Uncomfortable–but not paralyzed. When it comes to the new methods and media of digital liberal arts, this should be the expected feeling for both students and teachers, says Jeff McClurken. The historian and digital humanist, Professor of History at the University of Mary Washington, visited Dickinson for a wide ranging all-day workshop with faculty, librarians, and administrators on various aspects of the digital humanities on Friday, January 10, 2014. Topics ranged from the question of naming and definition (not truly significant issues, he argues), to sample projects, genres of tools, and discussions of the notion of digital literacy (he prefers the term “digital fluency”), and how to evaluate digital work for tenure and promotion.
Rather than focusing on the notion of digital literacy, of making students better consumers of new media, the applications of DH in a liberal arts environment, he argued, should involve “teaching and learning through online, public, creative digital media.” When designing digital classroom projects we should encourage student creativity. The very act of producing makes students more sophisticated consumers of digital media, more “literate” in that realm, aware of its rhetoric, its genres, it pitfalls, and its possibilities. That initial discomfort with stepping outside the bounds of a traditional research paper can be a barrier, but as long as students do not feel paralyzed, they can move forward. McClurken places a significant onus on students to master tools on their own, after a brief introduction during class time. That flexibility and ability to experiment and master new tools and techniques is a key skill to be acquired in the process, he said.
Group digital projects teach effective collaboration and project management, but they have to be orchestrated carefully to ensure proper credit is given to each student. He teaches a full semester digital history seminar with 16-20 students who complete significant digital projects over the course of the semester (e.g. The James Farmer Lectures, James Monroe Museum Political Cartoons). They come up with a plan, including benchmarks of progress, and a contract regarding how the work will get done, and by whom. He pointed out that the plans are almost always too ambitious at first. The students tend to offer to do a quantity of work that would be considered entirely unreasonable if it had been assigned by the professor. The platforms he prefers for this kind of work are WordPress and Omeka.
One interesting example he pointed to of student initiative in this realm came from the Monroe Political Cartoons project, where the students took it upon themselves to create a video on the process of creating their scanned images–how the editing was done, what alterations were made to the source files. This kind of documentation and transparency would be helpful to many much grander digital projects, he noted.
He argued that a key challenge for the digital humanities in an educational context is getting students to think self-consciously about their own digital presences. Each student at University of Mary Washington is now given his or her own domain name, and encouraged to create his or her own digital portfolio of work during their student years, an Online Resume and Digital Portfolio (e.g. http://caitlinpringlemurphy.com/). This has obvious utility on the job market, but it also has the advantage of making sure that a student’s work is clearly associated with his or her name, and of making sure they receive public credit. The program got going as a pilot for 40 faculty who were given their own domains, and was then extended to students, and will eventually be continued for alumni for a nominal fee. There are also plans at UMW to create a Digital Knowledge Center with student tutors, analogous to a traditional college writing center.
These are just a few of the highlights from a very stimulating day. A large and up-to-date collection of links, along with an outline of the whole presentation, can be found here.