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14
Aug
2014

Introducing Digital Humanities Work to Undergraduates: An Overview

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Written by
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Reviewed by Marisol Brito and Sean Michael Morris
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Lucky Stars” by Kendra Miller; CC BY-ND 2.0

Adeline Koh will be teaching the Identity track for Digital Pedagogy Lab in August 2015. To find out more about her track and to enroll, visit Digital Pedagogy Lab’s main page.


You are already a digital humanist, whether or not you know it. Digital humanities has exploded in popularity over the last decade, as evidenced by the creation of many different types of grants to help digital humanities research (The Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment of the Humanities, the creation of digital humanities specific grants at the American Council of Learned Societies), and the impressive growth of digital humanities-related panels at the Modern Language Association and American Historical Association annual meetings. Feeling the effects of this expansion, many institutions are starting to privilege the digital humanities as a strategic priority. Yours is probably no exception.

But while digital humanities may seem like an intimidating, exponentially growing field with varying ideas of “insiders” and “outsiders,” you and your students are all already digital humanists, because you all use technology in your daily lives. At its best, the digital humanities is about engaging more critically with the intersections between technology and how we act, think and learn. Without knowing it, you’re probably already using many of the techniques of digital humanists in your life and in your classroom.

What I offer below are some easy ways to dip your toe into the field. Implementing digital humanities into your curriculum may seem like a monumental task, especially for institutions that fall outside of the research one university category. The most visible digital humanities projects are often located within graduate programs at well-funded, research institutions. People at primarily undergraduate-focused institutions might wonder how this field can be applied to rejuvenating traditional humanities curricula. In addition, less well-funded institutions might not find it as easy to commit to providing the frameworks to build successful digital humanities projects, as these often require substantial resources such as digital infrastructure (computers, servers, software) and technical support (particular for faculty, staff and students who are new to digital work).

To address this, in this article I give a brief overview of an assortment of digital humanities projects that can be implemented in primarily undergraduate-focused institutions. This has been important work to encourage for me personally because so much of traditional humanities work can be augmented by digital tools, and because getting students to critically engage in the theoretical foundations of these tools is a core humanities mission. In this essay, I deal mostly with the former, listing some examples of different levels of tools and expertise that can go into each type of project. Readers should be able to decide on what level they would like to start at, and build some possible ideas to “scaffold” the project, or stages of development and release for the project. At the end of the overview I offer an activity that can be easily applied by instructors interested in conducting digital humanities workshops at their institutions and an annotated list of additional resources. My goal is to provide an easy introduction for instructors to think through possibilities for incorporating the digital humanities within an undergraduate curriculum with either free or inexpensive digital tools.

Mapping Projects

Literature courses often encourage students to reflect on the role of space and place in a literary text. A common assignment might require students to draw maps of geographical places visited by characters in a text. Such an assignment can be greatly enhanced with digital humanities tools.

James Joyce’s Ulysses is often studied in terms of space and place. While this is traditionally plotted out in pen and paper (see Vladimir Nabokov’s sketched-out map of the paths Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom take in Ulysses on June 16, 1904), such projects lend themselves quite easily to digital adaptation.

Nabokov on Ulysses

Gerry Carlin and Mair Evan’s Google Maps annotations of Ulysses is a digital humanities equivalent of Nabokov’s hand-drawn map. Carlin and Evan’s project allows users to zoom into particular points of interest that relate to key locations in Ulysses.

James Joyce’s Ulysses on Google Maps

Users can click on individual chapters of Ulysses via the left menu to retrieve useful notes ranging from a summary of chapter events, important symbols and parallels, to commentary by the project authors.

Notes by Chapter

These mapping projects are easily adapted for other texts. For example, I worked with Xiaojing Zhou’s Asian American literature class at the University of the Pacific on identifying and annotating areas in Native Speaker by Chang Rae-Ee. Working together with the class, we created a collaborative Google Map which identified a significant geographical location in the novel, and added annotations and quotations on the map:

Annotating Native Speaker at the University of the Pacific

Google maps also allows for a “street view” of specific locations, allowing students a glimpse of the location without having to physically visit.

Getting to Google Street View

Google Street View

Starting with Google Maps to integrate digital humanities in the classroom is relatively painless, easy and free. The tool is easy to navigate, and as many students are already familiar with the Google interface, this familiarity helps them to get to the meat of the assignment more quickly. Instructors interested in exploring mapping projects should thus probably start with this tool. While much more sophisticated projects involving GIS and visualization software are possible, they require considerably more investment in terms of course time and resources.

Text Analysis

Another common digital humanities pedagogical approach is to use digital tools to conduct text analysis. These tools can range from very simple to incredibly complex. This section showcases three easy-to-use and free tools.

The easiest and free tool currently available is Wordle, which allows anyone to quickly generate “word clouds” from text the user provides. Words that occur more frequently appear larger in the Wordle. Instructors can use this visualization to explore with students if this means certain themes might be more prolific in a text they are analyzing.

Wordle Main Page

To generate a Wordle, the user should paste some text, or the URL of a blog, feed or webpage that has a RSS feed into the query box.

Wordle Generator

For my example Wordle below, I pasted in the full text of Othello hosted by Shakespeare at MIT. Outside of the names of the characters, words that are selected include “Moor,” “heaven,” “love,” “bed,” “night,” all of which correspond to the theme of the threat of interracial sexuality dominant in the play.

Wordle of Othello

Othello WordleWordle is also helpful in analyzing student writing. Once student papers are uploaded, the resulting word cloud reveals words that may be repeated too often and which inhibit the clarity and focus of the writing.

Voyant and Textal are two additional text analysis tools that are free and easy to use. Voyant, produced by Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell, is more robust than Wordle, allowing users to upload texts from a variety of formats, use texts from different locations, and allows for complex analysis such as multi-word (n-gram) views and the searching of terms by proximity. Textal is a free iOS application by Melissa Terras and her team that allows users to analyze online texts such as tweet streams. In the Textal application, inputting a text source generates word clouds, and zooming in on particular words generates statistics such as the number of times the word appears in the text, how many words the document contains, and how often that word is used. The Textal application is very easy to use and powerful.

Online Exhibitions

Creating digital exhibitions might be an attractive project to some instructors. Many are used to getting students involved in creating physical exhibitions — the curation and presentation of materials being a useful pedagogical exercise in examining questions of cultural value. Furthermore, adding a digital component to a physical exhibition extends its reach and its audience. It also provides an easy way to get students involved with digital tools.

Online exhibits can be extremely customized and elaborate, such as in the What Jane Saw exhibit below, which allows viewers to experience a three-dimensional view of an art exhibition Jane Austen visited on May 24 1813:

What Jane Saw

They can also be much simpler. Omeka is a useful tool that allows instructors with limited coding experience to easily create online exhibitions with their students.  The simplest Omeka instance is Omeka.net, which sets up faculty with predesigned templates. While Omeka.net is not as customizable as the original Omeka software, which needs to be installed on a server, it is a useful starting point for beginner faculty.

A good example of what can be done with Omeka is the Children & Youth in History project, which contains a showcase of different objects containing digital annotations related to global childhood.

Children and Youth in History Using Omeka.

Wikipedia Editing

Finally, an easy and valuable project to incorporate in the humanities classroom is Wikipedia editing. This project often appeals to students given how often they use Wikipedia as a reference source themselves. Additionally, learning how to navigate the rules and regulations that govern Wikipedia as a community is a valuable teaching opportunity to discuss the cultures of different environments.

For example, one of Wikipedia’s axioms is that it focuses on “verifiability, not truth.” Which means that everything on Wikipedia has to be backed up by compelling evidence (which is often either peer-reviewed articles or fact-checked popular media sources — what in fact most instructors demand that their own students use as evidence in their courses.) In this regard, Wikipedia editing trains students to think about what constitutes reliable information and what does not, which translates into their academic work.

Instructors who teach socially-inflected humanities courses might also be interested in contributing to various political Wikipedia projects. The online encyclopedia is well known, for example, for the gender gap in its editors — the typical Wikipedia editor is a thirty-year-old, middle-class, English-speaking college-educated male. Instructors interested in amending this gender gap through classroom instruction can find a wealth of resources on political Wikipedia editing on the Postcolonial Digital Humanities website. Many help guides are also available for instructors wishing to integrate Wikipedia into the classroom, ranging from a booklet on using Wikipedia as a teaching tool to sample case studies on Wikipedia in education.

Ideas for Your Own Digital Humanities Workshop

The project showcase I listed above is a useful starting point for people wishing to give their own “getting started in the digital humanities” workshop. Once the overview is complete, I suggest the following as a hands-on activity. I have tried this activity in a number of institutions, and it has always generated widespread interest and enthusiasm for starting work in the digital humanities.

Activity

Give out 3×5 index cards to everyone in the room before you begin the workshop. After you finish your overview of projects, ask everyone in the room to write down three digital humanities projects they see value in pursuing (this can be adapted for both a faculty workshop and for a class project with students). Give everyone adequate time to write three ideas down. Setting a watch or a timer for 90 seconds is a good idea—it provides enough time for most people to get at least one idea down on paper.

Once the 90 seconds are over, ask your participants to sit next to someone they do not know and discuss which one of the six projects they have listed is the most important, and why. Let them have enough time to do this—a minimum of another 90 seconds is suggested. Then watch and listen as the quiet room begins to burst into noisy activity. This “think pair share” activity, which I borrowed from Cathy Davidson, is helpful precisely because by brainstorming on their own, each participant in the workshop envisions their own project (and in turn, their connection) to the digital humanities.

Finally, if you have adequate time and a small enough group (not more than 70 people), you can ask each group for their choice of project and for their rationale for it. The group can then make a pitch for their project. Once you create the entire list of projects (which can be shown on a projector), you can ask the room to vote on the project they would most like to pursue. When I gave this workshop at Cabrini College, we ended up with two fantastic projects that a group of students each started brainstorming and outlining on their own on whiteboards. The whiteboards were full of plans by the end of the session. Below is an image of one mapped-out project:

Whiteboard from Cabrini College workshop

Conclusion

This brief article has provided an overview of digital humanities projects that can be inexpensively and easily applied to the undergraduate classroom and suggested an activity to conclude an exploratory workshop for faculty and/or students. To end, I list below a brief annotated bibliography on additional helpful sources that can be used to elaborate on the workshop structure proposed by this essay and to get faculty and students interested in starting digital humanities work.

Further Reading

Website with very useful presentation slides, lectures and other downloads on getting started with the digital humanities, creating your first digital humanities project, starting a digital humanities laboratory.

In this post, Morgan lays out an extensive overview of different genres of digital humanities projects, possible tools for creating these projects and different instances of these projects from smaller to greater scales.

Posner gives an overview of seven genres of digital humanities projects, and the types of skills and tools interested people will need to embark on such projects.

An easy to navigate resource that is a repository of digital research tools for scholarly use. If you want a tool to accomplish something, there’s a good chance that it’s already been reviewed on Dirt.

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17 Responses

  1. Megan

    Faculty interested in teaching with Wikipedia should also consider contacting the Wiki Education Foundation (http://wikiedu.org). They are available to support many aspects of the course, from assignment design to connecting faculty with Wikipedians who specialize in their subject area

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  3. Thanks Adeline,

    This is an interesting article, but I think the hyperbole over the ‘growth’ of the DH lets you down a little. It is just that the term DH is being used a lot more; I would argue that there has been little or no growth in the DH over the past decade, simply the slavish application of the term DH to digital work. And digital work is just digital work, there is nothing intellectual about it.

    I am new to the pedagogy debates and thank you for these.

    All the best,

    Craig

  4. Thank you so much for this clear presentation of ideas for DH in undergraduate classrooms. If I might put in a plug to your readers who are community college faculty interested in developing students’ digital fluencies: our NEH Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, “An Institute for Community College Digital Humanists: Beyond Pockets of Innovation, Toward a Community of Practice” is July 13-15, 2015: interested CC faculty can find out more and apply starting this fall at https://blogs.lanecc.edu/dhatthecc/

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