Blog Post

Digital Humanities and Pedagogy

As I recently inducted HASTAC scholar I wanted to briefly introduce myself and one of the issues in digital humanities that i'm interested in exploreing here. As my bio says, I'm a doctoral candidtate in Northwestern University's Screen Cultures Program and I'm currently teaching through the Gender Gtudies Program. 

This quarter (which begins tomorrow) I'm ditching Blackboard for a Wordpress course blog, in the hopes that it will help foster more active and productive online dialog among students. In the past, I've tried to use the message board function on Blackboard, but it never really works. I think the clunky design has a lot to do with it and I'm hoping that the clean look and user-friendly interface of Wordpress will make things better.

I would love to hear about other instructors's experiences with using Wordpress or similar platforms in and out of the classroom, and I invite you all to have a look at my course site here though at the moment the section where students post content is password protected because I'm a little concerned that making that public might hinder students willingness to fully participate. I'm also curious to hear other perspectives on that. 

As the quarter goes along I will update this blog with reflections on how the process is going, so stay tuned!




First, I should introduce myself- I'm a doctoral candidate at UW Madison's School of Education studying Digital Media and Literacy, with a background in English Ed. and Philosophy. 

The implmentation of learning management systems in higher ed has always irked me. They can be used for wonderful things (e.g., distributing course materials, collecting assignments), but they also fail in many areas (especially 'community oreinted tasks'). I think you are wise to move to another platform, but I fear you will encounter similar resistance from the students. I agree that one reason why Blackboard is "terrible" is due to its design. But there are other factors at play: essentially, through online forums we as teachers are trying create a participatory culture within the classroom. Yet,  I believe one of the core factors of any participatory culture is that participation is voluntary. As long as forum posting is a requirement of the course, teachers will encounter some form of at least initial resistance. One might argue that students voluntarily sign up for the course, and, therefore, the compulsory forum-posting should be encompassed within that volunteerism. Yet, I would argue that  students expectations play a large role in the types of tasks they are willing to engage in. Interacting with peers outside the classroom is often more than most students are willing to do. We can ponder why this is so... but that is another topic entirely. 

In short, I think the platform move is a great idea. But the trick lies in getting to students accustomed and willing to engage in a practice they (most likely) believe they should not or would not rather not have to do. Tieing forum participation to grades is often posed as a solution, but that only reforces the mandatory nature of the practice... It's a tricky subject!


This experiment sounds very interesting, Beth. I look forward to reading your thoughts about the experience.

Foster more active and productive online dialog among students seems to always be a challenge. i wonder if the problem is really technological, or if it's more social and motivational, ie., forced participation rather than personally interesting conversation.


Hi and welcome to HASTAC!

It's always good to question the technologies we use in our courses - especially in relation to concepts of 'productivity' and 'activity' around online participation. For me, I am really interested in creating community in my classes- and I try to use online spaces, where appropriate, as part of that endeavor. This takes the focus off of mandatory participation - which can often seem like faculty creating busy-work - and creates a space for continued informal conversation and feedback.

I've used various forms of online participation over the years, and different classes and students handle them quite differently - some love it and participate eagerly, while others I'd go so far as to say hate it- primarily because it's just one more 'place' they have to check-in and do something.

Last semester I tried something different - and I've written a little about the pedagogy behind it - which was to assign them the task of figuring out what sort of online presence they wanted to have, and then to build that space. They all had to agree on the technology, but they also had to come to a consensus about what the space was for, and what their responsibilities would be. This resulted in the students deciding what would count for 20% of their grade.  And, they did a fantastic job. They organized themselves and came back with a completed Tumblr blog, and a signed statement by every member of the class agreeing to what they would be doing, and when, on the site over the course of the semester.

Here are the basic requirements I gave them:

Collaborative course website planning and build

technical requirements:

  • all students and faculty must have equal access / administrative rights

  • all students and faculty must have individual access/login to post content

  • the ability to post multimedia (images, video, audio, slideshows, flash) as                          attachments/uploads as well as embedded from other sites (like youTube, Vimeo)

  • the ability to comment on each other’s work

  • the ability to organize content by linked key words

the work-plan requirements:

once everyone agrees on on the particulars of the site, you need to put this in writing, and all members of the class must sign it. The plan should document, in detail, what the site will be used for, how it will be used, and what the requirements are for grading. You will lay out the plan for the semester, the goals for the site, and the ways in which the class will be using it on a continuous basis.

They decided to take on way more than I would have been able to assign them, and they consistently did more than their stated minimum requirements. They took the time to really respond to each others' posts and assignments, giving suggestions and feedback, asking questions and answering each other. They even used a Facebook group to remind each other to post on time. Overall I was really impressed with their dedication and responsibility to each other and to the class as a whole.

I will definitely do this again, however, it is probably important to note that there were only 13 students in the course, and although it was a 200-level course, it was mostly 3rd and 4th year students. I'm sure it would be different with a larger group.

Hope this is helpful in some way!




This first comment is not a comment on the technology per se, but one thing I find myself concerned about is the proliferating amount of work that is required outside of class time for students (a not so great thing) as more professors experiment with blogs and other participatory platforms (a really good thing).  How do we keep a reasonable balance (by our standards, not theirs), especially when the extra work is mandatory?

I've found when participatory platforms are used in innovative ways or at least in ways that feel integral and organic to the course students are more willing and are even eager to do the work, but when the participatory work feels like an afterthought or an add-on there is less enthusiasm. 

Professors might gain more cooperation from students if they were clear about how the digital interactive piece fits into the overall goals for the course.  Is the interaction a space to continue interesting class conversation or for points students wanted to bring up but didn't?  Is it a space for making students recount the their reading as either a way to make sure they understood it or as a way to make sure they are doing the work? Does it make sense for your course?  To paraphrase a quote from the 1995 remake of the movie Sabrina, "More isn't always better.  Sometimes it's just more." 

Jarah, I really like what you did and it sounds like it paid off! Beth, the more we keep thinking through how we use digital interactions and are willing to make adjustments, the better the experience becomes.  I also advocate taking a few moments during the semester to check-in with students: is the experience working the way you, as the professor, envisioned and/or explained to them?  What might be changed to help them get more out of the experience?  Sometimes students appreciate that type of transparency--even if they don't enjoy it, at least they know why you want them to do it and what you hope to accomplish.

I will be interested to hear more about your experience this quarter, Beth.  Good luck!



Thanks to everyone for sharing your experiences and thoughts about moving away from BlackBoard and other learning management systems. Beth, your course site is beautiful and clean compared to my slightly messy-looking one, which I developed for a similar purpose as yours. I am inspired!

For my course this semester, "Tales of Gotham: NYC in Fiction," I added a semi-private section on my WordPress for each of my three classes. It has worked out very well. Students use the site to make blog posts, but they also use it to post their Prezis (which they create to lead class discussion and for presentation of research) and other web-based that they've used for projects. It's a great way to collect all their work in one place.

Most of my students had no experience with WordPress or blogging. In anticipation of this, at the beginning of the semester I assigned a small group of students to research a presentation on blogging, one that included an argument for academic blogging. They then modeled academic blogging with a post. With my students' permission, I featured one of those presentations and posts on the public side of my website. Time permitting, I plan to add more.

My students are thrilled to have left BlackBoard. They hate it. As I tell my students on the first day of class, in this course they will learn to use WordPress and other digital tools that they may encounter in their careers. BlackBoard is mostly a derivative of what is already out there, in more robust form and usually for free. But being a skilled BlackBoard user will impress few people outside of academia.

As TJ mentions, voluntary participation is a potential issue. Yes, participation in the class blog is mandatory. So is commenting--I have to require it, or students won't do it. Everything else in the class is mandatory, too. Though the class blog and comments are mandatory, and therefore a somewhat articifical experience of blogging, students nonetheless are learning how to blog and comment within in this contrived setting. That way, in the future, whether for their job or for pleasure, they will already have the skills in hand to dive right in.


Thanks to everyone who added commments to the post. We are nearing the end of the brief quarter system, and I have some reflections on the Wordpress site.

First, I will never go back to Blackboard (unless they radically change their interface). The site has proved to be an ideal platform to post requirements, assignment due dates and instructions, and links to readings and streaming video, and external resources like research guides that our libraians provide. 

However, I think the interactions on the site remain mostly limited to conversations between me and students -- I post announcements and assignment details that they read, and they create posts that I read. In retrospect, I think this is ok. I have come to agree with TJ and Chris that participatory culture is necessarily voluntary and that fostering participation requires much more than a technological intervention. 

Ultimately I'm happy with the function of the website as a centralized location for all course-related materials and I will continue to use it in future classes. The question of how to better promote (and whether its very important to promote) online participation remains open however.