Between presenting, attending American lit. panels, catching up with friends, drinking too much coffee, and being evacuated from the convention center, I had a pretty busy MLA. I guess I would be in the minority if I had a totally chill, non-rushing around MLA. Luckily, I did find a few pedagogy panels to attend in all of that. I made a list earlier in the week of many of the panels that seemed like they were focused on pedagogy or were pedagogy adjacent. I set a modest goal of attending a few of these panels, and I am going to detail a bit of my experience with two of them here. These two panels are “Teaching the Archive” (Session 291) and “Digital Scholarship in Action: Pedagogy” (Session 411). While the initial impression of the titles alone might suggest that these panels didn’t have a ton in common, I found a lot of overlap between the kind of pedagogical experiences crafted for students by participants in both of these panels.
“Teaching the Archive” opened with remarks by Meike G.J. Werner about the development of the panel and the desire to see the kind of archival work many do in their scholarship in the undergraduate classroom. Werner noted that archival work is fundamental to the scholarship that many scholars perform, yet it is rarely shared with undergraduates. Why do we do archival work in our research and not in our teaching?
Each panelist shared thoughts on the issue of archives in the classroom, and the first speaker was W. Ronald Schuchard, Professor Emeritus at Emory University. He described the growth of the Emory archives and suggested that when archives and special collections are developed the teaching mission of the archive should be as central as the research mission. Undergraduates should not just go to the archive and have a “show and tell” session, but courses should be developed so that students are doing projects with the archives. He suggested that keeping humanities students outside of the archives is like keeping science students out of the lab. Because of his work and the work of others at Emory, undergraduates visit the archives more than graduate students and faculty. I thought that fact was kind of amazing!
Jan Buerger from the Marbach, which is the main archive for German literature, gave a talk entitled “Text as Process.” He asked the question, “What do we learn by working with manuscripts and archival holdings?” He came to three main conclusions 1) every comma can be important 2) don’t trust the printed text 3) use the archive as a school of contexts. He noted that working with manuscripts teaches students to perform a very specific kind of close reading. He demonstrated this with several different examples including Kafka deciding between the verbs “to capture” and “to arrest” in the manuscript of “Der Process.”
Stephen Enniss, the director of the Harry Ransom Center, was the respondent on this panel. He emphasized a point, which others on both panels touched on. Faculty need to have support and resources to develop their courses and assignments. The Ransom Center has recently hired Andrea Gustavson as Instructional Services Coordinator to help faculty develop their courses to work with the Ransom Center. Enniss pointed to the fact that it is important in a political climate where governments are questioning their investments in public institutions to illustrate the value of those institutions.
I’m more comfortable in the archive than I am in the digital humanities, but really so many archival and digital projects have the same goal—not only to preserve knowledge but also to disseminate it. The “Digital Scholarship in Action: Pedagogy” panel, chaired by Marguerite Helen Helmers (@MHHelmers) was a great way to see how projects were being developed to engage undergraduates in the digital.
I did want to make sure that I highlighted the projects that were mentioned where faculty were collaborating with students to create digital archives. Here are three of the projects:
Amy Earhart (@amyeetx) introduced the Millican “Riot,” 1868 project that she is working on with Toniesha L. Taylor (@DrTonieshaT) and undergraduate students. This project looks at the events of a “race riot” that occurred in Millican, Texas in the nineteenth century. The location is close to the Texas A&M campus where Earhart teaches. The project is not only engaging undergraduate students but is also working with community organizations and others outside of the academy.
Kimberley R. D. McLean-Fiander (@krdmf) discussed the Maps of Early Modern London (@MoEMLondon) project. The map of early modern London allows readers “to visualize, overlay, combine, and query the information in the MoEML databases.” One of the most interesting elements of this project is that it engages faculty and students at institutions across the world. Students in various classrooms contribute to the site for coursework under the supervision of their individual class professors.
Philippa Schwarzkopf and Angel Nieves (@angeldnieves) discussed the Digital Humanities Initiative at Hamilton College. Nieves co-directs the Digital Humanities Initiative with Janet Simons (@janettsimons). Schwarzkopf and Nieves discussed some of the many digital projects that are underway at Hamilton. It was especially of interest to hear from Schwarzkopf, who is currently an undergraduate at Hamilton. She brought a student perspective to the panel and succinctly explained her point of view. For example, during the Q&A she noted that when you are asking students to work with technological tools it is helpful to know what level of knowledge you want them to obtain before you begin the project.
Thinking through the knowledge developed in digital projects and the way that students interact with the professors, Jacob Heil (@dr_heil), who is the Mellon Digital Scholar for the Five Colleges of Ohio, discussed the way that digital projects decenter the professor. There was definitely a sense that these kinds of projects in the classroom change the student/teacher dynamic in productive ways. Nieves mentioned that he sometimes tells his students that he does not understand the technology, and they have to help him figure it out.
Jacqueline D. Wernimont (@profwernimont) brought a useful perspective to the idea that doing digital work opens up productive spaces for students to explore. She cautioned faculty to think about the spaces that they are creating for their students to work in. Students need to have spaces to be brave but they also need to work in spaces that are safe. Not everyone is safe on the internet. Wernimont said that digital spaces might look very different to people from other subject positions. She noted, for example, that she keeps class blogs private and suggested that projects needed to be assessed for exposure, risk, and reward on the local level.
The Q&A in the panel turned to questions of resources and tools. There were several questions about how to manage these kinds of projects in the classroom. Wernimont asked how many people in the audience were new to digital projects and many people (maybe a third of the audience?) raised their hands. This resulted in discussion of classroom activities and resources written by fellow scholars. Here are some tweets with links to a few resources that seemed helpful to people who would be working on (and, especially beginning) digital projects with students. (See the Storify for even more resources.)
There were mentions in both of the panels about what kinds of institutional resources were needed to launch these projects. It was suggested that although it would seem easier to construct projects at large research university or research centers, unforeseen complications can arise in any given place. And praise was given to how successful projects at small liberal colleges—like Hamilton College—have been. Most colleges and universities have archives and special collections on campus that can be worked with, even if they do not have the vast holdings of large research institutes. Enniss even suggested that projects could be developed on the university archives themselves. It was useful to hear about the different size and scope of the projects that could be established when faculty collaborated with other faculty members, librarians, IT professionals, and other members of their institutions.
I did wonder in both of these panels if there would be a barrier to entry for contingent faculty to developing archival and digital projects. If faculty are teaching at several institutions, for example, they might not feel like they have the firm footing in any one institution to begin this kind of work, and/or they simply might not have the time to develop these kinds of projects. This thought occurred to me, and I am not sure how it actually works in practice, but I would be interested to hear from anyone who has more experience with developing archival or digital projects as an adjunct or non-tenure track faculty member.
Hopefully, it can be ascertained from my discussion that both of these panels were very fruitful for thinking through student projects and the role of the professor in those projects. We would love to hear what digital and archival projects you have worked on with your students. What were the successes? What were the hurdles?