Pedagogy & Play: Revising Learning through Digital Humanities

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Katherine D. Harris

    Department of English & Comparative Literature - San Jose State University

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Pedagogy & Play: Revising Learning through Digital Humanities
Harris, Katherine D. , Department of English, San Jose State University,
In Digital Humanities circles, we often talk about collaboration between disciplines, among scholars, and with technologists. While progress in the field is nurtured certainly by this type of research, what of our students? How are we shepherding Digital Humanities to those undergraduates who could most benefit from exposure to collaborative tools or humanities computing strategies? Happily, HASTAC has been addressing pedagogy, most specifically with Cathy Davidson's post "Research is Teaching" ( (link) ) and the wildly successful forum "Teaching with Technology and Curiosity" ( (link) ). As is evident from the Digital Humanities Zotero group ( there are some relevant, engaging courses being taught in and around Digital Humanities. But, how can Digital Humanities engage with, even alter, traditional pedagogy?

Collaboration, shared knowledge, open access, extra-disciplinarity. These are the major tenets of Digital Humanities. However, what is missing in this list is something required of all digital projects: play. Roger Caillois qualifies this type of unstructured activity as “an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill” (Man, Play and Games 2001; 6). This lack of structure, leads to exploration, discovery, and production of knowledge in ways that were only imagined twenty years ago. Typically though we don't allow our students this sense of play in their traditional studies. Especially in literary studies, we supply students with the end-product but don't expose them to the theories and the methodologies always. We separate those kinds of issues into other courses (e.g., Introduction to Literary Criticism or Introduction to Research Methods). When faculty bring a particular perspective, for example textual studies or feminist theory, to a classroom setting, the methods for exploring and discovering aren't exposed to students. Instead, we're offering them the one big major tool, close reading, for their arsenal.

Students then live with some anxiety that there's one way to read a text and, more often, ask "how does the professor want me to read this?" It becomes a guessing “game” instead of an exploration and discovery of the literature. In the final essay, we expect students to offer a discovery, a research paper, or an analysis. But, if we haven't exposed them to the methodology and the theory, how can they adequately achieve a true exploration of the literature? In this way, the course becomes a game with an outcome, consequences, and rigid rules. Using Digital Humanities strategies, I want to instill a sense, even if it's artificial, that literary studies are a “free and voluntary activity, a source of joy and amusement” as Caillois defines “play” (6).

With this poster, I will explore invigorating an undergraduate education with a sense of play by specifically incorporating the major tenets of Digital Humanities and Caillois' typology of play:

Free: in which playing is not obligatory; if it were, it would at once lose its attractive and joyous quality as diversion;
Separate: circumscribed within limits of space and time, defined and fixed in advance;
Uncertain: the course of which cannot be determined, nor the result attained beforehand, and some latitude for innovations being left to the player's initiative;
Unproductive: creating neither goods, nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind; and, except for the exchange of property among the players, ending in a situation identical to that prevailing at the beginning of the game;
Governed by rules: under conventions that suspend ordinary laws, and for the moment establish new legislation, which alone counts;
Make-believe: accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or of a free unreality, as against real life. (9-10)
Before being able to articulate this type of change in undergraduate curriculum, I had to understand it myself. I attended ThatCamp Bay Area in October 2010 to gain some understanding, and, well, to feel uncomfortable. I wanted to immerse myself in areas that were not so familiar to me, sessions where I couldn’t be an authority. The invigorating aspect to the two days’ of sessions was that no matter how hard I tried to avoid familiar topics, I found myself reflecting on the intersection between my work and all of the cool, interesting work being discussed. Steve Ramsay ( (link) ) was right; I was prepared to be the dumbest person in the room, and that prepared me for being inspired by the cross/multi/extradisciplinary work that so many people came together to discuss.

Big questions plagued me during and after sessions, even at the bootcamps. But, these weren’t questions of despair; rather they were invigorating because they required that I think about pedagogy and curriculum in a different fashion, but they were there nonetheless: How can this apply in the classroom? How can I teach my students some of this technology without sacrificing content? Is this the content then in a Digital Humanities course? What kind of Humanistic inquiry comes from integrating tools with literary studies? How can I educate my colleagues about Digital Humanities using geo-referencing as an example? How can GIS impact my work on history of the book. But mostly I just wanted to play with all of the toys in order to explore what kind of Humanistic inquiry is possible. I wanted to see what happened when a major corpus of work was available; what questions could I come up with, because I don’t have any to start with. Perhaps if I had a chance to play, though, I could find something.

In one session, Linguist Adita Muralidharan lead the group through algorithms that could parse n-grams in large datasets. The question came up: How do you know what questions to ask of such large amounts of data? For instance, Franco Moretti and Matthew Jockers' use of massive quantities of 19th-century novels to collate developments in the genre ( (link) ). While neither project can search for metaphor, irony, and humor, I can only guess what kinds of extrapolations could come out of just fooling around with the data, searches and results. But, I wouldn't know unless I got my hands on the tools and the dataset. Can I be allowed to do research when I don't know what the question will be, let alone the answers? Playfulness, see?

And this is the crux of the entire weekend – playfulness and imagination is perhaps something that academics and scholars have moved away from, something that is stolen from us as we move into full time positions. And we've done this to our students in a way.

Over the last two years, I have begun focusing my teaching on incorporating digital tools into my undergraduate classroom. This is often a nuanced decision made in heavy consultation with an Instructional Designer. Now, I teach three kinds of courses that interact at some level with digital tools, Digital Humanities and the typology of play:

TechnoRomanticism ( (link) ): We create our own digital edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Along the way, we create a collaborative timeline using MIT's SIMILE & Timeline script ( (link) ). We don't even begin to create a website until some of the preliminary assignments are done -- assignments that look at the construction of this novel, both linguistically and bibliographically. Every 2 weeks, we held a workshop on some digital assignment and acquired 1 new skill, not even necessarily a new tool, but a skill. Even those not accustomed to posting to forums and blogs got something out of it.
Digital Humanities: The Death of Print Culture? ( (link) ) I'm teaching this one right now, and we're theorizing all facets of Digital Humanities while at the same time critiquing the tools for our thinking and dissemination. We're in Week 11, and now they're really seeing the benefits and pitfalls of Digital Humanities. We will also explore multi-modal arguments, i.e., the video essay.
And a third type of course, one in which content and Digital Humanities are intertwined -- the British Literature survey course 1800-Present: (link)
For this course, we're not practicing any Digital Humanities, but we are looking at Digital Literature in the continuum of the survey, which is difficult considering we're still figuring out what that means. This is a lower-division English major's requirement, which means students typically haven't had the requisite course on how to evaluate literature in various genres.

All three of these courses offer students a sense of play. The most Digital Humanities-focused course, the Honors Digital Literature course that I'm teaching right now, even demands the play defined above, that unstructured, imaginative playing that happens with tag or hide n'go seek. In fact, when we started the section on e-literature, I provided no rules for close reading; my literature majors hated that and still are admonishing me for not supplying them with the tools. This is where English/literary studies have done them wrong (and me for that matter). We train our students with a set of distinct rules, even asking some of them to master those rules. And, then and only then, do we allow them to break those rules. But, what if we never tell them the rules to begin with? What if we ask them to play first, explore, discover and then we provide them with a set of rules? I'm talking about reversing the curriculum to privilege bottom-up pedagogy.

Though much of this long paper is based in anecdotes about students enrolled in a large, public university, I believe it provides evidence of the potential for altering traditional pedagogy using the very thing that Digital Humanities encapsulates: play.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2011
"Big Tent Digital Humanities"

Hosted at Stanford University

Stanford, California, United States

June 19, 2011 - June 22, 2011

151 works by 361 authors indexed

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Series: ADHO (6)

Organizers: ADHO

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  • Language: English
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