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The Spirit of Collaboration

Posted in DH Blog

By Matthew Hannah and Heidi Kaufman


Don’t forget about our roundtable *this* Friday, 2-4 p.m., in McKenzie 375, where we’ll hear presentations about effective uses of digital pedagogy in our UO classes. Spring term is dedicated to embracing the digital turn in the humanities not just by learning more digital tools, but by thinking about the stakes of digital pedagogy in the university classroom. In Friday’s working group members of TEP will help us to consider new questions about to integrate technology into the humanities classroom effectively.

Looking forward, we’re offering a new hands-on workshop on social network analysis using Palladio. This new workshop will be held on May 10 at 3:00 in McKenzie 375.  Palladio is an easy-to-use digital tool that features social network and geographic network visualizations. We’ll begin by showing you how to generate data for Palladio. Next, we’ll have a discussion focused on using Palladio in research and in classroom assignments. How can Palladio help us to study characters in films or a Faulkner novel? How can Palladio show transatlantic networks in the American Revolution or help us to see otherwise invisible social networks? What can we see from a Palladio visualization about environmental abuses by corporations? Come to the workshop to find out more!


Our workshop and working group planning has us thinking quite a bit about collaboration. Traditionally, humanities scholars have three parts to their jobs. We develop and teach courses; we write books and essays; and we engage in service activities in our departments, around campus, in our scholarly circles, and in the places where we live. Sometimes these categories overlap or intersect, but not always. Digital humanities, however, creates new ways of thinking about this kind of blending of tasks.  In fact, one of the most exciting and terrifying things about digital humanities is that it blurs the boundaries between the separate-spheres structure that typically organizes our lives. We may wonder, do I really want my students working on my research project? Am I just using their time for personal gain? And will teaching them a digital tool or two make a difference in their knowledge of research, literature, or the relationship between forms of cultural expression and technology? What if a single person completes the assignment and the rest of the group just coasts?


Google Cartoons


We’ve been wrestling with these questions lately while forming a new dh minor and building new dh courses. And we find ourselves returning repeatedly to these questions: What can collaboration do effectively as a pedagogical practice? And what is dh’s role in that practice?

Of course there are many kinds of collaborations, most of which don’t require the use of digital tools. Yet, new digital tools make certain kinds of collaborative work possible, or rework old forms of collaboration. For example, students now bring computers into the classroom. Whereas I used to bring a paperback dictionary so that we could look up unfamiliar words in the texts we study in class, I now ask three students to look up the same word on three different online dictionaries. Collaborating in this way reminds us that language changes, words used to describe words are slippery, and that authors sometimes capitalize on language’s slipperiness.


Cartoon Stock

Yet, collaboration works in other ways as well. DH tools create new opportunities to rethink the idea of the author, the product of cultural expression, and our methods of evaluation. That’s not to say that previously research projects were created, produced, packaged, and delivered by one set of hands. A single name may appear on a book cover, but a team of people made possible that scholarly output. Perhaps, then, we might see dh’s collaborative affordances as just another form of scholarly output produced by a team. Only in this case students are doing more than just fact checking and looking up bibliographical citations for the endnotes—work that we could do but just don’t have the time. Maybe they’re engaged in designing new maps or network visualizations. Student writing might then not only analyze the scholarly essays read in preparation for their research projects, but might also consider the limits and arguments posed by their own digital output. Their work, in other words, might be used as another voice in a scholarly conversation. And their analysis—the 8-10 page research paper—is thus a product of their hands-on tinkering with digital tools, of weighing their results against the results of scholars, of analyzing the kinds of arguments visual tools prompt or hide.

Numerous studies have made strong cases for engaging students with “real” research questions—questions, that is, that bring students into the work of their professors. In such courses student work becomes part of a larger project. There’s a kind of honesty in such invitations. As we share with students the questions that keep us up at night we have an opportunity not just to teach them, but to actively engage them in these questions. Much of my teaching life, in fact, aims to do just that—to find ways to address what makes these questions so complex and compelling. And one of the advantages of the digital scholarly turn, or the creation of work on a portable website, is that the laboratory moves into the space where learning can proliferate through the collaborative efforts and energy of the classroom. Students, in turn, see their classroom experience as part of a larger scholarly conversation in which they participate and help to build.

Group assignments may work differently. Often more hands means too many cooks in the kitchen, resulting in burnt stew.  But implemented thoughtfully, too many hands also means that students have new ways of teaching one another, of working together to push against a bad idea or to analyze a strong or weak argument. Digital tools such as Palladio, n-gram viewer, Google maps, WordPress, Omeka, or QGIS enable students not just to produce an end product, but to work together to create, build, and design a project. Importantly, using dh tools invites conversations about technology’s limits and failures. Just as not all books will help us to learn what we’re trying to learn, not all technology will offer effective scholarly engagement. As the world turns digital we need to help students analyze technology’s power. How do we decide which digital tool to use? How do we have the courage to reject digital tools that others have accepted? These conversations are not only inevitable in a digital environment, but essential to critical thinking and engaged learning.

One of the reasons we’re thrilled to collaborate with TEP in Friday’s working group is that we hope to foreground the importance of strategic use of digital tools. Digital flash and dash in the classroom doesn’t necessarily help students learn. The challenge is to use digital tools strategically and effectively. How can we foster powerful student collaborations and/or faculty student collaborations? And how might these collaborations raise the stakes of course assignments, and the creation of new knowledge in the humanities?

For discussion of these questions please join us for our spring series, “Teaching with Technology.”

April 29th: Discussions with TEP about using technology in the UO classroom

May 10th: Palladio workshop from 3-5 in McKenzie 375

Last but certainly not least: follow us on Twitter @ OregonDH!

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