Prepping for the digital history class

This afternoon I’m teaching the first class on Digital History taught at Washington and Lee University. This is a one-credit class that is part of our DH Studio series, which is a set of one-credit lab courses for the humanities. I’m not a historian. I’m a librarian. I’m a technologist. And I’m fairly confident in saying that I know as much about Internet technologies as anyone. And what I don’t know off-hand, I know how to learn quickly. And that knowing how to learn technologies is one of the core concepts I’m emphasizing in the course.

History, the study of the past, is the context in this course through which we will study digital methodologies and tools. One could adapt this same course, with some variation, to the study of other disciplines: literature, journalism, sociology, anthropology, art history, politics, and so forth. The examples utilized would be different and certain approaches would vary. But a commonality exists among the ways that digital media facilitates discipline-specific inquiry. At the undergraduate teaching level it’s particularly important to emphasize that these digital approaches are not restricted to the academy. These skills transfer directly to a career in practically any industry and line of work, whether private or public.

I strongly feel that liberal arts students, particularly those studying the humanities, are in a very advantageous position to pursue technology-based careers. Without wanting to sound arrogant, I always cite myself as an example. As an English major at a small liberal arts college I avoided technology as much as possible. There wasn’t much of it around in the mid-1980s anyway. But when I got to graduate school, I was dragged kicking-and-screaming to the computer. I came to realize that technology was all about logical thinking. Learning a new technology was about breaking down complexity, identifying the logical components, and piecing together the structure. That’s the same process I had learned in studying literature, history, religion, and philosophy. I was very comfortable as a liberal arts student in dealing with ambiguity. But technology is not at all ambiguous.


The first day of class

As a one-credit course this class meets only once a week. We’re scheduled to meet for two hours every Thursday afternoon in the IQ Center, which is a great facility for collaborative learning. Students are expected to bring their laptops to class since there will be a lot of hands-on learning. The first hour of each class will be discussion. We’ll have a conversation about the resources, methodologies, and tools we’re examining. One of my goals for any undergraduate class is that I really want these college-age students to develop an ease in communicating and collaborating with someone who is thirty years older. That’s how life is in the workplace. You don’t just work with people your own age.

The second hour will be hands-on. And it’s likely that we won’t always meet for the full two hours, but I wanted to have the time blocked out so that the students could have time with me every week to work with the tools.

The class enrollment is small: only 2 students. Understanding why the course is so under enrolled is a post for another day, and a talk I’m giving at the upcoming DLF Forum. But, actually, it’s great just to have 2 students. And it’s especially great for them. Talk about the benefits of small class size! That’s why you go to a small liberal arts college: not to be stuck in an auditorium with dozens of other students.

The small class size means that attendance is really important. And the discussion should be a lot more engaging. Class participation 30% of the grade.


Course structure

This class could serve well as a companion to a regular history course. But there are a lot of logistical issues in scheduling a one-credit course as a co-requisite to a three-credit course. I needed to find some historical context in which to explore the digital methodologies and tools. I decided to focus on the history of Washington and Lee University (W&L). The namesakes of the university lend enough historical material, much of which is controversial (particularly with Lee). But the course is not primarily a history of W&L. The historical matter is simply a context. And that’s what makes this course different from a history course. Students will learn a lot about W&L history, but that’s not the primary goal of the course. My expectation is that this digital history course will continue year-after-year and the projects developed through this course will build on each other every year. Ultimately, through this course, we aim to develop a digital research environment for the study of W&L.


Case studies

To gain an informed understanding of digital history we will explore a few projects. A project we will examine closely is the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS). The legacy of slave ownership is relevant to the history of W&L. And from a digital perspective, the LBS site is an outstanding example of digital scholarship that also demonstrates the connection to print scholarship through the scholarly book that was produced by the project team.

Other projects we will examine include the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, Visualizing Emancipation, and Photogrammar.


Course project

As a lab course, we need to centralize our work around a course project. Our starting point will be to learn about the shift in student demographics at W&L over time.  Some still think of W&L as a Southern institution, but any conversations with students on campus today quickly reveal that the student body includes many from New Jersey, Massachusetts, and other Northern states as well as the midwest. But how do we quantify and visualize that information?

And there’s the strong assumption that W&L students historically have been from the South. We will collect the data to show exactly where W&L students have come from over the years. We will develop an interactive map that visualizes the origins of W&L students from 1790 until 2015. In this Fall Term we will not complete every year of that data set, but we will establish the structural foundation and create version 1.0 of the interactive map.


It’s almost time for class. In another post I’ll review one of the methodologies (prosopography) that we will be exploring as well as a key tool (CartoDB).


Digital storytelling: past and present

For the last 15 years I’ve been on this path: exploring the intersection of databases and narrative.

Stories have always attracted me as the ideal form for understanding life, both present and the past. Perhaps more importantly, I have envisioned my future as a series of stories that I’ve told myself. I’m fascinated with how stories give us the capacity to reinvent ourselves. Stories, in the form of myths or religion (if you must), give structure and meaning to our lives.

As a librarian, the foundation of my profession is built upon carefully organizing information to be used by others. That’s a very valuable function within society, but it’s not enough to satisfy my curiosity. In this digital era, the database is the access point for discrete chunks of content that can be queried and analyzed. Consequently, those parcels of information can be reshaped into stories.

Any reader informed by media studies will notice that I’m channeling Manovich.

What prompts these musings yet again? Next week I start teaching two courses: digital history & multimedia storytelling design. Both courses examine ways of presenting narratives on the web. My co-teacher for multimedia storytelling design is a journalism professor and most students are journalism majors. We’ll be exploring how you tell a web-based story about a contemporary issue. In digital history I’ll be examining with the students how you tell a web-based story about an issue in the past. Both forms of storytelling rely heavily on primary sources and are structured as narratives. Both forms of storytelling rely on content that is organized and structured.

I’m looking forward to the next four months of teaching digital history and multimedia storytelling design. It will be interesting to see where those two courses intersect.


Models of digital humanities/digital scholarship

These are my notes for my brief talk at Iliads 2015 panel on models of digital humanities/digital scholarship.
Over the last three years a group of faculty, librarians, and IT staff at Washington and Lee have met regularly to explore what model for DH would work at our institution. The group is chaired by Paul Youngman, professor of German Studies. It’s particularly good to have someone in that role like Paul, who can convey a lot of enthusiasm about DH to other faculty.

I want to say that we use the term DH, digital humanities, because the dean of the college, who is also an english professor, likes that term. And she’s the champion of our efforts. My advice is to find the term that works best at your institution: dh, digital liberal arts, digital studies. But don’t agonize too much over the name. More important is what you do than what you call it. 

So, the DH working group sets the vision and direction for our initiatives. But the actual work is done through a collaborative group called DHAT, the digital humanities action team. There is significant overlap between the working group and DHAT to ensure good communication. DHAT is co-chaired by our DH librarian and an academic technology specialist. 

I want to say something about staffing. The success of these initiatives is entirely dependent upon the people who collaborate with faculty and students. (I’m talking about the librarians and IT staff.) I don’t like to use the word “support” because it really is more of a collaboration.  As a librarian, I can say that digital scholarship is simply what a library does today. Libraries, today, do not function without technology and digital media. Many librarians think about these issues all the time. 

You need to get the buy-in of the leadership of your library and/or IT organization. Those are the organizations that have the financial resources to make digital scholarship a priority. I do need to stress that every college has its own political issues. What is successful at one place may not be at another.

At W&L we have redefined several positions. We have a digital scholarship librarian who is focused on digitizing, scholarly communication, copyright, and is our Omeka expert.
In my position as AUL, I put about 75% of my time into developing these initiatives. That’s because the library has made DH a priority. And even though we use the term DH, we don’t limit ourselves to the humanities. I do a lot of work with our journalism dept and would like to do more with our business programs, particularly with regards to data science.

This year our humanities reference librarian retired after 30 years. And we decided to restructure that position as a DH librarian. And Mackenzie Brooks, who was previously our metadata librarian, assumed that position. And I’m going to let her talk about our curricular efforts regarding DH.

More information about DH at W&L can be found at


Wrapping up the DH 101 course

Okay, so I completely failed at my attempts to blog daily about our DH 101 course. I want to blame the fast pace of the mini-Spring Term that meets daily for 4 weeks, but that would be just an excuse. So, here’s a recap:

Day 4: Visit to the Scholars’ Lab at UVA:  this really turned out to be a highlight of the course. The feedback from the students on this experience was very positive. Undergraduates at a liberal arts college don’t often get the chance to interact with graduate students in the humanities. Providing undergrads with the opportunity to engage in conversation on a scholarly topic with students just a few years older can be a stimulating experience. As our students talked about their project I could see that they were really starting to get into the topic.

Day 5: Brandon Walsh and Sarah Sorti from Scholars’ Lab came down to W&L to teach this session on project charters and Web design.

Day 6: I gave the class an overview about how the Web works, i.e., all those things I take for granted that I’ve learned over the last 25 years about the Internet. By the end of class each student had acquired a Web hosting account and personal domain via Reclaim Hosting. For this course the students ended up not using their hosting account or web site but that was due to the nature of their project. However, I think it’s perfectly feasible for students to use their own hosting accounts for course-based projects. I’ll definitely be trying this approach when I teach Digital History in the fall term.

Day 7: My co-teacher Mackenzie Brooks introduced the students to the concept of metadata and cataloging and why that’s important in creating digital projects. She had the students do a great hands-on exercise where they identified key terms for material relating to the students’ project.

Day 8: Jim Ambuske from Scholars’ Lab came down to talk about history and mapping.

Day 9: Jon Eastwood, Associate Professor of Sociology at W&L, led a fascinating session on social network analysis in the context of the course project. He showed a number of examples of how to use R to visualize and analyze patterns in publishing data from literary history.

Day 10: Project work day.

Day 11: Cecilia Marquez from Scholars’ Lab came to talk about Postcolonial DH.

Day 12: Lesley Wheeler, Professor of English at W&L, gave the class a presentation about the poetry of Ezra Pound since he formed a major component of their DH project.

Day 13 – 15: Project work days.

I’ll add some reflections on the course in a future post.



DH 101: Day 3

This day was divided into two parts. The morning was a talk by Charlotte Roueché of King’s College London, who is visiting campus. Her talk was titled, “Mapping, or Rediscovering? What does the ‘Digital Turn’ mean for the humanities?”

In the afternoon session we talked about the students’ first assignment, a blog post where they described their understanding DH so far. We also had a debrief about yesterday’s visit to Special Collections, and conversations about the videos about DH that they have watched so far. We’re taking a seminar/lab approach to this course. Rather than us spending an hour lecturing about DH, we have students watch videos of various scholars talking about DH. That frees up enough time for a good discussion.

One aspect of DH, or any type of research, is learning what is happening within a particular field. Building off of the visit by the scholar from King’s College London, we created an assignment for thet students to pick a researcher and explore that person’s research profile and research network.

Tomorrow is the visit to the Scholars’ Lab at UVA, so we prepped for that. It’s time that they really started thinking about their project.


DH 101: Day 2

A short class for day 2, only 90 minutes. (Our mini Spring Term is quite crammed.) This was a really fun day since we met in Special Collections and looked over a lot of material relating to the Thomas Carter Collection, which will be the focus of the students’ DH project. Most of this material we just acquired in the last few weeks. Lots of fascinating stuff including zines from the 1940s and 1950s that Carter collected (and occasionally published in). Also examined a set of rare editions featuring Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis. As a bonus, the students got a tour of the vault by our Head of Special Collections. He never takes students into the vault, so that was quite a treat. He starts pulling out a letter from George Washington, and more goodies. What does all this archival material have to do with DH?

We asked the students to watch a video talk by Jeffrey Schnapp, who posed the question, “What if cultural asssets could live in a browser environment and not in storage?” For the class project, the students have to conceptualize, design, and implement a digital research environment for the study of liteary networks, particulary focused on the Shenandoah literary journal published by Washington and Lee. That’s a tall order for within 4 weeks. Obviously, they won’t complete all of it. Part of the challenge is narrowing the concept to something manageable in the available timeframe. We wanted them to have the base understanding and experience of directly handling archival materials. Seeing the actual letters that Ezra Pound wrote to Thomas Carter with advice about editing literary journals makes the project real.







DH 101: Day 1

Our DH 101 class met for the first time today. Washington and Lee (W&L) has this 4-week Spring Term in which students only take one 4-credit course. The way we’re teaching DH 101, it should really have been called Literary History: An Introduction to Digital Humanities. If we teach this again in the Spring Term, then we’ll try to call it that. The reason for this approach is that we wanted to build the course around a specific structure (e.g., literary history) and not just as a survey of DH methodologies and projects in the wild. We felt that it’s important for undergraduates to have a more concrete focus in order to understand DH.

I’m co-teaching the course with Mackenzie Brooks, our Metadata Librarian. This is the second DH course Mackenzie and I have co-taught. The first was a 1-credit course on Scholarly Text Encoding. Our Spring Term course DH 101: An Introduction to Digital Humanities has only 3 students. That’s a great thing about a small liberal arts college. There’s a long story about the low enrollment that deserves a separate post. This is the second time that DH 101 has been taught at W&L. Last year’s DH 101 course was taught by Paul Youngman (Professor of German) and Sara Sprenkle (Associate Professor of Computer Science). Neither Paul nor Sara were available to teach it this year, so the assignment fortunately fell to the librarians. And it looks like we’ll be teaching this going forward.

We completely rethought the syllabus from how they taught it last year, partly to take into account the experiences and interests that Mackenzie and I have with digital information as librarians. The literary history focus comes from my own research interests into literary networks and a significant archival collection we have about the early years of the Shenandoah literary magazine published by W&L.

The class started by getting the students talking, first about themselves, their career goals, and then their experiences with technology. Due to the nature of our short Spring Term we have a lot of time together in the classroom. The students will spend much of that time working on their group project, but we want the class to be very much a conversation about DH. One of our students, a senior history major, should already be fairly comfortable with DH. She was the first student at W&L to do a digital honor’s thesis and used Omeka for that project.

We asked the students to watch a nine-minute video on DH prior to the first class, which we then used to launch into a conversation about different aspects of DH. What terms were new to them? What questions were raised? Knowing that none of these students plan to pursue a PhD, we’re very aware in this course that we need to relate DH to the world outside academia. We point out how DH methodologies translate to skills in a variety of careers, such as accounting and advertising. One student plans a career in librarianship. Yeah!

We had three hours for this class. We talked a lot about the literary history structure we’re taking in this course. And I should write up a post just describing that in more detail. Then we spent the last hour in a hands-on exercise. We feel that it’s very important in any DH course to get the students doing something hands-on during the very first class. Since we’ll be coming back to the topic of network analysis quite often in the course, we had the students download their Facebook friends and mutual friends via and then generate a network graph using Palladio.

The next class will meet in Special Collections & Archives.


DH Pedagogy and the undergraduate curriculum

This morning I gave a short talk to the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges about our digital humanities initiatives at Washington and Lee (W&L). A couple of my colleagues also presented at this session. My focus was on a concept we’re calling DH Studio.

Formally, we have described DH Studio:

The library and information technology services are developing a series of one-credit lab courses for the humanities and the humanistic social sciences. These weekly courses will give students the opportunity to discuss the context of a topic, examine the important research questions guiding the DH methodology, review exemplary scholarly projects, and gain significant hands-on experience exploring relevant tools. Each DH Studio course will be a co-requisite to one or more full-credit courses in the humanities or social sciences. The studio courses also will utilize student mentors to assist with the classes.

We just completed our first pilot of DH Studio: Scholarly Text Encoding. That course turned out very well, particulary thanks to my colleague Mackenzie Brooks who did a great job teaching the class.

The problem we’re trying to address with DH Studio: how to further integrate DH practices into the curriculum.

W&L has succeeded in introducing students to simple DH tools through the use of timelines, basic mapping applications, blogging with WordPress, and creating short video-based digital stories in iMovie. That’s a great set of basic DH skills and is facilitated by having an academic technology specialist visit the class to provide instruction in those tools.

The students learn the tools rather quickly. But I don’t get a sense that the students really understand why they’re using a particular tool. Why that specific tool and why that tool for addressing a specific problem? Introducing tools to students is a great start but there is a lack of critical thinking among students about the use of digital methods in their assignments.  We realized that the bigger question was how do you get students exposed to more digital practices and do so in a way that requires them to reflect on what they’re doing?

Our DH Working Group and DH Action Team started discussing learning outcomes and adopted the learning outcomes from the Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities (pdf):

  • Ability to integrate digitally driven research goals, methods, and media with discipline-specific inquiry.
  • Ability to understand, analyze, and use data.
  • Develop critical savvy for assessing sources and data.
  • Ability to use design critically.
  • Ability to assess information and information technologies critically.
  • Ability to work collaboratively.

As one colleague remarked, “those are lofty goals.” Digital Humanities bring variations to the set of critical thinking skills that undergraduates should learn. But how do you get those outcomes from students when even the majority of the faculty have not yet reached that point?

As I see it there are at least three ways to approach DH pedagogy in the undergraduate curriculum:

  1. one-time class visits
  2. full or partial integration
  3. lab/studio

One-time class visits work for small assignments that use introductory level tools. This approach also brings the same pitfalls of one-shot library instruction that attempts to teach information literacy. In many cases this may be the only possible method due to curricular constraints. But if the academic technologist or librarian can only come to class once during a term, then the expectations for students to really grasp an understanding of DH is limited. That is, unless the faculty teaching the course is well-versed in DH. Maybe in another decade there will be more faculty that have assimilated DH into their research and teaching. At the current stage of DH adoption among faculty, I’m not very optimistic about students getting much of an understanding of the digital from one-time class visits other than at an introductory level. And there is an important place for that.

Full integration is when the class is actually taught by a professor skilled in DH methodologies. The ideal scenario is for the DH aspects to be integrated into the content and assignments of a subject-based course and not a course about DH itself. (I’m not fully convinced about the value of courses like Introduction to DH, even though teaching one this spring term.) At W&L I’m thinking of courses like Classics in the Digital Age or a German literature course that makes heavy use of DH.

Partial integration are hybrids in which half of the class time is turned over to work with technology. A sociology professor recently completed such a course with the data specialist within the library: Neighborhoods, Culture, and Poverty. The professor received a DH incentive grant to develop the course and worked very closely with the data specialist to integrate census records and other data sources into an ArcGIS project. The class met on Tuesday and Thursday for ninety minutes each day. Considering the complexity of working with data and GIS tools, they decided that Thursday would be a hands-on day with the technology. The students and professor met in a computer lab in the library and the data specialist guided the sessions. This approach worked really well for that course.

Is it desirable to devote half of a course to working with technology? It really depends upon the course and the desired learning outcomes. For a quantitative-based course, then it makes sense. What about a course on the history of medieval Spain? Or a literature course on the Victorian novel? Certainly, there are a lot of ways to do DH in those disciplines since that is, after all, digital humanities. But there are legitimate concerns about diluting the contents of an undergraduate humanities course through excessive attention to technology, especially if the digital focus is more on the mechanics of what buttons to push within software.

The lab option potentially offers a scalable solution that also fosters critical thinking about technology. At W&L we opted for the more humanistic sounding studio as a way of referring to humanities courses with a DH lab. There are three scenarios:

  1. a lab as a 4th credit, just as in science labs
  2. a lab as a separate 1-credit co-requisite
  3. a lab as a standalone 1-credit course

It’s important to note that these should not be considered outsourced solutions. The subject faculty needs to be closely involved with the development and teaching of the labs even though the labs may be taught by librarians or academic technologists.

We’ve not tried the option of a 4th yet. Doing so will require identifying a suitable course and faculty willing to pursue that approach.

As previously mentioned, we had success with the second option in our Winter Term that just ended.  The Scholarly Text Encoding studio was a co-requisite to a 300-level French course La Légende Arthurienne taught by Professor Stephen McCormick. The description of the French course:

Prerequisite: three courses at the 200 level. Corequisite: Digital Humanities (DH) 190. This course introduces students to the Arthurian narrative tradition of the medieval francophone world. We examine the origin and development of Arthur and the knights of the round table, the manuscript tradition in which these legends are transmitted, the concept of le merveilleux, and the role beasts and monsters play in the textual fabric of Arthurian material. The course project, which is completed in conjunction with the digital humanities corequisite studio, aims to create a website on the works of Marie de France, a medieval woman writer. Students learn how to encode text according to the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). The main objectives of this course are to improve students’ reading fluency in French, and to give students an introduction to the field and applications of digital humanities.

Compare with the description of our corresponding DH studio course. A unique aspect of our DH Studio approach is that we’re also opening the studios to enrollment by students not in the aligned course. In addition to the six students from the French course, we had three students who were not enrolled in that course.  The non-French language students worked on a set of Civil War letters from our archives for their text encoding project.

The studios meet once a week for a two-hour session. Since it’s only a 1-credit course, there’s little expectation for work outside the class. Assignments, grading rubrics, and grade breakdown are found on the course site. The class sessions are divided into lectures, discussions, and hands-on work with the emphasis on the latter, especially in the second-half of the term when the students are intensely working on their group projects.

The final project for the French group can be seen at Les Lais de Marie de France. (The site is in French.) It’s important to point out that the grade for the group project for the students in the French course is counted for both the grade in the studio as well as the grade in the French course, but the components of the grading is different for each course.

For Fall Term we’re offering our second DH Studio. This one has a focus on digital history. The original intent was that DH Studio: Digital History be aligned with a history course on Medieval Spain. However, more students registered for Digital History than for Medieval Spain, which was greatly underenrolled. After a flurry of emails among university administrators and pertinent faculty, the decision was made to cancel the Medieval Spain course and keep Digital History as a standalone 1-credit course.

There are a number of theories as to what happen to the Medieval Spain/Digital History registration. Did the co-requisite of the DH Studio tank the enrollment for Medieval Spain? Did the fact that the scheduling of the DH Studio conflicted with a Medieval Art in Italy course have an impact? (We didn’t notice that scheduling conflict until after registration had started.) Did a Medieval Spanish Culture course this Spring fulfill student desire for learning about Medieval Spain this year? Clearly, the logistics of scheduling and avoiding conflicts is the most difficult aspect of adding a separate DH lab component to a course.

One suggestion from a department head has been to make the 1-credit studio optional rather than a co-requisite. From the perspective of teaching the studio that is feasible. But it raises the question as to why anyone in the companion course would register for the studio if it were not required. And an optional studio creates a significant pedagogical burden on the instructor teaching the other course: two types of term project assignments would need to be created and graded. I really don’t think the optional studio is viable due to the pedagogical issues it causes for the companion course.

DH pedagogy at the undergraduate level is still in the experimental stages. Start with the basics by introducing assignments that can be done using readily available tools. But don’t stop there and don’t beat the students over the head with these small DH assignments in every course. A bit of student backlash against DH is developing. Boredom sets in from creating timelines and maps in course after course. We’re trying to figure out how to create a scaffold of DH skills.

An English major met with me to discuss the possibility of enrolling in the Digital History studio this fall. At first, he wasn’t sure if he  wanted to take the course. Then he asked straight out, “What skills will I learn in this course?” He was quite honest: as a senior, he was eager to add skills to his resume.

I described how we’re going to be examining demographic data and creating Web-based data visualizations that will chart changes over time. He got it. He flipped out his MacBook and registered right then for the class.

We’re a liberal arts college. Through the DH Studios we’re trying to create more contact time with the students so that they can build the confidence, critical thinking, and lifelong learning skills needed to work with technology and digital information in their studies and in their careers.


3 things I learned at a liberal arts college

Thirty years ago I was nearing the end of my freshman year at a small liberal arts college. I often recall those days with fondness. An excitement for the future filled me. I have credited my undergraduate education for the person I have become (for better and worse). This evening I challenged myself to list the three most significant things I learned in college.

Immediately, I discarded knowledge of specific subjects. My memory for facts has never been good, though I do appreciate the extensive exposure to Western knowledge that the liberal arts provided me. That foundation has enriched my life immensely. Certainly this familiarity with the arts, history, literature, and the sciences should be one of the significant outcomes of a liberal arts education. But I’m seeking more structural forces that have factored into my life.

The first that comes to mind is that I learned how to write. (Of course,  someone out there will nitpick every flaw of this post.) I never planned on being an English major. Indeed, I struggled through most of those courses. And my interest in literature was never as strong as my love of history or current events. My freshman English teacher would call me into her office for much needed corrections on my grammar.  My notebooks from college are long gone, so I cannot easily reconstruct the amount or type of writing assignments. Yet, the quantity of essays required semester after semester provided intense practice in the skills of writing.

Writing is not just grammar but includes the critical thinking of peering through the layers of a text and then setting out a logical argument to form a finished composition. (I would only learn the real value of editing and revision much later.) Sewanee in the mid-1980s had a very writing intensive curriculum. Written essays also were emphasized in other disciplines. At times it seems like I had an essay due every week in one or the other of the five courses I took each semester. Practice may not make perfect, but it certainly improves one’s skills. But rarely do I remember the term papers. It’s the short and medium length essays that stand out, those assignments that called for either 500 words or 1,000-1,250 words. (In a sense, I learned to write blog postings before the medium existed.) All these writing assignments were reinforced by essay exams, which might be no more than an hour in class writing on one of three topics. It was the structure of the writing rather than the content that I have retained over the years. 

I already mentioned the second thing I learned, which falls under the often vague heading of critical thinking. Educators toss that term around as a desired learning outcome for just about anything, but often without specifying how to achieve it. I view critical thought as thinking beyond the surface to raise questions about why as much as how, especially when such questions are uncomfortable and challenge our beliefs and values.

The Sewanee English department of the 1980s focused on teaching a close reading of texts.  This heavy influence of New Criticism spread to the way I read works in other disciplines. It was only later, in graduate school and elsewhere, that I gained a real understanding of secondary literature. People often seem astounded when I remark that I never used a secondary source in any of the essays for my English courses. I can’t recall if secondary sources were forbidden but English professors certainly didn’t encourage undergrads to research the relevant scholarly literature. At that time, before the age of full-text databases and e-journals, access to a broad range of literary scholarship was limited. Perhaps lack of access necessitated the close reading assignments. But, when you must write a thousand words on a short story, then the result is that you really read that story.

The third thing: confidence in tackling challenging topics. A third-year foreign language requirement was the challenge for me, particularly since I was the odd student who never took a foreign language course in high school. So in my first semester of college I enrolled in Russian 101. That might have been idiotic of me to tackle the most challenging language taught there at the time. I ended up taking 8 courses in Russian. It’s a shame I’ve not made any use of it since graduating. But it’s there in the back of my mind, and I know I could essily brush up on the language and get back into Russian without a problem.

Yet, upon graduation with a superb liberal arts college I could not get a job. I recall a rejection letter from an employer that actually stated I had no skills. That was a bitter experience, particularly since 25% of my undergraduate education was financed through student loans and the payments were looming as I search for a job that was not in retail sales or some other barely above minimum wage position. After two years I was looking at the option of either the military or grad school.

My graduate school education as a librarian coincided with the popular emergence of the Internet. I had always considered myself a typical humanities person dragged kicking and screaming to the computer. It wasn’t an easy transition but I realized that I could develop marketable skills based on the Internet. I’ve had a good career as a librarian focused on Internet technologies. During a career change I even did well as a software developer despite never having taken a course in computer science.

It was those three things that I learned through the liberal arts that has enabled me to do so well with information technology, an area seemingly so far removed from the worlds of Faulkner and Tolstoy. 


TimelineJS & undergrad assignments

Timelines are popular among faculty as fairly simple to do assignments that start students down the path of understanding digital approaches to thinking about a subject. At Washington and Lee we have two timeline tools that we support. One is a locally developed timeline based on the open-source SIMILE Timeline. This is the simplest choice since a developer in the university’s IT division created a Web-based form that drives the data entry. However, the appearance of the published timeline still lacks some polish.

A slightly more advanced approach is the use of TimelineJS developed by the Knight Lab at Northwestern. TimelineJS offers a much richer visual display of the data. We have a tutorial on the use of TimelineJS on our DH website.

Timelines & DH Learning Outcomes

The goal of DH in undergraduate pedagogy is not about the students learning a specific tool. We want to show students how a tool or an information platform can aid in conceptualizing, interpreting, and analyzing research questions in the humanities. A timeline forces students to think about the organization and structure of information in ways that a short essay does not.

Preparing research for embedding in a timeline requires knowing how specific parts of that research maps to the areas displayed on a timeline. For example, TimelineJS has very specific fields like headline, text, and media caption that may not be entirely clear to a student until viewing example timelines. The SIMILE timeline uses different fields. At the core, though, students should understand that structured data provide the foundation for the visual display of information offered by the timeline.

Since TimelineJS is based on a Google spreadsheet, the tool forces students to organize each part of their research into categories. Students with good graphic design skills could certainly create static timelines in much nicer ways with Adobe Illustrator. However, the data in that case would not need to be structured. Either way, though, would present the student with opportunities for thinking about headlines, text, captions, etc.

The spreadsheet-oriented approach is a good time to introduce students to the concept that vast amounts of information can be organized into tables or fields. One can point out that such information structures form the basis for databases and digital tools.

While the process of writing a timeline is different than writing an essay, the student is required to compose explanatory prose for aspects of the timeline. The design of TimelineJS easily allows for 150-250 words or more on a single frame of the timeline. The challenge of writing small chunks of text for the Web is an essential communication skill that students need to master.

A timeline itself is unlikely to be an entire term project but makes for a suitable assignment that can be done either individually or in groups. Keep in mind that a TimelineJS needs to published on a web site that supports the embedding of iframes. That means a site, such as this blog, is not an option. Self-hosted WordPress sites can use TimelineJS, and there’s also a TimelineJS plugin for WP.

Update: Here’s an article I just posted on the university’s DH site about an undergrad British history class creating a timeline of the British Reformations in context.