Conferences Digital Humanities Digital Pedagogy Teaching

How we Teach? Digital Humanities Pedagogy in an Imperfect World

I was honoured to give this keynote at the CSDH/SCHN conference at Congress in Calgary on Wednesday.

I would like to start by thanking Susan Brown, Jon Bath, Michael Ullyot, and CSDH for inviting me to speak here. I’m sorry Susan isn’t here because I wanted her to hear this, too, so would someone tweet out to her that it is a particular honor for me to be here because #myDH (as the hashtag goes) is Canadian. Many of the people in this room have been directly responsible in ways they will never know for shaping my relationship to the Digital Humanities and my identity as a Digital Humanist – my training, my professionalization, my research and publication agenda. But more important, you have epitomized for me the possibilities for progressive, collaborative, thoughtful DH, and why that is crucial to the ways in which global DH should be conducted. You have also taught me that those possibilities come with responsibility, and that that responsibility cannot be taken lightly. And so I take this talk very seriously and personally.

I’m going to do something that may seem a bit daft at a digital humanities conference, but I’m not going to use slides. It feels weird, and I may regret the decision, but I want to resist the temptation to put up a lot of slides of computer screens and software logos and code and deliverables. I don’t want this to be a workshop. Come Friday and you will find me in that mode. But this is different. And yet I’m not so clever as Bethany Nowviskie to use beautiful abstract paintings to underscore my words. I also want to privilege the human-ness of teaching, and reaffirm that we cannot absent ourselves from teaching environments – even as we’re talking *about* teaching environments. And I’m not so clever as Jacque Wernimont to express myself through myself vibrantly. And I’m not so confident as Amy Earhart when she framed disruption at last summer’s CSDH conference through a close reading of DH projects and publications. But maybe as I stand up here on this small stage with my iPad modeling the difficulties of talking about what we do when we teach, it will encourage you to take part in what I hope is a conversation after what I’m sure is going to be a shortish keynote. Or maybe you’ll decide that there is no way in heaven that you will ever make *this* mistake.

When I proposed the title for this talk I thought I was being clever and strategic – that here was an opportunity to participate in the discourse about access through the lens of pedagogy. I didn’t realize that I was setting myself up – that I didn’t want to present what could very well be sad and disheartening. Because so often when we talk about access, we are actually talking about the lack thereof. And I went through so many drafts – so many – that took me down that rabbit hole and I couldn’t get myself back out. And yet I have been struggling lately with what it means to teach DH, why we must differentiate it from other practices of digital pedagogy, and whether in this world that is so very imperfect in so many ways, that we can effectively support the Digital Humanities at a curricular level.

As we become more attractive to our institutions as a brand, something that our presidents and chancellors can point at when they talk to trustees and donors as exemplary of the progressiveness of our institutions, more pressure is being put upon us to apply what we do with our research in the classroom. And we – in this room – are the ones who are expected to develop and implement curricular DH. We, who have probably not experienced the learning of DH in a structured way.

I’m making the assumption that most of us have experienced what amount to two educations. Our first education was in the humanities or more broadly the liberal arts. Chances are we fell in love with literature or history or language or philosophy or media or anthropology or gender studies or whatever our first field was because we had remarkable, passionate teachers; these powerful, charismatic, knowledge-sharers convinced us that we needed to be part of their community of scholars.

Our second education was more complicated and for many of us much more idiosyncratic. We taught ourselves DH: we went to DHSI or similar training events, we read books that someone recommended and reverse engineered other people’s code and picked up the tools and methods we needed to work on a particular research project. We reached out to our DH heroes, hoping that they would mentor us – actually, I think sometimes I was hoping they would adopt me. And then we turned around and taught our peers. So in order to create our community of scholar-practitioners we adopted very particular relationships with knowledge- sharers that don’t always translate into a traditional classroom, or with our colleagues in the arts and humanities more broadly.

In our first education we took survey courses and theory courses and special topic courses. But in our second education until recently there was no equivalent. We read Hayles and McGann and Turkle and Gold and Drucker and so many others on our own, and our reading lists were as idiosyncratic as our training, and not necessarily as part of any formal course of study. Suzanne Westfall, she who shared her love of early modern theatre with me and made me want to be part of her community, gave me Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck to read – sometime in the mid 90s – and I knew I needed to be a part of “that”. I didn’t know what “that” was, but it made sense to me, and when I applied to grad school I wrote about how I wanted to study the idea of a digital scriptorium. I didn’t know what DH was, but that was 2003 and you were just in the process of branding it so how could I. The University of Toronto cannot be blamed for not knowing what to do with me. The University of Waterloo was much more helpful in pointing me at a secondary field of “Multimedia Theory and Design”. But it was Aimée Morrison who found the funding for me to go to DHSI and begin to learn text-encoding, and then I got to meet Julia Flanders, and Susan Brown, and Ray Siemens, and just about all of my DH heroes.

Just as we learned idiosyncratically, there was no way that any of us could become DH generalists. We are specialists in text analysis, encoding, data or spatial visualization, desktop fabrication, augmented reality, e-lit … our methods are as varied as our subject matter, and specializations continue to grow and expand and evolve in ways that make it impossible for anyone to be fluent in more than a few, although we’re constantly teaching ourselves more ways to engage in different ways – in better ways? – with our subject matter that is still mainly related to our first love.

So at this point in time when our institutions, our disciplines, the press … are finally paying attention to us, for better or worse, we, the self-taught and scrappy, now find that we have to adopt more formal pedagogical styles as we tread another new path.

Those of you who attended DHSI last summer may remember Claire Warwick’s keynote on the last day of week one. What I heard Claire say – which is apparently different from what Connie Crompton heard her say – was a call for more focus on pedagogy within the fields that comprise the digital humanities. She said (or so I paraphrased her on Twitter): “It’s very important that DH moves from research to teaching. It’s important to teach people and train the next generation.” She was emphatic that as we draw increasing attention from more traditional humanities departments, from our institutions, as well as from grant-funding agencies, we need to think about questions of longevity and sustainability in the training of new scholar practitioners in addition to the continuing focus we must place on funding and institutional infrastructural support. Claire went on to call for more attention to be focused on digital humanities pedagogy at the undergraduate level, which you can imagine resonated for me, but in particular because a group of us at Bucknell – including John Hunter and Katie Faull – were at that moment designing a DH minor that was subsequently approved by the curriculum committee last fall.

But I think what Claire was calling for was actually more specific, that it’s important for *digital humanists* to teach people *digital humanities* and to train the next generation of *digital humanists*. That’s very different than what I thought she was saying at the time (remember that I had just taught five days of DH pedagogy course, so I hope I can be forgiven for hearing Claire with ears attuned to something akin to incorporating DH methods at a sophisticated level in a learning environment. And that finally leads me to ask questions that we have to tackle if we’re going to figure out how the heck we’re going to teach DH.

So who do we teach and why do we teach them DH? And who are the “we” that teach DH to them?
Who are we teaching and why are we teaching them? Certainly at an undergraduate level, we’re teaching students from across our departments and schools and colleges, and often because we look more relevant to the people across the quad than perhaps we do when we’re teaching what may seem to outsiders more arcane but is truly in line with more traditional approaches to our fields.

My favorite class as an undergrad was a senior seminar taught by an historian and a computer scientist called “The History of Technology”. They invited students to sign up for the course in a way that ensured it was half humanities and half engineering students. This was in the fall of 1985, so our readings were a bit unusual (we spent a lot of time thinking about the transition from punch cards to personal computers, which were still weirdly new). It was transformative for all of us because it was the first time we students had communicated formally across disciplines about our perspectives on technology and society. The Historian and Computer Scientist happened to be married to each other, which also fascinated us. When they got divorced a year later I kind of wondered whether we in that course were one of the reasons they didn’t stay together. Why are students so fixated on their teachers’ human existence?

My favorite class to teach was the first iteration of the Humanities 100 course that Katie Faull and I designed in 2014 and that we’ve spoken and written about. What was so important and transformative about that course for me was how Katie and I relied on each other to teach the other just as we were teaching our students. And so it became this joyful – sometimes exhausting – but always wonderful way to teach. That is the kind of teaching I really enjoy – when colleagues and students come from different perspectives across campus, and the DH glues us together and we can participate in unique dialogues and teach each other and complement the others’ skills. But students can’t do that on their own – certainly not as undergraduates.

Katie Faull and John Hunter encouraged me to submit my text analysis course this fall as a W2 – an advanced writing requirement at Bucknell – because it would draw STEM students and increase enrollment for a new untried course. I joke about bringing engineers and computer science majors over to the bright side. But at the same time that I joke about this, I know that to many of them this is a novelty or ticks a box that might help them on the job market. It’s not just STEM and Management students. I know that the Humanities majors in my classes are also trying to prove to their parents and potential employers that DH makes them more marketable. And there are students that we have taught that have gone on to get jobs at Google and Adobe and the US Government because of their skill with media and GIS. There is no shame in creating an opportunity that will help a student gain employment.

I can’t speak to teaching in the graduate experience except from my own as a learner. Maybe that changes from program to program, where in some there is a smattering of DH in the few courses that grad students take, or in others, where there is a formal certificate awarded. For me I was hired as a research assistant, and Christine McWebb and I figured out what I needed to do together in order to help her build her project in medieval French literature. I don’t know what’s true in graduate programs now. I just don’t have the perspective to speak to it. Maybe someone else can when I stop talking.

We have to remember that we’re not just teaching students, and we’re not just teaching each other. We also have to acknowledge that we are always going to teach our colleagues and our administrators at our institutions. If we’re going to implement curricular DH, institutional DH, then we need to make our deans and our provosts understand exactly what that means and what that requires. We need to show them that we need to teach along a trajectory just as we do in other disciplines, and that a DH degree requires commitment in terms of teachers and teaching spaces.

If that LARB article did anything, it triggered a conversation among many to re-frame how we participate in DH at an institutional level. There were so many thoughtful pieces that came in response to it. I was struck by something that Brian Greenspan said in his piece that made the rounds last week that didn’t necessarily have to do with teaching but I think applies to how we push back at our institutions when they make assumptions about us becoming science-y or selling out for our students. He said, “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.” Brian went on to say that, “The fault and burden of DH is that it reveals all the pieces of this model of post-secondary funding that seems novel to many humanists, but which has long been taken for granted within the sciences. This is the model that acknowledges that most funding programs aren’t intended mainly for tenured professors to buy books and travel, but for their research infrastructure and, above all, their students who justify the mission of scholarship in the first place.”

So, then, who are the we that teach DH?

A quick show of hands: how many of you are tenure track faculty? How many of you are adjunct faculty? How many are graduate students or postdocs? How many of you are librarians? How many of you are alt-ac? How many of you didn’t I identify?

Ok. Now: how many of you are scheduled to teach or co-teach or are embedded in a DH course in the coming year?
(NB: most of the people in the room raised their hands at tenure track; several were students or postdocs, there was one librarian and one other alt-ac, as well as a passerby who wanted to know what all this DH was about).

I ask these questions because you – all of us – represent the instructor pool for digital humanities across the curriculum. And I’m not convinced that our universities understand what this means in terms of human resources for instruction – what it means to teach the digital humanities.

When I was on the job market I included digital humanities prominently in my list of research interests and included digital pedagogy-rooted courses that I had taught in my teaching dossier. I applied for jobs that identified DH as one of the fields of research or administrative focus. And yet in several interviews it became clear to me that the search committee didn’t really know what they meant by digital humanities, and were sometimes uncomfortable or even resistant to ways in which it might be incorporated into a classroom environment. I recall a particularly awkward exchange at Fordham about Twitter in the classroom, when the search committee looked at me in mortification … I didn’t get the job, dear reader. I do think that’s changing, in large part because of the efforts of scholars like Miriam Posner, Alex Gil, Brian Croxall, Mark Sample, Ryan Cordell, Lee Skallerup-Bissette, and many others who have shared their experiences and expertise, acting as advocates to administrators and department heads, and as mentors to others who follow on their heels, clarifying how such work should be undertaken and assessed, and how one should position one’s self on the market and within disciplines to demonstrate success. But note that most of the people on that list are “junior scholars”. That so many who are representing and sharing the problems and challenges of figuring out models for best practice in teaching DH are those who are not in positions of academic power or in traditional academic positions; many of whom are not recognized by our institutions as instructors at all because we are not tenure-track faculty. And those who are tenure-track but still untenured are questioned when they employ progressive teaching models and bring students into their DH research through their teaching, as part of their understanding of what it means to teach.

In my experience at Bucknell, I’ve tried to differentiate between working with faculty members who are already doing DH (whether or not they knew that before) and those who are curious about including an assignment or a module that is digitally inflected. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having the DH minor makes a difference because I can work with faculty and in the classroom in a more intentional way – finding ways to create expansion bridges, as Katie Faull would say, that take undergraduates from survey to methods to special topics. But frankly I’m swamped by the other faculty who want to reconfigure their courses so they can say they’re doing DH. I can only give so many faculty workshops and consults with people who want to do a little mapping, some text encoding, some text analysis, some data visualization without understanding what it could lead to. With all of these faculty members I’ve demonstrated how I’ve taught such assignments, helping them to create rubrics and develop assessment techniques that emphasize critical engagement and process, and not fall prey to the pretty/shiny. But for many it will and probably should remain just something that’s pretty and shiny. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But when we’re talking about curricular DH, that means that someone – a librarian, a specialist, an instructional technologist, or someone like me who seems to defy description, is embedded in or co-teaching those courses. We may not be identified as an instructor of record, but in effect we can become that. In some cases we are formally co-teaching – John and I are teaching together next spring, and I’m really excited because I think (or I’m trying to convince him) that we can use the course to tease out issues that we’re both interested in, in the public/private/paranoic aspect of the digital in society at the same time that DH can help us address ideas of social justice such as what Toniesha Taylor was talking about yesterday. That’s a special topic course if ever there was one.

What I’m saying is that the traditional model of one instructor (or perhaps an instructor plus grad student TA’s) for a course doesn’t work in DH. The model has to change to reflect complementary teaching skillsets – and skillsets that change and evolve as the tools and platforms and devices students use to do this work expand, become more sophisticated, become more available at the same time that we’re establishing ways for them to experience what for us were two separate educations, building a curricular DH that is both the making and the theorizing. It is wonderful when a student or a colleague can show us something that we don’t already know – when someone from computer science or math or statistics or race studies or linguistics or rhetoric can reveal something about a scatter plot graph or a piece of code or a map that moves everyone’s understanding forward. And we are notorious magpies for pulling what we’ve learned from them into our classrooms. I love those moments. But we can’t expect students to teach themselves. And I don’t think we can survive if we continue to expect ourselves to teach ourselves everything so that we can teach it in turn to others.

So, how do we manage this multi-instructor model? Obviously resources are not infinite and the idea of co-teaching or embedding a specialist or a colleague (or multiples of any of these people) in a course is not scalable, and perhaps to borrow Connie’s term from another panel, we should honor the bespoke nature of how we teach rather than figuring out how to scale it. Certainly, in my experience at Bucknell, I get pushback from the library – “not now” or “not this semester” when it comes to working with faculty in DH courses at a highly sophisticated, intentional level. But what does that mean? That courses are removed from the catalog because there is suddenly not a human resource available? We have to reconfigure ourselves and we have to be honest about what we can and cannot teach and we have to identify holes in our curricula and be intentional about how we fill them. Look at how Northeastern conducted its cluster hire this year, and how it recognized that in order to be more holistic in their approach to DH research and teaching that they needed to expand the skill sets of their faculty.

So, how do we teach DH? We combine and refine both of our educations. We try to sustain the way that we learned because it was so organic and intrinsic to our understanding of how computational methods could transform our engagement with our first loves, and we bring more of that into the classroom, just as we find ways to shape a more formal education for the students who we want to join us.

We listen to Claire Warwick and we train people and we train each other – because with us we are still the next generation. So we keep going to DHSI and teach as we learn. And we take Ray’s offer to go out and figure out what a DHSI at Congress or at MLA or at Guelph or Oxford or what becomes HILT or any other training vehicle can be and we make that. We make DH work for our environments by creating it meaningfully in our environments. We know that there is no one DH model that can possibly work across institutions, but we can shape DH for our institutions in the way that it makes sense for us and for them. We hire the people who we need to make that happen. And we ensure that they have what they need to be part of the building and teaching of DH – whether it be curricular in a traditional sense, or in something that looks more like the way “traditional” DH does – through research projects that are themselves internally and intrinsically pedagogical in the ways that they create new knowledge.

We professionalize. We are the one humanities discipline I can think of that understands what it means to deal with the crisis in jobs in higher-ed because we have always been nontraditional in the ways in which we recognize ourselves professionally. It is not coincidental that the term alt-ac works for DH in ways that it does not and cannot for other disciplines because we build our teams knowing that it is not only disingenuous but unhelpful to try to replicate a linear model that only goes from grad student to postdoc to tenure-track. At the same time, you who are in positions of power need to resist the temptation that your colleagues still, wrongly I think, embrace, that the “gold standard” of a tenure-track position – as it was described to me by a dean of graduate studies – is the only path of value for graduate students. You need to teach yourselves just as we do that the digital librarian or alt-ac job for a Ph.D. is not a consolation prize, but that in DH it is a crucial component to ensuring that if we have any chance of thinking about longevity and sustainability in our continuing efforts to fund and ensure institutional infrastructural support – you need us.

We must be more honest than our colleagues and encourage rather than console. I need to learn this because I still feel that somehow I failed my teachers by not meeting that gold standard. But maybe that’s part of modeling what we do. We spend so much time looking forward, and yet our mentors – our knowledge-sharers – are right in front of us as we saw last night when we heard Ian Lancashire speak to us, still trying to figure out how we are all going to keep going, still teaching each other as they teach us and we teach those next in line. So maybe those of us who are coming up in whatever wave of DH this is – I’ve never quite figured out how it maps against waves of feminism – need to stop worrying about titles, make sure that we are employed, and figure out what it means for us to teach. Because our academic world is always going to be imperfect. And because so many DH scholar-practitioners are amazingly agile and amazingly resourceful and amazingly generous teachers, we need to get on with it and do what has always worked for us. Now we’re just doing it on a larger stage.

Thank you.

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