The #DHattheCC Project: Digital Humanities Needs Community Colleges

PALS Note: We are excited to have a guest post from Tawyna Ravy. Ravy is a PhD Candidate at George Washington University and an instructor at Northern Virginia Community College.  Ravy’s post is written in response to a question posed at the end of our recap of MLA panels on teaching with archives and the digital humanities. We asked if anyone who was an adjunct or non-tenure track professor had experience creating digital humanities projects with students. Ravy responded with some insights she gained in the community college classroom and through working with the Digital Humanities at the Community College (#DHattheCC) group. 

 

After attending the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Implementing the Digital Humanities in Community Colleges last summer, I was determined to try my hand at teaching with digital humanities (DH) at my main campus, Northern Virginia Community College, where I teach primarily composition classes.

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Participants at the NEH Institute via Russell Shitabata

Up until that point, DH had been only a scholarly pursuit for me, since I had convinced myself that a community college environment was not conducive to implementing DH and that an unfunded, underpaid adjunct graduate student was unlikely to be in a position to do anything meaningful about it. I had good reason to feel this way—the large majority of DH scholarship, research, and projects which currently exist are produced for and by large institutions with significant budgets, well-staffed and resourced libraries, and for academically high achieving students in small groups, definitely not reflective of my community college environment.

However, my experience at the institute changed my thinking dramatically. Having the time, and financial support thanks to NEH, to develop potential lessons and activities was key to changing my attitude about bringing DH into my classroom. Additionally, the enthusiastic support of my fellow institute participants was enough to bolster me even after I returned home to face a new academic year.

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Wordle from NEH Institute

Locally, Tom Rushford, a colleague at NOVA and fellow institute participant, and I created a DH interest group for community college faculty and staff. I was immediately encouraged by the response from our library staff and fellow humanities faculty. We decided to host a Community College THATCamp in June 2016 in order to create a venue for the kinds of conversations we had at the institute and to share what we learned. Though most of our efforts have been solely about getting the THATCamp up and running, we have also had sessions wherein we explore how we might use existing campus resources for our DH instruction, and every week I pull together resource lists for anyone interested in implementing DH in community colleges.

We still struggle with the aforementioned lack of resources and templates designed specifically for community college environments. Part of our mission as institute participants is to address this gap in every way that we know how—to publish, to develop programs, to channel funds, and to experiment with DH in community college settings. When I read about a potentially invigorating idea for implementing DH in the classroom, I have to make more than a few calculations before trying it out.

  • I always have to consider scale. Each of my sections, and as an adjunct I can teach up to four in a semester, is comprised of 25 students.
  • I have to consider resources. By no means can I assume that all, or any, of my students have mobile devices, laptops, or even reliable access to the internet or a computer on a regular basis; though I am lucky to be on a campus where students can rent laptops and ipads from the library like movies from a redbox machine.
  • I have to consider diverse preparation. My students come from everywhere, from every type of educational background, and with widely varying levels of academic (as well as technical) preparation.
  • Finally, I have to consider efficacy. Teaching at my community college often feels like a contact sport played on a chess board with a deck of cards. Each class is so vastly different from the last, I’m constantly having to speed up, slow down, reshuffle. Taking precious class time to introduce a new technology has to be part strategy and part gamble – and I have to be pretty certain there will be a payoff to go ahead with it.

Given all that, I still consider implementing DH as one of the most valuable things I can do for my students and for the field of DH, which can benefit greatly from the inclusion of students like mine. Implementing DH is not just about utilizing technology in the classroom. It is not learning how to use Blackboard better or teaching students how a blog platform works. It is both using technology to discover new ideas within the humanities and enabling the humanistic inquiry of technology itself and how that technology shapes our understanding. One of our institute presenters, Matthew Gold, tweeted, “If DH cannot succeed at community colleges, it cannot succeed. Period.” My students’ diverse backgrounds and varied educational experiences are, in fact, assets to the digital humanities. As Roopika Risam, another institute presenter, said in her talk about decolonizing DH, my students, by and large, reflect the absent voices in DH, which is largely rooted in the practices of white, middle-class men. I want to enable my students to participate confidently in this arena and to productively challenge the existing parameters of DH. Jesse Stommel, also urged us at the institute to not see teaching as uploading information and skills into our students, but rather see it as downloading information and skills into the world. I can think of no better way to prepare my students for the world and the world for my students, than implementing DH in my classroom. Most importantly, I want students to see themselves in the practice of DH and how it connects to their communities. I do not have it all figured out yet, but I have begun playing, as Jesse would say.

So far, I have experimented with DH in both College Composition I and II. At my institution, Comp I focuses on basic college-level writing skills and Comp II focuses on rhetoric and argument. We have relative freedom to teach with whatever readings we want, though we do have a standard textbook for each class. I am still navigating my options when it comes to integrating DH, but I found out that I have basically two main avenues: 1) Utilize existing DH projects for analysis and 2) Utilize existing DH tools to model and create writing/rhetoric projects.

The easiest option is incorporating existing projects to teach content or to practice analysis. Take a look around the net, and I’ll bet you find at least one fascinating DH project in your discipline; for excellent examples, check out PALS’ Digital Resources. In my own class, for example, I use the Mapping Police Violence Project as part of a series of readings on the rhetoric surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. We use the language of this project, notably the biographies of all the unarmed victims, to study written rhetoric and the infographics to study visual rhetoric.

The second option takes more time and resources, but it can enable students to produce original content. Many tools exist to study text (such as Wordle, Voyant, and Juxta), to map events or locations (Google Maps, Storymap, Myhistro), and present collections or content (Omeka and WordPress). So far, my students and I have played with blogging platforms and meme/infographic creators, but I plan on using a text analysis tool to study patterns of rhetoric (perhaps for a series of well-known politicians?), so the students can draw conclusions and make comparisons.

The most important element that I’ve found in this process is to build in a reflection component. Whether it is written, presented, or just discussed, asking students to reflect on the tools, the results, the data—this is where the value percolates. There is really no use in teaching them how to create a meme if you don’t also ask them what they discovered about presenting an argument in that format or how they see memes functioning as argument platforms in society.

What I love most about DH in the classroom is the way it helps students become active producers of knowledge instead of, solely, passive recipients. It challenges what they know about the learning process and their established roles as either technically inept or so-called digital natives. And while DH is not without its pitfalls, I have confidence that the inclusion of my students in that discourse will only make it better.

 

ravyTawnya Ravy is an ABD PhD. candidate at The George Washington University. She is the project lead for the Salman Rushdie Archive and her research concerns include South Asia Literature, diaspora, and the digital humanities. Ravy has been an instructor of composition and literature in higher education since 2009. She currently teaches as an adjunct instructor at Northern Virginia Community College. Follow her on Twitter @LitAmbitions and on her website.

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