A (Re)Energizing Pedagogical Approach: Engaging Digital Tools to Teach African American Literature

As an AADHum Scholar, one of my goals is to strengthen the connection between my research and teaching of 20th and 21st Century African American Literature. Drawing on work by Orrie Flores, David Green, Adam Banks, Bryan Carter, and Phill Branch, I have always encouraged my students to participate in literature through the creation of their own stories and to engage the tropes, themes, motifs, and even the vernacular of African Americans. In my African American Literature from 1940s classes, for example, I challenge them to create an intellectual mixtape,[1] and to use 360-degree cameras to create scripted video assignments called a “visual vernacular.” Assignments such as these align with my commitment to digital pedagogy, which I conceive of as the critical study and practice of using digital tools in teaching to facilitate and enhance learning with technology. My participation in AADHum digital humanities incubators has (re)energized my teaching practices and renewed my desire to push this idea of participatory literature even further.

In my first version of the visual vernacular project, students read Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Gloria and created short (3-5-minutes) 360-degree videos. We theorized and applied three concepts to build a visual vernacular. First, we discussed the significance of “spaces of contact” in Jacobs-Jenkins’s play, and the students applied this term when selecting the locations for their 360 videos.[2] Second, we theorized how Jacobs-Jenkins used space and objects to show characters’ perspectives. The students applied this use of perspective through their placement of the 360-video camera in relation to the action. Finally, we examined how media is represented in the play and how that influenced the values and ideologies of the characters. When reflecting on their media projects, the students wrote about the explicit and implicit biases in their 360-degree videos. Through this assignment, students’ creation of a visual vernacular offered a 360-degree video re-presentation of our framework for reading a literary text.

During AADHUM’s Movement of the Body & the Black Arts Movement module, I was inspired to reframe the visual vernacular project using materials from the historical period. This reconsideration began in the first session when we watched a PBS video about “Ralph Ellison and the Black Arts Movement.” Tuesday Barnes, a Ph.D. student in Sociology, referenced Thulani Davis’s discussion of the tremendous energy in the BAM, emphasizing how the performative energies of poetry, dance, prose, and activism were channeled to fuel the BAM. Barnes was interested in how she could use such performative energies in her own work as an artist and academic. Her comments sparked my interest and compelled me to reflect upon how I could expand my pedagogical approach to help my students better understand the performative energies of BAM. I thought that perhaps the energy of the BAM could be explored through African American vernacular traditions. In particular, the AADHUM session made clear that a participatory experience with this literature (and African American vernacular) would necessitate that students work with written text, audio, and video in order to understand the energy of the movement.

In the second session of the digital incubator module, we began to consider how the PBS documentary was scripted. Stephanie Sapienza, a program manager at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), presented various documentary styles, particular shots and angles that shape a viewer’s gaze, and different programs available for audio/video editing.

With a corpus and tools in mind, I reframed the visual vernacular project. Now, students will create a video that visually illustrates an aspect of or concept from African American vernacular. For each video, students will: introduce a(n) aspect/concept using a video from the class syllabus; provide additional visual instances to further explain and illustrate the aspect/concept; and demonstrate the aspect/concept in their own way.

The AADHum incubator modules I’ve attended have made my assignments and my students’ work more robust. Instead of using 360-degree video as a way of theorizing the text (as we did with Gloria), the students will manipulate videos, audios, and text (in this case, primary sources from the Black Arts Movement) to explore African American vernacular traditions. Digital tools need to be integral to our methods of studying the literature—not as aside used on the back end. AADHum incubator sessions strike a balance of conversation across disciplines, exploration of tools, and applicability to content to inspire this kind of action in our pedagogical work.

 

Tyechia Thompson, Ph.D., AADHum Scholar and Lecturer at Howard University

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