Question, Create, Reflect: A Holistic and Critical Approach to Teaching Digital Humanities

Kristen Mapes (, Michigan State University, United States of America y Matthew Handelman (, Michigan State University, United States of America

Teaching digital humanities at the undergraduate level is as much about issues of critical theory, inclusion, and diversity as it is about teaching digital tools and methods. Examining DH methods such as topic modeling introduces students to the concept of algorithmic bias, pointing to the algorithms that shape our daily lives. Working with DH tools such as Palladio enables students to confront and reveal the layers of representation (and inequality) that structure the virtual and physical spaces that we inhabit. And creating digital archives with platforms such as Omeka challenges students to question the purpose and limits of digital tools, offering opportunities to reflect on the ethics of (digital) representation. The dialectics of teaching new DH tools and questions of critique, the archive, and representation central to the humanities form the basis of the undergraduate Digital Humanities Minor at our institution, in which students take two sequential, required courses: “Introduction to Digital Humanities” and the “Seminar in the Digital Humanities”. Our talk will explore how we weave together these courses to create a holistic and critical approach to the foundations of digital humanities at the undergraduate level.

In “Introduction to Digital Humanities,” students examine a range of DH methods and activities and create a final project of their own choosing. We explore DH approaches to humanities questions by evaluating digital projects that engage with the Harlem Renaissance and its context. By centering students’ exposure to DH on one broad but unifying topic, we can avoid the trap of the carousel of tools into which an Intro DH class could fall. The Harlem Renaissance centers the course because it touches on cultural areas of critical interest spanning disciplines – art, music, literature, economic history, social history, political history, and urban planning – and has several DH projects either directly on the Harlem Renaissance or on related topics. By rooting the course in a historical cultural period, students are introduced to structural trends and issues that reverberate today.

In analyzing digital projects as a class, we critique the data behind the project, its presentation – in terms of style, effectiveness, and accessibility – and the structures in which it was made. We discuss what role grant funding plays in promoting certain types of projects, how crowdsourcing relates to labor ethics and the digital, who the project’s users may be, and what its long term preservation prospects are. We then apply this critical framework to projects ranging from a digital edition (such as
Claude McKay’s Early Poetry) to large scale image analysis (such as
On Broadway) to linked data and network analysis (such as
Linked Jazz). We also talk to project leaders (from Virtual Harlem,
Umbra Search, and the
Mapping the Second Ku Klux Klan projects) to get a behind-the-scenes perspective on project management, origins, and goals. The bulk of the second half of the semester is spent on student projects. Students choose any topic they like and develop a critical research question. It is then is up to each student to choose a DH method and to find, gather, and clean their data. Class time is built in for one-on-one assistance from the professor and the embedded librarian to guide the students through the frustration and joy of the iterative DH project. By the end of the semester, the same digital project evaluation framework is used to analyze the students’ projects.

The second semester in this year-long sequence, “Seminar in Digital Humanities,” deepens students’ skills with DH tools and methods, applies these skills in a semester-long DH project, and combines students’ DH knowledge with the reflective practices of critical theory. As both “Text, Technology, and the Body” (spring 2016) and “Digital Humanities and Critical Theory” (spring 2017), students participate in a collaborative DH project, in which they design and build an online collection using archival materials from our institution’s Special Collections as well as analyze and reflect on their digital work and the content of our archive. Whether it is digitizing criminology broadsheets from 17th Century Europe or early-twentieth century comics, this course frames DH as a continuation of – instead of a break with – critical debates over media, technology, and culture – from classics such as Walter Benjamin to current critical voices in DH such as
Alan Liu and
Laura Klein. The goal of these projects is not only to enable students to conceptualize and execute a student-led DH project, but also to develop their ability to read and critique digital tools and recognize their affordances, limitations, and political implications.

Exploring and employing a variety of digital techniques, “Seminar in the Digital Humanities” adapts and expands on the “read, play, build” approach to teaching DH proposed by Joanna Swafford at DH 2016. The semester is divided into seven units, the first two of which position DH within contemporary (and
critical) debates in the humanities and introduce students to the historical and disciplinary context pertaining to our subject matter. For each unit, students read theoretical texts and articles that contextualize the tool under consideration as part of a larger historical-critical discourse within media studies, critical theory, and the history of DH. These readings provide the background in which students then learn how to implement these tools and explor examples aided by guest DH specialists from around our institution. The final phase of each unit provides a collaborative space for class members to create a working plan to apply this technique to our project – in order, for example, to clean our metadata, digitize our selected archival materials, and set up the Omeka site. Finally, students execute this plan as their individual project and compose a reflective essay that positions their work in the critical debates and comments on the technological, epistemological, and ethical choices that went into their digital work. These individual projects and critical reflections provide a self-reflective context for our digital collection, while allowing the students to cultivate their identities as critical thinkers and digital humanists.

Taken together, these two undergraduate courses expose students to a range of digital tools and methods for humanistic inquiry, providing them with experience overseeing their own DH project from conception to completion as well as participating in a semester-long team project. In different ways, the courses introduce students to critical frameworks for asking humanities questions of the digital and for using the digital to ask humanities questions. Teaching DH and critical thought as two sides of the same coin, this DH sequence provides students with tools to not only understand, but also intervene in a world increasingly mediated by digital processes.

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