Introduction to Digital Humanites – After Action Report

Introduction to Digital Humanites – After Action Report

Posted on: Thu, 05/03/2018 - 09:38 By: Matt

One of the things I do as a postdoc for the Sherman Centre is teach the introductory course in digital humanities, Humanities 2DH3. The catalogue description of the course is as follows: “This course will introduce students to digital humanities research methods and tools. Students will learn about three primary impulses that drive digital scholarship: analysis, preservation, and resource creation. They will work with existing digital resources, learning to use and assess them effectively; and will also digitize material to create new resources while learning about copyright, intellectual property, and accessibility.” My version of the course concentrates heavily on the first and third aspects of this through an in-depth discussion of data, mostly because as a humanities course it needs to be a bit wider in scope than the sorts of method courses I might teach to historians or literary scholars (to speak of the two areas where I feel most qualified), but also because I see the general trend of society to assume that data is objective truth as frightening. We only have to look at the result of the 2016 election and the subsequent data scandals to see that. So my overarching goal for the course, besides the methods instruction, was to have students question data they encountered in their day-to-day lives. The syllabus for the course is below, if you’re interested in taking a look at it.

As a sort of “hook” into the course, one thing I tried to do this term is attach it to social justice issues so that students who were taking communications, English and cultural studies, or other humanities courses that engage with these issues or the theories marshalled in debates about them would have something to sort of hold onto instead of being thrown into the deep end. In past iterations, the “hook” has been allowing them to work with collections of things they already owned, but the events in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017 and, closer to campus here, the ongoing discussions regarding the University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson made me feel that a course dealing with how data can be marshaled both for and against positions would have more utility. I wanted to add a gamification element, largely due to how impressed I’ve been with the Reacting to the Past program and my own love of both role-playing exercises and thinking on my feet back when I was in a Model United Nations course in high school. I also wanted to provide students with a lot of in-class time to work on engaging with data, as the last time I taught the course the group of students taking it was much smaller but also tended to end up spending significant amounts of time outside of class working on assignments. Since most students have to work and go to school, I figured providing them with in-class time would cut down on the difficulty of dealing with group projects. These three decisions, within the framework of the course itself, proved overly ambitious—especially during a semester where I was also undergoing multiple campus visits.

The course as I teach it is divided into three assignments that are intended to scaffold. In the first assignment students create a collection of materials—in this case, about the particular social justice issue their group chose—and develop a folk taxonomy regarding that collection. The second assignment has them compare that folk taxonomy against an established metadata standard taken from the Getty museum’s Metadata Standards Crosswalk. The final assignment has them present on their collection using the organizational structures they’ve created or modified over the course of the term.

The gamification element would occur when students started working with the materials. As I had originally envisioned it outside forces—the “cloud lords” Jaron Lanier speaks of, regulatory impulses, and technical issues—would have the possibility of intervening on the student’s work towards that final presentation. An element of randomness would be introduced: each week the groups would roll a d20, with a 1-3 indicating a positive intervention and a 17-20 indicating a negative intervention. I would come up with the intervention over the course of the next week, drawing on my experience as a game master, digital humanist, and technologist.

Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder noted that “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force,” which is in turn the source of the paraphrase “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.”[1] For me, that first contact would be a one-two punch of a campus visit and a change in the day I was supposed to teach the course. Originally, the course was envisioned as being an hour of lecture and discussion on Mondays and two hours of in-class work on collecting and categorizing information on Wednesdays. These Wednesday sessions would be framed through the game fiction of being an incubator for non-profit startups, where they could largely work on their projects but which would also have the possibility of syncretic interactions with the other student groups and outside forces, as portrayed by me. An administrative snafu resulted in this second day of coursework being moved to Fridays (already not the best day to convince students to attend class), which conflicted with a campus visit I had scheduled for the end of January. That Friday also happened to be the day I had originally intended students to present their taxonomies on for the first assignment. Shifting the day meant that the fiction of the course, with a sharp division between the academic and fictive realities, had to break down to meet the realities of the academic and personal calendars.

While annoying, this alone would have allowed the gamification elements to be recovered. But the choice to engage with social justice issues meant that students, despite my instructions and suggestions, engaged immediately with the issue rather than the data they were collecting on the issue and building up to using that data to speak on their issue. I am happy they were interested in their topics, but this meant that the second portion of the course, where they were to take their taxonomies and compare them thoughtfully to a “real” metadata standard, would require extra work. To try to offset this, I asked them to write an addition to their personal reflections to try to bring back some of the missing pieces, but they lost out on important feedback from their fellow students that would have fed into various aspects of the game and in the scaffolding for the rest of the course.

At this point, I could either recover the game elements or the general thread of instruction and try to ensure they understood the need for close analysis of data structures prior to the second assignment. Since at the end of the day the goal of the course was not to be a social justice incubator but instead to teach about data, I had to go with the second option. With that shift in focus the class was able to recover and complete the course with a decent understanding of data and some solid discussions throughout, but without the elements that would have helped to move it beyond reading and analysis of dry texts.

I mention all of this mostly to counter the narrative of “my class was awesome and my students are brilliant (and therefore I am a wonderful pedagogue)” that I see online quite often. My students are no slouches—they were by and large very engaged with the course and the class discussions and game to try whatever I came up with. And obviously, the mistake that caused them to all present on their social justice issue rather than the taxonomy to organize the data around that issue was my fault as an instructor. Where I think they really shone is that they were able to recover from the error with help and they tried their best to understand what was for most of them a relatively foreign topic. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, digital “natives” are not automatically technically savvy when it comes to the nuts and bolts of how the technologies they use are applied (an analogy I use in this regard—we can all drive cars, but few of us are serious mechanics and still fewer are automotive engineers), and by the end of the course they all understood what I considered the most important things to take away from the class: that data is a mediated, constructed thing and thus should be interrogated like any argument before it is accepted or rejected as support. They also produced some solid videos for the final portion of the course, where they were intended to use the data they collected to persuade people about their particular issue. I am in the process of preparing them for the Sherman Centre's video wall, and once they're done I'll provide a link here as well.

In future iterations of this class what I’d like to do is return to the collections aspect of things and perhaps try to find a way to integrate the discussions of social justice issues and the attendant technical aspects—metadata breaches, the mining of our Facebook identities, “fake news,” and memes and meme-making—in the final portion of the course. I’d also like to see if I can’t find a more entertaining way to present the information the readings provide, as they were generally seen as relatively dry. It may be that I have to write it myself.

[1] "Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings" by Daniel J. Hughes and Harry Bell, (p. 92), 1993.

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