What does Digital Humanities teaching look like?

This post raises questions, doesn’t really offer any answers.

Given all the discussion of what the work and/or the research agenda of a Digital Humanities scholar/department is or should be, I thought I’d raise the topic of how teaching fits into this. If we consider ourselves academics, then we (at least some of us) are also in the business of teaching students (academics are also in the business of outreaching to potential students, the providing service to the academic community, and engaging with society and culture as a whole, but those are questions for another day).

Do (or should) we, as teachers of Digital Humanities:

  1. Primarily teach Humanities students (say postgraduates whose first degree was in a traditional subject like history, literature, or languages) skills, technologies and methodologies for carrying out this field of research in the digital age?
  2. Teach the subject of the Humanities themselves, to students of all levels, but making use ourselves and ensuring that they make use of all appropriate technologies and methodologies for their research? (And if so, how do we differ from a history teacher, who should do all this also?)
  3. Focus on specific technologies in our teaching: the use of advanced web tools, publishing with XML and databases, text mining, NLP, ontologies and topic maps, concordance and linguistic tools, visualization and imaging technologies? (If so, what would we teach that social scientists and even biologists don’t also use?)
  4. Teach a combination of new methods (the digital, which is what we all have in common) and new humanities subjects (generalized, for a mixed student audience) so that the interaction of research area and methodology are given equal weight at all times?
  5. Engage in the field of Computer Science, the theory of computing itself, deep knowledge of programming and systems analysis, artificial intelligence, with a focus on the heritage of humanity as our datasets. If our students start in as Humanities scholars, they will come out (at least partly, and also) engineers. (At Tufts, DH is taught in the CS dept.)
  6. Digital Humanities for computer scientists, where we teach (perhaps in collaboration) the methods and approaches of DH in such a way that even CS postgraduates would find it a worthwhile course of study?
  7. Some combination of the above and/or more?

I have my own opinions about this, but I think I’d like this conversation to take place in the comments, rather than having a privileged position in the post itself that everyone feels the need to engage with.

9 thoughts on “What does Digital Humanities teaching look like?

  1. I’m a little bit split here: personally, I’m attracted to 3, 5, and 6.

    But I think the most important thing is to avoid falling into a trap Peter identified during his presentation on paleography a couple of weeks ago: that of essentially creating an entire new subdiscipline, which has virtually no dialogue with or influence upon the broader field of study of which it is supposed to be a part. As I’ve made clear in other posts and comments, I see the ideal point of DigHum being a fusion of the two sides of the equation that transforms each. But for that marriage to work, humanities students need to be able to see and understand how the Dig serves the Hum, rather than being presented with an entirely new methodology.

    I think one absolutely crucial aspect of this is making sure that the theoretical basis and aims of the Dig approach is in some way compatible with the Hum, at least in the initial stages of learning. I think this is a problem corpus linguistics and stylometric studies often encounter. They’re presented as though they’re new ways to solve old problems – when in fact the concerns they answer are typically not those of literary academics, and the way they answer them is accordingly utterly foreign to students and professors alike . The results thus look like gobbledygook not only for technical, but for intellectual, theoretical, and critical reasons.

  2. I think there is at least another category of DH teaching that has been left out, which is 1.a teaching skills for a professional career outside the Academia. I have the impression that when teaching Humanities (and DH!) we tend to forget that only very, very few of our student will ever become academics.

    The way DH was (not sure if it is still like that) taught in Pisa was to give students enough skills (CS) and content (H) to find a work in some creative industry or cultural heritage place. It worked very, very well: most of the alumni found a job as Web creator, master, developer while few of them got an MA and even fewer started of PhD (5 or 6, at my knowledge out of 100 student a year since 2003).
    While I personally think DH is mostly about methodological implications of using techniques applied to Hum contents, I also think that we could give a real possibility to students.

    The way the DH BA in Pisa was advertised suggested that students could take their favourite Hum topics and still hoping to find a job after. Students loved it and we had 80-100 students a year. I’m thinking along these lines in my idea of reforming MA DH at CCH.

    On the other hand, the other great engine that drives teaching DH is research enabling., so (1), or these is at least my experience after more or less 8 years of teaching DH in different countries at different levels: the moment people understand how what we teach can make the difference in what they do, they start to learn for real and is then the moment you can make them understand what DH is really like (this is something else missing from the above post, actually: it is relatively less important what we teach, with respect with to what and how people learn) .

    Sorry for my incoherent points! just thinking aloud at this point, I guess.

  3. Hi all, thanks for your excellent comment here and making them public on a blog such as this. We are now confronting many of these issues in Australia as the field is rapidly finding its feet, but the academic traditions are somewhat different. Pisa and CCH are guiding lights for many of us and your contributions are carried far and wide.

  4. If you look at the list in the original post, the answer could be “any of the above”, while at the same time you could come up with good arguments against any one of them. I think the problem is that we really don’t have a single compelling reason for teaching something called “digital humanities” (in just the same way that there is no compelling reason – and I say this as someone who took BA, MA, and PhD in literary studies – to teach literature at university). I’m not saying it’s wrong to do it, or that we should stop doing it, just that I don’t see any compelling argument for it. What Elena says about the career outcome aspect of the Pisa course makes me think ‘isn’t that what polytechnics used to do here?’ You don’t have to be a complete Mr. Gradgrind – or even a Conservative – to wonder whether some of the things that get taught at university are taught because they have acquired the mystical status of a Good Thing. I expect quite soon people will be asking themselves whether an MA in digital humanities is £9000 worth of Good Thing, or whether they should spend £500 on a computer and a few good textbooks and teach themselves how to build websites.

  5. This is perhaps wandering off topic for a bit (though I’ll try to rein it back in somehow at the end), but I think Paul’s comment points to an important problem that is more-0r-less specific to the UK – viz., the split between what “poly”s used to do (practical, banausic stuff), and what universities are supposed to do (theoretical and intellectual stuff).

    In an American-style credit system, and particularly at institutions like community colleges, these kinds of things get mixed and matched pretty freely. You can – or are compelled to – take some Arts & Hum classes, some Science courses, and some more hand-on things. And I’d say that for the digital humanities this is a good mixture: I just don’t think there’s any point in attempting meaningful DigHum without some facility in both areas.

    I’d also say the case for teaching these things in an institutional setting is reasonably strong. It’s true that you can pick up computer skills by playing around and from textbooks — after all, it’s what I did — but there are disadvantages to this: in self-education in any field, there’s a tendency to weird gaps in knowledge. When I think of the hours I wasted with CSS because I didn’t realise the necessity of an utterly-illogical clearing div after floated elements, I reckon a few hundred quid on a course might have been a good idea. As for the value of studying literature at an institution — the problems are legion and well-known, but I’d say my most revelatory early moments in encountering literature came about as a result of trying to think clearly and write an essay about it: though I’d thought I had a full and sufficient appreciation of the works set before me, when it came time to try to set my thoughts in order and communicate them clearly, I realised I hadn’t known anywhere near as much as I’d thought I had.

    What I think it’s hard to make a case for (and particularly a financial case for) is three-year degrees focused purely on some particular humanities subject. Do we want students who have a thorough knowledge only of 19th-century English literature, the Roman Republic, or whatever? And does anyone want this badly enough to pay upwards of 35 000 quid for it? But I think Digital Humanities, insofar as it’s a discipline at all, doesn’t necessarily have to fall into this trap. Once one isn’t forced to make a Manichean choice between the Useful and the Beautiful, the question becomes not are the humanities worth what has to be paid for them?, but do the humanities have any value at all? And I think it might be a little easier to get useful consensus on the latter than the former.

  6. Yeah, we are getting off-topic (it’s an important topic, but there are other places to discuss it). I’ll try to bring back to topic after make one remark: it may, as you say, be hard to justify in financial terms (read: the crude and repugnant practicality beloved of politicians and bean-counters) having students spend 3+ years becoming expert in only one very narrow field of the Humanities, but in intellectual and cultural terms, that is, the real reason that we have an education system in the first place, specialism is surely an essential part of research training. I’m all for interdisciplinarity and being a renaissance jack-of-many-trades, but it is precisely the hyper-specialism of focussing on a single genre of nineteenth-century literature, or a particular feature of one ancient culture’s art that allows a person (even one who is never going to use this specialism directly) to understand the concept of in-depth research and understanding of a literary object in its full context. (Maybe we can’t sell Humanities education in those terms at the moment, but we should never forget that that’s what it’s about.)

    On the topic of DH teaching, though, I wonder whether we think we are engaging in vocational training or in a Humanities subject. I guess it was obvious from my last option in my numbered list above that my answer to the question is “any or all of the above”, and perhaps we do best to be versatile. After we come from many different backgrounds and have a wide range of different skills and interests, so we should expect our students to include a range of Humanities, Social Science, and Computer Science backgrounds, and have interests in a variety of features of what we do: technology, research methods, information science/knowledge representation, cultural heritage, theoretical research, web skills, etc. All this is part of and depends upon our definition of what it is that Digital Humanities does, which is a question I didn’t want to get into. I do think it’s important to remember always that we claim to be a humanities discipline and to teach deep reasoning (“slow reading”) as well as practical skills, not just side-by-side but inextricably linked. If we can’t do that, then “Digital Humanities” isn’t a single discipline at all, is it?

  7. To follow on from Gabby’s comment, I’d like to ask what computer scientists should be learning in DH courses that they wouldn’t learn in humanities courses. I realise that this is covered in number six of the list, but I’d like rather more specifics. Is there a particular way of looking at humanities research that is something more than what you’d get smooshing together computational skills and approaches with humanities’ problems and interests — and if so (as I’m sure people will claim), what is it?

  8. While it might be nice to cleanly separate out the questions of what DH teaching looks like and what DH does, I don’t think it’s really possible. The case in point relevant here is the “vocational”/”intellectual” (“poly”/”university”) distinction Paul and Gabby employ – as the question of whether activities like programming ought to be lumped into the first category or the second rather depends on what one thinks computers are for and what DH ought to be doing. If your answer is that DH is concerned chiefly with traditional Hum concerns that are met pretty adequately by some combination of mark-up technologies, then yes, computational training is basically “vocational”, aimed at mastery of a limited number of reasonably straightforward techniques. If one sees digital technology as more open-ended than this, or as a medium in its own right — on the same kind of plane as, say, text or paint or whatever – then there’s nothing “vocational” about it, though some of the training may look vocational in its early stages.

    With regard to what actually gets learned in DH that makes it something more than a juxtaposition of D with H, I’d say the interesting territory lies in finding the kind of formalisation that suits both. A part of the reason I’m less keen on ‘hyper-specialism’ than Gabby is that training in one research approach tends to obscure one’s view of all the others, with the result that on the one hand we all routinely have encounters with Humanities specialists who are either unwilling or unable to conceptualise their domain in any terms that make sense within a computational context; and with CS specialists who are incredibly impatient of any claim that Humanities data might not fit the structures they have decided are appropriate to it. I find it very curious that the ‘deep reasoning’ engaged in by Humanities specialists should have so very little in common with that of computationalists; and feel that what ought to get learned in an ideal DH environment would be an understanding of what makes these approaches different; ways in which they can be seen as in fact unified or at least combinable in some way; and the semantics — the meaning — of doing so. Done poorly, this can of course result in simple ‘smooshing’. But it also, I think, has the potential to be done well — in a way, as I’ve said before, that makes the end result something more than the sum of its inputs.

  9. One thing that I’ve often worried about is that “Digital Humanities” is not an obvious postgraduate degree title for a (Humanities) student to consider, especially if they’re considering further academic study or work in their original field. The problem is that nobody has a BA in “Humanities”. As I’ve suggested several times before, surely a Classics student (or History, or Spanish studies) would more easily (be made to) see the value in an MA in “Digital Classics”, “Digital History”, “Digital Spanish studies”, which could in some cases lead back to a PhD in their original subject. Each of these degree titles would consist (i) mostly of the same options and modules that are currently taught in DH MAs; (ii) some specialist units on digital approaches to the discipline in question; (iii) some courses co-taught with the Humanities department in question–partly because this helps to bring the “Humanities” back into the programme (and since classicists actually are the people who know what the best aspects of Classics to apply technology to are likely to be); and partly to make the degree in “Digital Classics” more convincing to potential employers/PhD programmes in Classics that the student might later apply to.

    There might be administrative barriers to overcome here (not to mention occasional resistance from the “name department”), but the case seems pretty compelling to me.

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