Praxis Hackathon Scaffolding

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

The current formulation for Praxis has the students carrying out a small-scale hackathon in the spring as a way of practicing the various intersecting pieces of the curriculum they’ve learned throughout the year. The segment is meant to draw together lessons in project development, humanities programming, and critical approaches to design. We have a few moments in the year to scaffold the process leading to the hackathon and help the students come to a shared sense of their goals and activities for that time before the event itself. In describing how the process will work for the students, I proposed that we start with a working definition for digital projects. After all, groups always struggle to define parameters for their work. Shared definitions and milestones can help make that process easier.

a digital project = a digital method applied to a particular object of study

And, for the purposes of the hackathon, we’re describing an object of study as a contextualized set of materials that serves as a point of intervention for a broader range of interests. Given this, we have a few components to sort out before we start: the group’s shared interests, an object of study that reflects them, and a digital method to apply to that object. Given these three components, we’ve set a few conversations throughout the year to develop them together.

  1. In October the group will meet to define their shared set of interests. The staff will provide context for hackathons as a genre and help to poke these interests in directions that feel feasible. This is how the pre-work for the session is described on the curriculum:
    • “Get together as a group to find a broad shared topic/interest that will be the subject of the hackathon. Not thinking objects of study or materials at this point - those will come later. Just subjects/topics. We’ll discuss and help narrow as a group.”
  2. In late November the group proposes a few objects of study with that reflect those interests (thinking datasets, collections of materials, etc.). The staff will workshop these with the students to find materials that feel workable within the timeframe. This is how we described the pre-work on the curriculum:
    • Given your shared interests, come to the session with some sense of what your object of study will be to explore them during the hackathon. What will your materials be? They have to live on the web somewhere. Could come with 1-3 things as options and we help narrow. You will come out of the session with the data source that you’ll then play around with over the winter in preparation for first steps in the spring.
  3. In January, the group proposes 2-3 particular digital methods to explore that object of study. Again, the staff help push and shape in the direction of what feels possible. This will give us some time to supplement our general humanities programming instruction with a few sessions geared to their specific interests. The curriculum again:
    • “Given your proposed objects of study, come up with 2-3 approaches to them that interest you. We will try to get them to narrow to some methodological constraints, but we’ll try to keep this data or Python oriented. This will allow Shane to structure the CodeLab instruction a little more.”
  4. And, finally, the hackathon takes place over the course of four weeks in April. In making it that long, we’re stretching the typical bounds of the genre. But the longer period allows us to jettison some of the toxic working conditions of the format and hopefully find a happier balance between marathon and sprint.

Of course, this definition of DH projects is limiting–other contexts might define them differently. I don’t think every digital project needs a method associated with it, for example, so I’m not sure I would even subscribe to this particular working definition in most of my work. Think of this formulation as an enabling fiction with the goal of drawing out certain kinds of DH work–we’ll discuss others at different points throughout the year. Hopefully, though, the hackathon process helps students new to project design, DH collaboration, and hackathons get some orientation to the process.