Digital Public Humanities: Pedagogy and Praxis, Notes and Errata

Note: This post informs my contributions to a roundtable on “Digital Humanities Pedagogy and Praxis” at the 2018 Digital Humanities Conference (#DH2018) in Mexico City, Thanks to the conference organizers and to my roundtable conveners and collaborators (Brandon Walsh, Lisa Rhody, Matt Gold, Amanda Heinrichs, James Malazita, Miriam Peña Pimentel, Paola Ricaurte Quijano, Adriana Álvarez Sánchez, and Ethan Watrall). You can find more thoughts from these roundtable participants via this Twitter thread (thanks Brandon!). 

Introduction

When the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University (JNBC) announced that it was in need of a Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Public Humanities in the spring of 2015, it was also announcing that there was apparently something called “Digital Public Humanities” and that there were people who were specialists who could share their professional perspectives on the theory and practice of Digital Public Humanities in the classroom. The digital humanities work I’d been most interested in as a graduate student at Northeastern was committed to a notion of “Public, First,” (to borrow a phrase from Sheila Brennan), but I hadn’t thought of naming these investments in the particular way that “Digital Public Humanities” does. I joined the JNBC in the fall of 2015, and I quickly realized that part of my job was to help the Center figure out the implications of this act of naming at the levels of pedagogy and praxis. Unlike digital humanities labs, centers, or certificate programs, the JNBC’s focus is public humanities, and DH (or digital initiatives tied to other names or methodologies) is a component of this larger set of aims and interests.

The JNBC institutionally resides in Brown’s American Studies department, and it offers a two-year Master’s Degree program in Public Humanities as well as a graduate-level certificate in Public Humanities. Our program notes our emphasis on “collaborative, applied, and experiential learning” as one of its major selling points, and we offer opportunities for these forms of learning in coursework as well as through student internships and independent studies. In addition to our course offerings, the JNBC creates and supports public humanities projects with faculty and community partners, and we offer a range of programming including exhibitions, lunch talks, conferences, and workshops. Our MA students are interested in a range of professional contexts and research interests: the museum sector, historic preservation, sites of informal education, cultural heritage organizations, archives, libraries, cultural policy (among many others). I’m providing this context to explain what’s been informing my work, and I hope that these thoughts are useful to anyone who is considering how to teach about, develop, and support public-facing digital humanities initiatives.

My pedagogical investments are documented via the web sites for the three graduate-level courses I’ve taught at Brown: “Digital Public Humanities” (Spring 2016), “Digital Storytelling” (Spring 2017), and “Digital Public Humanities” (Fall 2017). But these syllabi, reading lists, and blog posts are only part of the story. Because that story is particularly long (three years long!), I’ve decided to provide some “Scenes from Teaching Digital Public Humanities” below. I’ll wrap up with some thoughts on what it’s like to be a postdoc in this particular position and what the JNBC and institutions like it might consider in terms of scaled-up and long-term investments in the teaching of digital public humanities.

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On Collaborations with Archivists in Digital Public Humanities

Archival materials in the Providence Public Library Special Collections room.

In the Fall of 2017, I taught a graduate-level course in Digital Public Humanities for the second time here at Brown. The first iteration of this course, which I taught in the Spring of 2016, took a survey approach to digital humanities and DH contexts for Public Humanities. Students were invited to create speculative or “proof of concept” applications of our readings to public humanities contexts they were interested in exploring further. These student projects (which they described on the course’s blog) were extremely innovative and inventive, and they documented the class’ various interests in minimal computing, provenance metadata, augmented reality, and other topics. At the time I was pretty comfortable with both the survey model and an approach to student project development “ that clearly situated itself as the first step in an iterative, still-developing process.” For many students, this was their first DH class or their first time working with and thinking about digital tools and methodologies. It was also my first course in Public Humanities, so I wanted to learn more about student interests and expectations in our program.

For this second iteration of Digital Public Humanities, I was interested in having students work with an external collaborator (something our program actively encourages instructors to consider when developing courses). Thankfully, I didn’t have to look far: as I was beginning to brainstorm, Jordan Goffin, Head Curator of Special Collections at the Providence Public Library, reached out to me (via Twitter: see, Twitter can be useful sometimes!) to see if I’d ever thought about collaborating with the PPL on a digital project. Some readers familiar with Brown’s resources may be surprised to learn that an archives-oriented Digital Public Humanities course here wasn’t collaborating with The John Hay Library, The John Carter Brown Library, The Haffenreffer Museum, or other more “local” resources on campus. These organizations are all thinking a lot about digital contexts for their materials, and they have in the past collaborated or consulted with our students and faculty on these (and other) topics. But beyond the fact that the PPL reached out to me, I was also ignorant about what materials it held in its Special Collections and curious to find out more. What I quickly learned was that the Providence Public Library had been thinking a LOT about digital spaces. More specifically, they were really interested in how these digital spaces informed and encouraged use of materials by local communities in Providence, as well as how digital contexts for archival materials might reflect the value of these materials by the communities represented in these collections.

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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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