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!

Screwing Up DH101

I’m grateful…

An orange, weatherd 'Thank you' sticker on a sidewalk

…to Matt and Lauren for organizing this panel and for the chance to share this space with many colleagues whose work I have followed for years.

And I’m grateful to the students…

A group of yellow chair / desks in a classroom

…who have taken my digital humanities classes because it turns out I haven’t always gotten things right. That’s why the title of my brief remarks today is “Screwing Up DH101.”

A reprise of the title slide, two screws poking up through a piece of wood with the words 'Screwing Up DH101'

I taught my first “Introduction to Digital Humanities” class in Fall 2011, five years ago. (See the syllabus in MLA CORE.)

A screenshot of a class blog for 'Introduction to Digital Humanities' and the URL to it,

That’s essentially forever in Internet years.

As I prepared the syllabus, I spent a lot of time thinking about a seminar that I had taken in grad school titled, “Introduction to Object Relations.”

A red sign buried almost completely in the sand at a beach. Only the word 'Objects' is visible.

The thing that I most wanted out of the first couple weeks of that course was for someone, anyone—the faculty member…

A wooden door with the words 'Faculty Studies' on it in plastic letters

…my friends in grad school…

A picture of four male beatniks in the 1960s. Two of the men have berets.

…hell, even the ghost of Melanie Klein—

A Playmobil ghost figure, lit up against a black background

…to tell me what on earth “object relations” were. So I knew that I should make sure that first few sessions of my class would provide a definition.

A close-up shot of a dictionary page with the definition of 'macro' on it.

Fortunately for all of us, there had been a fair number of people asking and trying to answer the question, “What is DH?”

A large question mark sculpture

And so I assigned my students some of the best and most pithy pieces…

Two men with bears wearing pith helmets.

…by scholars like Susan Hockey, Matt Kirschenbaum, Kate Hayles, John Unsworth, Julia Flanders, and Bill Pannapacker. And because I was a good digital humanist, I sent them to read blog posts (and comments!)…

A fist with jeweled rings that spell out the word 'BLOG'

…by Chris Forster, Steve Ramsay, Mark Sample, Lincoln Mullen, and Alex Reid.

And let me tell you, my students hated this. One week in, and they were already tired of reading “What is DH?” articles, and we had two more weeks to go.

A black cat with a grumpy look on its face

The problem students had with these pieces is that they explained DH in terms of tenure, scholarly publishing, and the research process. These were all things that were deeply fascinating to me but were useless to undergrads. In other words, the “what is DH?” essays were what Ryan Cordell called “inside baseball” in the 2016 edition of Debates in DH.

A close-up photograph of the threads on a baseball

The rest of the course went pretty well, but it was clear that I had screwed up the beginning.

A pile of screws against a white background

So when I taught the course again in Spring 2014, I spent a lot of time thinking…

A cardboard figure sitting on a stump in a pose reminiscent of the statue 'The Thinker'

…about how I would introduce and define “digital humanities.”

I screwed up again.

A row of screws pointing up. The last screw is larger and shinier than the others.

This time, however, it was intentional.

By way of giving a definition of “digital humanities” for my students, I assigned a single essay: Steve Ramsay’s “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around.” In it, Ramsay uses a library as a metaphor for discussing two approaches to interacting with digital materials: search and browsing. Search is when “I know what I am looking for, and I have various strategies for locating it” (114).

A quotation from Stephen Ramsay's essay 'The Hermenutics of Screwing Around' that reads, 'Search is when I know what I am looking for, and I have various strategis for locating it.'

Browsing, on the other hand, “is a completely different activity. Here, I do not know what I am looking for, really. I just have a bundle of “interests” and proclivities. […] I am really just screwing around” (115).

A quotation from Stephen Ramsay's essay 'The Hermenutics of Screwing Around' that reads, 'Browsing is a completely different activity. Here, I do not know what I am looking for, really. I just have a bundle of 'interests' and proclivities. […] I am really just screwing around.'

In what Steve has told me is the “authorized, but unpublished version” of the essay (I have a PDF, if anyone wants it), he then asks, “Are we ready to accept surfing and stumbling—screwing around, broadly understood—as a research methodology?” (7).

A quotation from Stephen Ramsay's essay 'The Hermenutics of Screwing Around' that reads, 'Are we ready to accept surfing and stumbling--screwing around, broadly understood--as a research methodology?'

Such an approach he terms a “screwmeneutics” (9).

The ethos embodied in this term—the discovery of meaning through playful and purposive browsing—became the clarion call for the class.

A woman in a steampunk costume holding a megaphone with the word 'LOUD' printed on it.

We were going to screw around with texts and see what we could learn in the meantime. This playfulness…

A young girl on a swingset, swinging toward the camera.

…is for me one of the great pleasures of the digital humanities, as students (and I!) break out of patterns for interacting with texts that we have learned over more than a decade in previous text-centered courses.

But all that screwing around…

A collection of screws standing on end on a reflective surface

…is best focused on discrete projects, where the students have some bounds of their play articulated.

A weathered white picket fence.

What’s more, a DH101 course can ask—and hopefully answer!—new questions due to its new methods. Let me give you a quick example with an assignment from my redesigned class.

Our final project was to not read all of Hemingway.

A street art mural of Hemingway's face against the side of a building.

Other digital humanities classes had done this sort of work (h/t to Jason B. Jones and Paul Fyfe) before but, to my knowledge, always with texts that were already digitized. Since Hemingway was in copyright, we had to make our own.

This was a playful process. It involved copies of all of his books and a book guillotine.

A pile of book spines that have been trimmed off Hemingway novels

Time is short, so I’ll spare you many of the details. Just know that we digitized all of Hemingway with each of us working only 4 hours. You can read more about the assignment with the syllabus, which is also in MLA CORE.

For the class’s final exam…

A woman pointing at a 'Final Exam Schedule' list papered against a red brick wall

…the students worked in groups to see what they could learn by processing all of Hemingway through the online text analysis tool Voyant.

A screenshot of the Voyant logo and its url,

What did we find? It depends, of course, on what we asked. But here’s what one group found. They noticed that Hemingway almost always uses the word “said” to introduce dialog. So they mapped that.

A screenshot of students' work in the Voyant Bubblelines tool, which shows the frequency of the words 'said', 'exclaimed', 'screamed', 'whispered', and 'answered' in several Hemingway texts

Interestingly, they discovered that the incidence of “said” has an almost perfect relative frequency across his early novels; and that the frequency drops by half in the late and posthumously published pieces.

A graph of the relative frequency of 'said' in several Hemingway texts, showing a relative drop of 50% halfway through the chart.

Is this evidence of a stylistic change? Or a case of bad editing? I’m not sure—yet. But I do know that through playful exploration, my students stumbled onto a line of inquiry that I had never seen before in Hemingway studies. They learned something new.

An old-style electric lightbulb enclosed in an iron frame

And what did I learn? Play can be incredibly serious.

A brightly painted building iwth the word 'SERIOUS' on a sign surrounded by stars.

My time is up. But I can say honestly that screwing up my first attempt at a DH101 course…

A close-up image of large threads on rusted screws

…led directly to my improved and even more screwed up “Introduction to DH.”

The same large screw threads but with the text 'x 2!!' superimposed on it.

In the end, what I learned is that it is far less important that students know what digital humanities is

The word 'what' spelled out in light-up letters on the side of a building.

…than how it is.

The letters 'HOW' spelled in tiles on a cracked and grassy sidewalk


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