old school classroom

I’m often asked for a solid introduction to teaching with digital humanities approaches, “especially a decent book, not just a bunch of links.” For the foreseeable future, Claire Battershill and Shawna Ross* have provided me with an excellent answer: Their new book, Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom: A Practical Introduction for Teachers, Lecturers, and Students (Bloomsbury) offers both a coherent account of how one might think about a pedagogy that is both humanistic and digitally-informed as well as a kaleidoscopic array of possible assignments, or even just tweaks to existing assignments.

You can tell that you are in fully humanistic, and not merely techno-enthusiastic, hands near the beginning of the book, when Battershill and Ross center their approach to digital humanities on reflection, both because such a focus helps “students to connect their digital work explicitly with the other assignments and texts in the course” and because “frustration and failure” are common affects within DH. They commend, to the extent possible, “a resolutely cheerful and optimistic attitude” when engaging students in this way, and note that--contrary to much hand-wringing about the loss of surprising discovery in the digital world (“just think of wandering the stacks!”), their approach “value[s] the unforeseen, accidental, and contingent.”

Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom is full of great material, with chapters on accessibility, syllabus design (can’t *believe* they went with “syllabi,” though!), finding support communities on- and offline, and even teaching grad students. But for many readers--including, for example, longtime readers of ProfHacker, or even, hypothetically, founding co-editors of ProfHacker who find themselves reviewing the book--chapters 5-8, on “Designing Classroom Activities,” “Managing Classroom Activities,” “Creating Digital Assignments,” and “Evaluating Student Work,” will offer the most immediate help.

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“Designing Classroom Activities” is arguably my favorite chapter of the book, as it offers a wide variety of assignments grouped roughly by “how long would this take in a class?” So, there are 10-minute assignments, 30 minute assignments, class-length assignments, and more. Many of these assignments are exploratory in nature:


Exploratory activities, then, are often more about what skills and thoughts are generated than about what fact or content knowledge is learned. Excitingly, they require collaborative thinking and innovative methods, which allow you to push beyond the bounds of your own discipline and find multiple forms of activities that you can try out--in intentionally low-stakes ways--in order to introduce new perspectives. . . . We would even suggest that the more unlikely and strange the format seems to you, the more likely it will yield unforeseen, valuable results that will make the best use of your students’ (and your own) knowledge and creativity.

There’s sound advice on creating useful prompts and other descriptions of activities--not only calling out skills learned within the class but also as a way of helping students translate skills they’ve learned in your class to other classes or even for post-academic audiences.

“Managing Classroom Activities” offers considerations of such chestnuts as in-class use of smartphones or laptops with more “resolutely cheerful and optimistic” approaches to troubleshooting technical issues. The chapter on evaluation is remarkable, as it speaks at different moments to quite different audiences: overstretched faculty who are doing the best they can to provide students with helpful feedback as well as grades, as well as faculty who have coherent, well-worked out resistance to grading. Regardless of whether one provides formal grades or not, Battershill and Ross call for an assessment process based on “iterative learning, process-oriented evaluation, and multiliteracies,” as a strategy for playing up the “variety of conceptual and practical uses” that emerge through digital humanities pedagogy.

Surely by now you’ll be thinking, “wait a second, a print book about digital tools? Isn’t all of this a bit always-already dated?” Well! Battershill and Ross have of course thought of such a thing, and have developed an extensive companion site (in Scalar, natch!) that offers direct links to even more resources and keeps the overall thrust of the book very much up-to-the-minute. Intelligently, the site is scaffolded in such a way that if there’s an activity, there’s probably an assignment that builds on it, and if there’s an assignment, there’s almost certainly a rubric or similar guidance for assessment.

Bottom line: At the minute, I think Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom is the best such book going, and is worth the time of anyone who’s interested in thinking about humanities pedagogy, especially if you’re interested in considering some digital tools. And it’s interesting even if you’re not terribly interested in the digital, because it offers direct, accessible reflection on the humanistic goals of many such assignments.Folks in other disciplines will also find assignments to adapt, or will come to understand why folks are interested in digital humanities work with undergrads in the first place. I say this less often than you’d think, but this is a book I wish I’d written about five years ago.

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Photo “old school” by Flickr user alamos basement / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

* Shawna Ross has put me on not one, but two panels at the Modern Language Association conference in New York in January. Despite that, I still like this book very much!