Digital Humanities: My Introduction 1.3

This post is part of a three-part series charting my introduction to the digital humanities. My entrance largely follows from attending a seminar that meets twice a quarter on Saturday mornings entitled, “Demystifying the Digital Humanities” (#dmdh). Paige Morgan and Sarah Kremen-Hicks organize the seminar and it is sponsored through the University of Washington’s Simpson Center for the Humanities.

As the spring term ends for the 2012-2013 school year, I want to conclude this series of posts with some reflections on introducing the digital humanities into my pedagogical practice.

Digital Humanities or Multimodal Composition Class?

The course I designed in March differs greatly from the class I ended with this week. My assignment was English 111. As the course catalog describes it, 111 teaches the “study and practice of good writing; topics derived from reading and discussing stories, poems, essays, and plays.” While the catalog says nothing about the digital humanities, so long as we accomplished the departmental outcomes, my assumption was that a digital humanities (DH) component would only provide us with new tools for thinking through literature and writing.

It was an innocent assumption.

The main issue was scope. For my theme I chose “precarity,” which Judith Butler describes as that “politically induced condition” wherein select groups of people are especially vulnerable to “injury, violence, and death.”[i] Because there are so many “precarious characters” in Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, I used this collection for my primary literary text. In addition to investigating precarity, with the Ballads students could also explore multiple genres and how the re-arrangement of poems alters the reading experience. Third, I wanted to use a digital humanities approach. By a DH approach I mean that I would encourage digital humanities values with regards to writing (e.g. collaboration, affirming failure), using digital tools, and learning transferable skills.

By the second half of the course it was clear that the students were confused about the concept, unhappy with the text, and struggling to understand the purpose of the values, tools, and skills. During the second half of the course, I lost hope for my big collaboration project and I dropped the emphasis on the Ballads, focusing instead on rhetorical analyses of blogs and news sites addressing issues of precarious peoples and working conditions, which was especially timely after the recent tragedy in Bangladesh.

Without the literature component, students began to feel more comfortable with the tools and concept, which led to greater motivation and better papers. On the downside, these students signed up for a literature class, which I basically eliminated. The triad of concept, literature, and method should work. But I found that if all three areas are of equal difficulty you may risk blocking success in any of them.

The “transferable skills” were perhaps the most successful part of the course. It is not the case that my classes didn’t teach transferable skills prior to my digital humanities emphasis. But as Brian Croxall has emphasized, we can teach more of them. As far as the digital humanist is concerned, more “skills” is tantamount to learning how to use more tools, which I translated (perhaps erroneously) as more media. So this term, all of my students built websites and blogs.

From building blogs and websites students learned firsthand how medium shapes what we can write, how “writing” might necessarily include design and management, and rather than give a tutorial on how to build these sites, I showed students how they could use Google to search for help on their own. The transferable skills were twofold: build an online platform to host your work (which alters what you can present and how), and learn where and how to find answers to your building questions (and rather than “good” sources, I stressed more of them). While initially these sites were less than satisfactory, by the end of the class students began to realize the potential and implications of the medium, which prompted several of them to re-build their sites during revision phases, taking more time with the organization of pages, images, background colors, and hyperlinks, and then explaining why these changes were important.

The websites and blogs showed signs of success with regards to “building skills,” but these platforms might belong less to the digital humanities and more to “multimodal scholarship.” As the organizers of the Demystifying the Digital Humanities seminar stressed during the April 14th session, digital humanists use their tools to “produce” scholarship, while multimodal scholarship means using tools to “display and disseminate” traditional research. These differences are a bit blurry for me still, but the blurriness might be accounted for by the fact that some of us are “trickster figures” occupying multiple regions on the plane of digital scholarship, as Alan Liu explains in the most recent PMLA (410).[ii]

But Liu adds greater clarity to these distinctions when he explains how a digital humanities project uses “algorithmic methods to play with texts experimentally, generatively, or ‘deformatively’ to discover alternative ways of meaning” (414). The algorithms may be out of reach for English 111 (and me!), but by using Google Sites, Blogger, and Ngram many students were cracking the digital ice and playing. In other words, these basic multimodal tools might be a useful first step towards transferring to a more involved and complicated DH project.

For such a class to be really successful it will require much more planning. For the fall, I am refining what I have rather than adding more tools to the mix. Until I do some serious text mining of my own, it might be safer to design a “writing with digital media” course. But now that Pandora’s (tool) box is open, I don’t see it closing in the future.


After attending the Demystifying the Digital Humanities seminars and writing these posts, I wonder if my introduction has actually led me to media studies instead. My suspicion is that I will touch both areas, because it is ultimately the task or problem that will determine the approach. However, and I believe Liu also demonstrates this point, the digital humanities as a method might prove to be a problem or task generator. With these tools we will become like Darwin returning from the Galapagos with all those varieties of finches sitting on his desk, asking what all these birds have to do with one another. Perhaps the moral should be: the more materials the bigger the questions.

[i] Butler, Judith. “Performativity, Precarity, and Sexual Politics.” AIBR. Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana 4.3 (2009): 1-13. Print.

[ii] Liu, Alan. “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities.” PMLA 128.2 (2013): 409-423. Print.