Photo Credit: Digital Commons @ Worcester Polytechnic Institute
As a high school and undergraduate student, I had always taken a keen interest in the humanities. For me, this included the study of literature, music, religion, language and philosophy. Upon enrolling in graduate school at Athabasca University for the Master of Arts – Integrated Studies (MAIS) program, I was immediately attracted to the synopsis for MAIS 623: Introduction to Trends in New Media – Digital Humanities. I recall wondering what the digital humanities (DH) entailed and how my experiences as a student and as an educator could be linked to this exciting field. Now that I have been enrolled in MAIS 623 for approximately three weeks, it is clear to me that there exists no specific definition of the digital humanities. With that said, the digital humanities can be viewed as a “diverse and still emerging field that encompasses the practice of humanities research in and through information technology, and the exploration of how the humanities may evolve through their engagement with technology, media, and computational methods” (Svensson, 2010, para. 21). As I reflect upon my experiences within the humanities, it is evident that technology has increasingly played a crucial role in delivering content to its users. More importantly, though, is that technology allows its users to interact with the content and to better understand the connectedness that exists within that content. The purpose of this essay is to reflect upon my experiences with the digital humanities as both a student and as an educator. Through an analysis of existing DH literature, as well as an analysis of my personal and professional experiences, it will be evident how the digital humanities has been relevant in my life as a student in distance education and as a K-12 and post-secondary educator. I will also discuss how, over the next five years, DH will continue to play a vital role in my personal life and in my professional life through the readily available digital technologies of our 21st century education system.
Digital Humanities – A Brief Overview
Before I analyze my personal and professional experiences with the digital humanities, it is important to first gain more understanding about the field. Thus far in MAIS 623, we have had the opportunity to read multiple selections from various thinkers who share relevant insights about the digital humanities. As Patrick Svensson (2009) notes, there has been a shift from humanities computing to digital humanities. Within this renaming of the field, there exists a connotation that “the new name… suggests a broader scope and [that] it is also used in wider circles as a collective name for activities and structures in between the Humanities and information technology” (p. 175). This coincides with the statement of Burdick, Drucker, Lunenfeld, Presner & Schnapp (2012) that “digital humanities is born of the encounter between traditional humanities and computational methods” (p. 3). Thanks to computer technology, digital humanities has expanded the reach of the traditional humanities so that both academics and non-academics can access the content. The origin of digital humanities may be traced back to early archival projects, leading up to the digitization of traditional scholarship. This included the creation of online database tools that were concerned with “textual analysis and cataloging, the study of linguistic features, an emphasis on pedagogical supports and learning environments, and research questions driven by analyzing structured data” (p. 8). From the 1990s to present day, the explosions of the Internet and Web 2.0 technologies have truly made the digital humanities possible in the sense that humanities content is not just available but interactive in the online environment. Overall, the digital humanities allows for disparate subject matters to be collected and unified in more meaningful ways. Through media technology, both academics and non-academics may now collaborate with the content and discover new patterns, trends and understandings across the humanities.
My Experiences with Digital Humanities
Experiences as a Student
As I reflect upon my educational journey, it is evident to me that my experiences as both a high school student and as an undergraduate student were rooted in the humanities. My particular areas of interest included literature, music, religion, language and philosophy. Ultimately, the majority of my high school education could be viewed as traditional in almost every sense of the word. Throughout all of my high school classes, I was expected to take “pen and paper” notes as my teachers lectured. Assessment of our knowledge was conducted through multiple choice tests and short answer questions, along with formal essays that were to be typed via word processor. In terms of research, it was expected that the school library was just a starting point – and that the public library would serve as the Holy Grail for any revolutionary findings. I recall spending hours at the library, often feeling nauseous from the smell of moth balls and old books. I heavily relied on the librarian’s expertise for finding research that suited my needs. Once I had my books – whether they were on Roman Catholicism, Karl Marx, Shakespeare or any of my other interests – I would bring them home for the real fun to begin. Countless hours would be spent skimming and reading through the material, trying to find common threads of knowledge while unifying many different ideas into smart, coherent wholes. I recall “engaging with a book, chapter, or article, underlining text using pens and pencils, drawing attention with highlighters and colour-coded sticky flags, reminding [myself] of ideas with notes, circles, underlines, squiggles, and, frankly, anything that could represent something meaningful” (Athabasca University, 2016, n.p). Looking back, it is now clear that this was my first experiences with the digital humanities. Of course, I was doing by hand what DH does with computers.
Following my high school years, a great portion of my undergraduate studies was also rooted in more traditional forms of schooling and education. For example, tests and assignments were still largely based on traditional assessment tools like multiple choice questions and formal essays. It was during my time as an undergraduate student, though, in which I started to gain new experiences and insights within the humanities. This came courtesy of the EBSCOhost Research Databases to which I now had access. I recall the first time I sat down at a school computer (or workstation, as we called them) and tried to navigate through an EBSCO search. Simply put, I was not initially aware of things like boolean operators, search limiters, or even the difference between full-text and non-full-text results. I did not even know the meaning of a “PDF” file, never mind how to open one. It was a whole new world to me – one that required time, patience and effort to learn to navigate. Once this world was opened up, though, I never looked back. “Digitised texts that can be searched, analysed, and correlated by machine algorithms number in the hundreds of thousands (now, with Google books, a million and more), limited only by ever-increasing processor speed and memory storage. Consequently, machine queries allow questions that would simply be impossible by hand calculation” (Hayles, 2012, p. 45). Gone were the days of traversing through endless stacks of old books only to leave the library with nothing more than a headache. Now, I had access to numerous online databases which allowed for an easier yet more advanced system of finding what I was looking for. To me, this represents my first true experience with DH – albeit a very limited experience, as I was now simply accessing the humanities content but not necessarily interacting with it.
Indeed, now that I am a graduate student enrolled in the MAIS program at Athabasca University, I am more readily experiencing the power of information technology – not just within the humanities, but across all of education. The very premise of Athabasca University’s MAIS program is that students can complete a degree that may have otherwise been unattainable due to physical (geographical) restrictions. Athabasca University harnesses the power of the Internet in a manner that coincides with Leiner et al.’s (2017) view that “the Internet today is a widespread information infrastructure… [and that] its influence reaches not only to the technical fields of computer communications but throughout society as we move toward increasing use of online tools to accomplish electronic commerce, information acquisition, and community operations” (para. 4). For students accepted into the school’s MAIS program, an Internet connection and standard computing software are all that are needed to access the course materials.
In terms of how the MAIS program has influenced my interactions with the digital humanities, I need to look no further than the ways in which I am learning as an Athabasca University student. Course content that is posted online does not simply remain static. In all of my courses, I have been afforded the opportunities to interact with the content and with my fellow learners – on message boards, in virtual (real-time) chat rooms, through Skype sessions and by using other collaborative tools like Google Docs. The most relevant example of my experiences with the digital humanities can be extracted from my time as a student in Dr. Michael Lithgow’s MAIS 620: Digital Storytelling class. In this class, Dr. Lithgow illustrated how “the digital environment offers expanded possibilities for exploring multiple approaches to what constitutes knowledge and what methods qualify as valid for its production. This implies that the 8-page essay and the 25-page research paper… make room for the game design, the multi-player narrative, the video mash-up, the online exhibit and other new forms and formats as pedagogical exercises” (Burdick, Drucker, Lunenfeld, Presner & Schnapp, 2012, p. 24). I have never fully interacted with content more than I have in MAIS 620. Through the production of digital stories, I was able to creatively demonstrate my knowledge of the content in limitless ways. For me, this has been a critical experience in understanding the power of the digital humanities – to experience how the humanities (e.g. literature and language) evolve through their engagement with technology.
Experiences as an Educator
In the fall of 2007, I began my career as an educator with my first teaching placements at the elementary level. As a graduate of Nipissing University’s iTeach Laptop Learning Program, I felt equipped to work within the 21st century classroom. Looking back, it is clear to see that the digital world 10 years ago was quite different than our current one. At the start of my career, the extent of my technological savvy included projecting PowerPoint slideshows to my students, or perhaps having the students play online math games with computer opponents. Today’s classroom technologies differ greatly from the classroom technologies of a decade ago in the important realm of interactivity.
In my teaching experiences, it has not been until approximately the past five years in which I truly feel that I have used Internet technologies to a fuller capacity. Upon being hired to teach at the secondary level, I became familiar with my school board’s Learning Management System (LMS) – a Desire2Learn class shell. Through a great deal of professional development, I have learned the LMS in such a way that I feel comfortable using it to provide my students with an interactive learning experience, including the ability to interact with course content as well as with their classmates in the online classroom environment. For me, one of the most rewarding experiences using digital technologies to teach at the secondary level has been the utilization of my board’s LMS to deliver English courses to not just local students from Sault Ste. Marie, but to students from across the province of Ontario. My students have greatly benefited from their interactions with peers from such a widespread geographical location. No longer could small-town Northern Ontario students simply remain comfortable in their small-town school; they were now exchanging ideas with larger-city, urban students from Southern Ontario. This is especially crucial within the humanities (for example, within an English class) where “digital, polyvocal expression can support a genuine multiverse in which no single point of view can claim the center. The principles of relativist approaches to knowledge, rooted in historically situated understanding, remain fundamental to (digital) humanism” (Burdick, Drucker, Lunenfeld, Presner & Schnapp, 2012, p. 24). With digital technologies, new possibilities have indeed been created within education to facilitate a more authentic learning experience for both the students and for the instructor.
Most recently – for the past two years – I have been teaching English courses at the postsecondary level. It is evident how digital humanities has played a role in my capacity as a college professor. For example, despite teaching in a physical classroom environment, my students follow along with the material on their own (school) computers. In real time, we navigate the Internet together and are consistently interacting with the course material. In addition to teaching my students research techniques such as using the EBSCOhost Research Databases, I also encourage them to interact within the larger humanities community (e.g. through online blog posts, as well as through the electronic sharing of material with students from our partner colleges across the province). In my experiences, this has promoted for my students an exploration of the humanities both in and through information technology.
Although I consistently aim to incorporate digital technologies within the learning environment, I have also learned that not every student is inherently equipped with digital literacy. “… [Our] students may be called digital natives, but many of them are not digitally (or visually) literate. They may not be fully comfortable with the intricacies of technology in spite of their abilities to text at astonishing speeds” (Hall, 2015, para. 4). It has been important for me as an educator to learn that I cannot take for granted my students’ digital skills. Instead, it has been imperative to sometimes slow the learning process down so that I could teach my students how to use the technologies while also fostering their abilities to work collaboratively and to think critically.
The Role of Digital Humanities in the Future
According to Jaron Lanier (2010), “it takes only a tiny group of engineers to create technology that can shape the entire future of human experience with incredible speed” (p. 6). As he points out, this is exactly what has happened with the introduction of the World Wide Web. Undoubtedly, the usage of technology (both Internet and otherwise) will continue to grow in all areas of our lives. For me, it is interesting to assess the role that digital humanities may play over the next five years in both my capacity as a student and as an educator.
My short-term goal as a student in distance education is to complete my Master of Arts – Integrated Studies (MAIS) degree through Athabasca University. Following this, I am interested in learning more about online PhD programs within a similar area of study. From MAIS 623 and beyond, I see myself further exploring the technologies that can maximize my learning experiences. For example, I am interested in utilizing WordPress as a blogging tool so that I may establish an online presence within the humanities community. One of my focus areas within the MAIS program is on Writing and New Media. I see great value in establishing a regularly updated blog so that I may share my writing with others and receive important feedback. Gone are the days of working in isolation; I am now attuned to the possibilities of establishing new working relationships in the field while also advancing my work within the humanities. In addition to this, I can see how tools such as Wordle may continue to be useful in my studies. For example, I see myself using programs like Wordle to not only assist with summarizing key ideas from articles, but also to guide the self-reflection process of my own work.
Furthermore, I excitedly look toward the role that the digital humanities may play over the next five years in my professional life as an educator. I will continue to push myself to carefully and patiently teach my students how to use available technologies to network within the larger humanities community. More importantly, my immediate goal is to start introducing to my students more non-traditional assignments that would “push them beyond their comfort zone – for English students, [this] comfort zone is writing a 7 page paper” (Hall, 2015, para. 5). For example, I would like to create new assessment opportunities for my students where they may demonstrate their new knowledge via video posts, blogs, wikis, and so on. I recognize that this would be a work in progress and, therefore, see it as part of my five-year plan. Not only would this present a new learning curve for me professionally, but it would also challenge my colleagues at the college to start moving toward a more contemporary form of teaching and learning. Ultimately, this would bring all of us into a more harmonious and meaningful relationship with the digital technologies at our fingertips. Through this relationship, we will continually be “creating new ways of accessing and assessing… new cultural production, which [will] continually open up important new spaces for exploring humanity’s cultural heritage and for imagining future possibilities” (Burdick, Drucker, Lunenfeld, Presner & Schnapp, 2012, p. 26). More so now than ever before, I feel energized and enthusiastic about the pivotal role I will play in leading myself, my students and my colleagues through the digitization of the humanities and beyond.
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