The American Historian

Teaching in the Future: When the Digital and the Humanities Meet

Earl Lewis

An earlier version of this essay was presented at the Council of Independent Colleges Workshop for the Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction on July 23, 2018.

In The Meaning of Human Existence (2014), E. O. Wilson offered the profound observation: If beings from another galaxy or planet visited Earth, they wouldn’t be awed by our science, technology, engineering, math, or medicine. They would, most likely, find them charming. To have reached us, they would have mastered technologies we have yet to have fully imagined. Rather, he makes a startling claim: it is our humanities that will enthrall them. Literature, history, philosophy, music, and creative arts stand to tell them more about us than any gadget we might proffer.

Ponder Wilson’s statement for a moment. It asserts the value and importance of the humanities better than many of the treatises I and others have penned. So, let’s start with the simple declarative statement that the humanities have a future, one tied inextricably to the future of humanity. For those of us who specialize in one of the disciplines subsumed under the heading humanities, what work is there left to consider as we think about online education?

Pedagogy and Research

When do we begin to prepare the next generation of instructors to teach in an online environment? Graduate School? Is this another unit added to doctoral training: Teaching Online in the Digital World? Is this an elective or a require component in the years ahead? If we can agree that the preparation should be mandatory, then what’s the core elements of a foundational curriculum? Research is emerging about how students learn and how they learn differently online as compared to in a classroom. Yet do we know enough about how students from different backgrounds learn online as compared to in person? Is learning online mediated by the same factors as in residence—socio-economic background, preparation for college, emotional and intellectual development, race and ethnicity, grit, etc.?

As a former classroom instructor, I have often wished we could recreate the seminar circle, where every face is seen and everyone has an equal opportunity join the discussion. But similar to the seminar circle, I am cognizant of the differences in power and preparation that play out in the classroom. In talking with young women using various online platforms, I am reminded that we democratized one aspect of the space but perhaps have lent insufficient attention to theories about classroom dynamics online. This is all more the case if the platform space is democratic but not diverse.

I question how we have prepared and should prepare instructors to discern and teach online. Is a student of color silent because he or she is shy or the active prisoner of the “impostor syndrome” phenomenon, that nagging voice telling them that despite equal credentials, they most certainly don’t belong? Should the online instructor be as alert to this condition as the in-class instructor? Most certainly, yes. But do you prepare for such a possibility in the same way online as in-residence? Moreover, does this require a renewed interrogation of the operating assumptions about the true democratic nature of the learning space?

Learning and instruction also occur in a broader context. Much of the second half of the twentieth century was about testing for access. The SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, and a legion of other tests assessed aptitude but were really designed to discern who should be admitted to a program, notwithstanding the fact that the tests did not, on the whole, predict future success. But if twentieth century tests were about access, twenty first century assessments will be about success. What do I mean? New learning algorithms continue to show that we can help an increasing number of students overcome various exogenous factors and complete terminal degrees. And if the work at universities such as Georgia State can be replicated, we may in time eliminate class and race disparities. This places humanists in the middle of a fundamental change in assumptions about education. Is it for a privileged and lucky few, or a larger cross section of the population? Without become hyperbolic, how we answer this question has implications for funding higher education and for the ever developing politics about liberal learning.

Here more research is desperately needed. When colleagues in the sciences openly touted the flipped classroom, scholars in the humanities and social sciences noted that we have done some version of this for years. We have often called for close readings of sources, took students to the library to see the primary texts, and invited in writers, artists and other cultural makers to drive home the point about human creativity. Our methods invited active learning and placed students at the center of their own pathway to becoming educated.

Nonetheless, will a humanities approach to learning lend itself to large scale metrics-based analyses? Is it possible to design a set of tools that can demonstrate the increasing writing prowess of a student cohort? Are growing writing skills matched by discernible growth in analytical skills? So much of the work to date has focused on the sciences and engineering. Is there a reason to invest in more studies focused on humanities education in a variety of settings?

Twenty-five years ago I abandoned my previous approach of simply lecturing to and at first year students in introductory courses in African American Studies and American history. I decided that students needed to assume some ownership for what and how they learned. In partnership with my teaching assistants (TAs), we selected the required reading. But instead of fifteen weeks of me lecturing for forty-five minutes, I would commit to only half of the lecture hours. The remaining hours would be divided among my TAs and students. Each recitation section was tasked with teaching one of the predetermined modules. They were guided by a set of questions and then freed to be as creative as they wished. The results were stunning: students introduced PowerPoint and video clips; they made use of theatrical productions and daytime TV formats. Judging by what students said in course evaluations, they learned because they became instructors and were not just the recipients of information delivered by the professor. Because each student assigned a grade to each classmate, we gained some sense of who took the assignment seriously and who blew if off. I realized that if I were to fully evaluate student learning, I needed more than a midterm and final. I needed a variety of measures of learning, especially in a diverse classroom environment.

At the undergraduate level, can such a learning approach be replicated online? If so, what are the expected learning outcomes? I am calling on innovation in instruction aided by online modalities that further result in improvements in student learning. Based on what I have learned, we are still in our infancy and must find out what is particular to a school, program or department, and what can be replicated. If I am correct about shifts in expectations about learning and assessments, the work here is potentially transformative.


What steps must we take to ensure online education is not the less appreciated twin of its classroom sibling? First, we must clarify nomenclature. Would the general academy be able to distinguish between the digital humanities and the humanities online? What about the general population of would-be learners? Invariably there is some blurring of boundaries, but we must do a better job of defining and codifying what we mean.

I have to believe that online humanities have much to teach us about today’s students and their expectations. According to a recent study by McKinsey, nearly 800 million current jobs will likely disappear worldwide by 2030, with fifty four million of those in the United States, about 1/3 of the labor force. We may assume many jobseekers will return to school since the data on college education and economic security is powerfully clear—according to one oft-cited study by Carnevale, of the 11.6 million jobs created post-recession and by 2015, 8.4 million went to holders of BAs or higher, three million went to those with some college, and only 80,000 went to those with a high school degree or less. Very little suggests this pattern is set to change in the years to come.

So how do we prepare to meet our brothers and sisters who may need more rather than less from us? It may be that the only real solution is leveraging digital tools in a profoundly new way. Should older students and younger students be paired, or do we create new pathways for the fifty-four million that may feel jettisoned by a world in flux? What experiments must we run now to meet anticipated demand in a decade’s time? Shouldn’t the results of those experiments inform instruction for in-residence students as well?

Moreover, do we create a dedicated corps of online instructors schooled in the psychology of learning, subject matter experts to be sure, but rewarded and valued for their pedagogical prowess more than their scholarly productivity? Are our academic senates prepared to give them equal standing as full-time faculty? Do we begin to generate another category of faculty to augment the tenure, clinical, and practice tracks?

The digital and the humanities have met. To be determined is the extent of their interaction. That’s the future we all get to shape.


Earl Lewis recently returned to the University of Michigan as a professor of history and African American and African Studies, and the inaugural director of the soon-to-be created Center for Social Solutions. Previously a dean of the Rackham School of Graduate Studies at Michigan and provost at Emory University, he served as the sixth president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from March 2013 until March 2018. He is the current OAH president and also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.