Academia / Media & Technology

Teaching with DH

There’s been a lot of recent discussion about how to incorporate tools of the digital humanities into teaching, with a panel on the topic proposed for the 2014 ASECS and a book, Brett Hirsch’s Digital Humanities Pedagogy, just out from Open Book Publishers. This question goes to the heart of how to define DH—as a field, subfield, speciality, discipline, etc.—and of its role in the humanities writ large. There are a number of ways to think about using DH in teaching: we can present students with our own projects and research, teach them particular tools or programs, have them read the emerging body of theory for the topic, and ask them to produce work in digital formats, among other methods. This semester, I’m continuing my effort to use digital tools to integrate the study of material texts into the classroom. I require students to sign up for Tumblr and contribute to a collaborative class blog, in which they identify archival materials associated with our weekly readings and post commentary on them. Tumblr is supposed to be a relatively easy blogging platform, but it often proves challenging to my “digital native” students, who have to learn how to navigate a web-publishing program. Part of the goal of the exercise, then, is to teach them how to use this technology and others like it, which are becoming elements of many writing-oriented jobs. At the same time, I encourage them to open up their writing styles, taking on a “blog voice” rather than the often-stilted prose of an academic essay.

Another goal is to get them to think about the material forms in which writing takes shape, and about how those forms influence the content of the texts we are studying. In my Cultural History of Media course at Marymount Manhattan College, for example, we are studying the history of writing technologies from the invention of the alphabet through digital media. Just in the first week of class, students have produced some fabulous blog posts enriching our discussion, analyzing materials from a papyrus scroll of Plato’s Phaedrus to one of Emily Dickinson’s pressed flowers. In BritLit I, which covers Beowulf to Milton, I’m tackling the question from the other direction, asking students to find new-media adaptations of our canonical works—using a broad definition of “new media” that could include print, photography, film, etc. The idea is to track how these works have been remediated in the cultural imagination over time, on a Tumblr I’m calling “BritLit 2.0.”

While these students (and those in a previous course, BritLit II at NYU) have found some fascinating items, I sometimes wonder whether the fact that everything is presented in the digital medium—with the same layout of digital image and text—actually flattens rather than highlights the material differences between these media moments. Again, this connection between the digital and the material seems to be a common point of interest right now, with another ASECS 2014 panel addressing the issue.

These individual blogs will continue to evolve over the course of the semester, as will my thinking about the role of DH in the classroom. I think it’s important to conceptualize the ways in which we are not just transferring existing forms of writing or analysis onto our computers: new genres like blogs and tweets should allow us to conduct and present research in new ways. You can take a look at the Cultural History of Media and BritLit2.0 blogs here and here.

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