THATCamp Pedagogy

On October 15-16 I attended THATCamp Pedagogy at Vassar College. THATCamp is an “unconference” designed to bring together Digital Humanists and would-be Digital Humanists in a relatively informal format to discuss Digital Humanities issues, methods, tools, and so on (see the THATCamp web site for a better description). The Vassar meeting was oriented towards pedagogical issues.

THATCamps are divided between normal sessions and “Boot Camps”. The latter are the only pre-prepared presentations or workshops at a THATCamp. The first session was a Boot Camp on Integrating Digital Projects into Undergraduate Courses. Here’s a summary:

Rebecca Frost Davis, Program Officer for the Humanities, National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE)

Kathryn Tomasek, Associate Professor of History, Wheaton College, Massachusetts

Digital methods of analysis exert growing influence on the practice of many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, yet students majoring in non-science disciplines often have little exposure to computational thinking and working with computer code. At the same time, in the curriculum, the Digital Humanities promises significant learning benefits for undergraduates, who need a measure of digital literacy to function well as citizens in the twenty-first century. This bootcamp will present strategies for effectively integrating digital projects into undergraduate courses. By examining effective cases of assignments linked to digital projects, participants will consider how to make room for such assignments in a syllabus, how to tie digital projects to a course’s learning outcomes, and how to scaffold both technological and content learning to allow students to make positive contributions to a project external to the course. Participants will leave with a set of proven examples of effective assignments, preliminary plans for assignments for their own courses, and suggestions for how to find collaborative partners in library and technology services for such projects on their home campuses.

Rebecca Frost Davis began by contextualising the discussion by summarising the goals of NITLE:

  • To foster undergraduate research
  • To foster effective pedagogies
  • To encouraging teaching familiarity with digital environments
  • To support interdisciplinary work
  • To revitalise humanities

I like this succinct vision and wish CSUN could affiliate with NITLE. She pointed out that the Digital Humanities is particularly good for “high impact” pedagogical practices (undergrad research, collaborative/active learning) and recommended that we use this language for presenting a case for the Digital Humanities to administrators. Very useful advice. She also made available a useful bibliography, to which other session added as the conference progressed. Scaffolding and scoping student projects is essential, and the major case study was Kathryn Tomasek’s course on Teaching Historical Methods with Text Encoding.

I had some previous knowledge of Kathryn Tomasek’s Digital History Project, which employs undergraduates to mark up historical records. She raised a number of questions to address when creating student experiences like this:

  • How to define the learning outcomes?
  • How to creating a paper trail for work over the course of multiple semesters.
  • What prior preparation is required of students?
  • How to balance subject learning and skills learning (for instance, switching between them every fortnight)?
  • How to ensure that students know how their activities tie into the eventual end of the project?

Some of the discussion afterwards and at lunch was also useful. Two links I found valuable were Fred Gibbs’ blog post on the empowerment of learning coding and an article in The Atlantic on the addictive quality of programming.

The next session was on “Distant Reading”, mistakenly referred to as “Distance Reading” — which is probably an indication of its status in the profession at the moment. Some heavy-duty theory and praxis for reading vast numbers of texts algorithmically has come out of places like Stanford (Franco Moretti, Matthew Jockers), and Google’s Ngram Viewer has provided a much-criticised “culturomics” (published in Science Magazine). Looking at my own efforts through the Lexomics Project, And a short demo Katherine Harris at San Jose State had, I came away with the strong impression that the difficulty of producing visualisations means the technique is a long way from the classroom. We need to find a way to produce easily visualisations which are more sophisticated than Wordle.

Katherine Harris led the next Boot Camp on The Undergraduate’s Voice in the Digital Humanities. In designing undergraduate Digital Humanities courses, she said, we should

  • Commit to taking a risk
  • Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
  • Model playfulness through one’s own research and pass it down to students.
  • Show that research can be done without knowing the questions and whether you will succeed.
  • Re-situate student questions about “what does the professor want” to “what do I care about?”Considerations:

She then turned the podium over to her student, Pollyanna Machianno, a senior English major. Pollyanna took us through her evolving acquaintance with the Digital Humanities, emphasising that it was most effective when it took her out of her comfort zone. That was real food for thought. It’s great for some students, but there are always a large number of students in a class who crash and burn in those circumstances. Where does the balance lie?

Pollyanna also mentioned Skype sessions with other digital humanists such as Stephen Ramsay. That in itself is a great idea. But she added that the students in her class were engaged in twittering during the Skype session. Since the material was difficult, the students actually tweeted each other to clarify points. For Pollyanna, it was very productive. The full session was captured on video and can be viewed here.

The next session was on introductory courses in the Digital Humanities. I have a  lot of notes from the session, which will take some time to make coherent, but some of the topics were the value of explicitly interdisciplinary courses and the usefulness of choosing a single topic for study and approaching it from many different directions (that is, different Digital Humanities methods). I think I’ll reserve this for a separate blog post and add a link here when it’s ready.

The final session was a well-attended one on TEI/XML. As it happened, my colleague Dorothy Kim at Vassar and I ended up leading the discussion without any prior notice. Thank God my tutorials are available online! The majority of the audience had little to no prior knowledge of text markup, XML, or the Text Encoding Initiative, so the session had to be really basic. Even so, it is clear to me that this topic really needs to be a Boot Camp and to ahve two sessions. There is a possibility of doing things like debating the value of marking up texts in TEI, but you would need a group of people fairly well acquainted with its procedures. In my experience at THATCamp Pedagogy and THATCamp SoCal, the audience isn’t quite right. That said, I did try to discuss some of the barriers to using TEI/XML in the classroom. The main one is that students cannot easily do anything with their markup once they’ve done it.

Day 2 was less useful for me. The first session was on Project-Centred Courses. The topic was perhaps too open, and the people there were working mostly with video projects, rather than those typically thought of as mainstream Digital Humanities, as somebody else pointed out. To me, that means text markup and visualisation, but I’m happy to include video in the Digital Humanities under the wing of new media. But that’s not really my DH focus.

The last session was on “Teaching Tech” — a phrase which also should probably have been made more concrete. I had expected it to be about the challenges of teaching technological approaches and methods (like coding and visualisation) to humanities students, but it evolved into a wide discussion of the lack of technology resources (particularly hardware) for students and its impact on overall student achievement. The session had a high proportion of attendees from community colleges, which may explain the direction of conversation. I find that my students generally have the equipment they need, though not always the technical literacy to do much with it. However, if we manage to integrate Digital Humanities work into the curriculum in the coming years, it may become imperative to have more physical spaces in which students can collaborate effectively. At some point during the conference, there was some discussion of this, but I can’t remember which session it came in.

All in all, this was an excellent THATCamp. Since the schedule is put together collectively during the first session, you never really know what is going to be discussed. But that is, in many ways, a strength since you learn things you never expected to learn and meet people you never expected to meet (from many disciplines). My sense is that most THATCamps attract a certain number of “newbies” to the Digital Humanities, who are just trying to figure out what it’s all about. THATCamp really does give a great impression of its breadth, depth, and complexity, and particularly the issues digital humanists are grappling as they try to build the field.


As an addendum, I have just come across Peter Bradley’s article “Where Are the Philosophers? Thoughts from THATCamp Pedagogy”. Since I have long wondered myself why philosophers are less engaged with the Digital Humanities, it seems appropriate to provide a link here.