DH Party of One

The term “Digital Humanities” connotes for many well-staffed research centers at major universities and sophisticated, complex projects funded by external grants. In reality, DH also encompasses countless solo practitioners and small groups, operating without a budget. In this space, I will reflect a bit on that world, drawing on my experiences as as solo DH operator at two institutions over the past four years.

Those of us working alone do so largely out of passion, whether for our students’ learning, our research goals, or both. Our experience can usefully inform the work of those building DH centers and programs even on a larger scale, due to our remarkable lack of formal incentives. I receive no extra money, course releases, student or staff support for my DH work, yet I do it anyway. The allocation of resources in American higher education means that much DH support is currently aligned with many R1 faculty who least want it. Those of us at teaching schools who plug along on our own represent a different sort of calculation. We have found a digital space that connects us to our students.

I sought training in DH when I was running an MA program in Public History at a public institution. I believed that our students would benefit on the job market from skills building websites, so I attended Doing DH 2014 to learn how to administer a site, using WordPress and Omeka. Some students really enjoyed this work, further fueling my interest. I set up a Curatescape site, thinking this would be the best alignment of my research on local history with my students’ educational needs.

My limited knowledge of DH then proved enough for me to change jobs, much to my surprise. I had a solid run on the job market (much more successful than my first round in 2008 as a 20th-century American urban historian with a Ph.D. in American Studies from BU). Now, with a published book in hand and examples of student digital work on a website, more schools saw me as a viable candidate to do useful work with their students.

I took a job at a STEM-focused school, where we teach general education classes to Engineers, Architects, Computer Scientists, and Construction Managers. My job description includes incorporating DH projects, where relevant, into the curriculum. At first, I implemented those projects I had done before, having students build websites with Omeka and WordPress, and starting a Curatescape site.

I quickly learned, however, that these projects were not a good fit for my new student population. “Digital” Humanities did not interest them as such. If a student builds a robot in her 10:00 class, how is my database all that exciting in the afternoon? Some student evaluations called for more traditional history. One memorable zinger said I seemed more excited about digital projects than I was about history. So I retooled.

I learned additional DH skills in order to offer my students a better fit. I attended DHSI for QGIS and Sketchup training, figuring this might work well with Civil Engineers and Architects. Learning even these straightforward tools required a major time investment. It’s not enough to know the technology, though–obviously the trick is knowing how to deploy it to further the learning objectives of a humanities or social science class.

I launched a Boston: Then and Now site that works well in my Boston History class. Partnering with the Boston City Archives, we are recreating historic photographs. Students choose historic photos, recreate them, log the images and their metadata in Omeka, create a slider with Juxtapose JS, and load that to neighborhood simple pages. Students really like this assignment because it embodies hands-on, experiential learning. Drawing on Jules Prown’s method of material culture analysis, I have students use their observations from the photos as the launching point for their research papers. Rather than simply parroting established historical narratives, they ask real questions and work toward answering them. In a general education class, this is a tremendous victory.

In my new Digital Studio course, we partner with the BPDA Archive to use QGIS, Tableau, and Sketchup to study urban renewal, focusing on Boston’s infamous West End project. Some of our Civil Engineers know a bit of QGIS, our Architects know Sketchup, and very few students have worked with Tableau. Students genuinely educate each other and me on these tools as we go along, embodying the spirit of DH pedagogy. They study the impact of urban renewal on socioeconomic demographics, reflecting on neighborhood change, federal policy, structural racism, and other controversial topics. Their knowledge and questions come from their own quantitative and qualitative research, opening more space for dialogue than courses where it might be easy to dismiss my views as those of a “liberal professor.”

Skilling up to learn the tools my students are using in their majors has required a major investment of time and effort on my part. The rewards are significant, though. My own current research focuses on housing policy, federal programs, and racial and economic segregation. I’m now able to have real, scholarly conversations about this subject with general education students in a class with no prerequisites past English II. This adds intellectual stimulation to my life, preventing the drudgery than can result from an endless cycle of survey courses.

This space between my individual research program and my students’ educational and professional interests is highly specific. I think there is room for much of this type of development, when faculty and DH staff think broadly about process rather than product. The limits to this work come from resources–training, support, and sheer time. But adding one small digital project to a course need not be traumatic for anyone, if we are willing to listen to each other.

Student model in progress of the West End buildings flattened for urban renewal