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Talk About Teaching and Learning
September 9, 2008, Volume 55, No. 3

Much Ado About Nothing–Or Something?
Using Technology in Your Teaching

Zachary Lesser

This past spring I had the opportunity to teach a large lecture course on Shakespeare, while also taking the Teaching with Technology seminar run by the Center for Teaching and Learning. I had never used much technology in my classrooms and was hoping to incorporate more of it, whatever “it” was. What became quickly apparent was that the key questions for me would have comparatively little to do with how to get up and running with the technology, since it’s relatively easy to use the various tools and the instructional technology staff at Penn are happy to help. Instead, the key question for me became how to use pedagogical technology not merely for the sake of doing so, but to advance the particular goals of an English class. I went into the Teaching with Technology seminar looking to incorporate more technology into my pedagogy, but I came away thinking far more about pedagogy than about technology.

Most English classes are built around discussion and the close analysis of texts, and in this format it can be difficult to find room for technology. In a typical class, I stand at the front of the room with the book in my hand, directing the students to the relevant passage, and they follow along in their own books as I lead discussions about Shakespeare’s use of language, his plotting, his use of generic conventions, and so forth. I have a general outline of the issues I want to cover, but the class is also guided by the path the discussion takes, which varies each time I teach and so precludes having a set sequence of PowerPoint slides.

Attempting to teach with technology merely because it seems like the thing to do can lead to disappointing results. A few years ago, I tried to implement Blackboard discussions into my courses, thinking that this was an ideal way to keep students thinking about the texts throughout the week. But the discussion threads quickly petered out, and I realized the problem: I had never really determined why I wanted students to continue the discussion on their own time and how that discussion would relate to the classroom. I hadn’t integrated the online discussions into the true goals of the course, instead merely requiring that the students post something online each week. Without a clear sense of the purpose of the assignment, students quickly realized—more quickly than I did—that there wasn’t much point to it.

Teaching Shakespeare in lecture rather than seminar format did mean that, for very pragmatic reasons, I would need to rely on PowerPoint. For one thing, students at the back of the room would have a difficult time reading my writing on the board. For another, without discussion, I figured that the students would need something other than the sound of my voice to keep them focused. And since I knew exactly where the lecture was going, it was relatively easy to design a PowerPoint presentation for each class that outlined the key issues I’d be raising and drew students’ attention to particular passages in the plays. But beyond the pragmatics of students’ eyesight or my own class prep, did pedagogical technology really have a substantive role to play in my teaching?

I quickly realized that PowerPoint is the perfect medium for introducing students to the relationship between literature, painting, sculpture, and other forms of culture—connections that work very well with Shakespeare because so many of the relevant cultural issues and traditions alive in the assigned texts have vivid analogues in Renaissance visual arts. As I saw how well this approach meshed with PowerPoint, I soon began to prepare each lecture by looking for visual parallels to the plays. When teaching The Tempest, for instance, I discuss Prospero’s accusation that Caliban tried to rape Miranda in relation to other representations of rape as foundational to empire: showing students Nicolas Poussin’s painting, The Rape of the Sabine Women, productively reframes the question of Caliban’s supposed “barbarism” by introducing the history of rape underlying the supposed “civilization” of Rome. The ability of PowerPoint to seamlessly integrate text and image allowed me to take a much more interdisciplinary approach to Shakespeare and his culture.

As you can see from this example, the technology I used was not very sophisticated. Part of what I learned over the course of the semester, however, was that the most basic technological tools remained the most central and effective. I found that avoiding the temptation to add a lot of bells and whistles and, instead, sticking with the simple, keeps the technology subordinate to the actual work of the course, even as it expands the course’s possibilities (and saves the hours that can be wasted playing around with PowerPoint’s fancier features).

Since I did nearly all of the talking in lecture, I also wanted my TAs to use Blackboard discussion groups, but this time in ways more organically connected to the underlying goals of the course. By having one student post a couple questions to guide the week’s recitation, for example, my TAs could get a sense relatively early in the week of what the students were interested in and what needed further explanation. My TAs planned their recitations around the Blackboard postings, finding ways to guide discussion toward the topics that they felt needed to be covered while rooting that discussion in the students’ questions. As a result, the discussions broadened and deepened the students’ engagement with the texts and with each others’ ideas.

My TAs also discovered more innovative ways to use the online discussion: they had students post images of how Othello has been costumed over the centuries; they asked students to comment on YouTube clips of different productions of a scene from Merchant of Venice; they had students compare divergent reviews of a film of Hamlet from the online archives of various newspapers and comment on the unarticulated values or expectations that underwrote these different judgments. Such creative assignments helped to fulfill one of the course’s goals: getting students to think about how performance choices can create interpretations of the plays. In lecture, I found little time for performance histories; Blackboard allowed students do some of that work themselves and bring what they had learned to the discussion. Later in the semester, students staged a scene themselves—implementing their own directorial interpretations—and some chose to film their productions and post them on Blackboard for their classmates to analyze.

In these ways, the technology ultimately disappeared into the work of the course, and that was the key to its success. When the students—or, perhaps more importantly, their professor—are paying attention to the technology itself, it’s usually a sign that I haven’t given enough thought to why I want to use it, to why it’s really an advance over the tried-and-true forms of pedagogy that are still the vast majority of what I do in class. And it’s usually a good indication that the students won’t get very engaged with the assignment, which could perfectly well be done the old-fashioned way. In the end, I do use more technology in my classroom, but if things are going well, you wouldn’t know it.


Dr. Zachary Lesser is an assistant professor of English.


This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.

Almanac - September 9, 2008, Volume 55, No. 3