A humanities education should cultivate reflective and responsive habits of mind through productive discomfort. In an effective class setting, students learn to take risks, to fail better, and to situate their learning more broadly within culturally and historically informed contexts. My beliefs about effective learning and teaching are informed by my experience teaching undergraduate courses in composition and literature and graduate-level seminars in interdisciplinary research, digital humanities, text analysis, and archival research; directing nationally-recognized professional development workshops for librarians, graduate students, mid-career faculty, staff, and administrators; supervising new and experienced teachers; advising graduate students’ capstone, thesis, and dissertation projects; developing professional mentoring programs; and leading graduate student fellowship programs. Drawing on my interests in 20th and 21st century American poetry, image and text theory, and digital humanities, my courses encourage students to reconsider how the material conditions and distribution of texts shape the production and dissemination of knowledge.
Transformative learning experiences that lead to higher order critical reasoning skills require a careful balance between students’ need to be safe in their physical and emotional environment and their need to be uncertain, which prompts introspection, dialogue, critical awareness, and growth. When I teach, I strive to create an effective learning environment where students feel safe to experiment with new ideas, test their assumptions, and engage in problem-based learning activities that require them to synthesize independent reading and class discussion while forming creative, critical approaches to unresolved questions, which lies at the center of a humanities education. Supported by an increasing body of literature in the scholarship of teaching and learning, I agree that higher order thinking depends upon the “development of key interpersonal and coping skills in conjunction with the development of appropriate professional and disciplinary knowledge” (Cotterill).
I begin fostering an effective learning environment on the first day of each semester by distributing a course contract, which includes clearly articulated course policies and a code of conduct to govern class discussion. I invite students to suggest changes or improvements to the document as we read it over together. Course policies cover topics such as class attendance, expectations for class participation, and how late papers, incomplete assignments, and email correspondence will be handled. When students return for the second class, I collect signed copies of the course policies and code of conduct, ensuring transparency in my expectations of students and their expectations of me. The first time I introduced the course contracts, I admit feeling self-conscious about the rigid formality of it, but soon realized that student feedback at the end of the semester demonstrated that they worked. Students frequently commented that the course requirements and grading were tough, but that expectations were always clear.
I assign papers, group presentations, and digital projects that encourage students to develop information literacy through the evaluation and synthesis of a wide variety of information resources, including: special collections, online archives, digital collections, peer-reviewed scholarship, poetry, and fiction. For example, in my composition classes, I completely redesigned the annotated bibliography assignment to help students better evaluate the perspectives represented among their sources. Rather than writing one or two paragraph prose annotations, students labeled all the topics covered in each source and the author’s attitude toward each topic. Next, for each source, the student listed other articles from their bibliography that addressed a similar topic, noting whether or not the authors agreed or disagreed with one another. The activity required students to focus their reading and to create a mental map of the various discourses involved within a larger debate. I measured the activity’s success by comparing student’s previous essays with those that followed this assignment. Overwhelmingly, students developed a more nuanced sense of the debate’s complexities rather than simply summarizing them.
In an ongoing effort to improve my teaching, I began searching for methods to simplify the act of annotating and mapping discourse networks. I discovered a simple, free, text annotation tool, called the Discourse Network Analyzer. In future iterations of this assignment, I hope to revise it such that students can create digital annotations, which, in turn, could be visualized as social networks, allowing students to immerse themselves deeply into each text, and at the same time provide them with a mapped view of a larger and more nuanced conversation.
When I teach digital humanities methods courses and workshops, I design problem-based assignments that encourage students to learn core principles in data management and digital research. By establishing core competencies in data design and evaluation of digital tools, students are empowered to respond flexibly and dynamically within a constantly evolving technical landscape. Students who approach digital methodologies as merely acquiring a particular technical skill, like Excel, are often overly focused on a short-term research question. Unfortunately, as their research questions evolve, they find they have exhausted their new “skill set” and are stymied until they learned the next skill. By contrast, I begin classes on digital methods with readings such as Hadley Wickham’s “Tidy Data,” which describes core principles in data design that make datasets flexible and useful for a wide range of digital projects. Through readings that connect students to communities of practice with shared interest, and activities that present students with open-ended questions, my methods courses prepare students for the changing technical landscape in which they will need to perform independent research.
Eager to improve, I share my lesson plans, assignments, and syllabi widely. Recently, I developed a game that teaches humanities scholars about the assumptions made by a popular algorithmic form of text analysis called topic modeling. After the class, I shared the assignment in a public repository where other digital humanities teachers could download the assignment and offer comments and suggestions for revisions.
Cotterill, Stewart T. “Tearing up the Page: Re-Thinking the Development of Effective Learning Environments in Higher Education.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 0.0 (2013): 1–11. Taylor and Francis+NEJM. Web. 10 Jan. 2015.
Wickham, Hadley. “Tidy Data.” Journal of Statistical Software 59.10 (2014): n. pag. Web.