Digital Manuscript Studies – Curriculum Development 3

Will it Blend?

Hello All,

With new laptop and new equipment in hand, I am getting back into my curriculum development. Today i’d like to take a break from talking about the structure of my Digital Manuscript Studies seminar (see posts one and two) in order to discuss some of the pedagogical gimmicks and techniques that have been circulating around the teaching and learning blogs i’ve been following. But first a little context.

This all started a couple of weeks ago when reading an article in Digital Humanities Quarterly by Craig Bellamy, Australian Historian, Digital Humanities scholar and writer of a very good blog. I have included the details for this article below:

Craig Bellamy, ‘The Sound of Many Hands Clapping: Teaching the Digital Humanities Through Virtual Research Environment (VREs)’, Digital Humanities Quarterly 6 (2012) http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/6/2/000119/000119.html.
In his article, Bellamy makes a point that seems like common sense, but is oft-ignored:
…teaching in the digital humanities field should emphasise that computing is not simply a set of techniques to achieve a predetermined set of results. Computing in the humanities is a set of humanities questions to achieve a set of challenging interpretations. Digital resources and tools are made available to students through a series of choices by their creators, educators, and administrators, and making student aware of these choices is vital for facilitating active and critical engagement with them. (p. 1)
I have, as you may be able to see in my previous post, been trying to follow Bellamy’s argument by fostering forms of assessment that give students maximum opportunity to not only do manuscript work, but to question the conceits and principles that have shaped an interface. By seeing all of the resources that we use (to get a bit Latourian for a second) not as a black box that spits out useful data but as a network of interacting principles with an input, internal components and an output that is not natural but arbitrary, students can learn to be critical about any digital object or system. This in turn enables the challenging interpretations that Bellamy advocates. The task of all digital humanities should be to crack open the impenetrable integumentum of our tools in order to assess whether they might be better arranged or modified. More hack, less yack. More interpretation, less theory. Bellamy then continues in a similarly intriguing vein:
…teaching technical skills to humanities students – so that they are faced with the similar technical choices of developers — is one way to emphasise that computing technologies, just like the academic monologue, is a series of (applied) choices, arguments and interpretations. But not all schools are equipped to provide computer programming classes and this level of in-depth technical knowledge may not always be achievable or desirable unless the student is considering a longer-term research career in the field. A “critical interpretation” of digital objects may also be fostered by providing technical architectures that open-up critical interpretations of digital objects (within assessable tasks) to broader audiences of students.  (p. 7)
This is especially important to consider in the context of Australian manuscript studies, for students are unlikely (especially in Western Australia) to have access to a great many manuscripts. The University of Western Australia is at the beginning of its digital humanities path, and although we have some great work going on (especially in Archaeology, Classics and Medieval and Early Modern Studies), we lack what Bellamy calls hard interdisciplinary links. Thus, the arrangement of a Virtual Research Environment must provide a critical and hands-on engagement with digital objects while teaching a kind of scrappy digital literacy over a more formal computer science training program. If we had a Department of Digital Humanities like that of King’s College London with decades of rock solid hard interdisciplinarity and an established MA coursework curriculum in place, it might be different. But my priorities are to teach familiarity with interface, tool and manuscript alike together with critical insight in a short amount of time. What, then, should I do?
I have been looking to a blended learning inspired VRE as my model. Blended learning is a blanket term used to describe any curriculum that merges ‘brick-and-mortar’ teaching with an online or lab-based component. This post gives a nice infographic of the many types of blended learning. Most tutors will have practiced what is called the ‘Face-to-Face driver’ model, meaning that most of the class is guided by the tutor with digital tools deployed in-class. Those who have used class blogs and learning management systems will have gone a little further along the path, but are still effectively face-to-face driving their classes with digital augmentation. Those who have ever done a distance learning course (open university, etc.) will be familiar with the Online Driver model. The two models that interest me at the moment the most are as follows:
  1. The Online Lab – the entire unit is online in a lab-like environment, but takes place on campus. This makes sense in light of Bellamy’s model, because it gives students maximum time to critically interrogate and experiment with their manuscript resources in class in a lab environment. This approach, however, makes more sense when combined with
  2. The Rotation, in which students move in-class between self-paced online learning and break-out small group work. This is ideal for a masters seminar because A) the contact hours for the unit are two hours in a single block each week, enabling easy blending in-class and B) the class is likely to be very small, so one could split students into, say, two groups of five on rotation.

I would also combine these models with a component of the ‘flipped classroom’ giving students time to experiment, research, play and work together out of class, giving maximum space in-class to guided laboratory work mixed with group sharing and demonstration mixed with small group work. This could then be blended once again with some peer-centred learning, and certain students could act as discussants for their tutorial groups, and guide the readings-based discussion.

So that is where I am right now. Suggestions are not only encouraged, but strongly desired. I really want my digital humanities material to be personal and collective, digital and humanist, self-guided and tutor-guided in balance.

Signing off from the Mad Curricular Science Laboratory-Atelier,

James

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