Jim McGrath, PhD

Digital Humanities, Public Humanities, History, Archives, New Media and Popular Culture

Category: Teaching

New Post at the JNBC Blog (the Colored Conventions Project and the Frederick Douglass Transcribe-a-Thon)

Last week, the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage joined a number of other universities in a Frederick Douglass birthday party transcribe-a-thon to support the (awesome) Colored Conventions Project. I wrote about how our day went over at the JNBC blog:

Transcription may seem like a mundane or even dated way to contribute to a digital project in the twenty-first century: can’t scholars and archivists use optical character recognition (OCR) software to extract text from scanned documents? As someone who has worked on a number of digitization projects, I can tell you that the technology we imagine to be freely available doesn’t always match the realities of doing digital humanities scholarship, and the available resources can vary from project to project. While we are right to be suspicious of third-party platforms, apps, and social networks that ask for our personal data in exchange for use of their services, we are often not required to think as much about the labor that goes into the creation and support of our shiny digital interfaces. Do you know how Google Docs handle collaborative writing across a range of devices and issues related to version control when they arise as you’re drafting something? Have you ever wondered what makes Clippy so useful (or annoying)? Exposure to the nuts and bolts of a digital project like CCP can often help us gain new perspectives on the materiality of the web, the technical dimensions of systems and actions we take for granted, and the challenges of doing public-facing digital work that circulates alongside well-funded and well-oiled machines made by Google and other heavyweights on the web at-large

It was fun and easy to collaborate with the CCP: I was particularly impressed by how much work they put into ensuring that their remote collaborators had everything they needed to make their events run smoothly. They’re a fantastic model for how to do public-facing digital humanities work within and across institutions, and I hope to work more with them in the future! It was also great to get some of our students, faculty, and community affiliates working on and thinking about the labor involved in digitization projects.

Digital Storytelling: Student Visualizations and Re-visualizations

I’m teaching a graduate-level class in Digital Storytelling at Brown this spring. You can view our course site here. Last week served as an introduction to three key terms and concepts that we’ll be working with all semester: data, networks, and visualizations.

Last summer I had the pleasure of attending HILT (for the second time!), where I completed a course on Database Design for Visualization and Analysis taught by Nicole Coleman. Nicole began the course with a great exercise that doubled as both an icebreaker and an introduction to some of the major ideas we’d be working with all week. Instead of throwing us headfirst into spreadsheets and digital tools, she split the class up into smaller groups and asked us to tell a story about our group in a hand-drawn visualization. This assignment inevitably involves the gathering of data and the questioning of what that data tells us, as well as what it might be used to tell others. It then quickly leads into a discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of visualizations, especially when you’re wrestling with a desire to retain more complex and varied dimensions of networks and relationships.

Our groups focused on commonalities as well as deviations. For example, I recall that one group was interested in mapping educational backgrounds geographically, in part because there were questions about whether digital scholarship was perhaps too localized and dominated by particular schools, programs, and regions of the world, and the group wanted to make visible the routes people took as students and emerging professionals.  Some of these conversations could be difficult: they mapped “in crowds” and highlighted outliers and outsiders, they revealed certain investments in particular degrees, colleges, and career paths. They were also incomplete at times: a route might have ended or taken a turn in one direction due to personal reasons or professional obligations beyond a degree, for instance.

In any case, the exercise stuck with me, so I modified it slightly and brought it into our Digital Storytelling course. You’ll see what our class came up with below. A quick word before we dive in: I’m intentionally leaving the names of students out of this discussion, in part because it was course work in progress created without awareness of its potential digital afterlife, and in part because the students working on the visualizations varied thanks to the way Brown students “shop” for courses early in the semester (I have thoughts about “shopping,” but that’s another story). Future reflections on course work will explicitly credit particular students (and may, at times, be collaboratively written by them).

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Digital Public Humanities: Reflections On Teaching A Graduate-Level Course in Digital Humanities and Public History

I recently wrapped up teaching duties on a course in Digital Public Humanities, a class offered via Brown University’s Public Humanities M.A. program. You can view the course site, which includes our syllabus, major readings, and a blog, here. This class was both my first digital humanities course and the first class I ever taught as part of a graduate program. I wanted to debrief (and maybe also decompress) here, in the hopes that thinking out loud about the shape and outcomes of the course might help me as well as other people interested in digital humanities, public humanities, public history, and/or graduate-level teaching (among other topics).

Before diving into the debrief, I’d like to thank the students who took this course, because they were all great. Thanks again to Dylan Cole-Kink, Bárbara Elmudesi, Nico Larrondo, Eddie Robles, Caroline Stevens, Sandra Strauch, and Liza Yeager. Thanks also to Alyssa Anderson, Andrea Ledesma, Reya Sehgal, and Marley-Vincent Lindsey for stopping by at various points in the semester and for contributing to class discussions. I’d also like to thank Susan Smulyan for her comments on my syllabus and for our (continuing!) conversations on how the Public Humanities program and the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage (JNBC) might support students interested in digital humanities tools and topics. Jim Egan and Steve Lubar patiently helped me think through ideas related to the course. The Brown University Library Center for Digital Scholarship supported our class with access to the library’s new Digital Studio, and Bruce Boucek, Brian Croxall, Elli Mylonas, and Patrick Rashleigh graciously took time to meet with students and provide recommendations for digital tools and resources.

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