In the last couple of years, we have seen an encouraging focus on transforming graduate education to include a range of digital humanities theories and practices. The wonderful folks at the Scholars Lab have launched their Praxis Program, and with support from the Mellon Foundation, through the Scholarly Communications Institute they are doing much needed research on alternative academic employment and graduate preparation. I can’t laud this work enough, but again this semester, I am faced with a question that the usually-nice-generally-positive field of Digital Humanities hasn’t done much thinking about yet:
What happens when graduate programs require digital humanities courses and the graduate students don’t really want to take them?
Since the History doctoral track at Mason launched in 2001, students have been required to take two semesters of new media training. The first semester is an introduction to the theory and practice of digital history, and the second semester focuses more on the technical skills of designing and building history projects on the web. (Now the Masters program in Art History requires students to take one of the courses.) For years and years, Roy Rosenzweig taught the first semester of the sequence, and we have a nice archive of previous course sites that shows how the focus and work has changed through the year.
This is my second year teaching the course, and I learned some very important things the first time around. Much to my dismay last year, the course was almost evenly split between students who were eager to be there, and those who were either terrified or openly hostile to digital work. To some degree, this blew my approach to the course because I could not count on everyone to look at the syllabus and engage equally with the tools and websites on the syllabus as they did to the reading. Moreover, I had some students to absolutely refused to run with my very vague guidance to “play” with the tools and “explore” the sites, as well as doing the reading for each week.
Fail, on my part.
So, this year, I’m thinking hard about how frame this course better for the less enthusiastic members of the group. Last evening was our first meeting and I pitched the course in a slightly different way. I suggested that students needed to think about it as a second semester of the required methods course, which deals with more traditional issues of historiography and interpretive approaches (HIST610). In doing so, I argued that we would spend the semester learning to use tools to ask historical questions, to present our scholarship, and to teach. In the midst of this conversation, I tried very hard to dispel the notion that what we were doing was some how an adjunct to the real work of history. I’m not sure how successful that was, but so far, so good. Second, I tried to emphasize the importance of taking a metacognitive approach to the work. We constantly need to be assessing the demands of the task at hand (our historical questions and our historical sources) and adjusting the ways that we mobilize digital tools to do our work. Failure is fine, and, in fact, useful. We need to learn from it, and then move forward to do new work. I see this all as play, and hopefully I can bring the whole crew (all 20 of them) around to my point of view on this.
Of course, all of this would be a lot of hot air if I hadn’t adjusted some my approach to course design. To push reluctant students into active engagement with the tools and resources of the course, I’ve added a practicum activity to each week. They are required to complete the practicum and reflect on the process, in addition to reflecting on the reading for week. My hope is that these activities will result in tinkering and play at an earlier stage in the semester. I also want to work hard to maintain an environment that honors persistence and self-reflexiveness in the face of failure. (You’re not going to break the internet; what can we learn from what didn’t work.)
We’ll see how this all goes. I’ll keep you posted as the semester continues.
But, more importantly, I’m interested in what strategies others have devised to bring along reluctant DH’ers.