Archive for category Teaching

Assignments and Architecture: Pedagogy in the Digital Age

Title slide that reads 'Assignments and Architecture' with a hand-corrected print-out on one side of the screen and a upward-facing shot of a building on the right half. The link on this image is for the assignment as the photograph of the building is one that I took.

tl;dr: I gave a talk about digital pedagogy.

Today I want to share a talk. That’s not all that unusual, as I’ve been in the habit of posting such presentations since I began blogging here in 2009. What’s unusual about this one—at least for me—is that it’s a talk that evolved as I gave it as a keynote at three different universities.

Although it’s taken me longer to post this talk than I would have liked, I want to share my framework for theorizing digital pedagogy. This is the rubric I use when working with faculty here at Brown to design new classroom research projects. We can create new and exciting, team-based research projects for our students. Once you’ve tried this, it’s really hard to go back.

I first spoke about “pedagogy in the digital age” at Fordham University in November 2013. I was invited by Glenn Hendler, who is chair of the English Department, to give this talk as well as a more practical workshop on teaching with technology in the classroom. It was one of the first times I had been given the opportunity to tackle either subject in such a broad way, and the setting of Fordham in NYC definitely inspired the direction that the talk took—that, and an episode of 99% Invisible that I had just listened to. I very much enjoyed the conversations at Fordham and was glad of the chance to put together my thoughts about digital pedagogy into a more coherent argument.

When I was asked a few months later to give the keynote at the September 2014 Liberal Arts Scholarship and Technology Summit (LASTS) at Penn State, I took the chance to further refine the talk and its argument. I was invited by Christopher P. Long, who was at the time Associate Dean for Graduate and Undergraduate Education at Penn State and who has since moved to Michigan State as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters. I’ve always admired Chris for the genuine excitement and positive energy he brings to conversations, so I was flattered and happy to spend the time with him and the Penn State community. (Also, land-grant schools tend to have the best ice cream.) My visit for LASTS was combined with a talk at the Center for American Literary Studies’s Symposium on #Alt-Ac, which I wrote about previously. My keynote was recorded, if you want to see the high kick at the end.

Shortly after the presentation at Penn State, I was thrilled to be invited to speak at both St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges in Northfield, Minnesota (home of Malt-o-Meal; the whole town smelled like Marshmallow Mateys!). The two colleges have received a Mellon Foundation grant for collaboration between the two schools, which sit opposite one another across the Cannon River. One of the outcomes for the grant was the Bridge Crossings Events, which focus on integrating and supporting digital technologies into teaching, learning, and research. I made some more changes to the presentation, as well as did some research on the architecture on both campuses, and joined faculty, librarians, and IT staff at both schools in February 2015 for a discussion of Digital Humanities on the Hill. I really enjoyed my visit, thanks to the great library and IT staff at both schools, although I was shocked at how little winter gear people in Minnesota needed compared to a guy from Georgia. If you’re into comparative media experiences, you can also watch the video of this version of the talk. No high kick, I’m afraid.

Again, my thanks to Fordham, Penn State, and St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges for inviting me and giving me the chance to pull together years of praxis into three performances.

N.B. It’s worth saying that there are two images in this slide deck that are potentially NSFW: artistic photographs of nude sex workers, circa 1912.

Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No Comments

Announcing the Open Peer Review of My “Failure”

A piece of printed paper with a red 'FAIL' stamped on it, with the rubber stamp and ink pad sitting nearby.

How’s that for a clickbait title?
tl;dr: You can now do open-peer review on something Quinn Warnick and I wrote,

Way, way back in what feels like forever ago—and perhaps it was given my two new jobs since then—I attended the 2012 MLA Convention in Seattle. That convention was notable for a number of things for me, including a panel that I co-organized with Kathi Inman Berens on “Building Digital Humanities in the Undergraduate Classroom”; a talk that I gave on #altac and the digital humanities; and the publication of Debates in the Digital Humanities. Note that I didn’t have anything to do with the latter, but it’s a book that changed the field and Minnesota was kind enough to buy pizza for the small but growing DH contingent at the MLA.

Also at that convention, I ended up in a conversation about digital pedagogy and the lack of books on the subject, which was thrown into sharp contrast by the appearance of Debates. The happy result is that in the months that followed I found myself engaged on the advisory board of what eventually became titled, Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments. The editors who steered the project—Rebecca Frost Davis, Matthew K. Gold, Katherine D. Harris, and Jentery Sayers—felt that a publication on digital pedagogy probably shouldn’t be limited to print as it simply didn’t respect the medium of the discussion. And fortunately, they were able to place the project with a press that agreed: the Modern Language Association using its tremendous MLA Commons platform. The result will be a book-like publication that is open access and allows for the presentation of original assignments and student work in relation to those assignments.

Even early on in the process, the editors knew that they wanted to organize the volume by keywords that were central to digital pedagogy. Those who contributed keywords would curate pedagogical artifacts and materials in relation to their term. I was both amused and flattered when I was asked by the editorial team to tackle “failure.” It was only a couple of years since I had flailed and failed very publicly in the pursuit of a job and I had since given talks and written articles about failure of one sort or another. It seemed like the FAIL meme had come home to roost and that I should embrace it.

I might have embraced it a little bit too hard at first, and I failed to make much progress in pulling together my thoughts on “failure.” But last November, I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at Virginia Tech by wonderful Quinn Warnick, whom I had met at the DH Conference in 2013. (Kids, never let people tell you that networking won’t pay off.) Our conversations over my time in Blacksburg led me to think that Quinn could be an ideal person to fail with, and we began to discuss what failure meant in the context of our own teaching and that of people we admired. Eventually, we decided that there were four types of failure in digital pedagogy:

  • the technical glitches we have all experienced in our teaching, when something just doesn’t work
  • the difficulties students have in implementing tools that are functioning just fine
  • when students are directed to find failure in others’ work as an opportunity to do better in one’s own, like peer review
  • failure as an epistemology, where students are asked to fail on purpose

Along with articulating how we saw failure working in the classroom, we found assignments or experiences that responded to each of these tiers of failure. We wrote them up and sent it off to our editors.

I’m now proud to say that Quinn’s and my keyword has appeared as part of the open review process for Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities. From now until 18 January 2016, you will be able to tell us exactly how well—or how badly—we failed at describing “failure.” (Consider it a Tier 3 exercise!) Please join in the conversation and let us know what you think:

Image credit: /

, , , , , , , ,

1 Comment

“Help, I want to do DH!”

Man wearing a shirt that reads "staff can halp?" on the back.


I just answered an email about digital humanities. I do this on kind of a regular basis, seeing I’m a certified “Digital Humanities Strategist.” This email was a certain type, however, the one that I think of as “Help, I want to do DH!” I get this question—although it’s not a question—pretty regularly from people, and it’s a hard thing to answer. There’s just so much to say. This is what Bethany Nowviskie was talking about in 2010 when she wrote about the “Eternal September of the Digital Humanities.”

That said, I’m happy to get the question and I’m happy that people are willing to ask me. I just worry, as I expressed on Twitter, that my answers just aren’t going to be satisfactory. Again, there’s so much to say and only so much time to respond to such questions.

Merisa Martinez responded to me on Twitter and observed that people ask these questions because they’re new and because “there’s no one size fits all ‘FAQ’ with DH.” So people ask those whom they think can help them, and when possible I try to answer as best as I can. But given my conversation with Merisa, I figured I might as well share what I wrote to this interlocutor. It’s not a FAQ per se, but it’s a list of things that people might use to get started with digital humanities.

What follows is the text of the email that I wrote to this student. For context sake, he is an MA student who is working with a very good friend of mine from graduate school who now teaches at Illinois State. This friend and I were in different disciplines. The email below has specific recommendations to this individual, but I’ll gloss one of them with a broader rule. I appreciate my friend for referring this student to me and the student for being willing to cold-call someone he doesn’t know and stick out his neck.

Two caveats:

  • It’s still true that even with what follows that there is no one-size fits-all FAQ for DH. This is just my response. You’d get a different one from any number of other (smarter) people in the field. See this post by Paige Morgan, for example, which Merisa and Melissa Terras brought to my attention. Or this post by Lisa Spiro which Ryan Cordell reminded me of. You’d probably get a different response from me on another day.
  • As I say below, it can take a long time to start thinking differently with a computer. Too often we forget that we didn’t start studying a particular field on the first day of graduate school. When I started my PhD in English literature, I had been writing about poetry and fiction for well more than 10 years. If you’re in a language program, you’ve got to count not just the literature classes in college, but those language classes in junior high. We live in an awesome age when you can find most things online—including the answer to “what is digital humanities?”—but the time that it takes for us to learn to think in a particular way is real and it can’t be skipped. Thinking, as Mark Sample has it, can be difficult.

So here you go, my answer on 25 September 2014 to the “Help, I want to do DH!” email.

Hi X,
Thanks for your note. This is a big question and one that isn’t entered into lightly nor, I’m afraid, especially well in an email conversation.

What I’d recommend is that you look for some opportunities:

  • Read. Start with Matt Gold’s edited volume, Debates in Digital Humanities. Take a look at Steven Jones’s The Emergence of Digital Humanities. Hunt down all three of Matt Kirschenbaum’s “What is DH?” articles (1, 2, and 3), even though they’re a bit of inside baseball. Look at Digital Humanities Answers.
  • Explore. Look at different digital humanities projects. Think about how they could affect the work that you’re doing. There are several different things that people mean when they say “digital humanities.” They include the following, and none is “right”:
    • The examination of digital objects from the perspective of the humanities (e.g., media studies)
    • Digital pedagogy
    • Digital scholarly communication
    • Digital collection/archives creation
    • Humanities computing (using computers to help you identify patterns in your text / data that you then interpret)
  • Realize that as far as humanities data analysis goes, there are several different “pillars,” as Elijah Meeks has called them: text analysis; geospatial analysis; network analysis (consider this Coursera course); image analysis; and so on.
  • Look at people nearby who can help. Patrice-Andre Prudhomme in your library might be a resource ( You’re only 60 miles from Champaign-Urbana, and they have a lot of interesting stuff going on there. Consider attending the Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities & Computer Science that happens next month. (The broader rule here is that there might be people at your institution or nearby who are doing this work already. Libraries are a great place to find many of these people.)
  • Get on Twitter and network with people that do digital humanities. It’s where a lot of conversations happen.
  • Think about attending a THATCamp:

Perhaps the main things to think about here are the following:

  • Digital humanities is, in the end, still about the same humanities questions. You should start with questions and then choose a method for investigating based on what will help you get the best results.
  • It can take a long time to figure out what those questions are to be paired with computational methods. I’ve been doing this for 7 years, and I’m only starting to figure out what I feel like are some GOOD questions. Think about how long you’ve been working in your discipline and you’ll realize that there’s potentially a long time to be engaged in something before you’ll hit a pay off.

None of that is to discourage you so much as a way to say that it’s a big discourse and there’s lots to learn.

EDITED: Included Lisa Spiro’s very good post.

No Comments

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:

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.


1 Comment

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.

Read the rest of this entry »