Pedagogical Hermeneutics and Teaching DH in a Liberal Arts Context

Diane Jakacki and I gave the following presentation yesterday at DH2015 in Sydney, Australia. We include the slides and the abbreviated form of the talk.  The complete version will be published as an article in the near future.

Thanks to everyone for coming and for your interest!

We take our title from Alan Liu’s challenge to DH educators to develop a distinctive  pedagogical hermeneutic of “practice, discovery, and community” What does this look like?  How do we put this into practice?

This paper focuses on our teaching experience at Bucknell University in the academic year 2014-15 to show how the planning, design, and execution of a new project-based course, Humanities 100, introduced undergraduate students to the world of digital humanities through the use of selected digital tools and methods of analysis. This course, taught within the Comparative Humanities program, was designed specifically for first- and second-year students with no background in digital humanities, in order to encourage the development of digital habits of mind at the earliest phases of their liberal arts curricular experience. Developed to encourage examination and experimentation with a range of digital humanities approaches, the course asks students to work with primary archival materials as core texts to encourage digital modes of inquiry and analysis. The decision to root the course in a multi-faceted analysis of archival materials provided the rare chance for students to also engage in the research process typical for a humanities scholar: namely, the discovery of artifacts, the formulation of research questions, followed by the analysis and synthesis of findings culminating in the publication of initial findings in a digital medium. In the process, we introduced students to the basic structure of how to develop a DH research project.

The Comparative Humanities program is an ideal curricular environment to teach such classes with its explicit learning goals of comparativity (historical period, cultures, genres, modality) to which we added course specific learning goals that pertain to DH. (Slide with goals) The course therefore provided us with the opportunity to not only expose students to methodologies related to distant and close reading, network and spatial visualization, but also requiring that they learn to think critically about what each of these methods, and the tools that they used within the course, reveals in the texts with which they worked.

To date the course has been taught three times: as twin sections in Fall 2014 in which we both used the same scaffolding method with discrete subject matter and core texts. We participated fully in one another’s sections – this gave us the opportunity to teach our specializations within each other’s classes. Katie Faull taught the course again in Spring 2015, and Diane Jakacki participated. Both of us will teach a section next year.

This approach to teaching is important as we consider how to incorporate DH into the classroom. It required significant commitment on both our parts to the actual execution of the course, as well as recognition that we needed to be transparent to ourselves as well as to our students about how this represented a new model for course design at Bucknell. It is important to note that while other DH-inflected courses are being taught, this is the first Digital Humanities course at Bucknell.

At  Bucknell, the focus in digital humanities scholarship and learning to date has been primarily on spatial thinking, until recently rooted in working with ArcMap-type GIS and thinking about humanities in “place”.  It was important to both of us to emphasize and extend that objective in the development of the course and its learning outcomes, and so we focused on finding materials that would be of interest to students so that they could relate to the historical context more directly.

The first time the course was  taught we decided to run it in two sections, anticipating an opportunity to reflect different perspectives of our expertise with DH methods and tools. Diane’s focus has until now been on text encoding and analysis, while Katie’s has been on mapping and data visualization. We also worked with discrete data sets of archival materials. Katie’s course focused on the Colonial mission diaries of the Moravians from Shamokin, Pennsylvania (today Sunbury) and situated 9 miles downstream from the university. Written in English, the diary sections selected dealt with interactions between some of the first Europeans to the area and the Native peoples they met and worked among. Katie has spent the past five years working with this subject matter, and is considered an expert in the field of Moravian studies.

Diane’s course considered a subset of the diaries of James Merrill Linn, one of the first graduates of the university and a soldier in the American Civil War.  The choice of the Linn material had to do solely with its accessibility – Linn’s family left his life papers to the Bucknell Archives. Diane’s research is not in 19th century American history, and so she had to be honest that engaging with Linn’s diaries would be a discovery for her, too. In Katie’s iteration of the course this Spring, she selected materials that took the students slightly further afield, but still kept them within the Susquehanna watershed and the Chesapeake Bay using a different set of Moravian archival materials.  (Slide with archival materials)

Both of our choices reflect and extend Bucknell’s interest in digital/spatial thinking in terms of its place in the larger historical and cultural narrative. In all cases, students responded well to the investigation of places familiar to them, with several students having family connections to specific locales mentioned in the archival materials. The pedagogical hermeneutics of Humanities 100 were intentionally designed to encourage student examination and experimentation  and discovery with a range of digital humanities approaches.  To this end, the sequencing of the modules was carefully designed so that the “product” of each module then became the “data” of the next module.

In addition to praxis-oriented assignments, we wanted students to understand the broader context of their work within a DH framework. To that end we assigned theoretical readings and analysis of a range of major DH projects, which students then wove into their online reflections. Extensive use was made of online platforms that emphasize important forms of digital engagement, including collaborative online writing environments. Each module ended with a short assignment and also a reflective public-facing blog post that became a shared form of intellectual engagement.

In order to begin any kind of DH archival project the students had to produce a digital text.  In the first iteration of the course we did not have a transcription desk available and so students transcribed the assigned pages of the original into a shared Google doc.  This digital text was then color-coded in terms of “proto” tags to ease the way into close reading with TEI tags in Oxygen.  By the time the second semester started we had obtained an institutional subscription to the online platform Juxta Editions which we were then able to use as the transcription platform and also the introduction to thinking about tagging. From the transcription came the lightly marked up digital text that was then imported into Oxygen for more complex tagging.  Students then began tagging in earnest and were introduced to the discoveries of close reading involved in marking up a text.  Names, places, and dates were easy (in Juxta edition they had already been imported).  However the hermeneutical fun started with working out whether a boat was a place or an object, for example.  Or whether God was a person.  And just what is balsam, an object?  an emotion?

During these classes, the historical remoteness of the texts (in Faull’s class from the first half of the 18th century, focusing on Native Americans in the fall and in the Spring on preaching to the enslaved peoples on the Tobacco Coast) was lessened by the act of tagging and the lively discussions that surrounded it. Once a reliable text had been established we then introduced students to the concept of “distant reading” through the Voyant platform.  At the same time as students were encouraged to “play” we also pointed out the circular motion of discovery and confirmation that is inherent in any research experience. The students had just read these archival texts very carefully in order to transcribe them, so we asked them the usual kinds of questions one asks when approaching any kind of new text.  What is it about?  What are the major themes?  Who are the most important characters?  Then, having read Edward Whitley’s text on distant reading we asked the students to think about what reading a text distantly does to that hermeneutic. (Slide of distant reading prompt and visualizations)

This data, the TEI tags, crucial to the success of the students’ mark up assignment and the production of a final digital document, needed some restructuring as we moved onto the next module.  To manage this, we developed a prosopography for each core text – a database of people, places, and connections that grew organically out of the focus of each specific section and provided the data for entry into Gephi and was then built out in adding geospatial data for GIS. So for example, one group of students wanted to use Gephi to interrogate the assumption that relationships between the missionaries and the Native Americans in the area around the mission remained constant.  However, by using the TEI persName tags and exporting them into a Gephi node/edge tables the students were able to show how relations between the Native leaders and the Moravian missionaries changed over a five year period of the mission (Include slide of Jerry and Henna’s work). Students also used the sigma.js plug in so that the network visualizations were interactive.  However successful this team was in their work, it was clear from all iterations of the class that the hermeneutics of social networks was the hardest for the students to analyse and manipulate (which is quite ironic, given how most of them are well plugged in to Twitter, Instagram, etc).

Lastly, students worked in ArcGIS Online to consider the evidence they had discovered within these texts in terms of spatial analysis. The story maps they produced became a new form of critical essay, with thesis, arguments supported by direct evidence, and conclusion all presented within a story map framework. so, for example, one student used Linn’s references to ships running aground during a storm at Hatteras Inlet, found a contemporary document reporting on the damage done to Union ships during this point in the campaign, and overlaid his evidence on a nautical map drawn in 1861 to determine where Linn’s ship had foundered.

Both the composition of the class (in terms of student personalities) and also the nature of the material determined to some extent the kind of final project students chose.  For example, in my section there were some natural groupings of students and there were a variety of final projects (one involving Gephi; two TEI markup; one hybrid ArcMap and TEI; and one story map). In Diane’s class all but two students chose to work independently  In the second iteration of Katie’s course, students decided that they would produce one final group project all together –a  course website that highlighted the best of their DH work. (Slide of Payne Froehlich website)

Assessment slide–self-explanatory

Another challenge to the class design was the high number of L2 students who enrolled in it.  In Katie’s Fall 2014 section there were 2 students of 9 from mainland China; in her spring section that ratio increased to three of five.  In the fall there was one from Australia and one from Vietnam (neither L2s but international students); one student in the spring course was from South Africa – her first language was Afrikaans.  Although the students admitted to being challenged by the readings and also the public facing writing in the blog site, a means for adjusting for student errors and allowing for corrections was developed that would allow the students to post their blog reflections in a way that did not impede their openness to reflection, knowing that they would have an opportunity to correct their English.

However, for all the challenges involved in teaching the class, there were moments of glory. Disengaged students became engaged; solitary learners recognized the essential need to collaborate in order to succeed; participants recognized the transformative nature of the course to their own concepts of the humanities. Students were eager to participate in crowdsourced data collection; they were intrigued to visualize ego-networks as they learned the concepts of network theory; they were excited to see their marked up transcriptions published in an online digital edition. Through these discoveries, they realized that they were creating a community of young DHers and expressed eagerness to take part in more of these learning experiences. Thank you!

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