using these technologies in the classroom, are we fulfilling our obligation of teaching them material that will make them better people and better prepared for the work place? Will they be asked to produce a photo essay in a future job? I’m pretty sure knowing how to deconstruct their visually based gender and other assumptions will be useful no matter what they end up doing, I’m just not sure that it isn’t still more useful to use the traditional essay format. They will very likely be expected to be able to summarize positions on things in their future professions in an essay format.

I’m not nay-saying the project that Maloy et al did. If anything I’m a little jealous as an amateur photographer, and contemplating how I might use some of their techniques in the future. But I am left wondering: Is this the best way to prepare our students for the ‘real world?’ At this point I genuinely don’t have an answer.

(I like taking pictures of people too.)

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