Week 11: DH and Pedagogy

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.

Screenshot of the Wikipedia "User Contributions" page for user Stephliana
You, too, can contribute to the history of art!

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

  1. Claire Battershill and Shawna Ross, Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom: A Practical Introduction for Teachers, Lecturers, and Students (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017)
  2. Battershill and Ross 87-88
  3. Battershill and Ross 83.

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  1. Terence V

    Stephanie, it’s always such a pleasure to read your blogs. Thanks for the great write-up 🙂

    I found your observations about collaboration especially insightful. A lot of business and leadership literature in recent months talk at length about qualities that make Gen Z particularly effective in the workplace (and, in my context, military service). One of the most important qualities is their openness to collaborating and working towards a clearly-defined goal.

    As educators/leaders, it’s of utmost importance for us to “set up” the targets for them to knock down – individually or together, with traditional or digital tools, etc – and that requires a great deal of creative capital on our end. Similarly, the greater the DH investment, the greater the payoff need for us to be technically-minded (especially as younger students are generally tech-savvy and pick up new skills quickly).

    Thus, those collaborative assignments might be the best and most promising way to pass on knowledge and train valuable academic skill sets. And it couldn’t have come at a better time: with COVID cases on the rise, I’m afraid there’s really no telling as to when we’ll ever get back to our traditional classroom models.

  2. Robert Carlock

    My fiancée is a huge proponent of critical pedagogy, and I have always loved Freire’s work, so I love your point that DH projects are great for honing critical skills. I essentially made my entire blog post an argument for that exact fact but being so removed from the last time I engaged with pedagogy I totally forgot that is the core concept.

    When considering this, it seems that DH is in a prime position to shift the field of history (and technology in general seems to be a great conduit for critical pedagogy). While content is obviously important to make certain points, especially when learning “historical lessons,” the skills are much more likely to be beneficial. Especially as the concept of a liberal education comes under fire, it is becoming ever more important to emphasize that the critical thinking skills of history are the key part to a liberal education and making a good citizen, not the content.

    Your post reminded me that even if I have forgotten the terminology, I have apparently innately adopted critical pedagogy into the way that I consider education, which I think is a pretty positive reflection!

  3. cassandra farrell

    Yes, the “digital turn” is indeed very present in classroom pedagogy whether that be in person, synchronous or asynchronous. It would be interesting to focus a semester class around specific projects rather than reading and writing about assigned texts. I’ve often contemplated an assignment requiring undergrad students, in groups, to lead a class session for one to two classes so that they have the opportunity to research and apply the material of interest. DH can help an instructor do this.

  4. Wonderful post and write-up! It’s interesting to think about pedagogy and its use for librarians and specialists there. I enjoyed reading the book as someone who enjoys teaching but has limited experience in both teaching and learning pedagogy. I’ve enjoyed getting more perspective from librarians and archivists this semester, especially in a DH sense, because of the relationship there and the use in the DH world.

    I haven’t looked at Zooniverse yet but I keep hearing about it so I should check it out! I am really into data visualization so maps are usually where I head.

  5. As someone who loves a good library session, I appreciated your perspective as the librarian. (I’ve previously seen these interactions solely through my role — the student, the learner.) I am one to schedule a session with the librarians when I am lost on how to navigate research and have noticed that I retain the knowledge more so when the librarian directs me to complete the actions (like putting quotes for exact phrases in search engines). From my limited student experience, I think having the students work on these mini DH projects is fabulous, and I’m sure quite fruitful for them. 🙂

    I have read about Hein’s model of learning through Sharon E. Shaffer’s work. I think your point that these DH projects would encourage a constructivist methodology has much potential.

  6. Stephanie, I really enjoyed your post as it reminded me of some of my favorite collaborative teaching endeavors with a librarian. Under normal circumstances, DH is and needs to be a collaborative field, but I think the pandemic has taught and/or reinforced how much we need to collaborate with each other within and among academic fields.

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