“Teaching, Learning, Doing DH in a Comparative Context: Promoting Critical Thinking in the Liberal Arts”

Delivered at the 2016 ACLA Harvard University March 18, 2016

What does it mean to do Digital Humanities in an undergraduate context?  How do we promote critical and comparative thinking at the same time as cultivating “digital habits of mind?”

In  Bucknell University’s interdisciplinary Comparative Humanities Program, Digital Humanities has become the fulcrum of a new critical hermeneutic that invites students in Computer Science to think as Humanists and students in the humanities to learn the processive discipline of Computer Science. Starting with seminars on the concept of DH itself, and the challenges that it might pose to critical theory and the canon, this program has developed a set of undergraduate courses that takes students from the discovery and representation of an archival artifact to the creation of sophisticated data visualizations of multi-variant datasets.

Intrinsic to these pedagogical inquiries are the “multiple lenses” of DH, as Tanya Clement has described them. Moving between the positivism of data curation and the critique of interpretation, students learn that representation is also a knowledge generator; that epistemological systems beget representational systems in the digital world as well as the analog (Drucker 2014). As such, student DH-ers become critical learners, questioners and creators.

Within the field of Digital Humanities (and for this paper I am going to posit that there is a field–itself a significant question) there still rages the vibrant debate whether one must code to be a true DH practitioner. Within the undergraduate environment, this is especially complex, as curricula within colleges (such as across Engineering and Arts Sciences) are not normally constructed to allow for coding humanists or humanistic coders.  However, I would argue, following Alan Liu, that a Liberal Arts environment provides exactly the location where we can investigate “The Meaning of DH” (Liu 2014).  In thinking about DH as a hermeneutic act, teachers and students alike become both “builders and interpreters” where the goal of undergraduate DH is guided by a pedagogic hermeneutic of “practice, discovery, community.”  Indeed, within the Liberal Arts context we are encouraged to practice what I and others call “research-based learning” in which we faculty scholars invite student-scholars to collaborate in a classroom setting on our own research.

Founded in 2001, the Comparative Humanities Program at Bucknell seeks to engage the undergraduate student in a sophisticated and complex examination of the breadth of the humanistic disciplines.  Not limiting itself to the study of literature, the program incorporates the study of philosophy, history, religion, political science, echoing Giles Gunn’s 20-year old critique of the limits of comparative literature. As he says,

“Literature and  . . . ” does not capture the emergence of new subjects and topics such as history of the book, materialism of the body, psychoanalysis of the reader, sociology of conventions, ideologies of gender, race, and class as well as intertextuality, power, and the status of “others.” (Gunn 1992, 248-9)

With its own dedicated core courses that follow what might seem to be a “Great Books” trajectory, the program also incorporates theoretical and methodological seminars in concepts of comparativity across media, genres, and national literatures.   It also regularly cross lists courses from departments across the humanities at the 200 and 300-level. Upper level seminars in, for example, The History of Sexuality, are cross listed three or even four ways, causing the Registrar many headaches.

Criteria for cross-listing are based in the adoption of 2 or more of our learning goals that foreground concepts of comparativity, linguistic competency, and written and oral communication.  In order to distinguish ourselves from courses in English literary studies, for example, or Philosophy, comparativity is crucial.  Assessing student outcomes is also key to the evaluation of educational achievement and can prove a difficult task.

In her long engagement with the theory and practice of interdisciplinarity, Julie Thompson Klein has provided the academy with a useful vocabulary with which such assessment can work.  Distinguishing between multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity, in her recent volume Interdisciplining DH: Boundary Work in an Emerging Field (2015) Klein firmly situates DH (and I would argue CH) within what she terms the baseline vocabulary of interdisciplinarity.  Privileging integration over juxtaposition or (a kind of Hegelian) synthesis (although the latter are not excluded) the ground of interdisciplinary comparison becomes for Klein method, data, tools, and concepts.

Within this curricular environment, the Program in Comparative Humanities in collaboration with colleagues in other humanities departments has designed a minor in Digital Humanities that includes the following curricular components:

  • course offerings that explicitly involve Digital Humanities (and/or Digital Media) modes and methods as applied to critical humanistic inquiry
  • interdisciplinary/cross-disciplinary courses that bring the “digital” to and from other disciplines
  • Independent study and/or faculty-student research project electives that involve digital literacies and the development of applicable skill sets
  • a portfolio that demonstrates mastery of digital approaches to humanities subjects through a set of artifacts

This minor is interdisciplinary in nature, spanning humanities departments and programs and including faculty from non-humanities programs and departments and Engineering as appropriate.  As my colleague and co-author Diane Jakacki and I have written elsewhere, one of the distinguishing features of a Digital Humanities course is the foregrounding of critique.  Unlike other more CS-based classes, students in DH classes are required to reflect on the process they have undertaken in developing their projects to be able to place their praxis within the broader scholarly discourse of DH.  Therefore, we argue, carefully selected readings are directly linked to development of each of the student’s competencies and embedded within the class schedule. Teaching students to use these digital platforms requires the conscious placement of the course within a curricular context; in our case, within the context  of the program in Comparative Humanities.

The learning goals of the minor (a requirement to be included in the minor is the adoption of at least two of these) foreground the concepts of interdisciplinarity and critique.  Requiring students to learn, practice and critically evaluate the methodologies, conventions, and social contexts of DH, the minor attracts students from STEM and other humanities fields.  And, in order to integrate and not merely juxtapose, in these courses, DH cannot be viewed as “just a tool, just a repository, just a pedagogy (Klein, 2015).  But rather, as Willard McCarty (2005) has argued in his work, we seek to avoid the relegation of DH and its practitioners (especially colleagues in so-called alt/ac positions) to the rank of “mere assistants or delivery boys to scholarship”.  Rather, as learning goal #3 clearly states, the collaborative nature of work in DH must be understood as a part of the heuristic.  DH is a “habit of mind”, a hermeneutic, in which new knowledge, both instrumental and foundational, is created.

A useful way to think about and do DH with undergraduate students is as a new language.  As Jason Rhody, of the National Endowment for Humanities Office of Digital Humanities, has stated, for him DH is a kind of “Boolean operator,” creating a lexicon and syntax for work in multiple disciplines.

This is a helpful concept in the execution and evaluation of student and faculty work in Comparative and Digital Humanities, not least because we also offer a minor in Translation Studies, that has as its basis a firm grasp of linguistics and also translation theory, history and praxis as well as high competency in a second language.  Dynamic intersectionality between Translation Studies, Digital Humanities and Comparative Humanities produces an innovative and exciting curricular and intellectual environment for faculty and students.

Students in the Translation Studies minor engage in an examination of translation from multiple perspectives that provide them with an educational pathway toward the acquisition of general and specific knowledge about the field of Translation Studies, its history, evolution and theories. Further, they are be trained in the practice of critical thinking about language use and translation; and broaden and deepen their understanding of translation as it relates to power relations, politics, ethics, cultural issues, gender, post-colonialism, etc. Additionally, the minor in Translation Studies provides students with an opportunity to acquire important skills in their respective target language(s); skills such as conducting research in preparation for translation, sound writing skills in one’s source language, learning proper analytical processes and appropriate use of current technological resources in the field. As such, the intellectual glue of Comparative Humanities, DH and Translation Studies could well be understood as Roman Jakobson’s notion of intermedial/intersemiotic translation.

Screenshot 2016-03-19 19.08.11Bringing together DH and Translation Studies has produced some groundbreaking work, such as this on-going project in the history of translation.  Tong Tong ‘17 has created a database of all the translations in the Chinese language journal “World Literature” for the 1980s.  From this meticulously scraped data, Tong is able to pursue her research into the transmission of non-Chinese literature into Chinese in the 1980s.

So, how do these programs provide a curricular environment in which the process of practice and discovery is the norm (to quote Alan Liu)?  How do we produce meaning in DH? As Liu has argued

“In both their promise and their threat, the digital humanities serve as a shadow play for a future form of the humanities that wishes to include what contemporary society values about the digital without losing its soul to other domains of knowledge work that have gone digital to stake their claim to that society.” (Liu 2013)

But how is this possible? How do we get from numbers to meaning? The objects being tracked, the evidence collected, the ways they’re analyzed—all of these are quantitative. And, as Willard McCarty has argued, models give meaning (Willard McCarty and Lima).

In an attempt to answer this question, in my course in Data Visualization, I integrate the principles of design into the practice of data visualization. Using Edward Tufte’s work as a basis, and Manuel Lima’s recent research in the field, students are required to produce visualizations that exemplify the insight that they can be either representations or knowledge generators in which the spatialization or arrangement of elements is meaningful.

In her recent work, Graphesis, Drucker encourages us when reading a visualization to use language carefully, employing terms such as “juxtapose”, “hierarchy”, “proximity”. From their work in the core courses in CH, students can verify Drucker’s claim that visualization exploded onto the intellectual scene at the edge of the late Renaissance and beginning of the early Enlightenment, when engraving technologies were able to produce epistemologically stunning diagrams that both described and also produced knowledge. The advent of digital modes to manipulate and produce data means that we can, for example, all produce timelines without giving a thought to the revolution in the conceptualization of time and history that Joseph Priestley occasioned. So, as students work with Timeline JS, Drucker cautions us to become aware of the visual force of such digital generations. “The challenge is to break the literalism of representational strategies and engage with innovations in interpretive and inferential modes that augment human cognition.” (p. 71)

How do we do this? Drucker argues for us to recognize three basic principles of visualization, both as producers and as interpreters: a) the rationalization of a surface; b) the distinction of figure and ground; c) the delimitation of the domain of visual elements so that they function as a relational system. A graphical scheme through which we relate to the phenomenal world structures our experience of it (p. 74).

Screenshot 2016-03-19 19.06.07

In visualizations of the Bucknell curriculum, Comparative Humanities major, Erin Frey and a Computer Science Engineering major, Nadeem Nasimi take as their starting point a student’s experience of the Bucknell curriculum. The student designers drew data from our Banner system, that connected courses in departments and programs with the General Curriculum requirements.  This database was then visualised as a complex network (on the right using a force directed graph).  In an effort to represent the data on a macro, meso, and micro scale, Erin not satisfied with computer generated GUI’s drew the model on the left inspired by Boris Muller’s visualization “Poetry on the Road.” In so doing Erin followed closely Tufte’s principles of display architecture and describes how this visualization  “(1) documents the sources and characteristics of the data,” through its shape; how it “(2) insistently enforces appropriate comparisons,” made possible through the variable node sizing; “(3) demonstrates mechanisms of cause and effect,” by the simple organization of data into the democratic, circular structure; “(4) expresses those mechanisms quantitatively,”  by sizing and connecting each node based on quantitative data from the course catalog; “(5) recognizes the inherently multivariate nature of analytic problems,” shown through the combination of variables such as node color, size, and location, and different CCC requirements; “and (6) celebrates ambiguity (Tufte 53).” http://datavizfordh.blogs.bucknell.edu/author/emf012/

While the Bucknell Registrar might not make the resulting interactive visualization part of his website, for Erin and Nadeem it created a complex and accurate representation of paths taken and not taken through the Bucknell curriculum.

Meredyk Paxton Map
Steffany Meredyk ’14, Bethany Dunn ’14/Prof. Katherine Faull

Drucker argues that the shape of temporality is a reflection of beliefs and not standard metrics, and asks how we find a graphical means to inscribe the subjective experience of temporality or the spatial.

The mapping of the earth, sky, sea or the measurement of time, that are in themselves complex reifications of schematic knowledge, actually become the way in which we experience that thing. The week is seven days long and the month is 28-31 days long (because of lunar cycles) and thus astronomical tables become the way we structure time. But time isn’t like that; it isn’t linear, especially in the humanities! It contains flashbacks, memories, foreshadowings, relativities (it speeds up when we are nervous, and slows down when we are scared). We impose structures from social and natural sciences onto human experience.

This summer research project by, Steffany Meredyk (History and Geography) and Bethany Dunn intentionally draws on the critical cartography of Margaret Pearce (and Ann Knowles) Steffany and Bethany produced a series of museum quality interpretative panels on the history of the Susquehanna River in the mid-18th century.  Drawing primary evidence from historical accounts, some in archives, some published, the two students wove together a representation of the experience of fear and landscape that invites the viewer in.

Having worked in GIS for almost ten years now, I know that as a software, GIS gives us enormous power to produce knowledge as a generator; through the combinatory power of layers, and base maps, and points, and embedded data tables, GIS is seductive with its “deceptive naturalism of maps and bar charts” generated from spreadsheets that I and my students have spent months creating. It strengthens the fiction of observer-independence; the objectivity of the “bird’s eye view”, and, as Drucker so aptly states, “we rush to suspend critical judgment in visualization.” For me, however, and for the students I have worked with, the question of how to represent ambiguity has consumed us; as has also how to make ambiguity the ground of representation.

Screenshot 2016-03-19 19.12.42
Metadata from “Moravian Women’s Memoirs” Faull 1997

In the extraction of data from humanities sources, we are perhaps seduced into thinking this is a isomorphic representation of experience.  For example, digital mapping may give us the ability to georectify a manuscript map onto a coordinate system, but what does this show us? Maybe how accurate a mapmaker was, or not; it might help us to locate a birthplace with accuracy, but it is ignoring the fact that the manuscript map, drawn perhaps on buckskin, or stone, or vellum is a representation (and a thin one at that) of a traveler’s or observer’s experience that we are translating into a system of coordinates.

Screenshot 2016-03-19 19.16.46

Platforms such as Omeka and Neatline can help to make that quantification more complex, more experiential for the viewer, more of a narrative.  Students learn that way-finding depends upon narratives, travel accounts, diaries; and digital maps produce the illusion of isomorphism, but this illusion is based on an elaborate system of abstract schema and concrete reality.

Screenshot 2016-03-19 19.25.34

This work can take place both inside and outside the classroom.  Principles learned in the classroom can be applied outside.  For example, students are working with me on an international DH project that involves some (pretty) big data and they can contribute to the discussions about data storage, retrieval, and visualization.

Importantly they also understand the necessarily iterative process of the work.  This is the first version of the memoir visualization project with the University of Gothenburg and students  are helping to clean data.

Screenshot 2016-03-19 19.28.40

In conclusion, although students in the humanities and computer science might initially view each other with disciplinary suspicion, through collaborative and integrative work that is modeled through the professor’s research, undergraduates in the liberal arts learn that the subversion of the core logic of digital tools can open up new forms of knowledge.



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