A record and response to attending the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Implementing Digital Humanities in Community Colleges.
By Tawnya Ravy
Attending the #DHattheCC conference was one of the most gratifying and transformative experiences of my life. For many years I have been a member of the DH community and interested its potential to transform higher education pedagogy. However many of the articles I read about implementing DH in the classroom assumed access to well-staffed libraries with special collections, 18 student caps on classes, and a specific level of student preparedness for each class—all of which I do not have as a community college instructor. When I was accepted to participate in the NEH Summer Institute on Implementing the Digital Humanities in Community Colleges, I was eager to learn how to adapt what I knew to CC communities. What I wasn’t expecting was the intense bond I developed with my fellow participants and the validation I felt (as an adjunct and graduate student instructor) as a result of the encouragement, guidance, and support I received.
The conference took place at Lane Community College during the week of July, 13-17, 2015 with the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Twenty-five community college faculty from around the country were selected to participate, and we were guided by a group of speakers and technology experts throughout the week.
The first day our discussion was led by Jesse Stommel whose work with Hybrid Pedagogy is well-known in the world of DH. He challenged us to rethink our general approach to our classroom space, syllabus policies, and assignment design. He encouraged us to think of physical space as rhetoric—a concept that absolutely spoke to me as I thought about how something as simple as a broken wall clock forces me to interrupt my class to check my phone to keep time. I thought of the discomfort of being packed into a too-small room with 25 students or shouting across the cavernous space of a stadium-seating lecture hall; of desks that cannot be easily moved around and the massive rectangular “teacher” tables that separate me from the class and necessitate often awkward maneuvering to access the board, computer terminal, and the larger classroom space. These limitations are not uncommon in CC settings, but in many ways I am privileged with access to technology (computer, projector, doc cam) in every classroom—a boon not even my private university students have (which perhaps speaks more to the bias for traditional modes of teaching and learning than available funding). Even so, classroom space presents a unique set of challenges for CC instructors and more so if we contemplate instruction requiring technology for students and/or for them to collaborate with one another in groups.
Jesse also encouraged us to reconsider our technology policies by relaying the story of his most controversial tweet. I listened attentively as a conversation emerged about this controversial topic—teachers can be pretty opinionated about their technology policies. I have been, at best, ambivalent. On the one hand, I want to limit the distraction that technology can facilitate, but on the other hand I hate policing adults about cell phones, and we are finally acknowledging how technology in the classroom can help it be more inclusive. What I came away with is a more proactive approach to building my tech policy by having a conversation with students about their uses of technology, their expectations for its use in the classroom, and my perception of their technology use. In addition, I am thinking about ways to model for the students how they might put their technology to work for our class objectives.
In addition to rethinking our tech policies, Jesse prompted us to consider assignment design and learning outcomes. First, we should not only work on keeping emergent outcomes (to facilitate a more organic learning environment), we should also invite students into the conversation about course outcomes. Second, we should consider strategies for building assessment into the assignment. Although I ask students to write about their expectations for the class, I never have tried asking them to think thoroughly (and even rewrite!) our course outcomes. However just like the tech policy, this gives me a chance to turn one of my least favorite syllabus components into something generative and exciting.
Our second speaker, Matt Gold, made one of the most important contributions to our conference when he tweeted “If DH cannot succeed at community colleges, it cannot succeed. Period.” He intoned that DH needed community colleges, and this realization gave shape to the entire conversation. As an avid DH enthusiast and veteran community college teacher, I have long considered community colleges to be outliers in the slow adoption of the digital humanities in academia. While I saw potential for DH in community colleges, I also had a difficult time seeing past the “unique challenges” that CCs face to implementing new modes of learning—namely diverse student bodies and limited resources. However, Matt’s position reframed my thinking, prompting me to consider how these “unique challenges” are really assets to the growing DH field.
In his talk, Matt offered a wealth of knowledge on a wide variety of DH projects and tools, but his “big picture” advice is what I consider to be the most valuable part of his talk. He urged us to 1) Activate our Latent Networks, 2) Think Big, and 3) Apply for Grants. While some of his advice is outside my reach to implement at this stage in my career, I came away with a renewed interest in eventually pursuing large DH projects and taking advantage of the NEH’s interest in both community colleges and digital humanities. What’s more, he gave us language and suggestions for tackling the more difficult aspects of putting together a project idea and getting funding for it. Perhaps the part I’m looking forward to the most is “activate latent networks.” Matt encouraged us to think of institutions and people with whom we could collaborate on potential projects and grants. It made me realize that I already had access to a vibrant community and that I could play a small role in cultivating that community even as an adjunct and graduate student.
Digital Maps and Being Brave
Our third speaker was also our keynote speaker – Marta Effinger-Crichlow who is known for her work with digital mapping in the “Mapping Black New York: An Interdisciplinary Home.” Her work inspired me to think of how I might include a social justice component in my regular course plans. Marta suggested that prompting students to think about space can help them uncover buried histories, connect them to their communities, and generate a genuine sense of investment in reading, writing, and researching. She also asked us to consider how DH can make us brave. This though-provoking question resonated with me because I do feel brave when I pursue DH and public scholarship. I have faced my share of nay-sayers who say that DH is a waste of time—that I should get back to dissertation writing—and that it’s too difficult to try and implement DH in my teaching as an adjunct in a community college. Marta’s question made me realize that what we do is brave. We share our work openly, publicly, and before it is often finished or complete. We allow open access to our data. We collaborate with others inside and outside of our own disciplines. We talk with students about our pedagogy and invite their participation in shaping it. All of this opens us up to being vulnerable, but we do it anyway. I came away from that session feeling immensely proud of what I do and happy to have a community of others who support my decision to be brave.
Social Justice in DH
I was perhaps most excited to meet our fourth speaker Roopika Risam with whom I had been corresponding via Twitter since the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012. Her presentation was to be about Decolonizing DH and Rewriting Wikipedia. Though we only made it through the first half of her talk, I felt it was immeasurably valuable to us for a number of reasons: 1) She made us address the very notion of “decolonizing” in relationship to actual existing projects, 2) She gave concrete examples of what social justice might look like in DH, and 3) She made us play around with specific tools to develop potential low-stakes and high-stakes assignments for our courses. I enjoyed this session because she addressed a rather common question that teachers often have upon learning of new DH projects (a list of which you can see here): “Those are really cool, but what do my students do with them?” Her session prompted me to write a whole series of potential assignments around the Mapping Police Violence project and inspired me to play around with new tools for my courses.
I won’t lie; throughout the week, even as many of us were marveling at the possibilities for implementing DH in our CCs, we were also doubtful that many of our ideas could be realized in a CC setting. Like my frustrations with classroom space outlined above, we could not help but think of all the potential pitfalls of trying to shift CC learning into the digital realm. One my personal hang-ups was technology in the classroom. How do I get around the fact that not all my students have smartphones, tablets, or laptops? Sure we have the option to borrow ipads from the school sometimes, but those were few and in high demand (similar to computer classrooms). I did not want to single out those students who had limited everyday access to tech. I was also hyper-aware (based on some limited experiments I’ve tried in the past) that in any given section, my students have vastly disparate comfort levels with adopting new tech/software. I found myself asking, how can I avoid isolating students who may feel overwhelmed by having to learn technology to accomplish our assignments? Thankfully we were able to address a lot of these questions throughout the week. One colleague suggested issuing a google form survey asking students about their access to tech and software, their comfort with using various mediums, and their tech hang-ups just as we do for getting a baseline of their writing/reading skills. Both Jesse and Matt urged us to choose assignments and tech that can easily be done on a variety of platforms to accommodate students with different kinds of tech. I thought of also making them do group projects where only one device is required to avoid singling out both students who do not have mobile tech and those who may feel less comfortable navigating the digital world. Other participants raised similar concerns about access and funding, and I found it refreshing to hear both an acknowledgment that our students (who may have more than one job, commutes longer than two hours, multi-generational family obligations, diverse educational backgrounds, and extreme financial limitations) will be challenged with engaging in the digital world and an entreaty to push past these potential challenges and/or turn them into assets.
Making and Breaking
To sum up my thoughts on the conference: what a luxury! To have a whole week where I was focused solely on learning how to teach and on developing my course plans, assignments, and pedagogy for the Fall term—it felt invigorating and, at the same time, indulgent. I came away with full course plans in place for all four of my sections and written assignments in various stages of completion. I also came away with plans to keep our group connected and to foster a DH presence within my CC system and on the East Coast in general. None of this could have been possible without the financial support of the NEH, the fearless leadership of Anne McGrail at Lane Community College, or the encouragement of my fellow participants. I eagerly look forward to seeing what we will accomplish. Read about us in Dominique Zino’s post in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. You can also view the institute readings we were assigned and our group commons. If you want to join the conversation about digital humanities in community colleges, follow us at #DHattheCC and me @litambitions.