It’s been a while since I’ve written anything – mainly for lack of time and other writing deadlines, but also because I’ve been unsure what to write about in this space. I was hesitant to write about the course I taught in the fall while I was teaching it, and I’ve been cautious about writing anything professionally-oriented: so many people are writing (oftentimes articulately and also at times in incendiary tones) about alt-ac and DH and the state of higher education and the lack of jobs and and and … I just don’t feel like getting into a social media exchange about it. So I’ve just done a lot of sharing of other peoples’ FB posts and tweets.
But now spring is (supposedly) coming, and I’m starting to think about co-presenting on the first iteration of Humanities 100 with Katie Faull this summer at ACH and DH, and thought it might be a good time to write about teaching and learning again.
I wrote last summer about James Merrill Linn, who would become the subject of my section of HUMN 100. At that point I wasn’t sure how the course would go … Until the beginning of the semester I wasn’t even sure I’d have any students. But I did, and the course, “Digging into the Digital” went well. Katie and I designed HUMN 100 as a hybrid methods/research-based learning course, offering first- and second-year students the opportunity to engage with archival materials across a slate of digital tools and methods. In my section students transcribed, marked up, visualized and mapped a two-month section of Linn’s Civil War diary, written from February through April 1862 as he took part in General Ambrose Burnside’s campaign through North Carolina. I had hoped to cover more text – perhaps letters he wrote and received during the same period – but I quickly realized that the students would have a better experience with a smaller corpus. There was simply too much ground to cover (excuse the pun) to have them work across a longer period of time.
So what worked? The students gained confidence as they took ownership of their assigned diary segments. As they continued to negotiate the text – through different forms of close and distant reading – they began to ask really interesting questions about Linn. At first they found the diary entries dull – all Linn seemed to write about was the weather, that he was bored; he had a habit of writing a lot about the landscape. But gradually we all realized that being a soldier is almost always boring (until it’s not), and that the weather is an obsession when you’re sleeping in the open or being moved from position to position by boat. Understanding the terrain is crucial if you’re marching across a battlefield that is mainly marshland and full of ditches. We also realized (but only through close reading) that Linn meant these diaries to be read by an audience. He mailed them back to his brother John in Lewisburg, with instructions about how they were to be published in the Lewisburg Chronicle as dispatches from the front. For some students the transcription and mark-up was the best part; for others it was mapping. Network visualization wasn’t so compelling, which is mainly my fault, but also difficult because Linn wrote mainly about a few close companions in his regiment. We just didn’t have that large a sample, and I was intimidated by Gephi.
What might have worked better? I hadn’t realized how little the students know about the Civil War. Granted, this wasn’t a history class, but I assumed that they would have been versed in 19th century American history in high school. I should have found more ways to integrate context into their work at an earlier phase, to help them understand why Linn’s observations might be helpful in thinking about the larger questions about society and culture and politics in 1861 and 1862. Viewing Ken Burns’s Civil War didn’t cut it. I think I could also have done a better job of introducing each module of the course with specific reflection on scholarly DH projects that rely on a particular methodology. We looked at them at the beginning of term, but I think the benefit of particular approaches would have come home to them if we had analyzed a small subset of projects that demonstrate best practice at the beginning of each module. Most important, I should have incorporated more group engagement with the diary as a whole. They lacked an understanding of the narrative aspect of the diary – they were each so focused on their own section that they didn’t pay a lot of attention to how it fit into the larger whole. If I had incorporated time for peer-reading and group discussion, I think the students might have made stronger connections as they worked on their final projects.
What came out of it? Three students in my section opted to take an independent study with me this spring, each continuing to develop aspects of the Linn documents. Two students are working on an earlier section of the diary – when Linn was a student at Bucknell and then when he was studying law in Lancaster. They’re both interested in psychology and education, and this approach seemed to suit those interests. They were also not so keen on any more talk of battle … which is understandable. The other student is looking at an essay that Linn wrote about the battle of Camden (South Mills) years after the war came to an end – we have five drafts of this essay in the archive but none are dated, and she was interested in doing a close reading of those drafts to see if she could compare witnesses and determine an order among them. The students are just about finished transcribing their texts; when they come back from Spring Break we’ll start to experiment with Voyant, Jigsaw, and Juxta Commons. Hopefully once they’ve completed their work I’ll start to build out an evolving space for the work they’ve all been doing.
What comes next? As I mentioned above, Katie and I will present papers on our courses at ACH and DH this summer. Katie has taught a second iteration of her course this spring; I’m on the books to teach another section in the fall. I need to find the time to reflect more on what worked about the course and what to focus on next. Should students look at two more months of the diary? Or should they work on the correspondence that Linn wrote during the same period – to establish a dialogic analysis that builds upon the work of the students who came before them? I kind of like the latter idea, but need to spend time this summer doing a better job of re-reading the materials before assigning them.
The best news of all is that this course has helped to broaden interest among students in using DH methods in Humanities courses, especially among students whose curricular focus is on code and quantitative analysis. And it was fun.