Advocating for a Digital Humanities Curriculum: Design and Implementation

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  1. 1. David Smith

    Wilfrid Laurier University

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Smith, David
Wilfrid Laurier
Perceptions of falling enrollments and demands for closer
alignment with the labour market have placed the humanities
under pressure in North American higher education.[1] These
issues have been particularly pressing at mid-sized institutions
such as Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.[2]
Faculty at Laurier responded to this challenge by developing
a digital humanities program with its first course offerings
expected in 2014-2015. This paper discusses the initial design
of that program and its relationship to three major questions in
digital humanities pedagogy. First, should digital humanities
programs be structured around a common core of learning
objectives, or instead differentiate?[3] Second, what is the
relationship between digital humanities curricula and demand
in the workforce – should digital humanities programs be
designed to pursue indifferent academic knowledge or attempt
to engage more actively with vocational preparation? Finally,
should the teaching of digital humanities focus on specific skill
development, or instead cultivate “methodologies” or critical
perspectives on technology and its application?[4]
In addressing these questions, the paper adds the
experience of one institution to the ongoing conversation among
emerging programs.[5] Although it has been asked whether
only research intensive universities might have the expertise to
field digital humanities programs, at Laurier we were mindful of
the possibilities opened by a primarily pedagogical approach.
[6] To begin with, while the secondary literature’s discussion of
digital humanities research overshadows teaching, pedagogical
arguments can be crucial to attract administrative support.
[7] This is especially the case in faculties that are sensitive
to undergraduate enrollments and their volatility. Digital
humanities programs can present an attractive option for
students while demonstrating the continuing relevance of the
humanities to technological change.[8]
The Laurier curriculum is a program option that majors
or minors can include in their course of study. Structured
around a cluster of required courses, the curriculum allows
departments throughout the Faculty of Arts to add courses
as they are developed. Students use their elective courses to
design a specific pathway, including learning to program.[9]
The required courses expose students to historical analysis
and computer science. The purpose of the curriculum, broadly
conceived, is to improve students’ “digital literacy” or their
ability to find and analyze digital information, and to use digital
tools in active and creative ways.[10] Recent research has
noted that, “There is considerable evidence to support the
view that many students do not explore information in any
deep or reflective manner.”[11] Other authors have preferred
to emphasize student “multiliteracy,” arguing that literacy in
the digital age is a broad concept, and reflects fluency with
and access to a broad range of representative forms, such as
visual or audio media.[12] A narrow concentration on traditional
textual literacy, it is argued, misses the scope of literacy in
a connected, technologically saturated world.[13] Though
some commentators also worry that young people are being
transformed into passive recipients of digital media, others
argue that technology opens their creative potential in blogs
and other formats.[14] All agree, however, with the necessity
of transforming students from “consumers” of digital content
into “creators.”[15] The literature has also argued that digital
humanities can develop students’ critical skills as they engage
with complex digital information on the web and elsewhere.[16]
Mindful of the growing significance of digital literacy, the
Laurier program prompts students to realize the challenge
of using and gathering “deep data,” rather than relying on
data returned from basic Google searches. Throughout the
curriculum students use methods from history to interpret
textual information, and weigh and contextualize evidence.
This approach connects a qualitative layer to the quantitative
and analytic skills learned from computer science.[17] For
example, the program’s foundation course introduces students
to the possibilities of big data. Using existing queries and
code they investigate familiar data sources, such as Twitter
and Google. They then use knowledge from the humanities
to contextualize and shape that data. Students are asked to
consider the limitations of digital information and how to make
data meaningful: what socially significant questions might
they ask of it? During the final project students communicate
their findings using digital media. The course attempts to
demonstrate to students that the familiar digital universe they
inhabit can reveal surprising discoveries with the right tools.
At Laurier three factors shaped the development of the
program: concerns over costs, an increasing emphasis
on differentiation within the Ontario university system, and
the challenge of engaging faculty who had a pre-existing
knowledge of the subject. These pressures demanded the
program leverage existing institutional strengths.[18] For
example, without funds to support new hires, the program
Lausanne, Switzerland
was by necessity an interdisciplinary effort among the faculty
already working in the digital humanities. Consequently, their
knowledge directly affected what was initially possible within
the program.[19] As we developed the program we realized
that it was possible for these perceived drawbacks, such as
lack of faculty expertise concentrated in a research cluster, to
become strengths. In response, our program became not only
interdisciplinary, but a scaffold for faculty to build their expertise
and advance their knowledge through teaching.
These factors shaped the curriculum so as to differentiate
it within the Ontario system at a time when such diversity
is becoming a compelling trend in higher education. As
universities attempt to communicate their distinctiveness to
applicants, digital humanities programs can benefit by their
alignment with the institution’s academic identities.[20] In the
case of Laurier, this tilted the curriculum towards business, one
of the university’s strongest areas. Our experience suggests
explicit differentiation is not only the preferable strategy, but
also perhaps a necessity given the resource constraints and the
dynamics of higher education in North America.
The development of the Laurier program was also related
to specific data about the job-market. Whether humanities
programs should explicitly adopt a vocational orientation
has been a subject of pyretic debate.[21] A curriculum that
trains students primarily to investigate academic problems
in the humanities might be especially suitable for research
universities. At Laurier, however, we shaped the curriculum in
consultation with the Career Centre to advance our students
in post-graduate employment more directly. Like it or not,
many students and applicants are preoccupied with the job
prospects associated with their major.[22] Among employers,
we have learned, there is concern that graduates in arts will
be intimidated or flummoxed by even basic tasks using digital
tools. These misgivings might be unfounded, but the Laurier
program explicitly cultivates digital literacy to equip students for
knowledge employment in the future.
For example, the program builds on Laurier’s strength in
business administration to provide an entry point into the
burgeoning field of analytics. This focus is especially important
since the university is located in a region with large technology
and insurance sectors.[23] The curriculum exposes students
to big data problems beginning in the foundation course,
while prompting them to think about the social meaning and
application of this information by drawing on knowledge
from the humanities. A stream may be added to educate
undergraduates specifically in big data and analytics.
An emphasis on employable experience is also reflected
in the experiential and co-op learning integrated into the
curriculum.[24] Students, to give one example, can receive
course credit for work at the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic
and Disarmament Studies. They will undertake projects
such as digitizing and making the Centre’s archival holdings
publically searchable. These kinds of work opportunities, which
combine training in the humanities with digital work, are not only
pedagogically desirable, but meet our students’ demand for coop
experience in the humanities.
Among the hardest questions to answer is whether digital
humanities courses should teach a defined set of skills over
more broadly conceived methodologies. In balance is the
preference among employers that new hires should already
have a minimal level of job-related training, yet programs
focused on imparting specific skills risk narrowness.[25] Instead
we have embraced the concept of digital literacy: students
should have broad facility with digital work, and be confident
and able to self-learn or advance their training in specific areas.
[26] For example, the exposure during the foundation course
to code does not teach them coding, but rather demonstrates
how code works and its limitations. Students choosing to
specialize can take advanced programming electives. However,
all students should leave the program with at least enough
understanding to customize off-the-shelf tools.
Can the digital humanities draw attention to the vitality of
the humanities? Part of doing so may be to demonstrate that
the humanities have much to offer the digital economy. Moving
forward at Laurier, we intend to conduct a more thorough
investigation into the relationship between the digital humanities
and the contemporary workplace. By proceeding with this
research we accept that the humanities can be more explicitly
oriented to post-graduate employment and the challenges of
“knowledge work.” Though we live in a time of doubt about the
humanities, such strategies may instead reveal that this is a
moment of renewed vigor.
[1] Jennifer Levitz and Douglas Belkin, Humanities Fall
from Favor, The Wall Street Journal (June 6, 2013), A3; Tamar
Lewin, As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry,
The New York Times (October 31, 2013), A1. For an articulate
discussion of the falling numbers of humanities concentrators
at a leading research university see, David Armitage, Homi
Bhabha et al., The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at
Harvard College: Mapping the Future, (Cambridge, MA, 2013);
and the analysis of Anthony Grafton and James Grossman,
The Humanities in Dubious Battle , The Chronicle of Higher
Education, July 1, 2013; Contrarian views are offered by
Michael Bérubé, The Humanities, Declining? Not According
to the Numbers, The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 1,
2013; and Robert Townshend, Clio's Charm Holding Fast?
Perspectives on History (October, 2012).
[2] The author’s home institution; its full-time undergraduate
population is approximately 15,400.
[3] Lisa Spiro, Opening up Digital Humanities Education, in
Digital Humanities Pedagogy, pp. 338-39.
[4] Simon Mahony and Elena Pierazzo, Teaching Skills or
Teaching Methodology? in Brett Hirsch (ed.), Digital Humanities
Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics (2012), pp.
215-225; at p. 215.
[5] See, for example, the informal survey of Tanya Clement,
Multiliteracies in the Undergraduate Digital Humanities
Curriculum: Skills, Principles, and Habits of Mind, in Digital
Humanities Pedagogy, pp. 365-88, at pp. 376-384.
[6] Bryan Alexander and Rebecca Frost Davis discuss the
challenges of digital humanities education in liberal arts schools
and the resource limitations in Should Liberal Arts Campuses
Do Digital Humanities? in Matthew K. Gold, Debates in the
Digital Humanities (Minneapolis, 2012), pp. 368-89.
[7] Tanya Clement, Multiliteracies in the Undergraduate
Digital Humanities Curriculum, pp. 366, 370-71.
[8] Luke Waltzer, Digital Humanities and the ‘Ugly
Stepchildren,’ of American Higher Education, in Gold, Debates,
pp. 335-349, 341-42; Stephen Brier, Where’s the Pedagogy?
The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities,
in Gold, Debates, pp. 390-401, at 390-1; and Alan Liu, Digital
Humanities and Academic Change, English Language Notes
47 (2009), pp. 17-35. Recent discussion of undergraduate
pedagogy includes, T. Mills Kelly, Teaching History in the
Digital Age (Ann Arbor, 2013) and throughout Brett Hirsch
(ed.), Digital Humanities Pedagogy. Attempts have been
made to identify the learning outcomes of digital humanities
courses, see the report of Joanna Drucker and John Unsworth
on the NEH Digital Humanities Curriculum Seminar at
[9] The role and necessity of coding skills in digital humanities
program has been a subject of recent discussion, see
Interchange: The Promise of Digital History, The Journal
of American History 95:2 (Sept. 2008), pp. 452-487, at pp.
459-67; Tanya Clement, Multiliteracies in the Undergraduate
Digital Humanities Curriculum, p. 369; Stephen Ramsay,
Programming with Humanists: Reflections on Raising an Army
of Hacker-Scholars in the Digital Humanities, in Hirsch (ed.),
Digital Humanities Pedagogy, pp. 227-239.
[10] Tanya Clement, Multiliteracies in the Undergraduate
Digital Humanities Curriculum, p. 366. A recent report in the
United Kingdom by a panel of higher education administrators
and faculty defined “information literacy” as “activities such as
search, retrieval and critical evaluation information from a range
of sources, and also its responsible use form the point of view
of attribution.” David Melville et al., Higher Education in a Web
2.0 World (March, 2009), p. 34.
[11] Peter Williams and Ian Rowlands, The Literature on
Young People and their Information Behaviour, work package
II (October, 2007), pp. 17-20, at 19. Other writers have gone
Digital Humanities 2014
further, suggesting that the very process of web interaction
and the structure of its information negatively affects users,
Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making us Stupid? What the Internet
is Doing to Our Brains, The Atlantic (July/August, 2008). Daniel
Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig examine historical accuracy on
the web in Web of Lies? Historical Knowledge on the Internet,
First Monday (December, 2005). See also Mark Bauerlein,
The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupifies Young
Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008). See also the
National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk: A Survey
of Literary Reading in America, Research Division Report #46,
eds. Tom Bradshaw and Bonnie Nichols (Washington, 2004).
[12] New London Group, A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies:
Designing Social Futures, Harvard Educational Review 66:1
(1996), pp. 60-92.
[13] Ibid., p. 61.
[14] Tanya Clement, Multiliteracies in the Undergraduate
Digital Humanities Curriculum, pp. 375-76.
[15] Melville et al., Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World, pp.
[16] Tanya Clement, Multiliteracies in the Undergraduate
Digital Humanities Curriculum, p. 366.
[17] The program also prompts students to reflect on the use
of large-scale historical data, issues that have been explored
by William Thomas III, Computing and the Historical
Imagination, in Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens et al.
(eds.), A Companion to Digital Humanities,(Oxford, 2004),
pp. 56-68, esp. p. 65 for a discussion of the future digital
needs of historians. Frederick Gibbs and Trevor Owens also
suggest that the availability of “big data” requires the historical
profession to rethink its methods and hermeneutics, see The
Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing .
[18] Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan and others have
recently compiled differing perspectives on the digital
humanities in Defining Digital Humanities: a Reader (Surrey,
UK, 2013).
[19] Undergraduate programs can be capacity building by
attracting resources to digital humanities. Spiro, Opening up
Digital Humanities Education, p. 332.
[20] James Bradshaw, Specialize or Risk Losing Funding
Ontario tells Universities and Colleges , The Globe and Mail,
September 18, 2013.
[21] In the United Kingdom, Jisc has sponsored projects
considering the linkages between digital literacy and
employment through the Developing Digital Literacies
Programme. Examples include the University of Greenwich
Digital Literacy in Higher Education Project, and the Digitally
Ready project at the University of Reading.
[22] The recent Gallup-Lumina survey reported that 90%
of respondents among the general public believed that the
“candidates college or university major” was either “somewhat”
or “very important” to hiring decisions. Only 70% of “business
leaders” who were asked responded similarly. The 2013 Lumina
Study of the American Public’s Opinion on Higher Education
and U.S. Business Leaders Poll on Higher Education (February
25, 2014), pp. 18, 29
[23] Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, Big Data: The
Management Revolution, Harvard Business Review (October,
2012), p. 62; Jonathan Shaw, Why ‘Big Data’ is a Big Deal:
Information Science Promises to Change the World, Harvard
Magazine (March-April, 2014), pp. 30-35; 74-75; Claire Miller,
Data Science: The Numbers of Our Lives , The New York
Times, April 11, 2013; Thomas Davenport and D.J. Patil, Data
Scientist: the Sexiest Job of the 21st Century, Harvard Business
Review (October, 2012), pp. 70-1; Alexandra Stevenson,
New Silicon Valley Fund to Back Big Data Start-Ups , New
York Times Dealbook, October 17, 2013. Claire Miller, Data
Science: The Numbers of Our Lives, The New York Times ,
April 11, 2013.
[24] 14% of business leaders surveyed in 2014 reported
that internships or practical experience would “best prepare
graduates for success in the workforce.” This was the most
popular response (excluding “Don’t know/refused”). The 2013
Lumina Study, p. 30. For discussion of such “participatory”
educational opportunities (or their lack in the humanities) see
Alexander and Frost Davis, Liberal Arts Campuses, p. 380;
Spiro, Opening Up Digital Humanities Pedagogy, p. 352; Cathy
Davidson has called for a “core curriculum to create engaged
entrepreneurs,” here.
[25] Skills may also, without use, atrophy unlike patterns of
critical thinking, see Mahony and Pierazzo, Teaching Skills or
Teaching Methodology? p. 224.
[26] Jisc, Learning Literacies in a Digital Age , September 7,

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

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Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

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