HACKING THE FIELD: Teaching Digital Humanities with Off-the-Shelf Tools
Klein, Lauren, Transformations
An interactive timeline of culturally significant events in New York City's Greenwich Village-bookended by a sepia-toned photo of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and by New York University's architectural plans for adding 6 million square feet to its Washington Square campus- provides a multimodal pathway into "The Peopling of Greenwich Village." This student-produced website documents the evolution of that vibrant New York City neighborhood. A second student website, "The Integration of Dominican, Chinese, Russian and Mexican Immigrants in NYC," presents transcripts of interviews with new arrivals from the city's four largest immigrant groups with detailed analyses of US Census data. A third website, "CSI: College Students Investigate Staten Island," offers slideshows of the borough's rich community life, introducing a public audience to the "forgotten borough." These digital projects, each created with off-the-shelf and online tools, supported by free and open-source publishing platforms, and constructed by students over the course of one semester, are models for theoretically grounded, practical digital humanities scholarship and pedagogy.
In recent years, digital humanities initiatives funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and projects developed by the University of Virginia's Scholars' Lab, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the Stanford Humanities Lab, and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University have demonstrated the scholarly potential of collaborations between institutions and across disciplines. A series of articles in The New York Times, in 2010, spotlighted digital tools that are transforming scholarship in the humanities (Cohen). The December 2010 release of the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which allows users to chart the relative occurrence of a word or phrase in a massive corpus- four percent of all books ever published-presents a dazzling example of how digital humanities scholarship can provoke new questions about linguistic shifts, literary usage, and cultural change.1
Digital humanists continue to envision large-scale projects like the Google Ngram Viewer, and for good reason. The creation of digital archives and online editions of texts, the quantitative analyses and visualizations of textual datasets, and the development of digital tools that facilitate new modes of scholarship promise to extend the boundaries of humanistic inquiry in meaningful ways. Now, with the proliferation of Web 2.0 technologies and the sustained momentum of the free and open-source software movement, an expanded range of accessible tools exists that can be directly deployed or easily repurposed for digital humanities scholarship. It no longer "just makes sense" for institutions without technical resources or financial support to partner with larger digital humanities centers, as Rebecca Davis, of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, has assumed. Rather, the ideas and methods associated with digital humanities scholarship can now be implemented by sole practitioners, and in individual classrooms, by utilizing an array of off-the-shelf tools. In the public university setting of the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York (CUNY), we take the position that off-the-shelf tools allow students and faculty to engage with the processes and methods associated with digital humanities scholarship.2 These low-cost, and in many cases, free tools, grant a diverse student body entry into this emerging field.
The recent turn towards describing the digital humanities in terms of values, as a way to encompass the expanding set of theories, tools, and methods associated with the field, opens up digital humanities scholarship to projects that are conceived and realized with these off-the-shelf tools. In fact, the set of values that underlie the field of digital humanities today, as proposed by Tom Scheinfeldt, the Managing Director of George Mason's Center for History and New Media, emphasize "commitments to open access, open source, and collaboration," as well as an awareness that "small institutions and even individual actors with few resources are able to make important innovations" ("Stuff Digital Humanists Like"). …