Cathy Davidson, John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute professor of interdisciplinary studies and Ruth F. Devarney professor of English, was recently awarded Educator of the Year by the World Technology Network. The award recognizes her contributions in education as a co-founder of Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), a peer-produced virtual network that has its central administrative offices at Duke, and co-director of the annual Digital Media and Learning Competition, run by the MacArthur Foundation, which awards money to projects that explore how digital media affect the lives of young people. Davidson is also the co-founder of the Information Science and Information Studies certificate at Duke. The Chronicle sat down with Davidson to discuss receiving the award, her work with HASTAC and her views on the intersection between science and the humanities.
The Chronicle: You were recently named Educator of the Year. Can you tell me more about the award?
Cathy Davidson: It’s a little bit like the Academy Awards for technology. The designer of the Mars landing won in one category and the CEO of Pinterest won in another category. There were probably 30 categories. What I am most honored by is it is awarded by peers—people in the world of technology nominate peers and then a judge makes the final selection. It was quite an honor and a very big surprise. I’m a huge fan of the person who won last year, so it’s a bit like winning the year after Meryl Streep won. I can try and act above it all and impartial, but it was really an honor.
TC: I know you are the co-founder of HASTAC. Can you tell me more about HASTAC?
CD: In 2002, David Theo Goldberg and I were at a national meeting of education right after we started the Franklin Center at Duke. We were at the meeting to discuss technology in the Franklin Center and its motto: The purpose of knowledge is to be shared. We stepped out [of the meeting] and saw that we knew all of these people in the sciences, arts and humanities who were thinking about the way we can use the World Wide Web to increase the possibilities for lifelong learning, so we thought “Why don’t we start our own organization?”
The reason we have this horrible acronym is because no one wanted to be left out of this. We’ve been working in different ways since it started, and it’s up to about 9,800 network members. Our basic principle was to take the spirit of the open source web and apply it to education, by that we mean you don’t have to force people to learn because people want to share their knowledge. Like Wikipedia, who knew it would be as huge as it is and that people would contribute their knowledge for free? As educators, we should be taking advantage of the fact that people like to learn from one another.
TC: Were there any challenges you faced in creating HASTAC?
CD: At first no one had a clue about what we were talking about. People would look at us like we were talking Martian. I would say now the problem is the opposite—because we [did this] before everyone did in education, we are treated like gurus and are called upon to help people in higher education think about the future of learning.
It wasn’t that long ago that I was called the most hated educator in America because I said I didn’t want to require traditional term papers. I wanted students to write papers that would be a public contribution to knowledge—any paper wasn’t just for me, they had to find a place to put and make a contribution to public knowledge. I didn’t think that was that radical—I thought it was an uncynical view of learning.
Part of that was I was involved in the iPod experiment in 2002—Apple approached us about taking technology and using it on our campus for learning purposes so we decided to use one with no educational use and challenged students to come up with an educational use to it. We gave out free iPods as an educational experiment.
Everything from telemedicine—students figured out ways you could listen to heart arrhythmias through your iPod that could help rural doctors evaluate heart arrhythmias—to conventional learning techniques—like listening to a Shakespeare play instead of reading it. The first academic podcasting conference was held at Duke, and it was all student-run and came out of this experiment.
We got a lot of flack, and people had to swallow their words when it worked because people didn’t want to believe students would want to do anything but have fun with them. They didn’t see that if you respect students’ intelligence, they will far exceed anything you have on a syllabus. If I don’t treat students like they’re babies every step of the way, but instead respect them and collaborate with them, students always exceed my expectations.
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TC: You’re also the co-director of the annual Digital Media and Learning Competitions, can you tell me more about how you got involved with the competition and your role in the competition in particular?
CD: In 2006, the MacArthur Foundation asked us to start running the Digital Media Competitions and [the award] has grown from $2 million to $4 million per year. We partnered with Mozilla and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, as well, and have 89 programs in 20 countries. We’re in our fourth competition this year, and we give awards each year to grantee. For their first full year as grantee, we have weekly webinars on every possible topic from management to assessment to implementation to better collaboration.
We really work with the winners of the annual competitions, so you win money to make your product work. You also have an entire team that makes sure that what you want to do to improve education and learning really works. It’s astonishing to work with dedicated people all over the world from different [socioeconomic] levels—some are elitist and some are incredibly poor in small villages in Africa and Asia. It’s a really diverse range of programs.
TC: It seems you are both a part of the humanities world but also the technological world. Can you talk about how you’ve been able to successfully meld these seemingly separate spheres together?
CD: I don’t think there is a difference between them. For the last 100 years, we’ve tried to convince people that there is a difference. But what people get wrong is they think our era is about computing when it’s about everyday life, values, history and how we interact as humans. Those are deep, profound subjects in humanities and social sciences. In the information age, we’ve gone through such a paradigm shift that if you just leave things to people in technology and science, we will miss the implications it will have on humanity.
I don’t think every English teacher needs to learn Python, and I don’t think every computer programer needs to know Shakespeare, but we have to learn better ways of communicating with each other and sharing our expertise to get the best out of this world that we live in. To do that, we need to think across the boundaries and silos of education. That’s why I’ve given 79 talks in the past 14 months—I’m an evangelical on the need to have a new way of learning together.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Davidson has given 79 talks in the past 14 years. She has in fact given 79 talks in the past 14 months. The Chronicle regrets the error.