For one of my classes, I had to write an overview of a course website for my conceptual undergraduate class, “Introduction to Humanities Computing.” I wanted to have a site that fulfills the fundamental “ontological commitments” of Digital Humanities: openness, collaboration, collegiality and connectedness, diversity, and experimentation (Spiro 25-30). My class prioritizes digital publishing and this course site is the facilitator for this type of work. I will explain this concept further, but, simply put, I wanted this site be primarily a space where students could make their writings public and talk about their progress. The site I wish to create would have an inviting atmosphere for collaboration where all students feel connected to each other and their work is valued. Students should be able to get feedback on their work and feel comfortable giving feedback or suggesting changes, no matter how long the post is.
To best explain these concepts for the site, I created a blank Wordpress and added a blog post that I wrote for one of my classes for an example. I also wrote a few generic comments and questions from students and replied to them as if I was the professor. All content in the site example is mine except the theme, which was created by the Wordpress developers. I’ll discuss a few different important parts about the site in the following sections and then I’ll conclude by talking about how this type of site could benefit the students in the near future. I’ve provided screenshots of the site and explained the general concept of what each image addresses.
For the class Wordpress, I decided to use the P2 theme. This theme looks different from a traditional blog website in that it allows users to interact on the site as they would with Facebook. Where a traditional blog layout would focus on displaying only one post on each page, this layout uses a Facebook Timeline-type layout that displays everything on a (lengthy) single page. For me - and I’m sure this is the case for other students that grew up with technology - this layout is intuitive and it behaves in a way that I’m familiar with. The theme prioritizes real time communication and I chose to use this layout for my course website because it moves away from traditional static posts. In the past, I have been in classes where the site layout doesn’t do any favors in getting a conversation started online. Students write an essay in Word and copy and paste it to the blog, they click “Save,” and never look at it again. After that, they don’t care enough about their classmates’ work, so there’s no reason for them to stay on the class site. By midterms, I find that these sites become a dumping ground for class essays. Usually, the professor implements a rule that each student must make one post and comment on three different posts to receive full points - an approach and an issue that I wanted to avoid.
The class website should be a place where students can go and think out loud about their work. I want to foster a place where students don’t feel like they have to post huge essays or How-To guides every time they visit. A Tweet or Status Update posted on the site can be thought of as a comment made in class and I plan to grade students’ participation based partly on their use of the site. The following sections will discuss my ideas for an ideal course website.
A main part of this undergraduate class requires each student to write a 500 word blog post each week about the assigned readings or the tools that they used for that week. This is a crucial part of the course as it makes sure every student is keeping up to date on the weekly topics that we’ve discussed. It is also important for the students to pause and reflect on the work they completed during the week and to connect with other students about issues or concerns they might have. I feel that this reflexivity in research is fundamental to the completeness of one’s work and I wish to foster that practice on my site. The grading for these blog post assignments will be subjective, but I will prioritize completion and whether they meet the deadline. I will never deduct points from a post if the student was unable to complete the task they wanted or if they received a different outcome. For example, if a student wants to import a logo into a map or timeline (as shown in the next screenshot) and find that the system has a bug, I find this process of exploration and “play” can often teach more than blind luck. Overall, if students are able to write a post explaining what outcome they wanted, the process they used, and the result of their work, they will be fulfilling the goals of the course.
As shown in the screenshot below, students can post quick Status Updates on the site that can facilitate conversation or get technical help. This tool is almost like Twitter or a Facebook status that’s meant to be quick, gut feelings or reactions. They don’t necessarily have to be polished work like the Blog Posts and they certainly won’t be 500 words long, but these informal notes are important to make students feel comfortable speaking their mind. When the longer assignments come, the students will build upon the positive experiences that they had previously.
When the Status Update is posted, other students in the class can answer questions and have a conversation about whatever the topic is. They can help answer their classmates’ questions and give feedback for projects on subjective issues of design and usability. This correspondence is important for group learning and is one of the Digital Humanities ontological commitments - two aspects I wish to address in this course.
If the professor or Teaching Assistant wishes to communicate with the class, they have a space where they can give the students a public response. For example, in this type of public format, other students can read the answers given and can ask other questions for clarification. If students want to send a situation-specific question, they can always send the instructor a direct email or message through the course website.
One of the advantages that this type of site gives is the ability to collectively organize the students’ thoughts and to create a working, in-depth site for others to use. It would be ideal if the site could be a reference for other researchers who are working on similar projects with these tools. On every entry, students can tag their post so that it can be organized by category. Whether the tag is “visibility” or another conceptual issue, or a specific tool, visitors to the site can navigate and quickly find what they need. For instance, if a student writes about Omeka at the beginning of the semester and it gets buried by other posts, you can click on the entry for Omeka on the sidebar and quickly find the post. (Refer back to the first screenshot of the site.) If another student writes a response to an article and how it relates to their research, the post could be tagged according to the topic discussed or the journal from which it came. The syllabus explains that it is important to explain the students’ research process, not simply give an overview or summary of a reading, so the student must emphasize how that reading is applicable.
I would like to keep the site private during the semester so that students can feel comfortable asking questions and thinking out loud. Whether they post something “stupid” or their ideas are good enough to be stolen, I wouldn’t want their posts to be made public as they’re hesitantly posting their ideas and processes only to be exploited by someone on the internet. When the semester is finished, I would ask for permission to make these posts public as I feel it can benefit other people working on digital projects. I would redact or delete any comment or post, if asked, and I can always provide the students an exported version of their posts. As everything that students post will be available on the internet after making the site public, I would need to make sure that they had a basic understanding about copyright and Creative Commons licensing that they can employ to protect their intellectual property. This discussion about ownership could be started as an in-class discussion supplemented with videos and other how-to manuals available on the internet.
Copyright aside, by making the site public, blog posts can be considered a form of digital publishing. As everything in academic work seems to be moving online, students can build their CV with these blog posts and have a tangible source to point to when listing their proficiencies. If a student writes a guide about a new tool that they were able to use for their research, a quick Google Search could associate Student with Marketable Skill. For example, if a student writes a quick guide on how to setup OHMS, a tool to work interactively with oral history recordings, a stranger could acknowledge their technical prowess about that newly created tool. The student’s CV would reflect their proficiency and list their oral history project with a link to the class site. These connections could spur collaboration, career advancement, and goodwill with other researchers and users of new technologies. After the semester is completed, the course website can serve as more than an arena for communication and collaboration, it can be an example of a marketable digital portfolio where students can showcase their abilities.
This desire to make posts public is dual-purpose: (1) I feel it is an ethical responsibility as a professor to foster critical thinking about future career and academic plans. (2) I also feel it is important to demonstrate to students the applicability of the work done within the course to the “real world” they will be working in after graduation. Although it hasn’t been the typical format for most academic classes (particularly in the humanities) up to this point, skills-based training is and will be crucial for the coming changes in the fields. When learning, students should understand the conceptual and the technical aspect of these new tools and often these two aspects are interchangeable. In a way, these concepts can be thought of as two sides of one coin. One could argue that disciplinary methodology is important and students should be taught Best Practices as a base and technology will come later. Others, particularly in STEM fields, may feel that the technology is the crucial lesson that should be taught - the rules will be learned.
I see that the best approach to this type of work views both technology and methodology as interconnected and interdependent. If a student has experience and understands the methodological importance of a timeline or mapping tool, technical training could be helpful. If one is resistant to put the time into detailed and technical metadata, a project in which specificity is required could change their perception on the issue (as it did for me). Digital Humanities should not follow division of traditional disciplinary lines: STEM is technology, Humanities and Social Sciences are methods. Courses that teach Humanities Computing should be critical of this split and work blend both disciplines into a workable and reflexive pedagogy. Although theoretical, my course as represented through this site is an extension of this type of teaching and can be considered an example of how to best introduce these new research practices to students.