Digital Humanities in the Classroom

With the semester wrapping up and summer projects still a little ways off, this feels like a moment first to breathe! (Take several moments to breathe. Ideally days or weeks to breathe.) But I also love this moment in early summer for thinking about possibilities. Later in the summer, I’ll be concerned with course prep and logistics, but right now I can explore new ways of engaging with students, colleagues, and the field. Right now, I’m working through the role of digital humanities in the classroom – not any specific classroom, and certainly not just my own digital humanities classroom. Rather, broadly construed, what does it look like to meaningfully integrate digital humanities tools and theory into a humanities or social science course?

That’s a big, complicated question, especially when your class isn’t explicitly a DH class. In a world civ course or a literature survey, integrating DH tools and especially DH theory can feel like cramming one more item into an over-stuffed suitcase – you don’t quite have space, and you’re not even sure whether you’ll need it. But of course digital humanities isn’t just a trendy way to help the humanities masquerade as STEM – those DH tools, methods, and ideas can help students encounter course materials, read texts, and ask questions in unique and meaningful ways. And they while students (and teachers) need to interrogate DH methods in the same way they should analog ones, building those conversations into your course doesn’t have to mean shoehorning a whole unit into an already crowded syllabus. Here are a couple of examples of how existing DH tools might build on existing course components to enhance students’ engagement with primary sources, build research and argument skills, and encourage students to critically evaluate the ways that information is mediated and communicated.

Text Analysis for History Classes with Voyant

The interdisciplinarity of digital humanities is one of the field’s greatest strengths – that’s a truism, but of course it’s also a truth. DH tools help us capitalize on that interdisciplinarity even in our own field-specific, core courses. It’s nothing new to incorporate cultural products like poetry into a history class. Poems, songs, paintings – all of these make for engaging and perceptive primary source discussions and help students think not just about events but about ideologies, values, uses of the past and visions of the future. Digital tools can help us change our gaze slightly and read those primary sources through a slightly different lens.

One of my favorite and most successful deployments of poetry as a primary source was in a modern world history course during a discussion of immigration, race and racism, and nationalisms in the early 20th century. We paired Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again,” published in 1936, with Kahlil Gibran’s 1926 “Message to Young Americans of Syrian Origin.” Both engage with questions of citizenship, the immigrant experience, the construction and weaponization of racial and ethnic categories, and other ideas that remain as pertinent today as they were in the 1920s and 30s.

Last time I taught these poems, I did it in the “traditional” way: I assigned them as readings; had students annotate them and come with thoughts, questions, and observations; and placed them at the center of our primary source discussion. It was incredibly productive, and students found the poems both helpful for contextualizing the historical moment and beautiful in their own right. But what if we could do more?

Enter Voyant, an online tool for text analysis. The visualizations and statistics it produces help us consider the text in a different way. When I read a poem (and anecdotally, when my students do), we’re looking at phrases and stanzas, and we’re following a narrative or line of argument. But the computer takes the poem as a corpus, as a collection of words (and the ideas attached to them). So it can help us to view the text at slightly more of a distance.

Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again,” 1936

Kahlil Gibran, “Message to Young Americans of Syrian Origin,” 1926

Even just these word clouds help tease out some similarities and differences in the tone and message of each poem: the prominence of “dream” in Hughes and “believe” in Gibran; the juxtaposition of Hughes’ “land” and Gibran’s “labor”; that despite the prominence of Gibran’s “freedom,” “America” appears only once in the entire poem, while it is the most frequent word in Hughes.

Hughes

Gibran

The Links graph helps to further contextualize those words and gives us some sense of their role within the text, the values assigned to them. These observations tell us very little about history in isolation, but they offer exciting avenues for conversation and investigation as students seek to connect text with context.

One of the dangers of DH’s interdisciplinarity is that we sometimes borrow too uncritically from other fields’ vocabularies and methods without considering the theory and discourses that have produced them. So to be clear, I’m not attempting to reinvent the field of text analysis. I’m not claiming to have discovered it for historians either – it’s been around for a very long time and in a lot of contexts. In fact my “corpus” of just two short poems might make scholars of text analysis scream. So as with any DH tool or method, I strongly encourage you to dig into the field of text analysis a little bit and try to peg down some of its assumptions and goals – not least because that too can be a fruitful discussion with students about interdisciplinarity, different frames for reading, and the role of technology in mediating information! There are tons of resources out there, but I found this workbook by Brandon Walsh and Sarah Horowitz to be an excellent starting point.

Family History Photo Analysis in Recogito

As the spring semester comes to a close, it feels a little early to start looking to the next syllabus. First and foremost, this is a moment to breathe. But I’m a perennial class prep procrastinator, so I find it useful to start thinking now (and more importantly, write down my thoughts). I also find this late spring-early summer to be full of possibilities rather than constraints. With fall still far off in the distance, this is the time I feel free to dabble in things and explore new possibilities. So periodically over the course of the summer, I’ll write up some simple DH and DH-adjacent activities and assignments I’ve done or planned that offer broad potential for adapting to a variety of courses and modalities.

This activity was inspired by Linda Pomerantz’s “Linking Family History and World History” lesson, which invites students to use family history (their own or someone else’s) to connect individual stories to broader currents in world history. I’ve found Pomerantz’s original activity to be enormously successful at engaging students in historical research and in producing original, well researched, and well thought out papers. I’ve adapted the photo analysis portion as an image annotation exercise using Recogito, primarily to help students grasp the crucial link between evidence and conclusions.

In the original exercise, students analyze a family photograph and make observations and inferences. In an engaged classroom, students often build off of each others’ observations and get a strong conversation going. However, that conversation often shifts rapidly into assumption and guesswork. (This isn’t inherently a problem – it provides an opportunity to unpack those thought processes and redirect toward evidence-based analysis.) By moving the analysis to an annotation tool like Recogito, students can visually link their conclusions to the evidence on the page and engage in conversation and collaboration about individual points, with the evidence always clearly in view.

Black and white photograph of man seated with woman standing next to him. The photo has purple dots indicating it has been annotated.
Screenshot of the annotation interface in Recogito, where there is a comment ("painted backdrop") followed by a reply ("probably a photography studio, not their own house")

Recogito offers a collaborative annotation workspace. Students can attach their observations to specific points, areas, and shapes on the image. Crucially, they can also add comments to existing annotations. The outline of the assignment is simple: all top-level annotations should be observations about something that stands out to them in the image. It might be something that seems significant, something that sparks a question, or simply something that seems weird. Making those top-level comments observations accomplishes two goals: First, it forces us to pause and consider the inferences we’re making and firmly ground them in evidence. Second, it’s a low-stakes way for students to enter the conversation and develop their voice as historians. Once the initial observation is made, the observer and their colleagues can then broaden the conversation to what inferences we might draw and what implications they have for a broader argument or narrative.

Besides clarifying the links between evidence and argument that are so crucial for historians and history students, Recogito carries the added benefit of productively transposing an in-class activity into a remote environment. There are plenty of other image annotation platforms out there, and I encourage you to explore the options! And of course there are endless possibilities for sources. An image of a manuscript, for instance, helps students link the text on the page or in the pdf to its material contexts. Early modern maps allow students to consider the worldviews (literal and ideological) of their producers and users. The options are as wide-ranging as your syllabus!

Some Final Thoughts

I obviously developed both of these activities with a history class in mind. However, there are a few basic principles that would help transpose these or any DH activity into a general survey course.

  1. Start with your course material. Integrating DH tools, methods, and theory doesn’t mean starting from scratch. Think about ways that the digital can enhance and supplement, rather than insert or replace.
  2. Map onto your learning objectives. The two activities above contribute to my course goals that students be able to critically evaluate sources, use evidence to craft and support an argument, and recognize the “pastness” of the past.* That influences how I guide the discussion around them and where I situate them within the course, but of course you could use the exact same activities for any number of purposes and adjust accordingly.
  3. Think big, act small. Again, bringing DH into your classroom doesn’t have to mean writing new lesson plans or reading a whole new body of literature! It can be small and still be meaningful. But the most exciting part of activities like these for me is that those small, tangible actions can open up really big conversations about the human experience, about society and our relationship to it, and about the impacts of technology – good and bad – on how we relate to each other, to our past, and to our future.

*I think I must have borrowed the phrase “the pastness of the past” – a quick Google shows it to be fairly ubiquitous these days, but perhaps originally attributable to T.S. Eliot.

So if you’ve developed DH activities for your course, I’d love to hear about them! And if you want to head in this direction but aren’t sure where to start, I’d love to talk about that too. Watch this space for a workshop later in the summer on creating DH assignments and activities for non-DH courses!

Dr. Meg Smith, IRIS Center
May 19, 2021

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published.