Teaching Digital Humanities to Students

Stef ScagliolaBelow is the text that Stef Scagliola wrote to the developers of Bamboo Dirt, after spending two days of browsing through their beautiful registry of digital tools, in search of appropriate tools with tutorials to use in a bachelor 3rd year class on digital literacy:

I am an historian exploring the digital humanities agenda at the Erasmus Studio of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. I am also a member of the Virtual Center of Competence 2 of the DARIAH initiative, and as such trying to create support for the development of a portal with digital tools that is suitable for teaching DH to bachelor and master students with a non-computer science background. I recently talked to a colleague Christoph Schoch from Wurzburg, and he suggested to write to the developers of Bamboo Dirt and ask them to adjust the structure of the registry  to suit the needs of such a course.
My impression is that there is a gap between courses that delve into programming and modelling, and courses that teach the basic terminology of computer and information science. Some lecturers integrate these features into general research methodology of quantitative and qualitative data, or methods of source criticism, but very often  it is not part of the curriculum.
Bamboo DirtIn Rotterdam we are developing such a course in the form of a interfacultary minor. I think Bamboo Dirt is a wonderful registry of all possible tools, but not suitable for the purpose of conveying basic knowledge on how digital tools work  in a teaching environment. What I suggest is an environment with a selection of tools arranged along the sequence of the research process:

  • searching archives for suitable data or literature
  • processing your own data or reusing data from some else
  • presenting the result of your research
  • curating the data for long term preservation (see: http://eprints.eemcs.utwente.nl/20868 )

I would like to be able to select features of tools at the top level of the registry (open access etc) , and not within a specific category, and these would be the ideal criteria for selection:

  • open access
  • direct relation with research process (this means leaving out everything that has to do with cataloguing, creating online content, archiving, curating)
  • availability of a video tutorial
  • availability of cleaned data sets that can be downloaded and used in class (variety of sources: text, numerical, audio-visual, photography, social media-data) or links to places where these can be found
  • an opening page with a clear overview
  • possibility to skip complicated register, login/pass word procedures
  • possibility to gradually develop best practices page with tips for educators (links to suitable data sets in different languages!)

These insights gradually developed as I tried to select a number of tools that could be integrated into a teaching portal and that would suit our course, by systematically scanning all the categories of the Bamboo Dirt registry. It took me two days, and I only got through the first couple of categories. I realized I was trying to make sense out of a telephone book. In a way, you more or less already have to know what you are looking for. The magnitude of what is available is an obstacle to assessing what the best choice is on the basis of thorough knowledge of the content of each tool. Initially I wanted to create the portal for our course this coming year, with the help and feedback from colleagues from Denmark and Austria, but I gradually came to the conclusion that it is too ambitious within the time frame and the available means. In general my impression is that DH is a great field, it attracts enthusiastic people who are willing to share, but its inclusiveness (library, studies, archivists, designers, artists, information studies) and democratic nature has a downside, as it creates a deluge of perspectives and tools, and lack of authority on what yields the best possible result. This need for clarity may be a 'generation' thing, I was born in 1958,  but my experience is that many researchers share this "Alice in Digital Wonderland' sensation, exciting, but disorientating.

Dr. Stef Scagliola
Erasmus University Rotterdam