Designing a graduate DH course with DH tools and methods

July 18, 2013, 10:30 | Short Paper, Embassy Regents E

This paper describes an experimental approach to designing and teaching an introductory digital humanities course for graduate students. In 2011 Kevin Kee was asked to create and teach a class as part of a new interdisciplinary Humanities Ph.D. program. The graduate students taking the course would be largely unfamiliar with the digital humanities.

Kee began his preparation for the course by asking several questions. The first was "what should an introductory digital humanities course attempt to accomplish"? As he searched for answers, another important question emerged: "How could digital methods be used to design and deliver the course?" In this paper, Kee and Spencer Roberts, a Research Assistant who worked with Kee, describe first their method for researching and designing the course. They then sketch the structure and content of the course that resulted from their research. Finally, they provide examples of student responses to the material and methods covered in the course (including Roberts's perspective as a graduate student). The collected responses and their reflections on the process suggest particular ways in which future courses of this kind might be designed, implemented, and improved. Most importantly, they found that an effective way to design and teach an introductory digital humanities course is to think about the discipline through discussions about its topics and to think with the discipline by using digital tools and methods in the classroom.

Overviews of digital humanities course offerings have been conducted throughout the past fifteen years. In 1999, Willard McCarty and Matthew Kirschenbaum identified only fourteen institutions that offered courses in humanities computing. In 2006, Melissa Terras conducted another survey of digital humanities curriculum, and in 2011, Lisa Spiro undertook to collect and analyze syllabi from digital humanities courses. Of these previous surveys, Spiro’s was the most comprehensive; she collected over 134 syllabi from various levels of study in the digital humanities. Although Spiro’s work parallels and was helpful to that of Kee and Roberts, the latter were unaware of her project when they began, and had no way to replicate her research method. As a result, Kee and Roberts drew on the results of their own analyses while designing the course.

For Kee and Roberts' research, Roberts designed a method by which syllabi were converted into sets of data representing reading lists, assignments, assessment methods, and digital tools used. Commonly occurring items from within those sets were highlighted and identified as items deemed important by the statistical consensus of instructors represented in their sample. For example, their results showed that seven authors of digital humanities-related articles and books appeared on reading lists at a significantly higher frequency than others; the data also showed that other instructors found these authors most useful. Kee drew on these results when deciding on readings for his course list.

Topics covered in the course included text encoding and markup, distant reading, building, mapping, modelling and simulating, playing and gaming, teaching, and collaborating. Each of these was paired with a practical application, usually drawn from a modified version of William Turkel’s "Method". For example, students learned the theory of text markup and were asked to create pages on the course wiki using the basic wiki standard markup. Franco Moretti’s theory of distant reading made more sense for students once they experimented with text mining and analysis tools such as Voyant. Kee’s assessment strategy required students to use blogs and Twitter to comment on the theories and tools they encountered; Kee also encouraged them to participate in scholarly discourse that occurs on the Web. Although most of the students studied history, Kee aimed to create an environment in which the digital humanities were understood as both theory and practice that could be incorporated into any humanities discipline.

Because Kee and Roberts hoped to learn from the experiences of graduate students new to the digital humanities, Kee built feedback mechanisms into the course assignments, and asked students to reflect on the course before and after completion. Nearly all of the students were challenged by the dual responsibility of learning theory and skills simultaneously. Although some students were relieved to finish experimenting, others were pleased with their progress and the opportunities for future research. One student commented, “Not only do I now have some new tools to use while I’m doing research… I’m also more open-minded towards using them in the first place and really trying to engage with them, rather than brushing them off.” While students readily adopted some of the tools, such as Zotero and Evernote, they found more complex tools such as DevonThink or Voyant required a level of commitment and time they did not want to make. In short, these students were not willing to commit to a new, digital research method at a time when they were simultaneously taking graduate courses rooted in conventional research methods. For some students, however, patience led to late or accidental discoveries that improved their methods; in at least one case, a student who was skeptical throughout the course became an enthusiastic supporter of digital methods and now avidly attends DH conferences and events. At the conclusion of the course, most students were open to the various theories and approaches used in the digital humanities, and were enthusiastic about trying new tools and experimenting with new methods that might improve their research and scholarship.

From the outset of the project, Kee and Roberts understood that they were asking questions for which there were several feasible answers. Some graduate level digital humanities courses focus on topics within the digital humanities; others primarily train students to develop digital skills using computational tools. Kee's approach was to combine these two approaches into one course that provided opportunity for theoretical discussion while also showcasing practical applications, so that students could see the potential beneDits of digital humanities methods without having to master sophisticated tools. The research method used to build the course syllabus employed the same theories and tools that were later discussed in the course, creating an iterative loop through which student feedback and developments in the discipline can be incorporated into future versions. Already there are new tools to improve the collection and analysis of digital humanities syllabi, and new methods being explored by instructors. Through the experimental approach described in this paper, Kee and Roberts have found that thinking about and thinking with the discipline, a method that many digital scholars employ in their research, is also an effective way to design a course, and appeals to students who are new to the discipline, fostering enthusiasm for its use in their own often conventional humanities scholarship. The authors hope that this approach contributes to the growing conversation about teaching digital humanities, while also reflecting and adapting to the dynamic topics within the field.