Session Proposal

At the “History and Future of Digital Humanities” panel at the 2011 MLA, Stephen Ramsay discussed the perennial problem of defining what “counts” as work within the digital humanities. Taking what he knew would be a provocative stance, Ramsay declared, “Personally, I think Digital Humanities is about building things. […I]f you are not making anything, you are not […] a digital humanist.” This declaration incited passionate debate in the weeks immediately following the Convention and prompted Ramsay to clarify his remarks: “Building is, for us, a new kind of hermeneutic — one that is quite a bit more radical than taking the traditional methods of humanistic inquiry and applying them to digital objects.” Building allows the maker to look at an object, a text, or some piece of information anew, producing discoveries that would not be found otherwise. The “radical” potential of the digital humanities that Ramsay envisions is that building and interpreting is a lapidary process: slicing facets of the same gem.

Barriers to participation in the digital humanities have lowered during the last five years, as a handful of simple tools permit the creation of digital artifacts that nevertheless yield significant opportunity for interpretation. With a few rapid clicks of a mouse, a scholar can drop descriptive markers into Bing Maps or plot points within Google Earth. In a short time, one can create a rough map of Huckleberry Finn’s trip down the Mississippi River or visualize the approximate size of the titular object in Donald Barthelme’s story “The Balloon,” acts that literally help you see new things about the text. Indeed, the tools to map events and objects are simple enough to be quickly introduced into the undergraduate classroom.

Such ease of use is especially important in this context, where faculty cannot assume that students have prior (or continued) technical training: tools have to be simple to use so that the intellectual endeavor can focus on the simultaneous and recursive practices of building and interpreting. Undergraduates bring various digital skill sets into the classroom, but their preparation as interpreters of text is routinely underdeveloped. Through the act of building, students create new vantage points from which to apply humanistic hermeneutics. What’s more, since undergraduates are accustomed to consuming information without assessing how media shapes their consumption, building digital artifacts helps them perceive the literally built, constructed nature of digital engagement.

In this digital roundtable, panelists will present undergraduate work that has been created in response to assignments designed to foster the building/interpretation feedback loop of the digital humanities in undergraduates. The projects featured present a full range of technical complexity: from low-barrier-to-entry platforms like woices (dropping audio files on a Google map) to multimodal, geospatial timelines of key years in American literary history, to a map of early modern London that students annotate encyclopedically, street-by-street.

The seventy-five minute session will begin with an overview of the projects. Each presenter (or team of co-presenters) will show-and-tell for five minutes. Then attendees will be free to circulate and review the projects of most interest to them for half an hour. The intended audience of this roundtable will include those with different vectors of interest in the projects: novice-to-expert technical engagement; collaboratively produced student projects or individually produced ones; and the degree to which institutional support is required to do the project.  In the final ten minutes of the session, the co-presiders will facilitate discussion among attendees.

Attendees of this digital roundtable will gain: 1) off-the-shelf assignments vetted for optimal implementation, assessment, and desired learning outcomes; and 2) an overview of the wide range of projects, from simple to complex, that engage undergraduates in digital humanities praxis. Implicitly, this roundtable sends the message that “building stuff” is foundational to the digital humanities and, crucially, that the technical barriers to participation can be very low. The ease of clearing professional barriers to begin work in the digital humanities is demonstrated by the diversity of our panelists: tenured and tenure-track professors, a program director, post-docs, a graduate student, librarian, an adjunct, and an E-Learning project manager. Digital humanities veterans and novices alike will find projects at this roundtable that build fresh insights about how they can stimulate both collaborative construction and humanistic inquiry in their undergraduate teaching.

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