Opening Up Digital Humanities Education

Sorry I’ve been gone from the blog for so long. I’ve been absorbed by several wee writing projects, including a CLIR report investigating “Can a New Research Library Be All-Digital?” co-authored with Geneva Henry; an essay on collaboration in the digital humanities for Collaborative Approaches to the Digital in English Studies, edited by Laura McGrath; and “What Is She Doing Here?” for #alt-ac: alternate academic careers for humanities scholars, edited by Bethany Nowviskie. Now I’m working on an essay for Brett Hirsch’s Teaching Digital Humanities: Principles, Practices, and Politics, but this time I plan to blog my research, getting feedback (I hope) and refining my ideas along the way.

Recently several leaders in the digital humanities (DH) have called for greater inclusiveness. As Geoffrey Rockwell warns, DH risks operating as an old boys’ (and girls’) network because “there are few formal ways that people can train.” Developing and demonstrating the skills required to become a digital humanist typically requires apprenticing on a major project, but not everyone has the opportunity to do so. Further, such an education can be partial, exposing participants to the skills needed for a particular project but not necessarily the broader context of digital humanities.

To provide flexible opportunities for professional education, the DH community should experiment with a distributed, mostly online, open certificate program. I propose a certificate program because it would enable graduate students and working professionals to acquire necessary knowledge and skills without re-arranging their lives to pursue a full-fledged masters or Ph.D. program. Participants would build knowledge, engage in community, produce significant work, and acquire a professional credential that would, one hopes, open up more opportunities.

Not only would such a program offer more paths to entry, but it would also provide a focused way for the DH community to re-imagine how professional education is conceived, structured and delivered. Reforming humanities education should be fundamental to DH’s broader goal to explore “how the humanities may evolve through their engagement with technology, media, and computational method.” DH already has some compelling educational initiatives, such as the intensive learning-by-doing of One Week One Tool; the immersion offered by programs like Digital Humanities Summer Institute and the NEH’s Institutes for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities; the student engagement of participatory learning, such as through crowdsourcing grading; the community-based, flexible learning of THATCamp; the multi-campus, aggregated learning of Looking for Whitman; and the networked conversations facilitated by HASTAC and Twitter. Can we build on these efforts and deliver professional education that engages the global DH community, offers project-based learning, leverages the network, and provides participants with key skills and knowledge?

Education, by Xin Li 88

A certificate program in DH would likely have these features:

  1. Open: Anyone should be able to use and even to create or modify course materials produced for the certificate program. Openness promotes the values of DH and indeed of education (as David Wiley argues, “education is sharing“). Moreover, the DH community can share labor in developing course materials and keeping them dynamic, fresh, and relevant. Julie Meloni has proposed a compelling model to “Develop Self-Paced Open Access DH Curriculum for Mid-Career Scholars Otherwise Untrained” that I think can be extended to early-career scholars as well.
  2. Distributed: Rather than assuming that expertise is concentrated at a particular location, the program would give participants access to experts around the world, who would serve as mentors for projects and online seminars. We can see a model for distributed, open online seminars in massive open online courses such as Dave Cormier and George Siemens’ “Education Futures” and David Wiley’s “Introduction to Open Education.”
  3. Community-focused: Already digital humanists are sharing and building knowledge using social technologies such as Twitter, but this approach should extend to education. Students would regularly participate in online forums and other networked conversations with their cohort group, as well as with the larger community. They could also help to coordinate crowdsourcing efforts such as transcriptions or distributed editions, gaining an embedded knowledge of how networked communities work.
  4. Balanced between making and reflecting: The DH community has been divided over debates over whether its focus should be computation or theory, method or communication. Why not both? Participants could both build–collections, networks, tools, methods–and reflect on the process, significance, and theoretical dimensions of what they have built.
  5. Competency rather than credit based: The traditional course structure may be too artificial, driven by the institutional need to cut up learning into semesters and credit hours. Instead, the certificate program could focus on core competencies for digital humanities professionals, such as a basic understanding of programming, knowledge representation, media studies, digitization, networked communication, and the history of digital humanities/humanities computing. Prior knowledge and participation at other DH events–summer institutes, hackfests and the like–should count. Participants in the DH certificate program could demonstrate their competencies through open online portfolios that would be evaluated by the community through an open peer review process.

Much of what I’m proposing has been kicked around in the distance education and open education communities for a while. But I think the DH community can actually pull something like this off. I anticipate that the greatest challenges to implementing such a program would be eliciting participation among the mentors and learning module developers and coming up with an effective model for administering, financing and certifying it. Perhaps a funding organization with an interest in distance education and/or DH could invest in the program to get it started. Perhaps the program could be coordinated by a digital humanities center, library school, collaboration among multiple institutions, or even by a professional organization such as ACH. My next posts will look at existing educational programs in DH, the DH curriculum, approaches to open education, the structure of a proposed program, and strategies for assessment and certification.

Note: Parts of this post come from my abstract for Teaching Digital Humanities.

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12 responses to “Opening Up Digital Humanities Education

  1. Pingback: Links for 2010-09-08 | Stéphane Thibault

  2. This type of certificate program would be particularly well-suited for PhD students or recent graduates who may be interested in diving into DH but are constrained by formal PhD/early career research requirements.

    Also, as a burgeoning digital humanist, I’ve found the conversation difficult to penetrate in terms of participation. It seems that all the players know each other already, and the conversation is closed to outsiders, which is (I’m pretty sure) what digital humanists do NOT want outsiders to feel like. The slightly formal process of mentoring and project participation would provide outsiders like myself an opportunity to join the conversation in a meaningful, all the while earning my stripes in a meaningful and productive manner.

  3. Good point, Christopher. I’m sorry to hear that the conversation feels closed to outsiders, since my perception (as someone who has been a part of the community for a while, admittedly) is that the DH community is pretty open and welcoming–certainly it does not want to seem closed. If you get a chance, try attending a THATCamp, which is a great way to meet other people with an interest in digital humanities. Anyhow, thanks for the comment.

    • Bethany Nowviskie has written a thoughtful, eloquent post on the subject of inclusiveness in digital humanities that addresses the issue you raised, Christopher, far better than I could: http://nowviskie.org/2010/eternal-september-of-the-digital-humanities/
      (And I hope my comment that I’ve been part of the community for a while didn’t sound smug–I’ve certainly felt like an outsider myself. What made a difference for me was starting a blog; I was amazed and inspired by the generosity of the community in responding to it. I think we each can find our niche, but perhaps the field is getting more crowded these days and it’s harder to discover that place. And although I think that Twitter has helped to knit together the community and spread information, it also makes visible conversations that we’re not a part of.)

  4. Lisa, this is a wonderful and long-overdue idea for actually delivering on the promise of digital humanities and actually extending rather just augmenting the potential of digital technology and humanistic work. With that in mind, I would think that a successful program should look beyond the traditionally defined professional academic towards a) undergraduate students b) community arts/history/heritage volunteers and staffers c) librarians and archivists. The list probably goes on. By providing a set of tools and approaches in a clear, consistent manner, “digital humanities” could reach much further than its current scope and make a (hopefully) bigger splash.

  5. Thanks for helpful comment, Zachary. I would like to see the proposed certificate program and materials developed for it open to a wide and diverse community.

  6. Welcome back, Lisa! I’ve missed you terribly.
    Please don’t ever go away for so long again.

  7. In the light of recent cuts to the humanities in the UK, do you think that the digital humanities are less vulnerable or equally vulnerable?

    Enjoyed finding your blog. Will

    • Wow, good question, Will. I think that the digital humanities are vulnerable as well as the (what–traditional?) humanities. Several digital humanities programs are just in the process of being launched, so these programs may not be fully realized in light of budget problems. It may be easier for digital humanities projects to find research funding (not that there is a lot of funding available, but there is some), but cutbacks will likely affect teaching (particularly if adjuncts and visitors are used). I think digital humanists need to advocate for the humanities; Alan Liu is taking real leadership here (see his recent posts to the HUMANIST listserv).

  8. Pingback: Digital Humanities « WFGP's Blog

  9. Pingback: Learning DH the DIY Way | THATCamp Virginia 2010

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