Thirteen Oblique Strategies for Digital Pedagogy

Oblique Strategies card and deck

Crossposted to the Scholars’ Lab blog

When I sat down to write this post I had no ideas. That’s probably inevitable, given the year of blogging challenge that we’re undertaking in the Scholars’ Lab. The whole point is to write often and frequently, that there is value in a steady stream of thoughts rather than waiting for the perfect blog post, and that regular writing makes the whole thing easier. Still, all those good intentions didn’t help me as I struggled to put text to blank page. As I often do in those situations I got out a deck of cards and started playing.

I’ve been obsessed with Oblique Strategies for years now. If you’re not familiar, Oblique Strategies is a deck of cards published by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt that aims to offer short, pithy suggestions for getting around creative dilemmas. The idea behind them is that the serendipity of drawing a mysterious phrase from the deck will help disrupt any blocks you might have moving forward. I’ve got a stack of them that I keep on my desk, and it’s a comfort to know that I’ve always got a wrench to throw in the gears at any given time. This morning as I flipped through the deck for inspiration these were the cards that came up first:

  • When is it for?
  • Use an old idea
  • Turn it upside down
  • Once the search is in progress, something will be found
  • Humanize something free of error

A lot there! Surely, somewhere in there, I could find material for a successful blog post on digital pedagogy, the subject I’ve been trying to focus on with these regular posts. I did, and I could. But the activity interested me more: how could these cards - the idea of them more so than any one phrase on them - inform teaching within the field of DH more generally?

Of course, I’m not the first one to think about how Oblique Strategies might apply to DH. Mark Sample’s keynote for the first annual Institute for Liberal Arts Digital Scholarship took up this topic. In “Your Mistake was a Vital Connection: Oblique Strategies for the Digital Humanities,” Sample does a fantastic job articulating the potential for the deck to inspire digital humanities research and pedagogy. Sample advocates not just using the deck as a means to an end - he suggests making serendipity the process and outcome itself. The deck can be quirky way to step over difficulty and get back to the serious business of doing work, but it can also offer a reconsideration of what the work could look like in the first place.

Sample frames using Oblique Strategies in DH research and pedagogy as a question of embracing serendipity as a methodology. This seems to me to be right and correct, but his piece also makes me want to think further about how Oblique Strategies might offer ways for thinking through digital pedagogy in particular. Besides shuffling up any of those cards and thinking about any specific aphorism’s applicability to teaching in a DH context, what might a larger approach to digital pedagogy look like when informed by oblique strategies? Sample offers serendipity as a way into the question, but this is only one to think about the cards. After all, embracing chance as a methodology involves releasing something else - control.

Take the way Sample offers the same question I just posed: “How might oblique strategies not only be another way to work in general, but specifically, another way to work with the digital scholarship and pedagogy we might otherwise more comfortably approach head-on, as Brian Eno put it.” This reading frames use of the cards as a question of directionality but also of power - rather than assert power, the cards seem to say, give yourself over to the whims of chance, let your creative faculties engage, and step in from the side. In order to play the game as invited by Oblique Strategies, you have to first accept you might not have all the answers.

For me, this question of authority is the clearest link between the deck and how I might apply it in the DH classroom. For me, good digital humanities teaching is always about unsettling authority in the classroom. When digital humanists co-teach courses, they model how no one person has all the answers. When we encourage process and reflections on failure as important scholarly outputs, we encourage students to give themselves over to a more humane understanding of research. When we counsel students on imposter syndrome, we directly encounter the idea of the authority. There are more specific, personal implementations for me as well. When I run a class, I tend to ask more questions than I offer answers, and my ultimate goal is for the students to recognize that their own contributions to discussion can often be more valuable than mine.

All of this makes me want to ask: how can Oblique Strategies encourage a more student-centered pedagogy? How could we use the ethos of the cards to disrupt vectors of power in the classroom and create a more meaningful, inclusive teaching environment? What about this would be specific to digital pedagogy? In the spirit of what I’ve described above, I won’t offer answers (yours would be as meaningful as mine). Towards the end of Sample’s blog post he shares together a playful tool for generating your own oblique strategies for digital humanities. I thought I might take a similar approach, offering a few elliptical statements on how we might approach digital pedagogy obliquely in the aphoristic style of Oblique Strategies. I had originally intended to give brief glosses about how they might be interpreted, but I think that gets away from the spirit of the thing. In a riff on Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” I’ll give thirteen, lest any one appear to be more important than the others:

Thirteen Oblique Strategies for Digital Pedagogy

  1. Create <-> consume
  2. Analog digital
  3. Interaction over interface
  4. Displace authority
  5. Questions
  6. Allow for gaps
  7. Process product
  8. People first
  9. Iterate
  10. Cultivate imposterdom
  11. Design Design
  12. Can you fail?
  13. Disrupt / connect

Of course, maybe the best oblique strategy would be to hand the students a blank deck with some colored pencils and ask them to draw for you.