Dr. Burd planned this lesson for a 100 level course titled History of American Capitalism. Students built digital maps using ArcGIS Online and later reflected on the benefits of the technology as an educational tool.
During the fall 2018 semester, I taught a coursed titled History of American Capitalism. In addition to a history of economic trends, the course examined the ways in which American capitalism has influenced a set of ideas and cultural attitudes about wealth, citizenship, identity, gender, and the use of natural resources. The course structure was mostly traditional, as a vast majority of instruction blended lecture and seminar-style discussion around several readings. Though I followed this structure for much of the semester, I intentionally designed one module to introduce students to GIS mapping believing that the spatial tool could be an asset in instruction. My decision to choose GIS mapping grew from a wealth of scholarship that demonstrates that spatial tools can improve understanding, critical thinking, and cultural empathy (Hawthorne 2011; Johanson et al. 2012; Kelley 2017; Sinha et al. 2017). By incorporating GIS technology into the course, I introduced students to new digital tools while enabling participants to engage with the course material in a unique way in order to improve historical understanding, critical thinking, and digital literacy.
During the 75-minute session, I designated 15 minutes to reviewing themes from the previous course sessions. Leading up to the course module, I used lecture and assigned readings based on the work of historians that examined ecological and economic realities of postindustrial America (Hurley 1995; Neumann 2019). In class, we reviewed how the closures of industrial sites left many Americans unemployed, often forcing laid-off employees to find employment elsewhere—often at a fraction of their previous salary. The lesson was designed to teach students that although certain businesses may go bankrupt, move, or dissolve, the firms’ legacies long outlive their corporate existence. We can track America’s postindustrial era both through the ecological footprint of industrialization as well as its long-lasting economic void in countless manufacturing communities across the landscape. Tasking students to construct a GIS map of that historical legacy offered students the opportunity to become active learners in the course content.
After reviewing the course materials, I asked students to open ArcGIS Online and provided a brief overview of the tool. Students came to learn that ArcGIS Online is a free, open-access mapping tool that allows users to upload, visualize, analyze, and share geographic-based information. I chose to use ArcGIS Online in place of similar programs such as QGIS and Carto because the platform is free and also provides users quick access to the tool upon registration. I demonstrated the basic functions of the online version of the program including how to add features to a map and change the base layer. I then directed students to the feature that allows users to add new datasets or additional layers to maps based on information published to the web. Informed by the preceding lectures and knowledgeable about the basic functions of ArcGIS Online, students had to search, find, and add a dataset published by the Environmental Protection Agency outlining the National Priorities List of Superfund sites. The dataset provides information on several hundred hazardous sites, each with brief descriptions including the environmental issues and historic company responsible for the waste. The data includes Superfund sites whose addition to the list can date back to the early 1980s (Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act in 1980) as well as data compiled within months of the class meeting. I asked students to pick a site, examine the scope of the waste, and do some basic searching on the web about the history of the company. Students often chose Superfund sites close their homes—often surprised to find that such toxic waste ever existed so close to their childhood home. At this point, we had a brief conversation where students shared a specific site and its industrial history. As expected, many of the Superfund sites derived from companies that either closed down, moved, or went bankrupt during the peak deindustrialization years. The visualization created a space for discussion among students as they quickly realized that the toxic legacy of many industrial companies outlived the firms’ years of operation.
The lesson not only tracked the historical roots of modern Superfund sites, it also pressed students to think about how modern populations are still affected by a company’s actions several decades ago. After a vibrant discussion about the Superfund dataset, I asked students to add another dataset that maps poverty ratios based on recent Census statistics (the published data was based on the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2013). As the students built confidence in their ability to navigate the ArcGIS Online tool, they began to realize the potential of map building as an instrument for sharing information and demonstrating visual evidence. Upon adding the new dataset, students explored the geographic relationship between modern poverty rates and the location of toxic waste sites. We began to discuss how adding datasets as separate layers influenced the first set of data and how the correlation between the two might contribute to a larger story of deindustrialization. Students began to imagine how visualizing both sets of data in geographic terms creates visual correlations as both an argument about the information as well as a vehicle to share this information with external audiences. After self-guided exploration, the students came back together for discussion. I asked several questions using the visualization as a source of conversation and critical engagement with the history of the postindustrial era. “Did you know that the American landscape contains this many toxic landscapes? Are there any sites close to your hometown? As you explore the map, do you get a sense of any correlation between poverty rates and current Superfund sites?” The corresponding discussion was strengthened as students navigated the spatial visualization they recently created.
Using an anonymous and voluntary questionnaire, I asked students to reflect on the use of ArcGIS Online and its effectiveness during the course session. In addition to gauging students’ reactions to the specific lesson, I also encouraged students to think more broadly about GIS technology and imagine its possibilities outside of this particular course. Below are sample items from the questionnaire:
What past experiences have you had with ArcGIS or other data-visualization technology?
When you partook in the historical data-visualization learning module, what did you think you were learning?
How could you imagine using ArcGIS and other data-visualization software in the future?
Of the twenty-one students in the course, six volunteered to participate in the survey, and only one student noted previous experience with the tool. The responses could be organized into two basic themes. First, students reflected on how ArcGIS aided in learning the specific content affiliated with the History of American Capitalism course. Second, students demonstrated an understanding how the tool could be applied to other research and writing.
Based on student responses, it became apparent that ArcGIS Online improved student learning and comprehension of the specific lesson. One student noted the connection between the GIS learning module and the larger course themes: “We used two layers on the US map—households below the poverty line and superfund sites—to determine whether there was a particular correlation between the two.” Another student noted that the module provided the “same historical research and content as one would [get] through reading a book or paper.” The students’ comments also revealed how students welcomed the course module. The use of ArcGIS Online broke with more traditional forms of engagement such as journal articles, books, and other text-based course material providing students with different learning styles new opportunities to participate in the class.
One respondent especially appreciated the spatial focus of the exercise noting that the lesson made them aware of “how History and Geography are linked,” and that the “data visualization allow[ed] for patterns to be observed.” The comments reveal ways in which ArcGIS Online might be harnessed as a powerful tool for student learning in the history and humanities classroom. For those lessons that involve geographic information, the careful use of mapping technology offers students with an opportunity to become active learners. The process of building the map allowed students to critically engage with course material by using visualizations and geographic information as a form of historical argumentation.
The exercise also exposed students to a technology not commonly used in a history classroom. Participants expressed an enthusiasm to use ArcGIS in future assignments or courses, including one student who wrote, “With regards to writing historical research papers that [focus] a lot on specific data, ArcGIS would be an amazing source to back up particular claims within a study.” Another student echoed that message noting, “I would imagine using ArcGIS or another data visualization software as a tool for presenting research to an audience, i.e. giving them something more interesting to look at rather [than] just writing on a page and describing findings using only words.” Though their exposure to ArcGIS Online was brief, students who participated in the ArcGIS Online module and responded to the questionnaire noted an interest in the technology and noted its value in teaching the course content.
After reviewing the participants’ comments, I was struck with the eagerness to use ArcGIS Online more often in the classroom. It became clear throughout the classroom activity, as well as subsequent reviews, that students found the mapping software a helpful tool to learning. As the instructor, I was both affirmed by the comments and curious about the ways that I might be able use student feedback for future course design. For example, I could plan courses with more mapmaking and data visualization as a form of active learning. In this scenario, students would design and build maps with course material with geographic information. By designing individual course modules in this way, I could help students become more familiar with ArcGIS Online and feel emboldened to use the technology in other classes and outside coursework. Additionally, I could imagine providing students with more sustained interaction by using ArcGIS StoryMaps—a related program that integrates images, video, long-form writing, and traditional mapmaking—to design and publish longer histories as a final assignment. Both scenarios allow students to further engage with the mapping software and increase active learning time in the course.
Overall, the responses strengthen the claims of digital humanists who advocate for the use of technology in the classroom (Bonds 2014; Clement 2012; Iantorno 2014; Jakacki 2016; Locke 2017). As many digital humanists argue, the use of new technologies offers an opportunity to diversify curriculum, expand the ways in which students engage with course content, and introduce thoughtful engagement with new digital tools of the twenty-first century. It is my hope that this course module and related student feedback provide a roadmap for educators who wish to incorporate more hands-on and active-learning activities into humanities education. Given the students’ eagerness to engage more with ArcGIS Online, as well as their abilities to envision future applications for the tool, I believe the use of digital mapping tools will enhance student engagement and learning in the humanities classroom.
Bonds, E. Leigh. 2014. “Listening in on the Conversations: An Overview of Digital Humanities Pedagogy.” The CEA Critic 76, no. 2 (July): 147–157.
Clement, Tanya. 2012. “Multiliteracies in the Digital Humanities Curriculum: Skills, Principles, and Habits of Mind.” In Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles, and Politics, edited by Brett. D. Hirsch, 365–388. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers.
Hawthorne, Timothy L. 2011. “Communities, Cartography and GIS: Enhancing Undergraduate Geographic Education with Service Learning.” International Journal of Applied Geospatial Data 2, no. 2: 1–16.
Hurley, Andrew. 1995. Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945–1980. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press.
Iantorno, Luke A. 2014. “Introducing Digital Humanities Pedagogy.” The CEA Critic 76, no 2 (July): 140–146.
Jakacki, Diane. 2016. “Doing DH in the Classroom: Transforming the Humanities Curriculum through Digital Engagement.” In Doing Digital Humanities: Practice, Training, Research, edited by Constance Crompton, Richard J. Lane, and Ray Siemens, 358–372. New York: Routledge.
Johanson, Chris, Elaine Sullivan, Janice Reiff, Diane Favro, Todd Presner, and Willeke Wendrich. 2012. “Teaching Digital Humanities through Digital Cultural Mapping.” In Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles, and Politics, edited by Brett D. Hirsch, 121–150. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers.
Neumann, Tracy. 2019. Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Sinha, Gaurev, Thomas A. Smucker, Eric J. Lovell, Kgosietsile Velempini, Samuel A. Miller, Daniel Weiner, and Elizabeth Edna Wangui. 2017. “The Pedagogical Benefits of Participatory GIS for Geographic Education.” Journal of Geography 116, no. 4 (August): 165–179.
About the Author
Camden Burd holds a PhD in History from the University of Rochester. From 2016–2018 he was an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Digital Humanities. In 2018, the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning at the University of Rochester awarded him a Teaching-as-Research Fellowship to study student reactions to digital technologies in the humanities classroom. He also was named a Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory Scholars Fellow from 2017–2019. Beginning in fall 2020 Burd will begin as an Assistant Professor of History at Eastern Illinois University.
This assignment was created for a 200-level course cross-listed between Classics and Women & Gender Studies, entitled “Women in Mediterranean Antiquity.” The website is a work-in-progress, and any questions or collaboration inquiries can be sent to email@example.com.
This article introduces a project that I developed for an undergraduate course on the subject of Women in Mediterranean Antiquity at Mount Allison University in the winter 2017 semester. The aim of this project was to provide undergraduate students with an introduction to digital platforms in a historically archaic field and provide said students with skills that would impart digital literacy and valuable knowledge to benefit them regardless of their future career endeavors (see Macauley-Lewis 2015). The concept of the 21st-century university student as a “digital native” is problematic, and I echo Brandon Locke’s argument that although “many in higher education generalize their undergraduate students as being well acquainted with technology and approach their studies through a digital lens, students often struggle when it comes to critical content creation and mediation” (Locke 2017). I present here the methodology used in creating the assignment, its successes and failures, and future directions. The syllabus used for the course and instructions for implementation and evaluation are included as downloadable supplementary materials.
Description of the Assignment & Methodology
In lieu of a traditional research essay, students were asked to participate in what I termed a digital research assignment that required each student to submit 8–10 pages of research on a topic of their choosing (related to Women in Mediterranean Antiquity) with a comprehensive bibliography, and then to populate their own webpage within a larger website that I built using WordPress. This project was particularly well suited to Women in Antiquity because this was a course that seemed to have obvious topic selections for the student research that would then be placed into general headings on the website.
Once the traditional research was submitted, graded, and returned, students embarked upon the “digital” portion of this assignment. As mentioned above, I designed and set up a website through the WordPress.com platform (using the Gateway Theme). I chose WordPress for three primary reasons: 1) it is free to operate; 2) I had prior experience with the platform; and (most importantly) 3) WordPress is a useful platform with a lot of user support: as of May 2018, WordPress “runs 28.9% of the entire internet” (Karol, 2018; 31.6% on W3 Techs, n.d.). WordPress is user-friendly but also allows students to explore html options and coding language. Any party interested in adopting a version of this project for their own classroom would not be limited to WordPress but could instead explore the many options available online and select an alternative platform for a collaborative website (Kick, 2013)—although, as I repeated to my students throughout the semester, chances are that if they are facing a technical problem, someone else has already found the answer to it, and the resources available to WordPress users are extensive.
On the WordPress.com platform, the students each created a “blog post” that I later nested under parent headings so that it appeared instead as a static “page” to the website visitor. Within their posts, students had full creative license for design & media (including coding and CSS). I provided step-by-step instructions as to how to initially set up their pages, which are included here as Appendix B and are also freely available on the website under the Resources tab for any instructor interested in embarking upon a similar project. The students were strongly encouraged to set up their websites for a general audience and to make their pages as visually appealing as possible, but they were required to use only open-access images and media.
Final Product & Results
There were 47 original student contributions to the website, which I arranged into thematic groupings that appeared as drop-down menus on the main page (Greek Women, the Female Body, Roman Myth, etc.). I encouraged the use of real names and emphasized the merit of their contribution to this publicly available online resource; however, participants could remain anonymous in their authorship of the page through a chosen pseudonym, and any students who did not want their page to remain public could let me know and I’d remove it immediately following the end of the semester. My initial goal for this assignment was to include it every time I taught “Women in Antiquity” or a similar course, thus creating an ever-expanding resource on the subject of women in the ancient world. Anticipating a range in the quality of submissions, I informed students at the beginning of the course that their contributions would not necessarily be permanent, but that pages might be taken down and/or altered in future versions of the class. Due to the outstanding nature of several of the contributions, I decided that with the permission of the student authors, the best contributions would remain on the site long-term, with the ultimate goal that with each iteration of the course, further outstanding contributions would be added to the permanent version of the site, thus creating a growing open-access resource for the study of women in the ancient world.
Student Reactions & Feedback
The student feedback for this project was primarily—but not universally—positive. Anonymous feedback from course evaluations included comments such as, “The digital research project is fun and helped me hone applicable skills in website construction”; “Loved the digital component of the course and that we were able to choose from several topics, or our own”; “The website idea was great as it was a less stressful assignment”; and “Website making was so cool!” I asked a few students to provide more extensive feedback for this publication:
The Women in Antiquity website project is enjoyable as it allows students to write about a topic that they are interested in and be free from the usual boundaries of the traditional essay. I enjoyed being able to write in a less formal way and I felt like being able to share my research in this way helped me to gain a deeper understanding of my topics… this project not only benefits students within the class but also allows for others to access this wealth of information. —Caitlin McGowan
I really enjoyed the process of editing my research paper to see it evolve from one with a distinctive academic tone to a piece that was user friendly, engaging, and tailored to a blog platform, yet still maintained the credibility of academic writing. —Caroline Chamandy
I found the Women in Antiquity Digital Project component of Dr. Gardner’s course one of the most engaging projects of my undergraduate career. It taught me how to reconceptualize the way in which I thought about and approached my research. Being able to share my work with family, friends, and peers as a highly accessible and informative tool was very rewarding. —Janan Assaly
Negative feedback from students is also worth sharing since these provide important perspectives to consider for future improvement: one student enrolled in my course told me at the end of the semester that her friend had dropped this course as soon as he’d seen the digital project on the syllabus. In her words, he “just wanted to write a traditional essay and be done with it.” This student was an exception, but this reaction and the pushback against digital media does, in some cases, exist. Another student, who remained in the class and produced an excellent webpage, was the only individual (out of 47 students in my initial iteration of this course) who wanted their page taken down. This student generously provided feedback about their decision to remove their content, and I received their permission to share it here:
Personally, I am a private person, who tries to have as minimum a presence online as possible, therefore, I prefer not to have my name associated with something published on the internet. Overall, I felt that I was not in the right position to be educating the masses on my chosen topic because I was unsure if I truly believed what I had written. —Anonymous
This student’s insightful concerns are valid, because they bring up the question of whether there is any benefit to providing even more online content when students already have difficulties in evaluating the legitimacy of existing online sources (Basulto, 2017; Fleming 2018). Ultimately, I believe that researched, appealing academic content—even at the undergraduate level—is beneficial and valuable, especially in light of the inevitability that a large percentage of the population is accessing information online. By encouraging my students to provide reliable content with active hyperlinks to additional reliable, academic content (such as JSTOR, Diotima, and Lacus Curtius), we can strengthen the network of reputable online information.
Outreach & Impact
A recurring theme in this student feedback—both positive and negative—is the exposure of the site, which has far surpassed initial expectations. Students were encouraged to share their pages on social media platforms and to include many tags for their pages in order to generate search engine hits. In 2017 the site had 12,597 views; by 2018 the site had 63,290 views and as of November 2019 there have been 75,347 visitors. There is currently an average of 238 visitors per day. One of our most successful student contributions is the page Spinning and Weaving in Ancient Greece by Marion Blight, which was featured in the Seattle Weaver’s Guild May 2018 monthly bulletin and currently has 11,204 views. Links to our site are included in TedEd lessons (The myth of Arachne which links to Blight’s page and the legend of Medusa which links to Cheryl MacKinnon’s Medusa and her Sisters: The Gorgons); a post on Grunge (that links to Pregnancy and Childbirth by Keelin Howe); and an article on the Conversation (Barker, 2018; on Hetairai: The Ancient Athenian Courtesan by Samuelle Saindon). Adrienne Mayor, author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (2014), found the site and offered permission to use some of her images for the page The Amazons by Dexter Fennell. Our top referrers for website traffic are search engines (105,214 views) while Facebook is a distant second (1,756 views); the site is also included among the online resources of courses at universities including Colorado State University, Kansas University, The Open University, Sewanee: The University of the South, Fashion Institute of Technology in New York (SUNY), Vassar College, Charleston College, and Memorial University. I was not aware that these institutions were using the site for their courses until I consulted the online statistics, which means that we are gradually achieving our desire to be an open-access resource for general public and scholarly audiences alike.
Future Directions & Collaborations
I decided to transform this assignment into an international, collaborative project, inviting instructors from any institution to incorporate this assignment into their undergraduate or graduate courses. The motivation to do so was twofold: first, this would provide a way for the website to expand continuously with new contributions from institutions all over North America, thereby bolstering the content and availability of resources for the study of Women in Antiquity; and second, this project offers an opportunity for instructors and for students, a viable means to begin to engage with Digital Humanities and alternative scholarship. For those without the vast quantities of time required to master even basic DH skills such as website-building, digitization, and database creation, there is a continued need for introductory-style pedagogical projects that can provide a viable solution for all scholars who want or need to embrace digital applications in the university classroom (Boss and Kraus 2007; The Pedagogy Project).
A different instructor at a different institution can teach this course and assign this project each semester, in order to continually add to and improve upon the existing content and to strengthen the collaborative networks that are fundamental to the Digital Humanities (Griffin & Hayler 2018). It is my personal hope that this website continues to grow and improve with the contributions of the next generation of scholars, encouraging the study of Women in Antiquity and the production of open-access information for a global audience, ultimately creating a comprehensive and collaborative resource for the foreseeable future.
Chelsea A.M. Gardner is an Assistant Professor of Ancient History in the Department of History & Classics at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. She is a Classical Archaeologist who specializes in the history and material culture of the ancient Mediterranean, and her research focuses on archaeological exploration in southern Greece. She currently works in the Mani peninsula, and is the co-director of The CARTography Project, a DH mapping project that analyzes and recreates the routes of early modern travellers. Her other interests include ancient and modern cultural identity, ancient religious space, the history of travel, archaeological survey, women in the ancient world, animals and nature in antiquity, landscape studies, and—of course—Digital Humanities.
A library workshop introduces participants to using Python-based web scraping for data collection and raises important questions for how we think about teaching computational thinking and prepare users to consider the ethical implications of the tool.
Introduction: The Challenges of Library Instruction
Library-based instruction can be a tricky thing. We usually only have one chance to give a workshop or to visit a class, so there is a pressure to get it right the first time. This is hard enough when teaching first-year students the basics of information literacy, and it presents an additional set of challenges for technology-based instruction. New technical skills are rarely acquired in 60- or 90-minute sessions. They more often require longer periods of study and build on a foundation of other technical skills that one cannot assume all participants will have (Shorish 2015; Locke 2017).
NYU Libraries offers a range of technical workshops designed to provide this technical foundation, and sessions cover topics such as quantitative and qualitative software, GIS and data visualization, research data management, and digital humanities approaches. While these workshops can be taken as one-off sessions, they are designed as part of an interwoven curriculum that introduces technical skills and concepts in an incremental way. The Collection Data with Web Scraping workshop discussed here is offered as a digital humanities course and, while there are no prerequisites and it is open to all, participants are encouraged to take the Introduction to Python and Text as Data in the Humanities workshops in advance (NYU Libraries 2019).
The workshop introduces web scraping techniques and methods using Python’s Beautiful Soup library, with a focus on developing participants’ computational thinking skills. I always emphasize that no one becomes an expert on web scraping in this 90-minute workshop, especially given that some have no previous programming experience. However, participants still learn valuable skills and concepts and through this process develop a more foundational understanding of computational logic and its affordances when applied to digital research. I call this computational thinking and it is the primary learning outcome of the workshop.
Agenda and Learning Outcomes
The workshop is divided into four sections, with the agenda as follows:
Why use web scraping?
What are the legal and ethical implications?
Technical introduction and setup
Hand-on web scraping exercises
The sections are designed to fulfill the workshop’s learning outcomes:
Strengthen computational thinking skills
Learn the concepts and basic approaches to web scraping
Understand how web scraping relates to academic research
Understand the broader legal and ethical context of web scraping
A Computational Thinking Centered Pedagogy
The primary learning objective of this workshop is to help participants strengthen their computational thinking skills. A basic working definition of computational thinking is understanding the logic of computers. It seems obvious, yet worth stating, that computers prioritize different patterns of logic than humans. There are multiple layers of complexity to understanding computational logic and then applying it in real-world research and teaching environment, and my approach is to reveal and make explicit some of these layers. For example, one of the core activities of the workshop is an in-depth look at how websites are packaged and how data, broadly defined, is structured within them using HTML and CSS. This close look at one of the building blocks of the web then allows us to identify patterns in this structured data in order to extract the useful pieces of information and build the collection. More importantly, these lessons are applicable to contexts beyond web scraping and are transferrable to our other workshops or to any activity involving data work. This gives the workshop an added value and empowers participants more confident and comfortable using technology in their research (Taylor et al. 2018).
In addition to identifying patterns in structured data, there are countless other opportunities to provide insights that give participants a deeper understanding of how technology works. For instance, when introducing the Beautiful Soup library, I describe how programming libraries are just blocks of code that allow us to write our program with 10 lines of code instead of 100. There are several web scraping programs written in other languages, but I chose Python because it has a robust developer community. That is, there are people contributing to a whole network of libraries, like Beautiful Soup, that serve to expand the functionality so that once you have extracted data from a website and are ready to analyze it, you can simply import another library, such as spaCy or the Natural Language Toolkit (NLTK) to do your next phase of work (Explosion AI 2019; NLTK Project 2019). When built into the curriculum in a thoughtful way, these parenthetical notes make it easier to learn the material at hand and also to establish a wider technical context for the work.
Why Use Web Scraping?
In addition to inserting computational thinking vignettes throughout the workshop, I find it helpful to begin with a discussion of why one might use web scraping. Since the workshop’s primary audience is humanists, this discussion of when web scraping is (and is not) appropriate and how it can be used in research is particularly useful. For example, as more and more primary and secondary source materials are appearing on/as websites, it is increasingly common for scholars to need to gather this material. Within libraries, archives and museums, initiatives such as Collections as Data underscore a shifting approach whereby library collections are conceptualized and provided as data (Always Already Computational 2019). Projects such as OPenn demonstrate how a library’s digitized special collections can be made accessible as machine readable and ready for large scale analysis (University of Pennsylvania Libraries 2019). An additional example, the New York Society Library’s City Readers project, presents the Library’s early circulation records as data, allowing users to, for example, compare whether John Jay or John Jacob Astor read more books in a given year (The New York Society Library 2019). Such examples help participants envision how they could use web scraping in their work.
Another core concept of the workshop is that web scraping will become one of many skills in participant’s “digital toolbox,” and can connect with other technical skills used in the research lifecycle. For example, data gathered from web scraping is often messy and often needs additional scrubbing in a program like OpenRefine (MetaWeb Technologies, Inc. 2019). Or, web scraping might be just one step in text analysis project, and you might want to use a named entity recognition (NER) package to next extract names of people or places from the scraped dataset.
What are the Legal and Ethical Implications?
In terms of research best practices, it also takes some data literacy basics to evaluate your target source. There is a lot of garbage online, and how so do you know the data is what it claims to be? Is it representative and what biases does it contain? And research projects using digital sources or methods are no different from more traditional approaches in that getting the data or producing a visualization of it is often not the end of a project. In most cases, the data must then be analyzed in a theoretical framework of the scholar’s discipline in order to form a scholarly argument. The earlier cited example of the New York Society Library illustrates this well – the circulation record visualization shown above is an interesting anecdote but the image is a relatively simple data visualization and does not actually tell us anything meaningful about, say, the American Revolution or eighteenth-century reading patterns.
Using Beautiful Soup
While asking participants to bring their own laptop and set them up with their own Python environment provides rich opportunities for moments of computational thinking, it is time intensive, demanding on the instructor, and requires a longer workshop. A simpler approach is to use an already exiting environment such as JupyterHub, PythonAnywhere, or a computer lab with Jupyter Notebook installed (Project Jupyter team 2019; PythonAnywhere LLP 2019; Project Jupyter 2019).
Beautiful Soup is a Python library for extracting textual data from web pages (Richardson 2019). This data could be dates, addresses, news stories, or other such information. Beautiful Soup allows you target specific data within a page, extract the data, and remove the HTML markup surrounding it. This is where computational thinking skills are needed. Webpages are intended to be machine readable via HTML. The goal is to write a program, in machine readable form, that extracts this data in a more human readable form. This requires that we “see” as our computers “see” in order to understand that if, for example, we want the text of an article, that we need to write a program that extracts the data between the paragraph tags.
Once we understand the underlying rules for how pages are displayed – i.e. using HTML and CSS – we can start to see the patterns in how content creators decide to present different types of information on pages. And that is the computational thinking logic behind web scraping: identifying these patterns so that you can efficiently extract the data you need.
Computational Thinking in Action
The examples used in the workshop are available online (Coble 2019), and working through the first example – collecting the titles from the Craigslist page for writing, editing, and translation – will illustrate some of these concepts. While the research value of this data is rather limited, it is a straightforward example to introduce basic techniques that are built upon in subsequent examples.
The first step is to use the browser’s View Source feature to look at the page’s HTML code. Not only do we get a quick glimpse into how the data is structured, we can also begin to identify the parts of the code that uniquely mark the title of these posts.
For example, here is the source code for the first post on our page:
<a href="https://newyork.craigslist.org/mnh/wet/d/brightwaters-college-tasks-essay-exams/6998844623.html" data-id="6998844623" class="result-title hdrlnk">🎼 🎼 College Tasks | Essay | Exams | Course Help 🎼 🎼</a>
Let’s start by breaking this into parts:
The above part is the link to the full post. We don’t want this because it’s not the title.
This looks better, but data-id appears to be a unique identifier for a specific post. If we write a program to search for this, it will only return one title. This won’t work because we want all titles of posts on our page.
This looks much better. But there are actually two class tags here, class=”result-title” and class=”hdrlnk” (condensed and separated by a space), so which one is best? We can do a quick check by searching on the View Source page – using Cmd+F or Ctrl+F – for “result-title.” There are 120 posts displaying on my page, and the search for “result-title” returns 120 results. Bingo!
We can repeat this process for “hdrlnk,” which, in this case, also returns 120 results. So we can comfortably use either “result-title” or “hdrlnk” for our program. To be safe, I would also do a quick manual check of other links on the page – both links for posts and for other links (My Account, Save Search, etc) to confirm that “result-title” and “hdrlnk” is the unique string that will return the post’s title and only the post’s title.
And this is the computational thinking the workshop helps to build. By understanding how web pages use HTML and CSS to structure their contents, we are able to isolate patterns unique to our target data and to use these patterns to extract the target data. Once we have these pieces in place, we can write a program that looks like this:
# import the urllib library to get the HTML
# import the Beautiful Soup library to parse the HTML
from bs4 import BeautifulSoup
# define a variable with our web page
start_url = 'https://newyork.craigslist.org/search/bar'
# ask urllib to get the HTML from our web page
html = urllib.request.urlopen(start_url).read()
# ask Beautiful Soup to parse the web page as HTML
soup = BeautifulSoup(html, 'html.parser')
# ask Beautiful Soup to extract the titles
titles = soup.select('.hdrlnk')
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Bringing computational thinking concepts to the forefront of the workshops has been successful and resulted in more engaging sessions. Participant feedback has indicated that having a greater contextual understanding of web scraping and learning about its underlying principles has helped them better understand its potential applications and to feel more confident in doing their work. Given the nature of library-offered technical workshops, focusing on a computational thinking–centered pedagogy has been successful in helping participants to meet their specific need to pick up a new skill as well as to meet a less often stated need to understand how and why a particular tool or approach is situated within larger research and technology ecosystems.
This article advances a pedagogical ethos, which we call SEAM (Student Experiential Autobiography Mapping), that deliberately interweaves the interests of students, staff and faculty. As we argue, it additionally facilitates the design of project-based assignments that foreground the instructive value of failure. Within this context, we discuss instances where specific technological failures experienced in our fourth-year practicum have prompted us to change the way we teach our first-year courses and administer our workstations and servers. Doing so creates a feedback loop that allows us to incrementally refine our curriculum over time. After outlining the theoretical context for this approach and detailing how it allows students to learn from productive failure, we discuss a case study in implementing our SEAM approach in the classroom. As part of this discussion, we share practical examples for designing digital humanities assignments that incorporate failure as a learning outcome. We then go on to advance a longitudinal methodology for visualizing student learning over the course of an entire program, incorporating student technobiographies and user story mapping. Combined, these pedagogical strategies facilitate reflective student, staff, and faculty practices that allow a digital humanities curriculum, and chosen teaching tools, to grow and adapt over time.
Our Interactive Arts & Science students were less than two weeks away from competing in the LevelUp Student Showcase with their videogame created in our fourth-year capstone course. Yet minutes before a public play testing session they had encountered a show stopping bug. Random text and textures in their game were mysteriously replaced with glyphs: strings of cipher strewn throughout their game world, strange portents whose only underling message appeared to be the obvious—the game was unplayable, unreadable, and no one had the slightest idea as to the cause. Such failures are common in complex projects—from renovating classrooms to building a digital game. In our respective staff and faculty roles at Brock’s Centre for Digital Humanities, we are concerned at once with building and administering digital humanities infrastructure (i.e. workstations, servers, collaborative spaces) and reflecting upon how failures within those systems impact student learning. As we collaborate across our staff and faculty roles, we increasingly find the most potentially instructive failures occur when students brush up against the limitations of a particular tool. As a result, we are developing a broadly applicable digital pedagogy, combining technobiographies (Henwood 2001; Ching and Vigdor 2005; Brushwood-Rose 2006) and user story mapping (Patton 2014), that teaches students, staff, and faculty to learn from the productive failures that occur when we encounter the unforeseen limitations of the tools we use. Such learning involves deploying tools to solve a problem but also refining learning outcomes to enhance student-led problem solving using those tools. Operating in a multi-perspectival mode that resists partitioning the interests of students, faculty, and staff, we call this approach Student Experiential Autobiography Mapping, or SEAM.
SEAM sees the experiences of teachers, learners, and support staff as multi-threaded facets of shared knowledge environments and thus endeavors to further interweave them. This approach to digital pedagogy is a result of our ongoing collaborative work on the architecture of our first-year survey courses in the Interactive Arts & Science and GAME programs. These courses prepare our students for our third and fourth-year curriculum in which they are expected to collaboratively produce digital media objects, including innovative websites, digital art, and videogames. A notable challenge is using past failures, which tend to be tool-specific, to inform program outcomes, which are high-level objectives (such as learning from one’s successes and failures). Each year, a curriculum committee meets to assess the program outcomes provided as guidance to instructors to refine existing or develop new assignments. The SEAM approach to digital pedagogy outlined below describes how our method for changing infrastructure and assignments in response to our collective past failures continues to evolve. It is intended to keep a record of diverse student experiences while also helping us learn from the inevitable future failures that inform our curriculum development discussions.
We are piloting our SEAM approach to digital pedagogy at three points in a cyclical process during a four-year degree program. First, we equip students with problem-solving and troubleshooting abilities early in their program. Second, examples of critical tool failure in the fourth-year capstone courses circulate between students and instructor in our programs as cautionary tales. Changes in infrastructure, such as the addition of version control servers on campus, are material evidence of responding to failures from yesteryear; however, the narrative of student failure motivates their use. At the third point, once these changes have been made, they are incorporated back into the design of our first-year assignments. In the case of our fourth-year capstone students using version control, it is tempting to view the deployment of a server with version control, a tool, as the solution to a problem. However, paradoxically, the version control server is only a useful tool if it has been used proactively, and consistently, by students. As such, instructing students to use version control in their first assignments (despite its complexity) therefore sets the expectation that they will encounter failure later in the program.
Foregrounding technological failure at the start of our curriculum, we believe, enlivens students’ sensibilities to the creative potential of the tools we teach. Indeed, as Julia Flanders affirms: “The very seamlessness of our interface with technology is precisely what insulates us and deadens our awareness of these tools’ significance” (2019, 292). Having introduced and framed failure as constructive, we intend to map student experiences of failure throughout the program (with particular emphasis on the fourth-year capstone course), and use results gathered from such mapping to continually reflect upon and refine our first-year curriculum over time. Most importantly, we are conceiving of a SEAM approach as a way continually shape and refine the infrastructure in our digital humanities centre in response to changing student needs over time. Our final goal is a structured collection of autobiographical interviews with graduating students; this collection will serve as a knowledge database that we use to improve the learning objectives tied to future course development work. Using a design exercise called user story mapping, in which hypothetical users derive benefits from their actions, we will derive hypothetical case studies from the knowledge base and use them to inform faculty and staff decision-making related to our curriculum. We contribute our method as a working blueprint for collaboration between staff and faculty in the field of digital pedagogy.
Our method aligns itself with the seamful design of networked knowledge outlined by Aaron Mauro, Daniel Powell, and co-authors, who “wish to expose the seams that knit technological infrastructure and academic assessment for both faculty and students working on DH projects” (2017). While our approach concerns itself specifically with the classroom, rather than the context of student research on digital humanities projects discussed by Mauro et al., we equally believe that exposing students to seams—be they the ruptures and fissures that exist when tools break down or the threads that bind their own learning together with that of faculty and staff—empowers them to take an active role in the education as critical users and creators of technology. As Mauro et al. put it, “When we elide the seams between teaching and research, our students become passive agents and mere consumers of education” (2017). By teaching our students object-lessons in instructive failure, we aim to empower them to see digital environments not as spaces that demand rote repetition of established workflows but as creative problem-solving environments in which limitations and constraints can serve a liberating potential.
As the digital humanities continues to establish itself within disciplinary and institutional frameworks, discussions about the state of the field are increasingly turning from small-scale and ad-hoc stories of how different spaces operate to longer narratives about how these spaces continue to change and evolve over extended durations of time. Within this context, our SEAM approach is meant to offer a framework within which digital humanities, broadly, can draw from digital pedagogy, specifically, in order to reflect upon its diverse narratives of institutional establishment, adaptation, and maturation. In what follows, we discuss how we are implementing such an approach in our curriculum. First, we outline our experiences of instructive failure in the context of digital humanities infrastructure. We go on to discuss the design of project-based digital humanities assignments that incorporate instructive failure as a learning outcome. Finally, we conclude by outlining a method for collecting and reflecting upon student experiences of failure over time.
Beyond the Fear of Failure
The instructive value of failure is hardly new to the digital humanities. As John Unsworth reminds us, “Our failures are likely to be far more difficult to recover in the future, and far more valuable for future scholarship and researcher, than those successes” (1997). More recently, Bethany Nowviskie has renewed the value of failure in an age where ruptures in physical research materials prompt reflection upon ongoing institutional reformulations of humanities work; as she writes, “It’s worth reflecting that tensions and fractures and glitches of all sorts reveal opportunity” (2013). In the case of students in our Team-based Practicum in Interactive Media Design and Production, graphical failures were the symptom of an underlying constraint of the tools in hand. Textures in the game had exceeded the memory restrictions in the operating system (the NTFS filesystem defaults to a block size of 4096 bytes), causing a memory overflow that transformed their videogame into a piece of glitch art. A workaround was implemented, and their game debuted shortly thereafter on the packed floor of Toronto’s Design Exchange. How do the lessons learned by these students aggregate into best practices for future students?
Such glitches, ruptures, and failures often reveal infrastructural constraints in the digital humanities spaces we manage. In the instance of our 2018–2019 fourth-year practicum, the filesystem failure encountered by our students has prompted us to be more aware of the tool constraints for publishing executable games. Furthermore, the public play test was salvageable because of a best practice derived from previous years projects—reverting back to a stable build identified in their revision management system. Prior to that, in 2014, failures encountered by students prompted us to rethink how we scaffold instruction of specific tools, including revision management tools, across an entire curriculum. That year’s students signed up for an off-campus collaborative software development system with integrated version control. Project management services that include git or subversion repositories allow teams to make incremental changes to files in the cloud, syncing updates across all team members as they are made. But our students had encountered a problem: the service, provided under an educational license, did not recognize many of the emails they used as valid institutional addresses and locked them all out of the server. While the problem was resolved, it prompted us to fundamentally rethink how we teach a digital humanities curriculum. The student experiences with version control can also be gleaned from interviews with graduates of the IASC program dating back to 2012. In a similar experience to our 2019 students, graduate Isaac (anonymized) recounts:
About 24 hours before our team was heading to LevelUp to present our game, we encountered a problem where our most up-to-date build of the game was overwritten with an older build, so we lost more than five hours of work. We had to crunch to get our game back to where it needed to be for us to present at LevelUp. This is mainly because of the four lab computers we had access to use for our development, only one of those computers had the [game engine] installed. … We didn’t have a file server. We were using our 2GB free [file hosting service] accounts to share files. We should have had a file back-up system so we could’ve not lost all of that work.
Taking a cue from Miriam Posner (2016), we now administer revision management systems on file servers of our own and deploy assignments that teach students to use them in every year of the program. Like the filesystem failure our students were to encounter in 2019, the version control failure in 2014 prompted us to rethink the operating principles of our digital humanities space. We are continually motivated to formally refine and adapt the student experience in response to failures such as these.
The inevitable failures encountered by our students reveal a problematic underlying much digital humanities work, one that is as wicked as it is productive. In our university-driven work with digital tools and resources, we continually encounter instances in which digital tools developed for industry use don’t neatly align with our academic context. In other words, digital humanities scholars and students frequently work with what Susan Leigh Star and James Griesmeyer call boundary objects, those ubiquitous infrastructural resources which cross between different localized implementations and diverse communities of practice. Working with such objects causes productive failures of all sorts, such as a company’s server not recognizing our student’s institutional email addresses. Elsewhere, we have found that many educational licenses for industry-grade software restrict the contexts in which student work can be exhibited to public audiences. While using such licenses allows students to learn industry-grade tools, it also forces them (and us) to learn about licensing restrictions by diligently avoiding instances in which industry and academic uses for the tool may conflict. Conflicts such as these may tacitly inform many digital approaches to teaching rhetoric and composition that bring industry or for-profit tools into the classroom. To use more ubiquitous examples, using social media platforms such as Twitter or Medium as a venue for publicly disseminating scholarship brushes up against these platforms’ use of text as a vehicle for monetization. What can we learn about the mechanisms of clickbait, bot traffic, or sponsored posts when the tools we use to teach writing are designed to leverage these phenomena? What productive conflicts arise when using YouTube to access Open Educational Resources in the classroom also means students must watch advertisements during a lecture or other class-based exercise? As a variety of digital tools are increasingly incorporated into the classroom, their status as boundary objects that sit across diverse (and at times contradictory) contexts is evident in ways both small and large.
Situating boundary objects such as these in the field of critical infrastructure studies, Alan Liu advocates that digital humanities work “assist in shaping smart, ethical academic infrastructures that not only further normative academic work … but also intelligently transfer some, but not all, values and practices in both directions between higher education and today’s other powerful institutions” (2016). We agree emphatically, and we further believe that such an understanding of infrastructural boundaries forms an approach to digital pedagogy grounded in the instructive value of failure. We continue to learn much from infrastructural failures in which the tool at hand carries and underlying set of constraints that, sooner or later, conflict with the context in which it is being implemented. We further believe such conflicts may be repurposed to suit learning outcomes contingent upon productive failure. For instance, while the research tool Zotero is designed to store bibliographic citations, it can also be used to store other types of information (thus transforming it into a boundary object). Asking students to create a bibliographic record of their classmates’ discussion contributions in Zotero invites failure cases where the metadata students wish to record doesn’t neatly align with the fields dictated by Zotero (and various citation styles); these failure cases prompt students to learn about citation styles and bibliographic records by exploring their limitations and edge-cases. Similarly, much could be learned by asking students to compose a piece of academic writing using a text-based tool that is not designed for outputting print documents. Twine, for example, is designed to create text-based adventure games and interactive narratives; what might students learn about the conventions of academic writing by using Twine to write a short research paper? In our work as digital humanists, we frequently find that the tools we work with aren’t perfectly suited to the task at hand; as such, we have begun to design project-based assignments in which students are deliberately exposed to failures of this sort and taught to learn from them. Whereas digital pedagogy often formulates technological literacy as the ability to use a tool properly, we find technological literacy also encompasses creatively rethinking such practices in inevitable instances when the tool is only moderately suited to the present context. Echoing Mauro et al. and Flanders, this SEAM approach exposes students to the ruptures and fissures inherent in working with digital tools (which we see as boundary objects), rather than suggesting effective digital humanities work involves the seamless operation of technology.
Learning to Fail: Designing Experiential DH Assignments
The idea of a digital pedagogy based in productive failure first emerged through a conversation between Alex Christie and CDH Project Coordinator and Technical Assistant, Justin Howe. Undertaking a rapid prototyping process of our digital prototyping assignments, they considered assigning Axure RP (a digital prototyping tool) as an environment for developing small-scale persuasive games. (Bogost 2010) They agreed that the fact Axure is not a game development environment was precisely why this assignment would be so valuable to our students—the lesson to be learned was that success always means success within a set of allotted constraints. In this way, the Axure tool was being deliberately used in a context for which it was not intended—creating videogame prototypes—and therefore explicitly deployed as a boundary object. The assignment therefore forced students to figure out what creative ideas could be successfully implemented within the constraints of the Axure RP prototyping environment and other assignment parameters. In this way, it sought to expose students early on to the pragmatic value of digital prototyping (and digital humanities work broadly), not solely as an exercise in dreaming up blue sky potential, but also—more unforgivingly—as a process of forging the realistic out of the fantastic. They were bound to encounter productive failure.
If the chief learning outcome of the assignment is for students to understand that concept cannot feasibly exist apart from execution, it also codifies the underlying pedagogical values within which we situate our pedagogy. The prototyping work asked of students requires them to approach Axure as a creative problem-solving environment. This means students frequently encounters instances when the tool does not allow them to achieve an important part of their intended game. In order to move forward, students must fundamentally rethink how the tool can be used in order to achieve their stated outcome. For instance, one team created their own method for causing screen brightness to dim by overlaying a black square on the window and tying its opacity to a variable whose value was influenced by player actions. Another team failed at creating a collision-detection system that would stop the player from going through the walls of a maze; instead, they used Axure’s condition builder to ensure the two objects could never overlap. By asking students to create a videogame with a tool moderately suited to the task at hand, we build an environment where students quickly reach the constraints of the technology they use. This creates an experiential learning opportunity in which students are forced to encounter and learn from moments when technologies do not work as intended, learning to create new solutions to problems when a previous approach has failed. A key learning outcome of the assignment, then, is not so much learning how to use the assigned tool correctly as much as it is learning to continue using the tool to productive ends when it fails and breaks down.
Such a learning outcome requires students to learn to see the software environment used not as a space where outcomes are met by replicating established workflows (or a sort of digital reimagining of Paulo Freire’s banking model of education) but instead as a system that can be creatively rethought and repurposed. Central to this view is an emphasis on project management and collaboration fundamentals, which are built right into the architecture of the assignment. Following the CDH’s decision to host its own server infrastructure in 2014, we decided to build subversion into the architecture of the assignment as well. Each team is allocated its own SVN repository, and each repository is then used for students to collaboratively work on their version-controlled Axure project. Teams are also asked to communicate using Discord, and Andrew Roth uses web hooks to push changes to the subversion repository directly to each team’s corresponding Discord. Asking teams to construct their prototype using a version-controlled workflow teaches practical lessons in project management, such as using a centralized repository rather than emailing files and letting team members know when new deliverables are added. These are key lessons learned from previous instantiations of our fourth-year practicum, which we have now rolled forward into the design of our first-year assignments.
Most importantly, asking students to adopt version-control and team communication solutions as part of their assignment workflow means designing a particular lesson into the assignment: that collaboration is about accountability. Before beginning their prototyping work in earnest, teams are required to submit a Developer Document that divides prototyping work into five roles (Visual Designer, Data Modeler, UX Designer, UI Designer, and Creative Director) and asks teams to outline how the deliverables for one role required assets produced by another. This division of assignment duties foreshadows the communication challenges of the fourth-year teams; Victor (anonymized), class of 2016, said his experience of failure manifested “by either conveying too little information, outdated information, or undecided information across team before it [was] vetted.” Teams quickly learn that certain parts of the project cannot be completed until its dependencies are ready, which means that various teams encounter workflow and communication failures that expose gaps in their existing conception of how collaborative work gets done. In their final presentations to the class, numerous first-year teams reflected upon the importance of coming together to work as a team, whether such reflection included successful team workflows or admitting that a siloed approach had not delivered the expected results. We find using formalized systems, such as Discord and SVN, for team-based work helps students identify and visualize interpersonal and communication errors because team progress becomes directly contingent upon students using the system to send updates to fellow teammates. Giving students low-stakes environments to learn from such failures early in the program prepares them to address, or even obviate, high-stakes failures of this sort in their upper-year team-based practicum.
The lesson that workflow is as much about accountability as it is about cultivating a positive interpersonal environment is one that can only be learned experientially, which means designing a pedagogical framework within which teams can safely encounter workflow failures and move forward based on insights discovered therein. This framework prepares students to learn from team-based failure in two ways. First, in the weeks leading up to the final assignment, the instructor delivers lectures on topics including digital prototyping fundamentals and team management, which explicitly outline the different stages of team formation and best practices as teams move from one stage to the next. Second, the incorporation of technologies such as SVN and Discord creates a collaborative environment in which output and accountability are directly fused: each time a student works with a new version of the project, they cannot begin their work until encountering the latest revision made by another team member. Similarly, if the team hits a roadblock in their prototype because a certain asset or dependency is missing, the entire team can immediately identify the source of accountability. Both conceptually and pragmatically, then, the assignment is framed as an exercise in developing competencies in collaborative prototyping, defined as an iterative process where progress comes from finding out what doesn’t work and then moving forward. In this way, collaboration failures experienced by teams serve as object lessons in scope management, in which students are forced to consistently ask which practices best suit their goals and which do not. These project-based assignments therefore function as experiential learning opportunities in which students learn from technological and collaboration failures by directly encountering and overcoming them. So far, results have exceeded expectations. One team made a game in which navigating the maze of Brock’s Mackenzie Chown complex served as a functional metaphor for navigating depression. Another made a game about surveillance and counterinsurgency, while still others tackled topics including personality disorders and cultivating gratitude.
The first stage of our SEAM approach to digital pedagogy thus involves designing project-based assignments where students reach their own insights into doing digital humanities work by learning from instructive failure. Such failures are built into the assignment by treating the tools being taught as boundary objects, or technologies that are not perfectly suited to the given task. These assignments prompt students to reach the limitations of the tool and creatively overcome them. In the context of videogame design, this may include using a non-Game Development Environment (such as Axure) to create a videogame; in still other educational contexts, this may include using a Game Development Environment (such as Twine or Game Maker) to write a research paper or using a monetized platform (like YouTube or Facebook) to disseminate Open Educational Resources. In this way, a SEAM approach to designing digital humanities assignments focuses more on the assembly of conceptual and technical systems within which we ask students to explore and create, rather than handing down prescribed workflows by rote (again, with a nod to Freire). In turn, we ourselves refine such systems in response to student experiences later in the program, incorporating tools such as SVN and encouraging students to encounter the places where their work using such tools may begin to show at the seams.
Learning from Failure: Student Reflection through Data Visualization
In order to prompt student reflection upon failures encountered in their project-based work, we visualize student data generated throughout the course of these projects to build models of student knowledge. Andrew Roth creates such visualizations by taking the Subversion history from each team and visualizing it with Gource, an open source tool created by Andrew Caudwell that displays file systems as an animated tree evolving over time. Visualizing the complexity of the shared file system under version control at once makes the metadata of the process more legible and the task of growing that system more daunting. For example, by visualizing and comparing each repository of a single class, we can see at a glance which teams closely emulate the instructor’s example project and which grew beyond in the allotted time. While the rules of collaboration require students to diligently maintain the up-to-date version of their project, or head, by checking in functioning code, the metadata captured in the history shows a record of every failure including malfunctioning ignore files, desktop shortcuts mistakenly checked in as assets, and abandoned plugin folders. In sum, the Gource visualization for each team shows how that team’s version-controlled files and folders changed throughout the course of the project, providing a visual rendering of student activity in Axure. The visualizations open a space for reflecting on both the metadata borne of the technological infrastructure required for collaborative project work and the narrative that emerges from managing the project’s complexity over time.
For example, in both visualizations the sample project created by the instructor is created first, followed by each group project. In an instant we can see there are sprints of productivity during lab times and very few team members committing to projects on the weekends. Using the instructor sample as a measuring stick, we can see that there are few projects in the 1F01 class that emulate the sample project’s complexity, whereas the 1P04 course has a smaller sample project and larger, more complex group projects.
We have also used Gource to visualize the videogames created by our fourth-year students. Using data from each SVN repository used over the past four years, we are able to see differences between each of our past four student teams. For instance, the first group using version control (before hosting a server on premise) demonstrates a tightly controlled structure managed by only one or two users. In subsequent years, the number of total simultaneous users increases. This suggests the repository is used by more individuals across their respective teams, which is supported by the push by faculty to use version control across all years of the program. The number of large-scale changes over time (such as branches or deletions) also increases in frequency which indicates that mistakes are made, large scale changes are applied (such as telling subversion to ignore certain file types), and these mistakes are corrected as time passes. It is also clear how the scope of the single 4L00 project dwarfs the first-year projects in size and complexity.
After presenting these findings from our first round of visualizations at the 2018 Digital Pedagogy Institute, we began integrating these visualizations back into the pedagogical structure of our first-year classes. Once teams have completed their prototypes, we provide them with the Gource visualizations of their work as an .mp4 video and use these videos as prompts for their final reflective assignments. In their reflective essays, students frequently noticed that work was conducted ad-hoc by different team members, rather than following a pre-established working schedule. Gource videos frequently showed irregular bursts of activity from different team members, rather than steady and predictable output that followed a coordinated project schedule. This was also one of the key ways in which Gource visualizations of work done in our first-year courses differed from that of our fourth-year courses. As such, students frequently remarked that a key failure was not coordinating their schedules and efforts more closely, and that such failure was not apparent to them until they saw the timeline of their Axure work rendered visually through Gource. Using formalized systems for student collaboration lets instructors visualize student activity and provide such visualizations as tools for student reflection; we find SVN and Gource to be an effective combination of tools for designing these reflective exercises.
While the principal outcomes of the assignment are for students to assess their evolving abilities in collaborative environments, the incorporation of the Gource visualizations further demonstrates for students that soft skills including communication, organization, and team dynamics cannot and should not be neatly parsed from technical considerations such as scheduling deliverables, maintaining project dependencies, and designing data and folder structures. The assignment furthermore reframes data visualization techniques not simply as tools for revealing objective facts but additionally as environments for metacognitive reflection and personal growth. How might digital tools reveal the seams between a student’s own approaches to collaboration and those of their teammates? As we prompt students to derive reflective insights from data visualizations of their work, we also encourage more technically-minded and tech-averse students to understand that technical implementation and interpersonal interaction co-construct the latticework upon which their knowledge matures and thrives.
Stitching Our Work Together: Faculty and Staff Reflection through Autobiography Mapping
Together, our use of digital prototyping assignments and reflective exercises involve stitching together disparate strands of student failure and digital tools, using such threads as opportunities for both student and instructor learning. Thus far, we have reached a series of findings for designing project-based digital humanities assignments and using them as a vehicle for faculty and staff reflection. First, it is essential to deliver lectures on team formation fundamentals as part of the introduction to project-based assignments; doing so both introduces students to collaboration best practices (a core element of doing digital humanities work) and teaches them how to move forward from inevitable stumbling blocks. Instructors can further encourage students to learn from failure by discussing the fundamentals of scope management, time management, and rapid prototyping—all of which assume that ideas are developed by encountering errors in planning and then retooling that plan in order to move ahead. Doing this over and over, or learning through iteration, dispels the common myth that excellent ideas and strong skill sets emerge from a vacuum. As part of this approach, instructors can introduce the assignment by giving students a template and encouraging them to tweak it; for instance, our GAME students are given a short game prototype made in Axure RP and asked to fix a series of bugs (thereby preparing them to fix the eventual errors in their own game prototypes). Most of all, faculty and staff can and should work together to design the suite of technical dependencies for the assignment, architecting an environment that encourages students to safely explore and experiment instead of copying prescribed workflows by rote. While staff provide insight into the technologies available for classroom use (in our instance, Andrew facilitates the integration of Axure with SVN and Gource), instructors design activities and assignments where these technologies are used to create materials they were not primarily designed to output (and share the results with staff administering the tools). Such collaboration allows for staff and faculty to approach the classroom as an environment for low-stakes failure, while continuing to prioritize student learning as the setting’s principal outcome.
As we continue to move forward based on these insights, we are considering how this form of faculty-staff collaboration can scale up from the level of the individual course. The final stage of our SEAM approach does just this, examining student progress longitudinally throughout the whole of the program and over the course of multiple years. Inspired by Donna Haraway’s formulation of cyborg subjectivities, this next stage of our work sees student autobiographies as reflexive records of where intersectional identities evolve alongside, and are imbricated with, the technologies with which they work. This research will analyze longitudinal student experiences through user story mapping, a technique commonly used to define priorities within agile software development. Software developers lead interviews and focus groups to understand how users’ expectations map to the offerings of their software. The scope of the user story mapping in software development is deliberately broad and shallow, narrowing the most possible use cases into minimum viable product releases. In order to catch the broadest perspective on student experience, we have chosen biographical information that demonstrates the student’s relationship to technology—their technobiography. The technobiographical method originally loosely outlined by Kennedy in 2003 has previously been applied to stories of learning by youth (Brushwood-Rose 2006) and educators (Ching and Vigdor 2005). By collecting, transcribing, and tagging biographical interviews, we intend to create a repository of user stories that can be drawn upon to help address infrastructure challenges holistically. The result will be a dynamic and searchable repository of student reflections on their learning experience that faculty and staff can consult in order to inform various levels of decision-making. As the repository grows over time, it will allow additional insight into how student learning in our digital humanities curriculum changes longitudinally. While the idea of a “minimum viable product” seems inherently reductionist, the goal is not to produce static or artificial boundaries around the learning experience, rather to set priorities and outline critical paths to completion relative to external factors (e.g., time, money, space, goodwill). Our students’ narratives tell us as much about the subjectivities that move through our learning systems as they reframe the systems-level formulations to which infrastructure, by necessity, reduces human experience.
Scaffolding upon the reflective assignments introduced alongside Gource visualizations of student work, we intend to collect student autobiographies as they move throughout the program and across multiple years. This will result in a searchable database of key challenges and successes encountered by student teams over time, revealing key inflection points in the development of our infrastructure and our curriculum (such as our 2014 failures associated with version control and our 2019 failures with the NTFS filesystem). As we continue with this work and gather findings over multiple years, we envision our method and the data it generates as an autobiography of long-term growth and adaptation in Brock University’s Centre for Digital Humanities. While digital humanities spaces continue to disseminate news of progress and successes, we believe they can also share key failures as part of a productive and forward-looking institutional narrative. What are the stories behind the technologies and best practices incorporated into our labs and our curriculum? How might student experiences of technological failure inform decision-making processes when it comes time to purchase new workstations, format hard drives, and set up server space for student work? Through their own stories about themselves and how they change over time, our students and their experiences of failure may reveal much of ourselves—our intellectual values, our operating principles, and what we may still become.
Bogost, Ian. 2010. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Brushwood-Rose, Chloë. 2006. “Technobiographies as Stories of Learning.” Public 34 (Fall): 88–95.
Ching, Cynthia and Linda Vigdor. 2005. “Technobiographies: Perspectives from Education and the Arts.” First International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry (May): 1–22.
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Andrew Roth is the Technical Associate: Research and Learning Support in the Centre for Digital Humanities, Brock University. An exhibited artist and published interdisciplinary scholar, he has led and collaborated in augmented reality experiences, the development of published mobile apps, and the creation of tools for digital media artists.
Alex Christie is Assistant Professor of Digital Prototyping at Brock University’s Centre for Digital Humanities. In 2017, he completed the Pedagogy Toolkit project, which received grant support from the Association for Computers and the Humanities. In 2018, he served on the organizing committee for the Digital Pedagogy Institute.
Review of Roberto Busa, S. J., and the Emergence of Humanities Computing: The Priest and the Punched Cards (New York: Routledge, 2016). $150.00 hardback, $38.47 ebook.
Digital humanities (DH) is a contested field—contested in terms of its definition, its scope, and its long-term relevance. One issue on which there has been much consensus is the central place given to the work of Roberto Busa when charting the origin of DH. It is standard fare in DH publications to cite Busa’s Index Thomisitcus as the first major project in humanities computing, the classic example of this being Susan Hockey’s history of humanities computing in the foundational volume A Companion to Digital Humanities (2004). In Roberto Busa, S.J., and the Emergence of Humanities Computing, Steven E. Jones complicates even this supposedly straightforward narrative, and he manages to do so even while indicating fruitful ways of understanding and advancing work in the field.
Roberto Busa (1913–2011) was an Italian Jesuit priest and scholar trained in philosophy at the Papal Gregorian University in Rome. A philological approach to studying the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas eventually led Busa to travel to North America in 1949 in search of machine assisted methods for compiling a lemmatized concordance that included every word in Aquinas’s writings. Through correspondence and archival records, Jones tells the story of Busa’s collaboration with IBM to develop the Index Thomisticus using IBM’s iconic punched cards, a form of data storage for early computing. It is not difficult to see how contemporary scholars working in DH could point to this early relationship between a humanities scholar and the corporate technology leader as a point of origin for the field. Jones explains his demythologizing project: “It’s not my aim to debunk [the myth], but only to provide a more complicated picture of its history, to fill in some of the rich contexts out of which the myth arose in the first place” (9–10). While Busa is unquestionably an important figure in charting the development of humanities computing, and eventually DH, Jones is interested in situating Busa within a complex historical web of developments in media and technology.
This goal leads Jones to dismiss another, more elusive myth—the myth of “progress.” Nowhere is the temptation to view historical developments as an inevitable upward progression more evident than in studies of technology. Jones counters this assumption by attending to historical contingencies and “adjacent possibilities” as he traces the working relationship between Busa and IBM. Busa’s use of punched-card processing systems allowed him to process an impressive amount of data, but the system was hardly cutting edge. While these systems used technology that had been in place since the nineteenth century, IBM’s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC) was also on display in the company’s Manhattan showroom. This iconic early computer was not made available to Busa, but it played a large part in IBM’s public image. Jones discusses the computing culture surrounding the SSEC at length as a way of setting Busa’s work in historical context. One major aspect of this context is the neglected role of women in the history of computing. Jones emphasizes that “there were women everywhere in early computing, in one capacity or another, from wartime ‘computers’ using calculating machines, to plugboard ‘programmers,’ to keypunch operators, to system operators and some software programmers, once that became a possibility” (64). There were many women who worked as operators with Busa on the production of the Index Thomisticus, and Busa trained many young women to be operators at his Center for Automation and Literary Analysis in Gallarate, Italy. However, the substantive work done by these women was often categorized as simply “clerical,” and the twenty first century has seen a major decline in the number of women in professional programming. The myth of progress is further complicated as Jones discusses tensions between academic, political, and corporate interests, as well as issues of advertising and the public perception of computing. He also highlights the array of alternative technologies that were on offer at the time that Busa was processing his punched cards.
Jones constructs a layered and detailed historical narrative that takes account of the personalities, spaces, and material objects involved. This serves to flesh out Busa’s own accounts of his work (which Jones cites frequently) and IBM’s corporate records. Jones’s ability as a storyteller is particularly evidenced by the “exploded view” that he offers of the initial 1949 meeting between Busa and Thomas J. Watson, Sr., CEO of IBM. He focuses on various details of the image of the two men meeting in IBM’s offices to explain the political, social, and technological issues that set the stage for the initial conversation and conditioned the ongoing relationship.
Several aspects of Busa’s projects draw out the relationship between developing technology and the humanities as they relate to research and teaching. First, the public demonstrations that Busa gave of his work—particularly one held at IBM World Headquarters on Madison Avenue in June of 1952—show how the interactions between computing and humanities research influence pedagogy. His demos before interdisciplinary groups of scholarly, corporate, and ecclesiastical figures were impressive displays of automated technology, but “it turned out to be the general concepts of how to use punched-card machinery to treat language as data to be processed … that influenced practice over the long term” (82). By introducing punched-card technology into philological analysis, Busa began to demonstrate how vast amounts of data generated from a text could also generate new perspectives on that text. His teaching demonstrations alerted scholarly and corporate communities to the way that the iterative process facilitated by computing allowed for a deconstruction, fragmentation, and reconstitution of texts, making technology a real collaborator in the process of creating meaning. Through these technology demonstrations, Busa sought to convince a varied audience of influential people of the usefulness of his adaption of technology in the service of the hermeneutical process. With the growth of Silicon Valley, we have all come to be aware of the formative capacity of this sort of technology demo. Jones cites Steve Jobs’s Apple Computer events and TED Talks as formats comparable to the demos of Busa and other early tech innovators. As with these more recent examples, the intent of Busa’s demos were not simply to transfer information about a new technology. Just as the public unveiling of a new Apple product creates expectation and emphasizes the way that a new iPhone, iPad, or other device can have a transformative effect on our lives, so Busa’s demos were designed to inform, impress, and indicate the potential his punched-card technology had to transform humanities research.
Second, Busa’s Center for Automation and Literary Analysis (CAAL) featured a pedagogical method that was transformed by the interaction of humanities scholarship and computing. Jones describes the CAAL, founded by Busa in 1956, as “a vocational ‘training school for key-punch operators,’ technicians of automated accounting machinery.” The CAAL’s “first reason for being was research … with students working in effect as interns, learning on the job for two-year stints” (119). The students at the CAAL (predominantly young women) found themselves in an environment that combined elements of the laboratory, factory, and religious community as they gained experience operating IBM machines as they worked to create, among other projects, an index for the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls. The CAAL was supported by a network of corporate and governmental patrons, and it benefited from Busa’s continuing relationship with IBM. The operators didn’t receive diplomas for their training, but they gained experience in marketable job skills. This combination of scholarly research with vocational training in computing technology leads Jones to describe CAAL as “arguably the first humanities computing center” (134). Many of the same critiques that have recently been leveled at DH initiatives in higher education (see Allington, Brouillette, and Golumbia 2016) can be seen in Jones description of the CAAL. Corporate, government, and scholarly interests were intertwined in Busa’s projects. New technical skills were learned in a context that served humanities research.
Jones demonstrates the two-way street of the pedagogical process—available technologies shape the processes of research and learning, and educational traditions influence the adoption and use of new equipment and methods. This can be seen in the contrast between the industrial model on which CAAL was based and the humanistic impulse behind its work. The training school was “both internship and production line for data processing of texts” (125). The CAAL was housed in an old industrial building, and IBM’s machines were arranged on the old factory floor. The image invoked by the setup is some combination of a factory line and a scriptorium. Technical skills were being learned not simply to manufacture a product but for the deeper understanding of a literary text. One important way Jones illustrates this dynamic is by highlighting Busa’s Jesuit identity. Jones suggests that the Jesuit focus on higher education and on broad engagement with secular culture contributed to Busa’s willingness to build networks through unlikely partnerships and to view the creative implementation of technology as an extension of humanities research.
Jones, like many practitioners, delights in the indeterminacy and indefinability of the broad field of DH. By inspecting, atomizing, and reconstituting the historical context and technical details of Busa’s career, he succeeds in demonstrating that this indeterminacy was present from the outset. Jones pushes back against definitions of DH that tie the field too rigidly to Busa’s project. He wants a definition with broad enough boundaries to include work in areas such as media studies, video games, social media, and more. Elsewhere, he defines DH broadly “as an umbrella term for a diverse set of practices and concerns, all of which combine computing and digital media with humanities research and teaching” (5). Paradoxically, Jones demonstrates that Busa’s project was only one of any number of contributing factors to the development of humanities computing and (later) DH while also uncovering new and unexpected ways that the details of that project are relevant to the expansion of the field. Though Busa initially presented his work in humanities computing terms—with machines filling a utilitarian role in otherwise traditional humanities research—digging into the material specifics of his projects reveals that technology and its layered applications were making theoretical contributions at every stage of his research. With this substantive and engaging book (as well as the Tumblr site that augments the book), Jones has made an essential contribution to the field of DH.