The Shape of DH Work03 Jul 2023 Posted in:
Several years ago I wrote a blog post entitled “What is Praxis Working on?” The TL; DR of that post was that I regularly have people approach me (students included!) to ask what the current cohort of Praxis–our project-based introduction to digital humanities–is currently doing. Typically, that question is a shorthand for asking after the big, branded final project for the program. In that post, I argued that such questions miss the point: the digital projects our students take on have always been a means to an end to give the students space to practice, but the real projects are the students themselves. And we’re really working on being better for them.
Over the years, we’ve revised the program in a range of ways. We’ve become more systematic about the topics and workshops we offer, coalescing around a more intentional curriculum. Realizing that for all of our teacherly ambitions we did not discuss pedagogy very much in the program, we implemented a pedagogy unit where students pilot DH workshops of their own and document them for others. And a desire for more intentional project development took us down the path of collaborating with library and community stakeholders for the end-of-year projects. Part of this work involved compressing the end-of-year project to make room for these other topics and areas. What had been almost the entire year became two-thirds became one half.
Despite these changes, for the students everything seemed to build towards a singular experience that wound up feeling like the major takeaway and centerpiece of the year. I felt a consistent tension between the goals of the program as we articulated them–an emphasis on process and people over products–and the attempt to have students develop a digital project wholesale from scratch each year. The role of the project was to offer hands-on experiences for their own sake rather than as necessarily a research project in itself, but that was often a tough sell for students. After all, the academy rewards CV lines, and our praxis projects frequently received awards and publications. Of course the students wanted to aim for those possibilities. But no matter how we shaped this process, either giving the students full freedom to design their own final project or more directly handing them something to work on, there never seemed to be a path free of unproductive friction. I think student takeaways from the shared project varied wildly, in part because the cohorts were brought together by an application process rather than shared methodological, disciplinary, or topical interests. If you’re fundamentally uninterested in VR, for example, it can be tough to swallow working on a VR project intensely for a semester just for the good of learning. Some students are able to make that leap. For others that might feel a bridge too far when confronted with the pressure to build a thing by a deadline when they also have their own departmental projects to work on that are more directly relevant to their futures. To put a finer point on it: even as the student cohorts consistently viewed the final project as the real work of the program, the vast majority of our students would not go on to use those specific methods in the future. The real takeaways were everything else around that research project.
At the same time, I increasingly felt that the intense focus on hands-on technical training perhaps misrepresented the kinds of work that we do as digital humanists. Technical work is certainly a piece of the DH world, but the arc of the Praxis year sometimes felt as though, to the students, the experience didn’t start until they were building a thing. I recall a similar experience when I was a young student myself visiting conferences and elder DHers would, soon after meeting me, ask what my digital project was. I always stumbled. remember thinking “Do I have to have one? Is all DH projects? Am I not a DH person unless I have a research project?” The answer, of course, is that you don’t; it’s not; and you are. DH work is not all projects. Or rather - projects and scholarship take many different shapes, inflected by institutional makeup, job roles, local needs, etc.
Put another way: when we say methodological training in the digital humanities, we cannot reduce it to technical skills. So much of our day-to-day work in the lab extends beyond the building of things. Community building. Teaching. Learning. Talking. Thinking. Event planning. Project design and management. These are all measurable skills, and they’ve all been a part of the program since its beginning. Our staff and students regularly publish on them. We wanted the students to see the year as a portfolio of experiences that exercised all these muscles, but the real estate of the curriculum taken up by each of these components was uneven. In the rush to build a thing, we sometimes lost sight of why, for whom, and what was meant to be learned along the way. What was meant to be project-based pedagogy sometimes felt like it was project first and pedagogy second, if at all.
This intense focus on delivering a digital project through the program by the end of the semester often led to weeks and months of sprinting and left students and staff alike burnt out by the end of the year. Taking a hard look at what we were doing, what was working, and what was not was an attempt to honor our charter and “build up people and practices over products.” Is it worth producing a quality digital product at the end of the year at the cost of the hearts and minds of those involved? What are the actual limits of an interdisciplinary group of students to make meaningful interventions in a field that is new to them, that they have varying levels of investment in, and with methods that they are just learning? Might there be a better way that can retain the same lessons, make space for new ones, and lose some of the unproductive friction?
It’s no coincidence that these particular redesigns to the program emerged roughly at the same time as we all continued to reckon with ongoing crises in higher education, public health, and more. Part of our hope in reworking the year was to find the spaces to create the learning experiences we wanted in a more manageable and consistent way. It’s easier for students to see how DH will fit into their futures if they have space to look up and breath during the pace of the year. And staff need the space and flexibility to carry out teaching in a healthy way. Foundational to our pedagogy is the hope that we teach and learn in a way that makes space for life outside the Lab. The changes this year were an attempt to incorporate breath and pause into our program. To take an annual marathon-turned-sprint and convert it back to into a healthy jog. After all, the first marathoner died from the exertion. Not a healthy mentality to base a program around.
All of this is context for what has felt for some like a dramatic shift this year but, to me at least, feels like the logical step forward in a yearslong process of trying to find the best possible way to ground our activities in pedagogy and people first. The old structure I often felt left students too rushed to reflect on their work and the staff too busy to help make space for them to do so. The new arrangement aims to give students time to think through what they are doing and why, and it fosters dialogue with staff because everyone has more space to work. In practical terms, we’ve shifted further towards framing the year as a portfolio of experiences in a series of units, each with their own deliverables.
- DH Communities
- What is this space and how do I fit in? What values will we bring to it?
- a group statement of values
- individual plan for DH learning for the year
- DH Teaching and Learning
- Now that you’ve found a way into the community, how do you articulate that space and its methods to others?
- individual pencil-and-paper DH workshops based on research interests
- individual teaching statements informed by digital pedagogy
- group workshopping of these materials
- group participation in running these workshops
- DH Research and Administration
- How I step into a role of active participation in this community? How do I go about building it with others? And what is next for me?
- group speculative project design activities
- group event planning exercises
- individual research project proposals for what comes next
- group workshopping of these materials
This portion of the year opens and closes with a pair of exercises grounded in the students’ individual research agenda. In the fall we design jam on each student’s interests as a way to show them the avenues their work might take in DH. In the spring each student proposes a project they might work on after Praxis, and the group gives feedback on how to make the thing a reality.
At the same time that we shifted things around and reduced the space taken up by the final project, we actually expanded the hands-on technical training for the year. We’ve offered a semester-long introduction to code for several years now as a part of the program that we call CodeLab. That curriculum now has a companion piece in DesignLab, a ten-week introduction to critical approaches to design for Digital Humanities work in a range of technologies. This technical track runs in parallel throughout the year as a lab and meets weekly in conjunction with our other general work. Then, in April, all other work for the program stops and the students engage in a short-term prototyping exercise, somewhere between a hackathon and a semester-long project. The students spent four weeks coming together to scope, design, and begin to implement a small draft of a draft together. This is what has become of the yearlong fellowship projects of past years. Our hope was that lowering the stakes while keeping some of the urgency might allow us a space in which students could still practice what they learned while not overselling expectations or ambitions. The goal is for the students to carry out some project design and methodological experimentation on a small scale as a means of bringing together what they’ve learned in the past year.
We still have some tinkering to do next year, but I’ve been pleased with how the students responded to the changes. My sense is that this group of students has the best sense of where DH will take them next and the technical experiences to get them there, even if this year did not result in a finalized product launched and released to the world. That is to say, the project-building portion of the year feels a bit more commensurate to the other pieces of the year and, to my eye, better reflects the different paths that one might take through DH. Praxis continues to reimagine graduate methodological training for the demands of the humanities in the digital age, even as our definition of that methodological training changes. I’m very grateful to all of my colleagues for their help in making these changes possible in what I hope is a better and more sustainable program for all of us especially Amanda, Shane, Jeremy, Ronda, and Laura. This work is always a group effort by the Lab staff, and I’m immensely thankful to share community with you.