Tagged digital humanities

Conference attendees are pictured from the side, under dramatic Russian Orthodox church windows.

A Conversation on International Collaboration in Digital Scholarship


Russian translation by Kseniia Tereshchenko | Russian Translation (PDF).
Arabic translation forthcoming.


The conversation published here among three “bridge” figures in global digital humanities took place on January 25, 2021, over Zoom as part of the program of Saint Petersburg Digital Humanities Week (SPbDH) 2021. Each of the speakers has each been instrumental in organizing digital humanities events in their respective communities: NYCDH Week, SPbDH Week and the NYU Abu Dhabi Winter Institute in Digital Humanities (WIDH). They have also cooperated with each other in sharing experiences, expertise, and in some cases programming. They all met in person at a NYCDH Week event hosted in early 2020 by the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute entitled “International and Interdisciplinary: Collaborations in DH Research.” SPbDH week has traditionally been a place-based event, as has the NYCDH Week; both events even carry the name of the city in their title. Over time, these events (along with the WIDH in Abu Dhabi) have served a community-building function, making them all the more meaningful. In 2020–2021, the pandemic put this focus on place under a significant amount of stress, making it impossible to convene in person. Yet, as difficult as this period has been, we do believe that it offered a unique opportunity to reflect on questions of international, institutional cooperation among like-minded colleagues, thinking particularly about how dialogue about the internationalization of DH ultimately feeds back to our local communities. The moderator of the panel was Lada Zimina.


Lada: Hello, dear guests and colleagues! I am very happy to welcome you to the opening panel for the third annual Saint Petersburg Digital Humanities (SPbDH) Week. The topic of our discussion today is Think digitally, act humanely: building DH communities locally and globally.” Our speakers are Kimon Keramidas, Associate Professor at Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement, NYU and also co-director of the International DHLab at Informational Technology, Mechanics, and Optics University (ITMO University); David Joseph Wrisley, Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at NYU Abu Dhabi; and Antonina Puchkovskaia, a director of the DH Center at ITMO University and the founder of SBbDH Week. To begin today, Antonina, I would like to ask you to tell us a bit about your experience in the global DH community and your work consolidating the local DH community in Saint Petersburg? How do DH weeks, both NYC and SPb, fit into your story with DH?

Antonina: Thanks for a very good question. I suppose everyone who is doing DH has their own story about how everything started. With a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies, I ended up teaching at a very STEM-based University like ITMO (Information Technology, Mechanics and Optics), and I’d started to think about how I may bridge two different universes—Humanities and Computer Sciences. I did some research and discovered a pretty promising co-location known as Digital Humanities. I dug deeper and was nicely surprised and excited about the manifesto, agenda, and most importantly the community, which from the onset seemed quite open and friendly. I started looking for events that gather DH people together. Within the first lines of my Google search was NYCDH week, the event which later became a model for our SPb DH week. I proposed a workshop on how to turn your Humanities course into a digital one. Not only was I accepted and got to run my very first DH workshop, but I met all those wonderful people (among them was Kimon) who were very supportive and helpful, answering all my questions about the fundamentals of DH.

When I returned to Saint Petersburg, the first thing I did was to talk to our first vice rector about launching a DH lab. Being a great supporter of different interdisciplinary initiatives at the university, she gave the green light to establish a small DH research lab, and Kimon continued to advise me through the whole process. A bit later, our DH lab team was awarded a grant from our university for developing an interactive map of Saint Petersburg with a specific focus on relations between the landmarks and famous people associated with them. This project now exists as a web and mobile application, and it also contributed to building a DH community in Saint Petersburg, especially by integrating the local into the international.

In four years, we have succeeded in launching a Master’s program in Data, Culture, and Visualization (DCV)  with a track in Digital Humanities, and the DH lab grew into an International DH Center co-directed by Kimon. Still having great support from our university, we are now more focused on community development and recruitment for our Master’s program at the intersection of Humanities and Computer Science. We have run the annual SPbDH Week for three years now and the trend is quite convincing: we tripled the number of workshops, lectures and lightning talks within the week (despite the global pandemic) and, most importantly, increased our community fivefold. The geography of the participants is also very impressive: people come from Moscow, Perm, Vladivostok, and other Russian cities either to give or attend a workshop. This year, we went even further and organized an international panel. The DH community is very helpful and friendly and that is why we will continue to develop our local community hand in hand with the international community, dedicating our resources and energy to make more DH projects collaboratively, making more data available, open, and shareable, and creating more interesting discourses around it.

Lada: Thank you, Antonina! Talking about SPbDH Week, I would like to add a small personal observation of my own. As a member of the organizing committee, I noticed that in Russia quite often people who use digital methods in their own area of expertise and who are willing to offer a workshop are not really familiar with the term “DH.” In that perspective, the event is really about community building, because it shows the researchers that they are not alone and that what they do actually has a name and a community behind it. Moreover, we have many cases when speakers or guests stay in touch with the Center or even work with us as lecturers.

Kimon, can you tell us how and why DH week started in New York? What was your motivation as an organizer? And how’s it going?

Kimon: Within New York there are many large institutions: Columbia, NYU, the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, Fordham University, Hofstra University, and Pace University, and all of the cultural heritage organizations as well. Unfortunately, what happens is that these places are big enough to become insular. With NYCDH, we’re trying to foster a really open community outside of those bounds. NYCDH is a non-institutional, inter-institutional organization, so we’re not reliant on any single university or organization as a center. Running NYCDH in this way is based on the recognition that good work in DH often necessitates collaboration between different types of people. David, Antonina, and I all are used to collaborations, whether those collaborations are with other professors, data services, or librarians, and the events we organize are an opening for these kinds of collaborations.

NYCDH Week started because we wanted to share existing workshops at different institutions, but it was complicated by different curricula. So, we decided to create a structure completely outside of that. It began small, but has grown beyond our wildest expectations. In 2020, we had more than forty sessions and over 800 registrations. This year we only had thirty-two sessions—because of COVID—but we ended up with more than 1500 registrations, and included sessions being run both through NYCDH in New York and others organized at NYU Abu Dhabi. We were even thinking of aligning with Saint Petersburg DH Week to create an even greater sense of global simultaneity. People are starving for these kinds of gatherings and look forward to NYCDH week every year.

NYCDH Week is a movement based on the idea that we can change DH work within the academy by developing a community of people who are willing to give their time, be open with their work, share information, and create networks of participation. I know of an enormous amount of connections between colleagues that have been created through NYCDH Week, our graduate student awards, and web platforms.

The next step is figuring out how you manifest those experiences and interests into programmatic changes back at your institution. At ITMO, we’ve made a significant amount of progress, going from virtually nothing to having a successful Master’s program in just a few years. There are further possibilities in Moscow and in Perm to expand this in Russia, and David has been doing this work in the Middle East for twenty years in both Abu Dhabi and Beirut. Our hope is that we can bring together these three places that aren’t often in collaboration in Russia, the Middle East, and in the US or New York.

Lada: Thank you, Kimon! Do you have something to add, David?

David: Thank you for the invitation to join the conversation. As I listen to the two of you speak about the way the community is emerging in Russia, and particularly in the context of ITMO, I am really pleased to see what you have achieved. It’s quite remarkable that the institutionalization of DH has taken place so quickly. It is a testament to the passion and focus with which you have worked, but also to the openness of the future-oriented approach of your institution. In many places in the world, there’s a lot of interest in digital research in the humanities, but not a lot of action. It can be, for many people, a scary jump.

I remember some ten years ago when we had our first event in the Middle East, in Beirut, and then participating in some of the different community models that Kimon brought up: the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) (University of Victoria, Canada), the European Summer University of Digital Humanities (ESUDH) ( Germany), NYCDHweek, and then returning home to think about how to adapt those community models to our local environment. Localization is not an easy process.

You’ll have lots of eyes on Russian DH this year with the European Association of Digital Humanities (EADH) annual conference. So, congratulations on getting this going!

Lada: Thank you, David! We are actually really excited about the upcoming conference in Krasnoyarsk, as our DH Center together with the colleagues from the State Hermitage Museum, the Institute of Russian Literature, and the Museum of the History of Religion are organizing a panel aimed at community building, entitled “Digital Humanities Researchers and Cultural Institutions: Towards Productive Interaction” (see Puchkovskaia et al. 2021). We think it’s important to connect DH researchers from academia and specialists from the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) sector. I really hope the panel will help to consolidate the local DH community and maybe even some collaborative projects.

David, do you think DH brings people together, or does it create new forms of isolation and specialization? Could you also tell us more about your personal experience with DH research in the field of medieval studies and if the digital methods are welcome in that community?

David: My research interests have been diverse. First, I am trained as a comparative medievalist, but I have also lived and worked in Arab countries for most of my career. In the last decade, it’s not surprising that I have been working on new ways to bring the digital to those two communities: medieval studies and the Arabic-speaking world. Sometimes they overlap for me, but for the most part they do not.

I have experienced both an expansion of my community and some forms of isolation in my career. Integrating the digital into one’s speciality subfields is an entirely different endeavor than working to build a transdisciplinary DH community. There is a vibrant community of digital medievalists in the world, but they are still somewhat marginalized within medieval studies. I believe that the situation is slowly changing, and we may be less isolated post-pandemic, but it is fair to say that most medievalists are not involved in digital research. In specific specializations—say, digital medieval studies in Arabic, French, or Latin—the percentage drops significantly. What this means is that if you are doing digital humanities community building aimed at a larger audience, then your audience is much wider than it would be in a specialized field.

Shared methodologies most certainly bring people together. Imagine that a medievalist’s daily interlocutors could be Americanists, art historians, computer scientists, or linguists working in entirely different languages. It is often said that in universities, the digital is increasingly providing common vocabularies for a wide variety of research and community building amongst researchers. There’s a commonality in the challenges that we face—in the ways we produce our data and manage our research—which is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

Working simultaneously in a transdisciplinary space, where our colleagues have very different ways of working, and in a specialist subdomain, interacting with domains close to us in the organization of knowledge, can be both challenging and very rewarding.

Lada: Thank you, David, for setting such an encouraging tone to the discussion. As for Saint Petersburg, and maybe even Russia in general, I feel that we are not quite there either. Hopefully big events, like EADH2021, will promote DH in Russia and boost the community-building process. Kimon, being a New Yorker, what are your thoughts on the same question? Does DH unite us, or does it separate us?

Kimon: I’ve learned a lot watching David because he has reached out internationally, building coalitions and relationships in what can sometimes be a provincial community. New York is large enough that people can often find enough relationships to stay working within that community. The same can be said for DH communities around Washington, D.C., and Virginia, and Southern California, where there are enough people that a kind of regional DH identity even begins to take shape. But as you begin looking at the situation globally, with DHSI in Canada, in Leipzig in Germany, and of course David’s work across the Middle East, you realize that it takes different textures of collaboration to work with different people in different communities. This is particularly important in this continuing period of transition, as people doing DH are still facing resistance in traditional disciplinary environments. That’s where occasions like SPbDH Week, NYCDH Week, and WIDH are so valuable, because they highlight that there are networks you can tap into to find like-minded people.

One thing Antonina and I talk a lot about with regards to ITMO is that the path to growth here is from the technical to the humanities. It’s the reverse from how it occurs predominantly in the US at least, and it is an intriguing challenge as you determine how best to transmit these ideas to an unfamiliar audience and how to engineer these collaborations.

What I appreciate about DH communities is how different people can come together and look for balance. You can engage with someone and say, “You do something completely different than I do but we probably have some common thoughts and make each other’s work better.” I think that that eagerness is probably a global trend that still benefits a lot of people. And the people who are eager to put that foot forward tend to be slightly more gregarious and open to the conversation rather than resisting. It takes that kind of nature, so it creates a good community right now.

Antonina: I would like to add something about how at ITMO we are trying to complement our skillset with the competencies we lack. Our institution is very STEM-based and we lack a strong Humanities faculty, so our way of bridging the gap between Humanities and digital technologies was to engage with the GLAM sector in Saint Petersburg. Luckily, we have plenty of cultural institutions in our city and they have shown a willingness to collaborate on questions of common interest, such as database architecture for collecting and storing data, building user-friendly interfaces, expanding a user base through digital storytelling, etc. The additional benefit is that we have also found a great number of people who are motivated and encouraged to learn more and to collaborate on DH projects. I would also like to highlight that establishing these relationships is an ongoing process, and it is very time- and energy-consuming. But it is really worth it. And in our case, working with such wonderful institutions as the Museum of the History of Religion, Mayakovsky Central Public Library, the Institute of Russian Literature, and many others, helps us both to build and develop the DH community and to represent cultural heritage and memory in digital environments. Furthermore, these cultural institutions become places for our students to do internships. It is a win-win for both academia and the GLAM sector.

Lada: Antonina, you mentioned the Master’s program that you run at ITMO. What are the challenges that you face while designing and running a Master’s program in DH? How do you explain digital humanities to your administration and other faculty at ITMO and how do you teach the field to students who may be completely unfamiliar with its methodologies and terminology?

Antonina: That’s a very good question and I believe an open one. I would like to answer it from two perspectives, both from the position of an academic leader of our Master’s program in Data, Culture, and Visualization and from the role of a DH educator. Designing a two-year Master’s program at the intersection of Humanities and Computer Sciences, I had to take a lot into consideration. First of all, I meant to build such a program for students with various backgrounds. So, developing a curriculum I focused on including more project-based modules, which allow students to work collaboratively and complement each other’s skill sets. Second of all, I tried to design a curriculum around fundamentals of digital technologies adapted to students’ varied skill levels, such as the most popular programming languages (Python and R), database development, data mining, UX/UI, visualization, text analysis, project management, etc. Moreover, I always wanted to introduce our students to a vibrant, multidimensional, and multilingual world of DH, by regularly inviting colleagues to participate in various hands-on workshops, guest lectures, reading groups, and summer schools.

Starting from the second semester, our students choose from two tracks provided at the program: one is in Digital Humanities taught in Russian, and the other is Cultural Analytics taught in English. Beyond the difference in the language of instruction, these two tracks also differ given the nature of the data students work with. In the first case, it is digitized data and in the second, born-digital data. So, choosing from these two options students are basically choosing between working with cultural heritage or digitized literary texts, in the former, or content found in the media, in the latter. Depending on the track, students are likely to learn about OCR (optical character recognition) and NLP (natural language processing), or digital storytelling and network analysis. As an academic leader of the DCV program I do believe that diversity is key, but this is especially true with DH education. So, my goal is to provide as many options as possible, so every student will be able to build an individualized educational trajectory, thereby fully realizing their potential. Teaching and co-teaching various DH courses at ITMO and Tartu University and giving lots of guest lecturers has allowed me to expand my teaching philosophy in DH. Most of my teaching has been focused around developing and curating DH projects. This includes not only acquiring necessary practical skills in data mining, data analysis, and visualization, but also in building a strong argument by asking research questions and analyzing what particular digital technologies are needed in each case and why. I call it “critical DH thinking” and usually highlight that, even though the applied skills are also very important, developing critical thinking will help to build more sustainable DH projects. To sum it up, the more I teach or do DH, the more I discover what is still to be learned and redesigned.

Lada: Thank you, Antonina! It is, indeed, so wonderful that we have three professional educators in DH at the table today. David, what are your thoughts on how to teach DH?

David: I love the topic of how the digital is changing the way that we teach and learn! One answer to your question of how to teach DH lies in the values embraced by your institution and how they are evolving. To give you an example from my own position: I arrived at NYU Abu Dhabi having worked for a long time in relative isolation on my digital projects at my previous institution, the American University of Beirut. There wasn’t institutional momentum there to create new courses and to imagine teaching as integrative and connected to faculty research. In my current position, there are multiple stimuli that have encouraged me to bring my research into the classroom. I have benefitted from the presence of an Arabic natural language processing (NLP) group, a vibrant Art Center with projects and commissions in digital or data-driven art, an active interactive media program, as well as the research center of the nearby Louvre Abu Dhabi. Those partners in and around my institution have most definitely contributed to my growth as a teacher-scholar.

There are lots of DH syllabi that you can find on the web and copy, and there are lots of methods that can be transferred to most parts of the world. I certainly did this for a certain phase of my teaching. But teaching DH has become less of a methodological checklist and more of an engagement with the common values of my institution and communities as they grow. When your DH courses align with those higher goals, there is much more room for DH to contribute, and to be valued, at home.

Antonina: I totally agree with that point that cooperation with other departments at ITMO, in particular Computer Science, helps us a lot, not only in teaching various courses at the DCV program but also working together on projects. We also collaborate and co-teach some DH courses together with colleagues from other DH centres in Russia bringing together students and cherishing diversity and openness. Moreover, as I have mentioned previously, we are closely connected with our partners from cultural institutions in Saint Petersburg and these collaborations have resulted in student internships, paid internships, and the expansion of student portfolios. This enlarging network is what makes us a community and allows us to make DH projects more meaningful and widely publicly available.

Lada: I would also like to jump in and add a little from the perspective of both a student and aspiring young researcher who is making her first steps in the field. First, when it comes to collaboration and education in DH, I think that in the program my fellow students and I have a lot to teach each other. Given that we come from different backgrounds, some of us are better at coding and others are better at finding good research questions and have a deeper understanding of cultural data. DH taught me that it’s ok not to know something—and for someone with an A-student complex, that was quite a discovery. I really love how helpful the community is, because really when you dive into DH, you push yourself far out of your comfort zone, no matter what background you come from.

And Kimon, I suspect you have something to add to this discussion.

Kimon: I’ve been working on these questions since I started my PhD program at the City University of New York in 2001, before the term “digital humanities” entered popular use. As a theater history PhD candidate, I noticed that we were for the most part studying play scripts because that’s what’s left from a production, and this ephemerality is one of the reasons it is hard to study the history of theatre. I began working in CUNY’s Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate program to consider ways to gather all the artifacts from a performance to bring them to public history. Many of the faculty in that program were involved in creating the textbook Who Built America, which tracks the history of America from a labor perspective, rather than following the traditional “great white men” narrative. Along with the printed book version, this textbook was available as an interactive CD-ROM in the late 80s. So here we can see—decades before we even started using the term DH—that academics were doing work  driven by the idea of expanding education and the reach of academic discourse.

So my perspective has always been to get information into people’s hands, using the new media we have to best contextualize the knowledge we produce. In building my DH syllabi, I wanted to avoid saying, “Here are the big names and tools in DH that you have to learn about,” and instead focus on how living in a complex world is intrinsically affected by the digital, and how do we understand that through method. So every time we talk about databases for the humanities, we also consider that our personal and health records are also somewhere in a database—and what does that structure mean to the way you are viewed by systems as a series of data points? How does the setup of that information affect you in your daily life? The goal therefore is to continually keep everything in a larger context and perspective.

Lada: Thank you, it’s really fascinating to follow your discussion, so let’s keep on talking about education and dissemination of DH. In light of the digital having become an integral part of our everyday lives, how do mixed methodologies in DH open the possibilities for scholarship that are more public, open, and designed to engage with the larger audiences?

Kimon: In the last decade in the US, we’ve seen how profoundly digital media can affect daily life, as social media has expanded and everything has been consumed by the internet. In my teaching and research I have been trying to figure out how the digital landscape affects us daily, how it affects the culture of consumerism, and how as academics and producers of knowledge we can bring all those points together. To these conceptual methodologies I would add visualization and website development, to reveal the potential of design in creating more engaging modes of narrative and storytelling. Because, in the end, we are all living some part of our lives in these public digital spaces, which, despite the problems they are creating, massively open up our ability to create innovative teaching platforms, share information, and build communities.

My connection with the theater, material culture, and web design has put me in a place where I want students to know how they can reach audiences through web development and design, which has arguably a lower threshold than more complicated analytical techniques. To do very advanced text analysis you really need to understand the fundamentals of statistics and the algorithms, but to do web development, you start to understand the discursive and aesthetic challenges and possibilities that come into play for presenting your work for a broader range of audiences. I teach a course on the American Hardcore Punk movement, and we focus on understanding one particular cultural moment to better understand how we use different modes of expression to generate activism, critique society, and carve out a space for our voices today. With that kind of platform, we can then look at subsequent related movements like Queercore and Riot Grrrl as well as reflecting on current flows in art and activism to understand their historical progenitors and the uniqueness of movements of the moment.

I ask students to think about how they can use the ethos of Hardcore to reach out and tell their own story. The most recent iteration of the course developed an amazing website, which was an experimental product of creative ingenuity that far exceeded what a stack of research papers alone would have accomplished.

Lada: We have a little bit of time to talk about our current concerns, and I would like to address the next question to David. So, David, how did the pandemic influence the global academic community and what perspectives do you see for international collaboration under the current circumstances?

David: Thank you for the question. Pre-pandemic, there were many DH events taking place in local environments around the world. An example of one such event we have heard about is NYCDH Week. Now, in New York it’s easy enough to move around the city from institution to institution for a week to experience this co-learning, co-teaching event. Not all cities have such a large community, however. In places like the UAE or Lebanon, where I have spent the majority of my professional life, the number of DH practitioners is very limited and we often rely upon international relationships to grow our projects and our community. The advice that I got a decade ago from a senior practitioner in the field when I asked how to start working in DH was to do three things: attend a THATCamp, enroll in a DH summer school like DHSI, and attend the Association of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) annual conference. Back then, to attend such a faraway event required many months of advance planning. I imagine that we could do oral histories about the DH week-like events that have taken place around the world, focusing on how they played a transformative role in introducing researchers to digital methods.

The pandemic did not bring about a total shift in the ways that people have accessed training in digital methods—there were certainly some events taking place online before—but it has accelerated the process, and there has been a marked increase in people who want to engage in such learning. Over the course of 2020, with the large-scale adoption of remotely broadcasted events, I have witnessed a rapid opening up of local environments to global audiences. There have been all kinds of opportunities to listen in on many different conversations in different parts of the world now —far too many for a single person to follow. An interesting question to ask ourselves is which of these learning opportunities will remain virtual and which will pivot back to in person meetings? I believe that a professor of digital humanities should not only do research of their own, but also model new forms of research for their local environment, and in this respect, like Antonina, I spend quite a lot of time learning about what is going on in the world of DH in order to bring it back home. In 2020, the sheer abundance of conversations going on in digital humanities research and their connectedness has been challenging, but also exciting, to follow. As I do so, I am always asking myself how to match what a growing local community wants and needs and how to match it with global research trends. It’s a process of connecting the dots.

Another interesting question for me is what will a world of scholarly communication look like post-pandemic? There are so many people envisaging, and even prototyping, different modes of communicating or different modes of scholarly dissemination and communication. Even if we have not been traveling for this last year, we will no doubt get back on planes to go to professional meetings. I do wonder how we are going to spend our time and how we are going to manage the very new kinds of access that we have experienced. I think there’s a lot to be said about this last topic of post-pandemic scholarly communication, which stretches beyond the topic of today’s panel, but which will impact the ways that international collaborations continue to be founded and sustained. I guess that the way forward for research that I imagine, especially in remote places where there are smaller numbers of local researchers, will be fewer in-person conferences and meetings, replaced instead by longer stays or exchanges abroad for teaching, team building, or intensive exchange. Synchronous video conversation platforms like Zoom are, after all, great for exchanging ideas, in pick-up conversations with people you already know, coming to consensus through team discussion, or for certain kinds of scholarly dissemination, but what about all the other ways we communicate and do scholarship?

I don’t think we have fully considered what it will mean to be in person anymore, what the added value of being in the same space will be, let alone how connected to the rest of the world we will be when we are back in person in our local environments. I’m sure that there will continue to be great value in teaching in person, but for research, we still have to figure that out. Will we be able to have hackathons and sprints online with the same results? Will we meet in person for more reflective activities, such as ideation, planning, and writing? Or simply to foster the social bonds that support collaboration? What will happen to our colleagues who joined in the conversation during the pandemic for whom passport privilege and crossing borders are not a given?

During the pandemic I experienced so many interesting new kinds of interactions and experimental engagements. Obviously, not all of them will continue as we transition back to our offices and campuses. It is worth thinking, however, about how we will do digital humanities when we are together as opposed to when we are apart, as well as the role of the international collaborator in the local area. New forms of hybrid collaboration are certainly on the horizon beyond our current circumstances.

Kimon: I think the sprints are a good point. Sometimes when you really want to accomplish a significant amount, you need to be around your colleagues for three days in a row, eight hours a day working, including in-person time over dinners. So it’ll be interesting to see now that we’ve had this extended experience with telecommuting, how we will move forward. We haven’t gone through something like this trauma in the world for over a hundred years and we’re going through it now in a very different kind of time with specific technical, socio-economic, and pedagogical challenges. There has been a lot gained from this period in getting things working in a short timeframe, but we also need to sit back and consider which changes have been for the better and which really shouldn’t be repeated.

It’s hard to teach workshops in general using teleconferencing tools; some such as photogrammetry were extremely difficult to do. When I teach a workshop I move a lot around the room. I’m looking at everyone’s screens troubleshooting problems, showing students what they might have in common and how they can share knowledge, and making the learning environment engaged and participatory. On the flip side, while we had fewer sessions for NYCDH Week 2021, we had hundreds of more people register for workshops. So there is a new interesting mix of variables that we have to consider and that we will have to adapt to. Hopefully, we’ll find a really fruitful middle ground that balances all of these things. As David notes, a lot of us are thinking about it already: what’s the best way to transition things. We are fortunate in our positions that we have already looked to transcend geographical challenges, and now we are armed with better tools and more familiarity with approaches to closing the gap between these three locations: Saint Petersburg, Abu Dhabi, and New York. So trying to find ways to mitigate those distances while remembering the benefits of locality and presence is going to be the trick.

Antonina: Yeah, and I would like to add a little on that topic. I agree completely that professional networking is the most valuable thing that happens at a conference. In the end, this scholarly network is the most valuable thing you have. What you pay for when you travel is to build these relationships, and from there you can develop them through these digital tools and means like email and Zoom, but it’s really hard to establish strong relationships and community by only communicating online.

You can just work using emails, Zooms, Microsoft Teams, but I think that this is a very good lesson the pandemic taught us, that not all the things can be shifted online. We still have this “humanities” impact. We even have in Russia this funny word for “madness”— безумие/безZOOMие (a madness created by Zoom)—which has been in the media for a while. That’s true, it’s madness, it’s too many Zooms, all the calendars are packed, and people can call you at nine in the morning and that’s fine because they live far away.

I like that we’re finishing up this discussion before we move on to questions thinking about the future because DH is also about the future. We try to preserve things, we try to make them available and that’s an important part of our work as well. We want to preserve our community and chart a path for the future as well.

Lada: Dear colleagues, thank you so much for such an interesting and insightful discussion—we covered some perennial issues of DH as well as some current challenges and concerns. Now we have a little bit of time left to open our discussion and attend some questions from the audience.

Question from Nadezhda Povroznik, Head of the Center for Digital Humanities, Perm State University: When it comes to DH, is it possible to be only a medieval scholar or just a historian focusing on a narrow topic, or is it more encouraged to find the solutions for a wider range of questions? If so, how does this impact the way that we think about the focus on tools? 

David: Your question reminds me of the question I received earlier where I was asked to reflect on how DH supports either integration or isolation, or perhaps both, in scholarship, and whether it only makes an intervention in a field of speciality or instead it builds some kind of larger community. For me, the way that I responded to a changing world of digital humanities around me depended on the moment of my career (I am currently Associate Professor). When I launched my first independent digital research, I made the strategic decision to work on a project on my own. I wanted to build my skills, make a first foray into digital humanities, and to be able to link the conclusions to the scholarly field that I knew so well. I started in digital humanities without an active community in my immediate surroundings; my collaborative research began with faraway scholars. There’s this very interesting shift in my publications that took place around 2013/2014 when I began to co-publish. It’s not that I abandoned single-authored research, but since this particular work was collective, it made sense to publish together. With colleagues in computer science we now tend to publish a variety of articles on the same project for different audiences, highlighting the multidisciplinary contribution that our work makes. It’s tricky to straddle knowledge cultures, but it has become the way that I balance my career now. You can do that when you’re a little bit more advanced in your career. When you’re younger, it’s harder to do, for sure.

In the end, it is about taking risks that your institution is willing to support. One of the key things in North America we have been witnessing is how, increasingly, professional organizations are creating guidelines for review that include digital scholarship in the evaluation process. This effort really relies on senior colleagues, because they sit on the boards of those professional organizations and on the editorial boards of journals. Mid-career faculty who value digital scholarship have an important role to play also in mentorship and advocacy.

Question from Larisa Krayeva, PhD, Assistant Professor at the faculty of Technological Management and Innovation, ITMO University: It’s more of an observation than a question and I’m not sure if it’s relevant…. Well, you see, I teach philosophy to students from all sorts of technical backgrounds at ITMO, and during your discussion it occured to me how my personal experience applying different approaches teaching philosophy to different groups of students—like engineers, chemists, medical student etc.—can be similar to your experience, finding the common ground with scholars from other humanities backgrounds in DH.

David: I have something to say about the different kinds of students who are not necessarily specialized in questions of the humanities. I am lucky to have my position in the Arts and Humanities Division, but I don’t teach students exclusively who are concentrating in topics in the humanities. There is definitely an advantage to this model, namely that you are able as you say to “build common ground” across disciplines and tap into very different interests and skillsets for a truly interdisciplinary experience. In fact, I have heard over and over from students who are not majoring in humanities subjects that they never knew that such a field of inquiry existed, and that it was amazing to be able to think across and between fields. Of course, one of the minor disadvantages of having only individual courses offered in a “standalone” fashion is that they are not developmental or sequential, allowing students to build skills over time as you would want if you had students specializing in the domain.

Question from the audience: What is the most important thing when you get into the DH? What should you focus on first?

Kimon: It’s very important to inspect the tools and to critically evaluate the methodologies before starting. Many of these tools have hidden processes that you need to understand the implications of in order to do competent research. You can’t just download an NLP package and start throwing stuff into it. You can download topic modeling tools and you can run them over the web or locally and then you can start trying to figure out what those words mean, but topic modeling is a complex statistical process that does very specific things to text to create a certain kind of output. If you don’t know what it does to create that output, you may arrive at incorrect or ill-informed conclusions. That’s why it doesn’t hurt to have technical knowledge. It doesn’t hurt to understand what an algorithm is; it doesn’t hurt to have some programming language. We don’t just start using a database. So becoming aware of the texture of the tools and methodologies and establishing a critical sensibility is the strongest foundation you can have.

David: Working with data, and working with the digital more generally, takes us outside of our comfort zone. So my suggestion might be to work to create some data about something that you know well and do so in familiar surroundings, and then try to evaluate as a group how well those data represent the thing that you think you know. It’s important to recognize that in the digital world we necessarily distort things by representing them as abstraction or by formalization. So I think it’s worth thinking at that level about the relationship between the digital objects that we’re creating and that which we know.


The ongoing phases of the pandemic have affected different parts of the world in different ways and at different times, exposing inequalities and different states of readiness and ability for communities to mobilize in moments of crisis and necessity. In the digital humanities, we have also listened with a critical ear to changes discussed within the academy: maintaining certain types of hybrid learning, alternative delivery of content, and even remote education as a means of expanding markets for higher education. These proposed initiatives suggest both change and instability in the years to come.

Our conversation about the practice of international collaboration was carried out in a period of flux where there was not as much time for reflection as we would have liked. Obvious points of discussion arising from this roundtable discussion which deserve further attention include the future of the digital humanities community event as national or regional scholarly cultures expand from basic training toward more specialized work, as well as the potential of hybridization of in-person events both to increase access in the scholarly community and to reduce the carbon footprint of our academic endeavors. On the other hand, we feel that it would be unfortunate if local digital scholarship were the only sort to prevail in the coming years. We hope that our thoughts published here will keep the discussion of international collaboration in digital scholarship moving forward, encouraging others to explore what kinds of new roles it might play.

We recognize that collaborative international dialogue takes a lot of energy and labor, as well as a certain kind of personality and commitment which the academy does not often support. The speakers at this panel are quite proud of their cooperation, and of how their efforts have influenced communities of practice far away from the location of their academic positions. For this reason, we have decided to publish the text of this conversation along with Arabic and Russian translations of it to foster critical discussion with JITP’s readership and the new worlds of digital scholarship coming into focus in these languages and cultures. We trust that this translingual initiative will further the goal of transnational dialogue in global digital humanities and will inspire others to build such bridges.


Puchkovskaia, Antonina, Lada Zimina, Pavel Aleksandrovich Tugarinov, and Maria Sergeevna Bakhteeva. 2021. “Digital Humanists and Cultural Institutions: Achieving Efficient Collaboration.” Panel session. European Association of Digital Humanities 2021, Krasnoyarsk, 23 September 2021.

About the Authors

Antonina Puchkovskaia is an Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at ITMO University (Saint Petersburg, Russia), where she teaches various Digital Humanities courses. Her research interests include cultural heritage representation and visualization, spatial humanities, and digital infrastructures. She is a director of the International Digital Humanities Center and also a program leader of ITMO’s MSc in Digital Humanities, which aims at creating well-rounded data professionals who have strong statistical and technical skills combined with strengths in research, communication, and design. Antonina is one of the 2018–2019 Willard McCarty Fellowship holders at the DH Department at King’s College London. She is a founder of Saint Petersburg DH week and has been organizing it for four years.

Kimon Keramidas is Clinical Associate Professor of Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement and Affiliated Faculty in International Relations at New York University. He is also Co-Director of the International Digital Humanities Center at ITMO University. Kimon’s research and pedagogy take place at the intersection of media and technology studies, cultural history, sociology of culture, and experimental humanities. Kimon’s work includes cultural heritage and public history initiatives with international organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution, the State Hermitage, Rubin Museum, Zayed University in Dubai, and the University of Leicester. He is a co-founder of New York City Digital Humanities (NYCDH) and has been organizing NYCDH Week for eight years.

David Joseph Wrisley is Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at NYU Abu Dhabi. His research interests include comparative approaches to medieval literature in European languages and Arabic, digital spatial approaches to corpora, neural methods for handwritten text recognition across writing systems, and open knowledge community building in the Middle East, where he has lived and researched since 2002. He co-founded the Arab world’s first two digital humanities training events: the Digital Humanities Institute Beirut (dhibeirut.wordpress.com) in Beirut in 2015 and the NYU Abu Dhabi Winter Institute in Digital Humanities (wp.nyu.edu/widh) in Abu Dhabi in 2020.

Lada Zimina is an Assistant Professor at the International DH Center at ITMO University (Saint Petersburg, Russia). She has recently graduated from the masters program in Digital Humanities that enabled her to apply IT onto her Bachelor background in Museology and Heritage Management. Her research interests include memory studies, cultural heritage representation, and digital collections. She is a co-founder of a biennial conference on Digital Local Studies.

A large protest passes under an underpass in Los Angeles.

Social Justice as Theory and Pedagogical Practice: A Digital Assignment for the COVID Age

Lauren M. Rosenblum and Nathan Ross

This community-wide online assignment enabled students in this first-year learning community to learn digital research skills and apply a diverse set of readings to their personal experiences of social justice issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more… Social Justice as Theory and Pedagogical Practice: A Digital Assignment for the COVID Age

A pair of headphones lies on a desk, shot in black and white.

Poetry in Your Pocket: Streaming Playlists and the Pedagogy of Poetic Interpretation


Teaching students to interpret poetry remains one of the most challenging aspects of humanities instruction due to students’ anxiety about interpretation and skepticism of poetry’s relevance to their lives. Accordingly, this article outlines a new model for using interactive streaming media playlists as a means of increasing student confidence and active engagement with poetry. It draws from my structured approach to a general-studies poetry seminar in which I required students to engage consistently with traditional print text alongside streaming recitations and musical adaptations of poetry. Thereafter, students created their own multimodal adaptations of poems to solidify their perception of poetry as an adaptable living tradition with social significance. Student responses to this strategy demonstrate a meaningful increase in their self-reported confidence in reading poetry. Moreover, the students expressed how the playlist made the study of poetry feel more relevant in a contemporary digital context while appealing to their multiple learning styles. In our current social context in which streaming media dominates many students’ reception of culture, I argue that shifting our instruction into these spaces can be an effective tool to leverage in the pedagogy of poetic interpretation.


The interpretation of poetry is notoriously among the most challenging literary skill sets to teach undergraduate students. At a minimum, it requires sustained attention to linguistic and structural detail, as well as knowledge of a few poetic forms. As a result, students often feel that they are on the outside looking in, trying to understand poetic conventions in which they have no stake. The challenge for the poetry instructor thus becomes encouraging students to engage intellectually with a genre they, at best, fear is inaccessible, and, at worst, feel is irrelevant to them.

This paper will present one solution to this conundrum: leveraging streaming platforms that students are already using to make poetry more accessible and to explore the rich multivalence of poetic adaptation. To implement this solution, I designed a course in which students would engage with streaming audio recordings of poetry alongside traditional print texts. My hope was that this approach would overcome the obstacles associated with teaching poetry in three key ways. First, it would encourage students to explore poetry through an interactive and already-popular medium on their smartphones: Spotify. Second, it would highlight the mutability of poetry over time, demonstrating how the poetic tradition is in a constant state of self-refashioning through performance. In this way, students would become more empowered in the interactive process of reading, interpreting, and adapting poetry. Third, it would, by requiring students to read poems while also listening to them on a digital platform, make poetry feel more accessible rather than guarded behind the walls of high culture.

The results of this semester-long experience, outlined below, demonstrate a practical and effective tool for the teaching of poetry interpretation. The assessment data suggest a self-reported increase in active engagement with poetry through the streaming of Spotify playlists, as well as self-reported improvement in the ability to interpret poetry. Yet perhaps more significantly, the students in this course (consisting of non-English majors) became excited about the possibility of poetic adaptation—both in the analysis of interpretations encountered through the Spotify playlist and in their own performances. By the end of the course, they expressed a new level of interest and comfort in interpreting poetry. In describing the multimodal processes of engaging with streaming media and poetic adaptation that led to such an outcome, this paper will underscore the usefulness of shifting our pedagogy of poetry interpretation into interactive platforms our students are already widely using as a way to improve their skills and confidence as active shapers of an accessible poetic tradition.


My aim was to make a 300-level poetry seminar (part of the general studies requirements at a STEM and business university) feel more interesting, accessible, and contemporary to a student population likely not inclined to the self-initiated study of poetry. My course design was inspired by the explosion of streaming media options over the last decade, which I believed would provide new possibilities of active learning engagement for students of poetry. This study also builds on and extends previous efforts to rethink the pedagogy of poetry interpretation within the framework of multimodality. In an early example of this process, Mary McVee, Lynn Shanahan, and Nancy Bailey (2008) describe using PowerPoint projects in the pre-streaming era to combat student antipathy and anxiety surrounding poetry interpretation. More recently, Hessa A. Alghadeer (2014) provides a foundation for the pedagogical effectiveness of adapting poetry with digital platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Prezi. Meanwhile, Violeta Janulevičienė and Deimantė Veličkienė (2015) similarly note how using digital adaptations to teach Shakespeare’s sonnets will “shift from monomodality to multimodality,” wherein “utilizing several modes of meaning making create new meanings” (2015, 210, 212). In engaging such multimodalities, working with playlists provides students with plentiful opportunities to ask critical questions about the typical ways genres are categorized by companies like Spotify (Ball, Sheppard, and Arola 2018, 76–77)—topics especially pertinent to poetry seminars like mine mixing print text, spoken word recitation, and digital adaptation. This paper continues this focus on multimodality, aiming to bring poetry into the digital spaces already inhabited by students as a means of increasing interpretive and adaptive engagement.

Finally, this study expands the body of scholarship focused on playlist curation as a pedagogical aid by applying existing models to the teaching of poetry. Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp (2012) suggest that playlist curation can serve as a type of content modeling in which decisions like sorting by genre, artist, or composer can open essential questions for students within the digital humanities (19). From the perspective of music education, Scott Jeppesen (2017) writes how “Online listening also empowers teachers to use technology to add additional interactive possibilities to their classes” (60). Both of these studies are indicative of how playlists could significantly revise the pedagogy of the poetry classroom by requiring students to consider critically the process of content curation through interactive streaming media.

Selection of Platform

I selected Spotify as the platform through which to disseminate streaming poetry performances and adaptations for this class because of its free account option and its ability to provide a combination of material essential to the course: poetry read by original authors, poetry read by interpreters, music incorporating poetry or poetic allusions, and the capability to build and share playlists. In respect to the first and second points, Spotify allows for the streaming of the entire catalog of the Smithsonian Folkways label, a nonprofit entity that houses the recordings of the original Folkways Records label. The long-playing vinyl records, and later cassettes and CD-Rs, of this label were once a staple of American libraries; however, with the decline of physical media, many institutions have eliminated such collections. As a result, these vital recordings have become underutilized in the era of digital media. The Smithsonian Folkways holdings include numerous albums of poetry readings by original authors, such as the seminal Anthology of Negro Poetry (1954) featuring recitations by poetry course staples such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Likewise, Smithsonian Folkways hosts albums of readings of canonical poetry such as English Romantic Poetry by John S. Martin (1962) and Early English Poetry by Charles W. Dunn (1958), to name only two among many.

Spotify’s vast catalog represents its most significant advantage as a streaming platform when teaching poetic adaptation. Instructors are able to curate playlists containing poetry readings side-by-side with musical recordings that either directly adapt a poem or expand its themes. In respect to direct adaptation, Spotify’s plentiful offerings within the ballad tradition provide a meaningful illustration for students of ballads’ adaptability and mutability over time. More broadly, Spotify’s access to many popular recordings since the advent of recorded sound provides a foundation for demonstrating to students the continued relevance of poetry. For instance, listening to Richard Burton’s reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner alongside Iron Maiden’s metal adaptation “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1984), which weaves lines from Coleridge’s original text with new expansions of the plot, offers students an unexpected and productively challenging example of the continued resonance of poetry in a popular music context.

Spotify is also already used to a significant extent by people who are the age of the traditional university student and provides a free option for those unable to afford a premium account. As of October 2021, Spotify has a userbase of 365 million users (Spotify 2021). The demographics of this userbase tend toward the age of traditional undergraduate students, with a recent study finding that people between the ages of 18 and 35 are significantly more likely to use Spotify than people over 35 (Gomes, Pereira, Soares, Antunes, and Au-Yong-Oliveira 2021, 348). In fact, in the survey forming the basis of the study, 89.1% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 25 indicated that they are Spotify users (Gomes, Pereira, Soares, Antunes, and Au-Yong-Oliveira 2021, 348). As such, many students using Spotify for class will not need to download or learn the mechanics of a new platform, removing a potential impediment to learning engagement. Because of this pervasive use, Spotify represents the most accessible option for student audio streaming absent larger institutional support for a non-commercial option. Anecdotally, of the students enrolled in my poetry seminar, 11 of the 22 had a premium Spotify account (at discounted student rates) upon entering the course, six had a free account, and five did not have an account. I guided the students who did not have a Spotify membership through the steps of creating a free account, which would be accessible on their phones, laptops, or tablets. (In the event students do not own such devices, they would be able to listen to Spotify within web browsers at the university computer lab using their free accounts.) Yet because students typically prefer to listen to music on smartphones, the Spotify app is particularly useful for inserting poetry into their daily listening habits, putting vital course content directly into their pockets.

As is widely acknowledged, Spotify’s compensation model for artists and songwriters is problematic. Like many digital media platforms, Spotify’s initial promise for the democratization of music distribution has been replaced by “a consolidation of long-established power structures” in which record labels profit at the expense of the artist (Marshall 2015, 185). At best, streaming has been a double-edged sword that has lowered digital piracy while also depressing music sales (Aguiar and Waldfogel 2018). More unfortunate still, for much of Spotify’s existence artists would “receive reduced benefits because their royalty rates are lower” (Lesser 2018, 291), though this issue may be somewhat ameliorated with the passage of the Music Modernization Act in 2018. In this way, Daniel S. Hess (2019) argues the MMA will at least provide independent artists “an approachable means to collect royalties” (200–201), although the royalty rate per stream is only $0.004 as of early 2021 (Owsinski 2021).

At the same time, Spotify provides the most accessible option for students at the present moment due to its free account tier and massive user base, making it a pragmatic—if not ideal—choice for the poetry instructor. Unlike other major music streaming platforms like Apple Music or Tidal, Spotify offers an advertisement-supported free account option, thereby allowing students without the resources to pay for a premium account full access to the course playlist. As such, these free accounts facilitate the easy exchange of playlists when building a required listening list for a course. Additionally, free Spotify accounts allow students to participate in the creation and sharing of their individual poetry playlists. More than that, free Spotify accounts, like paid accounts, provide the ability to make collaborative crowdsourced playlists for group projects. For these reasons, Spotify functions as a particularly effective classroom tool even in its free version, setting it apart from other current options. In the absence of a noncommercial educational streaming platform with the full functionality and catalogs of commercial options, instructors can more responsibly integrate Spotify into their courses by making students aware of the ethical tradeoffs of using the platform in the class. Editorials by recording artists like Damon Krukowski’s (of Galaxie 500 and Damon and Naomi) “How to Be a Responsible Music Fan in the Age of Streaming” (2018) would serve as an excellent starting point for students. In particular, Krukowski’s emphasis on Bandcamp as a medium for listeners to support artists through direct purchases of digital files and physical media could help students become advocates for artist compensation, as well as more mindful consumers of sound recordings.

Some scholars have also expressed concern with how Spotify, particularly its algorithms for playlists generated by the service rather than users, might undermine the value of art. Ekberg and Schwieler (2020) argue how Spotify’s structure, particularly these algorithmically-generated playlists, can turn art and people into ephemeral commodities (12). In the context of the poetry course, however, asking students to listen to a course playlist, or even create their own playlists, can work against this dehumanizing possibility by reemphasizing the power of individual interpretation and curation. For instance, Ignacio Siles, Andrés Segura-Castillo, Mónica Sancho, and Ricardo Solís-Quesada (2019) contend that Spotify “playlists can become the basis of a shared affective experience,” suggesting how playlists can harness social power for students (7). Indeed, I often overheard students discussing the playlist before class sessions in terms of affective experience, suggesting one way by which streaming poetry playlists foster not only a pedagogical but also a deeply social collaborative experience.


The syllabus communicated to students the aim of the class related to poetry interpretation and adaptation: “the course will encourage students to approach poetry from a performative perspective—both in exposure to others’ performances and in students’ own original articulations.” As such, students knew from the outset that they would engage with a shifting poetic tradition through streaming audio of poetry and the performance of their own adaptations. Thereafter, the syllabus required print readings alongside listening assignments for each session (see Figure 1).

Poetry course Spotify playlist featuring image of Emily Dickinson and recordings of ballads by Joan Baez, Ween, and Jean Ritchie
Figure 1. Playlist of poetry performances and adaptations incorporated in the class.

The first reading consisted of two foundational English-language ballads: “The Unquiet Grave” and “Bonny Barbara Allan.” In addition to reading them in print form, however, students would also be required to listen to multiple recorded adaptations. For “The Unquiet Grave,” they would hear Joan Baez’s somber 1964 performance, steeped in the acoustic traditions reignited by the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, alongside Ween’s “Cold Blows the Wind,” a 1997 alternative rock song that expands the ballad in postmodern fashion by shifting the gender dynamic. This side-by-side comparison of two recordings of a traditional ballad would show students how the poetic tradition is constantly remaking itself through adaptation, performance, and thematic revision. It was my hope that students would spend the semester developing an awareness of the elasticity of poetry within this living tradition to counter their anxiety that they would never be able to discover the “right” meaning. Instead, this process would heighten their sense of how subtle changes in performance—in lyrics, melody, tempo, vocal modulations, etc.—can dramatically reshape the meaning of a poetic text.

I would begin most course sessions by streaming one of the required audio recordings to generate critical discussion, thereby encouraging students to think of how poetic performance communicates new meaning. For instance, we started our exploration of the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks by listening to the author’s reading of “kitchenette building” (retitled “Kitchenette” upon inclusion of the aforementioned Anthology of Negro Poetry). The poem, complete with a pointed rhetorical question (“But could a dream send up through onion fumes”), ironic feminist appropriations of quotations related to gendered behavior (“‘Dream’ makes a giddy sound, not strong / Like ‘rent,’ ‘feeding a wife,’ ‘satisfying a man’”), and multiple exclamation points (“We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!”) (Brooks 2005, 998), suggests a passionate, even angry, response to the frantic confines of domestic female roles. Yet Brooks’ performance of her poem plays with this expectation by reciting in calm, measured tones to highlight yet another way in which the speaker is constrained by the conventions of female propriety. One student noted,

“Kitchenette Building” by Gwendolyn Brooks was a performance that was not quite like I expected it to be, and since the performance by the original author of the poem I was able to change my view of the poem to the way that she had originally intended. Viewing the poem like this allowed a more in-depth understanding of the political battles that she was actually fighting with her words.

This student’s response reinforces the pedagogical power of using streaming audio alongside print poetry: by challenging the authority of the student’s initial interpretations of the print text, audio recordings of authors force the reconsideration of themes within a specific historical and cultural context.

We would also sometimes begin class sessions by listening to a musical work that recirculates the words or themes of a poem to gain a deeper understanding of the ways that poetry’s adaptability allows for contemporary engagement. In one example, we followed the reading of selected poems by Emily Dickinson by listening to Wilco’s “Born Alone” (2011). In this recording, lyricist Jeff Tweedy notes the direct influence of Dickinson’s poetry,

I opened up a book of American poetry and randomly turned to the Emily Dickinson pages, no one poem in particular. I took a lot of words, most of them verbs, and put them against words that looked appealing to me from Whittier and other 1800s poetry. (quoted in Hoyt 2011)

Students then looked for specific allusions to the Dickinson poems within “Born Alone” before exploring the ways in which this adaptation had remade Dickinson’s themes. Our discussion broadened to consider how Dickinson’s nineteenth-century poetry lives on through performance and adaptation in our digital age. Through this process of comparative analysis, I hoped students would gain an appreciation for the ways English-language poetry forms an elastic lineage constantly being shaped, challenged, and remade—even in modes of artistic expression not usually associated with the reinterpretation of nineteenth-century American poetry.

The emphasis on poetic performance was punctuated by each student adapting a self-selected poem in class, either live or by digital recording. This component of the course builds on the work of Daniel Anderson and Emily Shepherd (2016) on e-Poetry, which suggests the rich multimodal possibilities of students adapting poems into media projects in order to “learn new digital writing skills and enjoy extended engagement with the poems.” In this assignment, I communicated to students the ways by which their subtle shifts in tone, pace, and volume could affect the meaning of the poem for their audience of classmates. Additionally, I asked them to consider how the process of digital recording could be transformative, requiring nuanced attention to the multimodal experience of crafting a visual recording of a written text. At the end, students would also articulate the ways by which their performance and digital framing were designed to emphasize specific themes of the original poem. Finally, each student would lead a discussion probing the meaning of the poem via the adaptation. In each of these ways, this assignment would encourage students to take ownership of the interactive process of adaptation, as well as make the genre feel more accessible, relevant, and genuinely meaningful in a contemporary context.


I asked the students to complete an anonymous survey about their experiences in the class as a means of gauging the effectiveness of my approach in meeting the course’s goals. Absent a university- or department-wide student survey that would sometimes function as the basis for evaluating specific activities within general education courses (Walvoord 2010), I composed a series of multiple choice and open-answer questions to assess how the Spotify playlist sequence may have increased confidence in poetry interpretation and improved engagement in reading poetry through interactive digital processes.

Notably, the students self-reported low confidence in their ability to read poetry before enrolling in the course. In the survey, 20 of the 22 students reported either “Not Proficient” or “Somewhat Proficient” as their initial skill level in reading poetry, while only two reported “Proficient” and zero reported “Highly Proficient.” My initial conversations with students, as well as our discussions early in the semester of ballads, confirmed this self-reported lack of confidence. As is often the case, these non-humanities majors exhibited substantial anxiety about ever being able to “get” poetry. By the end of the term, however, the students’ confidence (as reflected by their self-reported proficiency upon exiting the course) had significantly improved. Indeed, 21 of the 22 students reported either “Highly Proficient” or “Proficient” as their skill level in reading poetry after taking the course. Clearly, these students had a much greater degree of confidence in their interpretive ability, thereby breaking through their initial fear of never being able to “get” poetry.

Next, I prompted students to reflect on whether the analysis of our required listening contributed to a shift in interpretive confidence by asking, “Did the playlist help make deciphering poetry a more accessible process?” In response to this open-ended question, many students’ viewpoints overlapped with this sentiment expressed by one of their classmates: “spoken word poetry is usually less challenging or daunting than written poetry.” Another student pointed toward how listening facilitated understanding beyond the readings: “With most poems that I was confused with while reading, the recitations on the playlist were able to help me figure out what the meaning was by emphasizing certain words/lines.” This feeling was echoed by a classmate who wrote, “For the hard to follow poems, the adaptations helped me follow and understand them better.” Overall, the students in the course repeatedly emphasized how the consideration of our streaming playlist facilitated the confidence to assert understanding of the texts.

Likewise, many of the students conveyed that listening to adaptations from our course playlist authorized them to identify new meaning and formal techniques in the required readings. As one student noted, “Sometimes you will hear things that you did not pick up when reading or hear it in a way that changes your perspective on the poem.” Several students echoed this reaction that listening to poetic adaptations acted as a conduit for identifying nuances in the poems that, in turn, shifted their interpretation of the print text. One student wrote, “Each adaptation got me to think critically about what the text was saying, how it was saying it, and what elements of that were brought in the recitation.” Another student noted that, although not all adaptations were appealing, the process of analyzing why a particular performance did not work was instructive: “I didn’t like all of the adaptations, but hearing them and being able to describe why I didn’t like them and how they related to the original poem helped me to understand the art of performance poetry a lot better.”

Several students also explained how the incorporation of interactive streaming technology made the readings feel more contemporary and, therefore, accessible. For instance, one student reflected:

it brought the process into the modern technological age. I kind of got stuck in this class and wasn’t really looking forward to it, but the playlist allowed me to get so much more out of the course than I was expecting. I thought the class would be really dry and we’d just be counting syllables for 10 weeks, but the addition of the recitations livened it up.

In this way, streaming media had helped me overcome a central hurdle in teaching poetry to the general studies student: making the texts seem relevant, accessible, and more than only exercises in technical analysis. One student emphasized how the listening contributed to seeing the readings as more than a purely isolated academic exercise: “they gave me an idea of how these poems were used and performed in the real world.” One student even volunteered that, absent the assigned playlist, “I probably would have gone to YouTube and looked up adaptations to help with my comprehension of the poem.” Formalizing this impulse through the creation of a shared playlist both directs students to thought-provoking adaptations and aligns the classroom experience with their typical processes as learners in the digital age. Students did not have to search through a variety of streaming platforms for digital adaptations of the readings but rather could reach into their pockets and shuffle the class playlist any time they wanted to engage with poetry.

The students also expressed several ways in which the multimodality of reading and listening to poetry helped them glean new meanings from the poems. One student noted how interacting with various instantiations of the poems aided in the interpretive process: “I feel that in tandem with reading the poetry first this was an effective way to better decipher a poem.” Several other students reiterated this reaction, with one student asserting that “multiple perspectives create(d) a well-rounded interpretation,” and another writing that “This method provided multiple mediums to capture the information.” Seemingly, this consistent appeal to multimodality, performance, and adaptation through digital media had allowed students to gain confidence in their interpretations.

Still three other students emphasized the importance of our playlist for appealing to their learning styles: “I am an auditory learner,” “Hearing words while reading them gives me two ways to decipher poems,” and “My comprehension has always been better when I listen to something instead of read it, so being able to do both was something that helped me considerably in my understanding.” Although most poetry courses feature reading aloud of texts during the course session, and many courses in the era of physical media included intermittent listening, the consistent integration of a digital playlist also appealed in a powerful way to these learners. One student succinctly summarized this appeal to auditory learners: the playlist “made the homework assignments more enjoyable to either get a review of what you read or hear a new way of how the poem could be interpreted.”

Many students also demonstrated a positive learning experience in creating their own adaptation of a poem. In one particularly successful digital adaptation, a student selected “Boots of Spanish Leather” by Bob Dylan as his source text—which we already read in print form in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, as well as listened to two drastically divergent performances by Dylan (his initial studio recording, a spare and earnest folk rendition, from 1963) and by hard-rock band Nazareth’s lead singer, Dan McCafferty (a mainstream rock rendition from 1975). Building on our discussions of the shifting themes of the various instantiations of the poem, the student recorded, edited, and shared a digital video of himself singing while playing guitar—featuring phrasing, tempo, and emphasis radically divergent from Dylan’s original take with the same instrumentation. Thereafter, the student led a discussion in which he invited his classmates to reflect on how his filmed visual performance shifted the meaning of Dylan’s words. This culminating project thus engaged in valuable “critical examinations of literary texts” via “mediating across sign systems,” a process explored by Heidi Höglund’s study of student video interpretations of poetry at the secondary level (2017, 43). In keeping with recent work in composition studies, however, students also had the option to perform their works in person depending on the goals of their interpretive recitation. As Jody Shipka (2013) notes, multimodality should not be viewed as synonymous with “digitally based or screen-mediated texts”; instead, students should “leave our courses exhibiting a more nuanced awareness of the various choices they make throughout the process of accomplishing that work and the effect those choices might have on others” (76). In this spirit, students were able to take ownership of their performances by defining their process of interpretation and adaptation—therein demonstrating their power to engage actively with the tradition of English-language poetry in the genre of their choice rather than acting only as passive readers.


Since the implementation of the Spotify playlist in this poetry seminar, I have expanded this approach in subsequent courses to include students curating their own public playlists on Spotify. As Anja Nylund Hagen (2015) argues, although playlist curation is not wholly removed from the processes of collecting “rare gems” of physical media, “playlist collecting involves imposing one’s will (and oneself) upon an intangible realm of endless abundance” (643). This narrowing process, in which students select a particular theme, issue, or timeframe and create a succinct one-to-two-hour playlist from Spotify’s overwhelming amount of recorded material allows them to take ownership of research processes for public outreach. In my projects, after creating an overview of relevant recordings (both spoken word and musical) students select a playlist image and write a brief description to draw in listeners, as well as submit a “curator’s statement” in which they outline key aspects of the theme, issue, or period while explaining the inclusion of these particular recordings. Such public-facing acts of criticism and curation have provided a meaningful context in which my students have forged unexpected intellectual connections while also serving as a training ground for more traditional argumentative research-based essays later in the semester. Kelly J. Hunnings (2019) also suggests how the curation of Spotify playlists from the perspective of a fictional character can provide a meaningful space for students to engage with pre-twentieth-century literature in the digital era. In all of these ways, a Spotify curation project carries through the themes of the original reading and listening assignments by asking students to become informed content-creators of streaming media in a real-world setting.

My students’ experiences in the original seminar and subsequent courses demonstrate how streaming media is a valuable tool at the disposal of the poetry instructor. By overcoming the all-too-frequent student intimidation or resistance at the prospect of poetry interpretation, interactive streaming media helps make poetry feel comprehensible and approachable to students. Moreover, asking them to create a unique adaptation or public playlist enables them to take ownership of their reading practice through active interpretation. As streaming media platforms continue to evolve at a rapid pace, we, as poetry instructors, can continue this work to rethink our practice within the context of technologies already shaping the cultural context of our students’ lives.


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About the Author

Stephen Grandchamp is Assistant Professor of Literature and Digital Humanities at the University of Maine at Farmington, where he is also the Co-Director of the New Commons Project (a public humanities initiative sponsored by the Mellon Foundation) and Manager of the Digital Humanities Lab. His areas of research interest include: failure in the traditional bildungsroman, video game adaptations of literary texts, and the integration of digital tools into the literature classroom.

Earth viewed from space, with Africa lit up in the sun.

Experiential Approaches to Teaching African Culture and the Politics of Representation: Building the “Documenting Africa” Project with StoryMapJS


In the fall of 2018, Dr. Mary Anne Lewis Cusato (Ohio Wesleyan University) and Dr. Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi (Albion College) conducted a teaching collaboration through their courses “Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions” and “Introduction to African Art.” Supported by funding from the Great Lakes Colleges Association and the Five Colleges of Ohio Mellon Digital Scholarship Award, the courses explored the artistic traditions and literary, journalistic, cinematographic, and visual representations of African peoples and cultures. Students in both courses were encouraged to confront and ask difficult questions about the biases and mythologies that permeate Western perceptions about Africa, African peoples, and cultures; and to become attentive to the problems of history, misrepresentations, and the importance of historiographic revision. In this article, Professors Lewis Cusato and Demerdash-Fatemi show how connecting these courses through an active, experiential, creative, collaborative culminating project, namely the digital platform called “Documenting Africa,” built with StoryMapJS technology, proved a particularly effective approach for students to satisfy the learning objectives for each class and grapple with those questions at the heart of the courses. In addition, the piece explains each course’s assignments and learning individual objectives individually, united through overarching philosophical underpinnings and objectives.

Introduction: Common Learning Objectives, Description of Project, Theoretical Underpinnings

This article describes a collaboration between two courses, one on African art and another on immigration from and through North Africa, that culminated in the collaborative digital project “Documenting Africa.” Because the course on African art was an introductory course, the text in this article specific to that course focuses on the pedagogical rationale that drove both the materials included on the syllabus and the nature of the digital work and preparatory assignments. On the other hand, because the course on immigration was an upper-level course with many complementary parts, the narrative specific to that course concentrates primarily on describing materials, assignments, and learning outcomes.

Before delineating the elements undergirding the mission of our collaboration, it is important to see where Africa sits vis-a-vis the majority of American undergraduates. Most American students who come to African Studies (with few exceptions, like heritage students), especially in an introductory course, typically have little to no informational knowledge—historical, political, sociological, cultural, regional, or topographical—of the African continent. The sparse background that they do bring usually comes in the form of monolithic assumptions and overly generalized, misrepresentative, received ideas about the continent and its peoples. They might imagine a “‘global diaspora, an international culture and a metaphor with fantastical associations for the West: gold, savages, ‘darkest,’ ‘deepest,’ liberation, devastation’” (Phillips 2007, 97–98). Imagery in students’ minds often derives from such sources as nature documentaries on the Serengeti to pop cultural touchstones like The Lion King to news reports about war and child soldiers. It is not uncommon that, in the first few class meetings before certain myths have been debunked, students will unmaliciously, but naively, refer to and treat Africa, the continent, as a holistic, homogeneous entity. This is not surprising, since current events happening throughout the continent today typically surface on major Western media outlets with reportage on disease or scourges (e.g. Ebola, AIDS, etc.), acts of violence or terrorism (e.g. Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in Somalia and Kenya, etc.), poaching and wildlife conservation efforts, and more recently, the effects of climate change on widespread famine and territorial struggle for resources. Collectively such journalism exacerbates an already maligned imaginary of places and peoples. This is what the brilliant, late Nigerian art critic Okwui Enwezor called Afro-pessimism and the exact kind of generalized, vague, negative, ahistorical representation of the “other” that formed the basis for Edward Said’s Orientalism (Okwui Enwezor 2006, 10–20). The socio-cultural and political conditions of Africans, for many American undergraduates, typically remain abstract, conceptually, just as the immense heterogeneity and regional nuances of this landscape remain elusive to them, at the outset. To make matters even more urgent and challenging, not only do most students possess a gap in their current, geopolitical understanding of African peoples and nations today, but they lack the critical thinking skills to question the history of why some of those gross misrepresentations persist to this day. As a result, Africans today, as well as their rich cultures and nations’ histories, remain largely under- and/or mis-represented, foreign, and woefully divorced from notions of progress and potential for many American undergraduate students.

With the aforementioned problems in mind and with a desire to address them in a particularly experiential mode of teaching and learning, Professors Mary Anne Lewis Cusato (French, Ohio Wesleyan University) and Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi (Art History, Albion College) decided to pursue an opportunity through the Great Lakes Colleges Association to connect two courses, Lewis Cusato’s Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions and Dr. Demerdash-Fatemi’s Introduction to African Art, primarily through a collaborative digital humanities project called “Documenting Africa.”

The employment of digital platforms as a means of encouraging students to actively engage with unfamiliar content and problematic misconceptions was informed by such thinkers as Mary Nooter Roberts and Ruth B. Phillips, to name just two. Indeed, Roberts’ articulation of exhibiting as “always in some measure the construction of a cultural imaginary and never a direct reflection of lived experience” (2008, 170) resonated with both Professors Lewis Cusato and Demerdash-Fatemi as a useful way of conceptualizing the integration of digital work into their respective courses. When working not only to fill a knowledge gap, but also to correct misconceptions, a constructive, visible, experiential mode struck them as particularly promising and appropriate. In order to see and understand African objects and representations, students were asked to work with, comment on, and display those very objects, texts, and representations. In the same way that Roberts describes “the museum exhibition as an arena for translation” and exhibitions as “objects of knowledge,” so, too, were students in the courses asked to translate their knowledge for audiences in a curatorial, reflective, but also creative mode in which learning, creation, and reflection were intertwined and integrated.

So it was through four weeks of curricular planning during the summer of 2018 that the pedagogical philosophies at work began to crystallize to ensure, first, a focus on comparing cultural representations of Africa from the African continent with Western representations of African cultures and, second, successful completion of the digital humanities project. Furthermore, Lewis Cusato was concurrently awarded a second grant, the Five Colleges of Ohio Mellon Digital Scholarship Award, to secure a student research assistant and assistance from the Five Colleges Post-Bac to help build and maintain the digital humanities project. Assistance from the Post-Bac, Olivia Geho, proved absolutely instrumental in moving the project forward in a thoughtful, productive, efficient, and reflective manner.

In tandem, these courses shared the following three learning objectives, albeit through different resources and in different languages:

  • Broadening knowledge about, and appreciation of, African material culture;
  • Examining inherited understandings about African cultures;
  • Comparing the stakes of self-representation with those of “representing the other.”

The conceptual and theoretical overlap between these two courses was rooted in some key learning outcomes. Firstly, both professors expected students to develop more nuanced notions about African literary and artistic traditions and cultural practices, and visual/material cultural patrimonies. Secondly, students were asked to confront sometimes difficult questions about the biases and mythologies that permeate our own popular culture in the West about Africa, African peoples, and cultures. The professors hoped their students would become attentive to the problems of history and representation, and understand that for alternative histories to emerge, we need historiographic revisions, which can come about only through different types of primary source engagements (through oral interviews or analyses of visual cultural objects, for example). Thirdly, these questions of the historiographies of African arts and cultures, in the end, point students to the high stakes and direct impact posed in how these diverse peoples are not only represented, but remembered.

At its core, this collaboration sought to ensure that students grasp the deep connections between the politics of representation and historical memory, especially given that “once an African object has entered the epistemological arena of a different time and place in, say, the United States, France, or Japan, it cannot be divorced from that world of thought and presented from an exclusively African point of view” (Roberts 2008, 174). In sum, the connections among history, representation, and memory were foundational for this project.

Technology is rapidly changing the way that the humanities are pedagogically envisioned and taught: three-dimensional reconstructions of archaeological sites enable students to imagine ancient spaces; various forms of digital scanning alter the manner by which conservators restore paintings; digitizing maps opens up new forays in critical cartography. The digital humanities is not solely invested in analyzing data, producing new quantitative analyses or statistical metrics, or amassing or preserving cultural artifacts. Digital art history is often perceived to be apolitical and uncritical (Drucker 2019, 325), preoccupied with data collection (Battles 2016, 329), and lacking the intellectual rigor of conventional methods of visual analysis.

Yet as the work of N. Katherine Hayles exhorts us to consider, the digital is changing the ways we think—our epistemologies—and tell stories. For her, narratives (whether literary or artistic) and databases are fundamentally intertwined, integrating ideas of temporality and spatiality (2012). For both the fields of literature and art history, digital modes of instructional technology can render course content more accessible, interactive, and therefore familiar. If, as Hayles asserts, “the ability to access and retrieve information on a global scale has a significant impact on how one thinks about one’s place in the world” then surely, our students’ digital research and interactive exhibitions might enable them to reevaluate their own relationship to peoples and places previously unbeknownst to them (2012, 2). In teaching comparative literature and art history, the close reading of literary texts and images is paramount to pedagogical methods, though Hayles suggests that this needs to change to adapt for a new age of media literacy and that the traditional close reading of texts needs to accommodate a new type of digital hyper-reading, the fragmented ways we all consume media via filtering, skimming, hyperlinking, and so forth (2012, 61).

To account for these trends and shifts in the digital mechanisms of media consumption, what if the tools of the digital humanities could also be repurposed in the classroom to confront and debunk representational injustices and complicate conceptual or epistemological problems of a subject or discipline? Can a digital tool challenge misrepresentations or assumptions on African cultures and peoples? This essentially was the key methodological and pedagogical question we sought to tackle.

Course Specifics and Benchmark Assignments for Introduction to African Art

Teaching African art history presents instructors with the immensely tall pedagogical order of rendering places, peoples, and cultures that are mostly alien to students familiar, through experiential learning, connection, and creation. In Demerdash-Fatemi’s Introduction to African Art course, students encounter a range of original artistic practices from cultural groups all over the geographical and political terrain of the continent. Lesson units are broken down by considering the visual culture and communal usage of objects within specific ethnic and cultural groups of a particular region (e.g. sculptural practices and cosmology of the Dogon peoples of Mali, the divination objects and storytelling memory boards of the Luba peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the royal paraphernalia of the Bamum peoples of Cameroon, etc.). Students examine the artistic qualities, fine craftsmanship, and contextual roles of an array of objects—wooden sculptures, masks and headdresses, gold bracelets and staffs, buildings and materials, garments and regalia—to comprehend the socio-cultural significance of such objects within these peoples’ lives, and to grasp the epistemological connections such peoples make about the environment and the places they inhabit.

Like any introductory course, this too was a survey in its general format. The key challenges of any art history survey are to balance depth and breadth, and to instill in students both the detail-oriented skills of visual analysis, on the one hand, and the macro-level conceptual abilities of asking broad, theme-based questions, on the other. And so over the course of any standard curriculum in African art history, students not only gain an intricate understanding of how diverse peoples and their visual and material cultural practices throughout the continent, but they are encouraged to identify similarities and connections in how many of these cultural groups construct their art, societies, and conceptualize their worldviews in relation to pivotal political and historical events, as well as centuries of economic trade and cross-cultural exchange. Methodologically and theoretically, however, African art history is fraught as a subfield by virtue of its heritage. Its origins lay not within the field of art history, but in the discipline of anthropology and the problematic, unethical collection practices of colonial ethnographers and bureaucrats on military expeditions in Africa throughout the long nineteenth century. Thus, the very study of African art was founded under exploitative conditions, and as a consequence, has given rise to a number of methodological and epistemological debates about how African art should be approached, analyzed and understood (Hallen 1997). As the noted art historian Sidney Littlefield Kasfir remarks in her much-cited article, the eventual field that formed out of these geopolitical inequities—mostly work undertaken by anthropologists—followed the “one tribe, one style” paradigmatic model, in which the artistic production of one ethnic and cultural group is correlated to one quintessential style and set of formal qualities (Kasfir 1992). Such ethnic and cultural groups become siloed entities, treated homogeneously, accounting little for cross-cultural encounters and exchanges across and among groups. Paradoxically, this method of treating ethnic and regional case studies in a singular, tribal fashion still generally predominates in African art history pedagogy at the introductory level, due to the diversity and sheer multiplicity of African peoples and cultures and the need of instructors to render the material digestible to undergraduates. In our course, we used Monica Blackmun Visona’s textbook, A History of Art in Africa (Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008), which navigates through the rich artistic traditions of peoples and groups with chapters divided according to regional domains (e.g. Sahara and the Maghreb, West Africa and West Atlantic Forests, Central Africa including the Congo Basin, Eastern and Southern Africa, and the diaspora).

Time/temporality and authorship are yet more variables that add complexity to African art historical analysis. Contrasting with conventional or Western art historical methods, which privilege historical chronology and periodization, African art history preoccupies itself more with conceptual epistemologies and indigenous knowledge systems—often derived from contemporary cultural phenomena and observations (Ogbechie 2005)—to arrive at an historical art work’s interpretation. This approach to time is complicated by gaps in the historical record (Peffer 2005) and the fact that many African artists may acquire fame and repute, but their notoriety may not be socially linked specifically to the art works that they produced in their lifetime. Objects’ lives and meanings are not defined by their authorial makers, but instead by their social lives circulating among the patrons, the groups who wear or use said objects, or the religious officials and diviners who control and activate them (Vogel 1999).

Such methodological and epistemological issues bear greatly on pedagogy and student learning outcomes as well. The rationale for assigning a digital final project to students of African art history is multi-pronged and motivated by a desire to decolonize troubling pedagogies. Firstly, in order to problematize those aforementioned methodological questions of tribe, style, cross-cultural exchange, history, collecting, time/temporality, and authorship in African art objects, students must engage in cross-cultural and comparative thinking straight away. The rote memorization and connoisseurship-focused pedagogy enforced by an old guard of art historians does not serve to enliven either the African art objects, peoples or cultures in this generation of students. By encouraging students to think about the axes of time and space in African art, they resist notions of fixed, homogeneous peoples and instead become attuned to the dynamism of cultural exchanges and processes of transformation. Furthermore, to break free from and challenge those ubiquitous misrepresentations of African cultures in the Western media, students must acquire some interactive sense of intimacy or immediacy with African cultures and current events so as to break the barrier of foreignness. And crucially, reception is a vital facet of any African art history course, in probing students to empathically position themselves in the role of the makers, interlocutors, recipients, and beholders of such works of art.

Throughout the course, students had the tall order of absorbing the content and material of each unit, but the final digital project was conceived to help integrate their knowledge through comparative, analytical thinking. Students were divided into three groups of three and four by the professor (balanced based on their respective standing, research experience, critical thinking skills, reading abilities, and academic readiness) and instructed to curate their own digital online exhibition of African art objects, centered on a specific theme across time and space; just like real art curators in museums and galleries, students had to critically examine issues of representation, conceptual and narrative coherence, and sub-thematic division and arrangement in designing their own online exhibition. At the outset, Neatline and Omeka were briefly considered as potential software tools, but ruled out because of their relative complexity; ultimately, in consultation with Albion College’s instructional technologist, Sarah Noah, StoryMapJS was chosen due to its facility for a general audience.

To aid students in envisioning their digital shows, they were taken on two local field trips: firstly, to see the special exhibition, Beyond Borders: Global Africa, which ran from August 11 to November 25, 2018 at the University of Michigan Art Museum (UMMA) and was curated by Dr. Laura De Becker; and secondly, to tour the permanent African art exhibits at the Detroit Institute of Art, known by Africanists to be one of the richest collections of African art in the United States (Woods 1971). By selecting at least twenty images of African art objects now residing in US museum collections from a minimum of five disparate cultural groups, students had to create and curate their own show around a story arc (e.g. power and kingship; adornment and beauty; women’s authority; masking, performance and spirits; ancestors and memories; apotropaism and protections; slavery or imperial encounters; kinship and communalism; etc.).

Assignments were scaffolded so as to break down tasks and ensure genuine collaboration among group members. The first of these benchmark assignments asked students to construct their story arc or narrative theme. Next, because StoryMapJS enables one to render stories interactive and visual over geographical space and chronological time, students had to build on their narrative outline by selecting their base map, through which their audience will navigate through the digital exhibition; and most importantly, their objects and regional sites. For each object, students had to conduct research on the piece and write their own object label–just like an explanatory placard on the wall of a gallery—providing their viewers with the necessary content to understand the cultural significance of that piece and how it fits into the overarching narrative arc.

The students’ final, digital exhibitions successfully exemplified those desired learning outcomes of understanding the heterogeneity of African artistic traditions, cross-cultural exchange, and regional specificity. The three projects differentiated and compared the creative output and cultural practices shared by various ethnic groups across the continent: the exhibition “Initiation Ceremonies and Rites of Passage in African Arts and Cultures” dealt with masquerade practices, sculptural traditions, and sacred rituals in the transition from youth to adulthood; “Passion, Power, Perfection: Marriage and African Arts” examined the role of courtship, public displays of fidelity and the place of marriage in African artistic traditions; and finally, “African Funerary Practices and Traditions” highlighted the central position of objects in honoring ancestors and funerary rituals, proving that death and collective memory are intertwined in African artistic practices. Pedagogically, these exhibitions were a success in that they challenged students to think about conceptual and representational issues and through research encouraged familiarity with the objects. The digital exhibitions brought to life material that otherwise often remains static and foreign in an African art history course.

Students’ digital exhibitions were graded on the following criteria: narrative coherence, informational accuracy and depth of research, facility of the exhibit (e.g. cleanliness and user-friendly qualities), aesthetic appeal, and teamwork professionalism. A major drawback of StoryMapJS is that only one student could be the user/owner of that project account, and so edits to the digital exhibition could not be implemented simultaneously by other group members; this proved to be inconvenient for collaboration, with inevitably one student in each group shouldering more of the burden of entering data into the program.

Course Specifics and Benchmark Assignments for “Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions”

The benchmark assignments designed for the Fourteen Kilometers class were conceived with the objective of preparing students to answer such weighty questions as the following:

  • What does it mean, first, to record an oral history both responsibly and ethically and, second, how do stylistics, such as camerawork and sound recording, affect such a project?
  • Second, what are the stakes of creating an outward-facing project that is a carrier of meaning, especially for cultural documents that represent and / or come from Africa?
  • Are exhibition and translation, both defined here as extensions of the original object(s), “all one can ever know”? (Roberts 2008, 183) If so, what does this mean in terms of thinking about “original” vs. “translation” or “exhibition”?

To these ends, several benchmark assignments were designed to prepare students to learn and create with a sense of depth, purpose, and reflection. As a class, Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions was preparing to collect, edit, and publish an oral history from a French-speaking immigrant in the Columbus area, and these benchmark workshops and assignments were essential training tools for the students. First, the Fourteen Kilometers class held a workshop in the campus library with the Director of Media Services at Ohio Wesleyan University, Chuck Della Lana, who demonstrated framing techniques with video cameras and discussed the implications of various manners of video framing, camera angles, and relating sound to image. Students then paired off to interview one another briefly on a topic of their choosing, and returned to the media center to share the product with the class to analyze various techniques related to the recording choices of both sound and image. In a second round of interviews, partners switched roles and finessed those elements upon which they wished to improve before concluding discussions. This benchmark assignment was crucial in training students to understand the deep relationship; whether in videography, cinematography, or oral history; between message and stylistics. Camera angles, shots, manipulation of sound, and other tools associated with video recordings all shape, both literally and figuratively, the narrative at the center of the story. Students were encouraged to reflect on such different modes of recording as recording-as-art vs. recording-for-knowledge. What does it mean to take an oral history, to record and disseminate someone else’s story? How is the oral historian, literally and figuratively, framing the story to be received by anyone who views it later? By the end of the workshop, students understood these concepts in a deeper and more concrete way.

The second benchmark workshop and assignment deepened students’ engagement with questions that arose from the first. On Friday, October 26, 2018, Wendy Singer, Roy T. Wortman Distinguished Professor of History at Kenyon College, came to campus to lead a workshop for students and other Ohio Wesleyan University community members through a presentation and a series of exercises and discussions training students to consider the ethical issues that can arise when conducting, editing, and publishing oral histories. When an oral history is given, how do authorship, subjectivity, ownership of the story, and voice shift? To demonstrate this notion, Singer asked students, in pairs, to designate a storyteller and a listener. The storyteller told the story of their first day on campus, and the listener retold the story to the group. The original storyteller then noted differences between the original version and the retelling and offered reflections on subtle differences between the two tellings. This workshop, building on the first, guided students’ thinking about the overarching goals of oral history and the subtle ways in which retelling is also, whether willfully or not, a reshaping. If the objective is to record an oral history with as little intervention as possible, with as little reshaping as possible, then great care and attention must be paid.[1]

The third benchmark assignment took place on November 16, 2018, the Friday before Thanksgiving, when Lewis Cusato and the students in the “Fourteen Kilometers” class boarded a university van to drive nineteen miles to visit the Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) organization in Columbus, Ohio. Lewis Cusato had arranged for an oral history given by a local French-speaking refugee and a follow-up Question and Answer session to be recorded by a colleague. Upon arrival at CRIS, it became clear that the person sharing his story did not wish for any recording to be disseminated. This was surprising and disappointing for the students, who had devoted significant time, energy, and thought to developing appropriate questions to ask him in French; considering how to approach such questions in the most respectful and productive ways possible; and to learning about how to record, transcribe, translate, and present the oral history. He presented his story with both narrative and images, students did ask their questions, the session was recorded, and the CRIS Volunteer Coordinator spoke with the group about the state of immigrants and immigration in the United States under the current presidential administration. The visit lasted some two and a half hours and generated much discussion for the drive back to campus in Delaware, Ohio. Lewis Cusato asked students to articulate their reactions to the visit. They expressed enthusiasm at the poignancy of hearing a first-person, in-person account and were grateful for the opportunity to nuance common media reports, many of which consistently depict immigrants as a homogeneous, problematic group. Engaging with one man’s personal narrative about what it truly was to leave his country, what it meant to wait for eleven years in a refugee camp in Uganda, what it was to be examined and checked by the Department of Homeland Security and finally granted asylum, and what it entailed to move and find his way in a new country and a new language allowed students to see the phenomenon of immigration in a more realistic, complete, personal, and thorough way than they would have by simply relying on the news. The students expressed gratitude at hearing from the CRIS Volunteer Coordinator the staggering statistics about just how few refugees are in fact granted asylum to the United States and how such numbers pale in comparison with many smaller, less wealthy countries. Rich discussion ensued, and the class collectively decided to use the Thanksgiving break to reflect on potential paths forward, given that the original plan to record, transcribe, and disseminate the oral history would no longer be possible.

During that first class session following the visit to CRIS and Thanksgiving break, Lewis Cusato asked students to reflect on what they had done so far throughout the semester’s work in the class. As they spoke, she noted both content and skill development work on the board. Their discussion hinged on the progress of the course to that point. Yes, there had been an emphasis on the oral history component of the class, but students had also watched and analyzed a documentary, La Saga des immigrés (The Saga of Immigrants, 2007); engaged with street art throughout the Mediterranean that comments on immigration; read a novel, Les Clandestins, about clandestine immigration from Morocco; watched and interpreted a film, Harragas, about clandestine immigration from Algeria to southern Europe; watched and discussed a special report on the SOS Méditerranée organization that saves migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea; read and discussed news articles from African, French, and American media about immigration throughout the Mediterranean; and studied the photojournalistic manifesto I Am With Them, which was exhibited in 2015 in Paris at the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute). The course participants realized that the course, at its essence, tells the stories of the journeys taken up by the protagonists, the subjects filmed, the characters written, and the people portrayed. Hence, the StoryMap mode would likely work best. When all the materials studied throughout the term were listed on the board so that all could see them together as parts of a whole, the structure for the website began to emerge, founded on valuable insights gleaned through comparative analysis of the syllabus’s content. The point here, too, was to move beyond such common Western aspirations as “the experiences of ‘resonance’ and ‘wonder’ that are produced by the presentation of objects as artifact and art” (Phillips 2007, 98) and to move towards a multi-layered, multimodal, multifaceted narrative that emphasizes originality, individuality, reflection, sophistication, and art and knowledge alike. Informed by Turnbull’s work theorizing maps as knowledge, maps as languages and networks, and maps as narratives in and of themselves, this new digital project emerged with a sense of depth and complexity that had the potential to allow the narratives of journey to emerge in a vibrant, full digital display.

The site would begin with an introduction, in both English and French, by Lewis Cusato. At the bottom of the page would appear an image, title, and short explanation to introduce each of the five students’ StoryMaps, all of which would be connected through an overarching WordPress site. As their final project for the course, then, students would work either individually or in pairs to choose images, quotations, and to create explanations and analysis of their source or sources. The students’ first step was to curate the text and images they would like to include on the map as well as decide on the map’s pinpoints. Once this was accomplished, each student or team would present their proposed focus to the group to solicit feedback from their classmates. Bit by bit, as students worked alone, presented their proposed contributions to the site, gave one another feedback, and revised and reframed as necessary, the site began to take shape. From November 26 through December 14, 2018, then, students built the site in consort with Lewis Cusato and Olivia Geho. In retrospect, it is clear that devoted the first three months of coursework (August 22 to November 16, 2018) to content coverage and assessment as well as benchmark assignments, followed by spending three weeks (November 26 to December 14, 2018) building the site worked well as a timeline. Finally, since the Fourteen Kilometers course is an upper-level French course, significant time, energy, and focus were necessary to correct and finesse the students’ translations. Fortunately, a senior student in French particularly interested in translation approached Lewis Cusato about pursuing an independent study under her guidance with an emphasis on translation. Thus, in the spring of 2020, through this independent study, this student and Lewis Cusato painstakingly examined, corrected, and finessed all the text and translations associated with the project.

To balance and integrate such elements of a course as content and skill mastery with a culminating, collaborative digital project requires purposeful and consistent pedagogical movement among the various modes of input and output, whether textual, visual, digital, cinematographic, political, journalistic, popular, or some combination of these. The syllabus and course timeline must therefore be constructed with an eye towards balancing the content work with the benchmark assignments, consulting experts, digital work, and time for collectively checking in with one another as a class and revising both the plan and the culminating project as necessary along the way. The ability and willingness to rethink and pivot if necessary proved foundational for the course, as did maintaining open dialogue with the class about best strategies for progressing, even unexpected obstacles rendered the original plan unfeasible. Furthermore, the notion that “a person is always operating within the structures of his/her own culturally prescribed formats for understanding the world” (Roberts 2008, 172) reminded all involved that the project must take into account potential lack of familiarity on the part of visitors. With these elements in mind and with transparent, clear communication among all members of the class, such a course can become, and indeed was, a particularly collaborative, engaging, relevant, and constructive experience of learning, thinking, reflecting, and creating.

Concluding Reflections

The courses described above allowed Demerdash-Fatemi and Lewis Cusato to teach students about the stakes of cultural production related to Africa. Students were asked to take their time, look at, contextualize, study, and reflect on the objects, images, and texts upon which each respective course was founded. Furthermore, these courses asked students to consider the stakes of representing oneself, as compared to being represented by others. Students were asked to compare and contrast Western representations of Africa with African representations of Africa in order to begin to be able to see and articulate the politics of representation always at work. Finally, these courses facilitated students’ creating something that could be shared with others from their readings, their viewings, their discussions, their analysis, their research, and their interpretations. This is the great value of coupling a course with the creation of a digital humanities project: it asks students to curate and create something visual, textual, technological, outward-looking, and helpful for others who might wish to explore the topic. It asks them to engage with layers of meaning as they interpret and to be meaning-makers themselves. The students literally become the teacher, and they emerge from the course experience having moved from input, from learning, to creation, to teaching. It allows them to show anyone interested how—though the news media often portrays immigrants as a problematic, troublesome group—artists, journalists, filmmakers, writers, and activists tell the story of immigration in very different ways and paint very different pictures. Finally, this project encouraged the students to reflect upon and comment on, to connect to and share new learning about traditions, novel aesthetics, and communities throughout the African continent. You can find such stories and such pictures, as well as associated commentary and analysis, on this site, where learning begets reflection and creation, and where engagement with resources begets the genesis of a new resource. The cycle, the learning, continue.


[1] Open to the wider campus community, Professor Singer’s visit was made possible by support from The Five Colleges of Ohio Mellon Digital Scholarship Award and from Ohio Wesleyan University’s Department of Modern Foreign Languages.


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We, the authors, wish to acknowledge the following people and organizations, without whom this work would not have been possible: Simon Gray (Program Officer, Great Lakes Colleges Association and Global Liberal Arts Alliance), Wendy Singer (Roy T. Wortman Distinguished Professor of History at Kenyon College), Tyler Reeve (Volunteer Coordinator at Community Refugee and Immigration Services in Columbus, Ohio), Ben Daigle (Associate Director of Consortial Library Systems for the Five Colleges), Deanne Peterson (Director of Libraries at Ohio Wesleyan University), David Soliday (Instructional Technologist at Ohio Wesleyan University), Eugene Rutigliano (Digital Initiatives Librarian and Curator at Ohio Wesleyan University), Olivia Geho (Ohio 5 Digital Collections Post-Bac), Brandon Stevens (student assistant for Dr. Lewis Cusato), and Sarah Noah (Instructional Technologist at Albion College). This Digital Humanities resource is housed at Ohio Wesleyan University and managed by Dr. Lewis Cusato, in cooperation with Ben Daigle, Deanne Peterson, Eugene Rutigliano, and David Soliday.

About the Authors

Mary Anne Lewis Cusato came to Ohio Wesleyan University, where she serves as an Associate Professor and the Director of the French Program, from the Yale University Department of French. She was promoted and granted tenure in 2019 and awarded the Sherwood Dodge Shankland Teaching Award in 2020. Dr. Lewis Cusato teaches French language at all levels, as well as courses on the French-speaking world outside of France, with an emphasis on francophone Africa. She publishes regularly, and her work has appeared in Contemporary French & Francophone Studies: SITES, Expressions maghrébines, The Journal of North African Studies, The Chronicle: Vitae, and The Limits of Cosmopolitanism: Globalization and Its Discontents in Contemporary Literature. Dr. Lewis Cusato also co-founded and co-directs OWU’s Palmer Global Scholars Program.

Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi is an Assistant Professor of Art History in the Department of Art and Art History at Albion College (Michigan, USA), where she teaches a range of courses in global visual culture and art and architectural history. She holds graduate and doctoral degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University, respectively, and publishes widely on modern and contemporary art and architecture of the Middle East and North Africa. Her broader research interests include postcolonial and diaspora studies. Her articles have appeared in edited volumes as well as in journals such as The Journal of North African Studies, The Journal of Arabian Studies, Perspective: actualité en histoire de l’art, among others. Additionally, she serves as an Assistant Editor for The International Journal of Islamic Architecture.

A slide demonstrates TimelineJS used in a history classroom, with the header 'The Accidental Iconic Trend'.

Collaborative Digital Projects in the Undergraduate Humanities Classroom: Case Studies with TimelineJS


This article presents case studies for the use of TimelineJS in two types of courses: sophomore-level humanities survey courses at the University of North Texas (UNT), and senior capstone history seminars at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), both large land-grant research institutions. The case studies offer a framework for assignment scaffolding (including iteration and reflection), FERPA rights management, and describe models of faculty-librarian collaboration in assignment design and implementation. These assignments provide students an introduction to basic metadata and HTML markup skills and empower them to explore the historical contexts of primary sources by visualizing the chronology of historical periods.

As open-source digital tools for content creation and curation flourish, those engaged in higher education have a unique opportunity to apply these tools in support of undergraduate pedagogy. Harnessed appropriately, these tools can facilitate collaborations between teaching faculty and librarians focused on developing alternative durable research products that scale into various classroom settings, including remote teaching contexts. These projects offer the opportunity to incorporate primary source literacy into the curriculum and focus on active learning and critical inquiry while creating a digital project that teaches skills in data literacy, visual literacy, and citation, and incorporates the use of images as primary sources. Additionally, students develop skills in curation as well as writing interpretive or didactic text for external audiences.This article presents case studies for the use of TimelineJS in two types of courses: sophomore-level humanities surveys at the University of North Texas (UNT), and senior capstone history seminars at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), both large land-grant research institutions.

The design of these assignments is aligned with the ethos of critical digital pedagogy. Informed by the work of educational theorists including bell hooks and Paulo Freire, critical pedagogy is, in Jesse Stommel’s terms “an approach to teaching and learning predicated on fostering agency and empowering learners.” Critical digital pedagogy brings this concept into digital space. Stommel and others have constructively wondered whether and how effectively this translation can occur. Given the dynamics of digital platforms and social media, one could ask “what is digital agency?” (Stommel 2014). In the context of the assignments described here, digital agency allows students to pivot quickly from being content consumers to knowledge producers, with digital tools providing the means of production, rather than being direct objects of learning in and of themselves.

In most undergraduate humanities classes, the primary learning goals for courses are not technical. As such, the decision to integrate digital projects must necessarily be balanced with the humanistic learning outcomes for a given course. Requirements for historical coverage, and exposure to diversity of genres and literary forms, as well as representation in terms of race and gender—all outcomes anticipated in survey courses—must come before adopting technical skills. Since survey courses frequently fulfill core curriculum or general education requirements, the make-up of these classes typically includes non-literature majors from across the curriculum. Capstone courses require students in a particular major to demonstrate mastery of the domain knowledge necessary for the Baccalaureate degree. In both cases, tech skills are not expected of students, nor should they be.

Applying the concepts of minimal computing can help instructors strike the balance between humanistic learning outcomes and technical requirements for digital assignments in their courses. Minimal computing describes a set of principles that foregrounds “fundamental questions about choice and necessity: ‘What do we need?’ ‘What don’t we need?’ ‘What do we want?’ ‘What don’t we want?’” (Sayers 2016). In the case of the assignments described here, we need a platform that allows students to collaboratively develop a project that complements the learning goals of the classes. We do not need a lot of technical overhead that would be intimidating for most learners. We want both a process and an end result that facilitates student learning by empowering students to produce and share content. And, again, we do not want to chew up a ton of class time for either the instructor or the students to learn the tech.

TimelineJS fulfills the requirements of minimal computing for the purposes of this assignment. Developed by Knight Lab at Northwestern University, TimelineJS is an open-source digital tool that creates flexible online interactive timelines. It uses an API linked to Google Sheets to provide an easy-to-use platform for an alternative digital research project. Clearly on the back-end TimelineJS is not minimal at all; the program is based on thousands of lines of code that drive a sophisticated interface between Google Sheets (itself a massive program) and the web browser that displays the information. But this complexity is hidden from the users (in this case students and teachers). This is the concept of minimal computing that Jentery Sayers describes as Minimal Visibility, in which developers “reduce the perceived intervention of technologies to facilitate interaction as well as the production/extraction of data from those interactions/behaviors.” The invisibility of the “intervention of technologies” between the Google Sheet and the web browser facilitates a very low technical bar to entry for end users, making Timeline JS ideal for incorporating a collaborative research project into humanities classes. Because Google Sheets allows multiple users to simultaneously populate and edit metadata in the worksheet, TimelineJS provides an opportunity for teachers to develop alternative collaborative assignments for asynchronous or synchronous remote learning settings.

In Dr. Keralis’s World Lit class, the interactive timeline allowed students to visualize a chronology of events without necessarily implying a teleological relationship between these events. The timeline helped students see how historical events correspond without necessarily influencing each other. For example, while the Tây Sơn rebellion took place in the 1770s, there is no reason to assume that the peasant uprising in Vietnam had any impact on the Declaration of Independence in the British colonies in North America. Alternatively, in the UCLA History Capstone course, the assignment facilitated a discussion about how canonical historical events both occur and are related to one another chronologically, as well as providing a grounding for discussing how the documentation and dissemination of information (as manifested in individual printed and written texts) relate to those political, social, and religious events. In the example below, Christopher Hanson’s initial interest in the Protestant Reformation and its impact on early modern Europe (see Figure 2), informed his research on a late seventeenth century text from an anonymous minister criticizing the Anglican church and its role in education (see Figure 3). Additionally, Christopher’s entry is co-located next to an entry from a fellow classmate using an image from an eighteenth century manuscript cookbook discussing access to exotic ingredients and the women’s role in household duties during a time of increasingly arduous baking methods. Thus the timeline underscores for students the correspondence between events and documentary sources, helping students use documentary evidence to understand historical events. Both classes use the tool to help meet the learning outcomes for each course, but with contrasting rhetorical approaches as to how the timeline represents historical information.

Additionally, TimelineJS serves as a flexible and easily implementable digital platform for institutions without the capacity or desire to invest in similar open source tools that require long-term hosting and stewardship commitments. Content management systems common in digital humanities such as Scalar, Omeka, and WordPress all require hosting on campus servers or on commercial servers, all of which will incur additional maintenance and other expenses. As many institutions have invested in institutional Google Apps licensing, many library staff, teaching faculty, and students benefit from existing familiarity with these tools (Google Sheets, Google Sites, etc.), decreasing the barriers for implementation.

Librarians have a role when advocating for both the principles of critical digital pedagogy and minimal computing as they consult with faculty to develop and implement digital assignments. Faculty are experts in their areas of study but might lack expertise in pedagogical areas of particular interest to librarians, such as critical information literacy, primary source literacy, and critical digital pedagogy. In their consultations and conversations with faculty, librarians should advocate for pedagogical approaches and learning activities that support student learning in these areas, advance the instructor’s goals for their courses, and incorporate our professional commitment to information literacy and research skills development. Doing this requires an extensive toolbox of assignments and learning activities as well as the specific skills to pursue assignment design during instructional consultations. This allows the librarian an opportunity to tailor assignments and activities to meet the needs of the instructor, the course, and the students, and then ensure those learning experiences are scaffolded within a course. This essentially requires and enables librarians to situate themselves as partners in instruction and course design. In these case studies, we have particularly advocated for the incorporation of TimelineJS as a digital assignment that bolsters these goals and commitments while supporting the needs and expectations of the instructor and students.

These case studies illustrate successful implementations of TimelineJS into the undergraduate humanities classroom through collaboration between librarians and teaching faculty. In these classes, TimelineJS supports course goals and supplies an engaging alternative to traditional research paper assignments that builds student knowledge, scaffolds learning, provides opportunities to learn digital humanities skills, and engages in alternative modes of scholarly research output.

TimelineJS in a World Literature Survey

The UNT assignment was originally designed to help students in a semester-long (fifteen-week) World Literature II course to help students understand the historical contexts for their assigned reading. Wide ranging survey courses such as World Lit can be challenging for both students and instructors because of the long durée nature of the syllabus; the World Lit I course at UNT goes from antiquity to the eighteenth century, and World Lit II covers the period from the eighteenth century to contemporary literature. Instructors teaching these courses—frequently graduate students or contingent faculty—are typically specialists in a specific period of English or American literature, and not generalists or non-Western literature specialists. World Lit surveys require instructors to familiarize themselves with huge swathes of historical time, as well as representative literatures from periods and cultures outside of their usual specialization. When Dr. Keralis taught the course in Spring of 2017 as an adjunct instructor for the Department of English, he was also serving as a Research Associate Professor and head for digital humanities and collaborative programs in the university library. As such, he wanted to incorporate a digital assignment into the class that would facilitate conversation about the historical contexts of the assigned texts.

The textbook for the course was The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume E, supplemented with plays and novels, including Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti. The Norton anthology includes extensive materials to provide historical context for the works, but the stand alone materials largely did not include scholarly or contextual introductions. Once Dr. Keralis had identified the assigned texts for the syllabus, he compiled a list of historical topics that complemented those texts. For example, for the week in which the class read major figures from Romanticism including William Blake, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and John Keats, the timeline entry topics included Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (1809 –11) and Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, to demonstrate the concept of the sublime across media. The process of developing the list of topics—three topics per student over the entire semester—was very labor intensive, taking about thirty hours to develop for the first iteration. Instructors adapting this assignment should recognize that it does require a significant amount of set up prior to the start of the semester.

Timeline entry with illustration of Wedgewood medallion of a kneeling slave.
Figure 1. Timeline entry for topic “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?” curated by World Literature student Sydney Kim. Used by Permission. CC BY-SA 4.0

The assignment was scaffolded to allow students the opportunity for revision and reflection, mirroring the concept of iteration from design thinking. There were four major components to the assignment: selection and citation of a media object related to their topics, composition of the interpretive text for the media object, an in-class presentation of their entries in which they connected the entries to the course readings, and revision and reflection. In the first class, each student chose three topics from the pre-prepared list. In subsequent classes, Dr. Keralis scaled back the number of required entries to two per student. As a writing assignment, the interactive timeline demands brevity. For each entry, students prepared a hundred-word descriptive entry for the timeline. This proved to be particularly challenging for students who were enthusiastic about their topics, and students who went over the word count were required to revise their work. Students were encouraged to include information that they had cut from their entries in their in-class presentation, rather than just reading the entries themselves. Because all twenty-eight students were working in the same Google Sheet, it allowed the instructor to troubleshoot errors in one sheet rather than many, sometimes on the fly in front of the class. The Google Sheets template provided by Knight Labs provides some error messages to assist with identifying and correcting errors. In addition, the exercise introduces students to skills in conscientious collaboration in a shared data set. Google Sheets’ version control functionality lowers the risk of having multiple hands in the same data set, since it is easy to restore an earlier version should data be inadvertently deleted.

One aspect of critical digital pedagogy in which Dr. Keralis has been particularly invested is the vindication of students’ labor and intellectual property rights. As he has written elsewhere, “student labor in the classroom is never not coerced” (Keralis 2018, 286), and students’ contribution to digital projects in classes often effaces their labor, hiding the actual cost of producing digital projects from funders and administrators. These concerns are also elaborated in the Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights, developed at UCLA. To mitigate the coercive nature of classroom labor, Keralis designed three ways for students to complete the requirements of the assignment: online with full author attribution, online anonymously, or offline in a Google Slide. These options were discussed with students at the beginning of the semester, and all students signed off on the option they chose. For those who selected attribution, an HTML markup model was provided for them to include in their entry, an example of which can be seen in the student byline in Figure 1:

<p><small>Entry curated by [Student Name]</small></p>

Students opting for the Google Slide rather than doing the timeline were given a title and two column layout template which they would use to present their research to the class, but their work does not appear in the online timeline (Figure 2).

Google Slide mockup with illustration of Wedgewood medallion of a kneeling slave.
Figure 2. Mockup of Google Slide submission option for Sydney Kim’s timeline entry from Figure 1. CC BY-SA 4.0

Because the assignment required both primary and secondary source research that many first and second year students were unlikely to have experience doing, library instruction was provided by English subject librarian Carol Hargis at the beginning of the semester to introduce students to the data literacy and research skills necessary to successfully complete the writing for the assignment. The subject librarian was available to consult during the research process. Rather than discouraging or forbidding the use of Wikipedia as a source, the instructor and the subject librarian discussed how to use Wikipedia as a starting point for research, how to use the citation lists from Wikipedia entries as leads for sources, and how to correctly cite a Wikipedia entry. Further, many students used open access and public domain images from Wikimedia for their entries, which facilitated discussion of creator rights and licensing, and provided practice in citing non-textual media.

The students presented their timeline entries to the class prior to the discussion of the literary works. This allowed for a flipped classroom in which students shared the knowledge they had acquired through their research to provide contexts for the literature under consideration. Students participated in question-and-answer sessions with their peers. After discussion and feedback from their peers, students were allowed to revise their entries, and they submitted a final version of their interpretive text with complete citations for primary and secondary sources and media. This allowed students to demonstrate applied information seeking skills and citation practices for a variety of sources. As part of their written assignment, each student prepared an exam question based on their entries, several of which were selected for the mid-term and final exams for the course. The assignment ended with a reflective writing, in which students wrote about what they learned from their research and their engagement with the technology.

TimelineJS in a History Capstone Seminar

In incorporating TimelineJS into his courses at the University of North Texas, Dr. Keralis established clear templates and best practices for scaffolding this assignment model into curriculum to support learning outcomes. Courtney Jacobs borrowed heavily on this work to implement a similar assignment at UCLA in partnership with Dr. Muriel McClendon (associate Professor of History) who was interested in developing alternative research projects using special collections materials. In its first iteration, Jacobs collaborated with Dr. McClendon, Marisa Méndez-Brady (then English and History Librarian for UCLA Library) and Philip Palmer (then Head of Research Services for the Andrew W. Clark Memorial Library) to integrate TimelineJS and primary source literacy into a quarter-long (ten-week) history capstone seminar.[1] In years prior, Brady had worked with Dr. McClendon to build a robust partnership that embedded critical research skills and primary source literacy into the course curriculum for multiple classes, establishing a beneficial partnership open to new projects. The fall 2018 class provided the basic framework for scaffolding the TimelineJS assignment into the ten-week quarter while also allowing for hands-on research visits to UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library, Library Special Collections, and the Andrew W. Clark Memorial Library.

The following year, Jacobs collaborated with Matt Johnson (English and History Librarian) and Dr. McClendon to integrate TimelineJS and primary source literacy into McClendon’s fall capstone seminar exploring the topic of work and leisure in early modern England. As in previous iterations of this course, Professor McClendon was interested in building an upper-level history capstone class around library research skills, insisting that students develop primary source literacy and incorporate special collections materials into their research and assignments. As a strong library advocate and past collaborator, Professor McClendon was open to alternative project ideas that met the requirements of the capstone program, and had successfully incorporated TimelineJS into her previous year’s capstone seminar. Over the course of the quarter, the students would collaboratively define “early modern” as it applied to their class, establish an initial timeline of canonical events, then identify a topic, event, or individual for more in-depth research using primary sources to develop their final timeline entry. The final class deliverable was a collaborative digital exhibit focused on work and leisure in early modern England using TimelineJS.

Like many capstone seminars, Dr. McClendon’s class met once per week for a three-hour session. Of a total of ten class sessions, four were dedicated library sessions, scheduled during weeks four, five, seven, and ten of the quarter. Additionally, Jacobs visited the class during week two to introduce the TimelineJS assignment and begin the initial project scaffolding. Dr. McClendon assigned students related readings in preparation for this visit as well as a one-page essay in which they were asked to define their understanding of the term “early modern” and delineate and justify the chronological boundaries of the period. Additionally, she asked each student to develop and contribute a list of the ten most canonical (or impactful) events, topics, or individuals during the early modern period in England.

During this initial conversation, Jacobs introduced the class briefly to the TimelineJS platform, demonstrated the previous timeline created by the 2018 class, and outlined expectations for the assignment as well as their upcoming library visits. Next, students used their essay assignments to determine, as a group, the beginning and end dates of the early modern period in England (as it would apply to their project) before sharing their canonical lists. From this list, the students culled a working outline for their upcoming assignments. They each identified one canonical event/topic/individual to research using secondary and tertiary sources. This event/topic/individual would serve as the basis for their initial timeline JS entry, as well as a one-page essay identifying and outlining their research goals for their final assignment. Additionally, students populated a worksheet with descriptive metadata for their canonical entry and identified an illustrative and linkable reference image online. The essay and the complete entry form were due during the library visit in week four, allowing for two weeks of discussion and feedback with their instructor as well as any changes in topic.

Timeline entry with painting of Martin Luther nailing edicts to a church door.
Figure 3. Timeline entry for topic “Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation” curated by History Capstone student Christopher Hanson.

Johnson led the first class session held in the library during week four. Prior to class, students completed an asynchronous workshop from UCLA Library’s Writing Instruction + Research Education (WI+RE) team (WI+RE Team n.d.) on Developing Research Questions and Creating Keywords to help students better prepare for searching and finding sources (Romero et al 2019). Despite being a capstone course, some of the students had never previously performed academic research nor used library resources. In order to prepare students for the research involved to create the digital exhibit, Johnson introduced students to library resources, such as book catalogs, interlibrary loan service, research assistance and support services, and relevant online databases. In class, students found one article relevant to their topic. Jacobs then provided an orientation on primary source literacy and information on accessing and requesting UCLA Library Special Collections materials. During the second half of the class, Jacobs and Johnson led a hands-on workshop where students collaborated to ingest the data they had developed for the initial TimelineJS entry into the class spreadsheet. This flipped classroom model, in which students work collaboratively to ingest the metadata from their timeline entry forms into the shared spreadsheet during class, encourages a peer-led learning experience rather than isolated and individual data-entry. Students are able to assist one another in problem-solving various tech issues that arise in working with a new tool and witness their content creation and problem-solving manifest in real-time on the resulting timeline.

Students visited Library Special Collections (LSC) and the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library during weeks five and seven to gain hands-on experience with primary sources, materiality, and book history. Jacobs worked with Devin Fitzgerald (Curator of Rare Books and Print Culture for Library Special Collections) and Anna Chen (Head Librarian at the Clark) to lead a series of hands-on lectures focused on book production and material culture in early modern England. The students learned about paleography and the basics of descriptive bibliography, and were provided methods to assess early modern books, manuscripts, maps, broadsides, and other textual artifacts as material objects. In preparation for a subsequent visit during week seven, students read works on curatorial practices, new museum theory, and best practices for writing exhibit text. They also visited a class-curated physical exhibit mounted in the Charles E. Young Research Library to familiarize themselves with these concepts in praxis.

Following this visit, the students were asked to identify a primary source artifact from either LSC or the Clark to serve as the topic of their second TimelineJS entry and final assignment. Students visited the Library, LSC, and the Clark throughout the remainder of the quarter to research their primary source item. Their final assignment consisted of a second TimelineJS entry on their primary item, an image of their item for digital display, object label text for their item, and a bibliography of further reading on their item or topic. Each of these entries required considerable research evidenced by both the bibliography and the presentation at the end of the course. The information literacy and primary source literacy skills developed early in the course for the initial canonical event entries were expanded on and implemented by students for the second entry and further analysis of the primary source artifact.

The class culminated in week ten with a student-led project launch where they presented their work to their peers, the public, and invited guests in the Charles E. Young Library’s conference room. During the first portion of the class, students led another TimelineJS workshop, collaborating to ingest the data for the final assignment into the class spreadsheet. Students then volunteered to upload the final datasets into a publicly hosted Google site to serve as the project’s final public-facing home. Through collaboration, they also added introductory text to contextualize the exhibit for viewers and additional sections for their bibliographies and further reading. After the exhibit was finalized, students used the latter portion of the class to present briefly on their selected primary source item, their research process, and their findings throughout the class.

Timeline entry with image of title page of A Second Letter to a Bishop from a Minister of His Diocese.
Figure 4. Timeline entry for topic “What Was Wrong with the Church” curated by History Capstone student Christopher Hanson.

Scaffolding Considerations

In both these implementations, students were afforded a unique opportunity to conduct their own individual research while participating in a collaborative durable digital project with their peers. In doing so, they were simultaneously participating in, and assessing their own knowledge creation throughout the course. The success of implementing these types of digital projects on the public web hinges upon pro-actively scaffolding various considerations inherent to this work, such as issues of accessibility, FERPA protections, and respect of student intellectual property and labor.


TimelineJS uses semantic HTML in a JavaScript shell, so the timelines resulting from these projects comply at least nominally with W3C guidelines for web accessibility. However, since the projects rely on Google Sheets, some students may face accessibility challenges in completing the projects. While Google Apps provide much of the same accessibility support that comparable software such as the Microsoft Office suite offers, students whose only internet access is via mobile phones or other devices may have difficulty working with the online app and thus have difficulty fulfilling the requirements of the assignment. Instructors would be well advised to privately poll students about their internet access and provide students with information about campus computer labs. Non-resident students may also be able to use the internet at public libraries. Offering the option of fulfilling the intellectual requirements offline in a PowerPoint or Word template may also be useful.


A student’s enrollment in a class is protected information under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99). Thus, requiring students to publish class work on the internet—whether in blogs, social media, or platforms such as TimelineJS—necessarily involves exposure that is limited by the provisions of FERPA. Instructors may address this by asking students to sign a “Consent of Disclosure of Education Record“ form addressing the rationale for the online assignment, and offering the students the option to complete the assignment anonymously, or offline. An example form from the UNT assignment is cited below, and some Registrar’s offices have boilerplate for this release for instructors (Keralis, “Consent”). Ask your Registrar if a form is available that specifically addresses digital assignments.

Student intellectual property

In addition to addressing protected information under FERPA, instructors doing digital assignments online should directly address students’ intellectual property rights for their work. Generally, students’ in-class work is covered under universities’ Creator-Owned Intellectual Property policies, and copyright for work created for classes is retained by the student. Students in creative majors and in fields such as business or advertising may be very conscious of the appearance of their online presence, and may not want apprentice work in classes unrelated to their majors to be discoverable online. Conversely, students majoring in the field in which these assignments are offered may find it desirable to have a link-able digital project to include in their curriculum vitae or e-Portfolio. As such, students should be given the option to demonstrate authorship for their work with a by-line, complete the work anonymously online, or complete the work offline. An example of the HTML tag for a byline is included in the example “World Literature Timeline: Assignment and FERPA Release” cited in the bibliography. In any case, digital assignments provide instructors with a unique opportunity to have a conversation with students about their rights—to intellectual property, to privacy, and to protections for their educational record.

There are different ways of communicating issues surrounding privacy and intellectual property rights with students. In working with Dr. McClendon, Jacobs and Johnson deferred to the instructor’s preferred method of requiring an in-person meeting with each student prior to approving their enrollment into the capstone seminar. During this conversation, Dr. McClendon clarified the nature of the class assignment and her expectations with regards to student participation and the final digital exhibit, thus creating a process by which students were asked to opt into this work. Additionally, both Jacobs and Johnson are working within the library to develop a list of resources and best practices for faculty wishing to engage in similar public-facing digital projects that will include institution-specific guidance on these issues.


These case studies describe models of faculty-librarian collaboration in assignment design and implementation, providing templates for scaffolded assignments that introduce students to basic data literacy skills and empower them to explore the historical contexts of primary sources by visualizing the chronology of historical periods. By crafting student-centered assignments, instructors and librarians facilitate “digital agency” for students, honor their labor, and allow them to participate in a digital project under conditions of informed consent rather than coercion. In doing so, faculty and librarians create an environment “in which students and teachers co-author together the parameters for their individual and collective learning” (Stommel 2014), and develop a durable digital project that students and faculty can share as an example of collaborative teaching and learning.


[1] UCLA’s Capstone Initiative began in 2006 with an eye toward our centennial in 2019 (“UCLA’s Capstone Initiative” n.d.). These capstones connect well to the research mission of the university, turning students into scholars and researchers in their fields of study, and serving as a culminating education experience for students in a disciplinary course of study. The official capstone requirements of the initiative includes five criteria: (1) creative, inquiry-based learning, (2) an individual or group project with clearly delineated student work, (3) a product that can be archived for at least three years must be created, (4) the capstone must be at least four units (on a quarter system) in an upper-division course, and (5) there must be opportunities to share the finished product publicly (“Criteria & Options” n.d.). To this end, our TimelineJS project meets all of these requirements for a final product in a capstone course; it is arguably more effective for public display and archiving than regular (traditional) paper options.


Di Pressi, Haley, Stephanie Gorman, Miriam Posner, Raphael Sasayama, and Tori Schmitt, with contributions from Roderic Crooks, Megan Driscoll, Amy Earhart, Spencer Keralis, Tiffany Naiman, and Todd Presner. 2015. “A Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights.” UCLA Digital Humanities. https://humtech.ucla.edu/news/a-student-collaborators-bill-of-rights/.

Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) https://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html.

Keralis, Spencer D. C. 2017. “World Literature Timeline: Assignment and FERPA Release.” Humanities Commons. https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:31089/.

Keralis, Spencer D. C. 2018. “Disrupting Labor in Digital Humanities; or, The Classroom Is Not Your Crowd.” In Disrupting the Digital Humanities, edited by Jesse Stommel and Dorothy Kim, 237–94. Santa Barbara: Punctum Books.

Knight Lab. n.d. TimelineJS. http://timeline.knightlab.com/.

McCLendon, Muriel. n.d. “Work and Play in Early Modern England.” Accessed July 14, 2020. https://sites.google.com/view/mcclendonfa19exhibit/home.

Romero, Renee, Shannon Roux, Taylor Harper, Kian Ravaei, and Doug Worsham. 2019. “Developing Research Questions and Creating Keywords [Workshop].” Writing Instruction & Research Education (WI+RE). Accessed July 17, 2020. https://uclalibrary.github.io/research-tips/workshops/developing-research-questions-and-creating-keywords/.

Sayers, Jentery. 2016. “Minimal Definitions (tl;dr version).” Minimal Computing: a working group of GO::DH. October 2, 2016. https://go-dh.github.io/mincomp/thoughts/2016/10/03/tldr/.

Stommel, Jesse. 2014. “Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Definition.” Hybrid Pedagogy. November 17, 2014. https://hybridpedagogy.org/critical-digital-pedagogy-definition/.

University of California, Los Angeles, n.d. “Criteria & Options.” UCLA’s Capstone Initiative. Accessed July 17, 2020. http://capstones.ucla.edu/the-initiative/criteria-options/.

University of California, Los Angeles. n.d. UCLA’s Capstone Initiative. Accessed July 17, 2020. http://capstones.ucla.edu/.

WI+RE Team. n.d. “WI+RE (Writing Instruction + Research Education) [Home]”. Writing Instruction & Research Education (WI+RE). Accessed July 17, 2020. https://uclalibrary.github.io/research-tips/.

About the Authors

Spencer D. C. Keralis, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor and Digital Humanities Librarian with the University Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They are Founder and Executive Director of Digital Frontiers, a non-profit organization that brings together the makers and users of digital resources for humanities research, teaching, and scholarly communication.

Courtney Jacobs is the inaugural Head of Public Services, Outreach, and Community Engagement for UCLA Library Special Collections. She is a co-founder of the 3DHotbed project, a multi-institution digital humanities project that explores the use of 3D printing technology to facilitate hands-on book history pedagogy.

Matthew Weirick Johnson is a Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian at UCLA Library’s Young Research Library and liaison to the English, History, and Comparative Literature departments. Johnson holds an MSLS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science. Prior to joining UCLA, Johnson worked in medical, academic, and public libraries and one non-profit in both on-site and remote roles.

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