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.