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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.

Mobilizing Student Scholarship for The Map of Early Modern London

The Map of Early Modern London has been driven by student research and student researchers since its inception as an intranet site in 1999. MoEML, a digital atlas of Shakespeare’s London based on a bird’s-eye map of the city, was made available on the internet in 2006, attracting since then about 400,000 hits per month. My graduate and undergraduate courses on the literature of early modern London invite students to design projects and short essays suitable for publication on MoEML. As research assistants, technical assistants, and contributors, students have encoded; designed databases; undertaken primary and secondary research for encyclopaedia-style articles on London streets, sites, and cultural activities; collated primary texts; built concordances; transcribed and annotated early printed texts; added to the site bibliography; augmented the site personography; and determined the precise location of sites and boundaries. Working collaboratively with me or with their peers, students learn to deploy their expertise in the digital environment. They take ownership of their projects in extraordinary ways because of the public nature of the project.

Mapping as Storytelling: Occupy and Beyond

You can view my slides here.

Before this semester, when I thought of fostering the digital humanities in the classroom, I imagined mostly how I could create the conditions in which my students could build a critical thinking skillset. Paul Fyfe has written elegantly, in “Digital Humanities Unplugged,” about “How can we incorporate the opportunities of digital pedagogy without presuming its discontinuity with nondigital tools and methods.” This approach seems exactly right to me, with its emphasis on the shifts in thinking–about design, audience, problem-solving, and collaboration–that working with tools can occasion.

This digital show-and-tell will display two gmaps and one failed Yahoo Pipes experiment to spark discussion of key pedagogical outcomes I learned from these experiences:

1. A map is a storytelling device. Without a clear conflict or problem to narrate, its geospatial precision loses meaning.

2. Finding an audience for a map is more important than I thought it would be in students’ apprehension of its value. Mapping’s role in the panoply of Web 2.0 tools we studied became apparent when student work found an audience.

3. My vision of what collaboration on a map would look like and how it actually played out are starkly different, not because of the tool’s affordances but because of how students invested time and emotion into the project.

When I designed Fall 2011 assignments, I intended that students would build gmaps as cultural histories of a place. But then I shuffled elements of the syllabus so that my students had the cognitive and digital tools to track Occupy pretty much from its inception. We’re an advanced social media class, and I could tell from the first stirrings on Twitter that Zuccotti Park was going to be an important instantiation of social-media-fueled civic participation. I didn’t know then it would also be a watershed moment for citizen journalism.

Two of my students built an Occupy gmap that was one of the first to track the diasporic spread across the United States (and later, across the world). About eight other students contributed content to the build, but it was just Nicole and Mark who actually dropped pins on the map. They posted the map at 9PM on Sept. 27. Overnight it attracted 187 hits. Three days later that number skyrocketed into the thousands. Within two weeks, the map had over 25,000 hits.

My talk will also feature two other student works: a failed Yahoo Pipes RSS aggregator, and the robust gmap students created to promote MLA 2012’s Electronic Literature Exhibit. I will also briefly discuss why I jettisoned my original assignment–to map a cultural history of a place–even though students loved the assigned readings and initially were enthusiastic about its possibilities. We ended up going for a more conventional close reading. These points of contrast will show that story, more even than ease-of-use and distribution, ought to be the key consideration when crafting map-based student assignments.

How to Not Read a Victorian Novel

This exercise in distant reading or “not reading” uses a set of accessible and freely-available text analysis and visualization tools on the web to encourage students to build their own methods of interpretation. It is structured as a paper assignment, but essentially works like a humanities lab report. Students are given a defined set of steps to locate, manage, visualize, and analyze a text file of a novel that they have never read before. While the exercise can work for just about any electronic text students can access, I use “the Victorian novel” as an object of inquiry because it is in the public domain, it is often long, and it exemplifies a genre about which students may have preconceptions (or hypotheses). Actually running the exercise turns out to be alternately fun and frustrating, causing students to rethink their basic interpretive approaches and to imagine new ones. The end results of their papers are not stable claims about knowledge, but self-conscious reflections about the limits, contingencies, and opportunities of alternative modes of interpretation. In other words, students are invited not only to play with some entry-level tools of the digital humanities, but welcomed into the heady disorientation or productive alienation that several notable digital humanists have claimed as its most distinguishing intellectual characteristic.

Creativity and Digital Pedagogy in the English Composition Classroom

At Georgia Tech we are encouraged to teach composition as multimodal and to design assignments that incorporate all aspects of communication.  Gone is the mandated five-paragraph essay and in its place is the possibility of creating a blog, a Dipity time-line, a word cloud, or a Prezi.  My assignments frequently set up a series of tasks and objectives but allow students to complete those tasks in a variety of different ways, using their choice of digital format.

The space for creativity that this opens up has been exciting but challenging, and I will use my presentation to present some of the potential benefits I see in pushing student creativity to the forefront of the composition classroom along with some of the possible problems and pitfalls. For the display portion of the presentation I will showcase a “digital mapping” assignment from my current English 1102 “Literary London” course, along with the detailed assignment, the objectives, and the assessment rubric.  The maps the students are producing include both“geographical” maps like a Google map of locations and landmarks in Oliver Twist or an interactive, annotated map of Mrs. Dalloway’s journey around London, and “digital mapping” projects which visualize data such as the statistics on the plague victims in Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year or use word- and tag-clouds to analyze the occurrence of dialect and slang in Oliver Twist.

Some of the questions and problems implicit in my presentation, which I will address in my discussion or introduction, include:  To what degree should we expect our students to be creative or original?  Is there a place for that in the composition classroom? What are the problems with encouraging creativity in the classroom – does creativity mean  “free-reign” or “multiple submission formats,” or “harder to grade”?  Is there a point at which digital pedagogy becomes too much about the technology?  How do we insure that the students are cognizant of how these creative approaches to teaching and assignments are meeting the course objectives and, more importantly, how they are equipping them with the skills they need to succeed in all kinds of careers?

Putting Edmonton on the (Google) Map

In this demo, we will describe and analyze English 486, “Producing the City” (taught Fall 2009). An experimental course co-taught between Dr Heather Zwicker, Associate Professor of English, and Dr Maureen Engel, E-Learning Manager for the Faculty of Arts, English 486 is a hands-on, theoretically grounded capstone course in multimedia installations that takes the city of Edmonton, Canada as inspiration and object. Based on principles of collaboration and student-centered learning, the course required students to listen to the city, look at the city, move through the city, and explore the meanings of home. The sensory experiences of sound, sight, and movement were translated through student projects using digital photography, simple mapping, soundscapes, and video. Each of these assignments served as a scaffolding exercise to prepare students for the final collaborative project: a KML-authored installation in Google Earth.

A course like this raises multiple questions about discipline, pedagogy, theory, and technology. Our presentation offers a critical commentary on our successes and shortcomings, and demonstrates the importance – and surprising payoffs – of doing this sort of work with undergraduate students in the traditionally low-tech field of English literature.

Specifically (and depending on the direction of the MLA Roundtable) we would be prepared to talk about/demonstrate:

  • the course’s intellectual aims and technical models, its grounding questions: what is a city, what is a map, how do Geographic Information Systems organize information, how do humanists organize spatial information, and how does the concept of “space” translate into “place”?
  • the pedagogical implications of team-teaching digital media, for both instructors (we had to figure out how to set and evaluate digital assignments and how to let students figure things out on their own to a much greater extent than we were used to) and students (for whom the biggest challenge was not the technology, but rather the collaborative nature of the assignments; students also had to figure out how to translate and adapt rhetorical techniques to the digital realm, and how to exercise critical skills on the visual culture ubiquitous to their personal, if not their academic, experience)
  • sample assignments and grading rubrics for the photo essay, the urban soundscape, the collaborative video, and the multimedia map installation, as well as an analysis of which assignment the students found most challenging (soundscape) and why
  • demos of actual student projects (we secured ethics clearance from our students for academic presentations)
  • a critical analysis of the digital tools we used for representing Edmonton and samples of other creative cartography models, such as Imagining Toronto, City of Memory, Hitotoki, Concrete Dialogues, the London Sound Survey, the Montreal and New York Sound Maps, Christian Nold’s biomapping projects, Open Street Map  and Hypercities.

We are comfortable talking about this material in a range of ways – polished presentation, poster session, demo booth, laptop chat, pecha kucha, to name a few possibilities – but place a priority on dialogue. We would like to engage fellow conference participants in discussions about the aspects of this course that interest them the most, and we are extremely keen to see and hear what our colleagues around the US and Canada are doing in the area of digital pedagogies.

Google Maps and Censorship History

During the fall 2010 semester at the University of Texas at Austin and in affiliation with the Digital Writing and Research Lab, I designed and taught an English course on the theme of girlhood in twentieth-century banned novels.  I challenged students in the class to examine the censorship history of the novels under discussion, including such novels as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (1992).  How and why did these coming-of-age stories become sites of contention and controversy?  My presentation at the MLA Panel on Digital Pedagogy will demonstrate the central role that Google maps played in my class.  At the beginning of the semester, I posed the question of what a geographical exploration of the critical reception of a given novel might reveal about “the text in the world”—how the novel circulates culturally.  Over the course of the semester, students created Google maps of each novel’s reception and censorship history.  Exploring the cultural work that writers and novels do in terms of geography was not only visually interesting (the students found it a fun and novel way to approach the task of contextualizing literature), but often yielded surprising insights, as well.  In a Google map presentation on Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, for example, one student found that although the novel addresses U.S. southern culture, it was most famously banned in the northeast, and its most prominent honors came out of LGBTQ circles in New York City and San Francisco.  The student was surprised that the novel, which he interpreted as first and foremost a portrait of domestic abuse, has been so widely recognized for its contribution to the LGBTQ canon.  As a Digital Pedagogy roundtable participant, I would discuss the challenges and rewards of incorporating Google maps as a pedagogical tool; I would showcase the Google mapping orientation exercises and assignments that I created, and display a few exciting examples of student-created Google maps. 

Collaborating on Geospatial Timelines with Students

While many debate the definition of the digital humanities, whither its political concerns lie (see Liu), and indeed “who’s in and who’s out” (Ramsay), what has largely escaped examination is how the digital has the potential to alter pedagogy.[1] As transformative as Franco Morretti’s distant reading and Paula Findlen, Dan Edelstein, and Nicole Coleman’s “Mapping the Republic of Letters” are for research in their fields, adapting their methods to the classroom allows literary visualization to reach and engage a much larger number of people.

In this electronic round table, I will demonstrate the interactive geospatial timelines that my students and I have collaboratively built using simple tools: HTML, Google Docs, and Google Maps. (For example, see timelines my students built in 2009 and 2010.) After choosing years to research, students in my survey of American literature classes identified events that had a broad effect on American life. For each event, students wrote brief descriptions, found representative images or video, and plotted locations’ latitude and longitude. As they added this material to our simple database in Google Docs, the students could see the timeline and its accompanying map updating dynamically. In addition to demonstrating the project, I will discuss the assignment and the students’ successes and failures. Finally, I will address (and hope to prompt a discussion of) the time required not only of the students but also the instructor in designing and integrating digital tools into coursework.

Giving our students digital assignments helps them understand form, rhetoric, and plot in new ways. But such pedagogy also provides the opportunity for them to learn new, transferable skills that—like reading, writing, and critical thinking—strengthen students’ ability to continue multifaceted examinations of literature and language, no matter what professional path they ultimately choose.

Works Cited

Forster, Chris. “I’m Chris. Where am I wrong?HASTAC: Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory 8 Sept. 2010. Web. 1 Mar. 2011.

Liu, Alan. “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities.Alan Liu 2011. Web. 1 Mar. 2011.

Mapping the Republic of Letters.” Web. 1 Mar. 2011.

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. Verso, 2007. Print.

Ramsay, Stephen. “Who’s In and Who’s Out.Stephen Ramsay 8 Jan. 2011. Web. 1 Mar. 2011.

[1] An important exception to the contrary is a September 2010 definition of the digital humanities by Chris Forster, which makes pedagogy one of four ways to “do” digital humanities.