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Making it Digital: Part 2

By Lara Rose

After the morning talks concluded, participants in the October 20, 2017 “Making it Digital” Workshop were organized into groups based on common interests and concerns related to developing digital assignments for the higher-education classroom. Four of the groups discussed particular tools or techniques to be used: maps and/or GIS, text-analysis tools, TEI/transcription projects, and exhibit-building software (like Omeka). Two of the groups chose to discuss overarching concerns in the field of digital humanities: issues of collaboration, time, and labor as well as considerations for access, copyright, and accessibility.

Each group was given a worksheet to think through the logistics, mechanics, and reasoning for lesson planning in the digital humanities (you can find similar questions at the end of this document). The groups began with discussions centered around the six categories outlined above. I sat in on the encoding group, where we discussed using encoding as a method of close-reading—and I know the GIS group brainstormed ways to use mapping as a method for analyzing a novel. Afterward, the large group re-convened for a wide-ranging and evocative discussion to conclude the day. Topics from that conversation included links between traditional and digital pedagogy, issues of infrastructure and support, and tool-specific considerations. I’ll outline each of these content groups below:

One question that echoed through many groups was the consideration of evaluation—a question that transcends the boundaries between traditional and digital pedagogy. One key suggestion for assessment was to understand that, for many students, digital humanities tools break an ingrained “habit” of school. The traditional process of reading and writing is one that is ingrained for at least twelve years of standard schooling in the United States. Therefore, digital assignments not only require students to learn new, concrete skills but also they are forced to learn new ways of thinking about material presented to them. Perhaps more than a standard academic essay, the digital project opens itself to reflections on process. We all agreed that being reflective about failure is a legitimate assignment outcome

To circumvent the possible anxiety that new technologies may produce, many instructors suggested incorporating traditional writing assignments alongside the digital productions and emphasizing to students from the beginning that the grading would rely on evaluating the entire process rather than the finished product. Writing assignments that could precede the creation of the digital project might be: 1) to create a proposal for the project (which would encourage students to think critically about scope, time, and resources), or 2) to complete a genre analysis of an existing digital project (which would help them gain familiarity with the genre before working within it). During the creation of the project, writing might focus on documenting the process through a multi-media journal. After the completion of the project, most of the workshop participants agreed that reflection was crucial, perhaps focused around the question: “How has your thinking [about this topic] changed after working with the digital technologies/methods?”

Asking questions of how best to help students learn naturally transitioned the conversation into thoughts about structures, resources, and expertise that may or may not exist within our universities to support digital pedagogy. Some of the universities represented have a designated digital resource center (often located within the library), but many of the participants’ institutions do not. Teaching as a digital lone wolf at a school has the advantage of not having to wait for other people’s ideas or approval; however, the downsides are that the IT help desk is the same person who designed the lesson plan (which is to say, you). Working alone also means working without the benefits of collaboration, such as having multiple stakeholders or community involvement. For the schools that do have designated digital humanities centers, the conversation shifted to recommendations for how to build university or department infrastructure. The general suggestion is to generate best-use cases or a list of un-met demands before asking for resources (see a list of some well-established projects at the end for ideas).

Because a significant number of the workshop participants were already using pre-packaged tools like Omeka, Neatline, or Knightlab to complete digital assignments and projects, part of the discussion revolved around the use of those tools. People agreed that it’s easy to think [too] big with Omeka; so, before starting a project, it helps to think in terms of scale. Ask yourself: what are the learning goals? Some goals naturally lend themselves to using some tools over others. In terms of project content for timeline-creation projects, instructors debated whether it was better to have students upload images they had found or to give them pre-established collections. No matter the collection, however, the librarians in the group insisted on the importance of having the students create the metadata, particularly if the project is archival in form. Because archives preserve, collect, and describe, the act of description—including metadata—is an important pedagogical moment.

Many instructors agreed that digital humanities assignments break the mold of having students write an essay that they will put on a shelf and never look at again. With the possibility that work could be public-facing (like editing Wikipedia, for example), these assignments show students that academic ideas can be contested in the public sphere, which may give them greater buy-in for their effort. Ultimately, two of the biggest takeaways from the day were: 1) Cite your librarians when you bring them into your classes; and 2) Remember that technology is only as good as the thought and planning you put into it.

Here are resources from and examples of established projects; and you can always contact the NULab for more ideas and information:

WWP Pedagogy Resources
MoEML resources
Folger Library Resources
Histories of the National Mall
Programming Historian
DH toychest
Twitter is another good resource for asking for help.

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