Q&A: Petra Dierkes-Thrun reflects on technology and literature

Feb. 13, 2015, 1:20 a.m.

Petra Dierkes-Thrun is a lecturer in the Comparative Literature department and advocate of digital pedagogy. The Stanford Daily sat down with Thrun to discuss her thoughts on Oscar Wilde and on integrating technology into comparative literature curricula.


The Stanford Daily (TSD): You’re a great fan of Oscar Wilde and have published a book on his works and are preparing another one. What first drew you to him?

Petra Dierkes-Thrun (PDT): It goes back a long time. The first time I read him was in high school—we read The Importance of Being Earnest. I loved it for its sparkling wit and social satire, but I didn’t think much more about it. When I learned more about Wilde’s own homosexuality and his importance for LGBTQ history as a grad student, I was hooked, since I could experience this immediate bridge between the past and the present, and between art and life, that I still find very important to teach and study today. Wilde really turned the tables against the Victorian belief in art for morality’s sake by insisting that art could exist for art’s sake and as an expression of individualism and individual transgression, rather than a mouthpiece for social mores.

TSD: For one of your classes, you came up with the idea of doing a Twitter literary role-play on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. What led to your interest in combining literature with digital media?

PDT: It started with Oscar Wilde. I began experimenting with digital pedagogy because of my love for my subject, really. For my class “Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents,” I first explored new ways of using blogs within the classroom to see how I could use that medium seriously to support our literary studies. I wanted to find new ways to make learning and teaching interesting. Obviously I’m totally enthusiastic about 19th century literature, but it’s not a given that students today will be as enthusiastic, too.

The MOOC [massive open online course] craze had also begun, and my husband [Sebastian Thrun, the CEO of Udacity and a research professor of computer science at Stanford] was involved in it. We would have these dinner conversations all the time, discussing whether this form of digital pedagogy could even apply to the humanities. You can teach a STEM course through MOOCs, but can you do so responsibly with a humanities course? I decided that I would try this for myself: to see what I could do within digital pedagogy that would be outside of MOOCs and make more sense for the humanities.

TSD: What do you think is the general view in academia right now on combining the humanities with the digital world?

PDT: It’s interesting because there’s been this field of digital humanities that’s not new, that’s been around for maybe 25 years—it has to do with the quantitative analysis of novels, text mining, and data mining. There tends to be a separation between that field and the field I’m interested in, which is integrating digital means into the teaching of humanities and the classroom. I think that field has only come more to the forefront of academia in the last two or three years. So digital pedagogy in that respect is not as well-known or accepted, or people just don’t really know what to do with it. People have started using blogs, but we could go a lot further. We need to think about how we can use digital tools to really advance teaching in the humanities, to try something other than writing final papers and restricting humanities education to within the classroom.

TSD: What is one digital humanities project that you’d want to make happen?

PDT: Another professor, Heather Hadlock of the music department, and I want to teach an interdisciplinary course next year called Virtual Arts Salon. Students will learn about the European salon scene of the 1880s through the 1920s, and the music, literature, opera, dance, and drama of that time. Then they’re going to build a virtual arts salon that’s available for anyone to explore online. The idea is that it’ll be a project-based class that allows students to not just learn for themselves, but also work with each other to bring their learning to the public. It’s more meaningful and motivational for them that way.

It’d be great to be able to teach any [comparative literature] course and connect with networks and courses from other universities interested in the same subject. That’s what comparative literature is: bringing different elements together into one space. Being able to use technology to connect students across the globe would be so powerful.

TSD: Tell me about a favorite moment from your teaching experience.

PDT: I try to guide students toward certain insights about the course topic through how I’ve designed the syllabus or arranged the readings. I don’t want to tell the students, “This is what you should think.” So the moment I strive for is that eureka moment: when students get what the class is about from the way that the course has been prepared. It doesn’t happen all the time, but you can see that spark when students suddenly make a connection for themselves, without me telling them. And when they get it, they own it.


This conversation has been condensed and edited.

Contact Grace Chao at gracewc ‘at’ stanford.edu

Grace Chao is a co-term in English and a staff writer for academics and research at Stanford. A native of Cupertino, California, she has contributed to The Daily since her junior year and enjoys writing creative nonfiction on the side. Find her tackling NYT crossword puzzles, eating bread or trying to win fish and chips at the latest trivia night in town. To contact Grace, email her at gracewc 'at' stanford.edu.

Login or create an account