Paige Morgan

On training undergraduates for work in the digital humanities

This morning I visited Walter Andrews and Stacy Waters, who run two digital humanities projects at UW — the Svoboda Diaries Project, and the NewBook Digital Text project. I knew I was coming for their team’s weekly meeting, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect; and I was kind of stunned to find teams of undergraduates (with a few graduate students) conducting a highly professional runthrough of the work that had been done on each project: the rate of transcription; what problems were being encountered; how Autotagger (an application that they had built in collaboration with a computational linguistics grad student) was working; etc. I’d had no idea that the project was in place, or that it had grown to have a staff of 15-20 student interns who were having the ongoing DH experience that, frankly, I think many graduate students in DH only *dream* of having.

One of the undergraduates is a sophomore history major, and considering double-majoring in history and computer science; and a number of the interns are interested in doing DH work. Walter had asked me whether I had any thoughts on whether a CS major was necessary — and I did. But I also wanted to ask Twitter; and as you might expect, the answers I got were better than the ones I came up with on my own. My view is that a CS major certainly isn’t vital for undergraduates who want to do DH. It’s not that it doesn’t provide useful knowledge — but not all of the knowledge that it provides will be directly applicable to work in the digital humanities. Thus, it’s an investment with a high cost, and a smaller return — at least in terms of doing DH. It’s really hard to know what kind of programming skills you’ll need if you don’t know what kind of DH work you want to do — so my advice would be to take 1-2 introductory programming classes. That would provide you with an intro to what working with code is like — and with that, you would be better equipped to make decisions about what you needed to learn. I suspect that for a lot of DHers, you only start figuring out what you need to know when you have or join a project — so potentially, that might become clearer in graduate school — if you’re planning to go. But really, so much depends on the individual DH student, and their interests, and their particular learning style. I learn better face to face, but my Intro to Java class has helped me make progress with online coding tutorials.

Scott Weingart’s suggestion of which classes to take seemed very sensible — to me, and to numerous other people — so I passed that on to the interns.


I also emphasized that CS wouldn’t necessarily help them develop interesting humanities research questions — though I think that there’s a sweet spot between having enough humanities knowledge to develop good questions, and having enough programming knowledge to be able to envision how one might use computing to answer those questions.

I also told them that they were already doing perfectly valid DH work — that in some ways, their CVs would probably look stronger than mine. I can’t claim to have whole years of experience doing coding and transcription within a larger project, after all.

I was curious about how they would respond. “I guess I’m a little bit uncertain about what DH is,” said one student. “Is it using computing to analyze and critique texts and projects, and making texts available online?” I replied that yes, broadly, those are two major areas of DH — though that within those areas, there’s a great deal of variation. And also, that people are constantly coming up with new angles and new areas. I didn’t mention pedagogy — though I should have, and I will next time I visit.

It makes sense to me that undergraduates would feel this uncertainty about the field, and how they fit into it. Even graduate students experience that sense of confusion — and graduate students are (in most cases) better equipped to see themselves as producing new work, and new projects, than undergraduates are. Both Walter and I emphasized the importance of articulating what you’re interested in doing, and why; and figuring out what you need to learn to do that. That type of DIY approach to learning seems to feel foreign to a number of humanities graduate students. (Will a CS major help you develop that approach? It might; but so might many things.)

The interns’ other main response to my Twitter feed’s collective advice was to wonder whether a graduate degree was necessary to do DH. I don’t think it is, and I said so, and was able to cite at least a couple of job listings I’d seen recently that didn’t require a graduate degree; and places where DH skills (meaning a mix of tech & humanities knowledge) would be applicable. On the other hand, for a lot of people, doing DH means getting project experience — and it can be hard to do that without being enrolled in a graduate program.

I find both of their responses fascinating — and I hope to write more about them, and my thoughts, later on — but my schedule is packed enough this week that it seemed important just to get them out here for the larger community to see.

If you’re reading this, then please feel free to comment — what do you think would constitute good preparation for undergrads interested in DH work? And how might we effectively teach them about the variety of DH projects, and teach them without suggesting, either explicitly or tacitly, that the only way to do DH is to go to graduate school?






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