Digital Humanities as Vocation: Possibilities for Undergraduate Education

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Mitchell Paul Ogden

    University of Wisconsin–Stout

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The concept of vocation has continually evolved—from its Catholic origins through the long history of Western education and through the cultural transformation of the Industrial Revolution. In the midst of the Information Revolution, vocation continues to evolve, accommodating emerging trades and the day-to-day operations of participants in a digital information economy. We’ve seen, for example, that the pace of innovation and technological change has destabilized the model of fixed-skills training, demanding instead a rapid and recurrent retraining and retooling of the workforce—and not just for production- or entry-level employees, but for employees across the labor spectrum.

In our contemporary economic moment, there is an increasing demand for information workers who rely upon applied conceptual knowledge over their ability to simply use existing tools to accomplish existing tasks. Flexible and versatile thinkers—ready to advance with the vanguard—are the order of the day. It is not difficult to make the argument that the skill sets of digital humanists are well matched for this information economy: familiarity with software development and tool-building, intellectually-intensive cross-disciplinary collaboration, appreciation of interface design and visualization, among many others. As the field of digital humanities continues to expand, there is a steady increase of undergraduate programs that provide opportunities for students to learn and apply DH methodologies, build DH tools, and cultivate DH skill sets. Examining the rise of undergraduate digital humanities work on American liberal arts campuses, Bryan Alexander and Rebecca Frost Davis predict that those undergraduate programs will be sending their students into digital humanities graduate programs (Kindle Locations 9938-9939). But we know that not every student will have interest or opportunity to pursue graduate studies or to enter the academic DH industry. So what sort of professional opportunities will await graduates of these proliferating undergraduate programs? Can we think about digital humanities as a vocation—that rich professional calling that is both spiritually and economically sustaining and sustainable? Put another way, is there digital humanities work outside the academy?

Scholarship of teaching and learning in the digital humanities remains scant. In one of the few treatments of the subject, Stephen Brier raises the big question “Where’s the pedagogy?” His project traces the legacy of “innovative pedagogy” at the City University of New York. That pedagogical legacy includes providing access to higher education to a large population of working-class students in New York and the surrounding region—students entrenched in the vocational identities of their families and communities. Brier’s narrative of innovation is one that sees the continual infusion of technology and digital tools to aid student learning that eventually culminates in the pathbreaking digital humanities initiatives housed at CUNY. But while undergraduate students across the curriculum use and engage digital tools, serious DH work is reserved for graduate students and faculty who address teaching and learning as a meta-discursive component of their research. There is a strong and viable connection between DH research and teaching and learning, but digital humanities remains aloof from undergraduate experience and distant from the grounding in vocation.

Blackwell and Martin explore the practice—increasingly common among DH researchers—of involving undergraduate students as research assistants in DH projects. As Blackwell and Martin suggest, these experiences facilitate a mastery of humanities inquiry—classics in their case—and point to a fertile area to see enhancement of teaching and learning. As important as such undergraduate research opportunities are, however, they remain—in most cases—extracurricular activities meant to enhance a student’s education experience rather than define it.

This short paper is interested in exploring the possibility of developing digital humanities as an undergraduate curriculum—especially in a context that privileges a legacy of manual and vocational training. It considers the case of the University of Wisconsin–Stout—a polytechnic university with a historical identity of manual and vocational preparation and an institutional focus on job placement. In 2010, the Professional Communication and Emerging Media program at UW–Stout revised its curriculum to include a new concentration in digital humanities. Different from both research universities and small liberal arts colleges, this polytechnic campus has a teaching-centered mission that is rich with programs that complement digital humanities, including entertainment design, game design & development, media production, computer science, graphic arts, and applied social sciences. As a new program in this novel environment, we are just beginning to see how undergraduate students respond to the digital humanities curriculum, how the first cohorts of students prepare to enter the labor market, and how they shape their own vocational identities.

Such a program raises a number of serious questions. As humanists and digital humanists, how un/comfortable are we with framing any part of our field as vocational training? As the field expands, will we be prepared to think more strategically—more vocationally—about job markets beyond academia? On one hand, vocational thinking goes against the grain of the liberal education sensibilities carried by many members of the DH community. On the other, the rapid expansion of interest and support for our field raises the question: Why? What are the forces—larger than academia’s craving for intellectually fashionable movements—that drive this boom? Among many possible answers to this question, could it be that our methodologies and modes of inquiry are recognized to be well-aligned with the Zeitgeist of our information economy? Might digital humanities be a “new” field that has emerged in response to broader labor and economic forces and not just—as some continue to believe—a technological makeover of a has-been discipline?

Put another way, might digital humanities be viable as a progressive training model for the labor pool of the surging information economy? Can the digital humanities be a twenty-first century vocation outside of academia?

Alexander, Bryan and Rebecca Frost Davis (2012). “Should Liberal Arts Campuses Do Digital Humanities? Process and Products in the Small College World.”Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew Gold. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.

Blackwell, Christopher and Thomas R. Martin (2009). “Technology, Collaboration, and Undergraduate Research.”Digital Humanities Quarterly. 3.1: n. pag. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.

Brier, Stephen (2012). “Where’s the Pedagogy? The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities.”Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew Gold. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.

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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

377 works by 898 authors indexed

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Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO