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Could digital humanities to undergraduates could boost information literacy?

Behind the Digital Curtain
January 27, 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The buzz surrounding the digital humanities has largely emphasized its implications for professional scholarship. But here at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities on Thursday, a panel of digital humanists said that weaving digital humanities research into undergraduate education could help boost information literacy among college students.

“I think it’s a little disgraceful how little our students are forced to learn about the tool they and their friends use every day,” said Christopher Blackwell, professor of classics at Furman University.

With online gateways such as Google exerting a great deal of influence on how information is organized and presented, it is incumbent on humanities instructors to teach undergraduates how to read websites and digital discovery tools with the same critical vigilance with which they are taught to read textual arguments, the panelists said.

For all their familiarity with Google and other modern discovery tools, research has shown that most members of the “born digital” generation do not know how those tools work. An anthropological study of students at several Illinois colleges revealed that students -- even smart, successful ones -- were largely ignorant of the underlying logic of the digital tools they relied on for research.

Digital humanities projects often have to do with painstakingly translating primary documents into languages of computer programs, then teaching computer programs to read those documents (really, really fast) and flag certain words or patterns.

Having undergraduates work with metadata and design databases and search tools can help demonstrate how arguments and biases inhere in interface design and search logarithms, said Angel David Nieves, associate professor of Africana studies at Hamilton College. When curators are king, “seeing the black box as not just a way of organizing information, but also a way of delivering an argument -- that [discovery tools are] not neutral -- is really important,” said Nieves.

The panel included several professors who had already introduced digital humanities projects to their own undergraduate classes.

Kathryn Tomasek, associate professor of history at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, talked about how she had tasked the students in her women’s history course with transcribing pages from a journal belonging to Eliza Baylies Wheaton, a member of the college’s founding family. She had the students encode the text in a machine-readable format, then write essays reflecting on the exercise.

As with tenure committees charged with evaluating the work of digitally oriented faculty members, the stickiest question around weaving digital humanities into undergraduate syllabuses was how to grade student work. And like most tenure committees, the panelists had no clear answers.

“This is a key question, and one that we are struggling with -- but excited about,” said Laura McGrane, a literature professor at Haverford College. The criteria for assessing an undergraduate’s digital work can be similar to those professors currently use to grade essays -- “close reading, rhetoric, terminology, creation of an argument, analysis of a database [and] ability to integrate course materials,” she said. But applying this rubric to a process is different from applying it to a product, McGrane said.

“It’s a fundamental shift, I think, not just in scholarship but in our teaching, to think about the process -- how did we get here -- as opposed to that final paper,” said Nieves.

Pedagogically, undergraduate forays into the digital humanities need not be as complete or ambitious as building formal archives and discovery tools from scratch, the panelists said. Rather, the point is to spur students to “think critically and differently” about digital gateways and to “encourage new forms of close reading, knowledge production and interpretation” in the context of the modern information landscape, said McGrane. A peek behind the curtain, she said, can go a long way toward inculcating a healthy appreciation for the soft power of information gatekeepers and the instruments they use to exercise it.

Pitching in on larger digital humanities projects can also give undergraduates a rare opportunity to help produce original research for public consumption, Blackwell added.

“I think if we do our job right,” he said, “students will no longer think of research as ‘Write yet another paper on fate and Oedipus for an audience of one,’ but rather as, ‘Let’s add to the amount of knowledge in the world.’ ”

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