Because I Have to: When DH is a Requirement

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.

Comments 6

  • I find this really interesting that you’ve adjusted how you are “pitching” the course to your students. The way you’ve framed this now is very similar to how Fred Gibbs taught my Minor Field Digital readings course last year, in that he focused us on theory and how New Media and Digital History can be seen as an extension of “traditional” historical theory and methodology. In other words, we focused on how digital history methodologies were an answer to (either successfully or not) to post-structuralism, Barthes and the Death of the Author, and Derrida, among others. Once I was able to wrap my brain around that a lot of things clicked into place for me, and I was able to view digital history beyond something that we just “do” but to really think about why I’m doing it that way and how I am responding to historical theory that has generally been more concerned with analog sources and presentation. I wish that this approach had been emphasized earlier in my digital courses because it would have made the more advanced theory I did with Fred make more sense (I’ve never been one to have a good head for theory in the first place).

  • I this is a very smart approach. Using DH as an extension of methods–how can we use technology to ask useful questions about history and how can we use DH to help us answer those questions–is really important. I also think that getting comfortable with failure is critical to work in technology. It’s an iterative process and sometimes failure is the only way you can figure out how to make it work.

    I ‘ll echo Sasha’s statement that this approach really helped me grasp the larger framework of history method & theory. We will not always use DH to answer our history questions, but when we do, we need to understand how we balance our digital and analog approaches and why.

  • I have an article coming out soon in LLC that echoes these challenges. I have had students whine to me, “I don’t want to be a digital historian. I just want to be a regular historian.” The short piece reflects on three years of having students in my material culture seminar use Omeka to create exhibits, which are (almost without exception) terrible. I favor more of a trial by fire method of exposure, which has its ups and downs. For the more reflective students, the experience gets them thinking about what are the skill sets necessary to work in the field in the 21st century.

    I should add, though, my course is not meant to be a DH course. It is meant to teach students how to read objects. I throw the DH component in to add complexity to thinking about objects in a digital age. I do not expect my students to become wizard programmers or web developers. But a bigger question for me, is where do those skills fit into the curriculum?

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  • Sasha and Erin, I wonder if you would be willing to stop by class sometime this semester to talk about your experiences integrating digital history into your larger approach to the discipline? I feel like sometimes the folks in Clio I and II don’t really get to see the larger trajectory of candidates who pursue the new media concentration.

  • Allison, I’m wondering about the larger scope of the curriculum as well. I don’t love the idea that the digital history work that happens in our department is so concentrated in the few courses that officially designated as part of the new media electives. I would love to see more diffusion of digital projects and assignments in to the other more content driven courses.

    Unfortunately, I think that there are a couple of significant reason this doesn’t happen. The first is simply the need to take the time to rethink a course that has worked well for a long time. Rethinking the pacing and outcomes of a readings seminar means pushing back against decades of tradition in the way that graduate education happens. But, the second reason is more important: mid-career faculty need training in digital history methods themselves before they will ask their students to embark on those kinds of projects. There is a whole layer of interested, but uninitiated faculty out there who need more opportunities to acquire better digital skills–preferably in a way that pays attention to their disciplinary perspectives. Until this happens, they won’t be adequately prepared to support their students in this work.

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