Last week I started my post with an allusion to a phrase I often include on my syllabi: “Discomfort is a precursor to growth. Part of my job is to create discomfort.” This seems slightly sadistic, but after listening to Professor Jeffrey McClurken (University of Mary Washington) deliver his plenary and lead a workshop last Thursday and Friday, I’m more sure of my pedagogy than ever (don’t worry—students will no doubt humble me at any moment). While McClurken’s teaching maxim (“Uncomfortable, but not paralyzed”) reassured me that my teaching methods were motivated by a sound sentiment—help students take responsibility for their own learning—his workshop assured me that curbing student paralysis while working on a digital project is possible if we build good pedagogy and support systems.
First, because it’s a great starting point and because it’s incredibly relevant to the readings we’ve been doing for the last two weeks, I’d like to describe how McClurken’s response to “What is DH?” Dividing it into four categories, he carves out a multifarious discipline that includes
- The study of the digital world
- The creation and manipulation of digital artifacts
- The study and/or use of pedagogical innovations
- The study of technology’s impact on scholarship
However, the talk diverged from the debates we’ve been reading about this week and instead focused on undergraduates: Where are they in DH and what is their role? We may leave them out, according to McClurken, because we’ve bought into the “digital native” narrative, a myth he complicates by emphasizing that much of undergraduates’ interaction with the digital is consumptive. DH projects then offer an intervention where in students become producers of knowledge with the ability to reach a public audience and craft their own digital identity, making them more adaptable and marketable after leaving our classes and programs. Too often, I’d argue, humanists fear “practicality”—perhaps because this word is often used to attack what we do. But I’d also contend that we (especially those at public universities) have a moral responsibility to keep our disciplines relevant by reaching outside our departments to public audiences. This transparency may, at times, put us at risk of criticism, but in doing so we let the world into the workings of “the ivory tower” and emphasize why we do what we do: “to contribute to the greater sum of human knowledge” (McClurken).
In creating a “digitally inflected” (as opposed to a “digitally centered”) project with CU Special Collections, I’m hoping to engender students’ respect for the past and the archives that protect it, while giving them “a room of their own” to showcase their skills and knowledge. Fifteen students from ENGL 3000 (Shakespeare for Non-Majors) will work in groups of three to curate collections in an exhibit on our sixteenth- and seventeenth-century archive. So, in framing this post around “doing” the digital humanities, I’d like to describe how I plan to do DH with undergraduates using McClurken’s workshop as a guide.
Accessing My Students
Using online surveys, I will first access the skill level of my students before meeting to discuss the project (workshop example: Link to student skills pre-assessment survey that I use). This will give me the option of dividing groups based on digital fluency and identifying the more fluent students as potential mentors/tutors. I cannot always be the first line of inquiry for students, nor do I want to be. I hope to provide them with a support system that allows them the natural discomfort of learning something new and the motivation and resources to find answers to their questions and concerns.
Picking My Tools and Letting Students Pick Theirs
McClurken’s next step puts students in charge of what their project will look like and how it will be used. In the case of my project, students are limited to only using Omeka—a free, digital publishing tool created to catalog and share digital collections of images, documents, and videos. However, after exploring Omeka’s showcase page (among other sites), students will access plugins and various other add-ons to decide which tools fit their needs best. From there, CU’s ASSETT (Arts & Sciences Support of Education Through Technology) will provide the server space and technical support for any customization my students will need. Omeka made sense to me for any project that involved digitizing archival work. While my project will not require students to fully digitize (make searchable) items at this time, I hope future iterations (perhaps with majors) will be more heavily involved in archival work and transcription. Additionally, CU Special Collections already works with on an Omeka platform, making publishing my students’ work much more manageable.
Perhaps the most valuable moment of McClurken’s workshop for me came when discussing student contracts. At this step, groups must determine a) their mission statement: what they will curate and how do they intend for the public to use it b) their tools: what they will need and why c) how they will divide the labor and d) the timeline they will use to complete their project. As McClurken noted, the final component of these contracts offers instructors the best opportunity to intervene, to mentor, and to remedy potential pitfalls.
Letting Students Run with It
I spent several weeks this summer finding models, mentors, and materials for this experiment—a crucial step in beginning any DH project. I’m indebted to our Special Collections librarians, ASSETT, and English and History Departments for providing support and examples, but the time is coming when I will need to hand the project over to undergraduates. A formidable moment? Of course. But it is also exhilarating. It’s at this moment that I stop being a depositor of information and instead allow students their full potential as academics and humanists. There can be no doubt that some failures await me and my students, but certainly we will learn how to do the humanities better for the future.
I know very little about the Student Bill of Rights for Digital Work. In fact, until recently, I didn’t know it existed, so I will need to take a closer look at it in the next few weeks to determine how I can access and grade digital work.
McClurken, Jeffrey. “Claiming DH for Undergraduates: Learning, Knowledge Production, and Digital Identity.” Exploring Digital Humanities Speaker Series, University of Colorado-Boulder. 17 Sept. 2015.
 I can’t emphasize enough how I believe DH can and should be a form of academic activism that brings more people to the table and makes information accessible to the public. I’d also argue this clearly springs from feminist methodologies—made more apparent by McClurken’s description of “A Domain of One’s Own,” a program at UMW that provides server space and a domain name to every undergraduate and that unquestionably alludes to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.