Neoliberalism and DH in the classroom

A recent Los Angeles Book Review piece argues that the digital humanities’ “most significant contribution to academic politics may lie in its (perhaps unintentional) facilitation of the neoliberal takeover of the university.” The article has series flaws, and insightful reactions have come from Matthew KirshbaumAlan Liu, and (I have to acknowledge UTD graduate) Michele Rosen.

I am participating this afternoon in a roundtable discussion on the digital humanities at the CUNY Early American Republic Studies graduate conference. I already planned to discuss my experience teaching both undergraduate and graduate dh courses for the first time, but I also wanted to think through how my course might relate to this discussion of the politics of the digital humanities, or, more specifically, how the digital humanities relates to the wider world of humanities courses.

I was acutely aware that most of my 24 undergraduates were math/science majors, and these students assumed a digital humanities course would offer a needed humanities credit in a manner friendlier to their core academic interests. I was careful, then, to make sure the class offered a roughly parallel learning experience to analog humanities courses.

My course had three learning outcomes:

1.     Students will analyze theoretical issues in the emerging field of digital humanities.
2.     Students will evaluate works of digital scholarship.
3.     Students will create original historical scholarship through digital tools.

Each of these goals occupied about a third of the course. The first third required students to read think pieces on dh, write weekly discussion questions at the beginning of the week, and write 800-1,000 word reflections at the end of each week. The students read pieces from Guldi and Armitage’s The History Manifestoto consider what the humanities are and what their function should be in daily life. Roy Rosensweig as well as Seefeldt and Thomas offered discussions of what dh means for the study of history. I wanted students to think through the relationship between scholarship and public history, and pieces from NeubergerRizzo, and Deselms contributed toward that end. One of our most engaging discussions centered around the putative “hack vs yack” division framed best by Nowviske. We lived out the tensions between that division by reading pieces from McPhersonLiu, and Cecire while also working through basic Python lessons (and this which worked much better than this). The least effective discussions concerned the spatial turn of historical study and a paired discussion of design and social media. I would like to find a better way to discuss the theoretical implications of GIS technologies, and I have a feeling a series of blog posts from Christy Hyman this fall will help. Stay tuned for that.

The second third of the course focused on evaluating works of digital scholarship. I blogged about this experience in more detail here. But in summary, I required the students to read guidelines from the AHA and MLA and then create their own standards for digital scholarship which they then used to evaluate the Voyages Slave Trade DatabaseVisualizing Emancipation, and AfricaMap.

Finally, I asked my students to produce works of dh scholarship. In an attempt to maintain humanistic rigor, I required the students to write two reflection pieces each week that both updated me on their progress, but also required them to reflect on how what they’ve been working on fits with the questions from the first third of class or will enable their project to hold up to the standards they created in the second third. I should have mentioned earlier that I gave comments on every writing piece that was divided into a discussion of content and style. Several students were surprised by the attention to writing throughout the course, but I drew on my experience teaching writing intensive seminars as a graduate student at Rice to ensure that this humanities credit, if nothing else, would make them stronger writers.

One of the stranger claims in the LARB piece was that dh “has for the most part involved the displacement of politically progressive humanities scholarship and activism in favor of the manufacture of digital tools and archives.” The implied conservatism of “digital tools and archives” puzzles me. I wonder what the authors would think of one of my student’s dh project which included a digital map of instances of police brutality, including a collaborative interface designed to create community histories that speak back against the sanitized narratives of the Dallas Police Department. This project has now transformed into an interactive exploration of activism history in Dallas with a thinly veiled progressive agenda of encouraging additional activism.

The politics of dh is worth discussing, and there are valuable arguments made in the piece I won’t discuss now, because they do not relate to my experience in the classroom. However, it seems to me that dh has, in some ways, pulled historians back into qualitatively rigorous social history. For example, one of my students created an interactive series of graphs to see how recessions effect various demographics (surprise, marginalized communities suffer most). Social history meshed neatly with Marxist inquiries of economic development in the 1960s, and big data can be used similarly. Tools are not political in themselves, but they do open opportunities for politically informed humanities analysis. And my students seemed particularly keen to use them accordingly, as indicated by student projects focused on hate crimes, economic inequality, evolving discourse within LGBTQ communities, violence and the slave trade, and the role of religion in genocide, among others.

My goal of requiring projects that used technology to produce rigorous humanities scholarship ultimately met mixed results. Three students worked together to produce an extremely impressive GIS dataset transferable to both CartoDB and Q that illustrates the development of nineteenth century German railroads. The digital product is impressive, but the students did not go the extra step (yet) of using their product to answer research questions about German economic development or German political unification, as they had promised earlier in the semester. On the other hand, one student produced a publication-worthy study of the racialized linguistics in the Salem witch trials, but the project did not really use digital tools and the resulting website functions more as an open research notebook than a dh project in itself.

I wish I could send links to my student work, but the fact that I can’t might indicate the greatest success of the course. Two thirds of my students plan to continue working on their projects over the summer and accordingly asked me to wait before publicizing their work. Too often higher education becomes a transactional experience where students complete a series of checklists for a course, receive a grade, and then move on. I am interested in inspiring learning opportunities that spill beyond the boundaries of the course. I encouraged students to view this class not as their obligated acquisition of a humanities credit, but rather a chance to engage the humanities in a way that will inform the rest of their academic experience and life beyond the university. That most of the students have found their projects so engrossing as to inspire them to pursue their inquiries without the carrot of course credit, tells me that we achieved a measure of success.

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