Tucker Harding is the 2015-2016 Dorothy Borg Postdoctoral Scholar in the Digital Humanities at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. He is an educator and theorist working on questions pertaining to the nature, qualities and consequences of educational thought and forms of study. His current focus is on the pedagogy of culture and the history of educational thought in East Asia. He finds this area especially pertinent in an era in which the primeval struggle to understand ourselves and what we create through reflective agencies of research and education is heavily afflicted by divestment and cynicism in the centers of political power. An interesting aspect of this concern, Professor Harding argues, is the role that technology has played in both contributing to the shape of perceived problems and, at the same time, defining the arena of possible solutions.
A video of Professor Harding’s presentation on the digital humanities is available here.
Read below for a Q&A about Professor Harding’s research and teaching interests:
As the Dorothy Borg Postdoctoral Scholar in the Digital Humanities, how do you envision using digital tools to enhance East Asia-related research and teaching?
I take a broad perspective on the matter of “digital tools” for research and teaching. In educational progress, I definitely believe in, and argue for, exploration as a fundamental act of “study.” It’s a significant characteristic of what it means to be a growing person— emotionally, socially and intellectually. I’ve seen the results of progressive pedagogies many times now, over almost ten years of working with faculty and in my own courses, and another five years of working in private industry. That’s not to say traditional pedagogies are ineffective— quite the contrary. It’s all matter of the three variables involved: the unique attributes of the student, instructor, and environment of study. It might be noticed I left content out of that, and that’s on purpose.
I would add that I take teachers and researchers to fundamentally be students first—much as all people have the potential be throughout the lifespan— but teachers and researchers have had at least some success at learning in specific ways. Thus their first responsibility as educators is to help students become better students using whatever experiences they can share.
To be more specific in response to your question, I also consider both research and teaching to be first and foremost acts of communication. The means and modes of human communication have historically, arguably, had everything to do with humanity’s possibilities for understanding itself better. I believe our current communication environment is important to recognize as both emergent and potentially transformative for society, particularly as it pertains to human potential for growth. Our research and other educational engagements cannot be separated from how we communicate with each other, and how we might collect and make sense of the data representing facts of our world. One of the most important and difficult areas of inquiry and experience for coming to terms with what it means to be human is the study of foreign culture. I am incredibly lucky to be studying the intersection of Asian Studies and communication technology right now. It is this intersection I wish to emphasize and integrate with purpose into Weatherhead and EALAC at Columbia. We’re in the dawn (or perhaps even post-dawn) of a new communication era, and the possibilities for human growth as pertains to culture and understanding humanness are endless— though not without conscious attention and care. As a leading community in East Asian Studies, we have an opportunity and arguably a responsibility to focus on this intersection to bring our work to higher, deeper, and more valuable levels for everyone who has asked that very human question: why are things they way they are?
How did you become interested in the role that digital tools might play in pedagogy?
As a communication technology consultant in China, working under the director of business development for what was at the time Sony-Ericsson. I was involved in building training tools for Chinese telecom operators, and designing professional development modules. I saw the potential of educational technology there that far exceeded what I had been exposed to as an undergrad or earlier in formal schooling. Issues of culture and worldview began to surface as I worked with Chinese counterparts to create educational experiences. I knew I wanted to dive deeply into that area— human development, culture, and educational technology. I found Columbia’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning through a good friend who worked as a programmer there, and coming to NYC to take that job (2007) was a great decision. My boss, the late Dr. Frank Moretti, who later became my doctoral advisor, had a huge influence over my capacities to perceive and take seriously the impact of communication technology on the human condition generally. I’ve been deeply involved in this world since, and I can’t imagine feeling ready to move on from it. It’s too important, and far too interesting and exciting.
What are some of the courses that you have been developing about the history of East Asian educational thought and experience?
Two of the most important graduate courses I ever took were History of Communication, and Theories of Communication, both designed and taught by my late advisor Frank Moretti, and with his doctoral advisor from decades ago, the great education and philosophy historian Professor Robert McClintock (who is now retired for the third time and counting…). I co-taught those courses with Robbie, and recently have begun teaching them on my own. The History of Communication course has recently evolved to be what might be called the History of Western Educational Thought. It begins in Greek antiquity, and proceeds through every communication and education era, concluding in the present with a hope of helping students orient themselves to the present circumstance, and finding positive ways forward for all of us. Along the way we hit oral culture, the alphabet and codex, printing press, telegraph, and onwards through the internet. My goal now is to create a similar course in the history of East Asian educational thought, following similar developments in the Far East as it has had its own sequence of orality, script, a different form of moveable type and the resulting social changes, and so on and onwards. Though the courses I have taken and taught have been highly transformative and important for my own education and breadth of awareness, I think it’s a problem that most courses in communication history are western centric. My background and passion for Asian Studies and education have now practically compelled me to balance that track out. In my ideal communication and education program, there’s a History of East Asian Educational Thought to at least run in parallel with that of the History of Western Educational Thought. I’m excited at the idea of that being a significant contribution I can make to both East Asian Studies and Communication and Education for people everywhere. I’m now working on making the History of East Asian Educational Thought an open course online– free to the public and anyone interested, either as a supplement to other courses, or a standalone to be taken for credit.
How do you think the digital humanities might change the ways we teach East Asia-related topics to future generations?
At the risk of being trite: perspective building. I believe there is great potential for current technologies to improve and enhance our ability to broaden and deepen cultural perspectives, through different forms of content immersion and interaction, for transforming how Asia can be both taught and experienced. Nothing will replace living and studying there in person, but our tools have almost unlimited potential for growing and empowering the inquirer to really grapple with central themes or concepts of culture that are too often reduced to textual theories and ideas and products, rather than mental experiences of the breadth of humanness that can be brought to reality through East Asian Studies.
Do you have any plans for the spring semester for furthering the WEAI community’s understanding of the digital humanities?
Absolutely. We already have a few plans in place. I have had good conversations going with a number of faculty, definite plans for some (Tibetan Studies probably the most concrete). I’m excited about the possibility of working with Roberta Martin on the Asia for Educators project, and helping connect some of those incredible resources to other research and courses. But more broadly, we want to create an ongoing series of conversations and workshops with faculty trying different—and hopefully innovative—ways of engaging students using tools we have at our disposal, and particularly at the disposal of our imaginations. It will be partly invention on our part, but there’s a lot of action right now in DH with Asian Studies, so a big part will also be just growing awareness of the experiences already had, and potential for new engagements, and facilitating and guiding some real explorations of how some of these tools and techniques might drive these studies into a very positive future in the academy and beyond.