Posts Tagged digital pedagogy

The “Next Big Thing” Ten Years Later: Digital Humanities at MLA 2019

This past December, as the semester was winding down, I got a message from Anna Chang, Head of Communications for the Modern Language Association. She inquired whether I would consider writing 500 words or so that summarized the different digital humanities sessions at the 2019 MLA Convention in Chicago for the MLA Newsletter.

Cat typing at a keyboard, with the phrase "This is relevant to my interests" superimposed on the image.

This was, as the Internet says, relevant. I happily took on the assignment and shortly after the Convention had to figure out how to condense everything I had seen into as few words as possible. I overshot the 500 words by more than 50%, but the MLA were good sports about it.

The piece appeared last week in the Spring 2019 MLA Newsletter, and I’m sharing it here with the permission of the MLA.


Almost a decade has passed since, during the 2009 MLA convention, William Pannapacker wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education that “the digital humanities seem like the first ‘next big thing’ in a long time” (“MLA”). He later wrote that he regretted that claim because it had become “a basis for a rhetoric that presents [digital humanities] as some passing fad” (“Pannapacker”). If the 2019 convention is any indication, it should be clear that digital humanities is neither a fad nor passing. Over the course of this year’s convention, I attended a wide range of sessions—many of them standing room only—that focused on the digital either as methodology or as object of inquiry, and I missed as many again since I could not be in two places at once.

Perhaps the most exciting session that I attended featured a roundtable of early-career scholars focused on “critical computation”: the use of quantitative methods to address issues of race, gender, or other aspects of social difference (MLA session 417). The lightning-talk format of this session meant that each panelist spoke for only five minutes, giving me just enough of a sense of their project to have several questions for each of them. Individual presenters discussed, among other topics, the use of sentiment analysis to analyze feeling in poetry from the Black Arts Movement (Ethan Reed); the declining percentage of women authors over the last 150 years, as represented in 104,000 volumes of the HathiTrust collection (Sabrina Lee); cataloging references to the female body through pronouns in early modern poetry (Whitney Sperrazza); and an examination of how women authors are represented in anthologies of literary journalism (Jonathan Fitzgerald). The final speaker, Kenton Rambsy, reported on his work on a data set of 101 anthologies that contain short fiction by black writers. His paper, which, like many from the session, has been deposited in CORE, demonstrates that “anthology editors shaped the landscape of African American literature by repeatedly publishing approximately 30 stories by a core group of [seven] writers,” Seeing the effect of digital humanities training on the research of young scholars was almost as inspiring as the questions of diversity to which they are turning their attention.

Those who worry that digital humanities research ignores the material could have found much to consider in a session called “Bookish Transactions: Publishing. Media, and Materialism.” which pointed to a particular concern with the codex (session 481), Opening the discussion, Lee Konstantinou observed that more attention has been paid to the effect MFA writing programs have had on literary production than on the consolidation of the publishing industry since the 1960s, Matthew Kirschenbaum suggested that we know more about how books were made in Gutenberg’s time than about how they are made today. He then discussed his visit to a production plant for a major commercial printer in Kendallville, Indiana, tracing the entry point of book manuscripts into the building through fiber-optic cables and their departure on pallets along the building’s rail spur. After N. Katherine Hayles spoke about the production of scholarly monographs, the remaining three panelists gave overviews of large-scale, computational work on the publishing industry. Laura McGrath focused on the role of literary agents, Richard Jean So on race and publishing, and Dan Sinykin on conglomeration and neoliberalism. Thetalks highlighted the shared history of digital humanities and book history scholars and suggested, as Kirschenbaum put it, that all scholars should consider the intersection of social justice and supply chain in the question “Who is making your book?”

Multiple panels at the convention focused on the subject of digital humanities pedagogy. Two panels that I organized with Diane Jakacki (sessions 89 and 639) took as their starting point that one’s answer to the question “What is digital humanities?” is most clearly articulated in decisions in the classroom. Panelists pointed to the emphasis in digital humanities pedagogy on process and connected it to the writing classroom (Grant Glass), addressed the utility of digital humanities training at a regional polytechnic university (Mitchell Ogden), discussed the difficulty of digital humanities training within multilingual programs like East Asian studies (Molly Des Jardin), and considered the perils and imperatives of professionalizing graduate students in digital humanities seminars (Lindsay Thomas).

I attended other sessions that discussed everything from digital scholarly editions (session 245) to the far-reaching impact of NEH-sponsored summer seminars on literature and technology (session 350) and missed sessions that covered critical approaches to augmented and virtual reality (session 155), the rights and responsibilities of collaboration (session 487). and the relation between design and fiction (session 635). Such a wealth of offerings highlights that digital humanities is not, in fact, a fad. At the same time, however, the last ten years have made clear that not all humanities scholarship need be digital. Digital humanities is just one method among many that we can use to understand the products and producers of modern languages. In the end, it’s the opportunity to attend—back-to-back—a session that close-reads Hemingway’s relation to his boyhood environs in Oak Park and another that distant-reads his entire corpus that brings me to the MLA convention every year.

Works Cited

Pannapacker, William. “The MLA and the Digital Humanities.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 Dec. 2009. web.archive.org/web/20150908020431/http://chronicle .com/blogPost/The-MLAthe-Digital/19468/.

—. “Pannapacker at MLA: The Come-to-DH Moment.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 Jan. 2012, www.chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/pannapacker-at-the-mla-2-the-come-to-dh-moment/42811.

Rambsy, Kenton. “African American Short Fiction and Data Driven Humanities.” MLA Annual Convention, 5 Jan. 2019, Chicago. Humanities Commons, hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:22239/.

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Screwing Up DH101: My Talk at MLA 2017

Title slide. Two screws pointing up through a piece of wood with the text, 'Screwing Up DH101 | #mla17 #s376 | @briancroxall | Brown University'

tl;dr: I gave another talk about digital pedagogy. Here it is.

About two weeks ago, I spoke at the MLA Convention in Philadelphia. I was part of a panel titled, “DH 101: Revisiting the ‘Introduction to Digital Humanities’ Course.” The panel was organized by Matt Gold and Lauren Klein on behalf of the MLA Forum TC Digital Humanities. My co-panelists included:

I was particularly excited to present with Kathi, as we co-organized a panel on digital humanities pedagogy for the 2012 MLA. But it was great to get to know the work of these colleagues, and the exciting and different ways they are leading development of digital humanities pedagogy at their different schools, ranging from Ivy Leagues to community colleges.

There’s a part of me that hesitates to put this talk up because I talk (at least in part) about an assignment that I have discussed in a previous talk that I’ve published here on my blog. But this presentation gave me a chance to talk through the changes that I had made over the years to the course, and to do a little bit of theorizing—a very little—about what it is that I think matters in digital humanities pedagogy. Spoiler: it’s the last sentence. There’s an essay or blog post to be written about my resistance to “doing things twice,” as that has been an animating tension for me in the development of this and other courses. But I’ll have to save that for another day.

As always, my work is Creative Commons-licensed. Let me know what you think!

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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.

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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, https://digitalpedagogy.commons.mla.org/keywords/failure/.

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: https://digitalpedagogy.commons.mla.org/keywords/failure/.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/phobia/2308371224/ / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

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The Red Herring of Big Data

At the end of August 2013, I was honored to be invited to speak at Fresno State‘s Center for Creativity and the Arts as the first visiting intellectual of the academic year. I helped the Center inaugurate its 2013-2014 theme: “Data and Technology” (PDF). I had the chance to lead a workshop on Voyant, meet many colleagues from English and other departments, and eat some amazing almonds and olive oil grown on campus. I was graciously hosted by the Center’s Director Shane Moreman and a good friend and fellow music lover from when I used to grade AP exams, John Beynon. I appreciated this invitation as it spurred me to organize thoughts that I’d been working on for the last several years.

What follows is the talk that I gave, as well as my slides. TL;DR:

A red, metal fish on a brick wall

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