Tag Archives: StephenRamsay

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.

Making and creating and not worrying about failure

William Turkel’s lecture “The Hands-on Imperative”, his subsequent talk to our DHpraxis class and then workshop had me thinking about a number of different things, specifically the issue of space, the issue of tenure portfolios that contain fabrication and physical experimentation projects, and how failure is something to embrace and not fear.

His discussion of space and the need for a place to make things, to play and create resonated with me.  In a blog post “A Few Arguments for Humanistic Fabrication” on his blog “Digital History Hacks 2008”  Turkel said

“The limitations of our physical spaces can be more difficult to circumvent. Most of the teaching and research environments available to humanists at my university are designed to support solitary or small-group office work. These spaces are almost comically unsuitable for the kinds of things I try to do with my students: soldering, mold-making and casting, building and lighting physical exhibits, programming in groups, creating displays or signage.”

One really has to always be aware of space and how and why a space is being used.
As a librarian I’ve always been aware and concerned with the physical space and layout of a library and how the space affects people’s use of the library.  If the space is not inviting, if it doesn’t match what people are using a space for it can be a real hindrance, stifling creation and education. The fact that humanities spaces in academia are not set up for play and creation of physical objects does not surprise me at all.  We need to be able to break out of the confines we find ourselves in but many times in academic or corporate spaces we are not allowed to break out.  Trying to convince administrations to permit a space in an academic department where you can vent fumes, use power tools etc. is not going to be easy, I mean we aren’t even allowed to pick a different wall color to paint our student lounge. If we cannot even personalize the color of the walls of our own student lounge, how can we expect to create a space where we can have “high ceilings, natural light, plenty of ventilation, cement flooring, workbenches on casters, locking cabinets, big blank walls where you can hand things on. No carpeting, no beige cubicles, no coffee tables with plants.”

Another hot topic in DH, which we have been reading and talking about in class, which Turkel’s talk and workshop had me thinking about were issues of tenure and how DH building projects and work relate and are counted towards an academic’s tenure portfolio. In Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell’s chapter “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities” in the book Debates in the Digital Humanities the authors ask “how do we”  and “can we” count the work of builders, hackers, coders as scholarship?  How is work on and about XML, XSLT, GIS, R, CSS and C counted and evaluated?  Is it scholarship? How will it be evaluated and can it lead to promotion and tenure?  Lev Manovich believes “a prototype is a theory.” Stan Rueker and Alan Galey say that “the creation of an experimental digital prototype [should] be understood as conveying an argument about designing interfaces” and that digital artifacts themselves, not just their surrogate project reports should stand as peer-reviewable forms of research, worthy of professional credit and contestable as forms of argument.  “It is the prototype that makes the thesis, not discursive accompaniments like white papers, reports and peer-reviewed papers.”  My question is – are these beliefs truly occurring in practice in academia today?  Can a faculty member truly include the objects they make using Max 6, Phidgets, Arduino or Makey Makey in their tenure portfolio and have it count in a meaningful way towards tenure?  Are academic departments and institutions willing to accept this type of work as scholarship and worthwhile of tenure?  And if not then what does that mean?  Should we stop making things or should we continue to make things even if they are not counted? How can we work to ensure that this type of work is considered scholarship?

Finally, Turkel talked about failure and what can be learned from failure.  He talked about how some of the best students in his class are those who have no training in programming or shop classes and therefore have no preconceived notions of what can and cannot be done and are not afraid to fail.  At various library jobs I had, where I had staff, I would tell them not to be afraid of making a mistake when working on the library catalog.  I would tell them to be inquisitive and to explore the program and to ask questions.  I assured them I set it up so that they couldn’t destroy the catalog and that their exploring and using the system was how they and I would learn.  I try to follow this philosophy myself when setting up database interfaces and catalog systems. However, it is not always easy.  Fear of failure and the consequences of that failure on job security (and sometimes grades) are real fears.  I think it is great that Turkel is able to assure his students that they will not fail his class if their projects fail but in many instances, in many jobs, this is not a promise one is given.  I always joke that the only job where you can be wrong all the time and fail and not get fired is weather person.  I say it jokingly but it is somewhat true.  In academia or in corporate culture, having a project fail is not always looked upon in a positive light.  As the people feeling the heat from the Federal Government Affordable Care Act Marketplace web site can attest to, people do not seem to think the current problems are “learning experiences.”  How do we then promote inquisitiveness, willingness to take chances and possibly fail in the projects we work on in DH without the fear of the consequences of our failure?

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” — Said by Michael Jordan in a Nike ad, written by Jamie Barrett.  http://youtu.be/GuXZFQKKF7A



Theory As A Tool

When it comes to hacking and coding one rolls up their sleeves to build models and prototypes to engage visually, open debate and uncover new meanings.  Theory as applied in methodologies leads us away from the mundane and toward bold ways of assessing existing humanist issues that are embedded in abundance in big data through literature, history and sociology.  The work of the digital humanist asserts that which is regarded as traditional narrative notions might gain new meaning or insight through further research and closer inspection.  The question “How does theory support the digital humanities” is critical because theory compels consideration.

Drucker raises the notion of “creating computational protocols that are grounded in humanistic theory and methods”, and “suggest it is essential if we are to assert the cultural authority of the humanities in a world whose fundamental medium is digital”.(3)  The term “cultural authority” suggests epistemological knowledge that is central to creating new digital approaches to engage critical thinking.  These new digital approaches would assist in revisiting unresolved concerns as well as in observing thought processes to determine outcomes around current day critical issues and to create models using the digital humanist toolbox to reflect these findings.  For instance the digital humanist can explore myriad issues on the political or social worldwide human landscapes and derive appropriate useful outcomes.  Prototypes then aid in accessing which digital tools best assist and inform this work.

Ramsay and Rockwell put forth the idea that “prototypes are theories”(4).  These prototypes aid in the ability to create, to do, and to build, yet the “guidelines for evaluation of digital work”(3) may restrict prototypes as scholarly. The argument can be made that such restriction could ultimately have the effect of working against the investment of skill and time during the course of the digital humanist’s workflow.  As Drucker noted, “more is at stake than just the technical problems of projection”(7).  It is the potential of the prototype to assist workflow and serve to aid thoughtful response around humanist issues.  The efficient use of mechanisms to devise tools in the digital realm assist the user in multitasking, and aid in the completion of data rich and-or quantitative digital tasks.  Theory then is a tool that aids the work of the digital humanist to build and create.