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Digital Assignment Showcase

By Rachel Molko

On October 24th, 2018, the NuLab hosted a showcase for digital assignments that may be adapted to courses in multiple different disciplines. The showcase began with an introduction by Lauren Nelson, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, who noted that the five assignments may be interpreted as long-term or short-term projects, and for large or small classes. As the presenters shared their assignments, examples, and the context in which they have been used, it was stressed that the assignments are meant to be integrated within existing course content to engage the course material in new and interesting ways; using the assignments in a way that eclipse course material would be a disservice to students and defeat the innovative and flexible nature of the projects.

First up, we learned about a “TEI Editing & Encoding” project from Marina Leslie, Associate Professor of English, and Sarah Connell, NULab Assistant Director. The project came to be after Marina reached out to Sarah to help her incorporate Digital Humanities into her renaissance literature courses. The assignment is designed to bring a digital editing component to a close reading of a literary text. Through TEI (the Text Encoding Initiative markup language), students are asked to decide how they want to represent their chosen archival documents through analytical categories encoded in TEI. The group project gives students the opportunity to come to editorial decisions collectively. By building their own layers of mediation around archival documents, students are able to identify the information that is and isn’t translatable from an original text to its digitized version. Marina shared that students are positioned to develop informed opinions on all aspects of the document, and as a result, gain a strong sense of ownership over their projects. With an impact on student engagement, this assignment gives students a new way to consider literary texts in a technological world. Sarah also discussed how she is currently teaching a version of this encoding assignment for the fall 2018 course Literature and Digital Diversity, co-taught with Professor Elizabeth Maddock Dillon.

Second, Laura Nelson shared a classroom module that demonstrates how to analyze texts using Python, a computer programming language. The module posits: What does it mean to analyze social media data? Using Twitter data, students learn how scholars are collecting and critically considering tweets through qualitative and quantitative methods. By introducing students to the behind-the-scenes research with social media data, they see the varying pitfalls and promises of using and analyzing this kind of data. By presenting the students with raw data, Laura codes live with the students and asks them to think about what kinds of research questions they might ask based on what is revealed in her exercise. The goal is to give students a critical lens for evaluating arguments based on Twitter data and actually understand what Twitter data can and cannot show.

Third, Cara Marta Messina, English PhD student, talked to the group about a project she developed with Lisa Doherty, Co-op Coordinator in the Department of English, to incorporate spreadsheet and website building techniques in the co-op course. Students are asked to create a professional website using WordPress to hosts documents such as resumes and CVs, writing samples, and relevant projects that represent the kinds of contributions students have made in professional settings. They learn how to use WordPress to create a digital space that represents a professional identity that’s interactive and personalized. Tailored to complement the experiential opportunities the students are pursuing, the Excel activity asks students to use the program as an organizational tool to track job applications, interviews, and resources. These two digital platforms become assets to students as they plan for their post-graduation careers.

Fourth, Alexis Yohros demonstrated a “Big Data” and data analytics module that shows how to analyze large quantities of data using digital methods for social science research. The module can be tailored to specific majors in these courses; for example, the version Alexis shared was tailored for a social science course with a large quantity of health science majors. This module contains an interactive activity (looking at the data Facebook and Google have collected and categorized about the students). Students are asked to consider the ethical implications behind working with this data. More specifically, Alexis explains to students how social scientists can use this data to study social relationships computationally. As an example, Alexis shared one of her own projects (looking at the relationships between fatal school shooting statistics and school shooting reporting in the New York Times) to show that as student researchers, we can use computational methods to ask important research questions. The module also asks students to consider the potential negative outcomes of such research by exploring how machine learning can reinforce, rather than challenge, biases. The overarching goal is to work toward a longer, more involved assignments that engage students in coding and thinking critically about moral and ethical implications of research.

Finally, Cameron Blevins, Assistant Professor of History, showed the group how he has used Google’s SketchUp to frame an assignment in his Digital Space and Place graduate course. In order to introduce digital tools relevant to public history work, he provides a humanities perspective on cartography to see how digital space and place are socially constructed. In 1897, a fire insurance company created floor plans to track assets; these floor plans have been digitized and are now available online. The assignment itself asks students to recreate historical buildings on Northeastern’s campus and in the university’s nineteenth-century location, based on these Sanborn maps. Then, students are asked to use Google SketchUp to create digital 3D renderings of the buildings (counting windows, what the roof looks like, the length of walls, etc.). In order to continue exploring the relationship between digital tools and theoretical frames, Cameron asks students to play Walden, A Game as a part of this module; the game is based on the life of Henry David Thoreau. The game provides a bridge for students to think about how 3D models are using in gaming narratives. The interactive nature of the module asks students to engage with various digital tools and resources that can influence academic scholarship.

If you are interested in utilizing the assignments, or otherwise integrating digital proficiencies into your classroom, and would like to learn more, please reach out to Sarah Connell (sa.connell[at]northeastern[dot]edu).

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