Digital Manuscript Studies – Curriculum Development 4

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – ‘The Ass in the School’. Wikimedia Commons

Hello All,

I have returned safely from a wonderful trip to New York and Washington, D.C. For accounts of the symposium I was a part of in Washington, see this post and here is a copy of my paper. Today I would like to return to the topic of digital manuscript studies, and the challenges of curriculum development (see my previous posts here, here, and here). To avoid the shambles depicted in the Bruegel image above, I think that digital humanities teachers as a whole and digital medievalists in particular must pay close attention to the format of their lesson.

Here is the scenario: The classes for this symposium will be an hour and a half, the standard double tutorial format of our university. There are no lectures, and so this is the sole opportunity to interact with students. Using this time to best effect is crucial, for a balance must be struck between the interpersonal critique and debate that more traditionally prevails in a humanities classroom and computerised lab work. Rather than boring you by listing the criteria, I feel that the best approach is to list three possible lesson plans for an hour and a half class that I am considering, together with their possible advantages and pitfalls.

Model 1: The 50 / 50

As the title implies, this idea would involve a 45 minute lab followed by a 45 minute tutorial, or vice versa. This has the advantage, depending on arrangement, of coupling practical experience with a chance for theoretical discussion. The question is: which should go first? If the class begins with a lab and ends with a tutorial, then students will have a chance to get stuck in with some resources and tools, and then discuss the theory behind such tools. If the class begins with the tutorial, then students can apply what they have discussed. It occurs to me, given average attention spans and consideration of energy levels, that starting with the lab would work best. That way students can start with the independent self-supervised work, and have material to apply to the tutorial. The reverse order, to my mind, risks a disengagement in lab time due to mental fatigue.

Model 2: The Break-Out

Which brings me to model two, mixing the two formats together! This would resolve the conundra of model one to some extent. Rather than demarcating the class into two separate blocks, one could split the class in two. Group one could do lab work while group two had a short tutorial. Then the groups swap, and then the final half an hour is devoted to full group discussion. In the following week, the starting positions are reversed. In this manner, each group has the opportunity to experience lab followed by tutorial, and tutorial followed by lab. This format would enable opportunities for other sub-activities such as group member swaps, respondent talks from a group member, facilitation of group projects from day one, and so on.

Model 3: The Sandwich

This model is something of a strange beast, involving a pre-tutorial lab, a tutorial, and a post-tutorial lab. This would differentiate lab work into expository activities (finding and critiquing examples), discussion with evidence, and revised activities (testing found resources in light of tutorial discussion). This could be a very effective way to manage energy level and attention spans, and would encourage a flexible approach to critiquing the material. This format is a reasonably good synthesis of the previous two models.

In Conclusion…

Another question to consider is the matter of out of class work. I am inclined to make this the kind of unit where the readings and group work-based assignments are encouraged, and students are ‘pushed’ into working together. In class, the emphasis should be on group-based discussion and demonstration of concepts through hands-on interaction with digital artefacts. Too much individual lab work is counter to the digital humanities mission of encouraging good collaborators, and too much theorising will not help students to do their own digital work. The more tightly these strands can be woven together, the better.

More thoughts soon,

James

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