Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Encouraging Critical Analysis of Digital Technology in the Classroom

Posted by on Jan 15, 2015 in Blog, Modeling/Prototyping, Projects

[Submitted by Amy Robinson]

As part of my research for NewRadial I map and annotate ideas for papers and projects which I am currently working on in school. As a T.A. I have also found it a useful tool for putting together class material and preparing the ideas I want to talk about with the students in the first year English class that I am assisting. Recently, as I was researching for a class I was going to teach it occurred to me that NewRadial’s social element (when collections are “public” users can comment on each other’s collections) might lend itself to classroom discussion as well as scholarly debate. Since NewRadial had already been so useful for my own work in terms of thinking about texts from new perspectives, I thought that it might help to generate a more lively debate amongst the students. Because NewRadial doesn’t update in real time, I decided that the best way to approach using it as a teaching tool was to make it a part of the reading assignment in preparation for the class. After being given a username and password as well as a handout on the basics of using NewRadial, I asked the students to read the text and then each create at least one edge between two nodes of the story and comment on at least one edge that someone else had generated. To facilitate their work I created my own, much larger, collection and provided a link to my example.

My aim was very specific. I have found, both as a student and in my recent experience as an instructor, that students frequently look for the easiest answer when it comes to interpreting texts. Accustomed to hearing teachers talk about what the central meaning or message of a text is, they have learned to look for meaning which has a broad application in the real world outside of the text. Since the primary justification for literary studies continuing to be part of public school curriculum often involves rhetoric about the edifying nature of studying classic books, students become adept at identifying positive central themes in texts which “figure in the discussion only as a box from which to pluck vital and interesting social, moral and political issues” (Booth 267). By the time a student arrives in a first year university English course they have generally developed a reading practice that enables them to quickly identify social commentary within a text but the result of this is that they rarely pay close attention to the form of the text, and have very little ability in terms of a vocabulary for exploring how the author produces this message. They have spent so much of their time looking for hidden meanings that they have stopped looking at the text itself. This becomes something of a shortcut for students, especially when dealing with historical (rather than modern) works since the ‘right’ answer can be produced if one simply identifies the ‘other’ of a text (women, members of a different ethnicity/social group/religion) and the ways in which they are subjugated by mainstream society. Since working with digitally enabled text models in NewRadial was so productive for me in terms of thinking outside of this box I thought that assigning work in NewRadial might break the students out of this pattern and encourage them to take a closer look at the story. In order to do this, I started by asking them to use connective edges between nodes to show me not what the story “means” but what it does. Instead of giving me an interpretation of the whole, show me how different elements are connected. For examples, I suggested connecting different textual images to each other, or connecting a descriptive moment to an active one in order to show how they work together.

When the morning of the class arrived, I found that nobody had completed my assignment. I believe this was, in part, related to my position as a T.A. rather than a professor as well as the fact that the extra work I asked them to do was not directly connected to any marks. As a current student, I certainly understood the burden that extra work presents and I did expect some of the students to disregard my assignment, but what surprised me was what I learned when I went to the class. After asking students who had used NewRadial to look at the text why they did not create any collections, many of them told me that they found the interface confusing. Although I experienced something of a learning curve in my early work with NewRadial, this was not the reaction I had expected.My own rationale behind attempting to use NewRadial in the classroom (one which I think is shared with other instructors) was that students who have been immersed in digital technology all their lives would be more comfortable working in a digital environment.

I started thinking about what made NewRadial different from other digital technologies that I use and the one quality which really seemed to differentiate it was intuitiveness. The digital technologies with which I and many other students are most familiar, like mobile apps, are designed to enable the user to interact with them in a very specific, clear-cut way and self-limiting way. On the other hand, NewRadial is designed for a variety of secondary-scholarship research practices and as such the interface doesn’t prescribe its use in the manner of other digital technologies. Because it exists as a workspace, it doesn’t produce or present anything to the user. Anything accomplished in NewRadial is entirely the work of the user, not the interface, and it is what the user does with the sources they incorporate into their collections or in the discussions they have with other users that productive scholarly work takes place. I think that this is a necessary element of any productive DH technology as well as a key part of the reason pedagogical work in the Digital Humanities is so important.

This is because most of the digital technology we have become accustomed to directs not only how we use it but how we perceive and understand the information it relates, and it does so covertly. Before being introduced to Digital Humanities, I had never considered in a serious way how any of the many programs and technologies I use throughout the day influence the way I understand what they tell me about the world around me. In fact, until university I didn’t even have the vocabulary necessary to perform such a critical analysis. I treated all programs as raw, objective, unmediated sources of knowledge and I assumed a level of transparency, only coloured by my own subjective experience. This perception didn’t come out of a vacuum, either. As a student, I was thoroughly educated regarding what kinds of digital resources were scholarly and which ones were inappropriate for academic work but I only ever considered the data and I was never taught to examine how it was being presented. And in a world where more and more of what we learn comes from digital technologies, I think it is of the utmost importance that educators give students the tools they need to question how digital technologies influence what we do with the limitless information that they provide access to. How better to teach this kind of literacy then by using Digital Humanities tools in the classroom?

I think the same mindset which limits literary scholarship problematizes pedagogy. Students, like authors of scholarly journals and monographs, are tending towards finished products, definitive answers, rather than an experience of exploration and learning. Accustomed to both teaching and technology that give ‘right’ answers, students are becoming uncomfortable with the ambiguity and contradiction necessary for literary studies which is always at one level a creative exercise. This ethos becomes more problematic when students use digital technology. A good humanities teacher or professor will always acknowledge areas of uncertainty in the information they present to their students, but data gathered from digital sources, which frequently use simplified visualization techniques, often has the false appearance of ‘raw’ fact which is something students have been trained to seek out. Students without a critical education in digital technology risk being programmed by their programs, trained like computers to follow the same intellectual pathways over and over again.

After all, as Jesse Stommel observes, like digital technology, “pedagogy is not ideologically neutral” and educators have a responsibility to make that apparent to their students. Stommel advocates a hybrid model of Digital Humanities Pedagogy, what he calls “Digital Critical Pedagogy” which “is concerned less with knowing and more with a voracious not-knowing. It is an on-going and recursive process of discovery.” Rather than simply using digital technology to do what is normally done in the classroom on computers in an attempt to keep the humanities relevant or appeal to a digital generation, DH tools offer a unique ability to learn both about the subject matter they present and about the ways in which our use of them shapes the our world. One of the opportunities many DH pedagogical tools, including NewRadial, offer the classroom is an opportunity for students to encounter and interact with each other’s work in a meaningful and productive way through forums and online commenting. This sort of work breaks free of the ‘right answer’ paradigm and engenders discussion and debate. Interactive digital environments which students can manipulate have a two-fold benefit since they offer space for student discussion while helping to start conversations about how the presentation of data can impact how different people interpret it. In the words of Paul Fyfe, “the goal is to keep students’ attention on the critical labor that digital resources seem to dissolve” in order to enable students to both use digital tools productively for education as well as making them conscientious users of technology in general.

I now think that there will be a significant learning curve for students in Digital Humanities classrooms. Critical thought is not something which is encouraged by mobile apps or social media platforms, and in fact, their ease of use not only does away with the need for instructions of any kind but also with analysis. Beginning to reflect on something which is, for this generation of students, ubiquitous will feel somewhat counter-intuitive. Using it for educational purposes will be even more so. But after having considered the question, I believe that it is imperative that students are empowered with the educational tools necessary to be discerning data consumers who use digital tools as a means for contemplation as well as information.


Booth, Stephen. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time and All Others.” Shakespeare

            Quarterly. 41.2 (1990): 262-268.

Stommel, Jesse. “Critical Digital Pedagogy: a Definition. Hybrid Pedagogy. 18 Nov. 2014.

Fyfe, Paul. “Digital Pedagogy Unplugged.” Digital Humanities Quarterly. 5.3 (2011).


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