Defining Digital and Doing Digital

I'm a digital humanities scholar.  What does that mean?  Good question. As I reflect on this, it occurs to me that my experience is that this label was assigned to me. The definition of "digital humanities" is pretty slippery if you dig into it. I mention this because the digital humanities are filled with people from different disciplinary backgrounds that are united by one thing...they do things with computers.  I've used A Companion to Digital Humanities and Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web in my Digital History class to give my students a framework for why historians use computers. 

I approach digital humanities as a historian (shocker!).  I use the concepts in Digital History as a guidepost and see much of the traditional work associated with historical study translated into the digital realm.  For myself, I place an emphasis on archival research using primary sources and community engagement with the African-American community in Central Florida. I do not want technology to get in the way of the students seeing the community story, but the technology can allow students to tell unique stories.  As a result, I often approach digital projects with the "simplest tool" rule.  I think about the learning outcomes and then construct the digital assignment as a demonstration of knowledge.  The scaffolding involved in this process means we take a lot of time to root our research in historical questions found in scholarly literature. I want the students to work within that framework and apply those concepts to primary sources that spotlight the community.  The outcome is about knowledge integration. I do not, strictly speaking, want technology to be a barrier to student expression. Therefore, I keep the tool simple and try to use free software. The simple tool that allows students to translate their ideas for a broader audience is powerful.  Of course, I often try to demo the concept and I use benchmark assignments to get students to the finish line.  Project Insight use animation program called Xtranormal. The web-based animation program was easy to use and you could do a lot in the free version. As a result, I only have one generation of INSIGHT projects.  The next assignments would have used primary sources in our local archives to contextualize local history within broader historical events. By identifying local events that reflect the civil rights movement the students could explain how grassroots activism linked to the broader movement.  The tool went away and I shifted another assignment form that accomplished the same goal. PERSPECTIVE: A Primary Source Journal does the same thing in a different way.

I will explain that assignment in greater details later. What the experience with INSIGHT demonstrates is that tool change, but learning outcomes stay the same. The truth is unless you are a miracle worker, you are refining the instruction and recognizing new ways to sharpen the learning experience and that is ok.   Still, you can see my intro animation below as see the simple glory of it all.

If you want to pursue digital assignment, I say go for it. Consider a few points. First, think about the outcome of the assignment before picking the tool. Don't think, "I wanna do animation" and then pursue that. Think, "I want to generate discussion" and think about what that means. Second, don't make the assignment too big. An assignment around 10% of the total point in the class is good. I've moved toward a points system (instead of a letter grade per assignment) as a way to manage the assignments and expectations and that is an important change. Students are motivated by worth. If something is worth too little, they don't try. If it is worth too much, it creates anxiety and they are afraid to innovate (keep in mind, I teach undergraduates). Third, keep the tool simple. There may be a tool you class technology center has that you can use. This doesn't mean you should use it. If your campus has X tool, but you don't understand it, I wouldn't use it. Go for the simple tool and be happy. This often means a commercial tool, but those tools often have a free version that will do what you need. 

Good Luck.