Reaction to How not to Teach Digital Humanities

I related to this article on a more than one level.

Like Cordell, I’ve tangled with our curriculum process, and it can be a frustrating process, especially when proposing a new course[i]. The departmental curriculum committee will strongly criticize a new course This isn’t entirely a bad thing: as a department, we only want to send strong proposals to the college-wide curriculum committee[ii].

Cordell later suggests that, rather than have separate DH courses, that we incorporate DH sensibilities into our existing courses. I think this makes sense: I have been incorporating digital work into my classes for as long as I’ve been at LaGuardia.

Another interesting point is that our students think that they’re better with technology than their professors are. Students have a point, but it’s easy to overstate this. I’ve seen many students have issues with digitally based assignments because, well, if it’s not an app on their phone, they’re just not comfortable with it.[iii]

Interestingly, by the end of the piece, Cordell is giving advice on how to teach DH, rather than the opposite. I think the author makes two points I want to comment on[iv].

  • Start small
  • Scaffold everything

Start small

This is essential. I have been teaching Voce and Diction for well over a decade now. My students do weekly recordings (two of which are digital), a midterm project, and a final project. It took years to get it to this place. I started small, with monthly recordings, then I added my final project, then weekly recordings.

That’s on a curricular level. On a “course project” level, start with one project. Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. Find the type of technology you are comfortable with. Run with it.
  2. Try doing it yourself first. You’ll see some of the difficulties your students have, and will be better able to help them.
  3. Expect that it won’t go smoothly. ESPECIALLY the first time. That’s okay. Learn from it. Figure out what works and what doesn’t. No matter how much you plan, you will need to adjust the assignment.
  4. Have a hard and fast deadline. Without this, several of your students just won’t turn their projects at all.
  5. Present the final products in class. Students tend to do a better job on assignments because they don’t want to look the fool in front of their classmates. (Well, usually.)

In my case, I use the technology around digital storytelling. I do four small projects with it per term:

  1. The Digital Poem – my students select a poem from a list of poems. They have to record it, find pictures to match, and turn it into a little movie.[v]
  2. Hiawatha—a few weeks later, students are given pieces of Hiawatha, and have to do the same thing as they did with the Digital Poem, though their pictures have to be either Native American or North American wilderness imagery.[vi]
  3. Midterm project. I give my students a choice: a midterm or a project. They never choose the exam. The past few years, they have had to produce a three minute long video about one of the United States presidents.
  4. Final project. This is the States project. Students randomly choose a state and have to produce a three minute long video about it.

I can  do this, because, at my school, Voice and Diction has a lab hour attached to it. They can do their projects (or at least start them) in class.

The other thing I want to focus on is scaffolding. It’s absolutely necessary. It needs to be explicit. Step-by-step instructions. Expect questions.

You also need to show your students how to use the technology. You need to make time for it in your class. I’ve been doing this for so long that I can train students in my tech in a half hour or so.

With the Presidents and States projects, I have lists of questions that they turn in, so I know they’re doing research and I can check it.[vii]

I would encourage you to figure out what technology (or technologies) you want to use and run with them. Don’t get frustrated: accept that you will have to adapt and edit. That’s not a bad thing.

[i] Revising an existing course isn’t nearly as difficult.

[ii] This makes sense. When I’ve gone before the college-wide committee, I didn’t have any problems. Part of that is because the departmental committee demanded edits.

[iii] Yes, I know this makes me sound old. (You can’t see this, but I’m shaking a cane at you, while yelling at you to get off my lawn.)

[iv] Some people might refer to these as “Best Practices”. I hesitate to use that term because what works best for me might not work for you because we are different people and might be teaching wildly different student populations and/or different levels of institutional support.

[v] This sounds more difficult than it is. I do it with Audacity (a free audio recording software) and Windows MovieMaker (which is probably not free anymore, though, honestly, it should be.)

[vi] We also discuss things like cultural appropriation when we do this.

[vii] You would be amazed at the research errors I’ve seen. For instance, the Grand Canyon has appeared in thirteen different states.

8 thoughts on “Reaction to How not to Teach Digital Humanities

  1. Dax Oliver

    I don’t think you’re being crotchety when you talk about students not being able to do digital work unless it’s on an app. I thought Cordell made an excellent point about that. We read so much about how new generations are “tech savvy,” but that often just means they’re savvy about clicking and pushing buttons. I spent years working as a web developer and was regularly surprised at how little people of any age knew about how the internet worked. In fact, if anything, I suspect that our increasingly service-oriented economy is training people to spend less and less time understanding how the things around their homes function on the inside.

    1. Sean Patrick Palmer Post author

      One issue with instructional tech that I’ve encountered is the whole “This is hard! I don’t want to!” thing, which I get from both students and colleagues.

      Students because they don;t want to do more work than is necessary (which I can understand) and colleagues because… well… I’ve noticed that many people in Academia don’t actually like learning new things. They believe that they’ve learned enough to be experts in their respective fields, and learning something new is… beneath them? a waste of time?.. I’m not sure, but the attitude is definitely there.

      1. Pamela Jean Stemberg (she/her)

        When it comes to teaching old profs new tricks, the biggest problem is that no one wants to look like a beginner. It is decentering when your self-image is bound up with being an expert and suddenly you without any tethering in a field you knew you understood. This can be a huge discussion about strategies for introducing new material/methods in environments which seem (at least on the surface) hostile to them.

        There’s some marketing research that found that people have to see something seven times before it even registers. That for me is the first step, repeating what I think they need to think about to have a more open mind. I’ve tried lots of different techniques, but I’ve found that admitting to my audience that I had to learn it just the same way that they are and being empathetic to their plight (as you seem to be with the students) is very helpful. By the way, I’m still floundering around here. At least when I teach this stuff in my class, I’ll have stories to tell them!

        I’ve been dealing with unpopular topics for years, and I’ve found that things do change, and minds do open, so there is always hope. The time it takes to change, though, is glacial compared to my patience and expectations.

        1. Sean Patrick Palmer Post author

          Honestly, the students aren’t the issue for me. They resist, but when they see that it really isn;t that difficult, they run with it.

          I have done needs assessments with my colleagues… I have offered tutorials, both in group settings and face to face, and, honestly, I still face resistance.

  2. Nancy Foasberg

    I serve on a college-wide curriculum committee at QC (I find this very useful as a librarian because it gives me a good reason to know the curriculum a little better), and I have to say, I was really impressed with the curriculum committee in this article, because their critiques of the class aren’t obvious — they’re concerned about the proposal’s failure to identify an audience and about the breadth of the class, and by the end of the piece, Cordell admits that they’re right. In my curriculum committee experience, we often look at questions like whether there are instructors available to teach the course, how it fits in with the curriculum, whether it has hidden prerequisites, whether the description is coherent, etc. (Note that classes may pass through other committees; besides the department curriculum committee, there may also be general education committees and writing committees.) That they caught the problem with the title of the course with relation to its position in the curriculum is very good, and is the sort of thing that a curriculum committee may be better positioned to catch than a faculty member, especially a recently hired one.

    1. Sean Patrick Palmer Post author

      This is absolutely a time when the curriculum committee (and I’m guessing at the departmental level) worked, and their critiques were spot on. I’m not sure a DH class would fly at the undergrad level, but incorporating DH into existing courses is absolutely doable.

  3. Nancy Foasberg

    I also wanted to address one of your pieces of advice:
    “Try doing it yourself first. You’ll see some of the difficulties your students have, and will be better able to help them.”
    This is SO important — and not just for technology. You should see some of the assignments that students come to the library with…

    1. Sean Patrick Palmer Post author

      Thank you!

      For a while, the big “tech” thing here was narrating powerpoints. I could tell none of the people who made these assignments actually tried to do them because… they still had their students do the assignments. (Yes, you CAN narrate a powerpoint, but it is such a pain that it’s not worth the trouble.)

      I just think it’s unethical to expect students to do things the instructor hasn’t.

      Another issue is that I don;t think instructors can grade the product if they don;t understand the process.

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