Talk on Student-Centered Course Design in Digital Humanities Surveys for Undergrads (Matariki DH Colloquium)

I delivered this talk at the Matariki Digital Humanities Colloquium, 23-25 October 2016, Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario).

Writing an “Introduction to Digital Humanities” Syllabus? You May Need to Screw Around, Too!

Many a Digital Humanities syllabus begins with an essay by Stephen Ramsay called “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or, What You Do With A Million Books.” I do this, too! The essay argues that we can study a culture with too many texts to read by “browsing” according to our interests and embracing serendipitous experiential learning, as if we’re wandering in the library stacks. Ramsay calls this “screwing around” or “screwmaneutics,” which is also quite fun to say behind a podium.


The essay is now six years old, and it marks the maturing and development of the field. In fact, what I read in reviewing this essay is that it describes the current state of Digital Humanities in 2016-17. Ramsay says, “The syllabus represents the merest fraction of the professor’s knowledge, and the professor’s knowledge is embarrassingly slight. It’s not that the emperor has no clothes (that would be fine); it’s that no one knows what the emperor looks like” (3). Within the context of the essay, this quote specifically addresses the oceanic field of literary history and the problem of creating a syllabus to teach it. This is nothing new to those of us teaching English courses that are surveys of British literature, for example. However, this characterization newly applies to the expansive and ever-expanding field of the Digital Humanities.


This is Alan Liu’s map of the field of Digital Humanities. He describes DH work as having two veins right now: collecting, digitizing, and organizing digital objects, and the interpretive and critical work performed to convey findings about digital objects or a corpus of them. He then effectively splits the field of DH into 2 overlapping parts: “New Media Studies” and “Digital Humanities” that derived from what used to be called “Humanities Computing.” Humanities computing DH is roughly characterized by trying to evolve the process of reading. Its related fields include literature, history, classics, language studies, art history, and corpus linguistics. The types of work performed include digital archive building, data curation (I added these two to the map), text encoding, text analysis, topic modeling, social network analysis, and mapping. On the left coast of Liu’s map we see New Media Studies emerging from electronic literature and hypertext theories. If textual DH is all about finding new ways to read and interpret text, New Media Studies DH considers meaning derived from different kinds of images. This branch of DH includes the subfields of new media and network art, network critique, media archaeology, materialities of the digital, platform studies, software studies, and critical code studies.

Liu sees the two halves of the field connected by three additional fields that fall under the larger animal kingdom of the Digital Humanities. First, studies in the History of the Book includes book history, the history of reading and literacies, physical and analytical bibliography, and ephemera studies. Science and technology studies as well as game studies also link textual DH to New Media Studies DH. And third, Liu cites Performance Studies as an anchor linking textual DH to New Media Studies, and here we find Making Theory, as well. For simplicity, let’s leave out the non-humanities and near-humanities disciplines he cites at the bottom of the map.

Now, pretend I’m your Chair, and I ask you to teach “Introduction to Digital Humanities” for undergraduates. You love your own DH research, and you often include some DH in the English courses you teach, so you agree. And then you glance at Liu’s map and start imagining what exactly you’re going to have to cover to properly survey the field. And then you have doubts. You make a list of the DH skills, tools, and theory you are an expert in as well as those you know enough to muddle through with help. For me, this includes: markup theory and TEI encoding, XSLT (which isn’t on Liu’s map), data curation, digital archive building, book history, media archaeology, some performance theory, text analysis, and enough topic modelling to get myself in trouble. What’s left? Almost all of New Media Studies, hypertext theory, electronic literature, gaming studies, maker theory, science and technology studies, and social network analysis. Dartmouth is on the quarter system, so you acknowledge that you have about 9 weeks in which to survey an interdisciplinary field, including teaching modules on the things that you don’t know much about. What do you do?

Today, I suggest that Digital Humanities itself is the new “Million Books” that Ramsay describes in his essay. In order to teach Digital Humanities, you need to approach syllabus building with the same “Ramsayan” screwmeneutics mentality that you want your students to bring to the course material. That is, it behooves you to browse or navigate in the field by letting interest dictate what you select and engage with. This interdisciplinary field is far too big and unwieldy to allow one to cut a determined, organized path through all of its knowledge. So instead, interests and curiosity can choose that path for you.

I found myself in this very same predicament when planning Dartmouth’s first Digital Humanities survey course that I will teach starting this coming January. My syllabus has been approved since May, but I have continued to refine it. It provides a methodological survey of the field. leuner_matariki-slides_final-006 However, I felt that the syllabus lacked cohesion and a purpose that would tie the various modules of the course together from an undergraduate student’s perspective. As Ryan Cordell argues, digital methods and tools alone do not justify DH or demonstrate its power. I need the syllabus to tangibly demonstrate to undergraduates how digital humanities methods, theory, tools, and projects help us study what it means to be human in ways that other methods of inquiry cannot. The challenge became, for me, how to select sample projects and readings from the ocean of DH initiatives, visualizations, tools and studies across so many methodologies and fields, from History to English to Computer Science. I let “screwmaneutics” be my guide such that interest would determine a theme that would give concrete meaning and applicability to the DH methodologies I’m teaching.

My first instinct was to follow my own research interests and tie the course together with the DH project I direct, The Stainforth Library of Women’s Writing. I imagined doing something different each week with my database that would correspond to each module in the course. I had a similar idea with Frankenstein, since there are so many digital editions of Frankenstein, mapping projects, new media studies, other DH resources, and the text is well out of copyright so it is easy to obtain a textbase. I then scheduled a course planning meeting with Laura Braunstein, our Digital Humanities Librarian. While thinking about how to improve my course, she asked how I wanted to incorporate postcolonial DH, and we talked briefly about work by Marisa Parham, Roopika Risam, Alex Gil, and Adeline Koh, and I also jotted down George Williams for thinking about disability and DH, and the FemTechNet collective for feminist topics. I then thought why not organize the entire course around social justice. Many at Dartmouth, including myself, are committed to social engagement through DH, and indeed this is the theme of an ongoing cluster hire at Dartmouth right now. However, I stuck with this theme because it is not only my interest that drives the decision: social justice is also a student interest that has a lot of traction on campus.

To be clear, I am not arguing that DH surveys for undergraduates should always be geared toward social justice themes. Rather, I recommend designing DH survey courses for undergraduates by practicing student-centered course design and selecting a path through the field that accords with student interests. Cathy Davidson provides a helpful summary of “student-centered learning”:

The most important rationale for student-centered pedagogy, going back to Dewey and Friere and all other progressivist educators, is that the “container” model of learning (the expert pouring information into the brain of the learner) is based on models of hierarchy and inequality which stall learning. Student-centered learning grants the students their own abilities, skills, interests, and methods for learning and builds on the students’ own ability, charting a pathway from that ability to mastery. It is not about the teacher. It is about the student. (link to full essay)

The relationship between social justice and student-centered learning is tightly knit for two reasons. First, many students at Dartmouth see themselves as activists in a long history of political activism at Dartmouth. And second, creating a student-centered course is social justice in action that combats national institutional biases that structure educational success according to the “container” model of learning and for the traditionally privileged majority. Thus, my approach will demonstrate to undergraduates the immediate relevance and impact of digital approaches to doing Humanities work, with the added benefit of creating a more equal classroom.

I will show three examples of ways that I incorporate social justice as Dartmouth-specific student-centered learning in my introduction to DH survey course.

The examples include

  1. #Blacklivesmatter
  2. Games
  3. Elections

leuner_matariki-slides_final-009 As you well know, #blacklivesmatter is a national movement, but it has a very vibrant life of its own at Dartmouth in pedagogy as well as student activism. In Spring 2015, a collective of 21 faculty collaborated to teach a course called “Black Lives Matter” in response to the social movement that developed in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. One hundred students applied for the course, which was capped at 30. This course ran again in Spring 2016. Separate from the course, Dartmouth students led protests related to the movement. For example, hundreds of students participated in a blackout protest in the Fall of 2015 that ended in a disruptive library march. There was a poster war in the student center between Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter groups that also addressed larger issues of race and tenure on campus. Not all race-related events on campus are this contentious, and our undergraduates, faculty, and Dartmouth community members are clearly invested in this issue. That media, and social media in particular, are integral to the Black Lives Matter movement is without question. So this topic is a perfect fit for my module on social media.


What students will discover in our practicum is that different tools will provide different views of the same twitter set and may lead to different analyses. My goal is to demonstrate that Twitter is one way that people express their humanity and their social position, and digital humanities methodologies and tools enable us to understand that content.

leuner_matariki-slides_final-011 My second example that links Dartmouth students and DH to social justice is playing games designed by Tiltfactor is a game design laboratory at Dartmouth run by Mary Flanagan. Tiltfactor’s mission states that “we can use games to change the world, and we’ve proven it through rigorous research.” Tiltfactor’s work easily fits into my syllabus in the gaming module as reading and another practicum: students explore and play these games and afterward write reflections about their experience and what they think the game accomplished. I recommend two games for students, though they can choose others if they prefer.

  1. In a game called “Layoff” (2009), the player collects points for laying off workers at a large company, which saves the company money. The more employees you sack, the more money you save your company and the more points you win. The game came out during the financial crisis of 2009, and it received a lot of attention for the way it rewards the act of making money off of employees’ losses.
  2. Metadata Games are more recent Tiltfactor productions. This is a collection of games that encourage the user to submit words that describe images that appear on the screen, or “tag” them. The images you tag are archived digitized photos from 11 institutions, including the British Library and the Digital Public Library of America. The tags submitted during play become part of the metadata used to catalog a particular image in that library’s digital collection. So, by playing this game you become a digital library content rescuer! You’re saving the data from being lost in an uncatalogued pile or not used because not tagged and sorted properly.

For their practicum, I ask students to explore and play. I will even give them a little time in class to play so that they can do so in pairs and talk about the game with a partner while they play. I ask them to take screen shots of their experience, embed those in a blog post, and write about what they learned from playing: What are the value-based elements that comprise this game? What work does the game do to raise consciousness about equality? Are there elements that don’t accomplish these goals, and why?


Our guest expert for the class, Mary Flanagan, will be a tremendous help in driving home the idea that changes of attitudes and behavior toward people doesn’t only have to occur in responses to traumatic events like Black Lives Matter. Creating digital games for change is a very concrete example of digital humanities activism.

My last example derives from Dartmouth students’ unique seat at the front row of presidential campaigns. As our college is located in New Hampshire, which has a prominent slot in election primary season, there is a long history of candidates debating and stumping at Dartmouth College. Students take full advantage of the opportunity to watch an election unfold on their very own small campus.


I borrow my assignment idea from Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell’s book Hermeneutica: Computer-Assisted Interpretation in the Humanities. As a digital exhibit accompanying their book, they load two related speeches into Voyant, a robust text-analysis tool, and show what you can grok by comparing them with the tool. Their example compares two speeches on the topic of race: Obama’s March 2008 speech “A more perfect union” and Jeremiah Wright’s speech to the NAACP that followed Obama’s in April. You can read their analysis that they arrive at using text analysis.

In the practicum I designed for this module, students select the two speeches that they want to compare. In order to select these speeches, they must first come up with a question they want to answer about the election or politics in general that requires the use of text analysis to compare speeches. Then, the question leads them to identify which people and which speeches they need to find the transcript of. This on its own is a great exercise in troubleshooting access to digitized materials. As they fail or succeed to find the transcripts they want, they will need to adjust their questions. After they find the transcripts they desire to analyze, I teach them how to prepare or clean their text files before loading them into Voyant. Then they use the tool to compare texts and see what they find.


In conclusion: I do think that introducing the Digital Humanities can be meaningful for undergraduates just as it is for DH scholars in helping us do Humanist work and understand what it means to be human. But DH on its own, as a set of methodologies, tools, and a body of scholarship, doesn’t mean as much for undergraduates as it does for us. For me personally as a literary scholar, as for many, DH offers a mode of scholarship that traditional literary scholarship has been missing. Computing helps us ask and answer new kinds of research and pedagogy questions about large textual corpora, like Ramsay’s one million books, and the DH ethos encourages collaboration across institutions and disciplines to create new critical scholarly products, which scholarship sorely needs. But undergraduates do not have perspective on the sea-change in our field that DH represents. So, to thematically ground your digital humanities survey course for undergraduates, ask yourself, or rather ask your students, what matters to them.


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