Over the course of the 2016-2017 academic year, several University of Miami Humanities instructors have boldly experimented with digital tools in undergraduate classrooms to find out what new affordances these tools offer. Three such instructors, Dr. Krista Goff, Brad Rittenhouse, and Marta Gierczyk, experienced successful results with the mapping and text mining tools they used. Though these three instructors see room for growth and development with their projects, all three believe students gained something from using these tools that they would not have gained without them.
Dr. Krista Goff, Assistant Professor of History, has a track record of working with digital tools in her own research, but designed a course which had a digitally-based final project for the first time in the Fall 2016 semester. Prior to coming to UM, she was a postdoctoral scholar at Harvard University, where she gained valuable geomapping experience, and she is currently working on a mapping project which focuses on, in her words, “the politics of suppressing and assimilating non-titular minorities in the former Soviet Union.”
For her undergraduate Global Communisms course, though, Krista was conscious of her students’ differing levels of experience with mapping software and therefore started them off with what she calls a “low-barrier entry” to the world of the digital humanities: ArcGIS Story Maps. According to Story Maps’ homepage, “Story Maps let you combine authoritative maps with narrative text, images, and multimedia content.” In consultation with DH librarian Dr. Paige Morgan and GIS services librarian Abraham Parrish, Krista developed a scaffolded approach to introducing Story Maps to her students in which both librarians offered their expertise and guidance in the form of whole class training sessions and availability for personal appointments.
Because one of Krista’s primary goals in her Global Communisms class is for her students to discover the ways that Communist systems all over the world interacted with and affected each other, a mapping project was ideal for her classroom needs. She says, “I wanted them to understand that the Communist world was very diverse and very mobile, and there were different alliances and different theoretical orientations, and I think that the Story Map really helped to buttress that notion in ways that, perhaps, other elements of the class would not have.”
She explains that plotting data onto an interactive platform with Story Maps allowed students to make realizations that they didn’t make when the data was just information on paper. Describing this as one of the major rewards of using Story Maps in the classroom, Krista explains that her project fulfilled what, in her mind, is one of the primary goals of DH pedagogy: “It’s not just showing you things in a different way, but helping you understand things that you wouldn’t see otherwise.” This perceptive statement of purpose is one that can characterize the projects made by all three of these instructors.
Marta Gierczyk also conducted a mapping project with her Fall 2016 Introduction to American Studies course, but with a different digital tool. Marta used Historypin, a tool that’s described on its homepage as “a place for people to share photos and stories, telling the histories of their local communities.” Because Marta’s course focused on urban centers in the American imagination, Historypin gave her students the opportunity to turn the course’s lens on Miami. Each student selected a keyword related to course discussion and content and then curated an interactive Historypin map (which could include content like photos and videos) based around that keyword. Like Krista, Marta also worked with DH librarian Dr. Paige Morgan to develop her plan for this project.
Describing how Historypin coincided with her classroom goals, Marta says, “Marking up the map of Miami with all of these keywords gave them [the students] a visual cue to consider the city beyond the readily available images of turquoise beaches and lavish lifestyles.” Indeed, locations that students included in their curatorial choices ranged from UM’s Marine Laboratory to an Immigration and Naturalization Services building to the stretch of I-95 that set gentrification rolling in Overtown. The finished product gives the viewer a strong sense of Miami as more than just “a party paradise,” as the class’s map puts it. While mapping software is often used pedagogically to expand students’ understanding of foreign locations, Marta creatively used Historypin as a way of encouraging her students to explore their own current city, a challenging but fruitful task for college-aged students who might tend to gravitate toward certain areas of the city and away from others.
Marta thinks that she is “likely to do a similar project in the future,” but imagines that she might explore alternative mapping tools if she did so to experiment with different display options. She says that her students found Historypin “simple and intuitive to use,” which allowed them to gain confidence with it quickly, but a different platform might be better suited to class-wide collaboration.
Brad Rittenhouse took a different approach than Krista’s and Marta’s whole class projects, offering text mining as an optional project alongside other choices in his American Literature course. He explains that when it comes to methods often used by just a small number of professional humanists, framing and “selling” the tool to the students is key, and part of that framing is letting students interact with the tool on a low-stakes basis when they’re encountering it for the first time. “I really had to sell the project as, ‘This is just for you to explore something new,’” Brad says. “‘I’m not looking for you to make unified arguments; it’s more for you to mess around with a program and see what you find.’” Without such framing, Brad explains, undergraduate students will often be too overwhelmed or intimidated to have an open mind, depending on perceived difficulty of the tool or method.
This approach paid off, as two of Brad’s students decided to attempt text mining with a program called AntConc and wrote insightful “lab reports” that summarized both their findings and their experiences as novice DH-ers. One student wrote about the complex ways color seems to be used to enforce gender inequality in Stephen Crane’s Maggie, and another wrote about how her analysis of Gertrude Stein’s "Tender Buttons" actually debunked a common critical assertion about the text. Both students spoke well of the experience as a whole, even though they expressed hesitancy going into the project. One writes, “For anyone wondering whether to do a digital humanities project in the future, I would highly recommend it. It sheds a light on literature that I had never been exposed to before and it was highly rewarding to accomplish my own research and ideas on the work.”
Ultimately, Brad believes that one of the most important things an instructor using a digital tool can do is to make sure that he or she is using the tool to ask the right questions. “People who are suspicious of DH,” he says, “sometimes don’t understand that it’s good at asking certain questions. So I think being able to set out an example of the ways in which this can help us ask different questions is a good way to introduce them [students] to the concept.”
Each of these professors saw students create meaningful work with digital tools because they took the time to think about their course goals and to find out what tools would best meet those goals. While not every course and not every course objective will necessitate or even lend itself to a digital tool, humanists who suspect that a digital tool might be right for their goals, even those who do not consider themselves particularly digitally savvy, have an expanding horizon of options available to them. All that’s required is a little bravery… and maybe some help from a friendly DH librarian.