Blog Post

Building an understanding of digital humanities through teaching

When I was in my Master's program in the late nineties, I worked in the Special Collections department of the campus library as a digitization assistant.  One day my boss told me to create a web site out of the collection of papers I had been digitizing.  This was before the rise of html editors, so I had to not only design the web site but also learn how to code it.  It took a couple of days for my initial sense of terror to subside, but from what I can remember, this is what my experience entailed: basing the code on another site (e.g. stealing), learning the conventions of the coding language, talking with colleagues about code, reading the papers, organizing the papers, choosing which to include in the narrative of the site, determining what other historical information could inform this collection, designing graphics to evoke the time period, linking the documents together, showing the site to people, explaining its structure, and many, many hours of tinkering, tweaking, and troubleshooting.  I learned more about US involvement in World War I, Gutzon Borglum, and aviation than I ever learned in any course.  (And I doubt there are many courses that offer this combination.)

So when Stephen Ramsay at the MLA2011 panel on the History and Future of Digital Humanities (DH), said, "I think the digital humanities is about building things. If you are not making anything, you are not a DHer," I knew what he was talking about and I dont even consider myself a "DHer."  This provocative statement dissipated when he went on to say that it is essential for students in his program to learn how to code.  Looking at the process of coding as essential to digital humanities warrants further discussion (not in this post) but the idea of building and constructing something while studying a humanities discipline reveals more about the promise this field brings to new learning environments.

Through my experience working with faculty who use technology in the classroom (at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS), Georgetown University ), having students build something or solve a real world problem provides a richer context for learning (grounded in theories from Lave, Brown/Collins/Newman, Bransford, Scardamalia & Bereiter).  Add technology to the mix and suddenly the learning process becomes more transparent and immediate.  So while I was interested to hear the panelists and participants talk about what the digital humanities is and whether or not it is a discipline, I wanted to hear more about the actual process digital humanists find themselves in when building things, what are they building, and who gets to play with the final products?   How are the products or projects being used in the classroom?  Or how do they engage their students in that same building process? 

Ramsay explained that through the process of collaborating with coders, his analytical skills developed in ways he had not expected.  Working with designers and programmers on the corpus of humanities texts made way for new modes of thinking about his work.  He further elaborated on these ideas in a blog post called On Building to fully address what he said about coding and building during the panel.  Given the proliferation of humanities sites that use geospatial technology, he provided a good example about making maps: 

As humanists, we are inclined to read maps as texts, as instruments of cultural desire, as visualizations of imperial ideology, as records of the emergence of national identity, and so forth.  In fact, I would say its at the root of what it means to engage in humanistic inquiry. Almost everyone in Digital Humanities was taught to do this and loves to do this. But making a map (with a GIS system, say) is an entirely different experience.

Yet it is this experience and how one could document it that could provide more insight into how the digital humanities promotes new ways of thinking, theorizing, or drawing connections.  And how do collaborations with technology staff, academic professionals, or programmers feed back into the process of analyzing and theorizing or learning? 

The session itself was broad in scope with each panelist giving his or her thoughts on the future of the digital humanities, so I knew pedagogy was not the sole focus.  Yet particular comments connected to the questions I had about how students could learn from the way professionals in the field worked.  Brett Bobley, of the Office of Digital Humanities (ODH), provided an overview of the various groups of people usually involved in the digital humanities grant programs (please see the ODH Lightning Round Presentations for further examples).  Teachers, researchers, academic technology staff, librarians, and programmers represent the collaborative troops involved in the field.  To further explain the collaborative element of DH, Tara McPhersons (USC, editor of Vectors) comments described how interpretive scholars benefit from this type of collaboration in order to consider new research questions, engage multiple audiences, or explore new genres or forms of arguments.  She argued that while it is imperative to use digital texts available from archives in research, it is also necessary to participate in the production of these forms.

Speaking from the teacher's perspective, Katherine D. Harris questioned whether she could consider herself a DHer if she focused more on pedagogy and bringing the tools to the students -- the actual use of what's being created by big tent digital humanities (blog comment in response to Chris Forster's HASTAC post).  She mentioned Project Bamboo as a promising resource to bring research on humanities and technology to faculty.  Bethany Nowviskie (as channeled through Stephen Ramsay since she was not able to attend) stated that the future of the field lies in how graduate students are trained now and how their work will be valued within academia further adding that these future professionals, are precisely the people wed want to see engaging with the wholesale digital transformation of our shared cultural heritage, already underway.  Alan Liu contributed ideas to not only define the field, but also to defend the humanities within the current political and economic climate using cultural studies as a possible framework. Liu actually started the panel; however, his comments provided a larger framework in which to think about who and what needs to be defended: Digital humanists will need to find ways to show that thinking critically about metadata, for instance, scales into thinking critically about the power, finance, and other governance protocols of the world.  This criticism was coupled with the unveiling of a new resource, the 4Humanities blog aimed to showcase the value of the humanities in this economic climate.  Showing the work described by each panelist within a larger, critical framework may provide more tools to argue for the existence of the humanities.

Alan Lius wish for the field to develop a defensive stance came into play as blog posts made (or made anew) a case for the people working in the field and the skills and service they bring to the workplace.  Following the panel, the first blog post about the panel lauded the extensive, well-earned success of the community while suggesting that the elite, in-crowd feel of the group (due to DH scholars use of Twitter and blogs) may be its demise.  In response to this criticism, members of the DH community deepened the idea of what it means to be a digital humanist (Stefan Sinclair and Matthew Kirschenbaum), what it means to build something (Ramsay), and the important questions yet to be discussed (Neil Fraistat).  However, I noticed in Sinclairs list of what people in digital humanities do, teaching was not listed (although it could have been implicit in many items).  Matt Kirschenbaums reposting of his concise What is Digital Humanities? article mentions digital humanities in its current state as being about pedagogy and scholarship; as one entity, they surface in public ways, they are embedded multiple infrastructure, and they are socially situated in a diverse and expansive network of people.    

How could pedagogy be examined separately in the same vein as Ramsay reflected on his own scholarship? Clearly the views shared in the MLA panel about the value of digital humanities (collaboration and construction) must be transferred in some form to students, as Harris tries to do in bringing the tools to them. As Ramsay himself said, new modes of thinking are being developed through scholarship, but how is this thinking transferred to students (not just the tools)?  Some interesting developments seek to answer these questions in the form of Katherine D. Harris proposal for a roundtable at MLA 2012 and the and the upcoming symposium sponsored by the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies on Digital Humanities, Teaching and Learning in March.

Answering these questions within the digital humanities context will in some ways extend the work of the Visible Knowledge Project (VKP), a project that aligns with digital humanities in more ways than one--especially how alternative forms of "work" count towards tenure. Having worked on this project, this is where a lot of my questions about teaching and learning originate.  VKP consisted of 70 faculty members who developed collectively methodologies to investigate the role of technology in disciplinary learning and made their findings public in multiple venues (traditional and electronic journals, online portfolios, web sites).  In the final report, Randy Bass and Bret Eynon (co-directors of VKP) wrote,

Could we imagine a community of scholars--a small circle or a large-scale network--engaged in a participatory learning project around core curricular issues or ways to teach dimensions of a discipline? Could we imagine an inquiry process that was fluid and collaborative in such a way that enabled ongoing understanding of what is indeed happening in new spaces along all dimensions of learning?

This is the type of inquiry process I imagined when Johanna Drucker questioned (in response to Matthew Kirschenbaum's post) what is important to consider about the digital humanities:

How do digital humanities projects create theoretical, methodological, or artifactual knowledge that can have implications for humanities more broadly conceived? And how can we take the implicit insights we have gained from the last decades and make them explicit?

Johanna Drucker also proposed to create a study in dialogue with others that articulates what is happening in the projects and their implications for the field.  I'm also interested in the implications on learning.  I propose to start the dialogue here if you care to reflect on how your own research in digital humanities affects your teaching?  What is it that you love about the process of building that you then share with your students?  Or if you are a student how are you interacting with digital humanities project in the classroom? 

 

(Incidentally, if you made it this far in the post, the web site I spoke about in the beginning is STILL online (said with surprise and astonishment since this was before I knew how to format with tables).  If interested to see it, click here)

 

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