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If everything that exists has a place, place too will have a place, and so on ad infinitum.

~Aristotle Physics IV:1, 209a25

How do we find a place for digital humanities (DH) within our curriculum? How many disciplines, concerns, issues, topics, and methods can exist within the liberal arts? Surely there will be a breaking point! There must be a moment when something is sacrificed. When do disciplines need to throw over the weight of past methods to make way for the new?

I would like to suggest that we reject this kind of thinking from the outset. A zero-sum view of education contradicts the very value of education and effaces the core strength of the liberal arts. A student’s education is not a cake to be divided among the disciplines. Education is a living thing. It mushrooms; it grows. An education that links and connects is a rare quantity and can return more energy and knowledge than is initially introduced. A quality education is more than merely sustainable; it is bigger than a closed loop. Education is fecund. Education is fruitful, and that is why it is beautiful.

Of Mesentery and Methods

With biological metaphors appearing to grow exponentially here, perhaps I should offer just one additional analogy with regard to finding a place for the digital humanities. I would argue that digital methods have been with us in the liberal arts for many decades. Our library catalogues, editorial procedures, and even our word processors have long made our practices digital. Like the recent definition of the “mesentery” as a fundamental organ of the body, digital methods have been around for a long time; they surround everything that we are as scholars and educators, and they are now being recognized as a fundamental structure within education at every level. We must now shift our awareness to accept the presence and importance of digital scholarship within the humanities and social sciences. The inclusion of DH in the liberal arts is far from an act of misentry. Like the mesentery, DH is the organ capable of nourishing and linking many disciplines. We need not find a place for digital humanities because it is already here. We must, however, prepare to understand this sometimes neglected organ of our studies. We must now make use of this awareness to shape our research and teaching.

To this end, those of us within the Digital Liberal Arts Initiative have been working to produce a faculty workshop series to help build the community of digital practitioners at Penn State. We have developed a month long program called BlendDLA, which seeks to blend digital liberal arts methods within our existing courses. Faculty will attend a weekly session to develop new syllabi and assignments that utilize specific digital tools that are now so readily available at Penn State and beyond. During the month of May (2018), our faculty will have a set of readings that complements their workshop sessions. I would like to share a gloss of some of our readings with you, if you are interested in following our BlendDLA cohort from a distance!

DH as Interstitial Tissue

We are so lucky to have a core textbook for BlendDLA that so perfectly fits our goals. Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom by Claire Battershill and Shawna Ross is a perfect DH primer for the uninitiated. Aimed directly at faculty teaching in universities, it gently introduces the promises and pitfalls of digital humanities methods in undergraduate and graduate classrooms. Using DH sketches how to build a syllabus, draft assignments, manage classroom activities, and evaluate digital projects! Reading this book is akin to following a mental checklist of the myriad concerns and questions involved in using digital methods in the classroom. It is illuminating, thorough, and unerringly practical. In what follows, I’ll gloss our weekly readings to give a sense of the themes and currents of the Blend DLA program for both participants and our broader community.

  • Day 1: Identifying Opportunities

Together with the opening chapters of Using DH, we’ll read the Burdick et al.’s 2012 A Short Guide to the Digital_HumanitiesThe Short Guide defines digital humanities and so much more. It describes how to build a project-based scholarship and teaching as well as methods for evaluating digital scholarship. It also describes some of the “core competencies” in DH as well as desired learning outcomes. Beyond that, the Short Guide describes how the culture of DH shapes its scholarly practice. This is a must read for anyone curious about DH.

  • Day 2: Objectives & Assessments

To help frame our thinking about scholarly output, we’ll be reading Alan Galey and Stan Ruecker’s “How a Prototype Argues,” which I would describe as a seminal piece of DH scholarship. Galey and Ruecker argue that a digital object or prototype works as a practical real world expression of a theory. In this way, they describe how a digital artifact can be an experiment toward expressing or proving a theory. The result is a prototype worthy of scholarly reflection, which is also a goal of our students. We will also be reading “Teaching Computer-Assisted Text Analysis: Approaches to Learning New Methodologies” by Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell. This chapter was published in Digital Humanities Pedagogy, which is the first dedicated volume of its kind for DH. The chapter outlines text analysis as a method of inquiry that readily spans disciplines, and demonstrates how Sinclair and Rockwell’s tool Voyant assists students to complete this in a class setting. Voyant is a milestone within DH, both technologically and pedagogically. They also introduce the concept of a “recipe” for building digital projects in a class context. It is an important metaphor that we’ll extend in our sessions on assignment design.

  • Day 3 Utilizing Available Resources with Library Partners

Our third day will help faculty find resources online and on campus. We, in the DLAi, are eager to partner with our friends in the library, so we want to appreciate the sound theoretical basis for such a partnership. The library is often called the “laboratory of the humanities,” but it also represents a rich source of advice, resources, and support for faculty research and teaching. It is a disciplinary agnostic space that can attract participants from across the university into a single space to collaborate and build community. In 2013, the Journal of Library Administration did a special issue on DH. These essays are wonderful examples of the kind of opening thinking DHers and librarians can foster. We’ve included Chris Sula’s “Digital Humanities and Libraries: A Conceptual Model“, Miriam Posner’s “No Half Measures: Overcoming Common Challenges to Doing Digital Humanities in the Library,” and finally Bethany Nowviskie’s “Skunks in the Library: A Path to Production for Schoalrly R&D

  • Day 4 Assessing and Revising Course Content

As the sessions take a more reflective stance toward the syllabi and assignments we’ve developed, we’ll read two wonderfully ranging pieces that meditate on the state of critique and literacy in the 21st century. Julia Flanders’s “The Productive Unease of 21st-century Digital Scholarship” works to remove the techno-utopian urges that can disrupt rigorous thought. Our critical reflection will requires us to temper (if only slightly) the enthusiastic idealism that can come with learning new digital methods. Here, Flanders argues that technological literacy is a fundamental step toward a productive critique of our 21st century world. We will also be reading Tanya Clement’s “Multiliteracies in the Undergraduate Digital Humanities Curriculum: Skills, Principles, and Habits of Mind,” which is also included in the Digital Humanities Pedagogy volume. Clement gives a helpful overview of DH curriculum and the need for project based courses. She argues for a broader conception of literacy that includes multimodalities, which move beyond our singular dependence on close reading. Moving beyond the text as a measure of literacy is an important reframing for many DHers that embraces a technological diversity.

  • Day 5 Promoting Your Course and Community

Finally, we’ll have a session on the exceedingly practical need to promote a course within an institution. Within this frame, we want to promoting a course by promoting a kind of culture. The culture of DH is open, egalitarian, and generally speaking… nice. We’ll read Tom Scheinfeldt’s classic blog post “Why Digital Humanities is nice” to help build that sensibility. You’ll need to read it to find out why DH is so darn nice. 🙂 We’ll then read Bethany Nowviskie’s “On Capacity and Care” which, among other things, expresses an urgent need for DH and the work of DHers in contemporary society. In this massive wave of digitization in the recent decades, we are at risk of losing our paper-based cultural record by simply not digitizing it. Nowviskie describes, in a beautiful frame about the swing of human history, why our youngest scholars are so important to the humanities. Because DH champions a collaborative approach to teaching and research, it is also important to include ethical statements on collaborative practices. The recent trend to include a Bill of Rights for collaborators will hopefully set a fair and productive path for our faculty and their students. We included the first version, known as Off the Tracks, which was developed by the team at MITH. Then we also include a longer version of this document by the group at UCLA.

A term distribution graph for the first ten readings. Created with Voyant, by Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell.

This is a brief reading list. It is a nearly impossible task to build a comprehensive list of readings. Of course, the Digital Humanities reading list on Zotero does a great job cataloguing the discipline. Summarizing all this scholarship is another immense task. How can anyone summarize all the energy and innovative ideas coming from DH, especially with regard to teaching? I hope we have a good start that works to pique the interest of our participants and of our broader Penn State community. I offer this visualization as a way to parse the concerns within the works and as a promise to our participants and what they’ll learn during the BlendDLA sessions. If you have comments about this post or would like to submit additional works for consideration, please feel free to reach out! We would love to hear from you!