Five Lessons from Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom

By | November 1, 2017

Guest post by Claire Battershill and Shawna Ross

When we began writing Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom: A Practical Introduction for Teachers, Lecturers, and Students, our hope for the book was that we could help instructors who were interested in the digital humanities (DH) but did not know where to begin. The idea for the book developed out of a conference session about using digital tools to teach literary modernism. After a particularly intense Q&A session, we realized that the audience showed considerable interest in digital pedagogy but had many fears, questions, and reservations as they began in the field that wouldn’t necessarily occur to DH specialists. We felt that the session demonstrated that a gap in communication was preventing some broadly applicable and generally useful DH methods from making it into classrooms in a variety of fields.

Our book was written precisely to close that gap. Rather than adopt a heavily theorized approach, we focused on the everyday mechanics of teaching. We were reflecting on our own paths of learning from scratch how to teach DH and formalizing these paths into a more organized and purposeful trajectory. As we discussed and wrote about our own teaching experiences and combed through the many wonderful existing resources on DH and teaching, a few unexpected lessons cropped up along the way. A set of guiding principles began to emerge for us as we wrote the book, and we’d like to share these five lessons with you.

Expand your definition of accessibility. Although we are excited by the range of technologies designed to aid users with physical or psychological disabilities, accessibility is not only a matter of using digital tools to ensure that all of your students benefit from your classes. Students facing household- and institution-based economic inequalities, cultural or familial resistances, or social vulnerabilities related to race, gender, religion, or sexuality also deserve careful course planning so they can participate in your pedagogical experiments while feeling safe and supported. Our readings in this area were particularly revelatory for us and will change the way we teach in our own classrooms.

Benefit from collaboration. If you recommend that your students engage in collaborative work but do not do it yourself, give it a try! Collaboration can be fun and productive when you set up a system that works for all involved. Set up regular meeting times to keep one another accountable and motivated, and be willing try out different means of communication. With regard to your teaching, speak with others about your practices, or have them observe you in the classroom. Often, it’s easier for someone else to point out what you do in the classroom than to recognize it yourself.

Embed formalized structure into experimentation. Structure is key during periods of radical experimentation. If you expect your students to wade into the waters of digital mapping, media production, quantitative textual analysis, data visualization, or digital archive construction, you must provide scaffolding. For example, build confidence through repetition and reflection; show models of completed student assignments; construct analytic or holistic rubrics; and involve students in evaluation through iterative, process-oriented, or peer-calibrated grading.

Avoid “tool first, course objective later” thinking. Tools are great, but it’s not (really) about the tools. Digital tools can help you achieve your pre-existing pedagogical goals, they can help you clarify those goals, and they can inspire new goals. But what they cannot do is replace thoughtful course design, careful lesson planning, or subject expertise. Develop—then consistently follow!—course objectives that ensure you always have your humanistic learning outcomes uppermost in your mind as you design and manage digital resources, activities, and assignments.

Recognize and share your tacit knowledge. Perhaps the most important lesson we learned is not to underestimate what you and your students know. Your everyday practices can provide a wealth of inspiration for others’ scholarship and teaching, and your students can teach you a lot by drawing on their own experiences. Everyday tasks build tacit knowledge, by which we mean an often-invisible, experience-based set of valuable concepts and practices. Sharing tacit knowledge is the key to continual, open growth in the digital humanities pedagogy community, so we hope the book will allow others to take advantage of our tacit knowledge—and then pay it forward!

Using DigitalClaire Battershill is Government of Canada Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at Simon Fraser University, Canada. Shawna Ross is Assistant Professor of Modern British Literature and Digital Humanities at Texas A&M University, USA. Their latest book, Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom: A Practical Introduction for Teachers, Lecturers, and Students, is now available from Bloomsbury.

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