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What Does Digital Humanities Mean for Pedagogy?

I was so happy to read Stephen Brier’s essay in Debates in the Digital Humanities, which echoed many of my thoughts:

…this recent rush toward the technological new has tended to focus too narrowly, in my judgment, on the academic research and publication aspects of the digital humanities, in the process reinforcing disciplinary “silos” and traditional academic issues while also minimizing and often obscuring the larger implications of DH for how we teach in universities and colleges and how we prepare the next generation of graduate students for careers inside and outside of the academy.

For me, yesterday’s class discussion really got to the heart of my Digital Humanities questions. Using digital tools like text mining and data visualization are nice for higher-level research, but what about undergrads preparing to go out into the real world? Yes these things are used by people outside of the academy (see here and here ), but shouldn’t we be introducing students to a broader range of digital tools earlier on? When we incorporate technology in pedagogy, is it “Digital Humanities,” or just teaching and the internet? Does it matter?

As a Literature major, I was taught minimal digital skills in my undergrad courses. I took one required programming course that didn’t really stick, but I had a basic understanding of the internet and computers because I grew up in the 90s. While the degree helped of course, I was hired into my first desk job mainly because of the practical skills I picked up on my own. When I started working at a magazine, I picked up things that anyone in media needs—a basic understanding of HTML, how to work with content management systems, and how to be a project manager. My school didn’t offer courses in digital media, though I’m sure some students who have the foresight about what kind of job they want (that is to say, not most 18-year-olds), would be able to pick up similar skills in such classes at their own universities.

Many of my undergraduate teachers encouraged us to incorporate digital tools into our projects, I guess assuming that most kids these days were adept at programming and building websites. I remember only one student going this direction in a Creative Writing seminar – a friend of mine who learned to code on her own because she enjoyed it. On presentation day, instead of reading from a novella, she presented a video game, and moved the characters around the screen to act out her story. Jaws dropped. How could an English major use computers like that?

Anyway, that Literature student works for Google now.

As Stephen Ramsay says in his Programming with Humanists essay , “…if an English or a History student finds his or her way into a class on programming, it is not because of some perceived continuity between the study of Shakespeare or the French Revolution and the study of for-loops and conditionals. Most students see programming—and not without justice—as a mostly practical subject” (228).

It is to an undergraduate’s advantage, especially if he or she will not pursue graduate school, to have an active understanding of technology and its practical uses (even if they aren’t working for Google). I had a rockstar intern at my marketing agency who: knew some HTML and could help me with e-mail newsletters, could use Adobe Illustrator and InDesign to help me put together marketing brochures, and knew how to use Excel to make charts and do calculations (thankfully for me, because Zzzzz…). He will have a leg up from other people his age applying to the same jobs after graduation. I usually assume most humanities students learn practical job-related skills on their own in an internship, or when they get a Master’s degree. And while internships are a great place to learn on-the-job skills, many students in smaller communities don’t have this opportunity.

While undergrads in the humanities are learning excellent skills such as how to present an effective argument, they aren’t getting enough practical skills from humanities teachers that will make them competitive in the current job market. But outside of programming, business, science or digital media, how do you do this for students with broader interests who are unsure of what exactly they want to pursue for work? To further complicate things, because technology changes as quickly as it does, how can you ask teachers to keep up?

I think the whole area of pedagogy is where it becomes most important to define what we’re talking about when we talk about “DH.” Shouldn’t we be teaching students to use technology effectively in order for them to better interact with the modern world? The Looking for Whitman project  is a great example of how you can combine practical skills (collaboration, writing for an audience, using blogging software) with academic ones (thinking critically about texts, etc.). While writing an effective essay is important, it isn’t everything. This recent Slate article brings this point home.

For me, DH has wider implications for the university system because the people who are involved seem to be the most open to new ideas. Without trying to seem too idealistic, shouldn’t we be harnessing this power somehow to change the system and the way students learn, rather than just using  it in our own research?

As Brier says,

CUNY’s growing focus over the past two decades on the scholarship of teaching and learning has by no means been limited to the digital humanities, narrowly defined. If we are willing to broaden our definition of digital humanities beyond academic research and related issues of academic publication, peer review, and tenure and promotion to encompass critical questions about ways to improve teaching and learning, then CUNY’s various digital pedagogy projects and strategies offer an alternative pathway to broaden the impact of the digital humanities movement and make it more relevant to the ongoing and increasingly beleaguered educational mission of contemporary colleges and universities.

Educating the next generation of informed citizens ultimately falls on the shoulders of teachers. Now that technology is a part of that world, it should be a part of teaching as well. Because the impacts of technology are forcing things to move faster than say, the printing press, I don’t see academia catching on quickly enough on its own. But it’s also important to note that everyone is struggling to keep up, not just the academy.