Blog Post

How can we structure DH meetings to account for scholars' wide variety of backgrounds?

It is certainly a good thing that interest in the digital humanities is increasing among not only students and young scholars but also established scholars. Yet this exposure and growth poses a variety of challenges.  In what follows, I want to consider one of these--but first, consider the following two paradigms*:

Paradigm I:

In what we might call a fairly standard scholarly meeting (e.g. a seminar), the group is typically comprised of individuals who have completed at least an undergraduate degree, and probably a Master's or Ph.D., in a discipline related to the topic of the meeting.  To some degree (often a large degree) participants are familiar with methodologies, terminology, forms of argumentation, and discourse regarding the field or topic at hand.  The discussion assumes this experience on the part of attendees, and the success of the meeting depends not so much on one individual but on each member contributing his or her own prior knowledge toward a collective discussion (which, ideally, becomes greater than the sum of its parts).

Paradigm II:

In what we might call a fairly standard introductory course to an academic discipline, the participants are not expected to be experts in any field--much less a field related to the topic at hand.  While some students may have had prior exposure to the topic, others have none, and the course material begins at an elementary level. 

Through some pedagogical approach, an instructor helps students understand and apply new concepts.  Instruction can take various forms, but even in courses where the students' primary roles including discussing and producing (as opposed to listening to lectures), the instructor's careful preparation of resources and materials, planning of class time, and setting of learning objectives, are key.  

Now, consider the following: a meeting of scholars (all of whom are accomplished in some academic discipline) to consider aspects of the digital humanities.  The participants have a large variety of backgrounds in DH.  Some are familiar with certain aspects of technology but entirely unfamiliar with others.  Some are well established digital scholars who want to think critically about theoretical issues.  Some are new to the whole idea of DH but might start a blog if someone could help with the setup.

How can the organizer of a meeting for this group most effectively schedule time in order to help participants at all levels to engage helpfully and to move forward in their pursuits?

More specifically, I want to ask whether we too often revert to a "Paradigm I" approach in large meetings of scholars interested in DH, when instead we might be wise to use a mixed approach that includes more "Paradigm II."  

The particular application of aspects of these two paradigms (and others) will certainly vary among individual meetings; yet I'm wondering if there are general principles for this type of meeting of individuals of mixed backgrounds.  This seems especially important as more and more individuals are beginning to attend workshops and conferences related to technology.

I'm interested to hear your thoughts.


This is a second post inspired by topics I was encouraged to think about during THATCamp AAR.  The first is here

*I ask for generosity from my readers where my brevity may lack precision.  The sketches are illustrative, not prescriptive; I do not mean to set up purpose statements for the direction of seminars or classrooms.




I'd like to note that Steven Wenz's comment on another post is also applicable here.


I think this is another great blog post, Amy! I agree with your description of DH meetings, and, at the risk of oversimplifying, I wonder if it doesn't come down to the old-fashioned divide between D and H. In a strict sense, that division is no longer true: you, I, and our colleagues are proof that technology can be a vital resource for teaching and research in the humanities. However, I feel that a division still exists between individuals with extensive knowledge of programming languages and computer analysis who also have an interest in the humanities, and individuals whose primary field resides within the humanities and who would like to get started on a digital project. My impression is that, when these groups meet, the first category is at an advantage: I, at least, have much to learn about programming and computing, whereas my expertise in literature and languages is generally irrelevant in these meetings. This doesn't discourage me; on the contrary, I feel more motivated to learn. Nonetheless, I can imagine humanities scholars attending a Paradigm I DH meeting, hearing a flurry of terms and acronyms, and walking away with the impression that DH is over their heads or not worth the time they would need to invest. The worst part is that such a conclusion would be false. For this reason, I completely agree that we should structure DH meetings so as to account for a wide variety of backgrounds. Blending the paradigms that you listed is a great option. Another would be to organize participants into tiers of expertise, in order to maintain intellectual rigor without discouraging the less experienced. We have taken this approach with our TEI groups at the Vanderbilt Center for Second Language Studies.


I'm particularly interested in this topic as the co-coordinator of a DH group here on campus at Fordham University.  We try to structure meetings to accomodate as many different knowledge levels as possible, and to make the topics of discussion flexible enough that any background is welcome.  We just met to discuss "Debates in the Digital Humanities" and read two articles from the book of that name; we had a librarian, two experienced DH people and someone who had no idea what DH is, but was curious.  Most of our meetings consist of graduate students on the MA and PhD levels, department admins, librarians and occasionally other interested parties.  We do a lot to try to keep the level of dialogue open to everyone, which can be a struggle -- to avoid jargon, or at least to explain it, and, when we talk about very discipline-specific topics or models, to then extrapolate out to how such things might be used, or be inspirational, in other fields.

But it's a struggle.  I like your division into two different paradigms, and I think I'm going to try to keep shifting us toward the second.  Have you seen this kind of thing in your own meetings recently?