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:
- Janelle Adsit, Humboldt State University
- Daniel Anderson, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
- Christina Boyles, University of Iowa
- James E. Dobson, Dartmouth College
- Kathi Inman Berens, Portland State University
- Carly Marino, Humboldt State University
- Laura Sanders, Portland Community College, Oregon
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
…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…
…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.”
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.”
The thing that I most wanted out of the first couple weeks of that course was for someone, anyone—the faculty member…
…my friends in grad school…
…hell, even the ghost of Melanie Klein—
…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.
Fortunately for all of us, there had been a fair number of people asking and trying to answer the question, “What is DH?”
And so I assigned my students some of the best and most pithy pieces…
…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!)…
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.
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.
The rest of the course went pretty well, but it was clear that I had screwed up the beginning.
So when I taught the course again in Spring 2014, I spent a lot of time thinking…
…about how I would introduce and define “digital humanities.”
I screwed up again.
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).
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).
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).
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.
We were going to screw around with texts and see what we could learn in the meantime. This playfulness…
…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…
…is best focused on discrete projects, where the students have some bounds of their play articulated.
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.
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.
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…
…the students worked in groups to see what they could learn by processing all of Hemingway through the online text analysis tool Voyant.
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.
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.
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.
And what did I learn? Play can be incredibly serious.
My time is up. But I can say honestly that screwing up my first attempt at a DH101 course…
…led directly to my improved and even more screwed up “Introduction to DH.”
In the end, what I learned is that it is far less important that students know what digital humanities is
…than how it is.