MLA Session 089: What We Teach When We Teach Digital Humanities: Curriculum and Experience

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Presenters: Anastasia Salter (University of Central Florida), Grant Glass (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), Molly Des Jardin (University of Pennsylvania), and Mitchell Ogden (University of Washington, Stout)

Anastasia Salter, “Whose Theory is it Anyway? Confessions of an Imposter Teaching Digital Humanities”

Salter begins her talk by recognizing that the definitions of “texts and technology” are in constant negotiation, and that our experiences with texts and technology as instructors are often different from those of our students. Salter notes that when she began her work in the Texts and Technology PhD program at the University of Central Florida, the intersections of digital and humanities—or texts and technology—seemed contained or containable, but now those intersections can seem overwhelming. Where does texts and technology end? What do we mean by “digital humanities”?

Salter argues that the future of digital and humanities is in the intersection of the two, and asks whether theory should include “technology,” or whether that is ultimately defined by the texts. While many instructors think about “theory” as something learned and “technology” as something “picked up,” this framework originated in a time when a self-taught model of technology was reliable; today, technology changes on a day-to-day basis, forcing a meaningful integration of technology into every aspect of doctoral work.

Salter concludes that in addition to teaching major theorists, PhD programs must also teach students to code and to understand networks and algorithms through intersectional discourse, meaning through a feminist lens or through a disability studies lens, etc. According to Salter, the fundamental challenges of digital platforms and digital humanities will be to decolonize the codes and the networks—this is the critical work doctoral students will encounter in the future of rhetorical studies.

Grant Glass, “Digital Humanities is No Object”

Glass opens his talk by asking what we expect our students to produce in the digital humanities classroom, and how we teach digital humanities in the writing classroom. Additionally, Glass asks how instructors know whether they are qualified to teach digital humanities and whether there are common criteria.

Glass investigated these questions in his own digital humanities writing class as he tried to balance the desire for his students to be digital humanists with expectations for the production of digital humanities products, recognizing the additional labor such projects require from students. At the close of the semester, Glass determined that a digital humanities project represents a process of becoming, and that the process often teaches our students more than they can learn from the final digital product itself. While instructors may be tempted to demand a tactile product to anchor meaning, a better goal is to focus on digital humanities as a way of thinking. In the end, digital humanities teachers should focus on the questions and processes of the digital humanities rather than the products, because digital humanities is no object.

Molly Des Jardin, “Teaching ‘East Asian’ Digital Humanities”

Des Jardin is a full-time staff librarian who recently taught a digital humanities course about East Asian studies, which enrolled undergraduate and graduate students proficient in a variety of East Asian topics but not the digital humanities.

Des Jardin noted that because East Asian studies is an umbrella category for a broad range of topics, methods, languages, temporalities, etc., the course was organized as a survey course, and each week explored a different method or concept which required students to do their work online by watching videos, accessing blogs, and completing online projects and portfolios. Because of the range of interests of the students enrolled in the course, Des Jardin also invited a number of other scholars to visit the course to talk about their methods and projects and to answer questions to show that expertise in the digital humanities is held by a range of professionals.

For their final project, students in Des Jardin’s course delivered an elaborate project pitch so that each student could create something new, rather than review the existing course material. This allowed students to pitch their projects in the future to their own advisors or funders without requiring them to have the technology expertise by the close of the course. One other aspect that proved to be important was having the PhD students deliver 5-minute lightning talks about their projects, which reinforced to the students that it is important to be concise and persuasive in a short amount of time.

In closing, Des Jardin noted that digital humanities instructors cannot be experts in every aspect of the work, but they do not need to be experts as it is productive for students to see instructors collaborate and rely upon other scholars. Des Jardin also argued that librarians have the backgrounds to be knowledge-producers and to offer bird’s eye views that generate syllabi that can survey the state of the discipline and content, thereby usefully guiding digital humanities courses.

Mitchell Ogden, “Stakeholders’ Perspective on Digital Humanities at a Public Four-Year Polytechnic University”

Ogden notes that while UW Stout does not seem the most likely place to launch an undergraduate digital humanities program, the faculty led the vision and have received much positive feedback from students and alumni.

The first finding of offering the digital humanities program is that students with a pre-existing interest found a place to deepen their analytical skills of the humanities. Through its course offerings and way of thinking, the digital humanities program has become a haven for those interested in the arts and humanities within the polytechnic campus. The program has welcomed students with an affinity for literature, art, film, languages, and culture, who may have come to the university because of geography or for a specific non-humanities program offering. According to Ogden, the digital humanities program has allowed the university to offer something “like” an English degree at a university without an English degree.

The second finding is that alumni report that their abilities to perform applied digital humanities have provided a useful framework in the “real world.” For example, alumni cite the ability to analyze a large amount of data, to categorize data, break data down, and communicate findings to others as an in-demand skill set learned through the digital humanities program. Alumni also note that thinking from a digital humanities framework allows them to better understand and communicate workflow, project management and design, and the need for access. Finally, a digital humanities mindset is countercultural within for-profit organizations, because it embraces the nuance of not knowing and can thrive in messiness, even within a data-driven culture.

In closing, Ogden argues that when we teach digital humanities, we teach a dynamic set of skills and sensitivities that really work in the real world.

Take-aways

Presenters at this session made several related arguments:

  • Definitions of “digital humanities” are fluid and changeable, requiring scholars to be adaptable.
  • Digital humanities in the writing classroom goes beyond the expectation for a digital product and demands instead the adoption of a new way of thinking and being in relation to texts and technology.
  • Digital humanities instructors cannot be experts in all aspects of their field, but can model to students the benefit of relying on colleagues in related fields.
  • The future of digital humanities is in the intersection of the two as they work to mitigate power imbalances by using intersectional lenses.

About Author(s)

Kristin vanEyk is a doctoral student in the Joint Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on multilingual student experiences of First Year Writing.

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