A classroom with many computer monitors reading LEADR sits empty, awaiting students.

Evaluating Digital Scholarship for Critical Thinking in the Undergraduate Classroom

This reflective essay and sample assignment encourage the evaluation and critique of digital humanities projects as a contribution to scholarly dialogue and public knowledge.

Assignment Overview

This digital project evaluation assignment teaches students to write a digital project review in three directed steps. It provides a flexible framework for teaching critical thinking and source analysis. Students evaluate an existing digital humanities (DH) project in three phases: environmental scan, overview worksheet, and analytical essay. The assignment increases digital literacy through observation, reflection, and analysis of existing work, a reflection of established digital competencies such as analysis of audiovisual media and digital research for critical making (Bryn Mawr College 2016).

This reflective essay is geared toward instructors who want to engage more deeply with issues of digital literacy or those who recognize the importance of increasing digital competencies despite limited previous engagement with digital humanities. See the Appendix for sample worksheets and essay prompts.

Learning Goals

As with analog sources, the ability to evaluate the value and reliability of a digital source is the foundation of analytical thought and the primary learning goal of this assignment. The learning goals of developing and applying evaluation criteria help promote a digital project’s contributions to scholarly conversation or public dialogue. The process also reminds students that they are valuable interlocutors alongside creators of sophisticated research available online. Furthermore, thoughtful evaluation of existing work is a foundational element of ethical, user-centered, hands-on making.

Open educational resources (OERs) and digital humanities projects have become widespread, crucial contributions to both in-person and online learning. I describe below how instructors can incorporate usability, accessibility, and interactive experience into the criteria students use to discuss these sources.

Description of the Assignment

To begin the assignment, I give students a list of four or five digital projects that represent a variety of approaches to relevant course topics. Students spend about half an hour exploring each project for homework. We also discuss the digital humanities “environmental scan,” which is a survey of comparable projects and methodologies (Bonds 2018).

For the second step, students choose one project from the list to explore more thoroughly. They complete a worksheet with guiding questions to help them decipher the functionality, interface, and scholarly content of the project. The goal of productively deconstructing a project is informed by Miriam Posner’s post, “How Did They Make That?,” wherein she systematically parses the tools, technologies, and strategies used to create a variety of DH projects (Posner 2013). Some example questions to encourage rhetorical analysis include:

  • What kind(s) of historical sources does this project use?
  • Does the design or information architecture make a scholarly argument?
  • What (kinds of) research questions might this project be used to answer?
  • Who is the project’s intended audience?
  • What qualifications do the creators have on this topic?

In the third step, students use the completed worksheet to draft a review essay. Although some students have read scholarly book reviews, I’ve found that writing reviews of any scholarly source can be a new or intimidating genre for undergrads. It is important to help them differentiate a typical Yelp or Amazon consumer review from the scholarly analysis of a source. The assignment sheet provides an example structure for the essay so that grading criteria is transparent. Pointing students to published scholarly critique (such as Reviews in Digital Humanities) can also be effective.

Variations and Iterations

These lesson plans are meant to be a flexible framework to facilitate critical thinking through observation and analysis. I have used variations of the assignment in several disciplines since 2014. I developed it for a large architectural history lecture class that had no support for hands-on digital humanities projects. Subsequently the assignment has served as preparation for collaborative project building in a 200-level art history survey, a digital humanities honors seminar, and several digital history methods courses.

An instructor can adapt this assignment for any subject area by choosing appropriate projects for the environmental scan. My courses pertain to Byzantine Studies, so I use late antique and medieval Mediterranean examples. You could focus on methodological similarities (such as geospatial projects) or a specific public-facing medium, such as podcasts.

For fostering collaboration, the project works well as an in-class activity. Assign each student group a different project to explore while filling out the worksheet. Instead of writing an essay, each group assesses the digital project in a brief oral presentation to the class. Another variation is a hybrid group/individual project. First, assign one list of projects to explore in small groups during class, as described above. Then have each student choose a case study from a different list of projects to complete the worksheet and essay.

Facilitating Discussion

Although it can be adapted for either individuals or small groups, this assignment always benefits from digging deeper into the questions from the worksheet. The following four conversation threads can ground a class discussion or be used in comments on a draft of the essay.

Conversation 1: Observe before clicking

Comprehending the interface of a project is an important research skill, but students often candidly admit that a digital humanities project can be overwhelming at first glance. Have them practice beginning any workflow by pausing to read and look: identify what is there and observe how it is presented. When observing a website or app, note that the worksheet questions address not just content and sources, but also design and information framework. This is a time to discuss navigation, icons and buttons, tutorial videos, or didactic text. A useful question is, “what does the website/app/tool do to teach you how to use the project?” Ideally students will discover that discerning another researcher’s methods is empowering.

Next, ask students to identify the context in which the project was made. This is a good opportunity to discuss contributions, noting who created a site, as well as their qualifications, motivations, and resources. Was it a team or individual? What institution(s) do they represent, if any? Were they funded by centers, grants, or crowdsourcing? They will discover that self-reporting pages in DH projects help users find the information required for a footnote. This discussion helps students discern how and when to cite “non-traditional” media as scholarly sources in research.

Conversation 2: Technical requirements and constraints

Proprietary social media platforms have conditioned people to think of functionality in terms of consumer-centric speed and ease of use. Responding to software and browser frustrations can be an opportunity to discuss the human decisions, resources, and expertise that go into technical production. This creates an opening to discuss research ethics in the context of digital tools. Topics may include open-source versus proprietary software; data collection, user privacy, and surveillance; and accessibility. The key lesson is distinguishing between aesthetics and functionality.

Conversation 3: Broad observations and specific examples

One skill that often needs honing is the use of specific examples as evidence for students’ argument about the site’s contribution or value. For instance, if a student says the website has “lots of information,” I ask follow-up questions until they cite a specific example: the location of twelve monuments they had never read about before, or a statistic that searching for “mosaic” provides links to 362 museum objects in 36 countries.

Conversation 4: Constructive criticism

An important discussion thread for this assignment is the phrasing of opinions, both positive and negative. It is crucial that students understand academic critique as an exercise in deciphering strengths as well as articulating criticism in a fair manner. One approach for framing this is asking: “if the creators were sitting in this room, how would you suggest they approach the issue?” I have a general classroom rule that if pointing out a project’s flaw or difficulty in a review, the reviewer must suggest ways to address the issue and what resources that might require.

Positioning themselves as active users of existing digital scholarship helps students understand their own potential biases or needs at the onset of the project. I assert that a well-executed project should benefit those who may not have been able to construct it themselves, and a great project teaches users how to use it, through interface design and also by including didactic texts, example use cases, or tutorials. Shifting from envisioning themselves as users of a project to potential creators empowers students to view digital work from a richer perspective.

Conclusion

As an indication of impact, individual students have reported they developed new approaches to digital resources through this assignment: these range from conducting a technical analysis of a website’s navigation to examining About and Contributors pages for the first time. In every course I have implemented this assignment, the projects under review served as reference points for class discussions throughout the semester. Benchmarks for critiquing quality projects help students recognize the stark contrast between scholarly research and fake news sites.

A broader takeaway from this assignment is that modeling collegiality through peer review is an important aspect of professional development. Starting in the classroom, practitioners can cultivate the next generation of peers we need to move any field forward. The evaluation of digital scholarship is crucial to hiring, promotion, tenure, and public outreach, a decades-old discussion solidified in a special issue of Journal of Digital Humanities (Cohen and Troyano 2012). In 2015 I worked with two professional organizations to develop Guidelines for Promotion and Tenure in Digital Art and Architectural History (College Art Association 2016), and several other disciplinary and institutional guidelines were drafted around that time as well. In many cases, scholars were concerned whether non-practitioners would be willing and able to effectively evaluate digital scholarship. I created this assignment as a personal response to that wider conversation to argue that with adequate training and well-defined criteria, everyone should be able to recognize quality work, even when the methodology is new or unfamiliar.

Resources

For examples of digital resources in late antique and Byzantine studies, see the Byzantine Data public Zotero group that I maintain in conjunction with my website (byzantinedata.org).

References

Bonds, E. Leigh. 2018. “First Things First: Conducting an Environmental Scan.” dh+lib. Association of College & Research Libraries, American Library Association, January 31, 2018. https://acrl.ala.org/dh/2018/01/31/first-things-first-conducting-an-environmental-scan/.

Bryn Mawr College. 2016. “Bryn Mawr Digital Competencies Framework.” Blended Learning Research and Open Educational Resources 3. https://repository.brynmawr.edu/oer/3.

Cohen, Dan, and Joan Fragaszy Troyano, eds. 2012. Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 4 (Fall). http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-4/.

College Art Association and the Society of Architectural Historians. 2016. “Guidelines for the Evaluation of Digital Scholarship in Art and Architectural History.” Task Force to Develop Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Art and Architectural History for Promotion and Tenure. https://www.collegeart.org/pdf/evaluating-digital-scholarship-in-art-and-architectural-history.pdf.

Posner, Miriam. 2013. “How Did They Make That?” Miriam Posner’s Blog: Digital Humanities, Data, Labor, and Information, August 29, 2013. https://miriamposner.com/blog/how-did-they-make-that/.

Appendix: Sample Handouts

McMichael Appendix 2022

About the Author

A.L. McMichael is Director of the Lab for Education and Advancement in Digital Research (LEADR) in the Department of History and Department of Anthropology at Michigan State University. She is also DH@MSU Core Faculty. She holds a PhD in Art History from The Graduate Center, CUNY and has been teaching in higher ed for over a decade. ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-0130-8915




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