Empowering Students through Digital Humanities

Incorporating Digital Tools at Various Levels of Instruction

What do we mean by “Digital Humanities?”

There are many overlapping and sometimes contradictory meanings of this phrase. Typically, scholars ground the origins of DH in academic computing. Here are a few definitions that have been circulated:

What does it mean to be a “Digital Humanist?”

There are several sometimes conflicting takes on this question. There are a series of debates in the scholarly literature focused on the question: “Do you have to code to be a Digital Humanist?” Some argue (like X) that yes, you do. Some argue (like Y) that no, you don’t. Others argue that there is a threshold, though–that you should be making something. This debate comes to the foreground at critical moments in the historical profession–perhaps most recently, when the AHA formed the Committee on Digital Scholarship. Facebook and Twitter were aflutter with discussion over the inclusion of Claire Potter, the New School professor best known for her blogging as the Tenured Radical. It wasn’t just that she wasn’t coding that caused some people to protest, but that her own scholarship wasn’t particularly digitally inflected.

We might divide the field loosely into tiers. If at the top are the specialists who actually develop software and other digital tools, then below them might be those who use digital tools extensively in their own research, with notable and productive results. Below these, though, is the larger band of instructors who are competent to teach DH or classes involving digital tools. I am somewhere between levels 1 and 2–I primarily teach DH so far.

How can DH be “empowering?”

DH can be a different type of teaching than the history classroom. Students can take on a leadership role in the classroom, and can also become truly self-directed in much of their learning. As they master increasingly complex and sophisticated tasks, students may eagerly volunteer to demonstrate their work to the class. They may also post their work to Facebook and other social media, excited to share their progress with with their friends and family. This was surprising to me, in a wonderful way–I don’t typically receive these reactions to traditional essay assignments.

Campus Showcase of Student Work

In teaching Introduction to DH, I incorporated into the syllabus the assignment that the entire class would be required to present their work at my university’s annual research symposium. Some students resisted the notion early on, but I held firm. As the date grew closer, each student decided whether he or she would present their midterm work or their final project. On the day of the symposium, I set them up with tablets and watched them field questions from visitors. The students had a wonderful time. All the feedback I received from faculty and administrators who attended focused on how confident and proud my students were of their achievements. They also routinely posted their achievements to social media, proud to share them with their family and friends. I do not typically receive this reaction to essay assignments.

Are there risks to teaching DH?

DH can be quite challenging to teach. Pushing students outside of their comfort zone can result in scowling faces and terse course evaluations. Students who are struggling to master new content can blame the instructor for their difficulties. Some students also fail to keep up with project deadlines, falling further behind at each turn. If the course does not have a theme, but is taught as a methods course, it can spark student critiques that is “hard to follow” or “confusing,” as well.

DH courses can also involve a great deal of instructor prep time, that may not be appreciated by one’s colleagues. Some historians remain skeptical about the importance of DH work and undervalue the commitment such work takes on the part of both the instructor and the class.

But I’m a beginner myself! How much do I need to know before I teach Digital Humanities?

This is an area where demand is currently outstripping supply–each year, more universities want DH classes taught, but few are in a position to hire specialists. As a result, many DH instructors are new to the field ourselves.

Historians and other scholars are used to being experts in the subject we are teaching. DH courses can involve giving up that position of authority and can reshape one’s teaching in dramatic ways. Think carefully about your classroom presence–are you comfortable learning alongside your students? Would you feel offended by serving as their IT assistant? Use your responses here to guide the structure of the course and assignments.

Training Autodidacts

The technology we use to create digital projects changes incredibly quickly. As instructors, our goal is to help students achieve a level of proficiency with the current tools. Beyond that, though, we can help them to develop the self-confidence they will need to keep up with future technological advances. The goal of a DH class is rarely teaching a specific software or platform–instead, the goal is usually to teach the broader concepts involved in learning and using such tools.

It can help to distinguish between core technologies (that you commit to learning and teaching yourself) and peripheral ones (that students will learn on their own, or may teach to each other). Having students learn and teach various tools is standard practice in DH courses, and can be wonderfully empowering for them.

So hopefully by now you mind is wandering through the courses you teach or may teach in the future. Maybe you are starting to envision the ways in which you might incorporate DH projects

Should the project be publicly visible?

Is this a work of public history? How will it be vetted? Who is responsible for the content standards? Who will be responsible for upkeep of a site? Will FERPA considerations apply to student work? use their own name

Where will the project be hosted?

Will your university host your site? Consider hosting companies like Reclaim Hosting–choose your own domain name, one-touch install of major platforms, low prices, excellent customer service.

Writing for the public as a goal–editing–proofreading–revision value–multiple drafts

open source as empowering $/can use after graduation

First-Year Experience Courses


Social Media Groups

Core General Education Courses

Social Explorer

Group Work Furthering Structured Digital Projects (local history initiatives or ongoing projects)

Upper-Level Courses

Omeka Exhibits

WordPress Exhibits







WordPress–​makes websites​
Omeka–​makes archival/museum type websites​
Scalar–​makes text/image websites that look like books–USC’s project that is like Mandala​
Mapbox–​make a map right now that looks better than Google maps​–can map addresses, routes, etc.
Thinglink–​tag images with pop-up windows​
StoryMapJS–​pin images to maps, add text; very easy to use​
TimelineJS–​make timelines, add images; very easy to use​
Assorted other free tools​ for light topic modeling, data visualizations (used to be known as charts and graphs…)
Curatescape or Clio–​for creating geolocated historical content​