Matthew Hannah, Purdue University
The twenty-first century humanities classroom has been undergoing exciting changes. With the spread of digital scholarship initiatives, and the development of digital tools, instructors are finding innovative ways to teach literature, history, philosophy and culture by applying computing to their curricula. Assignments offered within many humanities courses now include analysis using computing tools with an eye toward public-facing digital projects. Rather than rely solely on the essay and exam structure, many courses now offer project-based assignments where students design and build original digital projects and may write essays about that process of building.
Focusing on project development, however, should not presuppose that students know how to write about that building process. Digital Humanities class time is often dedicated to teaching raw materials—the tools, code, or technology—with which to build projects, and this focus may obscure the need for teaching composition specific to DH. I have discovered that students writing analysis papers about films, literature, historical events, or philosophical texts is different from students writing about digital projects, especially when those projects are still in process. Unlike other analysis papers, DH writing balances technical description, reflection on process and sustainability, and analysis of impact. As instructors teaching courses in humanities with digital elements, we must recognize writing challenges and teach students how to adapt their existing composition skills. In what follows, I sketch some issues I discovered and offer practical solutions for future classes.
My approach to Digital Humanities relates to how I think about written composition. Because class time is often brief, I emphasize that I evaluate digital projects based on process, not product. Students may generate an impressive idea for a Digital Humanities project but find that gathering data and transforming it into workable datasets takes more time than anticipated. While this liminal state is virtually unknown in a traditional humanities classroom, which often culminates in a polished piece of student writing, transitional states are essential and even celebrated aspects of the Digital Humanities. I find I get better results with much less anxiety when I allow for ambitious goals that may produce half-finished work, for contingency and failure as part of a revision process.
This conceptualization of academic work as a process that will continue throughout and beyond my semester mirrors conversations in composition pedagogy around evaluation and assessment of student writing. I served as Assistant Director of Composition at University of Oregon where I assisted in training instructors to incorporate reflection, revision, and process as an integral part of the evaluation process. In a similar vein, I find that same philosophy in the Digital Humanities classroom. As Shawna Ross and Claire Battershill point out in Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom, failure and process are essential experiences of DH, and reflecting on digital work is a key component to the process of building a project. Like composition pedagogy, writing about process becomes part of the holistic analysis of the project and should be evaluated as well.
Level of Difficulty
Intermediate, Advanced Undergraduate, Graduate
This task is entirely about writing. The sample schedule I provide is meant to generate ideas for teachers incorporating digital scholarship into their courses who may want to avoid some of the pitfalls of ignoring the writing side of Digital Humanities.However, I do want to rethink the way I assign my final writing projects. For example, what if, instead of an essay, students were required to draft a grant proposal? This is an assignment possibility, which would require a bit more work from the instructor in terms of becoming familiar with grants, but I believe it would activate the same skills I want to teach–analysis, reflection, technical description–in a format that could be easily broken into chunks while offering a clear example of writing about contingency and process.
There is no required software, but I do suggest using Google Docs for file sharing and Prism for basic markup of texts.
This is a semester-long set of assignments.
You could do this with any normal class size.
Level of preparation
This course structure would require very little in the way of extra preparation from the instructor or students. It would require students to write outside of class and participate in class and would require the instructor to read and comment on drafts, conduct workshops, and monitor class work.
Incorporating writing assignment modules, interwoven with writing workshops would allow students to begin practicing the skills necessary for writing the Digital Humanities. Such modular thinking, in which writing assignments over the semester fit together into a larger final writing assignment, helps students practice the strange art of writing about incomplete projects. In what follows, I offer a sample course structure, made up of interconnected writing assignments punctuated with writing workshops:
Module 1: Short Writing Assignment about Digital Humanities.
In your first assignment, search for an interesting Digital Humanities project; for example, the critical advantages of eco-blogging. Write a 1-page description in Google Docs, describing what the project does, what it looks like, how it functions.
Workshop: Description vs. Analysis
Share your descriptive paragraph with a classmate (make sure to enable them to edit). Read the descriptions and look at the project. Now, I want you to write a paragraph (400-500 words) analyzing your partner’s project. Ask: What is the project trying to convey? How and where does the project do this? Is there a larger sociocultural impact?
Module 2: Revision
Revise your descriptive paragraph from Module 1 to include analysis of the description, answering some of the questions we addressed in the workshop.
Workshop: Google Doc Paragraph Builder
In a group of 4 or 5, open a shared Google doc. As a group, draft a sample paragraph with the following structure where each person is responsible for one piece: topic sentence, context for paragraph, example or description of project, evidence (if needed), analysis of the example or evidence, summation of paragraph.
Module 3: Short Writing Assignment Pitch
Using your paragraph from Module 2 as a template, write a one-page description of a project you would like to build. Offer the same balance of description and analysis to describe and analyze how project expands knowledge in the humanities.
Workshop: Writing Contingency
Looking at grant proposals for National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) startups, how do writers handle contingency and uncertainty? These are professionals asking for money to build a conceptual project. In groups, use Prism to mark key language from the grant proposal.
Module 4: Proposal
Using the work done in Module 3, write a one-page proposal for a digital project you’ll build, using the language of contingency, analysis, and description you’ve learned thus far.
Workshop: Planning to Extend
In small groups, draft a plan to extend your proposal into a full 8-page grant proposal. You’ll need to include sections for description, analysis of possible impact, audience, and technical detail.
Module 5: Grant Proposal
Using your plan from Module 4, write an 8-9 page grant proposal for the digital project you are building in the course, using skills you’ve learned thus far.
Module 6: Sustainability Plan
Complete a one-page sustainability plan after submitting your digital project. In this one-page document, I want you to reflect on your project and discuss how you will continue to develop the project beyond our class. This is an opportunity to reflect on the building process and imagine where it might go in the future.
Certainly, learning in the context of Digital Humanities comes with a whole set of unique challenges for students. Some Digital Humanities projects won’t be completed by the end of the semester because the student changed directions with too little time to collect enough new data, because a code or software didn’t work the way it was anticipated, or because the data didn’t actually show anything very interesting. Difficulties such as these figure prominently in feeding student insecurity. Writing a report about a “failed” project means grappling with an undesired outcome, and students often struggle to do so in a meaningful way. Rather, students use space and energy describing what they’d hoped would come out of the project and focusing entirely on their perception of failure and shortcoming. Scaffolding writing assignments to build on one another over the course of the semester will also allow me to address larger issues with writing through focused class assignments and will ultimately train students to write in a prospective way that will benefit them in future writing projects. Furthermore, rethinking the assignments enables teachers of digital scholarship to imagine new possibilities for student writing. Rather than a traditional essay, what happens when students write grant proposals, journalistic reporting, technical precis, pitches, and other unique genres afforded by the Digital Humanities? If we hope to train students of the humanities and social sciences with some contemporary technical skills, we should also think about ways to train them to think and write about those skills. And such writing would also translate into the humanities and social science classrooms, enabling students to write for diverse and authentic audiences.
Prism is an open-source markup tool designed at the Scholar’s Lab at University of Virginia: http://prism.scholarslab.org/prisms?locale=en
Annotation Studio is another markup tool designed at MIT that could be incorporated into this course: http://www.annotationstudio.org/
I am grateful to the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, Digital Bridges for Humanistic Inquiry, and the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies for a postdoctoral fellowship in Digital and Public Humanities at the University of Iowa. I am also grateful for the feedback of Teresa Mangum, Glenn Ehrstine, Carolyn Hartley, Loyce Arthur, Pamela Wesley, and Sarah Kyle.