Introduction to Digital Humanities (Again)

I’m home for the third snow day in a row, for the second time in as many weeks. The snow is already melting and pretty soon there won’t be anything left of it apart from the trace on our cameras. So it seems appropriate that I take this chance (in between brewing cocoa for the kids and charging batteries) to create a similar trace of a couple of projects that have recently come to fruition. I had hoped to blog about each of these previously, but instead they got quick shout-outs on Twitter. So consider this post and those that follow an overdue announcement or two.

Introduction to Digital Humanities (Spring 2014 Edition)

With the start of the Spring semester, I’m lucky to be teaching my undergraduate Introduction to Digital Humanities course again. The course is largely based on the one that I designed and taught for Fall 2011, but with some key differences. Chief among them is that I dropped the majority of the “What is DH?” essays with which I began the class. What I discovered in 2011 and what Ryan Cordell has talked about as well is the fact that students don’t care about this question. Most of these essays are very much focused on a discipline’s historicity or stake some of their claims on issues related to scholars communication. While important subjects and vital for graduate students who want to do something in digital humanities, neither of these are topics that are of much interest to undergraduates. In that 2011 course I found myself having to explain tenure and promotion, just so the students could get a handle on some of what people kept talking about in the different essays and blog posts that we were reading. As valuable as Matt Gold’s Debates in the Digital Humanities is, there just isn’t a good undergraduate-level text/book for digital humanities yet. If only I had time to write one…

Instead, the course continues to be project-based, with a few short essays to contextualize the work that we will be doing in each of the sections. Steve Ramsay is perhaps the patron saint of the class and allowed me to present to the students that the digital humanities is about building (of course) but even more importantly about screwing around (PDF). The projects, I’ve tried to tell the students, aren’t guaranteed to work or to teach us the end-all, be-all about a particular text. But if we get a slightly different perspective thanks to their approach, we will probably learn something. Indeed, I’m contrasting Ramsay’s screwmeneutics with my own preferred definition of digital humanities: computer-assisted pattern recognition followed by interpretation. Hopefully as we play with different texts and tools, we’ll see something new that prompts a need to think differently.

As I said, this is an updated course. The field has moved rapidly in the last two and a half years, and I wanted to take some of that into account. This is what is driving the final assignment for the class, in which my students will be digitizing all of Hemingway’s texts and then doing some topic modeling and learning NOT read his work, à la Paul Fyfe and Jason Jones. And I hope to be doing a little bit of social network analysis, even if that just means drawing the networks on the board rather than using a tool like Gephi of NodeXL. All, again, in the service of pattern recognition. And for the first time, ever I’m using a spoke model (pace Boone Gorges) of blogging, where students have to buy their own domains and create everything from scratch.

But as far as updates go, I wish that I would have had time to consider more changes than I was able to. I very much believe that there is tremendous pedagogical power in being able to say, “I’ve never done this before. I don’t know if it will work.” And so I’ve been conflicted about any of the repeats that I’m using in the course, including the Mrs. Dalloway project. Of course, my wife has told me that it’s also worth occasionally giving students projects that you know will work, so at least one outcome is good.

When I designed my last course, I thanked a number of people whose work directly shaped it. All of those people continue to deserve my good will. But it’s worth calling out a few other individuals who were helpful as I planned this iteration: Ted Underwood and David Mimno were helpful in bouncing around ideas for topic modeling something of an appropriate scale and interest. Stewart Varner was the person who prompted me to stop thinking about Whitman and instead consider someone whose work I knew better. I spent a lot of time looking through Miriam Posner’s recent DH 101 class at UCLA, and asking myself if my course should be more technical. My desire to compete is probably why the students did end up making a domain of their own. Paul Fyfe, again, was an inspiration for the final assignment. But I owe the most to Ryan Cordell. His first “Technologies of Text” syllabus in 2011 (and which he first taught in 2012) was how I decided to emphasize projects in my last class. His newest iteration of that course as well as his graduate seminars continue to inspire me, even as we diverge in important ways in the final product. His influence can be felt in some of my course policies, which I revised this year and even in the choice of URL for the course website, since I realized that distinguishing by semester and year was far easier than trying to write different addresses with variations on “Intro to DH.” My students and I benefit greatly from the generosity of these scholars.

The one place I had to draw the line was picking the theme for the blog. Pedagogy might be more about theft than anything else, but one must have some principles. It’s a good theme. Check out the site:

The last time I taught this course, I found it interesting to consider the fact that a 300-level English course intended for majors drew so many from other fields and broke gender norms for English classrooms. So as a parting shot, here are the numbers for this iteration.


Pie chart showing the majors in my class

Although I have 22 students, 10 of them have double majors, which accounts for the total being greater than the number of people in the classroom. Taking the English and English & Creative Writing students into account, only 7 of the 22 students (or just under 33%) come from the discipline where the course is being offered. I’d like to say that this says something about the appeal of the class (or my teacher evaluations), but it probably has more to do with the class being listed as fulfilling a writing requirement.

A pie chart showing the gender breakdown (55% male) of the class.

Perhaps it is also the fulfillment of this writing requirement that is leading to the number of men enrolled in the course. I can say anecdotally that this is a high number for English classes at Emory. And since the undergraduate student body is 56.1% female, there is real evidence that the ratio here is not what one should expect.

TL;DR: Everyone loves DH.

Edited for redundancies.

Introduction to Digital Humanities

I was thrilled to learn this summer that I would be teaching again in the fall. Both the English department (where I’ve taught previously) and the Library (where I’m a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow) had supported the idea during the previous year, but this is the first that we’ve been able to make it work out. I was even happier that the English department was willing to support my teaching “Introduction to Digital Humanities” as a junior-level course. Not only do I continue to work on digital scholarship in the classroom as well as during the rest of my fellowship duties, but I got a chance to design a new course.

It’s always struck me as dishonest that my syllabi don’t have “Acknowledgments” sections like books or some journal articles. These courses tend to have obvious lines of evolution. I had some clear inspirations as I was working, including courses by Meagan Timney, Jeff McClurken, John TheibaultMichelle Dalmau, and many more. Both Ryan Cordell and Paul Fyfe were designing similar syllabi at the same time as me, and I corresponded with each of them individually about his ideas and mine. Others wanting to go about designing a digital humanities class need to be aware of the two tremendous resources that are Lisa Spiro‘s “Digital Humanities Education” Zotero group and the CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative’s collection of syllabi. Lisa’s presentation at Digital Humanities 2011 was especially useful for me to hear as a preliminary to most of this work. In beginning to design one of the assignments, I realized that I needed to know more about textual studies than I already did, and I asked for assistance in a previous post and at DH Answers, where several friends weighed in. Finally, Erin Sells shared with me her assignment for mapping novels.

There appear to be as many ways to teach DH as there are definitions of the subject. Along with reading some of those definitions—print and blogged—I’ve decided to organize the class around a few different projects. We’ll begin with geospatial work, building an interactive map of Mrs. Dalloway. The next big project is a cross-campus collaboration between my class and four others that are reading House of Leaves this semester: Paul Benzon (Temple U), Mark Sample (George Mason U), Erin Templeton (Converse College), and Zach Whalestoe Whalen (U of Mary Washington). Our students will be reading the book at the same time; we will have some joint Skype sessions between the classrooms; and we’ll be attempting to build something as convoluted as the House itself, which Mark has already blogged about. My initial inspiration for asking for people to participate in this project was just to see if it could be done. And then Mark’s post on sharing in the digital humanities solidified the idea. What this project will investigate is the degree to which digital networks can change our experience of reading a print text, albeit one that resists being comprehensible by a single reader.

The last assignment for the semester will tackle Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry. We’re fortunate to have her papers in our Library. In these papers is a letter about her 1999 volume, The World’s Wife. She is writing to her publisher to explain why she taking the volume from one press to another. In explaining her reasons, she mentions her belief that the volume is very different from the previous ones that she’s written. We’ll spend the last month of the semester testing this assertion—first with close reading and then with text analysis. For a final project, the students and I will write a joint paper about our findings, an assignment inspired by Gideon Burton’s recent ebook project.

As the number of links here should make quite plain, the creation of the syllabus was very much a joint effort. That’s just setting the stage for what I anticipate will very much be a collaborative experience with my students. It’s going to be a semester-long experiment, which is the best thing I can imagine doing at the moment.

The syllabus itself is available after the jump, and you’re welcome to watch the course website for developments.

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