Giving Thanks, Designing Courses? Reflections on Digital Humanities Pedagogy

December! After a all-too-brief but pleasant journey to the home of a college friend for Thanksgiving south of Boston, I’m back at Harvard, preparing for the last week of the fall semester, reflecting on what’s left to be done while also looking forward to a winter vacation spent in Los Angeles and Germany. Having put a few finishing touches on Chapter One of Developing Powers, concerning the history of the study of Afghanistan in the Soviet Union, this morning, and having sent the manuscript – all of it – off to the office printer, I can rest relieved that I’ve taken care of my biggest task for this first semester at the Harvard Academy: getting a workable version of the book manuscript done. That leaves me with approximately a week-and-a-half to complete the work on my project for Professor O’Neill’s Digital History seminar, which is coming along well, and will, I hope, add to the clarity of some of my thinking as I turn to editing the manuscript over the long Harvard winter break.

No snow in Cambridge (yet), but the winter (and its attendant deadlines) speeds by with alarming alacrity!

In the meantime, however, for our final week’s worth of blogging, we’re invited to reflect on the teaching of the digital humanities, using as a point of inspiration the collection of essays in Debates in the Digital Humanities and an older collection of essays published throughout the first decade of the 2000s by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Reading these essays marks a turn in the focus of the course. Up until now, it’s been mostly about tools and skills: how do I do this? One thinks back to Stephen Ramsay’s position paper at the 2011 MLA, “Who’s in and Who’s Out,” in which he famously remarked that “digital humanities is not some airy lyceum.” DH is supposed to be about doing things, building thingsOr at least so runs the traditional hacker culture-inspired cant. Many young academics, finding themselves hired – for better or for worse – explicitly to teach something called “the digital humanities” will face concrete challenges of what to teach, often at institutions significantly less well-endowed either financially or institutionally than Harvard, George Mason, Stanford, or any of the usual names when it comes to Digital Humanities. What, one asks, are they supposed to do?

We’ve already experimented with some tactics in Professor O’Neill’s course, so it might be worthwhile reviewing some of those techniques first. You’re reading one right now: the course blog, an extension of what I take to be one old tool for ensuring student participation, the weekly response paper. Yet as opposed to those old three-paragraph position pieces we used to shoot off to one another on Blackboard – wondering if they were ever read – I can say that I read almost all of the other seminar participants’ posts this seminar. The serial, vertical reading style that blogs create encourages me to scan what’s come before and what’s after. It’s easier to respond – bombastically or constructively – to what’s come before. Discussion in the seminar afterwards can, at best, feel more like a continuation of the conversation started elsewhere rather than an attempt to reconstruct the crime (everyone’s opinion on a book) from their short response papers.

Yet as someone who’s also accustomed to writing longer-form blog posts (over a thousand words), I also struggle with whether encouraging what is almost always short blog posts (our suggested length was 300 words) encourages the kind of birdseed literacy that one might like to see historians militating against. As I’ve noted in previous posts, at its worst our discipline can seem too obsessed with “the argument” as encapsulated in a 10,000-word article, usually written in flaccid English. Economy matters, too. But, as I’ll come to in a moment, the 300-word blog post rarely challenges the young historical writer stylistically in a way that a longer position piece might at its best.

Professionally, meanwhile, the course blog offers to the young professor an easy way to grow her or his course portfolio – a documentary trail bigger than what your average coming-up-for-tenure professor as recently as the 1990s could have been expected to produce for committees. Not only syllabi but blog posts, comments, anything in the digital detritus left behind by the seminar can come under administrative scrutiny (for better or for worse) when it comes to making hires, denials, promotions, and other decisions over one’s professional fate.

This relates to another tactic we’ve followed in the seminar, and one discussed online, has been the keeping (almost) all of the course readings online. Older scholarship on technology and pedagogy from way back in the era of the dot-com boom suggests that students even then preferred doing primary research (where it was possible) on the Web over trudging to the library – or at least to feeling pressured to learn nothing but facts about the primary documents. Due to the nature of our course, we’ve dealt relatively little with primary sources as such in the teaching; still, I don’t think I’ve been alone in finding it easier to deal with meeting reading and blogging deadlines when I’ve known that getting one item “done” was always just a click away. As we deal with our digital projects, the decision of how, where, and with what level of curation to include primary sources (especially those in Vietnamese, Persian, Russian, Latin, and other languages …) weighs heavily.

Sid Meier’s games – an awesome way to relax when you’re *not* writing, but probably not the best thing to encourage students to write about if we want to be taken seriously by the broader public (and administrators)!

That all said, having done some of the readings on pedagogy, I wonder how helpful it is to divorce the teaching of “the digital humanities” from a pedagogical approach that would remain heavily focused on writing as the core activity of the historian. (Admittedly, maybe some of these questions are on my mind having printed out several hundred pages of prose desperately in need of editorial triage, but excuse the indulgence …) In particular, I find the approach of Mark L. Sample, a professor of English at George Mason (website here) in his essay “What’s Wrong With Writing Essays” misguided. In that piece, Sample starts from what I think is a productive starting point: too often we encourage students to write in a format – the class essay – that is “something that nobody will ever read.” The essay, in short, is read only by the professor. From here, however, Sample spins out of control into a critique of the “traditional student paper” by arguing that

the only thing an essay measures is how well a student can conform to the rigid thesis/defense model that, in the hands of novice scholars, eliminates complexity, ambiguity, and most traces of critical thinking.

Sample goes on from there to argue that he wants his students to “be aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines, all the while through their engagement with seemingly incongruous materials developing a critical thinking practice about the process and the product. I call this type of critical thinking creative analysis.” As an example he offers his “Video Game Studies” class, in which he

asked students to design an abstract visualization of a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) video game, a kind of model that would capture some of the game’s complexity and reveal underlying patterns to the way actions, space, and time unfold in the game. One student “mapped” Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1991) onto a piece of driftwood. This “captain’s log,” covered with screenshots and overlayed with axes measuring time and action, evokes the static nature of the game more than words ever can.

Without parroting the arguments of conservative commentators on education – E.D. Hirsch, Roger Kimball, Harold Bloom, and so on – I can think of few approaches more likely than Sample’s to speed the continued de-legitimization of the humanities in America. Look to the last thirty years of critiques of the humanities emanating from the general culture in the United States, and, skepticism towards critical race and gender studies aside, one of the most common – and effective tropes – is that educators are spending too little time teaching texts and too much time teaching television studies, popular culture studies, and other subjects ending in “studies.” That’s not to say that working on, say, the history of video games, and certainly television or radio isn’t valuable; it’s that, at least at the undergraduate level, where students are unlikely to take more than a few dozen courses during what for most will be their only higher education, it is probably a better use of time, and the dollars of their parents and/or the American taxpayer, to focus on core, and often frankly elitist, forms of cultural literacy. Video games and driftwood engraving aren’t likely to make that cut.

Lest other seminar members prepare to pounce on me, my point here isn’t that DH doesn’t have a place in the undergraduate curriculum at all. It does. What I am arguing for, however, is that as long as DH remains a digital humanity, we don’t lose sight of how it interacts with other hard-won skills that are the bread and butter of any undergraduate curriculum. Among those are composition and writing; indeed, as I put together my Omeka project, one of the biggest challenges is distilling down all of the data I’m working with into a readable and concise story. But doing that doesn’t mean just generating content. It means – as I’m reminded as I scour Widener and Lamont for reading material before I dive back into editing of the book manuscript – reading not only my Edward Tufte for design tips, but also the work of his mother, Virginia Tufte,  whose work on syntax and sentence construction hearken back to an age in which English departments taught grammar and composition in addition to Video Game Studies. The core of some of our projects, it’s true, is likely to be the work that we’ve done in ARC, Gephi, NeatLine, or other digital packages. But narrative and solid composition is crucial, too. It’s important to unify the insights of Tufte the Elder and Younger, teaching composition and writing as indispensable skills to the digital historian. If we want to train students in skills likely to benefit them in the long run, historians’ ability – at least compared to their colleagues in other disciplines – to write with relatively low amounts of jargon has to remain one of our calling cards.

Learning how to work with the software and write better than our colleagues – to say nothing of writing the software, too – is a challenge, but it’s one that we need to embrace as a discipline.


One thought on “Giving Thanks, Designing Courses? Reflections on Digital Humanities Pedagogy

  1. Tony Grafton

    One of the arguments of Academically Adrift is that students actually learn from humanities courses: they come away with enhanced analytical ability and can express themselves more effectively. I suspect that writing essays promotes those skills (as that kind of exercise has, ever since the sophists taught their pupils to compose and deliver speeches, as preparation not only for oratory, but for the cut and thrust of public life). I’m sure good DH teaching can enhance traditional forms. But if the one replaces the other . . .

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