In May of 2016, I taught the last section of my last class as Davidson College’s digital studies postdoc. In this final meeting, students in my “(Histories of) Gender and Technology” class presented projects that ranged from artistic engagements with gender in Kanye West lyrics, to gendered norms in cooking, to quantitative analyses of gendered affect on Twitter. These projects were exciting. They were deeply engaged with historical scholarship on gender and technology, but also carefully used non-traditional forms and methods to make arguments about how we understand that history today. For me (and hopefully, for the students) the class felt like a success.
Almost exactly two years before this class meeting, I was waiting anxiously in my office to take a call with Davidson’s Dean of the Faculty formally offering me the college’s new postdoc in digital studies. I’m trained as an Atlantic historian, and while I’d been working with maps, networks and historical statistics for a few years, 2014-me still felt like a covert digital humanist. My own work arrived in the digital humanities via cliometrics, quantitative history and an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago, the home of “the new social history.” These methods used what today might be called “big data” to get at the lives and experiences of people who left the barest of marks on the historical record. (For example, while we might not know much about one particular voter in nineteenth-century South Carolina, if we look at all voters in aggregate, we might be able to infer something about individuals.) Also, my father is a statistician who encouraged me to think about the quantitative aspects of my research, and I read a lot of Asimov’s Foundation series as a child. In short, I like the intersection of data and history.
Despite this trajectory, I think that I began to truly advocate for the digital humanities in the academy when I saw what it could do in the classroom. I saw a marked difference between students’ responses to assignments that were written for me to read but which were then fated only to languish on a hard drive, and assignments that had some kind of public component. The digital turn facilitated that publicness, and with it new kinds of student engagement that (at best) blended quantitative analysis, visualization, mapping and networks with the historical practice I loved to teach. I felt like the “new social history” I’d met as an undergrad was getting a second life. At Davidson, as a visiting assistant professor in the history department, I’d been lucky enough to share that new life with students in historical methods classes. The digital studies postdoc let me continue that work, and explore more, newer, and increasingly weird pedagogies.
Over the last two years, I radically re-imagined or developed totally new courses in the digital studies curriculum. I learned to teach humanities labs, used Caleb McDaniels’ “backwards history” methodology, borrowed Tim Burke’s student design class structure and embraced human centered design as a humanities classroom tool. I designed rubrics for digital assessment. I worked with colleagues to develop digital modules for their own classes. I collaborated with the college’s associate archivist to argue for the importance of student-driven pedagogy for digital programs. As a result of all of this, I’ve come to value more flexible classrooms, and come to trust in my own impulses for letting students take control of and ownership in the classes I teach.
I’d love to be able to say that the transition from teaching history classes to digital ones was a smooth one, and that my first class at Davidson was an unreserved success. Predictably, however, the first class – DIG360: Digital Maps, Space and Place (we were very proud of that course number) – was quite bumpy. My graduate training had not prepared me to teach technical labs in a humanities discipline or to teach tools as well as theoretical approaches. I also felt (in hindsight, needlessly) that I had to justify the union of the digital and the humanistic (as an aside, I’m now totally convinced by Ryan Cordell’s argument that we should reserve the “what is DH?” readings until the end of the class – if at all). Subsequent classes felt more successful, and by the end of my time at Davidson, I’d settled on some pedagogical interventions that worked well for me. These included letting myself be more flexible with class time and giving students room to play with both tools and intellectual frameworks. I’m also increasingly convinced that asking students to undertake digital projects requires more scaffolding (for now, at least) than traditional academic assignments. We can’t just send them out in the world to do new things, because the anxiety of doing new things wrong has the potential to be more crippling than the structures of essays and exams. As a result of the classes I taught at Davidson, I came to believe that creating an environment in which students feel comfortable tinkering, failing, adjusting and tinkering again is the first and most essential component of digital pedagogy.
I also had an insider’s perspective on the development of a digital studies program. One of the realizations I came to in the first class I taught was that if we were going to ask faculty to bring the digital into their classrooms, we would need to offer more support – not necessarily in digital theories – but in how to teach new tools, and in the case of my home discipline of history, how to talk to students about the relationship between theory, historical argument, and making digital things. With that in mind, I think that one of the things I’m proudest of from my time at Davidson is the creation of “digital learning communities” – a structure that the digital studies faculty developed to help the digitally-curious at Davidson explore new tools – on mapping, data and data analysis and student domains. I’m also very pleased that we were able to institute “digital open office hours” – where faculty, students and staff can drop in and talk about their projects, pedagogical victories or challenges, or unpack their own research questions.
Having seen the growth of the digital studies program from the inside, the creation of these kinds of communities seems to me like one of the most important pillars of a digital and interdisciplinary program. Digital methods and pedagogies are not, and will never be for everyone. Skepticism towards things digital is not likely to disappear any time soon. There are some very real and substantive critiques about the relationship between the digital turn and the impulse to operationalize the humanities, funding streams, and institutional priorities. But for those scholars and teachers who find digital approaches useful – in some part of their work, or as a central tenet of it – the ability to talk with people who are trying to adapt their teaching and research in similar ways – but often in different fields – is essential. The community that is created through those conversations is central to getting digital programs off the ground and maintaining them as they grow.
It has been great to see how a new program, and new methodologies are fostered “from scratch,” and to have the space to develop my own pedagogical approaches. That space – to play, fail, test and re-invent pedagogically – was probably the most valuable part of this postdoc for me. In the process, I hope to have added to the digital curriculum at Davidson, and built some structures that will continue to support that curriculum as it grows.