Laura E. Smith

Associate Professor of Art History, Michigan State University

Pedagogy in the Digital Humanities, DH Summer Workshop, University of Guelph, Summer 2017


I was pleased in May 2017 to attend a four-day Digital Humanities Workshop on The Introduction to Pedagogy in the Digital Humanities at the University of Guelph, Ontario.  This training was generously supported by the CAL Digital Humanities Program and CAL Faculty Development funds at Michigan State University.  Last spring, I agreed to develop an online version of my History of Photography course, so I began researching resources and support for educating myself in best practices for teaching with technology.

The workshop was led by Alison Hedley (Ryerson University) and Emily Christina Murphy (Queen’s University).  We began by defining various ways of understanding digital literacy in a humanities classroom and examining diverse DH pedagogical models such as the “digital native”, the apprentice-research assistant, and the scholar-citizen.  The “digital native” has largely been identified as a problematic concept for its characterization of present-day undergraduates as innately digital, and therefore requiring new curriculums because of this. Research does not support this claim, and further shows that “students do not innately know how to use digital tools, nor how to think critically about technologies in their lives.”  Further, the “digital native” metaphor relies on a binaristic term “immigrant”, and perpetuates national, political, and racial histories of belonging and exclusion that have marginalized and disenfranchised Indigenous peoples.  There are actual Native Americans in digital spaces, so the term obscures their presence.

The latter two DH pedagogical models do not rely on traditional modes of delivering content (lectures), assignments, and assessment (grades).  Therefore, neither were particularly useful for considering the structure of the online class I’m developing for that reason. The apprentice-research model may be relevant in the future for a class where students would work as my assistants in a single digital research project.  The citizens-scholar model was the most interesting, and works best for classes designed to be DH communities and students within them as citizens who work on culturally critical independent research projects.

Despite not employing a particular pedagogical model, I did become familiar with several aspects of DH learning in humanities classrooms that will guide the structure of my online course.  First, DH learning tends to be process-oriented (rather than product-oriented), emphasizing the journey over the destination.  Second, it is iterative (cyclical, repetition, small increasing improvements), and involves exploration, experimentation, and failure.  In designing my course, I will develop assignments that build upon one another, graduating from low stakes skills acquisition with low degrees of complexity and low impact on a final grade, to higher complexity and impact assignments. Low stakes activities also allow for failure without high consequences on grades. Bloom’s Taxonomy was introduced as a guide for developing high versus low stakes assignments. Lastly, DH learning developed out of a highly collaborative ethos.  Despite the challenges and risks involved in having student effectively engage in completing an assignment as a group and creating a respectful community, I feel it’s a life skill that’s worth teaching.  I decided my online class will build from individual assignments toward a final group activity.

In addition to methods of course instruction and design, we also were introduced to various digital tools that might be useful.  Most of them, I found, were geared toward verbal rather than visual literacies.  Voyant Tools is a web-based text reading and analysis environment.  It could be used in art history classes to facilitate analysis of primary documents that have been digitized.  Some questions that students might investigate in readings that are carefully chosen by the professor are: what kinds of words are frequently near each other, what kinds politically charged words are used; how often do some words appear; what kinds of patterns or repetition of words or terms are there and how does that impact the authors intended message(s)?  You can create data visualization maps or Word Clouds, which should be supplemented with others kinds of interpretative tools.  Students might also analyze the same text written by two different authors for comparison of style and word choices.  For example, Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech was recorded by two persons, each publishing differing versions.  Like any tools a professor decides to use in a lesson, there needs to be time included for teaching students how to use them.

Another tool we investigated was TimeMapper for those interested in the skills or knowledge generated from creating timelines. Most of us in the workshop found TimeMapper to be difficult to navigate and might be too time-consuming in a higher educational context to teach students how to use.

This was a fantastic introduction to digital pedagogy! I left with some exciting ideas about basic design and instruction for my online course. I also felt there was much more to investigate for enhancing the teaching art history with technology, and teaching visual literacies online.