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!). 


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.

Fall 2015

We had already filled up most of the real estate on the white board in the American Studies department’s conference room with boxes, scribbled lines, and blobs impersonating geographic regions. It was a fall afternoon, and the “we” at the time was an AMST faculty member, a first-year MA in Public Humanities, an Instructional Designer from Brown’s Academic Technology group, and myself. We were working on specs for Mapping Violence, an ambitious digital mapping project on scenes of twentieth-century state-sanctioned violence at the border of Texas and Mexico. There was already a proof of concept for the project, but we were trying to figure out the mechanics of how student researchers would be adding data to the project and how that project would display said data, and in doing so we had run into some big questions about audience, design, and project scope. Though it may not have looked that way from the sketches and shapes on the wall, these lines and blobs created many of these questions. Now it was time to turn these shapes into documentation about desired resources, imagined project workflow, and the public face of the initiative.

I’ve found “whiteboarding” to be just as important as a pedagogical step as it is a key stage in the design process of a digital project. It can also be frustrating for everyone involved, depending on the availability of labor and digital tools, perceptions about how long this work should take, ideas of project development. Building a digital project over time and maintaining momentum during what can be a highly iterative process is a key challenge facing many digital humanities instructors. The framework of “digital public humanities” can help keep collaborators honest about the intended uses of their projects and the realities of where, how, and why particular audiences will interact with and become invested in these initiatives. It can be tempting to build a project with readily-available content management systems and move quickly towards a public launch, but I’ve tried to find ways to demonstrate the value of the slow build and of investing in time at early stages of a project to address why and how this work will circulate in public. Whiteboarding is a technique informed by a course in Project Development I took through HILT in the summer of 2014 (thanks, Jen Guiliano and Simon Appleford!) and by my work developing the CERES Exhibit Toolkit with the Northeastern University Library Digital Scholarship Group in the spring of 2015 (thanks, Patrick Yott, Julia Flanders, Sarah Sweeney, Eli Zoller, Dave DeCamp, and many other people!).

Monica Muñoz Martinez, the PI on Mapping Violence, is a fantastic, generous, and patient collaborator on digital projects, and my role supporting this work has been more consultant than project architect. It’s been exciting to see this project develop over time. Our whiteboarding exercises have led her to emphasize the data of the project and its attendant structure as she and her team experiments with various mapping interfaces, enabling her to proceed with project research and development while she considers relying on available mapping tools or investing in a customized interface and content management system. I’ve tweaked whiteboarding to fit into larger project work, independent studies, and classroom exercises during my time at Brown (here’s a look at whiteboarding at work in my “Digital Storytelling” course). A challenge in whiteboarding exercises is considering how to frame and encourage next steps in research and project development, especially when a student, faculty member, or community partner realizes that digital work is heading in a different direction than anticipated.

Spring 2016

“Something’s wrong!” We’re making Twitter bots in class today, following the guidelines provided by Zack Whalen to quickly create and publish small conceptual projects on social media. The student having this particular issue had accidentally synced the linguistic output of her bot to their professional Twitter account, and the result is that strange bits of remixed exposition and dialogue from Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad are Friends” series of children’s books are now circulating there. It’s a quick and easy fix to undo the mistake. Another bot, one still active in 2018 (made by Eddie Robles and Bárbara Elmúdesi), takes reflections on public humanities from student notes and recirculates them in an unending series of…definitions? Provocations? Ideas of publics and public spaces? The sentences are all written in Spanish, which seems like a conscious decision to reject the primacy of English in our program as well as in the institutional forms of public humanities discourse prevalent on Twitter and elsewhere.

The previous class session, which served as our introduction to bots and strategies of activism and linguistic defamiliarization on social media, comes up in conversation. At that session we were joined by a large contingent of prospective graduate students: their numbers came close to outnumbering our small class. Anticipating an audience who was new to topics in digital public humanities and the ongoing conversations we’d been having, I decided to create a series of slides and lecture, summarizing what we read and connecting the threads from this week explicitly to previous conversations. Now that our guests has left, my students politely told me to never do that again. They got why I did it, but it ran completely counter to the dynamic we had established in recent sessions and through the informal writing about the class we circulated on Slack. We had moved to Slack after a Google Doc collecting more formal reading responses and class agendas had grown too unwieldy. Slack was new, and students were curious. There were GIFs, sure, but it also felt easier to read and write and banter there than it had in the white space of Google’s word processor.

When considering course readings and the structure of this course, I leaned pretty heavily on a traditional literary survey structure. For example, I assigned seventeen (!) readings with the phrase “digital humanities” in the title. I also introduced pre-contexts for what now reads more legibly as a field of DH, via the work of George Landow (1997’s Hypertext 2.0), Janet Murray (Hamlet on the Holodeck, also published in 1997) and Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen (2005’s Digital History). My intentions here (with apologies to these authors and their work, which I admire!) were to defamiliarize present conventions, expectations, and uses of digital tools and contexts for public humanities by examining work and methodologies of the past. Students were not disinterested in these readings and conversations, but they had plenty to talk about in present-day digital contexts, and this “long history” approach (which might work well in the context of a institution or department offering a range of DH courses, or could be an approach that is more effective in long-form or iterative forms of academic writing) took up valuable real estate and time at the start of the semester that we could have used exploring contexts that resonated more immediately with them.

These latter interests emerged most visibly in the course’s blog (which you can find here) and in our use of Slack (which was intended meant for public dissemination). While there are a range of topics and research areas on display here — minimal computing in Chile, power dynamics and curation at the RISD Museum, the uses of Instagram by women and girls who skateboard in North America, patterns and preferred relationships in slash fiction about popular characters in superhero films and fantasy TV show — there were recurring themes and points of overlap in these posts and the discussions they inspired. There’s a shared interest in ways that digital tools and publication platforms might be used to critique, subvert, or uncover hierarchies and gatekeepers in cultural production. There are investments in community formation and its relationship to digital forums and forms of documentation. And there’s frequently an emphasis on specific regional, institutional, or genre-related contexts, points of emphasis that are at odds with the language and approach of the course survey (note the headings: “Archives,” “Mapping,” and “Social Media,” among others). There’s not much call-back in these posts to the readings about “digital humanities” and the environmental scans of the field offered at the start of the semester.

Spring 2017

We were talking about what we were reading, which was good, I guess. It was an afternoon in “Digital Storytelling,” a course in which I set out to right the wrongs of “Digital Public Humanities” and reimagine a more hands-on, exploratory, experimental course. We would move from considerations of “Distortion” to ideas of “Curation” into modes of “Transformation,” and everything would rhyme. This wasn’t as bad as the time I organized an Advanced Writing in the Disciplines course around the titles of my favorite Talking Heads records. This made sense! And we’d talk about stuff like “Fake News” and collections as data and the aesthetics of visualizations and of course we’d do the Twitter bot thing again and it would all be very hip and fun but instructive in that American Studies department kind of way. And it was! But things were also a bit all over the place. And in terms of a center, there was no there there, pedagogically speaking. That was by design, but the conversation we were having suggested that there were other design choices to make.

I had mentioned a tendency in the responses to readings (posted to Slack! We were using Slack again!) to focus feedback on the shortcomings or concerns that students had about the assigned material. I brought this up less as an accusation or a form of defensiveness and more to pass on a lesson I learned as a graduate student writing and revising my dissertation. One of my readers, having encountered another classic Jim McGrath rhetorical gambit where he felt obligated to spend a paragraph or three pointing out all the limits of some scholar or another, had had enough with this foolishness. They politely but sternly pointed out that I had embraced “a classic graduate student move,” one where the imperative to critique work that I was otherwise valuing as important contributions to “the discourse” was overshadowing and short-circuiting the conversation about its importance. Instead of identifying what I found important in the context of my own ideas, I was hiding behind misplaced investments in authority gained from negative critique and second-guessing. While I wasn’t as explicitly critical or direct about what I identified as a similar tic in the work of my students, I was curious enough to want to turn these tendencies into a direct conversation about the pedagogical and scholarly value of criticism.

The ensuing conversation made me realize that for many of the students who had raised questions about particular quotes from readings, these moments of inquiry weren’t dismissive but, in fact, inquisitory. And they specifically came from a lack of familiarity with the institutional and professional contexts of the authors on our course readings. Having learned my lesson from the previous course in “Digital Public Humanities,” I had whittled down the number of texts with the phrase “digital humanities” in the title to a mere three. Our texts came from archivists, literary studies, long-form journalism, poets, new media scholars, historians, sociologists, Wikipedia editors, graduate students, government agencies. There was a dizzying array of fields, formats, and forms of argument and citation to behold, and words like “public” or “archive” or “data” carried long and varied contextual resonances with them. Things that seemed “radical” in one light felt familiar in others. Students noted that the range of professionals and practitioners represented was something they liked about the course readings, but it was also something that took time to process and respond to on the schedule we were on. And the absence of a particular approach, methodology, or professional practice at the center of these discussions was noted by me, and it was something I hoped to address in my next course.

Fall 2017

I’ve written extensively about the motivating factors and pedagogical components of my Fall 2017 “Digital Public Humanities” class here, so in the space below I’ll add some additional thoughts on the experiential dimensions of this work and the challenges this course has presented in terms of future development.

There were limitations in the approach to experiential learning I took in my first version of “Digital Public Humanities.” For example, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the Spring 2016 student projects and the assigned readings on project management. Our sessions on project management featured material that I’ve found helpful when developing or supporting highly collaborative, large-scale projects like Our Marathon, or the digital projects I consulted on at Northeastern doing work tied to CERES Project Toolkit development. But the student “projects” being developed here were, by design, products of individuals and preliminary or speculative efforts. What was likely needed instead here were readings that focused more on prototyping, sample projects developed by students elsewhere, or even time on the syllabus where students themselves could introduce research or projects that they found inspiration in. Additionally, there was a need to think beyond digital humanities contexts for project management: in these professional spaces, a managerial shorthand or outlook is an unanticipated dimension or new foray for a practitioner who was trained to do other forms of labor, and the advice given focuses on forms of collaboration and organizational structures (or the absence of organizational structures) that characterize many of the professional spaces our students are interested in.

Investments in iterative design thinking and prototyping in the Spring 2016 course were well-intended acknowledgements of the realities of digital labor and the limited amount of time available to students in a semester-length course, these projects essentially stopped developing from the perspective of the JNBC as soon as final grades were submitted. I don’t think student work needs to circulate publicly or live on after a course, even if this work is interested in digital tools and sites of publication. And the majority of students in this course were second-year MA students, so there were no direct avenues available to support continued work after graduation. These projects were also primarily the products of single authors and creators: some had collaborative dimensions or extended work completed in collaborative environments (like practicum assignments or internships), but I didn’t create pedagogical conditions that explicitly encouraged forms of collaboration. This experience, while positive for many reasons, left me wondering if there was a way to create space in the classroom for more collaborative work that also extended particular research questions, ideas, or projects beyond the lifespan of the course.

For the Fall 2017 version of “Digital Public Humanities,” students collaborated with Providence Public Library Special Collections staff and community archivists to propose digital approaches to three recent PPL acquisitions: the institutional archive of the nonprofit community arts organization AS220, a collection of images and documents related to the Cape Verdean community of Providence’s Fox Point neighborhood, and a massive trove of type specimens from the long history of printing. Students were introduced to archival forms of labor and methodologies in course readings, but they were not expected to impersonate or match the skills of professionally-trained archivists and librarians in their project work: instead, community archivists and special collections librarians were collaborators with their own skill sets, while students brought their developing knowledge of digital project work, their research skills, and their experiences designing initiatives for particular publics. And the particular professional needs and contexts of the PPL were key components of this work: the recommendations developed by students went on to inform (and inspire) grant-writing initiatives that seek to make some of their imagined digital approaches a reality, and the recommendations were designed with an awareness of the library’s resources and interest in particular projects and grants.

Understanding and learning to model best practices related to project management and development were key components of this work: students brought investments in ideas of shared authority and ethical forms of collaboration, which we further discussed and refined in classroom discussions. While I imagine that some students left the course interested in professional trajectories tied to community archives, library work, or digital humanities scholarship, the course investments in learning how to collaborate with each other and with other institutional spaces hopefully informed their future work in various ways, whether that work involved digital or non-digital contexts.

I view the Fall 2017 iteration of “Digital Public Humanities” as one of my most successful pedagogical projects in my teaching career, and I’m hoping to refine and return to its investments in collaboration and digital project development in future courses. There are some logistical concerns related to digital course offerings that are influencing future classroom work at Brown: I’m scheduled to teach another DH course for the JNBC next year, and since a number of first-year MA students were in this class, I want to be sure to offer something that isn’t replicating or duplicating too much in case there’s interest in taking another digital class. I am committed to working more with the PPL Special Collections team, and I’m currently developing a digital pop-up exhibition for Brown’s campus that’s related to one of the special collections from the fall course.

More generally, one major concern about the course’s investments in particular forms of collaboration is what to do when students encounter collaborative contexts in professional spaces, internships, practicums, or even other courses where the ideas and mechanics of collaboration are less than ideal. I’m particularly interested in these contexts as they relate to digital project work, as the professionals doing this labor within and beyond DH contexts is variously precarious and frequently faced with challenges related to how digital work is perceived, developed, invested in, and valued. My hope is that students at the very least have a template for more ethical forms of collaboration and more of an understanding of how I approach these conditions of labor, but I’m still thinking about what more to do here.

Spring 2018 (Concluding Thoughts)

In the spring of 2018, I worked with Amelia Golcheski (then a second-year MA student in Public Humanities) on Public Work, the JNBC’s first podcast. I also supported an independent study designed by Bryn Pernot (another second-year MA student!) that looked at ideas of data and approaches to data visualization through the particular lens of museum visitor data. Amelia and Bryn both took “Digital Public Humanities,” and in many ways this later work picked up on and refined some of their interests from that course (Amelia’s work on the podcast was via a paid, part-time position at the JNBC supporting Special Projects).

Ideas of project development, iterative design, and shared authority were key components of these collaborations (and I prefer to think of them as collaborations, with the understanding that doing so does not erase the fact that I was the “boss” in one context and an instructor in the other). We built time into these initiatives to whiteboard, and to research and review model projects and preferred methodologies. We were committed to making things in both cases. Amelia and I viewed the podcast as a pilot initiative for the JNBC to consider how to develop and support future podcasts, but we also wanted to actually make and distribute a podcast in lieu of R&D or a white paper. Bryn wanted to experiment with particular forms of data and approaches to visualization, so she found and cleaned museum visitor data and then worked with the Knight Lab’s StoryMap tool to consider how it might be used to tell compelling stories about the relationship between a museum and its immediate surroundings. And in both cases, we worked to connect this work to immediate plans for future employment, considering how these projects and interests might be documented on resumes and cover letters, discussed on interviews, described or showcased on personal web sites.

These positive experiences, combined with my approach to the fall course, have me thinking a lot about how the JNBC might get better at supporting students interested in digital contexts, projects, and professions. The trajectories described here work well, in the sense that it makes sense to me to begin with a course that surveys digital public humanities and then provide opportunities for students with particular interests to further pursue them in part-time work or via independent studies. And if the JNBC’s primary commitment to digital public humanities work comes in the form of a postdoctoral fellowship, it’s hard to imagine many productive alternatives. To the JNBC, I am an inexpensive form of labor, a participant in a pilot project of sorts to evaluate resources needed to produce compelling digital public humanities work. The conditions of my postdoc grant me 50% research time, access to travel funding, and a light teaching schedule. There are also limitations to this arrangement. As an employee of the JNBC whose employment is limited (though my contract has been extended beyond the initial two-year terms of the contract), it can be difficult to balance what’s best for the Center with my own desires for long-term and more permanent employment. This impacts how much time I spend at the Center writing grants and developing long-term digital projects that might support cycles of students in various ways.

A staff member in a more permanent, long-term position might focus on these areas more, given the long-term investment in their labor. Additionally, while the postdoctoral position has the advantage of flexibility but not much in terms of authority, management, or oversight: I can make recommendations, offer advice, or develop work within the confines of my courses, but I am not in a more administrative or managerial role in terms of shaping the direction of digital initiatives at the JNBC. Some of these limitations reflect the current financial or professional realities of academic labor and labor in DH, and my interest in scaling up the Center’s commitment to digital work is obviously personally motivated (I like working here!). And I hope that the particular discussions of whiteboarding, syllabus development, collaboration in the classroom, and professional development are of use and value to various instructors and departments as they think about pedagogy and praxis. But I did want to close with these particular reflections because I think it’s important to raise awareness about the impact forms of labor have on approaches to pedagogy and the conditions of experiential learning.

Questions, comments? Feel Free to email me at james_mcgrath[at]brown[dot]edu or get in touch with me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.