Teaching Digital Humanities with Analog Tools: Background and Assumptions

31 Jan 2017 update: A full article has been published as “Analog Tools in Digital History Classrooms: An Activity-Theory Case Study of Learning Opportunities in Digital Humanities”

It’s hard to guarantee access to all the right tools for digital humanities in a standard classroom. That’s doubly true in a survey course that’s listed as a traditional history class, especially when it’s not feasible to schedule every single class session in a computer lab. Still, I’m not about to let a lack of tools get in the way of my love of digital humanities.

After all, one of my favorite things to say about digital humanities is that it’s what we do with the tools, not the tools themselves, that matter.

To that end, I’m posting a series of lesson plans that don’t require a full suite of digital tools but will still effectively introduce students to digital-humanities research techniques. These lesson plans are part of a unit on The Iliad and require only a chalkboard or large pads of paper.

Background and Assumptions

There are a few assumptions here, both about my teaching practices and about what students are bringing into the classroom, that merit a bit of explanation.

First, my syllabus designates two reading passes. One, a “skim” pass, asks students to quickly and rapidly scan several sets of books for basic plot, characters, and an overview of the themes. One of the learning goals I explicitly communicate to students at the beginning of the semester has to do with experiencing texts the way a humanities professional does, and skimming is one of the things we do to give ourselves a framework. We skim for basic narrative, character interaction and thematic overview, and then we go back and close read for details that fit into–or change–the framework we constructed during the skimming process. For the Iliad unit, they skim 1, 6-8, 15-17, and 22-24 on days one and two. They then close-read 1 book from books 6-8, and 1 book from books 15-17 or 22-24 for each of the two remaining class sessions. These exercises took place on days 2 and 3 of the Iliad unit. The network lesson was on day 2, a skim day, while the frequency lesson was on day 3, a close-reading day.

Second, in keeping with that “humanities professional in training” approach, we’ve already looked at a number of different digital-history approaches, including using social media to communicate meaning, and using online tools to assist in basic pattern discovery. These exercises build on those experiences, which I’ve built custom tools for and will tackle in a future blog post.

Ready?

  1. Lesson 1 tackles analog tools, the Iliad, and networks to guide students through a discussion about using context and about using different types of sources in historical analysis.
  2. Lesson 2 uses an oversimplified frequency-analysis text-mining approach to foster discussions about theme, authorial intent, and narrative structure.
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