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How Digital Personae Can Unlock 18th-Century Satire
The term “digital pedagogy” has now achieved the same status as “interdisciplinarity” or “entrepreneurial scholarship.” We express enthusiasm about it publicly, while privately confessing that we don’t exactly know how to do it.
My own early efforts might charitably be described as clumsy. (Example: my horrible tic, since cured, of blurting out “It’s like the Internet!” whenever the conversation touched on information sharing or mass audiences.) While many Web sites, conferences, and blogs dedicated to digital pedagogy have since been created and offer invaluable help, some of us still face particular challenges. I teach 17th- and 18th-century literature at a science-and-engineering university, meaning I must make the great era of “paper-based textual artifacts” accessible to students who are more comfortable with the virtual. My students are smart, eager, and creative. Yet when it comes to that era’s literature, they lose confidence and energy. They see Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels as museum pieces—works to be preserved and studied under glass. They are inert, and all the Google Maps and Prezi presentations in the world won’t change that. In fact, when it comes to historical literature, pedagogical technology for novelty’s sake can make things worse. It implies that new forms of media supply something that old ones lack.
This basic Catch-22—the more you lean on the new, the more you devalue the old—has led me to explore what I have come to think of as “deep digital” strategies. These are tools that bring life to the inert, reveal hidden designs, and open up a level of textual engagement not otherwise possible. Deep digital pedagogy can help with certain stubborn problems—for example, the tendency of students to produce work that parrots that of the instructor, tailored to echo or flatter his or her particular interests and opinions. Educational theorists have suggested that the best remedy is student engagement with an “authentic audience,” someone outside the classroom, ideally with expertise in the field, who responds to student work as a neutral peer. Simple outreach tools like SurveyMonkey, which allows you to set up online questionnaires and receive real-time results, can work wonders in this area.
The single best example I have seen of deep digital engagement with historical literature, however, came in a class I taught last semester, and it was entirely student-driven. In their final group presentation for the course, five students picked up on the idea of “satiric personae”—characters who earnestly offer up absurd arguments that the author means the audience to laugh at. Eighteenth-century authors were forever experimenting with such personae (the most famous is likely Jonathan Swift’s “Proposer,” who offers up the monstrous suggestions of “A Modest Proposal”), and not all experiments were successful (one of Daniel Defoe’s personae in The Shortest-Way With the Dissenters was so convincing that some people missed the joke and applauded his intentionally over-the-top intolerance). What would happen, my students wondered, if an outrageous liberal position and an outrageous conservative position on a controversial topic (they chose health care) were presented in various digital forums? Would people recognize the satire? Would the reaction be consistent?
To find out, they created two personae, one liberal and the other conservative. For each they created a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The Facebook pages, of course, entailed creating a complete character with a full personality profile. The conservative character’s “interests,” for example, included the NRA gun club and George W. Bush; his favorite music included Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers; and his favorite television shows included The O’Reilly Factor, SportsCenter, and Community—the last a very shrewd attempt to inject some realistic diversity into the character’s cultural taste. He quickly accumulated 15 Facebook friends. The liberal character, for his part, was a rock-climbing enthusiast from Boston. At last count he had an impressive 26 friends, not including his creators—and one friend request from a “family member.” Interestingly, the liberal character’s profile was initially singled out for deletion by Facebook, while the conservative character’s page—thanks to Community, perhaps—went unchallenged.
Via Facebook posts, tweets (to Stephen Colbert, Rush Limbaugh, and the like), and postings on various right-wing and left-wing blogs, the two characters put forward their arguments. The conservative suggested that sick workers be taxed at a higher rate, the stated logic being that “They’re sitting in a hospital wasting tax money and not contributing to society.” The liberal, a progressive tax enthusiast, suggested that people with more crippling and expensive diseases, like lupus or diabetes, be taxed at a higher rate than those with “cheaper” illnesses like asthma. The results were interesting. Both peaked at eight followers on Twitter and received little in the way of response or retweets. The Facebook pages were much more active, but the characters’ actual suggestions only received polite interest and basic questions in “Wall” conversations. But the blog posts found their target: A number of posters responded, some suspecting what was going on, others swallowing it whole. The suggestion on one liberal blog to tax diseases at a progressive rate garnered both credulous outrage (e.g. “So hopefully, you will only get CHEAP diseases!!! Where did you get this bright idea … from Herman, Michele, Rick, or Newt?”) and rather unlikely defenses (one poster thought it sounded better than “Cuban-style health care for the rich only”).
Voilà: The students were now officially satirists—complete with external validation. And they had real response data, which allowed for interesting conclusions. The group argued that Twitter was a tough forum for satire, as the character limit made complex satire difficult to convey and misunderstandings likely. Facebook was ideal for creating personae, but not for promulgating satiric positions. And blogs, with their constant flow of embryonic suggestions, were perfect for satiric trolling, although the opportunity to create a persona was limited.
Like any good deep digital project, the satire experiment moved into complex intellectual territory—territory we might not have visited otherwise. In a very natural way, the group had raised larger questions about digital personae. Some scholarly work has been done on “chatterbots” (computer programs that simulate blog posters by churning out random suggestions until they attract responses) and, more specifically, on “Twitter bots” (automated, artificial Twitter accounts that spew out random thoughts as a way of manipulating conversation). But I was amazed to see the process in action and to see it so cleverly connected to the strategies of an old literary genre and the challenges faced by Enlightenment satirists. By getting a rise out of an unsuspecting audience, the students’ artificial characters had passed a literary Turing test of sorts (that is, they had proven indistinguishable from real people in a blind test). “Satire bots,” anyone?
longer a delicate study piece, but a robust and relevant genre containing living strategies and energies that could be tapped. Nor did they have to echo lectures or depend entirely on the instructor for feedback. Rather, they created something that confirmed their mastery of the subject by provoking a real reaction in an authentic audience. They had only one regret: Their instructor had unknowingly turned down a Facebook “friend request” from one of the characters.
Aaron Santesso is an associate professor of literature at the Georgia Institute of Technology.