How to Teach Digital Humanities to Undergraduate Students

I really appreciated Ryan Cordell’s contribution to the Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016 edition, “How Not to Teach Digital Humanities.” I think it’s important that we take his guide into consideration when building future courses for undergraduate students with the goal of piquing their interest in digital humanities. Hearing the phrase “digital humanities” can be an intimidating experience for young students who are still figuring their own paths out. Upon hearing about it and researching much more fleshed out DH projects online, the thought of tackling what is essentially computer science is terrifying.

For myself, I was in a class full of English and English/Education majors when I was first introduced to the digital potential of the humanities. Being a class full of English students, whose bread and butter of work is writing papers, we were obviously a little hesitant to dive into coding literature. That’s where my professor’s pedagogical methods matched that of Cordell’s recommendations. For starters, as Cordell suggests, we started small. The class was titled “Digital Lyric,” which meant that we did not work with large pieces of literature. We worked solely with poetry and musical lyrics. This made it easier to tackle the incoming assignments. We were not so focused on reading large volumes of work, but rather on the concise prose that we eventually had to rework digitally. We start light, with simply engaging with these DH tools as a way to start a conversation amongst the class. For example, we used the digital tool Prism, which my professor worked on at the University of Virginia. As the website states, Prism is a tool for “crowdsourcing interpretation.” So my professor uploaded a poem, Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and we had to highlight the poem according to certain themes (each associated with a different color). In the next class, she was able to take all of our highlights and layer them over one another. It provided us with percents for each theme, and the class unfolded from there.

This was a very small start in terms of the massive tent that is DH, but it was easy and exciting. We were more prepared to slowly step into the world of digital humanities now that we understood some of what it could do for us as humanities scholars and educators. Next, Cordell suggests you integrate when possible. We went on to talk about poetic form, which brought us to the concept of deformance. After reading a brief piece on deformance (with the intention of keeping the reading light, my professor wrote up her own note sheet on it for us), we actually used a tool to create a bot that randomly provided a new apology in the form of the poem “This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams. We, a class full of English students, learned some basic coding and did well! Other English staff thought my professor was wild for trying to teach us code, but it was incredibly successful. Click here if you want to see the bot and generate some funny parody poems! There is also a Twitter bot that occasionally does the same exact thing, also worth a gander! So in studying poetic form, we also learned how to play with it using technology.

Cordell’s third rule expresses how critical scaffolding is. To put it plainly, you must build up one skill on top of another in order to tackle larger projects. This is the point where we started working on our Victorian Queer Archive with students at Dickinson College. We were each assigned a queer author from the Victorian era, then we had to take one of their poems and do some research. We had to get the details on their publication, find original images, and more. Then we took that information and pieced them into this large archive, making this our first digital humanities project that we all worked on. At this point, we had a solid foundation of DH knowledge and being that there were a large number of us, it was not intimidating to participate in this project.

Cordell’s fourth and final suggestion is to think locally. He doesn’t quite mean “support your local businesses” (although we should also be doing that), but more so that we should be more focused on digital humanities projects/work that is in the interest of the students and their university rather than impressing people who aren’t of significance to the students. Think more about how this work can promote their own work in the DH direction, and how that could meet the goals of the college in question. In our particular instance, we used the digital humanities as a tool for echoing the importance of diversity and equity. This was something that was very important to our campus and student organizations, so it was very encouraging to discuss issues of race and queerness through digital literary projects.

All in all, I really liked Ryan Cordell’s points because to me, they’re just solid suggestions. These points were followed by my professor in undergrad, and now I am studying DH with you all here at The Graduate Center. This course paved a path for me, a truly lost humanities student, that I did not know existed. I’m sure there are many of us who have told our friends and family that we are studying digital humanities, only to be met with a “Nice! What is that?” Given that it is still considered an emerging field, that is okay, but we need to seize the opportunity to expose more undergraduates to this potential since I agree that it is the future of humanities departments. We need to spread this fire.

4 thoughts on “How to Teach Digital Humanities to Undergraduate Students

  1. Sean Patrick Palmer

    The point about scaffolding stands out to me. It’s, for me, the most important thing. If an instructor doesn’t structure the project well, it just won’t work.

    No matter how explicit we think we’re being, we need to be more explicit. Students have asked me questions which I had thought I’d addressed in the directions only to realize that I wasn’t as clear as I thought I was.

    1. Anthony Wheeler (he/him) Post author


      Yes, I feel like the ability to give direction is somehow lost at certain levels. It never hurts to reiterate or phrase what the goal of the assignment is. I also believe that scaffolding should be a broader pedagogical tool across almost all subjects. It makes sense in terms of the learning process and reinforcing skills previously learned so that they stick. I recently learned that we only retain less than 10% of the knowledge from a class we’ve taken. I feel as though instilling scaffolding throughout a course syllabus could improve those numbers at least a little bit.

      1. Sean Patrick Palmer

        The other thing about scaffolding is repetition.

        When I give direction on my Blackboard assignments, I put them in more than one place, and I go over them in class. I find that helps, too.

  2. Carolyn A. McDonough

    Anthony — I really enjoyed your post and anecdotal, personal academic disclosures. Plus, I LOVE the bot! Seeing the word “hardscrabble” generated in and by a bot poem just warms the humanities heart 🙂

    Like you, I too enjoyed Cordell’s essay. I read it last year in ITP Core 1 and refer to it from time to time, so it was good to re-read it again. I also resonate with 4) think locally especially as he concludes in “Whither ‘Digital Humanities'”? p. 472: “‘DH will only remain a vital interdisciplinary movement’ if it speaks consciously back to the legacy fields to which its practitioners also belong”.

    For me this means re-visiting my undergrad thesis which analyzed an Italian culture topic specific to 16th century Venice and also the thesis seed of my Media Studies MA titled “The Culture Industry” in which I examined a seminal essay of the same name by Adorno & Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School (the philosophical school from which The New School — where I obtained my 1st MA — is/was founded).

    As you’re just starting out on your path I’m glad DH has anchored you so that you’re not “lost” anymore.

    In my case, DH has also anchored me, but as a culmination of sorts, because it allows me to nicely combine my BA in Medieval & Renaissance Studies with my 1st MA in Media Studies (and is contextual to my career as a digital media producer/editor).

    I’m just so glad that what I’ve been doing for a number of years independently is actually called something now, recognized by the Academy, and therefore I’m truly psyched that I was accepted in to the first cohort of the MA in DH at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

    So I’m all for fanning the CUNY DH fire (figuratively speaking, of course!)

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