As we’re nearing the end of this first “full COVID” semester, issues of pedagogy and teaching in digital environments have been at the forefront of my mind, both as a student and with regards to my own teaching (and its successes and greater failures). Within the libraries, we’ve held ongoing conversations around a number of instructional concerns, including a series dedicated to inclusive classroom practices and feminist pedagogy in libraries, but sometimes those larger, top-level ideas can take a while to percolate in the brain. Given the pace of this semester though, I’m also finding it difficult to give space to new ideas or approaches, as work seems to expand to fill every available moment. Claire Battershill and Shawna Ross’ Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom 1 was a nice reset, a chance to dig back into some discussion of thoughtful, divergent approaches to instruction that also prompted some ideas for next semester. While library instruction isn’t quite the same as disciplinary/subject courses—we’re usually guests in a class, without the benefit of weeks to develop, adapt, and learn alongside students on a project—this text provides a number of workable ideas for a variety of teaching contexts. And while the authors don’t necessarily describe their work as such, DH projects have some affinity with critical or feminist approaches to teaching; rather than focusing on acquisition of a discrete body of facts or details, many of these activities support (or maybe illuminate) the social construction of knowledge, relying on collaboration, consensus, and process.
As we learned from Shannon Kelley and Kalani Craig though, activities like mapmaking and crowdsourcing leave room for real uncertainties and the possibility of failure, which can be troubling for faculty or instructors in precarious or under-supported positions. For librarians, we have to balance our limited time in the classroom with an interest in doing more than “teaching the database,” while also respecting the time of our faculty collaborators and the students. There’s an art to designing lesson plans that support a research assignment’s needs while also involving the student directly in the process—and here, many of the DH-focused activities can be useful. I’ve led Wikipedia editing workshops before, which are an excellent way for students to see the immediate impact of their contributions while working through the processes of finding, evaluating, and synthesizing research for a public audience. (These used to require a few hours, given the time to learn Wiki codes, but improvements to the visual editor means it’s much easier to make quick updates in one class session.) Thinking of potential art history classroom activities, Battershill and Ross describe a “collaborative image annotation” activity2 that could have real use for discussing issues of language and classification, and how the ways we describe a work of art may vary depending on audience, context, or a specific research question.
Related to this, I was excited to learn about the Zooniverse platform and to try out some of the arts-focused crowdsourcing activities. The ATHENA project stands out in particular—I’m a massive fan of the Rijksmuseum‘s digital initiatives and appreciate how they open their collections for these kinds of activities. The Zooniverse platform also presents a user-friendly introduction to crowdsourcing (in a bit of contrast to the intensity of the Transcribe Bentham project reviewed in earlier weeks), and I appreciate that it allows for both casual, “drop-in” contributors and regular users . This could be easily introduced into an arts-focused library instruction session, but it also opens up new questions not covered by the project, or only hinted at: what can we learn by looking at non-human subjects in paintings? What doesn’t this project tell us about the presence of flora and fauna in Dutch art? How might the project’s findings—intended for a scientific audience—support research in art history? I can also see potential for building a crowd-sourced project on the Zooniverse platform, especially with highly-visual digital collections that might be too large for one institution to fully describe (maybe something like the East German Poster Collection in GMU’s Special Collections Research Center?).
This first semester has been a little tough to navigate as a student and instructor, and highlighted just how much I’ve come to rely on face-to-face conversations and spaces for active, collaborative learning. As our digital situation seems likely to continue, I’m hoping that the upcoming winter break will give me the headspace and energy to find ways to integrate these DH approaches with critical, exciting research sessions. Or maybe as Battershill and Ross put it: “embrace the bravery.”3
- Claire Battershill and Shawna Ross, Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom: A Practical Introduction for Teachers, Lecturers, and Students (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017)
- Battershill and Ross 87-88
- Battershill and Ross 83.