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NYCDH Week 2017: “The Pedagogy of DH: A Conversation” with Kimon Keramidas and Marion Thain on Friday, February 10, 2017 at NYU’s John W. Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program

Professors Kimon Keramidas and Marion Thain
(Image sources: http://bit.ly/2lNiab3, http://bit.ly/2l2evSz)

To close out this year’s NYCDH Week, Kimon Keramidas and Marion Thain offered a workshop for anyone currently teaching or planning to teach a course focusing on Digital Humanities. Kimon is an Associate Director and Clinical Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at New York University’s John W. Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program. Marion is also an Associate Director of Digital Humanities and Associate Faculty in English. The workshop, which was emphasized to be more of a conversation than lecture, was offered in response to pedagogy often being left out in the bigger conversations of Digital Humanities, according to Kimon. Stephen Brier argues for a digital humanities where pedagogy is a driving force establishing a relationship between digital scholarship and digital pedagogy. Like Kimon and Marion, he suggests looking more critically at DH, in regards to teaching and learning, in hopes of allowing for the continued expansion of its overall impact, making it even more relevant.

Kimon and Marion effectively began the conversation by walking us through the structure of their current DH courses, respectively. First, Kimon explained that there was a move to add DH to the interdisciplinary structure of the Draper program. He went on to describe how he designed his two DH course, which are both surveys and nonsequential. According to Kimon, there are four modules of thought in DH, which he paired off into two separate courses; Collections and Connections, and Analysis and Visualization. Both courses weave in and out from theory, to method, then reflection when approaching what Kimon considers to be the core of DH: databases, where the collections being engaged for the work is also looked at rather than just databases; networks, where connections can be found in both human infrastructure, and network graphs and scholarly communication; algorithms, where it goes beyond close reading, but rather surface reading and historical algorithmic analysis of statistics; and visualization, where 3D models and time based media are looked at alongside maps and graphs, and examining the ways data has been drawn and expressed.

One of the most interesting aspects of Kimon’s courses is his students working directly with existing DH work, such as History Moves. His students are tasked with prototyping using tools such as Prezi and PowerPoint, and creating proposals while engaging with real projects in the field. I think this is a great way for DH students to not only see what is currently happening, but also have the experience of working with actual DH projects critically.

Marion described her courses as having “slightly different agendas”, in comparison to Kimon’s courses, in that they do not “imagine and taxonomize the core foundational fields of DH.” Her first course focuses on digital culture and it is for second year undergraduate students. My initial thought of this course was that I wished this or something like it was available when I was an undergraduate student. In this course, Marion focuses moreso on the theoretical and conceptual rather than the tool-based practice of DH. The goal is to have students reflect, in a more sophisticated way, upon their everyday engagement with the digital world. She highlighted that Facebook and Google, for example, are tools used everyday, but we generally do not know what happens with our data. The course starts with the idea of utopias and dystopias, which is continued throughout the semester. Along with other key topics, various minor experiments involving digital tools are done. It is very interesting that both creative and theoretical works are used in the course and are treated as “interchangeable visions of digital cultures,” according to Marion. This definitely supports the recurring idea of both utopian and dystopian societies especially in regards to digital culture. The course ends with student projects that are, essentially, following up any one of the ideas explored throughout the semester and can easily be incorporated with their own interests and future academic endeavors. This course can be instrumental in transforming how one approaches their own digital practices in the digital world.

In Marion’s second course, co-taught with Professor Deena Engel from Computer Science, is a graduate course where students are tasked with building their own online archive of a primary work found in the Fales Library & Special Collections. Throughout the process, students are to reflect on the theoretical and practical aspects of textual materiality and digitization while digitizing, showcasing, and analyzing their own chosen work. On the technical side, the students begin to build their archives on WordPress, but eventually learn to work “under the hood” in order to customize and change the site according to their needs. I thought it was especially important that Marion pointed out that there is a broad range of previous technical and theoretical knowledge in the students taking the course, which was mirrored by the two professor teaching it. Some students came in with their strengths lying more so in the technical side, while it was more so theoretical for others.

For the remainder of the morning, Kimon and Marion opened up the floor to attendees who are currently engaging in DH pedagogy or is interested in incorporating it into their work. It was during this time, I realized three important points in the conversation that stood out the most.

The first, collaboration, was described as a basis for DH and it was a recurring theme throughout the conversation. DH is not monolithic and and it is not just tool based, according to Kimon. Both Kimon and Marion highlighted the importance of having guest speakers in their courses, especially those from other disciplines, because it reaffirmed how cultural DH is and that it is deeply rooted in various manifestations of practice.

The conversation eventually shifted to assessment. An attendee asked about the process of assessing students beyond or despite their skill level, which can vary. Both Kimon and Marion agree that it is about the overall learning process, not about hitting marks, which I personally found comforting as a DH student lacking in technical skills.

In terms of assessing students on the usage of a tool, Marion requires her students to think critically and ask themselves a series of questions throughout the process of using the tool, which she then asks them to reflect on in the form of an essay. She suggested that the number of tools introduced should be reduced to make room for critical reflective thinking. The technical process can be a simple one, but the real value is found in the reflection process and without any point of reflection, it is worthless. This practice is especially important with many tools becoming more intuitive and, in turn, more difficult to realize any real issues.

Another attendee then made a point about the difficulty of assessing aesthetic in student work. Kimon suggested taking time at the start of the course to get to know where students are in terms of skill and knowledge then grade them on improvement. Kimon took into account courses dedicated visualization of which he said “all rhetorics end in point of design.” Aesthetic consideration should be entirely about the content and the experience. Having students not only think critically of how they are presenting the data, or how the content is reflected in the presentation, but also how and why students made the decisions they did throughout the design process.

Also, assessment through feedback from peers, as suggested by another attendee, can help push student projects to a more professional level. It also models the practice of asking the various questions, as required with Marion’s critical reflective thinking, that should be asked throughout the process, but collectively as a group.

There was finally a question from an attendee trying to incorporate DH as a way to foster creative critical thinking in their students all while experiencing a lack of support both on the technical side and from their institution. One attendee, who also does not have the support of technical staff, suggested that one tool be chosen to truly hone your skills. Time should be spent on really learning about the tool, maybe even up to three tools, and possible methodologies. Ultimately, this can help build “an aura”, according to Kimon, of success in that you are acquiring a response and building some level of trust between yourself and the people whose needs you are meeting and who you need, in return, to support you.

Marion also interjected that along with internal funding, external funding should be taken advantage of. This can not only help to create the tool you want, but it can also pay for technical support. Kimon then reminded us that operating your budget effectively and responsibly is key because that funding does not last.

This event proved to be invaluable for anyone interested in the pedagogy of DH. I thought the success of the conversation was found in it being presented as such rather than a workshop or lecture because a majority of the attendees were educators with specific inquiries regarding their own work. Kimon and Marion were especially effective in not only leading the conversation, but allowing other teachers in the room to weigh in, based on their own experiences throughout the discussion. With my own pedagogical interests, amongst other things, but lack of technical skills all while being on the cusp of my own DH studies, it was extremely beneficial to learn of the various ways DH can be approached through instruction in and out of the classroom. Kimon, Marion, and several of the attendees, not only provided various approaches to their own pedagogical work in DH, which is inherently interdisciplinary and collaborative, but also reinforced that they mindful of their students’ needs in order to be successful in their courses and and beyond as DH scholars.

References

Brier, S. (2012). Where’s the Pedagogy? The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities.
http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/8