pedagogy, computers and writing, and the digital humanities #cwdhped

Over the past couple days there’s been a Twitter conversation (#cwdhped) and an evolving open Google doc that explores the idea of some summit or FTF discussion among scholars in the digital humanities and those in computers and writing on shared interests in pedagogy. For those that don’t know, “computers and writing” is a subfield of rhetoric and composition that focuses on technological developments. I’ll reserve my comments about the weirdness of such a subfield in 2014 for another day. Let’s just say that it exists, has existed since the early 80s, and that there’s a lot of research there on pedagogical issues. Digital humanities, on the other hand, is an amorphous collection of methods and subjects across many disciplines, potentially including computers and writing and possibly including people and disciplines that are not strictly in the humanities (e.g. education or communications or the arts). So, for example, when I think of the very small DH community on my campus, I’m meeting with people in Linguistics, Classics, Theater/Dance, Anthropology, Education, Media Study, Architecture… Some of these people are teaching students how to use particular media creation tools. Some are teaching programming. Some are doing data analysis. Some are teaching pedagogy. Most of the digital-type instruction is happening at the graduate level. And none of it is happening in what we’d commonly think of as the core humanities departments (i.e. the ones with the largest faculty, grad programs, and majors). Of course that’s just one campus, one example, which begs the following questions:

  • What % of 4-year US colleges have a specific digital outcome for their required composition curriculum?
  • What % of those campuses have a self-described “digital humanities” undergraduate curriculum that extends beyond a single course?

I would guess there are ~1000 faculty loosely associated with computers and writing, maybe less. I’m sure they are doing digital stuff individually in their classrooms, but is there something programmatic going on there on there respective campuses? There are 100s(?) of professional writing majors now, most of which have some digital component, but sometimes it is still just one class. And if we stick to the MLA end of the DH world, how many English and/or language departments have a specific DH curriculum? How many have any kind of DH or digital literacy outcomes for their majors?

This leads me to the following question/provocation: setting aside composition courses, how many different courses does the average US English department offer each year with an established digital learning outcome or digital topic in its formal catalog course description? I think that if I set the over/under at 2.5 you’d be crazy to take the over.

My point is that when we are talking about DH pedagogy, we are talking about something that barely exists in a formal way. If you want to think about 1000s of professors and TAs doing “something digital” in their courses here and there, then yes, it’s all over the place. And yes we are using Blackboard, teaching online, and so on. And maybe we could come up with a list of 25 universities that are delivering a ton of DH content, the 100s of institutions with professional writing majors are offering an above average amount of digital content, and the English departments that are delivering secondary education certification might be delivering the required digital literacy content for those degrees, but put into the context of 3000 4-year colleges and what do you see?

I think the same is true on the graduate level. We can point to some programs and to individual faculty, but nationally, how many doctoral programs have specific expectations in relation to DH or digital literacy for their graduates? I would bet that even at the biggest DH universities in the nation, you can get a PhD in English without having any more digital literacy than a BA at the same school. Rhet/Comp has a higher expectation than literary studies, but only because of the pedagogical focus and the expectation that one can teach with technology. This doesn’t mean that students can’t choose to pursue DH expertise at many institutions, at either the undergrad or grad level. It’s just not integral to the curriculum.

So my first question(s) to the MLA end of the DH community (just to start there) is

  • What role do you see for yourselves in the undergraduate curriculum?
  • Is DH only a specialized, elective topic or should there be some digital outcome for an English major?
  • Should there be some digital component of a humanities general education?
  • What role should DH play in institutional goals around digital literacy?

The same questions apply at the graduate level. Is DH only an area of specialization or does it also represent a body of knowledge that every Phd student should know on some level?

If a humanities education should prepare students to research, understand and communicate with diverse cultures and peoples, then how that preparation is not integrally and fundamentally digital is beyond me. We really don’t need to say “digital literacy” anymore, because there is no postsecondary literacy that is not digital. Why is it that virtually every English major is required to take an entire course on Shakespeare but hardly any are required to have a disciplinary understanding of the media culture in which they are actually living and participating? (That’s a rhetorical question; we all know why.)

From my viewpoint, that’s the conversation to have. Tell me what it is that we want to achieve and what kind of curricular structures you want to develop to achieve those goals. The pedagogic piece is really quite simple. How do you teach those courses? You hire people who have the expertise. Sure there’s some research there, best practices, and various nuances, but that’s about optimizing a practice that right now barely exists.


5 thoughts on “pedagogy, computers and writing, and the digital humanities #cwdhped

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  1. I think the questions about the percentages of courses/programs that address “digital humanities” issues within English departments are perhaps higher than you suggest, but it also depends a lot on different institutions and the definitions of the terms, particularly DH. For example, in our fycomp program, one of the program outcomes is about “multimodality,” with the goal of students “using digital technologies, gaining awareness of the possibilities and constraints of electronic environments.” Is that DH? I don’t know. In our writing major, there are a variety of classes that I think fall into the DH camp of things– I’m going to teach a class on the books here called “Critical Digital Literacies” in the fall.

    So maybe part of the problem here is just wrapping our heads around terms and perceptions of technology. I mean, it is odd that there’s still this thing called “computers and writing,” but the reason why it’s called that is because back in the day– say 25 years ago– there were people who wrote/taught writing with computer and there were those who didn’t. Who doesn’t use computers– both in terms of word processors and the like, but also the ‘net– to write nowadays? Maybe a better subfield would be “NONcomputers and writing!”

    What I’m getting at is if what it means to be a “digital humanist” is just about using digital tools to do our scholarship and work, then we are all digital humanist. But that clearly isn’t the case, just as it that those of us see ourselves connected to the subfield of computers and writing is all about word processing and web surfing.

    But I think I’ve gotten way off topic here.

    I think the questions you are asking on the Google doc, Alex, are spot-on. What’s the purpose here? What’s the goal? How does this get actualized? I think it’s odd that the term being used here is “summit,” because the connotations of that term to me are two “sides” getting together to come to some agreement. But I’m not sure there really are two sides here, and to the extent that there are, I’m not quite sure who in the DH world with no connections to the computers and writing world would be interested in this. I mean, all the people signed on to this thing so far have at least some connection with C&W, right?

    Though I should say I am all for dialog and trying to build connections outside of the usual suspects at computers and writing and even at the CCCCs. From my own point of view, I think the goal should for folks like me to find an “in” here, to stop feeling shut out by the DH crowd and to start asserting our place at that table. As I’ve blogged about before, I want to make the transition of identifying as a digital humanities specialist rather than a computers and writing specialist, and I want to do that for both intellectual and pragmatic (cynical?) reasons. So summit/publication/online discussion/whatever this becomes (if it becomes anything), I’m all for it.


    1. Thanks Steve. I think Marc summed it up well for me. My question is how do we do something DH in the curriculum in a sustained and structured way? Put in the terms of the old analytical section of the GREs, humanities is to print culture as ________ is to digital culture. Fill in the blank (hint: the answer isn’t “humanities”).

      Professional writing is one answer to that question, but it’s a partial one. Same for the “multimodal” curriculum of FYC.


  2. This is what I wrote over on the Google doc: “Following up on Alex’s blog post on the need for this, which basically asks, “Why are there so few programmatic attempts to scale up this pedagogy?” I’d say–in my experience of failing to scale up at 3 different campuses–that key obstacles include entrenched resistance to changing: basic assignment patterns (the essay); basic teacher perfomance (the lecture); course matter (from content to practice, from teacher interest to student commitment), etc. The closest I came to scaling up was the Emory iteration of Domain of One’s Own, which tried to bring together DH and CW. It’s still doing moderately well, but the vector was about 40 already at least tech-curious faculty across disciplines and a handful of grad students. No tenured English faculty member would touch it. Though they would take credit for it! At one point, my idea for disseminating this sort of summit practice was to do a large Emory-funded Domain conference, which got fucked because of the English faculty. I still think Domain can be a model for disseminating practice, a la THATcamp, but open to more disciplines, especially STEM. Count me in, in any event. I’ve heard “that’s not DH!” or “That’s not humanities computing!” and “that’s not CW!” for LITERALLY MY ENTIRE CAREER. So it would be nice to have a place to go where it would be visible as kind of stupid to say those things.”


    1. Thanks Marc. I think the domain of one’s own thing is a great idea and that digital literacy, like writing/communication should be a shared responsibility across campus (though I also think our discipline has an integral role to play). I also agree about the obstacles (some old story).


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