Digital Humanities and New Ways of Knowing. UCLA’s (Center for?) Digital Humanities and Media Studies recently released a “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” which explains that DH is “not a unified field but an “array of convergent practices” that have the potential to profoundly transform the “production and dissemination of knowledge.”[1] A well-designed DH project fosters “attention to complexity, medium specificity, [and] historical context” and promotes “analytical depth, critique and interpretation.” It accepts that knowledge might exist in many forms: “it inhabits the interstices and criss‐crossings between words, sounds, smells, maps, diagrams, installations, environments, data repositories, tables, and objects.” The process of knowledge production is “anchored in making: making in the poetic sense of poeisis, but also in the sense of design carried out in action.” Digital humanists “make” knowledge, they build theory, by building things, designing websites, plotting maps, producing video and audio and, as always, writing cogently. Although one need not have expertise in all modes of production or communication – DH projects are necessarily collaborative in part because of the need to tap into others’ specialized skills – one should have basic literacy in these various modes. DH thus has a stake in the recent discussions about expanded “21st-century literacies.” As Stephanie Barish and Elizabeth Daley, who are affiliated with USC’s Institute for Mutimedia Literacy, argue, “To be literate today, one must understand how strategically chosen and juxtaposed combinations of media enable the construction and dissemination of meaning in ways that bypass or enrich traditional text and the spoken word. Indeed, one must not only be able to read such media, but also to author it.”[2]

Such knowledge work calls into question the distinction between theory and practice. And, through its continual reflection on process, this work also has the potential to raise critical questions about what constitutes knowledge, “who gets to create [i]
,… how it gets legitimated and authorized, and how it is made accessible to a significantly broader (and potentially global) audience.”[3]

Teaching Through the Digital Humanities. All this talk about scholarship might suggest that DH is primarily a field, or practice, for advanced scholars – for people who, as our traditional research models suggest, are specially trained and have been authorized to participate. In other words, DH seems like a faculty affair. Yet the critical skills and values that DH promotes – critical examination of methods, multiple “literacies,” collaboration, internationalization, interdisciplinarity, careful consideration of research presentation, making research accessible to wider publics – are also central to the 21st-century university’s pedagogical mission. DH might not be right for all types of classes, or for all faculty and students – the literacy of print-based reading and writing and research skills required for individual study are still an integral part of any contemporary curriculum – but there is significant opportunity for greater integration of DH into the classroom.

One impediment to that integration is the way many teachers have been trained to think about technology in the classroom. As Barish and Daley note, “To date, much of the support for university faculty to use media is directed toward technical services and basic pedagogical applications.”[4] Faculty are encouraged to use audiovisual materials in the classroom, to integrate social media, etc., “but the implications of their use, as well as the formal components and theoretical basis of multimedia, are not addressed.” Nor is “teaching with technology” instruction tailored to address specific intellectual content. If faculty become more aware of how technology might enhance their own scholarship, they are likely to approach classroom technology as something more than mere illustration or ornamentation. Possible means of introducing faculty to the potential of the Digital Humanities – or at least helping them to develop rudimentary technological literacy so they can more meaningfully integrate technology into their classes and perhaps encourage “multimodal” student projects – include sending faculty to the regularly occurring THATCamps or the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, or, given the number of talented, technologically adept faculty at The New School, hosting a summer “digital humanities boot camp” (much like the camp Parsons’ MFADT organizes for its incoming students each summer) on campus during the semester breaks.


As we encourage faculty to change the way they think about technology in the classroom, we must also reconsider how we ask our students to use these learning tools, and to what ends. “Although many students are involved in the creation of their own expressive media presence through personal webpages and social networking,” Presner and Johanson write, “they are infrequently engaged in either interrogating or applying these technologies in their learning and scholarship.”[5] Faculty should be helping students to develop both traditional and new (media) literacies and “the technical skills related to this literacy,” as well as…

tools for critical analysis, the ability to navigate across, reconfigure, and evaluate different media forms, the ability to negotiate and work across diverse cultures and communities, the ability to synthesize material and bring together different methodologies to solve complex problems, the ability to interpret and construct models for responding to real-world situations, the ability to critically evaluate the potentials and limitations of new technologies, and the cultivation of a broad understanding of the social, historical, linguistic, and cultural context in which they are learning and working.[6]

A well-organized DH project has the potential to reinforce all of these skills and promote critical thinking that is transferable to any kind of problem in any context, inside the classroom or out.

Presner and several colleagues have involved their students in the development of HyperCities, a well-funded, frequently lauded interactive map – or, as described on the website, a “a collaborative research and educational platform for traveling back in time to explore the historical layers of city spaces in an interactive, hypermedia environment.” On HyperCities, “student projects exist side-by-side with scholarly research and community collections and can be seen and evaluated by peers.”[7] He finds that his students “demonstrate a high degrees of skill in articulating a multi-dimensional argument in a hypermedia environment and bring together a wide range of media resources,’ including 2D maps, 3D models, photos, videos, audio, text, etc. Their success can likely be attributed to the fact that the existing content on HyperCities models for the students what a successful submission looks like – and because the public nature of the site, and the stature of some of their co-contributors, motivates students to take the challenge seriously. Through their work on HyperCities, the students come to appreciate the distributed, “processural, iterative, and exploratory” nature of digital scholarship.

USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy is based on offering many such experiences for undergraduates. The IML’s Steve Anderson and Anne Balsamo explain the program’s philosophy:

Participants in IML programs learn to “write” multimedia by first learning to critically read it. Students develop proficiency with the modes of formal analysis required for the critical evaluation of a wide range of multimedia artifacts—including images, video, sound design, information visualization, typography, interface design, and interactivity. In addition, students become familiar with the major theoretical frameworks guiding the development of contemporary multimedia applications and interactive experiences. One of the key concerns of multimedia pedagogy is ensuring that students avoid the uncritical adoption of conventions of commercial or entertainment media. The IML curriculum addresses this concern by exposing students to a broad range of multimedia genres—such as argumentative, documentary, essayistic, experiential, game-based, narrative, and archival forms—and by teaching the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. In their own projects, students are required to justify their authoring and design decisions to demonstrate that their use of media and techniques are appropriate to their overall communicative goal.

As students become critical readers of multimedia, they also learn to produce it in a scholarly way. Students gain experience in both individual and collaborative forms of multimedia authorship. Rather than positioning “multimedia literacy” or “scholarly multimedia” as an emerging field, the IML focuses on developing strategies of integration with existing disciplines and academic practices. The strength of the IML methodology is its modeling of pedagogical practices that are highly mutable, scalable, and flexible in implementation.

Wherever and however (in individual productions or group projects) these practices are implemented, that implementation must be followed up with critique. While students might learn to engage in a form of social or cultural critique through their multimedia creations, they must also learn how to critique their own multimodal productions – how to assess their success in serving their intended purpose, effectively making an argument, meaningfully (and not gratuitously) employing various modes of presentation, etc. As the rampant DH boosterism and invariably positive commentary on projects like HyperCities (despite its limitations) reveals, the Digital Humanities community has yet to build a tradition of critique.[8] In the DH classroom, a project isn’t complete when it “goes live” online, or when the video is screened; a period of reflection and critique must follow.


[1] Schnapp, Presner, et. al, 2. Presner writes elsewhere: “I consider ‘Digital Humanities’ to be an umbrella term for a wide array of practices for creating, applying, interpreting, interrogating, and hacking both new and old information technologies” (“Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge”).

[2] Stephanie Barish and Elizabeth Daley, Multimedia Scholarship for the 21st Century, Educause Forum for the Future of Higher Education (Educause, 2005): 39.

[3] Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.”

[4] Barish & Daley, 40.

[5] Presner & Johanson, 4.

[6] Ibid. For more on new “literacies,” see Henry Jenkins, “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” Occasional Paper on Digital Media and Learning (MacArthur Foundation).

[7] Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.”

[8] See Jennifer Howard, “Hot Type: No Reviews of Digital Scholarship = No RespectChronicle of Higher Education (May 23, 2010). USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy has developed a list of criteria for evaluating multimedia student work.

4 replies on “TWMHADH, Part 3”

Do you think that this Democratization of Knowledge through the Digital Humanities will help conquer the Digital Divide in this country and around the world?

Hi, Joseph. No, I don’t think the Digital Humanities can do much to address the digital divide — nor do I think this is one of its primary agenda items. I think Tanner Higgin nails it: “My concern is that when everyone in DH finally builds his/her One Collaborative Widget to Rule Them All, the dust will settle around Mordor and it’ll still be mostly a bunch of white academics at relatively wealthy universities talking about open access and probably around a rather nice table with a few unlocked iPads on it.” He captures one my many reservations with the whole endeavor — not least of which is its name: “digital humanities.” Ick. It’s like “distance learning.”

I hoped to clarify that this draft lit review was only my attempt to find some threads woven throughout the existing literature on DH; I haven’t yet integrated my own critical voice here. And I think critical voices are sorely needed — because DH hasn’t yet seemed to have escaped boosterist presentation.

All that said, there are a few “divides” that DH *does* have the potential to cross. One is the gate of the ivory tower: being more transparent about how research agendas are set, how methodologies are chosen and applied, etc.; and, ideally, holding scholarly process up to public scrutiny (assuming, of course, that the public *cares*). Another is the barrier of access to various archives: DH projects do have the potential to expose various resources that have rarely seen the light of day since being filed away in their document boxes — resources that most archival staffs don’t have the time or resources to digitize or publicize. We can partner with public institutions — like libraries — to highlight underused collections (and perhaps even aiding in their cataloguing), and then share these resources via free library computers (which, as I know from my research on public libraries, are still many Americans’ only connections to web resources — despite elitist assumptions that the whole world has gone digital). This partnership, I think, can at least make some headway in addressing the digital divide.

Do you think that projects like HyperCities will provide challenges for one to test the accuracy of the information provided? would it be easier to disseminate untruths through this way?

The vision for the HyperCities project is inspiring — but the execution thus far isn’t. Most collections seem to consist solely of tagged photos: I find myself saying, yes, I see that this photograph corresponds to this site, but what’s your point? Several of the class projects consist of students’ maps of their daily activities, tags of their homes, etc. The provenance of most archival material isn’t identified. Nothing truly provocative has happened here…yet.

The only way for platforms like HyperCities to advance scholarship, to promote public knowledge, etc. (I’m sure you know that “testing accuracy” isn’t the only way to measure the quality of scholarship) would be to develop a peer review process (one with a different set of values and practices than that which governs old-school publishing peer-review) to fit these non-traditional workspaces and publication venues (several folks, including Dan Cohen and Kathleen Fitzpatrick, are working on these issues; see also this and this). These interactive projects still require vetting. In both of my fall grad classes, for instance, my students will be conducting archival work, creating “multimodal arguments,” and then posting their work either to an online exhibition or a group map. They’ll have to work through several rounds of critique regarding both the form and content of their projects — from classmates, me, and outside reviewers — before their web projects go live. We have more than enough self-expressive writing and psychogeographic maps online; I want to use my classes to help students create serious arguments in new formats.

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