Tagged digital humanities

A large protest passes under an underpass in Los Angeles.

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

Lauren M. Rosenblum and Nathan Ross

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

Selection of Platform

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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About the Author

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Course Specifics and Benchmark Assignments for Introduction to African Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Reflections

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


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


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

About the Authors

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TimelineJS in a World Literature Survey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TimelineJS in a History Capstone Seminar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scaffolding Considerations

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


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


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

Student intellectual property

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Authors

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

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

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

A network diagram shows links between names of languages with varying sizes. English, Latin, Greek, and Arabic all have the largest bubbles.

Reading Texts in Digital Environments: Applications of Translation Alignment for Classical Language Learning


This paper illustrates the application of translation alignment technologies to empower a new approach to reading in digital environments. Digital platforms for manual translation alignment are designed to facilitate a particularly intensive and philological experience of the text, which is traditionally peculiar to the teaching and study of Classical languages. This paper presents the results of the experimental use of translation alignment in the context of Classical language teaching, and shows how the use of technology can empower a meaningful and systematic approach to information. We argue that translation alignment and similar technologies can open entirely new perspectives on reading practices, going beyond the opposed categories of “skimming” and traditional linear reading, and potentially overcoming the cognitive limitations connected with the fruition of digital content.

Reading and Digital Technologies: A New Challenge

It seems impossible to imagine a world where digital technologies are not a substantial part of our intellectual activities. The use of technology in teaching and learning is becoming increasingly prominent, even more now, as the massive public health crisis of COVID-19 created the need to access information without physical proximity. Yet, the way information is processed on digital platforms is substantially different from the cognitive standpoint, and not exempt from concerning consequences: recently, it has been emphasized that accessing content digitally stimulates superficial approaches and “skimming”, rather than reading, which may have a longstanding impact on the ways in which human brains understand, approach, and articulate complex information (Wolf 2018).

Therefore, we must ask ourselves if we are using digital technologies in the right way, and what can be done to address this problem. Instead of eliminating digital methods entirely (which in current times seems especially unrealistic), maybe the solution resides in using them to empower a different way of approaching information. In this paper, I will advocate that the practices embedded in the study of Classical texts can offer a new perspective on reading as a cognitive operation, and that, if appropriately empowered through the use of technology, they can create a new and meaningful approach to reading on digital platforms.

The study of Classical languages implies a very peculiar approach to processing information (Crane 2019). The most relevant aspect of studying Classical texts is that we cannot consult a native speaker to verify our knowledge: instead, “communication” is achieved through written sources and their interaction with other carriers of information, such as material culture and visual representations. On the other hand, we must never forget that we are engaging with an alien culture to which we do not have direct access. This necessity of navigating uncertainty requires a much more flexible approach to information, and a very different way of engaging with written sources, where the focus is on mediated cultural understanding through reading, rather than immediate communication.

Engaging with an ancient text is a deeply philological operation: a scholar of an ancient language never simply goes from one word to another with a secure understanding of their meaning. Their reading mode is much more immersive. It is an operation of reconstruction through reflection, pause, and exploration, which requires several skills: from the ability of active abstraction of the language and its mechanics, to the recognition of linguistic patterns that coincide with given models, to the reflection on what a word or expression “really means” in etymological, stylistic, and cultural terms, to the philological reconstruction of “why” that word is there, as a result of a long process of transmission, translation, and error.[1] Yet, the implications of this intensive reading mode, in the broader context of the cognitive transformations to reading and learning, are often overlooked.

The operations embedded in the reading of Classical languages respond to a different cognitive process, that is beyond the opposed categories of “skimming” and traditional linear reading. Because of this peculiarity, some of the technologies designed in the domain of Classical languages are created specifically to empower this approach, bringing it at the center of the reader’s experience.

Translation Alignment: Principles and Technologies

Digital technologies are widely used in Classics for scholarship and teaching, thanks to the widespread use of digital libraries like Perseus (Crane et al. 2018) and the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (2020), and to the consolidation of various methods for digital text analysis (Berti 2019) and pedagogy (Natoli and Hunt 2019). One of the most interesting recent developments in the field is the proliferation of platforms for manual and semi-automated translation alignment.

Translation alignment is a task derived from one of the most popular applications in Natural Language Processing. It is defined as the comparison of two or more texts in different languages, also called parallel texts or parallel corpora, by means of automated or semi-automated methods. The main purpose is to define which parts of a source text correspond to which parts of a second text. The result is often a list of pairs of items – words, sentences, or larger texts chunks like paragraphs or documents. In Natural Language Processing, aligned corpora are used as training data for the implementation of machine translation systems, but also for many other purposes, such as information extraction, automated creation of bilingual lexica, or even text re-use (Dagan, Church, and Gale 1999).

The alignment of texts in different languages, however, is an exceptionally complex task, because it is often difficult to find perfect overlap across languages, and machine-actionable systems are often inefficient in providing equivalences for more sophisticated rhetorical or literary devices. The creation of manually aligned datasets is especially useful for historical languages, where available indexes and digitized dictionaries often do not provide a sufficient corpus to develop reliable NLP pipelines, and are remarkably inefficient for automated translation. Therefore, creating aligned translations is also a way to engage with a larger scholarly community and to support important tasks in Computer Science.

In the past few years, three generations of digital tools for the creation and use of aligned corpora have been developed specifically with Classical languages in mind. First, Alpheios provides a system for creating aligned bilingual texts, which are then combined with other resources, such as dictionary entries and morphosyntactic information (Almas and Beaulieu 2016; “The Alpheios Project” 2020). Second, the Ugarit Translation Alignment Editor was inspired by Alpheios in providing a public online platform, where users could perform bilingual and trilingual alignments. Ugarit is currently the most used web-based tool for translation alignment in historical languages: since it went online in March 2017, it has registered an ever-increasing number of visits and new users. It currently hosts more than 370 users, 23,900 texts, 47,600 aligned pairs, and 39 languages, many of which ancient, including Ancient Greek, Latin, Classical Arabic, Classical Chinese, Persian, Coptic, Egyptian, Syriac, Parthian, Akkadian, and Sanskrit. Aligned pairs are collected in a large dynamic lexicon that can be used to extract translations of different words, but also as a training dataset for implementing automated translation (Yousef 2019).

The alignment interface offered by Ugarit is simple and intuitive. Users can upload their own texts and manually align them by matching words or groups of words. Alignments are automatically displayed on the home page (although users can deactivate the option for public visibility). Corresponding aligned tokens are highlighted when the pointer hovers on them. The percentage of aligned tokens is displayed in the color bar below the text: the green indicates the rate of matching tokens, the red the rate of non-matching tokens. Resulting pairs are automatically stored in the database, and can be exported as XML or tabular data. For languages with non-Latin alphabets, Ugarit offers automatic transliteration, visible when the pointer hovers on the desired word.[2]

Overview of a trilingual alignment on Ugarit (Armenian, Greek, and Latin). The mouse pointer triggers the highlighting of aligned pairs, and activates the transliteration for the Armenian text. A color bar below the text shows the percentage of aligned pairs in green, and of non-aligned tokens in red.
Figure 1. Overview of a trilingual alignment on Ugarit (Armenian, Greek, Latin), with active transliteration for Armenian.

The structure of Ugarit was also used to display a manually aligned version of the Persian Hafez, in a study that tested how German and Persian speakers used translation alignment to study portions of Hafez using English as a bridge language. The results indicated that, with the appropriate scaffolding, users with no knowledge of the source language could generate word alignments with the same output accuracy generated by experts in both languages. The study showed that alignment could serve as a pedagogical tool with a certain effect on long-term retention (Palladino, Foradi, and Yousef forthcoming; Foradi 2019).

The third generation of digital tools is represented by DUCAT – Daughter of Ugarit Citation Alignment Tool, developed by Christopher Blackwell and Neel Smith (Blackwell and Smith 2019), which can be used for local text alignment and can be integrated with the interactive analysis of morphology, syntax, and vocabulary. The project “Furman University Editions” shows the potential of these interactive views, which are currently part of the curriculum of undergraduate Classics teaching at Furman and elsewhere.

This proliferation of tools shows that there is potential in the pedagogical application of this method: translation alignment can provide a new and imaginative way of using translations for the study of Classical texts, overcoming the hindrances normally associated with reading an ancient work through a modern-day version.

Text Alignment in the Classroom

The use of authorial translations to approach Classical texts is normally discouraged in the classroom, being perceived as “cheating” or as unproductive for a true, active engagement with the language. Part of this phenomenon is explained by the fact that, as “passive” readers, we don’t have any agency in assessing the relationship between a translation and the original, and reading them side by side on paper is rarely a systematic or intentional operation (Crane 2019). However, translations are an integral part of ancient cultures.[3] They are a crucial component of textual transmission, as they represent witnesses of the survival and fortune of Classical texts. Translations are also important testimonies of the scholarly problem of transferring an alien culture and its values onto a different one, to ensure effective communication, or to pursue a cultural and political agenda through the reshaping and recrafting of an important text (Lefevere 1992).

Translations are a medium between cultures, not just between languages. Engaging in an analytical comparison between a translation and the original means to have a deeper experience of how a text was interpreted in a given time, what meanings were associated to certain words, and, at the same time, how certain expressions can display multifaceted semantics that are often not entirely captured by another language. This is also an exercise in cultural dialogue and reflection, not only upon the language(s), but upon the civilization that used it to reflect its values. In other words, it is a philological exploration that resembles much of the reading mode of a Classicist.

Digital platforms for translation alignment offer an immersive and visually powerful environment to perform this task, where the reader can analytically compare texts token by token, and at the same time observe the results through an interactive visualization. It is the reader who decides what is compared, how, and to what extent: the comparison of parallel texts becomes an analytical, systematic operation, which at the same time encourages reflection and debate regarding the (im)perfect matching of words and expressions. In this way, translation alignment provides a way to navigate between traditional linguistic mastery and the complete dependence upon a translation. Not only this stimulates an active fruition of modern translations of ancient texts, but the public visibility of the result on a digital platform also provides a way to be part of a broader conversation on the reception and significance of an ancient text over time.

However, it is also important to apply this tool in the right way. For example, translation alignment needs to be coupled with some grammatical input, to encourage reflection on structural linguistic differences. Mechanical approaches, all too easy with the uncontrolled use of a clickable “matching tool”, should be discouraged by emphasizing the importance of focused word-by-word alignment. In practice, translation alignment needs to be used with caution and in meaningful ways, as a function of the goal and level of a course.

The following sections illustrate examples of application of translation alignment in the context of beginner, intermediate, and upper level classes in Ancient Greek and Latin. Translation alignment was structurally used during the courses to emphasize semantic and syntactic complexities through analytical comparison with English or other languages. Later, students were assigned various alignment tasks and exercises, designed to empower an analytical approach to the text.

Beginner Ancient Greek, first and second semester

The students were given two assignments, performed iteratively in two consecutive semesters, with variations in quantity (more words and sentences were assigned in the second semester):[4]

  1. Individuate specific given words in a chosen passage, and align them with the corresponding words in one translation. The goal of this exercise was to set the groundwork to develop a rough understanding of the depth of word meanings, by assessing how the same word in the source text could appear in different ways across the same translation.
  2. Use alignment to evaluate two translations of a shorter text chunk (1–3 sentences, or 10 verse lines). Identify precisely the corresponding sections of text in the source and in the translations. Assess which translation is most effective by using two criteria: 1, combination of number and quality of matched tokens; 2, pick particularly problematic words and look them up in a dictionary, to assess their meanings; compare the dictionary explanation with the general context of the passage, and assess how translations relate to the dictionary entries and how closely they render the “original sense” of the word.

The results were two short essays where the students articulated their considerations. Grading was based on the ability to give insightful analysis of how word choices impacted the tone and meaning of the translations, and discuss the semantic depth of the words in the original language. Bonus points were provided if the student was able to identify tangential aspects, such as word order, changes in cases, and syntax. Minor weight was given to the overall accuracy of the alignment, in consideration of the level: the design of the exercises was deliberate in discouraging the creation of longer alignments, which often result in the student doing the work without thinking about their alignment choices. Essay questions focused instead on close-reading, analytical, in-depth investigation into the semantics of the source language.

The Ancient Greek text is located at the center, and the two translations at the sides. The translation on the left displays a 75% of aligned pairs, the translation on the right a 73%.
Figure 2. Two aligned English translations of Odyssey 9.105–9.115.

Intermediate level of Ancient Greek and Latin, third semester

Students used translation alignment in the context of project-based learning. They were responsible for the alignment of a chosen text chunk against translations that they had selected, ranging from early modern to contemporary translations. The assignment was divided in phases:

  1. Alignment of the source text against two chosen translations in English, and systematic evaluation of both translations. The students were asked to focus on chosen phenomena of syntax, morphology, grammar and semantics, that were particularly relevant in the text: e.g. word order, participial constructs, adjectival constructs, passive/active constructions, changes in case, transposition of allusion and semantic ambiguity. The students used their knowledge of syntax and grammar to critically assess the performance of different translators, focusing on the different ways in which complex linguistic phenomena can be rendered in another language. This assignment was combined with side analysis of morphology and syntax: for example, the students of Ancient Greek designed a morphological dataset containing 200 parsed words from the same passage.
  2. Creation of a new, independent translation, with a discussion of where it distanced itself from the original, which aspects of it were retained, and how the problems individuated in the authorial translations were approached by the student.

The result was a written report submitted at the midterm or end of the semester, indicating: the salient aspects of the texts and its most relevant linguistic features; an analytical comparison of how those linguistic features appeared in the competing aligned translations, and an evaluation of the translator’s strategy; the student’s translation, with a critical assessment of the chosen strategy to approach the same problems. These aspects constituted the backbone of the grading strategy, with additional attention to the alignment accuracy.

Section of two aligned translations of Hesiod, Works and Days vv. 42–105, with the original ancient Greek at the center, and the English translations on the sides.
Figure 3. Section of two aligned translations of Hesiod, Works and Days vv. 42–105. The student used a comparison between two translations from the same period (Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914, and David W. Tandy and Walter C. Neale 1996) but with very different styles, and used adjective-noun combinations and participle constructions to systematically evaluate them. The 1996 translation was judged more literal than the other, and more useful for a student.

Upper level Ancient Greek and Latin, fourth to seventh semester (graduate and undergraduate)

The exercises assigned for the upper level were a more articulated version of the project-based ones given to the intermediate level. The students were assigned a research-based project where alignment would be one component of an in-depth analysis of a chosen source. At an intermediate stage of the semester, the students would submit a research proposal indicating: an extensive passage they chose to investigate, and why they chose it; the topic they decided to investigate, and a short account of previous literature on it; methodologies applied to develop the project; desired outcomes. The final result would be a project report submitted at the end of the semester, indicating: if the desired outcomes had been reached, what kinds of challenges were not anticipated, and what new results were achieved; strategies implemented to apply the chosen methodology, e.g. which alignment strategy was applied to ensure that the research questions were answered; what the student learned about the source, its cultural context and/or language. The results were graded as proper projects: the students were evaluated according to their ability to clearly delineate motivation and methodology, use of existing resources, and critical discussion of the outcomes.

Many students creatively integrated alignment in their projects. For example:

  • Creation of an aligned translation for non-expert readers, alongside a commentary and morphosyntactic annotations. To facilitate reading, the student developed a consistent alignment strategy that only matched words corresponding in meaning and grammatical function. This project was published on GitHub.
  • Trilingual alignment of English-Latin-German to investigate the matching rate between two similarly inflected languages. The student noted that, even if their knowledge of German was inferior to English and Latin, matching Latin against German proved easier and more streamlined, while the English translation was approached with more criticism for its verbosity (Figure 4).[5]
  • Trilingual alignment to compare different texts. The student conceived a project aimed at gathering systematic evidence of the verbatim correspondences between the so-called Fables of Loqman and the Aesopic fables: according to existing scholarship, the former would be an Arabic translation of the latter. The student used a French translation of the Loqman fables to leverage on the challenges of the Arabic, and examined the overall matching rate across the texts (see this sample passage).
Sample passage of Tacitus, Germania 1.1, with two aligned translations in English and German, located on the left and at the center respectively. The German translation at the center displays identical matching rate as the Latin text on the right (93%), while the English translation on the left only has 89% matching rate.
Figure 4. Sample passage of Tacitus, Germania 1.1, with two aligned translations in English and German.


The students reported how alignment affected their understanding of the source and its linguistic features, and how approaching the original by comparing it against a modern translation gave them a deeper understanding and respect for the content. While the alignment process often resulted in some criticism of available translations, the students who had to discuss the challenges faced by translators (or who had to translate themselves) gained a stronger understanding of the issues involved in “transferring” not only words and constructs but also underlying cultural implications and multiple meanings. The students who used alignment in the context of research projects also benefited from the publication of their aligned translations, and some presented them as research papers at undergraduate conferences. Many students even reported to have used alignment independently afterwards in other courses, often to facilitate the study of new languages, both ancient and modern.

Some overarching tendencies in the evaluation of concurrent translations emerged, particularly at the Intermediate and Upper Level. This feedback was extremely interesting to observe, because most of it can only be explained as the result of a systematic comparison between target and source language, in a situation where the reader is an active operator and not a passive content consumer.

The students observed analytically the various ways in which translations cannot structurally convey peculiar aspects of the original: for example, dialectal variants, metrical arrangement, wordplays, or syntactic constructs. Most of them were still able to appreciate skillful modern translations, and even to diagnose why translators would distance themselves from the original. They definitely understood the challenge by engaging in translation tasks themselves. For many, however, the discovery that they could not fully rely on translations to understand what is happening in a text was astonishing. Students tend to be educated to the idea that authorial translations are necessarily “right” (and therefore “faithful”[6]) renderings of Classical texts, to the point where they often trust them over their own understanding of the language. With this exercise, they learned that “right” and “faithful” may not be the same thing, and that the literature of an ancient civilization preserves a depth and complexity of meaning that cannot be fully encompassed in a translation.

Interestingly, students often had a more positive judgement of translations that rendered difficult syntactic constructs more closely to the original without fundamentally altering the structure, or shifting the emphasis (e.g. by changing subject-object relations or by altering verb voices). Students at the Intermediate level, in particular, judged such translations more “literal”, as they found them more helpful in understanding important linguistic structures: Figure 3 shows an alignment of Hesiod’s Works and Days, where the student extrapolated adjective-noun combinations and participle constructs to draw a systematic comparison between two concurring translations. The translation that was judged “more literal”, and therefore more useful for a student, was the one that kept these structures closer to the way they appeared in the original. This phenomenon intensified with texts that had a strong amount of allusions and wordplay, which are often conveyed by means of very specific syntactic constructs: students who dealt with this kind of texts were merciless judges of translations that completely altered the original syntax and recrafted the phrasing to adapt it to a modern audience. The students indicated how such alterations regularly failed to convey the depths of sophisticated wordplay, where the syntax itself is not an accessory, but a structural part of the meaning.

The omission of words in the source language was considered particularly unforgiving: even though some words like adverbs and conjunctions are omitted in translations to avoid redundancies, some translations were found to leave out entire concepts or expressions for no apparent reason. The visualization of aligned texts on Ugarit certainly accentuated this aspect, as it tends to emphasize the relation between matched and non-matched tokens through the use of color, and it also provides matching rates to assess the discrepancy between texts. Almost all the students seem to have intensively taken advantage of this aspect, by emphasizing how translations missed entire expressions that appeared in the original and shaped its message: in other words, even if the omission only regarded one adjective or a particularly intensive adverb, they felt that translations did not convey the full meaning of the text they were reading.

The implications of such observations are interesting: the translations in question were “bad” translations not because they were not understandable or efficient in conveying the sense of a passage in English, but because they hindered the student’s understanding of the original. Readers, even classically-trained ones, normally enjoy translations that, while taking some liberties, are more efficient in conveying the content and artistic aspects of a text in a way that is more familiar to a modern audience. Students who read a text in translation often struggle with versions that try to be close to the original language (sometimes with rather clumsy results), and they also make limited use of printed aligned translations that used to be very popular in school commentaries of the past. However, when students became active operators of translation alignment, the focus shifted to the understanding of the original through the scaffolding provided by the translation. In other words, the focus was on how the translation served the reader of the source text: this suggests an extremely active engagement with the original, through the critical lenses of systematic linguistic comparison.

With the guidance provided by the exercises, the students used translation alignment to engage with linguistic and stylistic phenomena, and the assessment of the ineffectiveness of translations in conveying such complex nuances often made them more confident in approaching the original language. In their own translations, they became extremely self-aware of their position with respect to the text, and tried to justify every perceived variation from the structure and the style of the original. Some of them opted for very literal, yet clumsy, translations, which they reflected upon and elaborated more thoroughly in a commentary to the text; others, particularly at the Upper level, built upon aspects that they liked or disliked in the translations to create better versions of them, depending on their intended audience.

We can conclude that, if appropriately embedded in reflective exercises, translation alignment did not result in a mechanical operation of word matching, but nurtured an active philological approach to the text, and an exploration of it in all its different aspects, from linguistic constructs to word meanings, to the role of wordplays in a literary context. Despite growing skepticism in the ability of translations to convey the “full” meaning of a text, the students still believed in the necessity of using them in a thoughtful manner.

In fact, the students advocated for more and more varied use of digital tools, to compensate for the deficiencies of aligned corpora. At the Upper level in particular, many students complemented their translation alignments with additional data gathered through other digital resources: for example, while creating translation alignments directed at non-expert readers, they integrated the resource with a complete morphosyntactic analysis performed with treebanking (Celano 2019), with the intention of making up for the limitations of incomplete matching of word functions in specific linguistic constructs.

In this regard, it is important to emphasize that translation alignment is just one of the tools at our disposal. In a future where learning and reading are going to be prevalently performed through digital technologies, we need to create environments where readers can meaningfully engage in a philological exploration of texts at multiple levels: translation alignment, but also detection of textual variants, geospatial mapping, social network analysis, morphosyntactic reconstruction, up to the incorporation of sound and recording that can compensate for reading and visual disabilities (Crane 2019).


Overall, the experiment showed that a meaningful use of translation alignment can empower a reflective and active approach to Classical sources, by means of the continuous, systematic comparison of the cultural and semantic depths embedded in the language. Of course, translation alignment should not be the only option: digital technologies offer many opportunities of enhancing the reading experience as a philological exploration, through the interaction of many different data types, allowing a sophisticated approach to information from multiple perspectives. Even though these tools have been created to empower the reading processes specific of Classical scholars, their application promises new ways of approaching digital content in a much wider context, going beyond the categories of “close reading” and “skimming.”

Translation alignment is a tool that can empower a thoughtful and meaningful approach to reading on digital platforms. But more than that, it can also stimulate a deeper respect for cultural differences. In an increasingly globalized world, translations as means of communicating through cultural contexts and languages are increasingly important: automated translations, as well as interpreters and professional translators, represent a response to a generalized need of fast and broad access to information produced in different cultural contexts. However, being able to access translated content so easily can result in oversimplification, and in the overlooking of cultural complexities. Aligned translations offer an alternative. By discouraging the idea that every word has an exact equivalence, aligned translations add value to the original, rather than subtracting it, through a continuous dialogue between cultural and linguistic systems. Engaging with a translation meaningfully means so much more than merely establishing equivalences: by emphasizing the depth of semantic differences, it can promote better attitudes to cultural diversity and acceptance.


[1] In this sense, reading an ancient text is much closer to literary criticism than to the study of a foreign language. This is the reason why Classical languages are never fully embedded in current practices of foreign language teaching and assessment. This topic was recently treated, among others, by Nicoulin (2019).
[2] This feature is currently available for Greek, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, and Georgian.
[3] Translations were continuously used to ensure communication between different cultures and communities in the ancient world (Bettini 2012; Nergaard 1993). The practice of multi-lingual aligned texts as means of cultural communication was normal, if not frequent, in antiquity, with famous examples like the inscriptions of Behistun, the edicts of Ashoka the Great, and the Rosetta Stone.
[4] A variant of this assignment was also tested on a group of students with no knowledge of Greek, enrolled in courses of literature in translation (Palladino, Foradi, and Yousef forthcoming).
[5] Interestingly, trilingual alignment was used by some students to improve their mastery of a third language, often a modern one, by leveraging on their knowledge of their native tongue and the ancient language (Palladino, Foradi, and Yousef forthcoming).
[6] Incidentally, the “faithfulness” of a translation as a value judgement was introduced by the Christians: since God imprints his image on the text, every version of that text needs to be a faithful reproduction of it. Here resides the miraculous character of the translation of the Septuagint, which, according to tradition, came to be when seventy savants independently wrote an identical translation of the Bible (Nergaard 1993).


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———.“The Alpheios Project.” 2020. Accessed June 23, 2020. https://alpheios.net/.

———.“TLG – Thesaurus Linguae Graecae.” 2020. Accessed June 18, 2020. http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/.

Wolf, Maryanne. 2018. Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. New York: Harper.

Yousef, Tariq. 2019. “Ugarit: Translation Alignment Visualization.” In LEVIA’19: Leipzig Symposium on Visualization in Applications 2019. Leipzig.

About the Author

Chiara Palladino is Assistant Professor of Classics at Furman University. She works on the application of digital technologies to the study of ancient texts. Her current main interests are in the use of semantic annotation and modelling for the analysis of ancient spatial narratives, and in the implementation of translation alignment platforms for reading and investigating historical languages.

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