In Sessions on January 15, 2014 at 5:50 pm



  • Defining the Digital Humanities
  • Readings & Responses Review

Readings for Next Week:


  • Write a 300-500 word response to the above readings and bring  a hard copy with you to class.

Three (or Eight) Ways of Defining the Digital Humanities

Even the relatively small collection of readings we read for today’s class give us some sense of the scope of work conducted under the name of “digital humanities” as well as at least three ways to define it as something more specific/robust than “the humanities + computers.” Here’s my tight five, based on these readings and a few texts cited within them:

  • The Humanities with New Tools: As Kathleen Fitzpatrick suggests in here excellent 2011 review of the field, “The Humanities, Done Digitally,” at least in the early days of DG there was a split between how the endeavor was designed by the literary and cultural studies and rhetoric and composition studies wings of English Departments and related humanities fields. This distinction, usefully for us, might be understood in relation to methods/matter components of any disciplinary field (every discipline has its methods, it matter of study, and–this is what makes it “a discipline”–the combination of the two is unique from that of other disciplines). According to Fitzpatrick, the L & C wing of humanities departments tended to focus on the methods, creating early work in DH that deployed “digital technology in studying traditional humanities objects.”
  • The Humanities with New Objects of Analysis: The other side of the methods/matter distinction, according to Fitzpatrick, was best exemplified by early DH work in rhetoric and composition, which tended to instead use “the method of contemporary humanities in studying digital objects.” This change in the subjects of analysis might also be seen in the piece by Wolff we read for today, which emphasized changes in the (interactive) domain of the humanities and its common genre (ecologie)s of study.
  • The Latest Arrangement of the Relationship between the Humanities and the “Life” or Social Sciences. This  argument was made in a piece we read by some jerk.

Also of interest in these pieces was their engagement with the ways in which DH work, despite requiring, in some cases, specialized media or computer skills, may be helping the humanities to (re-)embrace a certain populism, in at least two ways:

  • DH Increase the Exposure of Humanities Scholarship and Teaching: As Kirschenbaum mentions near the end of his piece, “the digital humanities today is about a scholarship (and pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed” insofar as it trends toward the creation of open-access online scholarship and the analysis of quotidian (rather than rarified or culturally elite) media.
  • DH Emphasizes the Deskilling Process Involved in Contemporary Media Composition: DH scholarship has also been salutary in showing (mainly to academics) the lowering “ceiling” for access to working with new media technologies as either mechanisms of publication or object of analysis.

Finally, we might also consider how the readings for today (primarily via Conatser’s piece) demonstrate three common methods for integrating new media and technologies in (writing) instruction in the humanities:

  • Do Something Normal in a Better Way: Conatser, for instance, takes up common writing instruction processes–embedding instructor comments and writer annotations, encouraging self-reflection and metacognition in the writing process–but does so via teaching students to draft work in XML.
  • Teaching New (Necessary?) Skills in Communication and/or Composing: Are we reaching a time wherein students will be expected to know how to use XML the same way they are now expected to know how to use popular word processing programs? It may be difficult to tell, but the parallel between integrating experience in more advanced software skills might be usefully paralleled with earlier moments in which writing instruction dealt with this issue.
  • Doing Something Weird: While Wolff warns us, at the end of his piece, about making sure the use of technology in a classroom is driven more by actual instructional needs as opposed to the desire to simply “try out” a new technology or media in a classroom, the kind of invention and experimentation process of doing the latter has (sometimes) led to effective practices in DH-oriented pedagogy.
  1. Pruchnic’s piece gives a broad overview of the historical context of the relationship between the humanities and “the sciences.” He gives what he calls a “natural history” of the relationship, divided into Pantometrics, Prognometrics and Parametrics. Pantometrics is the era that sees the division being cleaved between the sciences and the humanities, between quantitative and qualitative analysis. Prognometrics, then, describes the time when the emergence of statistical analysis, particularly in the social sciences, leading to a predictive or future-oriented cultural focus. Parametric, then, or–“systems that adapt in real-time to subtle changes in their area of coverage” can be seen in production as targeted production of goods in response to niche demand, in medicine with mapping of the human genome and consequent (theoretical) targeting of individual diseases in individual patients, in finance with algorithmic “speculations” and in education with the adaptation of pedagogy and practice to target individual students’ needs. Thinking forward in a “where do we go from here?” attitude, Pruchnic argues for an awareness of intersections between humanities and the social and natural sciences, since the boundaries between these fields are continuing to blur.
    For myself as a composition teacher and scholar, this parametric spirit is strong and (terrifyingly) at work in Trey Conatser’s First Year Writing course. His description of basing his composition course on coding–XML specifically–sounds like a fairly literal interpretation of the blurred-to-nonexistant boundaries between “science” (and technology) and “the humanities” (like writing). However, it is not that much of a stretch to conceive of the intersections between a composition course and a coding course, both of which would necessarily focus on creative processes, using a language to express ideas, and the making of products that communicate those ideas. Personally, the scariest thing about reading Conatser’s piece was coming across so many bits of jargon that succeeded in short-circuiting my brain. However, I had other critiques of the piece, such as a desire for more compelling evidence to support Conatser’s claims that his students were “making connections” and “thinking rhetorically.” As he states in his “Recommendations” at the end, there would be a need for substantial training/tutorials for a class like the one Conatser describes. My feeling is that first year students would either rise above (perhaps up to a third of a class) and the rest would get left in the dust of the logistics and language, and not even dip a toe into the metacognition Conatser claims his course develops.

  2. Matthew

    What is hip?
    It seems that the Digital Humanities are a bit like hipsters. In turn I will discuss hipsters and then the Digital Humanities from a definitional perspective. According to the writing space of Urban Dictionary the top community-chosen definition of “hipster” is, well, too long for this response essay. Seven-hundred-twenty-two words. One-hundred-thirty-one-thousand-seven-hundred-sixty-seven “likes” have catapulted this wordy definition to the top of our “culture 2.0” understanding of skinny jeans. However, for our purposes here the 7th most (least?) popular definition from Urban Dictionary works best:

    \hip-stur\n. One who possesses tastes, social attitudes, and opinions deemed cool by the cool.

    So, the digital humanities, in imploring English Departments to re-define and re-consider what writing is, are acting a bit like hipsters. Take William Wolff’s bold statement:
    In the twenty-first century, effective and successful compositional engagement with Web 2.0 applications – Yancey’s “new composition” – requires an evolving interactive set of practices similar to those practices by gamers and comics and elit authors and readers.
    I say bold because Wolff uses a Darwinian metaphor to imply that natural selection prefers gamers and elit readers while impending extinction awaits professors of English in ivory towers. In a phrase: Wolff wants the intelligentsia of the West to be a bit less petit bourgeois and a bit more C-NET.
    Now, definitionally speaking, we should talk about my disclaimer of the DH being “a bit” like hipsters. My wife wears distressed jeans. I have a (small) collection of ironic t-shirts. We are the cool deeming others cool. However, creating a vine, or taking a screen-shot of an epic battle from Drakensang Online, is not cool. The Great Gatsby is cool. The former is akin to palm pilots: cool for like ten minutes. The latter is cool from generation to generation.
    It would behoove the DH to stop changing the definition of writing. Urban Dictionary has, as its 6th (least) popular definition, “a punishment assigned to students.” Most syllabi have built-in punishments for using Facebook. The DH would have students spend more time on facebook for being on facebook during class time.
    As an alternative to definitional manipulation I suggest a return to Aristotle, via the translation of George Kennedy, “an ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion.” The DH seem, to this rhetorician, to be aspiring rhetoricians who are too immature to ween themselves off Shakespeare, Dante, Mellville and the Canon.

  3. The readings for this week did prompt me to think about definitions, but not definitions of digital humanities or other tech-like phrases. It caused me to think more about (or perhaps rethink) the ever-changing definition of composition itself, along with our motives and practices. William Wolff states, “The Web is the ultimate customer-powering environment. He or she who clicks the mouse gets to decide everything” (218). This is similar to what Jeff Pruchnic calls the “parametric mode of production” in which “goods can be quickly made in rapid response to the extant needs or desires of ever smaller segments of the population.” Obviously, composition research and practices must respond to the increasing and changing technologies that surround us and our students. The question, for me, is how to do that in a meaningful way. Are we taking up technological teaching practices to respond to the customer-driven environment in which higher education currently finds itself, or are we taking them up because they significantly enhance and facilitate learning in a way that cannot be accomplished through any other means? We can all trace the advent of technology throughout the classroom – mimeographs to copies to online texts, projectors to VCRs to streaming videos, chalkboards to overhead transparencies to PowerPoint to Prezi – but can we take time to think about the motives? Is it about convenience? Is it about being current or trendy? How do these things help us to teach writing better? I thought Trey Conatser was writing in order to answer that very question in saying, “Here’s a technology I tried, and here’s how it facilitated metacognition and collaboration.” However, it’s not clear to me if that was the overall intention or just the end result. I think we need to be conscious about our motives when we adopt new technologies. We should not use them just for the sake of using them; it should be intentional and in the pursuit of our teaching goals.
    It seems to me, then, that the other issue is defining what our teaching goals are in this day and age. Whereas Wolff mentions the need to “help students become more digitally sophisticated writers,” Conatser promotes a model whereby “traditional” writing is still the focus, but it is enhanced by the use of technology. Wollf talks about the extensive prior knowledge and experience students need in order to use Web 2.0 applications. The goal, however, seems to be to learn about those applications and what happens within them. Conatser also recognizes a learning curve involved in using XML for composition, but the end result is to become better writers and, in the process, students also learn some valuable computing skills. I think we are all aware that there are many types of writing, but one question to ask is what kinds of writing do we/should we privilege in the 21st century writing class? Are we interested in using technology to increase students’ abilities in writing “traditional” kinds of texts, or are we interested in teaching the writing that is the technology itself? Clearly it does not have to be one or the other, but what does the class that tries to do both look like? Is it Conatser’s class? Or is it something else?

  4. In paremetric society, the method of writing education has been changed from evaluating only the final result to learning through the whole process of writing (Par 23, Pruchnic). This different and new kind of approach in writing is embodied in Trey Conatser’s “Changing Medium, Transforming Composition.” Not by using the existing tool, a word processor, but by making a composition class based on XML (Extensible Markup Language), Conatser shows how this changed method works in better ways: students are able to see their writing processes through such as XML tags and SVN Commit Log as well as their final results, and they also able to work collaboratively and learn from each other by reading colleagues’ writings, corpus files, which are visible to all classmates. In other words, students learn not only what to write but also how to write.

    One of good points of Digital Humanities is that access to things is easier than before: We can now publish articles through personal blogs and visitors can read them if they want to or as seen in 2009 MLA Conference in Kirschenbaum’s article, anyone can participate in conversation in the digital world through Tweeter just by clicking following button. However, not every tool is already programmed for easy use and if we wanted to apply specific digital tools to specific purposes, we should learn how to use them first. For XML-based composition class, Conatser teaches himself “XSLT, HTML, CSS, and Javascript . . . only for the one semester, and at great cost to [his] exam reading” (Par 17). Obviously, these computer languages sound much more complicated and difficult to learn and so to apply to the classroom than just to use some given sources from the Internet. To promote XML-based composition class (or to use XML in other areas), Conatser suggests that courses and tutorials related to those languages and methodologies are to be offered. To open such a course which is not traditional, there should be many aspects to be considered such as how many instructors will take the course, what to settle before opening the course and how to arrange specialist in the area, how much cost it will take, etc. So it will take some time and I suddenly wonder if this could be practiced in the near future by the time when people still want this. Because I think things change faster than before in the era of Digital Humanities so it is possible this course would be obsolete when finally offered.

  5. I would like to begin with Wolff’s piece, and consequently, what I feel to be the most urgent claim from our readings this week. He states that “writing in the age of Web 2.0 exists within an ecosystem of dynamic, overlapping, and evolving interactivities” (223 emphasis added). Wolff then offers that in order “to more fully understand the compositional implications of this new composition – of the diverse and evolving ways students write in, interact with, and think through Web 2.0…we need to shift our perspective from seeing them as spaces that afford multiple writing genres to seeing them for their visible and invisible diversity, complexity, and interactivity” (223 emphasis added). The point here is not to promptly march away (in name only) from genre theory and blindly fall right back into it through an emphasis on prosumer digital composition – obviously for dismissing genre discussions from our pedagogy. Rather, Wolff’s comments seem indicative of a larger “parametric” (to echo Jeff) paradigm shift that has already taken place and left many staunchly traditional Humanities scholars behind. The variables associated with linear print composing, while not obsolete by any means, have been both multiplied and intensified into a larger, more dynamic ecosystem of writing.

    In this regard, Jeff’s periodization scheme becomes particularly useful when thinking about the ecologies and environments within which our students compose. A “natural history of networks” outlines the vector of public discourse our students already inhabit in social media environments – the parametric mode they must learn to effectively work within as they move beyond the university. The complex interplay of dynamically shifting relationships between widgets, applications, web pages, audience members, and authors across multiple platforms, geographical locations, and moments in time – all of it – represents a monumental rhetorical task for students to effectively leverage, much less understand (even in local situations?).

    If the larger operating principle of the Digital Humanities, as it exerts its free-floating influence on individual disciplines, is the parametric ecosystem (to mash Jeff and Wolff together), then it should be no surprise that “ecological” approaches to Rhetoric and Composition are currently afforded much more conversational weight than when Syverson first published her “Ecology of Composition.” However, in my admittedly limited exposure to such perspectives, I find that they mostly focus on some intangible or “Ambient” force that remains in excess of the communication environment and either human, or in OOO’s case, non-human agents. It seems to me that the above implied works are narrowing their foci on fruitful sites – the relationships or “systems that adapt in real-time to subtle changes in their area of coverage” – but their conclusions remain ultimately vague and unsatisfying for me. Instead, I wonder if it would be more explicit and more productive to take Wolff’s tack, and more carefully examine the digital “spaces” our students use as environments they both inhabit and co-create by learning and adapting some version of the flexible behavioral schema he offers in his conclusion? Or in Wolff’s words, digital environment factors “are not benign website window dressing. Rather, they are rhetorical constructs that structure and shape a user’s experience” (218). From my experience with online/digital/distance learning initiatives, this sort of concrete environmental approach to digital composing might a sea-change in the ways we design, utilize, and even inhabit online courses and digital learning environments.

  6. Response #2: Wiki Wiki What?!
    Rebecca Lundin’s article, “Teaching with Wikis: Toward a Networked Pedagogy,” discusses both the advantages and disadvantages of using a wiki in the writing classroom. What her article, along with those from Spinuzzi and Rendhal, et al, provide strong evidence supporting the fact that an online, interactive learning environment is not inherently a problem. In fact, a combination of good study skills, proactive students, and involved instructors show that the online learning environment is just as good, if not better (for some students, anyways) than the traditional learning environment. Perhaps it is because the generation of students now entering into college have spent their entire lives using computers and the resources of the internet that the transition towards online learning is not a difficult one for them to make. Lundin’s article on the wiki discusses how academia is hesitant to embrace new technologies and believes this is doing them a disservice. I found the articles to be enlightening; however, I felt that there was little new information to be found in them. For this reason, I would like to focus on the concept of the wiki as a tool for the writing classroom.
    For starters, Lundin’s article was clearly written and published for a particular audience with a basic familiarity of the wiki. Aside from being a Wikipedia user and understanding how it functions, I know nothing about wikis. Where does one even go to make a wiki? According to Lundin, one of the selling points to using a classroom wiki is the fact that it is less structured and offers more creative freedom than a typical blog. But for some students (and instructors), not having a structure or guidelines to follow can actually hinder creativity. As instructors, I’m sure we have all had at least one student in the past who had a conniption if they were told to “write about whatever.” Another point from the article was that the wiki is a great way to engage students in collaborative writing. She uses the example of peer reviewing and working drafts to make this point. What she does not do, is tell us HOW that works. I’m curious as to how, or even why, the wiki model is effective here. Likely it is ignorance on my part, being only familiar with Wikipedia, but that is the model I have in my head when I imagine the wiki. I agree that having a place for students and instructors to collect, share, and modify information is useful – in another class I am responsible for participating in a class built annotated bibliography on Blackboard – but I have yet to be convinced that a wiki is the best option out there.
    And can we also just take a moment to sit back and think about how happy 80s rappers are that ‘wiki’ is now part of the common vocabulary? There are some very excited little ‘aliens’ that they can say “wiki wiki again.” Please see the video attached with this post on the blog.

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