DHRI: Notes toward our pedagogical approach

The entry below offers a very brief overview of our pedagogical philosophy and the rationale behind the Digital Humanities Research Institutes.

The DHRI curriculum places great emphasis on foundational technical skills, and roughly one-third of all sessions at the Institute could be described as foundational. These skills—the command line, Git, Python, and data—represent flexible technologies predicated on fundamental concepts in computational literacy. In learning the command line, for example, students begin to conceive of their computing environment as a “stack” of technologies and are introduced to the use of a text editor for writing code and markup. We emphasize foundational skills because we believe that it is the most effective path toward enabling digital humanities researchers to become self-teachers and mentors in their own right. Many bootcamp-style intensives prioritize instrumental outcomes, such as whether students can write a for loop or build a map. While immediate results are desirable, we find that students who know how to use the command line, read technical documentation, and reason about simple systems are more self-sufficient and better able to approach technology (and technological rhetoric) with a critical eye. This leads to second- and third-order effects as students teach themselves and teach others, and also provides a common conceptual vocabulary and skill set that serves as a basis for collaboration within the community.

The difference between an instrumental approach and a foundational approach is often not immediately appreciated by participants, but over time they begin to change their minds. Although an instrumental approach satisfies a researcher’s most immediate need, a foundational approach takes into consideration the long term impact that learning core skills will have for the future professional and research needs of the scholar. For example, a historian who wants to produce a digital exhibit of archival materials at a local historical society may choose a recognizable tool like Drupal, then look for training opportunities that help learn how to create a Drupal site, select an appropriate theme, and use the Drupal “exhibit builder” plugin to develop a publicly viewable resource. While approach satisfies the immediate need for a collection, it does not provide the researcher with the skills to decide if the next project is appropriate to Drupal. In a foundational approach, the same historian would learn how to use databases, how to construct effective queries, and why consistent metadata matters. While the researcher may still choose to use Drupal to create an online collection, knowing the underlying technologies will inform that choice and help with troubleshooting problems, asking for help on forums, or collaborating with teams of programmers and designers.

DHRI grew out of our annual Digital Research Institute for GC students and faculty. Initially supported by a CUNY-wide Strategic Investment Initiative grant with continued funding from the Provost’s Office, GCDI has hosted five week-long, interdisciplinary Digital Research Institutes between January 2016 and January 2019 (cuny.is/gcdri) that have introduced more than 160 participants ranging from first year master’s students to doctoral students, librarians to senior tenured faculty to digital skills. Our DHRI curriculum is based on the lessons developed for our in-house institute. As a result, we are continuously updating and iterating throughout the year. Led by Lisa Rhody, the GC Digital Fellows collaborate throughout the year to develop a critical pedagogical approach that is designed to meet the needs of a diverse population of graduate students and faculty researchers. Tenants of our workshop pedagogy include challenge-based learning, theory through practice, multimodal delivery, a pragmatic approach to computer literacy, and an emphasis on foundational rather than instrumental learning.