Digital Roots: Learning/Using/Making Technology

This is a slightly modified version of my talk at Network Detroit on September 27

You can find the prezi connected to this presentation here: http://bit.ly/digitalroots

Today I want to share a little bit about my personal path to becoming involved with DH, and discuss some of the reasons why digital assignments are so vital to graduate and undergraduate work.

As I began to understand what it meant to be an academic, I admit I felt a little disconnected from the field. I cared most about the practical elements of scholarship, like editing, publishing, and finding cool pop-culture elements I could bring to my students in class. I didn’t really consider that to be part of academia until I started learning more about digital projects. When I took Lisa’s Rise of the Novel class, one of the options for the final project was a website. I was already teaching and using Wikis in the classroom, but wasn’t trained to see that as a key side of my work. Building a website to analyze the novel Tristram Shandy helped me start to realize that there was still innovative and exciting work that I, a PhD student and hopeful scholar, could be bringing to the table. For the first time it made me consider that there might be a way to marry my interests in publishing, editing, and popular culture with my passion for literary studies.

This brings me to my first point: digital projects are a fantastic way to encourage young scholars to see themselves as part of the field—a field that’s growing, that is alive, and whose purpose is not just to produce knowledge, but to share it. After that class, I learned that Digital Humanities was a thing: an actual academic concentration that had been around for much longer than I thought. And just yesterday I was reminded that it used to be called Humanities Computing, but that term scared some people who thought they didn’t know how to program or code. I have to say that scares me, too. But in an exciting way.

Once you start thinking about digital arguments, you want to start defining everything else that may fit into that umbrella. I thought: well, I use technology to teach…is that DH? But wait, I also use technology to research… is that DH? Oh, and I use technology to think about why we use technology! Is that, too, DH?

I realized that the people who encouraged me to ask them were university professors—people who had jobs in the university! I found that my investment in technology, culture, and publishing was not so different from my interests in literature, research, and scholarship. I found that I could write about websites and ideas in ways that are academically legitimate. I think it’s important to come out as a Digital Humanist, and to know that that label means something for my work.  So, for me, defining myself as a Digital Humanist means that I am part of something: part of a growing and exciting new field, part of making new critical objects, and mostly part of an effort to share and disperse knowledge. It also means something crucial for my dissertation: from merely using research websites like Early English Books Online, I began to think about ways those websites could be enriched be other kinds of research and ideas, and from my experience making a digital project for a graduate seminar I knew that I could be the done bringing those ideas into existence.

Part of my dissertation project involves building a database that catalogues paratextual materials like prefaces, indexes, dedications, and errata lists written by printers and publishers. Although I’m still learning about the technological side of how to do that, I find it to be an exciting aspect of my research, one that ensures my project is relevant and productive. Through the process of designing a digital project for my graduate seminar with Lisa, I felt encouraged to conceptualize what it meant to use digital tools in my work, to be more aware of what those tools mean, who makes them, and to what purposes—basic things I teach my comp students in class every semester, and yet questions I, myself sometimes forgot to ask about my own scholarship.

And from there, the next step was to say: well, it’s not enough that I’m thinking or writing about technology; I’m at best lazy and at worst irresponsible if I don’t bring that to my own classroom. And so this semester I decided to take it a step further, and much like Lisa encouraged me to produce something new, I am not pushing my students to do the same. My current syllabus doesn’t only use technology: it teaches students to think about it in serious, scholarly ways, and helps them see that they, too, could be making an exciting contribution to their majors.  

Cheesy though it may sound, digital scholarship really has changed my life. It’s changed my perception of what academia is, and how I fit in as a part of it. And so I’ll stop here, and leave you with a few questions that hopefully we can discuss during Q&A:  

1) The first question is connected to the title of our roundtable: Digital Humanities on a budget. One thing that’s been on my mind a lot this semester is the issue of access: many of my students are returning after many years away from school; others are first-generation students; many yet are only able to go to college because of government loans or scholarships. When we talk so excitedly about DH, do we sometimes forget that there are still many students who can’t afford computers, tablets, or even smartphones? How does that change our work? And how do we handle it?  

2) How do we make sure that more students, both graduate and undergraduate, are getting the proper training, or at least getting the information they may need about where to find it? What should the role of institutions in encouraging that? As far as dissertation-level students, what’s the role of faculty in encouraging DH work? My advisor recently told me DH was my dissertation mistress—that I shouldn’t feel like I was “cheating” on my more traditional research with DH, but that I should instead actively bring it as a chapter in my work. Is there a way to make this a more clear option to students? Is it possible to soon conceive of dissertations not just with digital components but as digital projects?

3) And what about the dreaded digital divide? Is that still a thing? How do we help students who are afraid of technology? How do we teach supposedly tech savvy students how to use their knowledge in a professional or academic way?

 

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