• College Ready Writing

    A blog about education, higher ed, teaching, and trying to re-imagine how we provide education.


Doing DH versus Doing Digital

I'm tired of being used by the digital tools. 

September 10, 2012

I have been trying, without much success, to drum up interest on my campus for working collaboratively on digital humanities projects, if nothing else to get together, share tools and talents, as well as act as sounding boards about what we are doing and what we aspire to do. So far the person who has been most interested has been my husband. And I have a feeling its only because he hears about it all the time at home as well as at work.

To be fair, I’ve started a Professional Learning Community on campus that is looking at Innovative Pedagogies that will probably deal a lot with digital tools in the classroom. This is all well and good, but the relationship between digital pedagogy and digital humanities is still tenuous at best (the best discussions I’ve seen about it have taken place on Twitter and of course I haven’t saved them, but the people over at Hybrid Pedagogy have often discussed it, as well as the Prof Hacker folks – please add your two cents and some links in the comments).

One particular incident really got me thinking however about another digital divide that exists in the humanities – between those who seek to simply learn to use tools versus those who want to hack or even create tools in order to both accomplish their research goals, as well as critically interrogate the tool itself. This clearly excludes those who flee/fear the tools, only grudgingly learning the bare necessities in order to remain productive. But for this post, I am more interested in the programs and professors who have embraced some tools, but are still doing so in a utilitarian and somewhat uncritical way.

I visited our campus’ new state-of-the-art computer labs, especially “built” for students in the arts and humanities. They are geared mostly towards music, fine arts, and communications students (we have a new program in Convergent Media, as well as Multi-Media Journalism and Production). I talked to the person overseeing the lab if he had any interest in fostering DH scholarship on campus. I was instead treated to a crash course on the wonders of Adobe products. While I think it’s really cool that I can get certification on Adobe products (I’ve always wanted to be able to use Flash) AND become a certified Adobe educator (for FREE, which I am all about), I wonder if there is any critical discourse surrounding why these tools are the industry standard and if there is any discussion about how to adapt these skills for different interfaces.

Which brings up the next critical question of open-source software, hacking, and (here we go again) play. The computers have Deep Freeze on them, which means students can’t download software (even Firefox is banned; only Internet Explorer). They also aren’t encouraged to learn to code/encode; it is seen as a bothersome hurdle to be dealt with when the software fails to produce the desired results (which, they are told, means that they should look for new software). Not to mention the other possible free, open-source interfaces and software that are available for students to play with and experiment with.

I might not know much about coding (and only slightly more about encoding and mark-up languages) but I am getting tired of being at the mercy of the software that I use (she says while typing this in her least-favorite program ever, Word). One of the reasons DH has been so attractive to me is because even if I can “hack” it yet (haha), I was drawn to the ability and ethos of collaboration between humanists and programmers (sometimes one and the same) to create interfaces and software that give us environments that critically engage with and produce what we want, rather than limit ourselves to what we’re told we can do.

I think this is particularly acute at an institution like mine where we are neither liberal arts, nor R1, but instead offers practical career training (without being a professional school). Our students want to learn the hard skills (like Adobe certification) rather than the soft skills (like interrogation and exploration), completely neglecting that being able to “hack” (both literally and metaphorically) will be key to their ability to keep whatever job they are fortunate to get when they graduate. I know from experience; I graduated from a “practical” degree program.

I think Paul Fyfe, in his piece on Digital Pedagogy (which reminds us as well of the important lessons that just because you use digital tools in class, you’re not necessarily doing digital pedagogy), says it best when he uses the old cliché that when we’re given a hammer, all problems look like nails.  I want to be able to look at the problem and then decide what tools best solve it. I want my students (and my research) to look at problems (and the tools available to them) differently, more critically, and more constructively. 


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