Digital Humanities Pedagogy

Of all the possible topics within the Digital Humanities, pedagogy is by far my favorite! I love exploring ways to not only incorporate Digital Humanities-based skills and tools into my teaching, but also ways of teaching the field of DH itself. I’ve had the opportunity to observe several styles of teaching Digital Humanities over the years, and their influences have contributed to my own approach. Arguably the most important aspect of my philosophy of teaching (particularly in the Digital Humanities) is:

Your medium should support your message. 

A pitfall for Digital Humanities is to make everything digital, or to shape a research project around trying to use new exciting technologies. Sometimes a paper is the best medium for a particular project to convey the message! I emphasized to my students in the Digital Humanities Mellon Scholars Program that part of the process of developing a research project entails identifying what the message of the project is (which entails considering audience, scope, and project outcome goals) and then determining the best medium for supporting this message. For example, when I introduced documentary-making, the first questions students need to ask themselves is, “Why is it important that I make a documentary? What is my message, and how is a documentary going to enhance, support, and communicate this message?” A possible exception maybe to use technologies as an exploratory research project, like text mining or textual analysis across extensive bodies of text. However, even then one could probably articulate why that approach is best for the type of work one is interested in researching.

Something I have learned after teaching an introduction to Digital Humanities course and working with undergraduate researchers is that students greatly appreciate taking the time to discuss ways to utilize Digital Humanities skills, methods, and theories in future spaces of higher education, but also outside of academia in nonprofit organizations and industry. I recently attended a conference and co-facilitated a workshop with Arianna Montero-Colbert about Digital Professional Development. The structure was flexible and based on the questions the undergraduate researchers asked, I ended up showing them my CV to demonstrate all the ways of communicating Digital Humanities skills into a CV/resume. In the classroom, students asked about technology capacities that could work in spaces outside academia. Having worked as Community Coordinator for Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates, a nonprofit immigration law office, I was able to have an open conversation about how to use Digital Humanities as a selling point for being hired and how to then incorporate these skills into roles at nonprofit organizations. For example, just showing my students how to install and customize WordPress plugins that can take donations is a valuable, applicable skill.

The biggest challenge I faced teaching the introduction course was finding undergraduate-appropriate readings. As of now, much of the literature is rather advanced, technical, and jargon-laden. Assigning blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos was much for effective than book chapters, but much of the  foundational histories of the field are stuck in lengthy chapters that deal far more with theoretical debates than with useful, graspable concepts that introduce students to the field, its history, its shortcomings, and its strengths. My time as a student and then as a teacher has inspired me to consider making an Introduction to Digital Humanities anthology that organizes aspects of the field in a structured and digestible manner. I have no idea if I can accomplish since I would want to include work that is already out there in addition to some of my own work. Perhaps if I can successfully land a Digital Humanities–Philosophy dual appointment position I will embark on such a project.

In regards to the assigned readings and materials for this week, I love the University of Minnesota’s “Accessible U” site. It is such a great resource and one I needed years ago! In fact, this semester as a TA one of my students in a recitation section is legally blind. We have developed a strong relationship with open communication about meeting her needs, but the more I can preemptively do so that the burden of responsibility to tell me all of the specifications needed, the better. For example, the process of using Word Document heading sizes for screen readers is such a simple but valuable avenue for making content more accessible.

I also really enjoyed Mark Sample’s talk-turned-article “Building and Sharing (When You’re Supposed to be Teaching). As a side note, I’ve had the privilege of meeting Mark and it’s fun to see his personality and voice clearly reflected in the language of this article. I love his point that students tend to write, research, and create for an audience of one, for the professor or instructor. Digital Humanities projects are almost always publicly available though, so shifting this notion and letting it influence the way students engage with projects is significant. His statement that classrooms were made for sharing brought back memories of kindergarten show-and-tell days. Maybe we as teachers need to bring more of the spirit of kindergarten back into the classroom: a space to show-and-tell, to share, to create, to make messes and explore, to work together (and maybe also nap time?).

Lastly, I’ve sensed a scrambling around how to teach the Digital Humanities that is only starting to be documented, formalized, and interrogated. I think those of us engaging in this field have a unique opportunity to develop pedagogical strategies and course designs that are highly reflexive and anticolonial, and that include queering language, intentionally making spaces accessible, and avoiding canonizing the same patriarchal, whitewashed Anglo-centric narratives. Other disciples have been around for centuries and the fight for change is a slow one. The Digital Humanities holds promise for being intentionally formed and avoiding the aforementioned pitfalls. We need more Marisa Parhams, Miriam Posners, Safiya Umoja Nobles,  and Zeynep Tufekcis.

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