What should we teach when teaching DH?

Recently a student approached me with extensive feedback on my course Doing Digital History of last year. The short summary was that he liked me as a teacher, that he liked the structure of the course, but that he disagreed with the learning objectives of the course. We eventually had a discussion about what teaching digital humanities (DH) should be about, and the up- and downsides of different approaches. In the end, his disagreements went down to three assumptions I made that lie at the core of my course. As many universities are developing courses in digital history or digital humanities, I thought it would be interesting to lay out my assumptions and his objections as a student. If you have any feedback on my assumptions, please put them in the comments!

Do not talk about DH

The first assumption is that I do not want to talk just about DH. Apart from Brad Pitt, this assumption is largely based on the piece by Ryan Cordell “How Not to Teach Digital Humanities.” Ryan Cordell writes

I want to suggest that undergraduate students do not care about digital humanities. I want to suggest further that their disinterest is right and even salutary, because what I really mean is that undergrads do not care about DH qua DH. In DH classes, meta-discussions about the field too often preclude engagement with its projects and theoretical engagements. In other words, we lead students brand-new to DH immediately into straw-man arguments about its broadest characterizations, whether good or bad, rather than substantive investigations of specific projects, thinkers, methods, books, or articles.

I agree here, and this is the reason why I the course does not start with “what is digital humanities”, nor emphasises any of the discussions around whether DH is useful, how it fits in academia, whether it is a return to positivism, etc.

The student did not disagree with this part, and agreed that the meta-discussions of DH would not be of interest.

Hands-on DH

From the first assumption, I take my second assumption that an introduction to DH should get student hands-on with the methods and tools. Notably, students work with Google N-Gram viewer & Voyant Tools for textual analysis, Google Spreadsheets for quantitative analyses to create timelines, Carto & StoryMapJS for geographical visualisation, and Palladio for network visualisation. The idea here is that students get a sense of the broad possibilities of digital tools. This touches upon a common discussion in DH: should scholars employ digital methods themselves, or should they collaborate with computer experts who will do that for them? The student argued for the latter. I argued that even though I don’t expect scholars to develop tools themselves (the course does not include programming), I do think that scholars need to be able to use the tools themselves, if only to understand the results. Here the student disagreed with my approach, and thought that a discussion of notable findings in DH, and demonstration of tools should suffice. However, he did understand my desire to give a more hands-on oriented course.

DH as more than pushing buttons

The student in question said that if students would have to learn to use these tools, the instructions should be very clear and structured. Students should then be taught how to load a dataset, how to perform the relevant analyses, and get the results. Here he disagreed with my third assumption: students should not just learn how to push the buttons their teacher tells them to, but should explore the tools and engage with all their messiness. There are two reasons for this. First, when I was an undergraduate, after my statistics course I knew which buttons to push in SPSS, but I had no idea why I was pushing these buttons, not other buttons, and how that was directing my results. I do not want to replicate this with my course. Rather, the engagement with the tool is itself an intellectual activity. Second, a defining aspect of DH is that the methods are not stable, but under constant negotiation and experimentation. Voyant Tools is hardly a stable product, and my course should not act as if it were. As such, students get to engage with the messy and sometimes confusing procedures that one goes through when working with these tools. In the end, that should result in a deeper understanding of the promises and pitfalls of digital methods than a clearly defined path.

Lessons for next year

One major aspect of the course that impacts these decisions is that it is a mandatory course. All students of the history master have to participate and pass the course. This means I cannot assume digital competences, or interest in digital methods. This aspect might mean that my course is too demanding when it introduces several different tools in 14 weeks. The coming year will be my final year teaching this course, so I can focus on writing in the fourth year of my PhD. Still in preparation for this final year, as well as for my successor it will be an interesting discussion to have: what should we teach when teaching DH?


5 thoughts on “What should we teach when teaching DH?

  1. I don’t teach DH, but I have exactly the same philosophy in my introductory computer science courses. I have evolved into this position over many years. For example, I used to give the first lecture attempting to define and give examples of CS. But now, we log in and start computing on day 1. The problem with DH is that there really are a lot of buttons to press in all of the tools explored. I do use some DH tools (like StoryMap) but in an integrated fashion, using Jupyter notebooks, like this: https://athena.brynmawr.edu/jupyter/hub/dblank/public/TellingStoriesWithJupyter.ipynb

    • Hi Douglas, thanks for the comment. I now fear my students might use it against me that my course looks similar to your CS course 😉 It’s true that there are a lot of buttons to push, which is try to let students explore the tools a bit, to try pushing some buttons and see what the results are, and then reflect whether that’s of interest or not.

  2. Torsten Hiltmann says:

    Thank for sharing this discussion. I totally agree with you. Especially your assumption n° 1 was very revealing for me, starting my courses on DH usually with this question (“What is digital humanities”) to give the students a first idea about what we are talking. I think this is still important. However, what I will leave out next time is all the argument about the definition of DH, its limits etc. It will certainly be better to use practical examples to show what it is.
    And yes, scholars should definitely be able to use those tools. And, moreover, they should be able to understand them. Otherwise, they should not use them for their studies at all, since the use of a method requires also the capacity to critique it in order to understand its output properly.

    • Hi Torsten, thanks for the reply. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to provide some scope as to what we’re talking about when talking about DH. For example, some students might think it refers to open access, ebooks, or in the case of digital history: the history of the web. It’s more that I don’t think it’s useful to spend too much time on the common debates of DH conferences: who’s in & who’s out, yack & hack, neoliberalism & funding, etc.

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