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Introduction to Digital Humanities (Again)

I’m home for the third snow day in a row, for the second time in as many weeks. The snow is already melting and pretty soon there won’t be anything left of it apart from the trace on our cameras. So it seems appropriate that I take this chance (in between brewing cocoa for the kids and charging batteries) to create a similar trace of a couple of projects that have recently come to fruition. I had hoped to blog about each of these previously, but instead they got quick shout-outs on Twitter. So consider this post and those that follow an overdue announcement or two.

Introduction to Digital Humanities (Spring 2014 Edition)

With the start of the Spring semester, I’m lucky to be teaching my undergraduate Introduction to Digital Humanities course again. The course is largely based on the one that I designed and taught for Fall 2011, but with some key differences. Chief among them is that I dropped the majority of the “What is DH?” essays with which I began the class. What I discovered in 2011 and what Ryan Cordell has talked about as well is the fact that students don’t care about this question. Most of these essays are very much focused on a discipline’s historicity or stake some of their claims on issues related to scholars communication. While important subjects and vital for graduate students who want to do something in digital humanities, neither of these are topics that are of much interest to undergraduates. In that 2011 course I found myself having to explain tenure and promotion, just so the students could get a handle on some of what people kept talking about in the different essays and blog posts that we were reading. As valuable as Matt Gold’s Debates in the Digital Humanities is, there just isn’t a good undergraduate-level text/book for digital humanities yet. If only I had time to write one…

Instead, the course continues to be project-based, with a few short essays to contextualize the work that we will be doing in each of the sections. Steve Ramsay is perhaps the patron saint of the class and allowed me to present to the students that the digital humanities is about building (of course) but even more importantly about screwing around (PDF). The projects, I’ve tried to tell the students, aren’t guaranteed to work or to teach us the end-all, be-all about a particular text. But if we get a slightly different perspective thanks to their approach, we will probably learn something. Indeed, I’m contrasting Ramsay’s screwmeneutics with my own preferred definition of digital humanities: computer-assisted pattern recognition followed by interpretation. Hopefully as we play with different texts and tools, we’ll see something new that prompts a need to think differently.

As I said, this is an updated course. The field has moved rapidly in the last two and a half years, and I wanted to take some of that into account. This is what is driving the final assignment for the class, in which my students will be digitizing all of Hemingway’s texts and then doing some topic modeling and learning NOT read his work, à la Paul Fyfe and Jason Jones. And I hope to be doing a little bit of social network analysis, even if that just means drawing the networks on the board rather than using a tool like Gephi of NodeXL. All, again, in the service of pattern recognition. And for the first time, ever I’m using a spoke model (pace Boone Gorges) of blogging, where students have to buy their own domains and create everything from scratch.

But as far as updates go, I wish that I would have had time to consider more changes than I was able to. I very much believe that there is tremendous pedagogical power in being able to say, “I’ve never done this before. I don’t know if it will work.” And so I’ve been conflicted about any of the repeats that I’m using in the course, including the Mrs. Dalloway project. Of course, my wife has told me that it’s also worth occasionally giving students projects that you know will work, so at least one outcome is good.

When I designed my last course, I thanked a number of people whose work directly shaped it. All of those people continue to deserve my good will. But it’s worth calling out a few other individuals who were helpful as I planned this iteration: Ted Underwood and David Mimno were helpful in bouncing around ideas for topic modeling something of an appropriate scale and interest. Stewart Varner was the person who prompted me to stop thinking about Whitman and instead consider someone whose work I knew better. I spent a lot of time looking through Miriam Posner’s recent DH 101 class at UCLA, and asking myself if my course should be more technical. My desire to compete is probably why the students did end up making a domain of their own. Paul Fyfe, again, was an inspiration for the final assignment. But I owe the most to Ryan Cordell. His first “Technologies of Text” syllabus in 2011 (and which he first taught in 2012) was how I decided to emphasize projects in my last class. His newest iteration of that course as well as his graduate seminars continue to inspire me, even as we diverge in important ways in the final product. His influence can be felt in some of my course policies, which I revised this year and even in the choice of URL for the course website, since I realized that distinguishing by semester and year was far easier than trying to write different addresses with variations on “Intro to DH.” My students and I benefit greatly from the generosity of these scholars.

The one place I had to draw the line was picking the theme for the blog. Pedagogy might be more about theft than anything else, but one must have some principles. It’s a good theme. Check out the site: http://briancroxall.net/s14dh/.

The last time I taught this course, I found it interesting to consider the fact that a 300-level English course intended for majors drew so many from other fields and broke gender norms for English classrooms. So as a parting shot, here are the numbers for this iteration.

 

Pie chart showing the majors in my class

Although I have 22 students, 10 of them have double majors, which accounts for the total being greater than the number of people in the classroom. Taking the English and English & Creative Writing students into account, only 7 of the 22 students (or just under 33%) come from the discipline where the course is being offered. I’d like to say that this says something about the appeal of the class (or my teacher evaluations), but it probably has more to do with the class being listed as fulfilling a writing requirement.

A pie chart showing the gender breakdown (55% male) of the class.

Perhaps it is also the fulfillment of this writing requirement that is leading to the number of men enrolled in the course. I can say anecdotally that this is a high number for English classes at Emory. And since the undergraduate student body is 56.1% female, there is real evidence that the ratio here is not what one should expect.

TL;DR: Everyone loves DH.

Edited for redundancies.

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Writing ≠ Papers

This semester I’ve been kept busy not just with the different projects I’m managing at DiSC but with a completely redesigned first-year writing course. In keeping with the other 75% of my work, the class has explored the intersections of literature and technology. We’ve considered the past visions of the future while reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer; the representations of factories in 19th- and 20th-century American fiction and film; and the role intersection of photography and poetry in the amazing Bellocq’s Ophelia by the new US Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey.

For the last section of the class we are reading Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. And then we’re reading it again, exploring Dave Morris’s interesting adaptation and highly visual retelling of the novel as an iOS app. As we read, we’ll only ask ourselves what it means to retell a story about technology on a completely different device than that for which the story was originally designed. Juxtaposing the two experiences will hopefully help us see how the assumptions of print pervade the world of Victor Frankenstein and how our reading is shaped by the physical nature of the written word.

So often, the work of the writing classroom is similarly constrained by the physical nature of the written word. Students are asked to produce papers of a certain number of pages or of a certain number of words. The university requires that the students in these classes produce a total number of pages of writing over the course of a semester. It’s a quantitative approach that treats writing as countable, with arguments subjugated to the realm of the numerical.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se. I firmly believe that practicing writing is the best way to get better at it. And practicing per force requires writing frequently and in volume. But it’s also become increasingly important for me to realize that most of my students will never be English majors and that even if they should be, they most likely will not regularly produce essays about literature. I have spent most of the semester teaching them the ropes of college writing, preparing them for the next three and half years (or—to be honest—five years). But now it’s time for them to practice a different form of literacy.

For the final assignment in my class, the students will storyboard an interactive experience for Trethewey’s book of poems (click through to see the entire assignment). Working in groups, they will describe how they would combine her poems with the photographs that inspired them, couple them with music, and create a navigation structure. Or how they will refuse to do any of those things. The end result will be for them to again confront the relationship between literature and technology but in this case, they will act as a different sort of author. Still critically engaged, still making an argument, they will nonetheless think about how these acts need not happen in discrete pages or words. That’s the hope, at least. And it suggests a different function of writing or criticism at the present time than either Matthew Arnold or the majority of our teaching has yet to recognize.

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The Future of Undergraduate Digital Humanities: Call for Abstracts for DH 2013:

Next July and the next Digital Humanities Conference might seem very far away (to say nothing of Nebraska), but it turns out that the due date for the call for proposals is right around the corner. Consequently, Kate Singer and I invite 250-word abstracts for a panel on The Future of Undergraduate Digital Humanities. Abstracts are due to the both of us no later than Friday, 26 October 2012.

This project grows directly out of our conversation following our poster presentations at this year’s DH Conference. Just in case particular universities’ accounting departments wanted to know if the trip was time and money well spent.

The Future of Undergraduate Digital Humanities

With the increasing number of digital humanities job listings, postdoctoral fellowships, and graduate programs as well as the swell in digital pedagogy, it seems an opportune time to think closely about how the digital humanities will shape undergraduate education. New jobs and fellowships presuppose undergraduates who have been and will be introduced to conversations of the digital humanities as well as humanities faculty who will teach them. Because such infrastructures are still very much in flux, the digital humanities in undergraduate education is an area that scholars have only recently made inroads into seriously debating (Brier 2012; Reid 2012; Davis and Alexander 2012). This panel considers how our notions of the digital’s role in the humanities might be recalibrated if we make undergraduate education a more central preoccupation. Building on recent, compelling discussions of infrastructure and curriculum for digital humanities graduate programs (Clement 2010; Thaller et al., 2012; Boggs et al., 2012) as well as roundtables on alternative careers (Nowviskie 2011), dynamic new constellations for undergraduate education are emerging from the interactions among new computational methods, classroom spaces, reimagined curricula, and alternative career paths for college graduates.

More than simply creating students to enroll in new graduate programs, introducing the methods of the digital humanities to undergraduates provides opportunities for them to do something traditionally reserved for students in the sciences: original, collaborative research (Blackwell and Martin 2009; Norcia 2008). Working individually or as entire classes, students can experiment with new methods as they are being developed concomitantly by scholars, creating knowledge via new analyses and new approaches. Moreover, digital humanities has arguably brought discussions of pedagogy back to the forefront of academics discussions, with online journals such as Hybrid Pedagogy and The Journal of Interactive Pedagogy and Technology, Brett D. Hirsch’s forthcoming collection Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles, Politics (2012), multiple panels on digital pedagogy at the 2012 MLA (Harris 2012; Berens and Croxall 2012) and a digital pedagogy unconference at the 2013 MLA (Croxall and Koh 2013), Brown’s seminar on TEI and pedagogy (2012), a dedicated track at recent Digital Humanities Summer Institutes (Harris, Sayers, and Jakacki 2012; Jakacki 2013) and several poster presentations at recent Digital Humanities Conferences (Bonsignore et al., 2011; Harris 2011; Singer 2012; Croxall 2012).

This roundtable seeks to broaden and deepen current debates about both the role of digital humanities in an undergraduate education and the possibilities for pedagogy, as digital praxis, to alter how we organize and teach undergraduate students.

Questions that panelists might consider include the following:

  • What are best practices for project-based, research approaches in the undergraduate classroom?
  • What are the most important trends and practices in digital pedagogy across disciplines?
  • What departmental / university infrastructure and support are necessary for a digital humanities undergraduate curriculum?
  • Should undergraduate digital humanities work primarily consist of a computational means of studying humanities or a means of studying digital culture?
  • Is digital humanities a methodology or a topic of study? How can the two approaches be best integrated in the undergraduate classroom?
  • How do we integrate both digital humanities as a computational praxis and also digital culture as a topic of study (Reid 2012)?
  • How do we redesign curricula to incorporate both dh courses and incursions into traditional disciplines?
  • How might we envision curricula to be redesigned in the future with digital tools and digital critical thinking in mind?
  • Is digital humanities something that should be based within particular departments? Or is it something that should be taught across all humanities undergraduate departments?
  • How can we prepare students for work at the graduate level?
  • How does digital pedagogy sit under the big tent of digital humanities?

Please send proposals of 250 words or less to Kate Singer and Brian Croxall by Friday, 26 October 2012.

Works Cited

Alexander, Bryan and Rebecca Frost Davis. “Should Liberal Arts Campuses Do Digital Humanities? Process and Products in the Small College World.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minnesota UP, 2012: 368-389.

Berens, Kathi Inman, and Brian Croxall. “Session Proposal.” Building Digital Humanities in the Undergraduate Classroom. 28 Nov. 2011. Web. http://www.briancroxall.net/buildingDH/2011/11/28/session-proposal/. 17 Oct. 2012.

Blackwell, Christopher and Thomas R. Martin. “Technology, Collaboration, and Undergraduate Research.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 3.1 2009. Web. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/1/index.html. 17 Oct 2012.

Boggs, Jeremy, et al. “Realigning Digital Humanities Training: The Praxis Program at the Scholars’ Lab.” Digital Humanities 2012. University of Hamburg. 18 July 2012. Poster presentation.

Bonsignore, Beth, et al. “The Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry: A Design Case Study of an Alternate Reality Game.” Digital Humanities 2011. Stanford University. 21 June 2011. Poster presentation.

Brier, Stephen. “Where’s the Pedagogy? The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minnesota UP, 2012: 350-367.

Clement, Tanya. “An Undergraduate Perspective.” Digital Literacy for the Dumbest Generation. Digital Humanities 2010. King’s College London. 8 July 2010.

Croxall, Brian. “Courting ‘The World’s Wife’: Original Digital Humanities Research in the Undergraduate Classroom.” Digital Humanities 2012. University of Hamburg. 18 July 2012.

Croxall, Brian and Adeline Koh. A Digital Pedagogy Unconference. Modern Language Association Convention. Boston. 3 January 2013. http://www.briancroxall.net/digitalpedagogy/. 17 Oct. 2012.

Harris, Katherine D. “Pedagogy & Play: Revising Learning through Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities 2011. Stanford University. 21 June 2011. Poster presentation.

Harris, Katherine D. “Acceptance of Pedagogy & DH MLA 2012.” triproftri. 14 May 2011. http://triproftri.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/acceptance-of-pedagogy-dh-mla-2012/. Web. 17 Oct. 2012.

Harris, Katherine D., Jentery Sayers, and Diane Jakacki. “Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities.” Digital Humanities Summer Institute. University of Victoria. June 2011 and June 2012.

Hirsch, Brett D. Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics. Open Book Publishers, 2012.

Jacacki, Diane. “Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities.” Digital Humanities Summer Institute. University of Victoria. June 2013.

Norcia, M. (2008). Out of the Ivory Tower Endlessly Rocking: Collaborating across Disciplines and Professions to Promote Student Learning in the Digital Archive. Pedagogy 8(1): 91-114.

Nowviskie, Bethany et al. “The “#alt-ac” Track: Digital Humanists off the Straight and Narrow Path to Tenure.” Digital Humanities 2011. Stanford University. 22 June 2011.

Reid, Alexander. “Graduate Education and the Ethics of the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minnesota UP, 2012: 390-401.

Singer, Kate. “The Melesina Trench Project: Markup Vocabularies, Poetics, and Undergraduate Pedagogy.” Digital Humanities 2012. University of Hamburg. 18 July 2012.

Thaller, Manfred et al. “Digital Humanities as a University Degree: The Status Quo and Beyond.” Digital Humanities 2012. University of Hamburg. 18 July 2012.

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Why the 2013 MLA Digital Pedagogy Unconference Isn’t a THATCamp

A few months ago I wrote about the Digital Pedagogy Unconference that Adeline Koh and I had organized. I’m pleased to announce–both here and over at ProfHacker–that the long dark night of the soul has passed and you can now visit our website and register for the unconference, which will take place on the morning of 3 January. It’s worth mentioning that the registration for the event is limited to 50 people and will be done on a first-come, first-served basis. So if you’re interested in playing along, please don’t delay in signing up.

Since this conversation isn’t likely to happen elsewhere, I wanted to explain briefly why Adeline and I decided to host an unconference rather than a THATCamp and why we wanted to do it at the MLA. In doing this, it’s worth saying that I’m trying to capture conversations that we had in the Spring and that any mistakes or bad ideas are surely the product of me and/or my memory and not Adeline’s.

To recap what we wrote in May, we wanted to host an unconference at the MLA to continue to broaden the sort of formats that one sees at the MLA. There has been a lot of change and growth in the conference in just the six years that I’ve been attending. Along with the traditional three- or four-paper panel, you can now regularly expect to see roundtables. These roundtables can be comprised of people giving shorter talks, some of them structured in the Pecha Kucha format. (In all fairness, I attended a roundtable at my first MLA in 2006.) Roundtables these days can also be electronic, with people giving demonstrations of projects, tools, or assignments. Our goal in bringing an unconference format into the MLA is to continue to expand the diversity of offerings at the Convention. And we hope that as goes the MLA, so too will other conferences eventually go. For this reason, it was also really important for us to have the event be an official part of the MLA program. We wanted this to be a change that happened not from the outside but from within. We have been grateful for some cheerful advice from MLA staffers and officers as we’ve worked on different parts of the event.

So if we were going to have an unconference at the MLA, why didn’t we just turn it into a THATCamp? After all, we’re big fans of THATCamp. I’ve been going to the one at CHNM for the last four years and participating in its related networks has led to many fantastic opportunities. We had two compelling reasons, however, for not working within the rubric of a THATCamp. First, because we wanted our event integrated into the official MLA conference program (see above), it would have to be limited a three-hour time period. That’s about as long as one or two sessions at a THATCamp and, to our minds, that short time does not really a THATCamp make. Of course, since a THATCamp is an unconference, one can always adjust as necessary, but it seemed to depart far enough from the model that it made sense to conceptualize it differently.

But our second reason was more important still. As great as THATCamp is, it’s not the only unconference that exists, as Tom Scheinfeldt, Dave Lester, or Jeremy Boggs would quickly tell you. But within academia—or at least in the humanities, where I spend most of my time—unconferences have become synonymous with THATCamp. And I don’t think that’s healthy. After all, since THATCamps privilege the intersection of the humanities and technology, there’s a good chance that some people might think that the unconference model has nothing to offer them if they aren’t interested in combining their research, teaching, or service with technology. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony of Adeline and I offering an unconference on digital pedagogy!) If we’re interested in shifting how the academy works, the last thing we want is to restrict particular methods to a subset of people. I want to be sure that scholars from all corners of the university understand they can use the unconference model for rethinking what it means to interact professionally with colleagues and in connection with their research, no matter what that means to them. The unconference is just one more tool, and I think we do well to realize it can be more than just THATCamp that makes use of it.

Of course, if you think we’ve made a huge mistake in not hosting a THATCamp, you’ll be pleased to know that THATCamp MLA has been organized by Adeline’s and my ProfHacker colleague, Ryan Cordell. If you’ll be in Boston on 2 January, think about dropping by. And then come to the digital pedagogy unconference (unTHATCamp?).

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Original Digital Humanities Research with Undergraduates: A Poster at Digital Humanities 2012

I’m quite happy to be presenting a poster at the 2012 Digital Humanities conference on a research project I tackled with my undergraduates last year in Intro to Digital Humanities. We tested two volumes of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry for the differences that she herself felt existed in the work. First we read the two volumes and discussed them over two weeks, using traditional close reading approaches. The students explored the related poetry notebooks in our Special Collections to see how her drafting of the poems may or may not have differed. And then we started text analysis to test what we intuited from our “traditional” approach.

What I think is most important in this project is that it gave the undergraduates a chance to do something new. They weren’t asked to write me a paper about an Emily Dickinson poem that five years of previous students had already analyzed. We were doing something that had never been done before, that no one could have known to test before. And that’s exciting. (If it works on grad students, why wouldn’t it work for undergrads?) Finally, I got to tell them up front that we might not even learn anything worthwhile from the process, but that we would spend 5 weeks doing it–just because.

Future classes of mine will build corpora of other of Duffy’s volume, and the project will continue to grow. Who knows what we’ll know in the end…and that’s the whole point.

The poster is below. Click on it for full-sized PDF. Everything is CC-BY licensed; let me know if you want original files.

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