Maximalist Digital Humanities Pedagogy

Posted in: digital humanities  pedagogy  book blogging 
Crossposted to the Scholars' Lab blog.

One of my earliest teaching memories was of too much. I had gotten an example syllabus to consult as I prepared to teach my own course for the first time, and I remember being floored by so many policies, most of them required by my institution. Did my first learning encounter with the students have to be structured exclusively by rules? By so many pages of them? How was I supposed to find my way as a teacher–just one person–among so much?

By contrast, less has paid dividends so often in my teaching career. Fewer readings, more conversation. Less technology, more time to develop literacy. Smaller scale, closer attention to the students in front of me. For me, thinking small always leads to impact–and a more sustainable classroom. Danica Savonick has a wonderful summary of her particular take on minimalist digital humanities pedagogy over on JITP. For her, minimalist DH pedagogy is a set of “strategies for teaching DH at institutions that don’t have many resources for doing so” by favoring free or low-cost tools. We could bring together a cluster of related ideas to extend this conversation. Paul Fyfe on digital pedagogy unplugged or Jentery Sayers on low-tech approaches to digital research as a way to center the underlying conversations behind the technology. Fyfe again on mid-sized digital pedagogy as a way to think about teaching through the continuum of what scale can be. John E. Russell and Merinda Kaye Hensley on buttonology as a way of thinking about teaching that over-emphasizes interfaces at the expense of critical thinking. For me, a minimalist approach to teaching digital humanities can be thought of as a generalized approach to the work that we do, a pursuit of the best possible teaching by creatively working at, across, and despite resource limitations. The pursuit of less is often the pursuit of reality, an attempt to match my teaching to my own lived experiences as well as to that of my students. A way of seeking safety for us to grow together. A healthy jog instead of a sprint. In most cases, this pursuit of healthy scale can feel impossible given the day-to-day circumstances of working in higher education.

More on the merits of minimalism in a future post though. For now, I want to write a bit about a related problem that I’ve been pondering as I try to theorize about minimalist DH teaching. What are these approaches writing against? How much of this is explicit and how much might be unexamined in DH teaching? How might more illuminate what we mean when we intentionally aim for less?

How would we characterize a maximalist approach to digital humanities pedagogy?

Marília Matoso has a succint summary of maximalism as a design aesthetic on ArchDaily. Maximalism is an approach that favors more. Organized excess, divergent patterns, and conflicting personalities: “it celebrates imprecision, embraces diversity, blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, encourages spontaneity, and champions freedom of expression.” Maximalism is a lot, and that’s by design. Here’s a photo from unsplash user Steph Wilson tagged as maximalist.

Tiny chihuahua on blue velvet couch in front of a colorful maximalist gallery wall in a Denver apartment home with lots of plants and flowers. Photo by Steph Wilson on Unsplash

I’ve been able to find only very few people writing about maximalism in the context of education (if you have other sources let me know!). Paul Emerich France theorizes maximalism in the classroom in negative terms as an approach that stuffs more in wherever possible–more activities, more topics, more attention–in a way that is unsustainable. Richard Paul uses the terms differently: minimalist approaches to teaching focus on the educational environment itself–what do you need to learn to pass a test–while maximalist pedagogy is concerned with the transfer of academic lessons to the broader world. By Paul’s own admission, though, maximalist goals are something of an ideal to aspire to, as instructors are limited by the infrastructure they possess to support their work: “It’s not fair to expect a center to accomplish maximalist ends with a minimalist budget” (126).

My knee-jerk theorization of a maximalist approach to DH teaching is a starkly negative one: I’ve seen too much pain from unsustainable approaches to teaching and practicing DH. Resource scarcity is, I would wager, far more the rule than the exception in education. Whether it is the time-pressed and overworked instructor at a teaching-intensive institution, the under-resourced and over-tired K-12 educator, or the over-stretched digital humanities campus coordinator–rarely do we have enough, let alone space for more. Teachers in these contexts find themselves tossed between kinds of teaching–what they are required to do and what they would aspire to do–doing their best to survive while more is always in the offing.

I need to do more thinking, and I’ll doubtless put a caveat on this post in the future as I do so. But as of right now, my take might be summed up as this: maximalist digital humanities pedagogy is an approach to DH teaching and learning that aims for more as a virtue in itself. To be clear: I believe this approach is often unexamined, as someone new to teaching DH might default to this approach out of insecurity: “in order for a course to feel DH enough, students must do X, Y, and Z.” Teachers in this position don’t necessarily intend to adopt this pedagogical approach. After all, teaching towards less takes discipline. Rest requires restraint.

Put more bluntly, maximalist digital humanities pedagogy often operates without consideration of the costs, limits, or wisdom of scale. More often, I would wager, teachers are forced into this pedagogical position by forces outside their control. We might say, then, that institutions, administrators, or collaborators who ask more of their teaching staff are operating with a maximalist approach to pedagogy whether they realize it or not. As a result, the instructors–already in a position of scarcity–are forced to maximize as they are caught between these forces and their students. So, we might update our definition to say that a maximalist digital humanities pedagogy might be a function of circumstance, an institutional context, as much as a teacherly approach. We would do less if we could, but the operational pedagogy of the institution around us is towards more.

As I keep working on the topic I’ll want to think more about how to nuance this theory. In particular, my readings on design maximalism brought out many positive characteristics: joy, abundance, diverse points of view, democracy, acceptance, and more. How might we square these with our working definition of maximalist digital humanities pedagogy, one that must operate within the limits of our classrooms, our institutions, our lives? Can maximalist teaching be a good thing?

I could keep going. But, after all, this is meant to be a blog post in the direction of a future longer piece–not the longer project itself. Let me take this as a chance to do less. For now, I will close with a series of provocations that, to me, ring of a maximalist digital humanities pedagogy as I currently understand it. Think of these in the spirit of the Cult of Done Manifesto. The following messy, impartial list is meant to elicit reflection and pause. Think of it as a list of things that, when I see them, make me raise an eyebrow and wonder if maximalism DH pedagogy has snuck into the room. They make me wonder if we shouldn’t take a pause.

A Maximalist Digital Humanities Pedagogy is characterized by…

  • Many tools; few decisions
  • Dwelling only in possibilities
  • No constraints
  • More readings
  • Many project partners
  • The latest
  • Many assignments
  • The greatest
  • Breathlessness
  • Tech, tech, tech
  • No prior experience necessary; breakneck speed assumed
  • Overwhelm
  • MOOCs1
  • Overwork
  • Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow
  • No clocks
  • Many on the one
  • Bursting circles
  • No deadlines
  • Two in one
  • Syllabus creep
  • Yes, and2
  • “How do we scale this up?”
  • Much
  • Up
  • Fast
  • Full
  1. Hat tip to Fyfe’s mid-range pedagogy. 

  2. This recalls Lisa Rhody’s fantastic piece on improv comedy and digital humanities, which points to the phrase as the foundation of generous collaboration. I wholeheartedly agree, but I need to think further in order to reconcile this with my own thinking above. Perhaps, one should ask “should we?” before we yes, and?