Emerging Pathways in Digital Humanities Teaching

There is an oft-told story, possibly an urban legend, about a university that took an unorthodox approach to designing new sidewalks during a campus landscaping project. Instead of building sidewalks and then watching students cut across the grass between them, they simply planted grass and then waited to see where people walked. Once the paths were well-worn, they paved them. Architects call these "desire lines" because they represent the routes people take in the absence of (or avoidance of) pre-existing paths.

As in many universities around the country, many of us at Boston College have been exploring paths in digital humanities teaching for several years but without a deliberate or coordinated plan in our approach. We've simply started doing projects that took advantage of new tools and the opportunities they presented. Fortunately, some common paths have emerged over time and now we can see some patterns that are worth highlighting.

Emerging Practices

Here are some successful practices that have emerged in the context of undergraduate teaching:

Enable Real Research and Wider Audiences

Invite students to conduct primary research and participate in projects that provide wider audiences for their research:

  • Fine Arts professors Sheila Gallagher and Judy Bookbinder involved their students in researching unidentified Civil War sketches in the Becker Collection and their findings appeared in a McMullen Museum exhibit and on the exhibit website.
  • English professor Paul Lewis's students found a public audience for their research when their work on under-appreciated Boston writers was included in the "Forgotten Chapters of Boston's Literary History" exhibit and on the accompanying website.
  • History Professor Jeremy Clarke's students contributed content for a Burns Library exhibit and website meant to make rare books about China available to the public.

Turn Courses into Opportunities

When possible, design courses that take advantage of a larger project or event:

  • Paul Lewis, Sheila Gallagher and Judy Bookbinder intentionally designed courses to take advantage of upcoming exhibits and get their students involved in contributing content for them.
  • Joe Nugent in the English Department created a course on Joyce's Dubliners with the goal of having students produce an ebook guide called "Digital Dubliners" as part of the iBook Author pilot.

Encourage Retooling

Expose students to existing digital humanities methods and provide opportunities to experiment with both existing tools and emerging technologies:

  • With support from library staff, Laurie Shepard taught her Italian literature students TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) as a way to engage more deeply with sixteenth century comedies.
  • Joe Nugent had students help plan the Walking Ulysses project by plotting the route of the characters around Dublin on a Google Map, and had students learn, together with Joe himself, how to create a multimedia iBook on Dubliners.

Embrace Collaboration

Digital humanities are defined at least as much as a new set of relationships as they are by a new set of technologies.

  • When faculty designed opportunities to collaborate with students, and not just teach them, the result was a richer experience for both.
  • None of these projects could have happened without the close collaboration of faculty members, library staff, and IDeS, often with the support of university grants and Information Technology Services.

New Standards

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As these best practices gain recognition, they begin to shape new tools and resources, and worn footpaths receive the support of intentional paving. Library ventures such as participation in TEI are complemented by developments in technologies for teaching. This past year has seen the launch of a new version of MediaKron, an instructional multi-media presentation platform created at BC with support from IDeS, and funding from an Academic Technology Innovation Grant and the Davis Educational Foundation. New features, many of which were added in response to faculty requests, reflect these trends of greater connection with other colleagues, experimental technologies and the wider world of scholarship and programs.

Different access levels let instructors invite students to comment or even contribute content, so their research can be central to the site. Items in MediaKron can be plotted on a map, now including Google maps. Reference librarians have played a key role in providing content for many of the sites currently in pilot. Many instructors voice the hope that original research and data collection represented in their sites might eventually be made available for teaching and study in other institutions. Projects that in the past may have required an Academic Technology Innovation Grant (ATIG) now often can be done using MediaKron instead, offering a more sustainable way of supporting digital humanities going forward.

In going forward, new paths will still emerge even as digital humanities tools and collaborations become more established around the university. The digital humanities are exciting both for how much is happening and how much there is yet to be explored as tools and methods continue to evolve.

Please do not hesitate to contact IDeS at eteach@bc.edu if we can help in any way with your instructional digital projects.

Tim Lindgren
Instructional Designer, Instructional Design and eTeaching Services

Sarah Castricum
Instructional Designer, Instructional Design and eTeaching Services