Tag Archives: digital humanities

Teaching Digital History: Beyond Tech Support

I taught my first “digital humanities” course in the spring of 1998 when I was a visiting assistant professor at Grinnell College. My students created a “virtual archive” of primary sources, building a website that made it easy (in 1998 terms) to access the sources they placed in the archive. They wrestled with such things as metadata, whether or not to post the sources in both English and the original language, user interface, and website design issues. While they liked the class, that group of pioneering students found their lack of technical knowledge – when it came to such things as website design and information architecture – to be very frustrating and inhibiting.

Fifteen years later, not much has changed.

Sure, the technology has changed a lot, and there are many tools that have lowered the bar of entry for students to start building digital humanities projects. But the challenges I faced in 1998 are, in many ways, the same challenges I face today. Every course I teach that has a digital humanities component requires me to spend a significant amount of time getting the class up to speed with the technologies they need to use so they can create whatever it is that either I’ve assigned or they’ve determined they ought to create.

I find that I am doing just as much tech support in 2013 as I did in 1998, and all that time devoted to tech support detracts substantially from the final results my students achieve. We just don’t get to spend enough time on the important and interesting historical and humanities issues that are central to the course. And my students are often just as frustrated, if not more frustrated, as I am by this problem.

There are plenty of reasons why many undergraduate students come into our digital humanities classes ill prepared to do the work we expect. Despite their facility with the technology when it comes to making connections with others, locating that video/song/story/picture/meme they are interested in, they are often very inexperienced with digital work beyond the creation of a slideware presentation.

One solution would be to urge our colleagues to add a digital “making” course to the general education curriculum. But doing that means either adding one more course to often overly burdensome general education requirements, or deleting some other course, with all the controversy such a change to the general education requirements can cause on our campuses.

Another possible solution, and the one I plan to start advocating, is to try to break free from the 14 week semester or 10 week quarter when we teach the digital humanities. The semester/quarter, it turns out, is just not enough time to do sophisticated work in this emerging field. My proposed solution is a new digital history “course” that will extend over multiple semesters, giving students the opportunity to enroll for one, two, three, or even four semesters, as they work together to realize a much larger and more sophisticated group project than is possible in just 14 weeks.

The idea I have in mind lives somewhere between a standard course and an internship and so for lack of a better term, I’m calling it a workshop. We have no such name or classification in our catalog, so I’ll end up having to call it a course, unless I can get away with calling it a lab, which is actually much closer to the reality of what I have in mind. Because I’m also very interested in learning spaces, I’m planning to use this “course” or “lab” or whatever as a way of experimenting with the intersection between public digital history and making space on a college campus.

Right now I have a draft proposal just starting to float around campus. My hope is that by the end of the summer I’ll have something acceptable enough that I can start it through the necessary approvals that will then lead to a roll out of the course in the fall of 2014. Once I get some feedback on version 0.1, I’ll post it here for further public comment. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from people who have been teaching digital humanities to undergraduates – what has worked, what hasn’t?

THATCamp Switzerland (8)

The final full session I attended was devoted to the question of digital project management, led by Radu Suciu.

Among the questions discussed were how to complete a project once the money runs out? Another was how to plan successfully for the final outcome? Another was how do we get started with a digital humanities project?

The conversation then turned to audience. We have to think through who might be using the resource–ranging from just me to many different audiences in different fields. This makes project management difficult in the extreme if we don’t know what people in those other audience groups want (or don’t) from our work.

Another was whether digital humanities projects can be anything but a collaborative/team effort? My own take on this is that none of us have the expertise we need to realize all aspects of such an endeavor and so from the beginning we need to plan collaboration into the project in a formal as well as an informal way. This can also mean, according to one of the participants, that we may do much of the initial work alone, but there is almost always a point at which we have to engage others as partners, building a community around the work we began. The evolution over time can therefore move from an idea to a community with specific details of the project being realized either by the initial researcher or the growing community over time.

The session also raised the point that, given the difficulty of realizing a digital humanities projects, shouldn’t there be some part of graduate education (formal or informal) to teach our graduate students learn how to get from start to finish on a digital project. Our second course in the Clio Wired sequence (most recent version) offers one example of a full course version of such an introduction.

Hello DHNow

On Wednesday, the first of the four forthcoming PressForward publications launched: Digital Humanities Now. This publication is a re-launch of an older attempt to aggregate what digital humanists were discussing in real time…the prior version was focused primarily on Twitter feeds and for a variety of reasons, I wasn’t a huge fan.

My criticism at the time was that there was too much posting of “re-tweets” and so a lot of interesting stuff was getting lost under the weight of the most tweeted items. [You can see an early 2010 version here, but need to realize that the WayBack Machine didn’t capture the page formatting.] The new version of the publication has not only solved that older problem, but has also substantially upgraded what is on offer.

Now there are “editors’ picks,” which are selections from many hundreds of blogs concerned with the digital humanities. There are categorized news items, and a “top ten tweet” list. In addition, you can see the entire “river” of digital humanities information flowing into the site’s back end and can sign up to join the community of digital humanists whose content is being considered for publication. These enhancements, in my view, make Digital Humanities Now a real go to site for anyone interested in the field.

In the interest of full disclosure, it’s more than a little possible that I’m biased in favor of this project for three reasons. First, I work at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, which is home base for the project. Second, I am one of three executive editors of another PressForward publication, Global Perspectives on Digital History. Third, I’ve completely lost control of my RSS feeds of late and so Digital Humanities Now is like a lifeline being thrown to a drowning man.

Here’s what neither Digital Humanities Now nor Global Perspectives on Digital History is going to solve: neither publication is going to eliminate the need for human intervention in the process. Where the original version of Digital Humanities Now was intended, at least in part, to be an algorithm-driven publication requiring little to no human intervention, these new publications will continue to require a fair amount of editorial effort. We still need/want someone to sort through the river of content flowing into the sites to select “editors’ picks” or “top ten tweets” for us, because that means we can be more efficient in our reviewing of the information. It’s possible to imagine an algorithm that will learn from what the editors on the back end are doing, eventually mitigating the need for quite so much human intervention, but (a) we are a ways off from that, and (b) it will be a long time before an algorithm can decide on an editors’ pick. That kind of choosing is much more complex and driven by intangibles that algorithms still aren’t very good at.

Until the machines get smarter, humans will still have an important role to play in the publication of digital content online (good news for me!), but PressForward and other similar projects bode well for a future where the river gets wider and deeper and struggling digital humanists will need platforms like these to help sift through all that content for them.

If Only Roy Were Here To See This

Today I saw the notice from the American Historical Association that there will be 23 separate sessions at the Association’s annual meeting devoted to digital history/digital humanities topics.

If only Roy Rosenzweig were here to see his vision being realized at last.

Seeing the variety of topics covered at these sessions, I realized that I’ve made a mistake in planning to skip the meeting this year. I actually haven’t been to an annual meeting in a couple of years, largely because I had kind of burned out on the whole experience, but also because it had been a while since I had seen a panel on the program that I might have actually wanted to attend. Not so this year. There are at least a dozen offerings on the program that I’m sorry I won’t be able to sit in on.

Kudos to the program committee for upping the digital presence at the annual meeting. I guess I’ll have to put it back on my travel schedule for next year. And, darn it all, the meeting will be in New Orleans…I hate it when that happens.