DH Pedagogy UVA Collaboration

Why To Teach Students to Not-Read Novels

[Enjoy this guest post by James Ascher, doctoral candidate in the English Department at University Virginia. He came to W&L to give a workshop in Prof. Taylor Walle’s ENGL 335 course through a Mellon-funded collaboration with the Scholars’ Lab at UVA. More information about this initiative can be found here. His post is cross-listed on the Scholars’ Lab blog.]

This post has a simple argument: if you teach novels, you should teach students to not-read novels. Now, before you get concerned, I’m not arguing against teaching literature or avoiding novels altogether; the hyphen in “not-read” means a method, not a rejection of reading. Indeed, my whole argument is based on the idea that students need help returning careful attention to texts, but faced with a deluge of texts, we teachers ought to show them how some professional literary critics not-read, or as others call it “distant read.”

What is a novel anyhow? A reasonable question to ask your students as a semester goes along, since it seems to be a long form of prose that comes to dominate what we now consider literature. If one is to believe Amazon Rankings, then the most read forms of electronic books and the most purchased books remain novels (at least when I wrote this, but I’d be surprised if it changes). This wasn’t always the case and part of the history of the novel is its commercial success. Franco Moretti makes the case clear in his Graphs, Maps, and Trees where he argues that the rise of the novel can be studied using charts, as he does in his previous work Atlas of the European Novel (Moretti’s response, which is more useful.) Building on the idea of charting large-scale phenomena over time, he notices that novels rise (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 rises of novels from Graphs, Maps, and Trees

Fig. 1 rises of novels from Graphs, Maps, and Trees

Something about the form, the markets, the people, or something else means that this particular literary form comes to dominate, so whatever time period you consider, it’s worth considering what was going on.

Its well established that the English novel rose first—the form seems to have been invented there—so even in a non-English classroom, it’s worth considering how those novels were imported into a broader literary discourse. Luckily, the text of most eighteenth-century English novels are freely available online. We have a fortuitous confluence of the intellectually important materials that have become technologically available (a careful reader will note that this is one possible explanation of the novel’s rise as well). But, how can you study the features of a whole genre? An easy way is to read them by putting them on your syllabus, which I encourage, but after reading them you can look back at the whole syllabus and chart the topics that come up.

Fig. 2 Novel topics

Fig. 2 Novel topics

To test this idea, I presented for Taylor Walle in her English 335 “Radical Jane: the Politics of Class, Gender, and Race in Austen’s ‘Polite’ Fiction.” Her course asked students to think about how English novels formed identities and related to the growing issues of British society. It seemed like a great chance to try some topic-modeling across her entire syllabus, the chart was produced with ten topics across the whole class (fig. 2). You can see the lesson here if you want to reproduce the work.

After demonstrating how the method works, we turned to this chart and looked for topics that crossed the texts. The works read for the class and on the chart—from left to right—are Emma, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, A Sentimental Journey, A Sicilian Romance, and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. You can see, and the class immediately saw, that the topics broke at the boundaries of books. You can see that many of the topics to detect specific books, but a few cross boundaries. Now, the topic used in topic modeling isn’t quite the normal sense of the word “topic.” It means a list of words with probabilities that, when they occur, signal the topic that is that list of words. The topics by their top words are,

time made heart letter moment feelings mind spirits happiness
present long felt thought affection left hope return day love
situation ...

elizabeth darcy bennet jane bingley wickham collins mrs sister
lydia catherine lady lizzy longbourn gardiner father family
netherfield kitty charlotte ...

miss mrs good great dear young make time room house give day
thought friend heard man home replied pleasure hear ...

julia marquis door ferdinand madame hippolitus castle heart duke
heard marchioness length appeared light night discovered time part
count scene ...

man life love woman character mind world society sense opinion
great beauty good present taste nature understanding husband
degree subject ...

emma harriet weston mrs knightley elton thing jane woodhouse miss
fairfax frank churchill body hartfield bates highbury father sort
harriet's ...

fleur paris monsieur poor hand count thou man set told madame good
french thy heart lady tis put made nature ...

elinor marianne mrs dashwood edward jennings sister willoughby
colonel lucy john mother thing brandon ferrars barton middleton
marianne's lady town ...

catherine tilney isabella thorpe morland allen general henry bath
eleanor catherine's brother james father street hour northanger
abbey john captain ...

women men reason virtue sex respect mind duties affection make
heart children power render human virtues true allowed till duty

As far as the course goes, the first topic seems to cover what all these texts have in common, but notice everything isn’t perfectly lined up by novel. The topic beginning “julia marquis door” clearly comes from Sicilian Romance, but also hits on some later chapters of Northanger Abbey. Why would that be? Well, if you know the texts, you realize that some of the same Gothic themes occur in both texts and they use the same words.—“Dear students, can anyone bring us to where in the text this happens?” And, we enter the realm of the normal literature classroom.

By presenting a broad view of the texts, built by a computer algorithm, but out of the words of the text, we invite students to re-read works. Not-reading becomes re-reading and presenting words across the entire corpus puts students into partnership with technology to ask what it is about the form of novelistic prose that makes it popular and speak to social issues. Furthermore, we also encourage students to be critical of the results of computerized analysis. Several students noted that these topics were obvious, having read the works, and that they could have come up with them by hand, which is—of course—true. It’s easy to scale these up beyond what you could do by hand, but seeing how they reflect what is accurately in the text shows that they provide some purchase on truth and also suggests what might be going on with other computerized analyses. One way we imagined it was that the computer applied an obvious rule at a fine level of detail. If we follow the same method, but only for Emma by paragraph, we get a much messier chart (fig. 3), but seeing that chart, students can begin to engage with both literary texts and computers that help them to not read—to ask what it means and what can be done with it.

Emma by chapter

Fig. 3 Emma by paragraph

DH Pedagogy UVA Collaboration

The Long and Messy History of Privacy

[Enjoy this guest post by Shane Lin, a PhD Student in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia. He came to W&L to give a workshop through a Mellon-funded collaboration with the Scholars’ Lab at UVA. More information about this initiative can be found here. His post is cross-listed on the Scholars’ Lab blog.]

I was invited by Brandon Walsh, the Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow at Washington and Lee and a former Scholars’ Lab Praxis fellow of my cohort, to come to W&L as part of an ongoing collaboration between W&L and the Scholars’ Lab. The program pairs UVA graduate students with W&L undergraduate students studying a relevant subject and gives the former the opportunity to expose the latter to new modes of digital scholarship.

I was fortunate to be matched with Brandon’s own English composition class: “Writing in the Age of Digital Surveillance”. My dissertation research is on the history of cryptography and the construction of digital privacy rights from the mid-1970s through the 1990s and involves a text analysis project examining influential privacy-related Usenet newsgroups and mailing list messages, so this seemed like a perfect match.

My first instinct was to give a quick rehash of my work, an introduction to modern cryptography, and a few hands-on exercises in code-making and code-breaking. I could also reuse a demonstration I used from the last time I taught undergraduate students: how to anonymously buy cocaine on the darkweb with cryptocurrency.

Yet none of these approaches seemed quite appropriate. Brandon had done a good job. The syllabus showed that the students had engaged very closely with the ramifications of modern technology on surveillance, drawing on thinkers like Siva Vaidhyanathan and Clay Shirky. My research, though focused narrowly on cryptography, interfaced with so many of the big ideas that the students had already broached. I didn’t want to bore them with historical detail (“scholarly rigor”!) or to just rehash the broader themes they were already well familiar with. Nor did I think that it was entirely appropriate to give a workshop on cryptography tools or on digital research techniques in a writing class. It didn’t seem very useful to throw prime factorization or Python web scraping libraries at these unsuspecting students for a single class.

I was supposed to speak about DH and digital technology, but Brandon assured me that I had wide latitude to choose the topic. So I decided to hardly mention computers at all and talk instead about privacy in the context of the fundamental idea of history: things change. Privacy is not a fixed principle. The abstract notion of privacy rights is a very modern construction and even the practical, everyday conception of physical privacy has radically shifted through history, owing much to the affordances of technologies we may not think of as having much to do at all with privacy.

I started by examining evidence of privacy in ancient Greece and how quantitative research on ruins has shown that prioritization of privacy was built into the architecture of Mediterranean homes. We discussed the rise of public bathing and its shifting practices and cultural significance under the Roman empire. And we spoke of the etymology of the word “eavesdrop” and its political connotations during the rein of Henry VIII. This was followed by a tour through the communications infrastructure of the early American republic and the role of the revolutionary and partisan presses and the post office in democratizing privacy by broadening access to both subversive ideas and the means to convey them. Finally, we discussed the dynamic legal conception of privacy, from the Fourth Amendment’s originally weak protections against searches to the landmark 1967 Katz v. United States decision that codified an expectation of privacy based solely in the realm of ideas.

Digital technology was the end-point of this crooked journey. Though they have dramatically altered our understandings of privacy and the topography of power that supports such conceptions, the rights that these technologies challenged or championed were forged through centuries of history. Focusing on just the most recent debate wrongly implies that digital technologies are uniquely potent mechanisms and that the shifting landscape of privacy in our tremulous times represents a singular historical moment. I thought it was important to put our modern, contested notion of privacy in broader context, a context that includes the changes wrought by aqueducts, fire pits, chimneys, printing presses, bureaucratic organization, and other earlier technologies of decidedly analog mode.

DH Pedagogy

On Co-Teaching and Digital Humanities

[Crossposted to my personal blog.]

For me, co-teaching is the ultimate teaching experience. I’ve been fortunate to find several opportunities for it over the years. During graduate school, I co-taught a number of short courses, several DH classes, and a couple workshops. Here at W&L I’ve been able to teach alongside faculty from the history department and the Library. Each experience has been deeply rewarding. These days I’m spending more time thinking about digital humanities from a curricular and pedagogical standpoint, so I wanted to offer a few quick notes on how co-teaching might play a role in those discussions.

I’m sympathetic to arguments against putting two or more people at the front of the classroom. It’s expensive to use two faculty members to teach a single course when one might do, so I can understand how, in a certain logic, the format seems profoundly inefficient. You have a set number of courses that need to be taught, and you need people to teach them. And I have also heard people say that co-teaching is a lot more work than teaching a course solo. I understand these objections. But I wanted to offer just a few notes on the benefits of co-teaching – why you might want to consider it as a path for growing your digital humanities program even in the face of such hesitations. I’ve found that the co-teaching experience fully compliments the work that we do as digital humanists for a number of reasons. I think of co-teaching as a way to make the teaching of digital humanities more fully reflect the ways we tend to practice it.

Co-teaching allows for more interdisciplinary courses.

Interdisciplinarity is hard. By its very nature, it assumes research, thinking, and teaching that lie at the intersections of at least two fields, usually more. In the case of digital humanities, this is exacerbated because the methodologies of the combined fields often seem to be so distinct from one another. Literary criticism and statistical methods, archival research and computer science, literary theory and web design. These binaries are flawed, of course, and these fields have a lot to say to and about each other. But, in the context of teaching digital humanities, sometimes bringing these fields together requires expertise that one teacher alone might not possess. A second instructor makes it easier to bridge perceived gaps in skills or training. And those skills, if they are meant to be taught, require time and energy from the instructors. On a more practical level, it can be profoundly helpful to have one instructor float in the classroom to offer technical assistance while the other leads discussion so as to prevent troubleshooting from breaking up the class. It is not enough to say that interdisciplinary courses need a second instructor. They often require additional hands on deck.

Co-teaching models collaboration for students.

Digital humanities work often requires multiple people to work together, but I’d wager that students often expect there to be a single person in charge of a class. Students might come into the class expecting a lecture model. Or, at the very least, they might expect the teacher to be an expert on the material. Or, they might expect the instructor to lead discussion. These formats are all well and good, and many instructors thrive on these models. I prefer to position my students as equal collaborators with me in the material of the course. We explore the material together, and, even if I might serve as a guiding hand, their observations are just as important as my own. I try to give my students space to assert themselves as experts, as real collaborators in the course. Co-teaching helps to set the stage for this kind of approach, because the baseline assumption is that no one person knows everything. If that were the case, you would not need a second instructor. There is always a second voice in the room. By unsettling the top-down hierarchy of the classroom, co-teaching helps to disperse authority out into other parts of the group. The co-teacher not in charge on a particular day might even be seated alongside the students, learning with them. This approach to teaching works especially well as a vehicle for digital humanities. After all, most digital humanities projects have many collaborators, each of whom brings a different set of skills to the table. No person operates as an expert in all parts of a collaborative project – not even the project manager. Digital humanities work is, by its nature, collaborative. Students should know this, see this, and feel this, and it can start at the front of the classroom.

Co-teaching transfers skills from one instructor to another.

Digital humanities faculty and staff are often brought in to support courses and projects by teaching particular methods or tools. This kind of training can sometimes happen in one-off workshops or in external labs, but the co-teaching model can offer a deeper, more immersive mentoring experience. Co-teaching can be as much for the instruction of the students as it is for the professional development of the teachers. For the willing faculty member, a semester-long engagement with material that stretches their own technical abilities can set them up to teach the material by themselves in the future. They can learn alongside the students and expand their portfolio of skills. At W&L we have had successes in a number of disciplines with this approach – faculty in history, journalism, and French have expanded their skills with text analysis, multimedia design and storytelling, and textual encoding all while developing and teaching new courses. We’ve even managed, at times, to document this process so that we have demonstrable, professionally legible evidence of the kinds of work possible when two people work together. When both instructors share course time for the entire semester it can help to expand the capacity of a digital humanities program by spreading expertise among many collaborators.

Of course, all of this requires a lot of buy-in, both from the faculty teaching together and from the administration overseeing the development of such courses. You need a lot of people ready to see the value in this process. The particulars of your campus might provide their own limitations or opportunities. Putting together collaborations like these takes time and energy, but it’s worth it. I think of co-teaching as an investment – in the future of the program, the students, and the instructors. What requires two instructors today might, with the right preparation and participation, only require one tomorrow.

In case you want to read more, here are some other pieces on co-teaching from myself and past collaborators (happy to be pointed to others!):

DH Pedagogy Tools UVA Collaboration

If You Want to Master Something, Teach it: Digital Humanities and the “Aha!” Moment

[Enjoy this guest post by Nora Benedict, a PhD student in the Department of Spanish, Italian, & Portuguese at the University of Virginia. She came to give a workshop through a Mellon-funded collaboration with the Scholars’ Lab at UVA. Her post is cross-listed on the Scholars’ Lab blog.]

I was recently invited to give a guest lecture in Caleb Dance’s Classics Course (“Blasts from the Classical Past: In Consideration of the Ancient Canon”) at Washington and Lee University as part of their Mellon Foundation Grant for Digital Humanities, which provides support for research, workshops, guest lectures, and the general development of Digital Humanities initiatives. As a contemporary Latin American scholar, who works on Jorge Luis Borges and publishing history, I was, at first, quite daunted by the task of teaching about classical canons and antiquity. Lucky for me (and the students), I was asked to work through possible avenues of investigation for their final project, “Book Biographies,” that required students to add their own text to the class’s “canon” and justify their selection with quantitative and visual data. More specifically, Caleb asked me to present students with a series of approaches for the project, including any necessary platforms and databases, and also touch on some potential problems that might arise in the process.

Before diving into a discussion of the digital tools for the day, I wanted to pause and parse out what exactly a “bibliographical biography” might be. Or rather, what students understood as “bibliographical” or a “bibliography” more generally. The entire class immediately defined the term to mean a list of works cited and used for research (i.e. enumerative bibliography). I then added to their definition by introducing the concepts of descriptive, analytical, and textual bibliography. We spent the most time walking through descriptive bibliography, or the physical descriptive of books as objects, because I felt that an understanding of this branch of bibliography would best serve students in thinking about the physical data necessary for their projects.

I devoted the remainder of the class to presenting students with two avenues of investigation for their digital humanities projects. For fear of selecting a classical work that another student might have already chosen for his/her own project, I used Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones (1944) as my example text to add to their class “canon.”

First, drawing on my own current digital project, I introduced students to different modes of visualizing data with digital tools. For starters, I asked students what types of questions they might ask their chosen books to gather the necessary data to populate a map or visualizing tool. Together, we formed a list that included the work’s printing history, cost, copies produced, places of publication, languages of publication, and circulation, which would all help students to answer the central question of why their book should be added to the class’s “canon.” Moreover, I continually emphasized the need to accumulate as much physical data as possible about their work, and keep this information in an easily readable format (such as an excel spreadsheet).

Next, I showed them a demo project I created with an annotated Google map, which plotted the locations of archival materials, such as manuscripts and correspondence, in green and translations of Ficciones in different languages in yellow. As a class, we added new plot points to track the circulation of Ficciones in libraries in the United States with data we quickly acquired from WorldCat in purple:

After we mapped out several locations and entered detailed metadata for each point, I wanted to show students several examples of more advanced data visualization projects. My hope was that as these students explored and experimented with their first digital humanities projects, they would be inspired to work with more complex platforms and programs for future projects. Given my own training in the UVA Scholars’ Lab, their unique program Neatline was the most logical place to turn. In particular, I walked the students through a demo of the project, “Mapping the Catalogue of Ships,” which relies on data gathered from the second book of the Iliad to map the physical route discussed based on the locations named, which seemed most appropriate for a Classics course:

While platforms and programs for data visualization allowed the students to see the immediate impact of their selected text in terms of its production and circulation, I wanted to also push them to think about ways to represent the links, connections, and relations between certain authors and works across time and space. For starters, I asked students to think about how many works have been written about their selected texts (in terms of literary references, allusions, critical studies, or even parodies). I then showed them DBPEDIA, which extracts data and datasets from Wikipedia pages for further analysis. Looking to the page dedicated to Jorge Luis Borges, I scrolled to the section of writers that are influenced by him:

Thinking about the various names on this list, and the potential writers that might populate the lists for their own selected writers, allowed students to see the possible outcomes of analyzing social networks of impact. I told students that this type of data was not limited to people and could be expanded to think about various historical, social, or even political movements.

After discussing several possible ways to gather data about the social networks related to their own texts, I showed the students a few examples of how their data might visually manifest itself, drawing on sample screenshots from Cytoscape, a platform which helps create complex network visualizations:

Walking through a few visual examples of network analysis with digital platforms got students really excited for their own projects and their potential outcomes. I then introduced students to Palladio, which is one specific tool engineered by Stanford Digital Humanities for their “Mapping the Republic of Letters” that they might consider using for their own projects. One of the most intriguing aspects of this tool is the ways in which you can manipulate your data. More specifically, as we saw with the sample dataset, you are able to visualize your information in the form of a map, a graph, a table, or through a photo gallery of the players involved:

This variety in format was particularly promising for students that hoped to present their projects in diverse ways and draw on both visualization and social network tools.

Even though we experienced some connectivity issues due to a campus-wide network outage, students were able to see the benefits of using digital humanities approaches for their own projects while also getting a feel for a few of these tools with hands-on tutorials. Moreover, instead of panicking about sites and videos that wouldn’t load for the students, I stepped back and saw these connection problems as a teaching moment. In particular, I embraced the slow internet speeds as a catalyst for reflecting on minimal computing and questions of access in certain parts of the world, such as Latin America. In turn, I encouraged the students to think critically about their projected audiences and how they hoped to not only present their ideas digitally, but also how they hoped to preserve them and make them accessible to a wide range of people.

As a whole I am eternally grateful to Washington and Lee and Caleb Dance for this opportunity to share some of my favorite digital humanities tools, tips, and tricks with undergraduate students and introduce them to software and platforms that can make many of their imagined projects a reality. With each new tool we discussed, I was overjoyed to see students feverishly writing notes and having “Aha!” moments about their unique projects. Much of my DH fellowship year in the Scholars’ Lab has been about exploration and experimentation that tends to end in failure and a return to the drawing board, but, in the process, I’ve learned an incredible amount and had my own personal “Aha!” moments. Successfully being able to teach these students about data visualization and social network analysis was, quite possibly, the biggest “Aha!” moment of my DH fellowship thus far and a real turning point in my career as a digital humanities teacher-scholar.

DH Pedagogy UVA Collaboration

“Gothic DH” at Washington and Lee

[Enjoy this guest post by Christian Howard, a PhD Student in the English Department at the University of Virginia. She came to give a workshop through a Mellon-funded collaboration with the Scholars’ Lab at UVA. Her post is cross-listed on the Scholars’ Lab blog.]

Toward the beginning of the semester, I was contacted by Brandon Walsh, a UVA alumnus and the current Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow at Washington and Lee. As part of his fellowship, Brandon has been pairing UVA DH folks with professors at Washington and Lee; the initiative is aimed at integrating new developments in technology with more traditional pedagogical methods practiced at a liberal arts university (read more about it here). Brandon paired me with Professor Taylor Walle, who is teaching Washington and Lee’s English 232: “Frantic and Sickly, Idle and Extravagant: The Gothic Novel, 1764-2002.”

Now I’m no expert in the gothic novel, but after talking with Taylor, it became clear that our interests overlapped in unexpected yet productive ways. That is, one of Taylor’s aims in her course is to trouble the distinction between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” literature. A few of the questions that Taylor set to her students include: “Do you think the gothic deserves its long history of being associated with ‘popular’ (read: trash) fiction? Do you think the distinction between ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ is legitimate or useful? How do we determine what counts as ‘high’ and what counts as ‘low’? Are these categories meaningful or arbitrary?” These questions resonated with my own research into what Nick Levey has termed “post-press” literature and other technologically experimental publication platforms, including Twitter and digital comics. Because such self-published literature is not approved by the “gatekeepers” of the publishing market, many people – especially authors who have successfully navigated the publishing market – have denigrated self-published literature. Award-winning author Laurie Gough, for instance, states: “I’d rather share a cabin on a Disney cruise with Donald Trump than self-publish. To get a book published in the traditional way, and for people to actually respect it and want to read it — you have to go through the gatekeepers of agents, publishers, editors, national and international reviewers. These gatekeepers are assessing whether or not your work is any good. …The problem with self-publishing is that it requires zero gatekeepers.” So we can see a current-day example of the tension between so-called “highbrow” and “lowbrow” literature in the form of traditionally-published vs. independent and experimental publication methods.

I started looking for post-press and technologically-experimental literature that echoes gothic themes and characteristics. One work that Taylor and her class were discussing particularly caught my interest, namely, Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. So I began my search for the “digital gothic” using this work as my focal point, and the results were intriguing. Not only has Dorian Gray been a favorite subject of Hollywood, but there have also been multiple graphic novels starring Dorian. Bluewater Comics even published an interactive, digital comic titled Dorian Gray that incorporates sound and movement.

*Screen shot of Dorian Gray the digital comic, created by Darren G. Davis, Scott Davis, and Federico De Luca.

I continued brainstorming and gathering materials, until it was finally time to visit Taylor’s class on Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Despite the relatively early hour (8:30 am), Taylor’s class was enthusiastic and eager to participate. We reviewed the categories of highbrow and lowbrow literature before jumping into a discussion about Wilde’s Dorian Gray, which the students had just finished reading. Wilde’s descriptions and imagery gave us a pivoting point to examine other interpretations of Wilde’s work, particularly these graphic versions. But before we looked at these versions, I had the students watch part of Scott McCloud’s TED Talk, “The Visual Magic of Comics”. McCloud clearly and persuasively lays out the visual resources available to comics, and he further discusses the future of comics in a digital age. Armed with the vocabulary outlined by McCloud, we examined first a (printed) graphic novel and then the digital comic version of Wilde’s novel.

*Our examination of the visual affordances of graphic novels and digital comics

We looked at several other instances of contemporary gothic digital literature, including webcomics (particularly “Bongcheon-Dong Ghost”) and hypertext fiction (Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein featuring the creation of a female monster).


*Students examine Shelley Jackson’s hypertext fiction, Patchwork Girl

The students were particularly interested in the interactivity and changing role of the reader/user demanded by digital literature. One student observed that the physical reactions to print literature and interactive digital literature are different in that interactivity heightens the physical response, especially during moments of shock or horror (if you want to experience this yourself, check out the webcomic “Bongcheon-Dong Ghost”). Another student speculated that it might be precisely because of these visceral reactions that such digital literature is relegated to “horror” or “popular” genres rather than being considered “serious” literature.

After the class was over, Taylor expressed her enthusiasm for the material and medial considerations that this foray into the digital had on her class. I know I certainly enjoyed the lively and insightful conversation that emerged from this unlikely pairing of the gothic and the digital, and I am excited to think more about the developing and emerging genres inspired by these new literary forms!

DH Pedagogy Undergraduate Fellows UVA Collaboration

In, Out, Across, With: Collaborative Education and Digital Humanities (Job Talk for Scholars’ Lab)

[Crossposted on my personal blog and the Scholars’ Lab blog.]

I’ve accepted a new position as the Head of Graduate Programs in the Scholars’ Lab, and I’ll be transitioning into that role over the next few weeks! As a part of the interview process, we had to give a job talk. While putting together this presentation, I was lucky enough to have past examples to work from (as you’ll be able to tell, if you check out this past job talk by Amanda Visconti). Since my new position will involve helping graduate students through the process of applying for positions like these, it only feels right that I should post my own job talk as well as a few words on the thinking that went into it. Blemishes, jokes, and all, hopefully these materials will help someone in the future find a way in, just as the example of others did for me. And if you’re looking for more, Visconti has a great list of other examples linked from her more recent job talk for the Scholars’ Lab.

For the presentation, I was asked to respond to this prompt:

What does a student (from undergraduate to doctoral levels) need to learn or experience in order to add “DH” to his or her skill set? Is that an end or a means of graduate education? Can short-term digital assignments in discipline-specific courses go beyond “teaching with technology”? Why not refer everyone to online tutorials? Are there risks for doctoral students or the untenured in undertaking digital projects? Drawing on your own experience, and offering examples or demonstrations of digital research projects, pedagogical approaches, or initiatives or organizations that you admire, make a case for a vision of collaborative education in advanced digital scholarship in the arts and humanities.

I felt that each question could be a presentation all its own, and I had strong opinions about each one. Dealing with all of them seemed like a tall order. I decided to spend the presentation close reading and deconstructing that first sentence, taking apart the idea that education and/or digital humanities could be thought of in terms of lists of skills at all. Along the way, my plan was to dip into the other questions as able, but I also assumed that I would have plenty of time during the interview day to give my thoughts on them. I also wanted to try to give as honest a sense as possible of the way I approach teaching and mentoring. For me, it’s all about people and giving them the care that they need. In conveying that, I hoped, I would give the sort of vision the prompt was asking for. I also tried to sprinkle references to the past and present of the Scholars’ Lab programs to ground the content of the talk. When I mention potential career options in the body of the talk, I am talking about specific alumni who came through the fellowship programs. And when I mention graduate fellows potentially publishing on their work with the Twitter API, well, that’s not hypothetical either.

So below find the lightly edited text of the talk I gave at the Scholars’ Lab – “In, Out, Across, With: Collaborative Education and Digital Humanities.” I’ve only substantively modified one piece – swapping out one example for another.

And a final note on delivery: I have heard plenty of people argue over whether it is better to read a written talk or deliver one from notes. My own sense is that the latter is far more common for digital humanities talks. I have seen both fantastic read talks and amazing extemporaneous performances, just as I have seen terrible versions of each. My own approach is, increasingly, to write a talk but deliver that talk more or less from memory. In this case, I had a pretty long commute to work, so I recorded myself reading the talk and listened to it a lot to get the ideas in my head. When I gave the presentation, I had the written version in front of me for reference, but I was mostly moving through my own sense of how it all fit together in real time (and trying to avoid looking at the paper). My hope is that this gave me the best of both worlds and resulted in a structured but engaging performance. Your mileage may vary!

In, Out, Across, With: Collaborative Education and Digital Humanities

 It’s always a treat to be able to talk with the members of the UVA Library community, and I am very grateful to be here. For those of you that don’t know me, I am Brandon Walsh, Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Washington and Lee University. The last time I was here, I gave a talk that had almost exclusively animal memes for slides. I can’t promise the same robust Internet culture in this talk, but talk to me after and I can hook you up. I swear I’ve still got it.

 In the spirit of Amanda Visconti, the resources that went into this talk (and a number of foundational materials on the subject) can all be found in a Zotero collection at the above link. I’ll name check any that are especially relevant, but hopefully this set of materials will allow the thoughts in the talk to flower outwards for any who are interested in seeing its origins and echoes in the work of others.

 And a final prefatory note: no person works, thinks or learns alone, so here are the names of the people in my talk whose thinking I touch upon as well as just some – but not all – of my colleagues at W&L who collaborate on the projects I mention. Top tier consists of people I cite or mention, second tier is for institutions or publications important to discussion, and final tier is for direct collaborators on this work.

Today I want to talk to you about how best to champion the people involved in collaborative education in digital research. I especially want to talk about students. And when I mention “students” throughout this talk, I will mostly be speaking in the context of graduate students. But most of what I discuss will be broadly applicable to all newcomers to digital research. My talk is an exhortation to find ways to elevate the voices of people in positions like these to be contributors to professional and institutional conversations from day one and to empower them to define the methods and the outcomes of the digital humanities that we teach. This means taking seriously the messy, fraught, and emotional process of guiding students through digital humanities methods, research, and careers. It means advocating for the legibility of this digital work as a key component of their professional development. And it means enmeshing these voices in the broader network around them, the local context that they draw upon for support and that they can enrich in turn. I believe it is the mission of the Head of Graduate Programs to build up this community and facilitate these networks, to incorporate those who might feel like outsiders to the work that we do. Doing so enriches and enlivens our communities and builds a better and more diverse research and teaching agenda.  This talk is titled “In, Out, Across, With: Collaborative Education and Digital Humanities,” and I’ll really be focusing on the prepositions of my title as a metaphor for the nature of this sort of position. I see this role as one of connection and relation. The talk runs about 24 minutes, so we should have plenty of time to talk.

When discussing digital humanities education, it is tempting to first and foremost discuss what, exactly, it is that you will be teaching. What should the students walk away knowing? To some extent, just as there is more than one way to make breakfast, you could devise numerous baseline curricula. 

This is what we came up with at Washington and Lee for students in our undergraduate digital humanities fellowship program. We tried to hit a number of kinds of skills that a practicing digital humanist might need. It’s by no means exhaustive, but the list is a way to start. We don’t expect one person to come away knowing everything, so instead we aim for students to have an introduction to a wide variety of technologies by the end of a semester or year. They’ll encounter some technologies applicable to project management, some to front-end design, as well as a variety of programming concepts broadly applicable to a variety of situations. Lists like this give some targets to hit. But still, even as someone who helped put this list together, it makes me worry a bit. I can imagine younger me being afraid of it! It’s easy for us to forget what it was like to be new, to be a beginner, to be learning for the first time, but I’d like to return us to that frame of thinking. I think we should approach lists like these with care, because they can be intimidating for the newcomer. So in my talk today I want to argue against lists of skills as ways of thinking.

I don’t mean to suggest that programs need no curriculum, nor do I mean to suggest that no skills are necessary to be a digital humanist. But I would caution against focusing too much on the skills that one should have at the end of a program, particularly when talking about people who haven’t yet begun to learn. I would wager that many people on the outside looking in think of DH in the same way: it’s a big list of unknowns. I’d like to get away from that.

Templates like this are important for developing courses, fellowship, and degree-granting programs, but I worry that the goodwill in them might all too easily seem like a form of gatekeeping to a new student. It is easy to imagine telling a student that “you have to learn GitHub before you can work on this project.” It’s just a short jump from this to a likely student response – “ah sorry – I don’t know that yet.” And from there I can all too easily imagine the common refrain that you hear from students of all levels – “If I can’t get that, then it’s because I’m not a technology person.” From there – “Digital humanities must not be for me.”

Instead of building our curricula out of as-yet-unknown tool chains, I want to float, today, a vision of DH education as an introduction to a series of professional practices. Lists of skills might be ends but I fear they might foreclose beginnings.  Instead, I will float something more in line with that of the Scholarly Communication Institute (held here at UVA for a time), which outlined what they saw as the needs of graduate and professional students in the digital age. I’ll particularly draw upon their first point here (last of my slides with tons of text, I swear): graduate students need training in “collaborative modes of knowledge production and sharing.”

I want to think about teaching DH as introducing a process of discovery that collapses hierarchies between expert and newcomer: that’s a way to start. This sort of framing offers digital humanities not as a series of methods one does or does not know, but, rather, as a process that a group can engage in together. Do they learn methods and skills in the process? Of course! Anyone who has taken part in the sort of collaborative group projects undertaken by the Scholars’ Lab comes away knowing more than they came in with. But I want to continue thinking about process and, in particular, how that process can be more inclusive and more engaging. By empowering students to choose what they want to learn and how they want to learn it, we can help to expand the reach of our work and better serve our students as mentors and collaborators. There are a few different in ways in which I see this as taking place, and they’ll form the roadmap for the rest of the talk.  Apologies – this looks like the sort of slide you would get at a business retreat. All the same – we need to adapt and develop new professional opportunities for our students at the same time that we plan flexible outcomes for our educational programs. These approaches are meant to serve increasingly diverse professional needs in a changing job market, and they need to be matched by deepening support at the institutional level.

So to begin. One of our jobs as mentors is to encourage students to seek out professionally legible opportunities early on in their careers, and as shapers of educational programs we can go further and create new possibilities for them. At W&L, we have been collaborating with the Scholars’ Lab to bring UVA graduate students to teach short-form workshops on digital research in W&L classrooms. Funded opportunities like this one can help students professionalize in new ways and in new contexts while paying it forward to the nearby community. A similar initiative at W&L that I’ve been working on has our own library faculty and undergraduate fellows visiting local high schools to speak with advanced AP computer science students about how their own programming work can apply to humanities disciplines. I’m happy to talk more about these in Q&A.

 We also have our student collaborators present at conferences, both on their own work and on work they have done with faculty members, both independently and as co-presenters. Here is Abdur, one of our undergraduate Mellon DH fellows, talking about the writing he does for his thesis and how it is enriched by and different from the writing he does in digital humanities contexts at the Bucknell Digital Scholarship Conference last fall. While this sort of thing is standard for graduate students, it’s pretty powerful for an undergraduate to present on research in this way. Learning that it’s OK to fail in public can be deeply empowering, and opportunities like these encourage our students to think about themselves as valuable contributors to ongoing conversations long before they might otherwise feel comfortable doing so.

But teaching opportunities and conferences are not the only ways to get student voices out there. I think there are ways of engaging student voices earlier, at home, in ways that can fit more situations. We can encourage students to engage in professional conversations by developing flexible outcomes in which we are equal participants. One approach to this with which I have been experimenting is group writing, which I think is undervalued as a taught skill and possible approach to DH pedagogy. An example: when a history faculty member at W&L approached the library (and by extension, me) for support in supplementing an extant history course with a component about digital text analysis, we could have agreed to offer a series of one-off workshops and be done with it.  Instead, this faculty member – Professor Sarah Horowitz – and I decided to collaborate on a more extensive project together, producing Introduction to Text Analysis: A Coursebook. The idea was to put the materials for the workshops together ahead of time, in collaboration, and to narrativize them into a set of lessons that would persist beyond a single semester as a kind of publication. The pedagogical labor that we put into reshaping her course could become, in some sense, professionally legible as a series of course modules that others could use beyond the term. So for the book, we co-authored a series of units on text analysis and gave feedback on each other’s work, editing and reviewing as well as reconfiguring them for the context of the course. Professor Horowitz provided more of the discipline-specific material that I could not, and I provided the materials more specific to the theories and methods of text analysis. Neither one of us could have written the book without the other.

Professor Horowitz was, in effect, a student in this moment. She was also a teacher and researcher. She was learning at the same time that she produced original scholarly contributions. Even as we worked together, for me this collaborative writing project was also a pedagogical experiment that drew upon the examples of Robin DeRosa, Shawn Graham, and Cathy Davidson, in particular.  Davidson taught a graduate course on “21st Century Literacies” where each of her students wrote a chapter that was then collected and published as an open-access book. For us as for Davidson, the process of knowing, the process of uncovering is something that happens together. In public. And it’s documented so that others can benefit. Our teaching labor could become visible and professionally legible, as could the labor that Professor Horowitz put into learning new research skills. As she adapts and tries out ideas, and as we coalesce them into a whole, the writing product is both the means and the end of an introduction to digital humanities.

Professor Horowitz also wanted to learn technical skills herself, and she learned quite a lot through the writing process. Rather than sitting through lectures or being directed to online tutorials by me, I thought she would learn better by engaging with and shaping the material directly. Her course and my materials would be better for it, as she would be helping to bind my lectures and workshops to her course material. The process would also require her to engage with a list of technologies for digital publishing.  Beyond the text analysis materials and concepts, the process exposed her to a lot of technologies: command line, Markdown, Git for version control, GitHub for project management. In the process of writing this document, in fact, she covered most of the same curriculum as our undergraduate DH fellows.  She’s learning these things as we work together to produce course materials, but, importantly, the technical skills aren’t the focus of the work together. It’s a writing project! Rather than presenting the skills as ends in themselves, they were the means by which we were publishing a thing. They were immediately useful. And I think displacing the technology is helpful: it means that the outcomes and parameters for success are not based in the technology itself but, rather, in the thinking about and use of those methods. We also used a particular platform that allowed Professor Horowitz to engage with these technologies in a light way so that they would not overwhelm our work – I’m happy to discuss more in the time after if you’re interested.

This to say: the outcomes of such collaborative educations can be shaped to a variety of different settings and types of students. Take another model, CUNY’s Graduate Center Digital Fellows program, whose students develop open tutorials on digital tools. Learning from this example, rather than simply direct students or colleagues towards online tutorials like these, why not have them write their own documents, legible for their own positions, that synthesize and remix the materials that they already have found?  The learning process becomes something productive in this framing. I can imagine, for example, directing collaboratively authored materials by students like these towards something like The Programming Historian. If you’re not familiar, The Programming Historian offers a variety of lessons on digital humanities methods, and they only require an outline as a pitch to their editorial team, not a whole written publication ready to go. Your graduate students could, say, work with the Twitter API over the course of a semester, blog about the research outcomes, and then pitch a tutorial to The Programming Historian on the API as a result of their work. It’s much easier to motivate yourselves to write something if you know that the publication has already been accepted. Obviously such acceptance is not a given, but working towards a goal like this can offer student researchers something to aim for. Their instructors could co-author these materials, even, so that everyone has skin in the game.

This model changes the shape of what collaborative education can look like: it’s duration and its results. You don’t need a whole fellowship year. You could, in a reasonably short amount of time, tinker and play, and produce a substantial blog post, an article pitch, or a Library Research Guide (more on that in a moment).

As Jeff Jarvis has said, “we need to move students up the education chain.” And trust me – the irony of quoting a piece titled “Lectures are Bullshit” during a lecture to you is not lost on me. But stay with me.

Collaborative writing projects on DH topics are flexible enough to fit the many contexts for the kind of educational work that we do. After all, no one needs or values the same outcomes, and these shared and individual goals need to be worked out in conversation with the students themselves early on. Articulating these desires in a frank, written, and collaborative mode early on (in the genre of the project charter), can help the program directors to better shape the work to fit the needs of the students. But I also want to suggest that collaborative writing projects can be useful end products as well as launching pads, as they can fit the shape of many careers. After all, students come to digital humanities for a variety of different reasons. Some might be aiming to bolster a research portfolio on the path to a traditional academic career. Others might be deeply concerned about the likelihood of attaining such a position and be looking for other career options. Others still might instead be colleagues interested in expanding their research portfolio or skillset but unable to commit to a whole year of work on top of their current obligations. Writing projects could speak to all these situations.

I see someone in charge of shaping graduate programs as needing to speak to these diverse needs. This person is both a steward of where students currently are – the goals and objectives they might currently have – as well as of where they might go – the potential lives they might (or might not!) lead. After all, graduate school, like undergraduate, is an enormously stressful time of personal and professional exploration. If we think simply about a student’s professional development as a process of finding a job, we overlook the real spaces in which help might be most desired. Frequently, those needs are the anxieties, stresses, and pressures of refashioning yourself as a professional. We should not be in the business of creating CV lines or providing lists of qualifications alone. We should focus on creating strong, well-adjusted professionals by developing ethical programs that guide them into the professional world by caring for them as people.

In the graduate context, this involves helping students deal with the academic job market in particular.  To me in its best form, this means helping students to look at their academic futures and see proliferating possibilities instead of a narrow and uncertain route to a single job, to paraphrase the work of Katina Rogers. A sprinkler rather than a pipeline, in her metaphor. As Rogers’s work, in particular, has shown, recent graduate students increasingly feel that, while they experienced strong expectations that they would continue in the professoriate, they received inadequate preparation for the many different careers they might actually go on to have. The Praxis Program and the Praxis Network are good examples of how to position digital humanities education as answers to these issues. Fellowship opportunities like these must be robust enough that they can offer experiences and outcomes beyond the purely technical, so that a project manager from one fellowship year can graduate with an MA and go into industry in a similar role just as well-prepared as a PhD student aiming to be a developer might go on to something entirely different. And the people working these programs must be prepared for the messy labor of helping students to realize that these are satisfactory, laudable professional goals.

It should be clear that this sort of personal and professional support is the work of more than just one person. One of the strengths of a digital humanities center embedded in a library like this one at UVA is that fellows have the readymade potential to brush up against a variety of career options that become revealed when peaking outside of their disciplinary silos: digital humanities developers and project manager positions, sure, but also metadata specialists, archivists, and more. I think this kind of cross-pollination should be encouraged: library faculty and staff have a lot to offer student fellows and vice versa. Developing these relationships brings the fellows further into the kinds of the work done in the library and introduces them to careers that, while they might require further study to obtain, could be real options.

To my mind the best fellowship programs are those fully aware of their institutional context and those that both leverage and augment the resources around them as they are able. We have been working hard on this at W&L. We are starting to institute a series of workshops led by the undergraduate fellows in consultation with the administrators of the fellowship program. The idea is that past fellows lead workshops for later cohorts on the technology they have learned, some of which we selectively open to the broader library faculty and staff. The process helps to solidify the student’s training – no better way to learn than to teach – but it also helps to expand the student community by retaining fellows as committed members. It also helps to fill out a student’s portfolio with a cv-ready line of teaching experience. This process also aims to build our own capacity within the library by distributing skills among a wider array of students, faculty, and staff. After all, student fellows and librarians have much they could learn from one another. I see the Head of Graduate Programs as facilitating such collaborations, as connecting the interested student with the engaged faculty/staff/librarian collaborator, inside their institution or beyond.

But we must not forget that we are asking students and junior faculty to do risky things by developing these new interests, by spending time and energy on digital projects, let alone presenting and writing on them in professional contexts. The biggest risk is that we ask them to do so without supporting them adequately. All the technical training in the world means little if that work is illegible and irrelevant to your colleagues or committee.  In the words of Kathleen Fitzpatrick, we ask these students to “do the risky thing,” but we must “make sure that someone’s got their back.” I see the Head of Graduate Programs as the key in coordinating, fostering, and providing such care.

Students and junior faculty need support – for technical implementation, sure – but they also need advocates – people who can vouch for the quality of their work and campaign on their behalf in the face of committees and faculty who might be otherwise unable to see the value of their work. Some of this can come from the library, from people able to put this work in the context of guidelines for the evaluation of digital scholarship. But some of this support and advocacy has to come from within their home departments. The question is really how to build up that support from the outside in. And that’s a long, slow process that occurs by making meaningful connections and through outreach programs. At W&L, we have worked to develop an incentive grant program, where we incentivize faculty members who might be new to digital humanities or otherwise skeptical to experiment with incorporating a digital project into their course. The result is a slow burn – we get maybe one or two new faculty each term trying something out. That might seem small, but it’s something, particularly at a small liberal arts college. This kind of slow evangelizing is key in helping the work done by digital humanists to be legible to everyone. Students and junior faculty need advocates for their work in and out of the library and their home departments, and the person in this position is tasked with overseeing such outreach.

So, to return to the opening motif, lists of skillsets certainly have their place as we bring new people into the ever-expanding field: they’re necessary. They reflect a philosophy and a vision, and they’re the basis of growing real initiatives. But it’s the job of the Head of Graduate Programs to make sure that we never lose sight of the people and relationships behind them.

Foremost, then, I see the Head of Graduate Programs as someone who takes the lists, documents, and curricula that I have discussed and connects them to the people that serve them and that they are meant to speak to. This person is one who builds relationships, who navigates the prepositions of my title.  It’s the job of such a person to blast the boundary between “you’re in” and “you’re out” so that the tech-adverse or shy student can find a seat at the table. This is someone who makes sure that the work of the fellows is represented across institutions and in their own departments. This person makes sure the fellows are well positioned professionally. This person builds up people and embeds them to networks where they can flourish. Their job is never to forget what it’s like to be the person trying to learn. Their job is to hear “I’m not a tech person” and answer “not yet, but you could be! and I know just the people to help. Let’s learn together.”

Announcement DH Event on campus Pedagogy Speaker Series

Day of DH @ Winter Academy 2016

As the term wraps up, join us on Tuesday, December 13th for our “Day of DH” at W&L’s annual Winter Academy. You’ll have the chance to hear from both your colleagues and guests from the University of Virginia about digital projects and pedagogy. There will be lots to chew on, including lunch, so don’t forget to register!

10:30am-11:30am Mellon Summer Digital Humanities Research Grant
Come hear the inaugural awardees of the Mellon DH Summer Research Grants discuss the application process and their research. You will also learn about the benefits of the Mellon Summer DH Research Grant, as well as how to go about becoming a Mellon researcher. With the application deadline less than two months away, this is the perfect time to begin considering summer funding options for you and your students.
12:15pm-1:45pm Digital Humanities in a Liberal Arts Context

With support from ACS and the Mellon Foundation, W&L professors have invited UVA graduate students to facilitate workshops on digital humanities topics in their courses. On Tuesday, December 13, speakers from UVA will discuss digital humanities, pedagogy, and the collaboration. UVA graduate students, faculty, and staff will discuss their experiences working with W&L courses and also present on a variety of topics related to their research and experience teaching with digital humanities. We will have ample time for conversation, as we hope the event will seed future collaborations between people at both institutions. Lunch will be provided.
Speakers from the Scholars’ Lab at UVA include Jeremy Boggs, Nora Benedict, and Shane Lin.
Incentive Grants Pedagogy

DH Incentive Grant Report: Writing a Digital Argument

img_3402This semester, Sascha Goluboff, Professor of Cultural Anthropology, was awarded a DH initiative grant for her course titled “Writing Seminar for First Years: Terror and Violence.” I was invited by Professor Goluboff to view her students’ final DH projects in Stackhouse Theatre. The class was tasked with analyzing the popular video game “Grand Theft Auto” in terms of the racism and violence portrayed. Professor Goluboff asked students to pair up to create an iMovie that would analyze the depiction and their reactions to the violence in the game.

After completing a four page paper, the students were told to read their papers as narration in their iMovie project. While many of the students grumbled about disliking the sound of their own recorded voices, the students generally preferred creating a movie over writing a paper. “I liked iMovie more than the traditional paper. Images and scenes from iMovie can convey concepts and ideas in ways that are hard to describe on paper,” said first-year student Mikki Whittington. Most pairs came to the conclusion that the game promoted various sexist and racist stereotypes. For example, the students found that drug dealers were typically Hispanic, while more violent criminals were portrayed as black. The central, hyper-masculine male character was typically surrounded by highly sexualized women dressed in minimal clothing. One group argued that behaviors in this game could even lead gamers to believe this game is a mirror of reality.

The students incorporated images and clips from the video game into their iMovie project, which reinforced their arguments about the offensive stereotypes and harsh violence. “Their arguments about violence against women and minorities within the game were much more persuasive when paired up with actual footage. So, in a sense, the topic lent itself to a digital argument,” Professor Goluboff said.

Students said that they spent many hours on the project, but I felt that many of them really enjoyed the process of creating an iMovie project. The students were able to creatively manifest their ideas in the digital sphere and the video clips also strongly supported their argument. Since students often don’t get the chance to experience each other’s work, it was fun to see the students engaging with and enjoying one another’s final products (with some help from popcorn and soda provided by Professor Goluboff!)

-Hayley Soutter, DH Undergraduate Fellow

This program is made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Announcement DH Pedagogy Publication Tools

Introduction to Text Analysis: A Coursebook

[Crossposted on my personal blog.]

I am happy to share publicly the initial release of a project that I have been shopping around in various talks and presentations for a while now. This semester, I co-taught a course on “Scandal, Crime, and Spectacle in the 19th Century” with Professor Sarah Horowitz in the history department here at Washington and Lee University. The course counted as digital humanities credit for our students, who were given a quick and dirty introduction to text analysis over the course of the term. In preparing for the class, I knew that I wanted my teaching materials on text analysis to be publicly available for others to use and learn from. One option might be to blog aggressively during the semester, but I worried that I would let the project slide, particularly once teaching got underway. Early conversations with Professor Horowitz suggested, instead, that we take advantage of time that we both had over the summer and experiment. By assembling our lesson plans far in advance, we could collaboratively author them and share them in a format that would be legible for publication both to our students, colleagues, and a wider audience. I would learn from her, she from me, and the product would be a set of resources useful to others.

At a later date I will write more on the collaboration, particularly on how the co-writing process was a way for both of us to build our digital skill sets. For now, though, I want to share the results of our work – Introduction to Text Analysis: A Coursebook. The materials here served as the backbone to roughly a one-credit introduction in text analysis, but we aimed to make them as modular as possible so that they could be reworked into other contexts. By compartmentalizing text analysis concepts, tool discussions, and exercises that integrate both, we hopefully made it a little easier for an interested instructor to pull out pieces for their own needs. All our materials are on GitHub, so use them to your heart’s content. If you are a really ambitious instructor, you can take a look at our section on Adapting this Book for information on how to clone and spin up your own copy of the text materials. While the current platform complicates this process, as I’ll mention in a moment, I’m working to mitigate those issues. Most importantly to me, the book focuses on concepts and tools without actually introducing a programming language or (hopefully) getting too technical. While there were costs to these decisions, they were meant to make any part of the book accessible for complete newcomers, even if they haven’t read the preceding chapters. The book is really written with a student audience in mind, and we have the cute animal photos to prove it. Check out the Preface and Introduction to the book for more information about the thinking that went into it.

The work is, by necessity, schematic and incomplete. Rather than suggesting that this be the definitive book on the subject (how could anything ever be?), we want to suggest that we always benefit from iteration. More teaching materials always help. Any resource can be a good one – bad examples can be productive failures. So we encourage you to build upon these materials in your courses, workshops, or otherwise. We also welcome feedback on these resources. If you see something that you want to discuss, question, or contest, please drop us a line on our GitHub issues page. This work has already benefited from the kind feedback of others, either explicit or implicit, and we are happy to receive any suggestions that can improve the materials for others.

One last thing – this project was an experiment in open and collaborative publishing. In the process of writing the book, it became clear that the platform we used for producing it – GitBook – was becoming a problem. The platform was fantastic for spinning up a quick collaboration, and it really paid dividends in its ease of use for writers new to Markdown and version control. But the service is new and under heavy development. Ultimately, the code is out of our control, and I want something more stable and more fully in my hands for long-term sustainability. I am in the process of transferring the materials to a Jekyll installation that would run off GitHub pages. Rather than wait for this final, archive version of the site to be complete, it seemed better to release this current working version out into the world. I will update all the links here once I migrate things over. If the current hosting site is down, you can download a PDF copy of the most recent version of the book here.

DH Pedagogy

Text Analysis Workshop: Four Ways to Read a Text

[Cross-posted on my personal blog.]

On Monday I visited Mackenzie Brooks‘s course on “Data in the Humanities” to introduce digital text analysis to her students. I faced a few challenges when planning for the visit:

  • Scope – I had two hours for the workshop and a lot of material to cover. I was meant to introduce anything and everything, as much as I wanted in a general overview of text analysis.
  • Background – This course is an introductory digital humanities course that counts as a science credit at W&L, so I assumed no prior knowledge of programming. Mackenzie will be covering some things with them later in the course, but at this stage I needed to avoid anything really technical.
  • Length – Two hours was both a lot of time and no time at all. It was certainly not enough time to teach anyone to program for the first time. As an aside, I often find it hard to gauge how much material is appropriate for anything longer than 75 minutes.
  • Content – Since this was meant to be a general overview of the field, I did not want to lean too heavily on analysis by tools. I worried that if I did so the takeaway for the students would be how to use the tools, not the underlying concepts that the tools aided them in exploring.

I wound up developing a workshop I called “Introduction to Text Analysis: Four Ways to Read a Text.” Focusing on four ways meant that I felt comfortable cutting a section if things started to go long. It also meant that I was developing a workshop model that could easily fit varying lengths in the future. For example, I’ll be using portions of this workshop throughout my introduction to text analysis lectures in my own course this fall. The approach would necessarily be pretty distant – I couldn’t go into much detail for any one method in this time. Finally, I wanted the students to think about text analysis concepts first and then come to tools that would help them to do so, so I tried to displace the tools and projects from the conversation slightly. The hope was that, by enacting or intuiting the methods by hand first, the concepts would stick more easily than they might otherwise.

The basic structure of the workshop was this:

  1. I introduce a basic methodology for reading.
  2. Students are presented with a handout asking them to read in a particular way with a prompt from me. They complete the exercise.
  3. We talk about the process. We clarify the concept a little more together, and the students infer some of the basic difficulties and affordances of the approach.
  4. Then I show a couple tools and projects that use that method for real results.

The four ways of reading I covered were close reading, bags of words, topic modeling, and sentiment analysis. So, to use the topic modeling portion as an example, any one of those units looked something like this:

  1. I note how, until now, we have been discussing how counting words gives us a sense of the overall topic or scope of the text. Over time and in close proximity, individual words combine to give us a sense of what a text is about.
  2. I give the students three paragraphs with the words scrambled and out of order (done pretty quickly in Python). I ask the students to get in groups and tell me what the underlying topics or themes are for each excerpt. They had to produce three single-word topics for each paragraph, and paragraphs could share topics.
  3. We talk about how were able to determine the topics of the texts even with the paragraphs virtually unreadable. Even out of order, certain words in proximity together suggest the underlying theme of a text. We can think of texts as made up of a series of topics like these, clusters of words that occur in noticeable patterns near one another. We have human limits as to how much we can comprehend, but computers can help us run similar, mathematical versions of the same process to find out what words occur near each other in statistically significant patterns. The results can be thought of as the underlying topics or discourses that make up a series of documents. A lot of hand waving, I know, but I am assuming here that students will examine topic modeling in more detail at a later date. Better, I think, to introduce the broad strokes than lose students in the details.
  4. I then share Mining the Dispatch as an example of topic modeling in action to show the students the kinds of research questions that can be explored using this method.

So, in essence, what I tried to do is create a hands-on approach to teaching text analysis concepts that is flexible enough to fit a variety of needs and contexts. My handouts and slides are all up on a github repository. Feel free to share, reuse, and remix them in any way you would like.