Thinking Through DH: Proposals for Digital Humanities Pedagogy

This presentation was given as a keynote address at the 2019 Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria on Friday, June 7, 2019. I am deeply grateful to Luke Waltzer for his insightful feedback on earlier drafts of this talk.

Slide deck

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My talk today has four parts:

  • Introduction and acknowledgments
  • Centering pedagogy in DH
  • Five proposals
  • Looking forward

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I want to begin with the University of Victoria territory acknowledgement — we acknowledge with respect the Lekwungen speaking peoples on whose traditional territory the university stands and the Songhees, Esquimalt, and WSÁNEĆ peoples whose historical relationships with the land continue to this day.

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I would like to thank:

* The DHSI team: Ray Siemens, Alyssa Arbuckle, Jannaya Friggstad Jensen, and DHSI staff and student volunteers

* The ADHO Pedagogy SIG Conference and its conveners

* My own GCDI team at the Graduate Center, especially those here today — Patrick Smyth, Mary Catherine Kinniburgh, Filipa Callado, Rafael Davis Portela, Kristen Hackett, Krystyna Michael, and Stephen Zweibel, as well as our honorary member, Jonathan Reeve.

* My own teachers and mentors, including my 3rd grade teacher Mr. Burgraff, my high school English teacher Scott Mosenthal, my college mentors Robert D. Richardson Jr. and Annie Dillard, and my graduate school teachers Joan Richardson, Bill Kelly, Steve Brier, Louise Lennihan, and George Otte. 

* I’d also like to thank my current GC colleagues Luke Waltzer, Lisa Rhody, and Cathy Davidson

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I’m delighted and honored to talk to you today about digital pedagogy and DH pedagogy, situated as we are in the one of the premier teaching spaces for DH in the academy. I want to take a moment and acknowledge what Ray and his team have built over the years: a fantastic, inclusive, welcoming, wide-ranging summer curriculum that has helped thousands of DHers learn everything from how to set up a DH department to how to scrape the web using Python to how to embed social justice in DH work. I know how hard and taxing it is to set up and run even a small event, workshop, or class, much less a set of events as expansive and multifaceted as DHSI — and to do so, year after year. In many ways, I feel that there is not much I can tell you about DH pedagogy that you are not already learning and witnessing in your sessions here this week and in the structure that Ray and his colleagues have set up.

I’ve been asked to speak about digital pedagogy on the eve of the ADHO Pedagogy SIG Conference. I’d like to use my time with you today to speak about some of the ways I’ve been thinking about DH, and DH pedagogy, and to ask you to think with me about its present state and its future possibilities. Some of the material I’ll be presenting here today is drawn from a few forthcoming publications — first, Thinking Through the Digital Humanities, which aims to offer an introduction to the field of digital humanities, and second, Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities, a forthcoming publication that I have co-edited with Rebecca Frost Davis, Katherine D. Harris, and Jentery Sayers, which aims to present, in concrete form organized through a keyword approach, the actual building blocks and source materials of digital pedagogy — syllabi, assignments, resources, and rubrics. 

Today, I hope I can bring into focus some questions that teachers of DH face. I hope to explore with you some provisional answers and some spurs to further thought to help us move forward.

In “The Scandal of Digital Humanities” — written as a response to the LA Review of Books piece on neoliberalism and the digital humanities — Brian Greenspan argued that one of the reasons DH tends to become a target for criticism is that it lays bare central aspects of the university’s fun(He doesn’t say this, but I would add “normally kept hidden from tenure-track faculty”). Greenspan writes:

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If anything, DH is guilty of making all too visible the dirty gears that drive the scholarly machine, along with the mechanic’s maintenance bill. [. . . ] DH doesn’t so much pander to the system (at least not more than any other field) as it scandalously reveals the system’s components, while focusing critical attention on the mechanisms needed to maintain them. And that’s precisely its unique and urgent potential: by providing the possibility of apprehending these mechanisms fully, DH takes the first steps toward a genuinely materialist and radical critique of scholarship in the 21st century. 

In this talk, I want to extend Greenspan’s argument to the realm of pedagogy and posit that, in fact, in the same way that DH as a whole makes the infrastructure of the academy more visible, DH pedagogy in particular highlights and makes available for analysis the metacognitive and epistemological work of knowing in the digital sphere. The radical potential that Greenspan speaks of — the possibility of a materialist critique of scholarship in the 21st century — NEEDS to be extended to pedagogy, and without it, it is bereft. The classroom is a unique space in the academy — a space of possibility, tension, labor, experiment, argument, struggle, and insight — and we should spend more time thinking about it. 

In most of this talk, I’ll be talking about digital humanities pedagogy — ie, how we teach students what DH is, how we structure and teach DH classes, and how we teach students to use DH methods. Though my focus is on pedagogy within DH rather than DH pedagogy within the humanities, I think the connections between the two are strong, and that people who begin exploring digital pedagogy in one class inevitably find that the work bleeds over into much of their teaching. I also want to acknowledge my various subject positions — as a CIS white male tenured faculty member, first, and second as someone who now predominantly teaches graduate students, though my formative early years as a faculty member focused on undergraduate teaching at a nonselective, poorly resourced four-year urban college without a major in literature, my field of interest and training. Though in fact, I attribute my own turn towards digital humanities to working in a department without conventional field-based tenure requirements.

In arguing that we need to center pedagogy in our discussions of DH, I follow a long line of colleagues who have made similar arguments, including Steve Brier, Luke Waltzer, Katherine D. Harris, Lisa Spiro, Rebecca Frost Davis, Diane Jakacki, Brian Croxall, Anne McGrail, Erin Glass, and many others. Across work done by all of these scholars, we see a continued and welcome focus on the classroom and a a set of reminders — which we apparently need to hear, again and again! — that we cannot forget the classroom as a central space for DH work. Despite our best efforts, the values of the university work, again and again, to denigrate and devalue teaching and service in favor of research. To buck that bias, built into the heart of the modern research university, we need to articulate how and why teaching matters, how the work of the classroom is the work of the academy.

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And so one thing I want to do today is to make and reinforce the argument that DH Pedagogy is DH Work. In my own self-descriptions on institutional degree program websites and the like, I list digital pedagogy as an academic area of specialization. If you spend time thinking seriously and critically about your teaching, I encourage you to do the same. We know that one of the challenges scholars of pedagogy face is that teaching is often treated as a distant second in importance to research throughout the academy. If DH is to be part of the process of reshaping and restructuring the academy, I believe we have to foreground the place of pedagogy in the field of DH particularly and in the academy more generally. What this means, in practice, is that we need to fight to have our pedagogical work taken seriously and counted by our institutions and our colleagues, that we need to publish on our teaching, and also that we need to #citepedagogy, a theme I’ll return to later in the talk. But what I want to say now, ESPECIALLY to all of the people here at DHSI experimenting with DH for the first time, is that your incorporation of DH work into your classroom matters and is, in and of itself, DH. Pedagogy certainly was the entrance point for me to DH.

Today, I will talk about how we can:

1) center DH pedagogy in our understanding of, and explanations of, DH;
2) use the insights it offers to better explain the significance of our own methods; and
3) extend the insights of DH pedagogy to the academy more broadly.

In so doing, I believe that we can extend the classroom as a space of critical reflection and liberatory possibility. 

Of course, teaching is not denigrated in all parts of the academy. Indeed, in some institutions — and I am thinking particularly here of community colleges and large urban public institutions like the City University of New York — teaching is valued in serious ways. I believe we need to look to such spaces; as I argued in a 2012 presentation at the MLA titled “Whose Revolution? Towards a More Equitable Digital Humanities”:

As digital humanists, the questions we need to think about are these: what can digital humanities mean for cash-poor colleges with underserved student populations that have neither the staffing nor the expertise to complete DH projects on their own? […] What is the digital humanities missing when its professional discourse does not include the voices of [members of such institutions]? How might the inclusion of students, faculty, and staff at such institutions alter the nature of discourse in DH, of the kinds of questions we ask and the kinds of answers we accept? What new kinds of collaborative structures might we build to begin to make DH more inclusive and more equitable?

A key component of my argument in 2012, and now, this should be an opportunity of self-interest for DH — the field can only gain by calibrating itself towards a wider group of practitioners across all institutions and levels of the academy.

In the time since I gave that paper, and since I published a section on “Teaching Digital Humanities” in the 2012 edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities, we’ve seen many developments that answer that call. Anne McGrail received a NEH Office of Digital Humanities grant to run a summer institute on teaching DH at community colleges; the Debates in the Digital Humanities series includes a forthcoming volume on “Institutions, Infrastructures at the Interstices,” co-edited by Anne McGrail, Angel David Nieves, and Siobhan Senier, that looks at implementations of DH across a broad range of institutional contexts; Roopika Risam, in her new book, discusses the place of pedagogy in DH as she analyzes the field through the lens of postcolonial theory; the new Debates in the Digital Humanities includes several essays on pedagogy, including one by Jack Norton on the pressures of teaching DH at a community college; colleagues at my own institution, the CUNY Graduate Center, led by the Futures Initiative and the Teaching and Learning Center, have launched the Humanities Alliance, which focuses on preparing doctoral students to teach at community colleges; and many other efforts have similarly helped refocus the conversation in and around DH on the ways that the DH classroom offers exciting possibilities for the field.

To continue this conversation, and to extend it, I think we need to embrace the practices of critical pedagogy as articulated by Paolo Freire, bell hooks, Ira Shor, and others. In practicing critical pedagogy, we can resist the banking model of education outlined by Freire and focus on creating classroom spaces where students grapple actively with power dynamics and work towards what bell hook, building on Freire, calls ‘“education as the practice of freedom.” A central part of this work involves a focus on the knowledge that students bring with them into the classroom. It also, as bell hooks points out, be exciting and fun.

Fundamental to my own approach to pedagogy is John Dewey’s contention that learning needs to be connected to experience, and that our classes provide a starting point for the real practices of learning that will sustain educational process over the long term. As he writes in one of my favorite pedagogical passages:

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“Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future. The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.

(emphasis added)

Fostering the “desire to go on learning” is at the heart of every praise-worthy pedagogical practice I can think of. 

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In the next section of the talk, I want to discuss five ways that we can productively shape DH pedagogy so that it best positioned to benefit our students and ourselves: 

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1. DH Pedagogy is best when it is self-reflexive and self-critical about its identity, its assumptions, and its methods

So many of us old DH hands will sigh, raise eyebrows, or scoff when we are asked to define the digital humanities. In 2012, Matt Kirschenbaum was already expressing exhaustion with the question. Though I’m not suggesting we all need a sentence or two defining what DH is, and though I am entirely comfortable with very ambiguous definitions of the field, I do think that the act of explaining what the field encompasses, and how it relates to adjacent fields/sub-fields like new media studies, science and technology studies, critical race studies, and critical infrastructure studies is important and worthwhile. It’s important not because we need to settle in our students’ minds, once and for all, what DH is and what it is not, but rather because we should reflect on the ways we define our field and question how the assumptions we have about it might be productively shaken by consciously questioning them and challenging them. This can be an active and engaged discussion about the future of DH; I think, for instance, of the way that Kim Gallon has suggested that DH, as a field, might be recalibrated though the lens of black studies, when she argues that “any connection between humanity and the digital […] requires an investigation into how computational processes might reinforce the notion of a humanity developed out of racializing systems, even as they foster efforts to assemble or otherwise build alternative human modalities.” Or how Roopika Risam, bringing DH into contact with postcolonial theory, asks us to reconsider universalist claims, particularly around DH tools, when she writes:

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Despite the wide variety of practices that make up digital humanities on a global scale, the methods and tools that receive the most attention were created by scholars in the Global North. Accordingly, they are based on the values and hierarchies of knowledge of these scholarly communities. The effect of this phenomenon is a specious universalism embedded in digital humanities tools and methods that is in dire need of redress and reinvention.

If DH, as a field, is not pushing itself to critically question its own assumptions and practices, it will not thrive. And I suggest that the classroom is the single best place to do that work, especially if we can create classrooms where our students actively negotiate the shape of the field of DH with us. 

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2. Focus on students, center student research questions, and sustain student well-being

Too many DH initiatives, I believe, focus on faculty as opposed to students. The communities we need to seek to build, I am convinced, are student-based communities rather than faculty-based communities. I love faculty members, and I am one of them, but most faculty members are too pressed for time, and too single-mindedly focused on their careers and personal projects, to give back to communities what they need to survive. It’s not that students aren’t also pressed for time or facing their own issues, which range from the weight of student debt to issues of hunger, but at least in my experience, I have found students to be more willing to share their skills and knowledge with each other on a regular basis, which is a key aspect of building a sustainable community of practice. As a concrete example of this, I would point to GC Digital Initiatives, at the CUNY Graduate Center, where all of our efforts are focused on creating student communities of practice. 

Our classes, too, need to focus on students — which sounds obvious but is often overlooked. In the classes I teach, I ask students to bring to their projects the research questions that interest them, and then to use DH methods to explore them. In almost all cases, this leads to an incredible cornucopia of student projects, ones I never could have come up with on my own. It leads students to work together on issues of shared interest. And, should students not have active research questions, I encourage them to look to their own lives for inspiration — the issues that are of urgent concern to their neighborhoods, their families, and their friends — thus following Freirian pedagogical principles, in which student knowledge and experience is valued and centered in the course. Though discussion and exploration, students can articulate a well-defined and well-scoped DH project that will have direct significance to their interest. And, because they are working on issues that emerge from their own interests rather than on ones handed down from the faculty member, they tend to be more engaged in their work. 

One of the ways I’ve implemented some of these ideas is in the two-course introductory sequence of the new MA in Digital Humanities Program at the CUNY Graduate Center. Informally titled “the Digital Praxis Course,” it is a two-semester introduction to DH offered in the new MA Program in Digital Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center — is the conceptual centerpiece of the degree program. In the first semester of the program, students explore a landscape view of DH, learning about a variety of methods and approaches. The semester ends not with a term paper, though that is an option, but rather with a project proposal. When students come back during the Spring semester, they choose some of these projects to develop and form small groups to create them. I want to share two such projects, from the most recent cohort of students — our first in the program. Steve Brier and I co-taught the Fall course, and Andie Silva, who I think is here today, taught the Spring semester course. 

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* Immigrant Newspapers — impressive UX design and historical research in the archives, focusing on recovering immigrant community newspapers in New York City

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* Data Trike — came out of shortcomings students identified in my own class

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As we focus on students, I think there is much we can learn from progressive elementary education practices.

In recent years, as my children have gone through the public educational system in New York City, and as I have gotten more involved in the progressive elementary school that they attend, I have become attentive to the lessons that the progressive elementary context has to offer us. I am particularly struck, for instance, at the “whole child” approach that I see in my children’s school, one that focuses on emotional and social well-being; one that embraces anti-racist approaches; one that takes a strong stand against standardized testing; one that focuses on the individual child. In critical pedagogy, we see a similar focus on social and emotional well-being; bell hooks speaks about this when she writes about how in “progressive, holistic education, [or] ‘engaged pedagogy’ [. . . .] teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being,” which is necessary if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students” (15). This work has alignments with the feminist ethos of care that has been a strong part of the DH conversation in recent years. Though it can be challenging, I think that part of the project of DH pedagogy involves structuring care for the whole student into our classes and the degree program. This is especially urgent for DH, where our work actively places students in front of computers, devices, social networks that have as much possibility for exposing them to toxic environments as they do for creating possibilities.

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3.  Teach the epistemological approaches of our digital tools.

Students should learn about and consider the knowledge models involved in various kinds of DH work, along with the shortcomings and limitations of them, as they begin to experiment with them. I use the term “ways of knowing” in my Thinking Through the Digital Humanities book to describe such knowledge. It’s an approach I am still fleshing out, and I would welcome your input. But, in brief, here are the major ways of knowing that I explore in the book:

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Each of the items in the list, I suggest, offers a specific way in which the digital humanities can help humanities scholars and students think through their work and ask new questions of our subjects. To take one example, Representation/Enrichment/Dimensionality refers to a set of DH methods that involve presenting texts and histories in digital form that contextualize in new ways or allow us to see them in wider frames. A digital edition of a book that contains an interactive interface, for instance, that presents not just the published text, but also drafts of that text that allow us to see how the author moved from initial conception of the work to the published book, can enrich our understanding of the text, especially when paired with contextual information such as sources used in the book or interactive features that allow online readers to explore these various elements of the text and its paratexts simultaneously. Such materials have been drawn together for decades in variorum print editions, but online environments offer enriched experiences of such materials in ways that can specifically help students understand textual histories. Similarly, a 3D construction of a historical place or event, rendered through an immersive gaming engine, can help students better understand the past as place and come to understand the lived geographies of historical events. 

The benefit of this “ways of knowing” approach is that it ultimately helps students and faculty understand how DH can help them ask new questions and bring new interpretative angles to their work. As we use digital tools, we must reflexively ask how they represent knowledge and what they leave out. A topic modeling tool may allow us to find “topics” that are present across a large number of texts; but as we begin to use that tool, we must think about how the tool conceives of “text,” how it understands and determines what “topics” are, how it presents findings to the user, what it leaves out, and how the results found through the tool may or may not be related to non-digital work in the field. For instance, when scholars attempt to use topic-modeling to explore gender-related issues in, say, 18th-century historical texts, we must ask not only how the tool conceives of “topics,” but also how the tool (and its users) model the concept of “gender” and what the limitations of those models might be (and on this topic I recommend Laura Mandel’s article on the subject in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019. We should pay attention not just to  kinds of questions digital tools allow us to ask, but also the kinds of inquiries such tools occlude or elide. 

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4. Foreground social justice critiques of data

From Jessica Marie Johnson’s discussion of the archive of slavery to the Colored Convention Project’s building out of important new databases of knowledge, to Lauren Klein’s arguments about the silences in the archive, to Marisa Parham’s work on blackness and social media, we have seen in recent years a trenchant critique of the supposed objectivity of data and a focus on the biases and assumptions built into so many of the tools we use. Such work fulfills the ultimate pedagogical promise of the digital humanities, fostering as it does a criticality among students as they engage the data. It  fosters an understanding of data that Johanna Drucker describes as not as neutral data but as capta, information everywhere embedded with and affected by the legacies of centuries of colonial practices. Working with our students, early and often, to critique data is one of the ways that we can build self-criticality into our projects and our work.

As a central aspect of our social justice work, I believe we must embrace OER as a central act of DH pedagogy

My own institution has been overtaken by OER fever in recent years, as the State has thrown funding at schools in an effort to reduce textbook costs for students. Despite the irony of the state taking funding away with one hand and giving it to us with the other, I have mostly good things to say about OER. In a system like CUNY, 70% of the undergraduate population comes from families whose annual incomes are below the federal poverty threshold of $30,000. And that is in New York City!! Were we to adjust the poverty threshold for NYC, it would be closer to $50,000. We should not be asking our students to pay for expensive books.

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It is for this reason that at my institution we are building out our installation of Manifold as an OER repository.

DH, of course, has long embraced the principles of open access and open pedagogy. We share our syllabi in social networks and deposit them in open-access, open-source repositories like Humanities Commons. I think we need to do this, but do it more, and on a bigger, more organized scale. As one example, I would point to my colleague Lisa Rhody’s project, the Digital Humanities Research Institute, which has made the entire curriculum of its DH educational work available on Github to be adjusted and forked.

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5. Foster community and build open-source community infrastructure as the foundational acts of DH pedagogy. 

DH work is best done in the company of others who are experimenting and learning, in a place where experience can be shared and learning can be communal. One begins with a set of materials and asks questions about it; one sees how those questions can be answered and how those answers can be validated; one works through the kinds of choices specific types of methods, software, and tools involve, even as one considers the constrains and limitations of those methods, software, and tools. Along the way, one shares this set of explorative questions and answers with a community of fellow practitioners, in local or virtual contexts, so that assumptions may be questioned and objections raised. What results from this kind of approach is a focus on collaborative knowledge building with more explicit attention to method than we are used to providing in many humanities contexts. 

As we build our communities, we need to build on them on equitable grounds — labor in service to a community needs to be recognized, rewarded, and paid. This is part of the work of respecting and seeing our students and our colleagues; where financial payment is not possible, other kinds of rewards — credit, publicity, acknowledgements, exchanges — should be devised.

We also need to Use Open Source Infrastructure and contribute to it as the work of the class.

In the spirit of DH, we should use, improve, and contribute to open-source projects as part of the work of resisting the incursion of capital into the classroom. Blackboard, of course, is easy to resist, but how many of our DH classes make use of GitHub, Twitter, and Slack? 

The librarian at my children’s elementary school recently asked students to “draw the internet”; here is what they drew. [NOTE: slides omitted in online version. Children’s drawings basically showed that they understood the internet to be composed of a number of corporate logos and services] If we want our students to have the understanding of the internet that inspired so many of us, rather than as a corporate marketplace, we need to do the hard work of using open-source tools, even when they are less polished than their proprietary alternatives. 

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In my own institution, this has taken the form of the CUNY Academic Commons, an academic social network founded in 2009 that serve the entire 25-campus CUNY community. It is a multi-site WordPress network that, over the years, has contributed thousands of lines of code to the larger projects of WordPress and BuddyPress — contributions from a public educational institution to the larger public good of an open-source project. All of our recent work on the platform has been informed by the experiences (and the complaints and suggestions) of faculty members and students across the system using the platform to for their courses — and in the past year, when we first started encouraging faculty across the system to teach on it, our membership jumped from 9,000 to over 16,000 in the space of eight months. But that growth helps us build a platform in conversation with its community members, offering us the chance to build what Christopher Kelty calls “recursive publics,” community spaces where the people using a platform have a say in how it is developed. 

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One practical strategy I want to leave you with is the need to #citepedagogy 

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If we want pedagogy to count, and if we want to center pedagogy within the field of DH, we need to cite it. We need to make syllabi, assignments, and course descriptions part of the scholarly record by citing the colleagues whose work we build on, including citations in our syllabi, and preserving our classroom-based work in repositories such as Humanities Commons. This is an argument that my colleagues Kathy Harris, Rebecca Frost Davis, and I make in our introduction to Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities, and it is one that Kathy, in particular, has been arguing for over the course of many years across a number of contexts, including her own tenure process. I want to propose that we commit as a field to continuing to formalize our citations of pedagogy and that we collectively use the hashtag #citepedagogy to organize that work and to build out resources.

Conclusion

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In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes that “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.” I firmly believe that is true, and firmly believe that DH, as field, has yet to fully grapple with this fact. In order to think through DH, we need to think through our teaching. And it is in that space of possibility, when computational methods encounter human beings, that DH can reach its fullest, most radiant, most radical, and most surprising potential. 

Thank you.

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Source: Thinking Through DH: Proposals for Digital Humanities Pedagogy