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Each year the Robert Penn Warren Center appoints a graduate student as its HASTAC Scholar. HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) is a global network of individuals and institutions that come together to share, collaborate, and learn through online forums, blogs, conferences, social media and other channels of communication. The HASTAC Scholars program is designed for graduate students who are engaged with innovative projects and research at the intersection of digital media and learning, 21st-century education, the digital humanities, and technology in the arts, humanities and sciences. HASTAC Scholars blog about digital activities on their home campus, host forums, organize events and discuss new ideas, projects, experiments, and technologies that reconceive teaching, learning, research, writing, and structuring knowledge.
Amy Gant Tan, a Ph.D. candidate in Vanderbilt's Department of History, is the Warren Center's HASTAC Scholar for 2013-2014. In addition to being involved with maintaining the Warren Center's digital profile and enhancing the "Who Speaks" digital archive, Amy blogs about scholarship in the digital humanities on the HASTAC site. Throughout the year, we will be publishing a copy of her work here as well. To comment on Amy's blog posts and view other posts by Vanderbilt HASTAC scholars, visit the Vanderbilt Digital Humanities group on the HASTAC site.
How can we structure DH meetings to account for scholars' wide variety of backgrounds?
It is certainly a good thing that interest in the digital humanities is increasing among not only students and young scholars but also established scholars. Yet this exposure and growth poses a variety of challenges. In what follows, I want to consider one of these--but first, consider the following two paradigms*:
In what we might call a fairly standard scholarly meeting (e.g. a seminar), the group is typically comprised of individuals who have completed at least an undergraduate degree, and probably a Master's or Ph.D., in a discipline related to the topic of the meeting. To some degree (often a large degree) participants are familiar with methodologies, terminology, forms of argumentation, and discourse regarding the field or topic at hand. The discussion assumes this experience on the part of attendees, and the success of the meeting depends not so much on one individual but on each member contributing his or her own prior knowledge toward a collective discussion (which, ideally, becomes greater than the sum of its parts).
In what we might call a fairly standard introductory course to an academic discipline, the participants are not expected to be experts in any field--much less a field related to the topic at hand. While some students may have had prior exposure to the topic, others have none, and the course material begins at an elementary level.
Through some pedagogical approach, an instructor helps students understand and apply new concepts. Instruction can take various forms, but even in courses where the students' primary roles including discussing and producing (as opposed to listening to lectures), the instructor's careful preparation of resources and materials, planning of class time, and setting of learning objectives, are key.
Now, consider the following: a meeting of scholars (all of whom are accomplished in some academic discipline) to consider aspects of the digital humanities. The participants have a large variety of backgrounds in DH. Some are familiar with certain aspects of technology but entirely unfamiliar with others. Some are well established digital scholars who want to think critically about theoretical issues. Some are new to the whole idea of DH but might start a blog if someone could help with the setup.
How can the organizer of a meeting for this group most effectively schedule time in order to help participants at all levels to engage helpfully and to move forward in their pursuits?
More specifically, I want to ask whether we too often revert to a "Paradigm I" approach in large meetings of scholars interested in DH, when instead we might be wise to use a mixed approach that includes more "Paradigm II."
The particular application of aspects of these two paradigms (and others) will certainly vary among individual meetings; yet I'm wondering if there are general principles for this type of meeting of individuals of mixed backgrounds. This seems especially important as more and more individuals are beginning to attend workshops and conferences related to technology.
I'm interested to hear your thoughts.
This is a second post inspired by topics I was encouraged to think about during THATCamp AAR. The first is here.
*I ask for generosity from my readers where my brevity may lack precision. The sketches are illustrative, not prescriptive; I do not mean to set up purpose statements for the direction of seminars or classrooms.
Do we give students credit for being more web-literate than they are?
This is the first of a series of two or three blog posts I plan to write that have been inspired my time at THATCamp AAR, which I recently had the privilege of attending.*
We are all familiar with the half-serious comment that 3-year-olds can program digital gadgets with more skill than most adults. But how true is it—and more importantly for us as teachers, how true is the assumption that today's students will naturally be able to understand, interpret, and produce information in a digital format?
The question of students' web-literacy (and, more generally, technological literacy) came up in a THATCamp AAR session dedicated to thinking about how digital resources can help students draw nuanced conclusions to complex questions. As participants suggested ideas for assignments and pointed out reference materials available online, someone made the observation that students often need more assistance using these tools than we expect.
Since then, I've been thinking about two key aspects of technical literacy that I want to prepare for when I plan to bring technology into the classroom.
1. Using technology
Even if I know that my students use search engines and popular web sites, I should not expect that they will intuitively pick up other skills. Accordingly, when I ask students to use any technology—wikis, blogs, databases, forums, and more—I want to be prepared from the outset to provide instruction and technical support.
Depending on the assignment, this might mean pointing students to written, audio, or video instructions. Yet, inevitably, some students will come to me for help, as well—and this is a good thing. By bringing new technologies into my classrooms, I want to embrace both the challenges and the rewards of that decision. If I can help students learn to use a new technology, and if at the same time this technology helps them do the work of a historian in an effective way, then I have doubly succeeded.
2. Understanding and interpreting technology
Even when a student can complete the "functional" portion of a digital assignment—successfully finding information, posting content, and more—he or she may not fully understand the ramifications of what has happened. For this reason, I also need to ensure students understand the implications of the digital tools they use. This, again, is something I want to plan for from the outset. I want to be sure to dedicate appropriate resources (class time, handouts, office hours) toward helping students understand the tools I ask them to use.
For instance, one discussion that might apply in several situations is that of privacy, fair use, copyright, and licensing. This is important not only when students are researching and using others' work but also when I ask them to post content online: they should know who can view their work, what others may do with it, who owns the rights to it, and what the potential ramifications of posting content, either in their own name or anonymously, may be (again something that came up in the AAR session).
Another discussion that would be useful for many assignments would be how to interpret information that students have found (via databases, search engines, word clouds, maps, and more). Again, it is easy—but problematic—to assume that students will be able to understand such data out of hand. Rather, I want to plan to assist my students in finding trends, categorizing information, locating and explaining contradictory information, and the like. This is, of course, the work I already do as a teacher of history—and I need to remind myself that it is no less urgent to do this when the information comes in a digital medium.
*Those interested in reading further about the 2013 THATCamp AAR might begin with the Tagboard record of tweets from the day along with David McConeghy's and Chris Cantwell's reflections. Session descriptions (and some session notes) also appear on the AAR THATCamp web site.
In addition, I'd like to mention with gratitude that my ability to attend the event was due to my position as the 2013-14 HASTAC scholar for Vanderbilt's Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. Thank you for this opportunity!
Is DH treated as a methodology or a field?
I've recently been thinking about the digital humanities, and specifically digital history, and have begun wondering whether it is generally treated as a field or as a methodology.
That is: when I list my academic interests, I typically list several fields of study such as early modern Britain, the European Reformation(s), the history of the book...and digital history/humanities. Yet I also USE digital history/digital humanities to study topics in other fields. As a result, I've been trying to piece together some ideas about this seeming crossover, and I wondered whether any of you might be able to point me to work that addresses this question, or have ideas about it yourselves. Thanks in advance!
A "Twitter freshman" live-tweets a conference
One of my first assignments as the HASTAC scholar for Vanderbilt's Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities was to help enhance their social media presence. This included setting up a Twitter account where I could share about the digital humanities in general and some Warren Center events in particular.
Not having a lot of experience with social media, I was a "Twitter freshman": enthusiastic, slightly out of the loop, and occasionally awkward but well-meaning. With input from various sites and from friends, I began gaining my bearings. I learned which tweets appear in which feeds, what a "favorite" can mean, that Twitter automatically shortens URLs (after shortening several myself--who knew?), and that when linking to a post or article it is helpful to hint about the content rather than a vague statement that it exists (another freshman misstep I made).
I was still feeling rather uncertain about some aspects of my Twitter presence when I took on my first big challenge: live-tweeting. After reading up a bit on what to expect, I gave it a try at a conference honoring the Warren Center's 25th Anniversary. I am delighted to say that it went really well--even better than I had anticipated--and I learned a lot in the process. In addition, because of the intensity and focused attention I gave to Twitter over that day and a half, a few things began to stand out to me that I probably wouldn't have learned as quickly otherwise. These things are helping me reflect on my experience and on social media more broadly.
Here, then, are my observations about social media--and in the comments I'd appreciate hearing any similar or contrasting experiences that you have had, as well!
- Community participation happened, and grew more quickly than I had expected. I didn't have many followers when I started, but over the period of the conference, several people ended up seeing and sharing my posts. This growing conversation was facilitated both by personal interactions and by the networking potential of Twitter: at the conference, I met someone else interested in tweeting and shared the hashtag I'd been using, some friends watched for--and retweeted--my tweets, and I tried to do some strategic tagging. Through all these means, I gained some followers, I followed some new people, and a digital conversation developed that included not only those in attendance but also those who were interested but couldn't attend. It wasn't surprising to me that this could happen, but I was surprised at how quickly it came together. The instantaneous nature of Twitter allowed participation to grow even during the brief duration of the conference.
- I listened differently (not better, not worse, just differently). I wanted several of my tweets to include specific content from the panels, and I wanted to be faithful to the Twitter format of 140 characters (i.e. avoiding multi-part tweets). This made me listen in new ways to the speakers, which also helped me observe differences in each speaker's style of presentation. In some papers it was easy to identify several brief, memorable statements that closely related to the main theme of the paper. Yet some papers were more difficult to distill in this way than others, and I was sometimes only able to pull out a random fact or to mention a general topic within the character limit. By listening for "sound bytes" in this way, I very clearly saw the differences in presentation that different speakers used and was able to consider the ways that form influenced content. In addition, by listening for these pithy statements, it made me consider and reconsider the the relevance of different statements to the overall point of the paper. Although I do this whenever I hear a paper, the focused attention (and the knowledge that, for better or worse, I had to share something about the paper after the panel ended) made me much more aware of the nuances and structure of the papers.
- Practice. By the end of the conference, I had effectively doubled my tweet-count. And it helped: simply tweeting more made me more comfortable with the process. This intense period of tweeting made me more excited to continue tweeting and developing my use of social media in an academic setting--in general and through future live-tweeting sessions (I have one up my sleeve for later this fall!). I'm looking forward to it.
My current set of questions about scholarship in the digital humanities
I am so pleased and excited to be the HASTAC scholar affiliated with Vanderbilt's Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities for 2013-2014!
In anticipation of the opportunities I'll have this year both to think about digital humanities and to work to foster digital humanities on Vanderbilt's campus, I thought it might be helpful for me to lay out a few of my current questions. Perhaps this will turn into something of a framework for my year, and perhaps it will simply be a thought exercise and launching pad for other ideas...either way, here goes:
My current set of questions (as of September 2013) about scholarship in the digital humanities:
- What are the best strategies for spreading the word about digital projects? I'm constantly discovering new digital projects that interest me and that might be of use to my scholarship in early modern English religious history. I know this is true for scholars in other fields, as well. How can I--as both a user and a developer of digital projects in the humanities--effectively help students and scholars locate and use the many fantastic resources that are available?
- How can users most effectively incorporate what we gain from digital projects to our own research? It is easy to see how certain resources, such as digital archives, can contribute to a variety of scholars' different research questions. For instance, in my work I've made great use of Early English Books Online and the Clergy of the Church of England Database. Yet what about projects that don't have such a close resemblance to traditional archives? For example, I am fascinated by, and have learned much from the excellent Virtual Paul's Cross Project, but I have not yet quite found a way to incorporate the aspects of its more experiential format into my research and writing. I'm working on it!
- How can developers of digital projects plan for and foster the use of their tools in a variety of ways? This is sort of a corollary to the preceding question. In addition to scholars working to imagine ways that various digital tools can enhance their work, how can developers plan, from the beginning of a project, to provide tools that can be of use to a variety of scholarly questions and approaches?
- What about social media? For all my enthusiasm and interest in digital projects (I use digital humanities resources on a daily basis, have some programming background, have worked to enhance or construct several web sites, and am currently learning GIS) I am not--yet--a big user of social media. HASTAC has prompted me to begin blogging and tweeting, so I'm looking forward to learning more about how this aspect of digital communications can foster collegiality, scholarship, and teaching.
- What is the current state of the field of digital humanities? Together with Mona Frederick, my HASTAC mentor from the Robert Penn Warren Center, I will be reading through Debates in the Digital Humanities edited by Matthew K. Gold (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). I look forward to reading, discussing, and blogging about the issues raised in this volume by several key scholars in the digital humanities.
- How do I make a GIS map? The above questions are largely theoretical; this one is eminently practical. Over the course of the year, I have the opportunity to work to enhance the Robert Penn Warren Center's digital archive, Who Speaks for the Negro? As I learn to use the new-to-me technology of GIS, I will be developing an interactive map that will appear on the site. I'm really looking forward to being part of this project!
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list--but it is a start. I'm eager to see what the year holds and how I will develop my thinking and abilities in each of these areas over the coming months...and beyond.