The Travails of Trying to Go Digital

by Sean Hannansean-hannan

When I took up the position of Assistant Professor in the Humanities here at MacEwan University, my job description included a mandate to engage with the digital humanities. The nature of this engagement was open-ended, both delightfully and terrifyingly so. It could mean intimately interweaving cutting-edge technology into a research project. Or it could mean focusing on how best to supply students with the tools they’ll need to make sense of digital information for purposes both scholarly and economic.

Regardless of the shape it took, this engagement clearly had to have an effect in the classroom. Though scholars at my institution are keen to maintain active research profiles, our main purpose is and has always been to teach students. (It’s a radical mission, I know!) Since our teaching doesn’t take place in a vacuum, this means we have to account for the latest developments in how students go about learning in the first place. Given the prevalence of technology in pretty much everything we do these days, I shouldn’t have to say much more about how embedded student learning is in the world of websites, apps, and other modern miscellanea.

One mantra often heard from the mouths of digital humanists is that students best ‘learn by doing.’ The practical effect of this mantra is to turn most instructors’ attention in the direction of assignment design. If we can design assignments that encourage students to engage with digital resources of their own accord, then we can actually combine our own pedagogical goals with skills already taking shape for most students. Instead of just hauling out your laptop and slapping some PowerPoint slides up via a projector, in other words, you might even be able to get students to develop technological prowess by creating their own polished presentations (hopefully on a platform more adventurous than PowerPoint).

At the same time, as a former denizen of Swift Hall, I can’t help thinking that ‘learning by doing’ should not supplant learning by, well, thinking. We might even want to say that, in the greater scheme of things, thinking and doing are not so opposed. (This is another daring proposition, I know!) Many a Wednesday I stood in line in the Reynolds Club for my one-(American)-dollar milkshake, surrounded by students with shirts stating: “That’s all well and good in practice, but how does it work in theory?” That leaves a mark on your psyche. (Here I will keep silent regarding claims about where exactly it is that “fun comes to die.”)

The higher goal, then, would be to approach assignment design in a way that honours both the practical wisdom of ‘learning by doing’ and the stodgy-sounding-but-still-salutary ‘learning by thinking.’ While still in Hyde Park, however, I knew that I had to take the initiative if I wanted to get more involved with the former side of things. If left to my own devices, I might have just fashioned a shelter in some long-forgotten corner of the Reg and kept reading the Corpus Christianorum Series Latina editions of Augustine until I transcended any sense of time and space. Perhaps it would eventually become necessary for a search-and-rescue operation to come find me, beard down to the floor, subsisting mostly off of Ex Libris coffee of varying quality (depending on the year in which I got lost).

Luckily, things didn’t end up that way for me. Instead, I went out and tried to procure odd jobs that would help me better understand how to wed twenty-first century tech to the humanities in ways that weren’t utterly lame. In the summer of 2015, I was one of a stout cohort of Divinity School students to contribute to the University’s 125th Anniversary departmental histories project. While some of us were chosen for more exploratory missions (like engaging with molecular engineering), I was given the imposing task of helping to document the long history of the Divinity School itself.

Given that the Divinity School is, by most estimates, about a quarter of a century older than the University of Chicago itself, it should suffice to say that there was much to do. The job involved digitizing old documents (yellowing pages of course programs from 1895), building up databases (of alumni and faculty), and finally contributing to the creation of visual products. That last bit was ultimately completed by people far more skilled than I, of course.

Aiming to keep my momentum going after this summer job, I spent a good chunk of the 2015-2016 academic year working as an Institutional Data Intern with UChicagoGrad and the Office of the Executive Vice President. While the 125th Fellowship job taught me a lot about how to put the ‘digital’ in ‘digital humanities,’ this internship had me not just building up databases, but figuring out how to subject them to data-tuning and then actually put them to work strategically. This was less about connecting digital resources to traditional humanities research and more about burrowing as deep into the digital as my humanities-addled brain could tolerate.

Once I re-emerged from the data-tunnels to the bright, Platonic surface of humanistic truth-seeking, I realized that I would have to figure out how best to put all of this to work in service of both my research and my teaching. That’s what I’ve been trying to do here at MacEwan over the past few months. I began, like all responsible Canadians, with a grand and reverent caution. In my second-year Medieval European History course, as an initial trial balloon, I slowly transitioned my students from traditional reading responses to digital mapping assignments.

For ease of access, I had them use Google’s MyMaps to construct historical maps of twenty distinct locations that were relevant to our study. Of course, given that Google will instantly locate any current site, I mostly used former place-names that are no longer commonly used, such as Constantinople for Istanbul or Königsberg for Kaliningrad. (The latter was surprisingly successful at stumping students!) MyMaps, while insanely simplistic compared to sophisticated mapping tools like GIS or Stanford’s Orbis, does let you play around a little bit. You can add in images and textual descriptions for each locale, while also colour-coding location markers based on relevant criteria (e.g., you can make all of the members of the League of Cambrai purple—just because!).

This time around, however, I decided just to stick with the basics and see how it went. Perhaps students would struggle with the basic elements of accessing MyMaps, navigating its interface, or sending their finished products along to me (as a link rather than a file). In the end, all of these concerns were proved baseless. Prepare for a shocking revelation: students who were mostly born in the late ’90s have little trouble making use of Google programs like this. The most common bit of feedback I got was that the assignment was simply too easy.

To such feedback I say: challenge made; challenge accepted. For my History 101 class this semester, which covers everything ever up to 1500 CE, I will be rolling out not one, not two, but (wait for it) three distinct assignments based on digital tools. The first will be ‘Mapping 2.0,’ which will now be certain to award points on the basis of aesthetic presentation (images, descriptions, and whatever else they can come up with). The second, haunted by the spectre of my 125th Anniversary fellowship, will be a polished timeline constructed using one of the multiple tools made for just such a purpose; I’m currently leaning toward Timeline JS.

The third and final project is, in a way, reminiscent of my institutional data internship, in that I will try to get a bit more technical and have students run analysis on selected textual fragments. Here, however, we run into a potential snag. In a pre-modern history course that is based on evidence provided by a textbook, students will encounter primary sources only by way of translation. An esteemed colleague of mine at Washington State University pointed out the obvious folly of having students run analysis on translated text. Without doubt, NVivo and Voyant can be valuable tools, and yet—might their value be diminished if we apply them not to Virgil but to some schlub’s rendering of his magisterial Latin into crudely modern English? (Apologies to my fellow schlubs out there.)

Translation issues are not the only problems that plague the aspiring digital humanist. Sometimes there are subterranean roadblocks that emerge as if from nowhere. In my senior-level seminar this year, for example, I designed an entire assignment around the use of the Augustine’s Confessions app, a fantastic piece of software developed by a team at Villanova University.[1] Students would be encouraged to consult the app as they worked through the Confessions on their own, then write a review of the app that reflected on its pedagogical potential. At the end of the semester, we would then all join together to present our findings at MacEwan’s common undergraduate research day or CURD. (Note: we don’t actually call it that!)

Alas, as I retired to check my emails one last time before bed after teaching our first session, I saw an email from a student indicating trouble downloading the app. After rooting around a bit, I discovered the core of the issue: the app, being American in origin, could not be purchased from a Canadian account. Rest assured: the obvious workarounds popping up in your head right now have been tried and found wanting. Further workarounds are being sought as we speak. We have our top people working on it. In the meantime, we must wallow in the unexpected awareness that, even in this age of global-digital quasi-bliss, good ol’ national borders still can get in the way of a good assignment.

Postscript: After letting Noel Dolan and the rest of the Confessions app team know about the issue, they fixed everything immediately by adding it to the Canadian app store, thereby cementing Villanova’s status as my favourite school east of Lake Michigan.

[1] http://www1.villanova.edu/villanova/unit/MobileComputing/VillanovaMobileApps/augustine-s-confessions.html

One thought on “The Travails of Trying to Go Digital

  1. Pingback: Digital Pedagogies in the History Classroom – Dr. Sean Hannan

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