What Does it Mean to Teach Digital Humanities?

A couple of years ago, I went back on the academic job market, giving up tenure for another spin of the AHA’s roulette wheel. This time I bet it all on jobs in DH rather than those strictly in postwar US. Like many history job candidates, I struggled to parse the goals of hiring committees. The ads were often confusing, containing contradictory or even seemingly impossible hiring goals. Having chaired a search, and having participated in many, I knew that there was no way to peer behind the curtain, and just applied. I had begun teaching DH to graduate and undergraduate history majors, as well as some non-majors, and discussed those experiences in confident terms, as one does when on the market.

I now teach a student population that is quite different from that at my previous institution. Working now in downtown Boston, rather than in Savannah, Georgia, I teach many students who have attended excellent public schools and arrive prepared for college. More significantly, I am now at a STEM school, an institute of technology where most of our students major in Engineering, Computer Science, Architecture, Industrial Design, etc.

My job now is to develop general education courses that engage students through the use of Digital Humanities methods and tools. This is a wonderful challenge to have, and one for which I am grateful, yet it poses a challenge just the same. A few of the factors involved include:

  • There are no prerequisites, so no knowledge of history or historical methods can be assumed.
  • The classes draw upon a mix of majors, so there is no single digital tool that all students can be assumed to use proficiently upon arrival. Many majors use programs like Solidworks and AutoCAD, but not all.
  • Students declare a major as part of their application, and are extremely focused during their course of study. While some do truly outstanding work in my classes, many have little time and inclination to go above and beyond in a general education class.

During my first year, I tried DH projects I had developed at my previous university. These were successful, but implementation has not been straightforward.

In my first term, in a U.S. History survey, I had students use Scalar to create digital storytelling projects as part of their individual research projects. Most students mastered the technology with ease, although  one complained that Scalar was too time consuming to use, and asked why he could not use Wix or Weebly. The responses I might have used with a history major, about the field’s love of metadata, or the need to understand the structure of the databases used in public history environments, fell flat.

In the second term, I had students in a Boston History class begin a Curatescape project. In the Omeka-based digital environment, students created entries for significant architectural sites around Boston. This will be an ongoing project, involving student-generated geo-located content. Non-history majors do quite well with this type of work, I have found—they seem to have a better ear for writing for the public than do many history majors, who are often beset by antiquarianism.

Students also surprised me with their excellent work on a Then and Now project in which they recreated historical images from the Municipal Archive. Most students took the assignment seriously, and some created remarkable recreations.

Overall, however, I have found that my STEM students are fundamentally not excited by DH as such. Here, I am thinking of Ryan Cordell’s seminal piece, “How Not to Teach Digital Humanities,” in which he offered the excellent reminder:

“We pair “digital” with “humanities” and feel we have something revolutionary, but for our undergraduate students the word digital is profoundly unimpressive.” 

This observation seems especially apt in a STEM-focused environment.

What skills do we want to teach in a DH general education course for STEM majors? On the one hand, teaching tech skills poses challenges. In the past, my history majors and grad students were often very impressed by their own technological advances. “I built a website!” can be incredibly empowering for an English major. But a Computer Science major might be more likely to ask, “Why does this Omeka site look so dated? Why are we spending so much time on this in a history class?” The value of humanities courses within the STEM curriculum is obviously not found in our technical skills.

Yet, on the fundamental historical research front, STEM majors have little advantage over any other non-history major. They have not been trained in locating or assessing source materials. These skills are quite complex, and while an instructor can invest heavily in teaching them, there are limits to potential growth during a single course.

Moving forward, I am going to experiment next with a narrower course focusing on a single historical theme and using multiple digital tools. In a class focusing on Urban Renewal in the Postwar United States, we will utilize mapping tools (QGIS), census data visualizations (Social Explorer), 3D models (Sketchup) to enhance our analysis of change over time. I am hoping that by narrowing the frame of the course I can more realistically provide the individualized guidance students will need to develop original research, analysis, and presentation of their findings.

I remain committed to helping students create public-facing work when suitable, and I am optimistic that this project will generate useful, visual, and highly original materials. Still, I now understand that teaching DH for me will always be an iterative process. I will have to remain flexible, creative, and willing to continually retrain myself. These are all good challenges to have.