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!

NEH Summer Institute: Engaging Geography in the Humanities (Boston)

Engaging Geography in the Humanities is a three-week Summer Institute to be held at Northeastern University from July 6 – 24, 2020. The Institute will explore the possibilities and productive tensions at the intersection of geography and the humanities. By engaging with readings, lectures, discussions, workshops, and field visits, the Institute will introduce scholars teaching in the humanities (and related disciplines) to concepts and methods from geography, as participants consider how these approaches can enhance their own research and teaching.

The poet Walt Whitman writes that in the urban environment we see “the past, the future, dwelling there, like space, inseparable together.”  Inspired by this idea, the Institute will use Boston as our classroom to explore the layered nature of space and place, as well as how Boston and the region have served as setting and inspiration for a range of philosophical and literary works. At the same time, the geographic perspectives and spatial methods developed here will help participants engage more deeply with their immediate surrounds, as well as distant locations.

Through a series of workshops, the Institute will introduce participants to the emerging field of digital humanities and some of its possibilities for spatial representation and analysis. Participants will be exposed to digital projects and receive hands-on training on tools such as 3D modeling, web mapping, and Geographical Information System (GIS). In addition to providing practical skills, sessions and workshops will critically examine the meanings of maps and uses of digital technology in humanistic inquiries.

Meanwhile, the Institute will build on Northeastern’s commitment to public humanities and the experiential liberal arts to facilitate more public facing engagements through popular writing, digital media, and memorialization and public history projects.

Please apply to participate by March 1, 2020.

Our goal is to create a diverse cohort of college and university faculty interested in exploring how geographic perspectives and spatial methods can enhance their own teaching and research. The Institute welcomes scholars in the humanities (and related fields) who currently engage themes of space and place in their work, as well as those interested in learning how to do so.

We would like to acknowledge the territory on which Northeastern University stands, which is that of The Wampanoag and The Massachusett People. While visiting campus, please honor the continued efforts of the Native and Indigenous community leaders who work to preserve the history and culture of the tribes which make up Eastern Massachusetts and the surrounding region. Today, Boston is still home to many indigenous peoples, including the Mashpee Wampanoag and Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), and many more in our region.

Dip Into NYC Digital Humanities Week

Workshops have been organized, speakers have been invited, and spaces reserved. NYCDH Week 2020 is officially one week away. With more than 40 workshops, demos, and events (our most ever), a robust Kickoff Event on Monday which includes graduate student awards, themed panel, keynote speaker, lightning talks, and the presentation of the NYCDH Award, and a chance to meet hundreds of active and involved colleagues NYCDH Week is going to be a blast! So here are a few announcements.

First of all, we are proud to announce that Matthew K. Gold will be the recipient of the NYCDH Award for his significant contributions to the NYCDH community. Past NYCDH Award winner Steven Brier will be presenting Matt with the award at the Kickoff Event. Read about Matt’s work and the NYCDH Award here.

Second, our panel on Histories and Representations of Communities Across the Five Boroughs is finalized and will feature Monxo López from the Museum of the City of New York, Shawn Hill and Desislava Stoeva of Fordham University, and Sara B. Cohn from City College, CUNY. You can read more about the panel and panelists here

And don’t forget that Matt Knutzen of the NYPL will be providing the keynote at the Kickoff Event as well. Read about Matt here

The Kickoff Event on Monday, February 3 is almost already fully registered so sign up fast!

Perhaps most importantly however is it is time to sign up for workshops, demos, and events. The NYCDH Week website has been fully updated with topics, times, and locations, so now is the time to find out what appeals to you most. Along with some old regulars we have a lot of new sessions this year so there is bound to be something for everyone. You can look at the sessions by either browsing by title on this page, or looking at the weekly schedule here (for daily listings use the pulldown menu in the top navigation).

We look forward to a great week and to see new and familiar faces alike throughout the city next week. Enjoy!

Using Hypothesis for Annotating Readings

Hypothesis is a tool like Perusall that you can use for annotating websites. A recent blog post, “Comment, reply, repeat: Engaging students with social annotation,” by Alice Fleerackers, Juan Pablo Alperin, Esteban Morales, and Remi Kalir on their experiences is available here.

There is also a video presentation by Juan Pablo Alperin from a recent conference.

For Hypothesis see https://web.hypothes.is/