DH in the classroom, or “We successfully made nothing!”: thoughts on Digital Pedagogies THATCamp 2013

How best to integrate the digital humanities (or digital scholarship more broadly) into existing undergraduate and postgraduate provision has troubled me for some time. It seems to me that the natural home for this is in the skills/methods/theory modules that form core elements of most humanities programmes. Yesterday I facilitated a session at the Digital Pedagogies THATCamp loosely called ‘Teaching DH in two weeks’ (my original proposal). The idea for this ‘Make’ session was for participants to develop the framework for a two lecture, two seminar block on digital humanities / digital scholarship (hereafter DH/DS) that could be reused and remixed by colleagues in the sector (with a focus on the humanities).

What did we achieve you might ask. The short answer is nothing. Having divided ourselves into groups, no group came up with any concrete recommendations. This was not a case of disinterest. Anyone whose been to a THATCamp will know they operate on a ‘unconference‘ model, whereby participants pitch their sessions at the start of the day, the audience votes for the session they wish to attend, and the schedule is built from there. My pitch received the joint highest number of votes. So there was interest in the problem at hand.

So, as you might then expect, although we made nothing there was plenty still to take from the exercise. The main discussion points I took away can be sumerised as follows:

  • Is this about tools or theory? I challenged the groups to come up with seminar tasks that didn’t require the use of a computer (perhaps ‘having read text X and seen how tools can be applied to data, develop on paper a prototype tool that could answer an interesting research question using dataset Y’). This seemed controversial in some quarters, but there was general agreement (citation needed!) that having a DH/DS session in a library computing lab would not be good way forward.
  • That said, librarians and archivists were considered useful allies in communicating the benefits of DH/DS. I especially liked the idea of students being aware of the process – at a high level – of turning an historic object into a digital object, and critiquing the relationship between the two (Alastair Dunning’s remarks in this regard seem timely).
  • Start with what you want students to be able to answer. I suggested to the groups that they consider possible readings, lecture topics and essay questions in addition to seminar activities. One suggestion, which falls more in the category of good critical pedagogy rather than being specific to developing a short DH/DS programme, was to start with the question you want students to answer and work from there. I see this as very important for teaching DH/DS. I can’t imagine the convenor of a methods module for undergraduate historians would want students to write an essay on digital literacy. Who wants to mark an essay on ‘What are the disadvantages of using Google as a research tool?’. Rather questions on the value of a particular method seem more appropriate, for example ‘Explain and critique Moretti’s method of ‘distance reading” or ‘Is Digital History any different from History?’. Starting assessment ensures the session can remain focus on digital scholarship as opposed to merely matters ‘digital’.
  • Collaboration. For me the most disruptive element of DH/DS is not the use of technology by practitioners but their use of collaboration. For the most part, the readings we set for undergraduates do without question imply that humanists work alone. This is of course nonsense. Hermits do not produce good scholarship. Rather what we see as a thank you in a footnote is what colleagues in the sciences see as co-authorship. This is neither the time nor place to debate authorship models. All I’m getting at is that one potentially effective means of communicating the benefits and values of DH/DS can be done through setting readings with multiple authors (hopefully students would see the problems with this particular article…), preparatory tasks using platforms where collaboration is mentioned explictly, and tasks or assessments which require collaborative working.

So although we made nothing, we successfully failed to make nothing. Together we demonstrated that as an approach DH/DS can be introduced in a week or two week (3-6 hour) slot, without becoming a glorified ICT lesson.

The task now is to actually make something that can be reused and remixed. I’ve made a start (right here, sorry to those who hate Google and/or Google Docs) and welcome your comments, suggestions and improvements. Perhaps if the will exists, we could formalise these efforts in the near future.

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