A year of experiments in Digital Humanities

Academic Year 2019-2020 was an auspicious year to begin experimenting in Digital Humanities in the classroom. I began in an effort to keep up to date with technologies that I could use as a supplement. I ended the year clinging to DH technologies that suddenly became essential as the Covid pandemic closed campuses across the country. When I began the year, I wanted to learn to use DH technologies for mapping (Recogito), annotating (Perusall), and audio/video recording (Techsmith Relay, now known as Techsmith Knowmia). 

I assumed that the big project would be use of mapping (Recogito) in my Survey of American Literature course, where students were reading Moby Dick (among other things). I had hoped to show the global interest of the book and therefor the international reach and foundations of American literature. Ironically, of all the things I tried, this was the one that I could not get to work at all and so I never really used it at all.  However, I did use Perusall, Techsmith, and other applications I had not planned on (blogging and and discussion forums, for instance). And these turned out to be the most effective. 

I learned the lesson that everyone tried to teach us as we began: do less and do it better rather than do more and do it worse. So it’s all for the best that I did not manage to get the mapping done. I used Perusall in all my courses and learned quickly that selected use of Perusall was much more effective than asking students to routinely use the platform. In fact, the single most effective use was using Perusall with readings of graphic novels, as it forced students to comment on images as well as text. The most successful use was with excerpts students read from R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis. After reading the comic strip, they also “read” canonical artistic renderings of the Genesis story they looked for on ArtStor, a visual arts database they have access to.

Once the pandemic closed the college in March, the most useful tool ended up being one I had not trained on at all: Techsmith which allowed for “quizzing” students’ reading. Actually, these “quizzes” served most usefully as “attendance.” In Spring 2020, “taking attendance” expanded—no longer meaning students were “in class” at class time, but that they did their work before the next class. As some students could not access our video classes at the assigned time, knowing they were checking in between class meetings was not just a way to see who was doing the work, but if anyone was in need of encouragement or other help. 


I was able to reach out to more than one student who stopped doing the work due to family or health issues. And that allowed me to connect them to services that could offer at least a little help. Also, Techsmith allows the user to get comfortable making videos and recording audio. After the semester ended, my colleagues and I made a “wevideo” movie (another DH application) to say goodbye to graduates whom we could not see off at commencement. Techsmith, more than any other tool, emerged as a useful, multi-application tool. Whether teaching at a distance or face to face, Techsmith seems a very useful and versatile way to quiz and to instruct. Below are three slides from a Techsmith from my Graphic Novel course, where students were reading Watchmen:

An unexpected use of DH methods happened because of the pandemic, rather than in spite of it. In my Graphic Novel course, students read Marjane Sartrapi’s Chicken with Plums, about an Iranian tar player. As it happens, a friend plays traditional Iranian drums in Portland, OR. I invited him and his musical partner to perform for the students via webex video links. The guests loaded music to YouTube and also performed live for the class (YouTube helped, as webex was not ideal for them to play “together” from two different homes in Portland). 

Had we not been forced into the situation, I do not know if I would have invited him via video. Now, I have to reconsider what it means to have a “guest” come to class. Below is a screenshot of the class listening to the music:

Recogito is not the only project that did not work out for me. I had hoped to have students in my Graphic Novel course record their group oral presentations as audio podcasts, to be posted on our learning management system page (Moodle). With the Covid shutdown, I could not do that in the Graphic Novel course. 

I did have students submit PowerPoint presentations instead of a paper for one assignment on visual composition; that worked well. Students in my Humanities class took it on themselves to record their group presentations via Techsmith, using audio, video, still images and text. This was a real success to be replicated. Other students responded via forums to the presentations, offering a virtual roundtable on their presentations. 

I look forward to revisiting Techsmith and Peruall, to operationalizing a podcast presentation, and adding VidoAnt annotation tools to my courses in the fall. Thank you for the support!