Learning by Doing: Labs and Pedagogy in the Digital Humanities

The digital humanities adore labs. Labs both symbolize and enable many of the field’s overarching themes: interdisciplinary teamwork, making/building, and the computing process itself. Labs give digital humanists a science-y legitimation that, whether we admit it or not, we find appealing. Labs aren’t necessary for doing digital humanities research, but in terms of infrastructure, collaboration, and institutional backing they certainly help. Along with “collaboration” and “open” (and possibly “nice“), “lab” is one of the field’s power words. With a period of accelerated growth over the past five years, world-wide digital humanities labs and centers now run into the hundreds. We overwhelmingly focus on labs in this kind of context: labs as physical research spaces. I’d like to move away from this familiar ground to discuss the role of lab assignments within a digital humanities curriculum. While reflecting on my own recent experience of designing and using labs in the classroom, I realized it spoke to many of the current issues facing the digital humanities.

Let me start with some background. This past autumn I taught my first college course, “The Digital Historian’s Toolkit: Studying the West in an Age of Big Data.” It was one of Stanford History Department’s Sources & Methods seminars, which are classes aimed at history majors to get them working intensively with primary sources. When I was designing my course a year ago, I decided to blend a digital humanities curriculum with more traditional historical pedagogy. Under the broad umbrella of the nineteenth-century American West, I used a specific historical theme each week (mining, communications, tourism, etc.) to tie together both traditional analysis and digital methodology. As part of this, over five different class periods students met in the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis to complete a weekly lab assignment.

In designing the course, I wrestled with a problem that faces every digital humanist: the balancing of “traditional” (for lack of a better term) and “digital.” How much of my curriculum should follow a seminar model based on reading and discussion? How much should it follow a lab model based on technical tools and techniques? As is often the case, pragmatism partially informed my decision. Because my class was part of a required series of courses offered by the department, I couldn’t simply design a full-blown digital humanities methods course. It had to have a strong historical component in order to get approved. This juggling act is not uncommon for digital humanists. But more philosophically, I believed that digital tools were best learned in the context of historical inquiry. An overarching theme (in my case, the late nineteenth-century West) helped answer the question of why a student was learning a particular piece of software. Without it, digital pedagogy can stray into the bugaboo waved about by skeptics: teaching technology for technology’s sake.

I designed my labs with three goals in mind. First, I wanted my students to come away with at least an introduction to technical skills they wouldn’t otherwise get in a typical history course. Given my background, I focused largely on GIS, textual analysis, and visual design. I didn’t expect my students to become geospatial technicians in ten weeks, but I did want them to try out these kinds of methods and understand how they could be applied to historical problems. This first goal speaks to the alarmist rhetoric of a “crisis in the humanities,” of falling enrollments and shrinking budgets and growing irrelevance. In this caricature, the digital humanities often get remade as a life-boat for a sinking ship. This view is obviously overblown. But it is important to remember that the vast majority of our students are not going to end up as professors of history, literature, or philosophy. While there is a strong case to be made for the value of the humanities, I also think we need to do a better job of grafting other kinds of skills onto the field’s reading/writing/thinking foundation.

Second, I wanted students to learn technical skills as part of a larger intellectual framework. I pursued this in part by assigning specific techniques to answer larger questions. For instance, how does Mark Twain’s western novel Roughing It compare to other iconic nineteenth-century works of literature? Instead of assigning thousands of pages of text, I had my students use topic modeling to compare Roughing It to other books such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Little Women. But labs were also an effective way to concretize some of the contemporary issues swirling around technology. In one of the labs, students applied different kinds OCR software to a sampling of pages from an Overland Trail diary they had read earlier in the week. This gave them a chance to peer behind the curtain of large-scale digitization projects. When you experience first-hand just how many words and characters the OCR process can miss, it makes you think more critically about resources like Google Books or LexisNexis. Teaching in the digital humanities should, in part, force students to think critically about the issues surrounding the tools we use: copyrightaccessmarginalization.

Finally, I wanted students to learn by doing. There’s a certain passive mode of learning endemic to so many humanities courses: go to lectures, write a few papers, study for an exam, make comments in discussion. Student passivity can be inherent to both the pedagogical form itself and how it’s practiced, as anyone who has sat in a lecture hall or watched a student coast through discussion can tell you. Don’t get me wrong: bad labs can be just as passive as lectures. But done right, they emphasize active learning based on immediate feedback. As much as I’ve soured on the term “hacking” and all the privileged baggage it can carry, it is a useful term to describe the type of learning I want my students to engage in. Try something out. If it doesn’t work, try something else. Under this rubric, mistakes are a necessary part of the process. Feedback is more immediate in a way that enables exploration, tinkering, tangents, and restarts. It’s a lot harder to do this with traditional assignments; trying out something new in a paper is riskier than trying out something new in a lab.

This last goal proved the hardest to meet and constitutes one of the major hurdles facing digital humanities pedagogy. We want to teach digital methods not for their own sake, but to fit them within a broader framework, such as how they help us understand the past. But to get to that point, students need to make a fairly substantial investment of time and energy into learning the basics of a particular tool or technique. I tried to scaffold my lab assignments so that they became less and less prescriptive and more and more open-ended with each passing week. The idea was that students needed heavy doses of step-by-step instruction when they were still unfamiliar with the technology. My first lab, for instance, spelled out instructions in excruciating detail. Unfortunately, this led to exactly the kind of passive learning I wanted to avoid. I liken it to the “tutorial glaze” – focusing so much on getting through individual tasks that you lose track of how they all fit together or how you would apply them beyond the dataset at hand. The ability to teach early-stage technical skills involves a litany of pedagogical challenges that humanities instructors are simply not used to tackling.

By contrast, my final lab gave students a dataset (a map of Denver and enumeration district data from the 1880 census) and asked them to formulate and then answer a historical question through GIS. By nearly any metric – enthusiasm, results, feedback – this proved to be the most effective lab. It forced students to engage in the messy process of digital history: exploring the data enough to formulate a question, returning to the data to answer that question, realizing the data can’t even begin to answer that question, formulating a different question, figuring out how to answer it, and deciding how to visualize an argument. I was even more satisfied with their reflections on the process. Some described the frustrations that came with discovering the limits or gaps in census data. Others remarked on how their own mapmaking decisions, such as changing classification breaks or using different symbology, could completely alter the presentation of their argument. It’s one thing for students to read an essay by J.B. Harley on the subjectivity of maps (which they did). It’s another for students to experience the subjective process of map-making for themselves. Learning by doing: this is what was labs are all about.

To try and help others who want to integrate labs into their curriculum, I’ve made the labs and datasets available to download on the course website. Even as I posted them, though, I was reminded of one last problem facing the digital humanities: the problem of ephemerality. I spent hours and hours designing labs that will likely be unusable in a matter of years. Some of them require expensive software licenses, others rely on tools that could fall completely out of development. That’s one of the downside of labs. Ten years from now, I’ll still be able to re-use my lesson plan for discussing Roughing It. The lab on topic-modeling Twain and other novelists? Doubtful. But ephemerality is one of the necessary costs of teaching digital humanities. Because labs, and the broader pedagogical ethos of the digital humanities they embody, are ultimately worth it.

On Lecturing

The life of a history graduate student is remarkably short on excitement. Nicholas Cage might break into the National Archives and steal the Declaration of Independence in order to find a hidden treasure buried by the founding fathers, but the rest of us spend most of our time reading piles of really long books. We also talk about those books. And write papers about them. I love what I do, but there are few moments of my work that I would classify as thrilling. Standing in front of a classroom of sixty undergraduates, about to deliver my own lecture for the very first time, however, was a moment that I would put in the “thrilling” category.

Over the past three months I was a teaching assistant for History 150A: Colonial and Revolutionary America, taught by Professor Caroline Winterer. The TAs were given the option of lecturing on a topic of our choosing for half of a class period. So on a Tuesday morning in November I found myself death-gripping the sides of a podium and trying to ignore the fact that I had about a hundred eyes staring at me. The next half hour was largely a blur, but fortunately Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning provides a wonderful service for professors, lecturers, and teaching assistants: they will come to your classroom and videotape a class period. So, in what seems appropriate for someone who studies the practice of history in a digital age, the very first lecture of my academic career was captured on video.

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/18034674 w=500&h=400]

Lecturing, and public speaking more generally, is a curiously under-trained aspect of graduate school. I’ve received detailed and continuous feedback over the past year-and-a-half on my historical writing. Yet as graduate students we rarely receive feedback on another fundamental component of being an historian: verbal communication. Especially for the majority of us who will be teaching for the rest of our careers, effectively conveying concepts to a roomful of people is absolutely crucial. This is why I appreciate CTL’s videotaping service so much, and why I have been encouraging everyone I know to take advantage of it. Especially for those of us (like myself) without much experience delivering lectures, they provide a high-quality means of self-assessment.

Do I talk too fast? Too softly? Are my gestures distracting? Do I really say “you know” at the end of every sentence? These are the kinds of questions that often float beneath the radar of our own self-perceptions, but whose answers become immediately apparent when watching a video of yourself lecturing. Beyond noticing verbal patterns, re-watching a lecture allows you to gauge how well the written structure translated into a spoken one. This was one of the more illuminating parts of my own self-evaluation. Some of the examples that I had tried to emphasize in my lecture notes fell flat when I said them out loud. Other points that I had considered secondary came off sounding much more emphatic. An analytical thread that you can easily follow while reading a paragraph sometimes gets lost after two sentences in a lecture. Studying the delivery of a lecture with a knowledge of how it was written drives home the point that building a paper and building a lecture require two related, but fundamentally different, styles of writing.

While videotaped self-assessment can be quite valuable, I quickly realized its limitations in answering the most important questions in evaluating a lecture. How much of it did the students really “get”? Did they actually understand the themes I was trying to describe and the argument I was trying to make? How many remember any of its details a month later? These, of course, are the kinds of pedagogical questions that are notoriously difficult to answer and certainly outside the realm of a thirty-minute video. Regardless, I found delivering a lecture to a roomful of students to be incredibly valuable, and while it wasn’t quite as exciting as stealing the Declaration of Independence, it was a thrilling experience.

AAHC Recap (Morning)

Today I attended the American Association for Historical Computing‘s 2009 annual conference, hosted by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. For someone interested in the field of digital history, it was a phenomenal opportunity to meet fellow enthusiasts and explore a variety of topics within the field.

The first session, a presentation by Amanda French of NYU on “Basic Digital History Skills for Historians,” came from her experience in teaching courses in digital history, many geared towards archival and library studies. Of particular interest was a survey she administered to 25 students that measured their comfort and ability in a wide variety of digital skills – everything from using social media to knowledge of metadata systems. She spoke about the fact that there was a gap between the skills being taught to public historians and archivists, and those being taught to traditional historians. Namely, those in the former group usually gain a stronger digital literacy. One of the major action points she drew from the survey was the need to teach students in the following fields: website creation, metadata, and multimedia.

Besides being the first conference presentation that I’ve live-tweeted, it brought up some interesting questions. The biggest one (that recurred throughout the day) was the question of teaching students what I’ll term hard vs. soft skills in gaining digital literacy. Should teachers expect their college students to have a basic skill set (uploading videos onto YouTube, using RSS feed readers, etc.) already? Should you spend the majority of your time teaching the skills and habits that they can then adapt to specific platforms? Is it possible to impart broader concepts of digital history without a concrete base in technical proficiency? My first instinct was to come down on the side of a liberal-artsy instruction of soft skills and underlying “big-picture” principles. But the more I thought about the issue, the more I realized that for many people, the best way of learning these soft skills is by putting on your work gloves and diving into starting a blog, using Zotero, or generating a KML file.

The second session was Dave Lester‘s “Mobile Historical Landscapes: Exposing and Crowdsourcing Historical Landmarks.” Dave explained his ongoing project (History Plot) to create a means for people to contribute to a geolocated database. He compared it to Yelp, in that he dreams of a centralized platform through which people can look up historical landmarks and their metadata (primarily their location). In order to start seeding History Plot, Dave turned to 80,000 historic sites listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. Other resources could include Wikipedia, Flickr, and partnerships with local historical societies.

Dave’s enthusiasm was downright infectious, as he spoke about being able to walk down a city street, use your iPhone to locate a nearby historical building, look up information about it, then take a photograph of it and immediately upload it to the database. Possibly the most exciting aspect, for me, was his idea of leveraging community-based history volunteers (he calls them “street teams”) to crowdsource the project. I think this has tremendous potential. History remains one of the foremost fields for armchair enthusiasts, as legions of geneologists and Civil War re-enactors would provide an incredible resource for this kind of geo-based crowd sourcing. It’s easy to imagine groups of history buffs meeting up on the weekends to explore cities and sites, snapping pictures and contributing research tidbits. I’d love for this to get off the ground, and would jump at the chance to found a local chapter.

Dan Cohen brought up a good point at the end of Dave’s talk: that the issue is finding an incentive structure so that people will actually participate in the project. In particular, there’s a gap between the (usually) younger tech-savvy crowd that lacks a strong interest in local history, and the (usually) older, less tech-savvy crowd that could potentially be the strongest source for knowledge seeding. I think it’s a manageable problem, but one that increases the need for highly accessible mobile technology and platforms that makes the barriers to entry as low as possible, even if it has to come at the cost of losing some technical robustness.

The last session of the morning was “Teaching, History, and Digital Tools: A Roundtable Discussion,” by Jeremy Boggs, Jeff McClurken, and Josh Sternfeld. All of them brought different perspectives to the topic, although each of them came from the similar experience of having taught a digital history course. It was a similar presentation to the one given by Jeremy and Jeff at the AHA convention, and it reinforced a lot of the lessons they had previously given (chief among these is Jeff’s great refrain about trying to make students “uncomfortable but not paralyzed”). One point that it made me think about was the issue of how to value historical scholarship. I’ve been thinking a lot more about not only how the historical academy values research in digital history, but how it values teaching in digital history as well. Does listing “Creating History in New Media” on your C.V. as a course you taught carry more weight than listing an American history survey? Would a tenure review board be impressed with your tech-savvy literacy, or put off because they don’t understand it?

Webcams, Ithaka, and Facebook

First, an encouraging article from the Chronicle discussing the decision by some professors to experiment with the form and length of their lectures. Dalton A. Kehoe, of York University, decided to post his lectures online. After receiving negative feedback from his student, he realized he needed to shorten the online lectures and break them down into 20-minute sections. I love this idea. The willingness to experiment and alter what you’re used to as a professor is a truly admirable trait. And I also think that broadcasting your lectures would allow for a critical element of self-evaluation that too often gets lost as educators settle into their individual comfort zones.

Next up is a post at the AHA titled “Links, Spaces, and Changing Habits of Historical Research.” It highlights two reports from Ithaka, one discussing how different disciplines approach research, while the second study analyzes the changing place of online sources in journal citations. The first one was a little discouraging. According to their report, history ranks near the bottom of a variety of categories in using digital resources in pursuing research, including a resistance to relying on online tools such as e-only journals and Google Scholar. Meanwhile, the second set of articles finds that history articles published online do not have any greater chance of being cited by other scholarly articles. While Robert Townsend attributes this to the fact that an alarmingly high percentage (18%) of links to online sources no longer function, I would also hypothesize that there is an unwillingness to even cite E-journals and other digital sources, as these are still seen as sometimes illegitimate sources of true “scholarship.” I have had several professors that would have criticized a bibliography for having a purely online source. In this vein, I look forward to the remainder of Mills Kelly’s postings on “Making Digital Scholarship Count” (Part 1, Part 2) as a way to combat this perception.

Finally, hat-tip to Jesse Lemisch for his posting on HNN, Historians and Facebook: In the Halls of an Electronic AHA. It’s encouraging to see a 71 year-old dive into something like Facebook and recognize some of its potential for academics, especially for historians. I also think Mr. Lemisch represents a the trend towards “aging” Facebook, as more and more older people start to use it, in place of the original demographic of college-aged students. It will be interesting to see if Facebook emerges as a widespread resource for scholarly collaboration and connection, or if it remains largely within the social sphere.