David “Jack” Norton
Like many in the DH world, I taught digital humanities before I knew it had a name. I taught my students to podcast, blog, and even do a bit of GIS tagging. Then I joined Twitter, and my awareness of the digital humanities world exploded. I teach 150–180 students each term at a suburban community college in Minnesota. Around 55 percent of my students are from historically underrepresented groups, which include first-generation students, Pell-eligible students, and students of color (“Normandale Factbook”). Right now, I teach two world history courses entirely as DH courses. For me, that means all of the assignments result in digital outcomes (mostly written analysis), that the assignments are created and administered digitally, and that students use digital sources (with the exception of some library books) to study the past. I teach in computer classrooms and online and use the same assignments for both. My students produce fourteen different DH assignments over the course of the semester, ranging from answering questions based on a historical GIS website to creating their own digital exhibits using Omeka.
Given the size of my classes, the demographics of my students, and the assessment practices that increasingly dominate higher ed, I might be expected to design assignments that adhere tightly to fastidious learning outcomes. But I find that focusing on creating a workflow that facilitates timely creation, delivery, completion, and feedback is as important to student learning as the learning outcomes themselves. Students learn better when our shared workflow, which I define as a structured and time-efficient work process, receives as much attention as the learning outcomes. I believe that there needs to be a wider discussion in the digital humanities about how we all spend our time creating, teaching, and assessing our assignments. When we talk about what we spend our time on as teachers, we are talking about what we value. For the digital humanities to advance as a teaching practice, we need to hold discussions of workflow in concert with existing disciplinary discussions of sources, methods, and presentation. Only by taking the challenges of workflow seriously can we weigh all of the competing interests in our pedagogies.
At about the same time that I came to appreciate the potential of the digital humanities for my students, I was asked to direct my community college’s faculty development group, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). At the CTL, we provide and facilitate training for faculty on pedagogy and technology in the context of the scholarship on teaching and learning. Working on issues of faculty professional development directed my attention to the importance of effective time usage and effective teaching interventions related to technology. While heading the CTL, I continued a research project on equity-driven course-design principles for students who experience the effects of income inequality: it was a sort of universal design for education with attention to resources rather than disability. That research rests at the intersection of digital humanities, faculty development, and what I call “antipoverty course design.” For the equity project, I listened to my students’ concerns about DH assignments and poverty, and I reviewed the literature on effective teaching practices (Jaggars and Xu). I concluded that attention to workflow benefited not just student learning by increasing the amount of student–faculty engagement but also protected my own time by reducing unproductive planning and unnecessary grading.
Many academics use “workflow” to describe the steps required to complete a task—that is, “do a, then b, then c” (Turkel). Extending the scope of that definition, I encourage instructors to consider what comes before and after the “a, then b, then c,” as well as how much time they need to complete a, b, and c. As Anne McGrail reminds us, students, especially working-class and first-generation students, “have less discretionary time to engage in college” (23). She also observes that many of those students approach time in an ontologically different way than their professors do, focusing less on investing effort for a distant payoff in favor of more immediate gains.
With these considerations in mind, I created an assignment using Omeka Neatline, which allows students to drop points with historical metadata attached onto a GIS map. The assignment had eight pages of instruction, including a title, an explanation for why we were doing the assignment, a set of learning objectives, the steps to complete the assignment, the minimum time necessary to complete it, the final product’s formatting requirements, the grading rubric I would use, and a set of frequently asked questions. The entire assignment could be thought of as a recipe. As any cook can tell you, good recipes include not just ingredients but also descriptions of necessary tools and cooking techniques, along with a sense of what a good finished product will look like. So too, my DH assignments offer robust instructions so that everyone can succeed, not just those already skilled in history (Norton). Students see in one document what they can expect to learn, the exact steps they need to follow to be successful, how much time it will take, and how they will be graded.
One might assume that so many details would discourage independent thinking or otherwise degrade the content of the assignment. Yet, research suggests otherwise. First, there is some evidence from the field of science education that more structure in courses “increased course performance for all students” (Eddy and Hogan, 453). This conclusion comes from a study that measured student success on the basis of exam grades in biology courses. Biology differs from DH courses in subject matter, but not in the need to master large amounts of information. What remains relevant for the digital humanities is that, when faced with exams for which there were right and wrong answers (as distinct from history, where the quality of the answers is shaped by the use of evidence), students performed better with more structure. In the case of my Neatline assignment, I found that students interrogated historical sources better when given step-by-step instructions for placing a GIS marker in an Omeka Neatline map, which requires attaching specific historical metadata to the point, than when I asked them to drop a point in Google Maps and then write about the importance of that place. My speculation is that the structured entry format for Neatline encouraged students to focus more on why the historical place marker mattered within a larger narrative of world history than did the “easier” interface of the Google tool, which let them just click on the map and write anything they wished.
Part of the power of using DH methods as teaching tools derives from the active learning baked into the process. Students must do and think at the same time, which helps make knowledge “stickier” than when they learn through more passive forms such as lectures. In fact, cognitive scientists have shown that active learning yields superior results when compared with the lecture format. In my history-focused DH classes, students spend half their time working on their digital projects and a quarter of their time discussing the history on which the projects are based. I spend little time in class delivering content.
Of course, this discussion covers little fresh ground for most undergraduate teachers of DH courses. That this chapter emerges in the third volume of Debates in Digital Humanities speaks to the expanding breadth of our field. Still, there are areas in the field that have only recently begun to be explored, including the issues involved in teaching digital humanities at community colleges. The 2012 volume of Debates in the Digital Humanities lacked a single contribution from a community college faculty member, and the 2016 volume contained only one: Anne McGrail’s admirable discussion of her experience becoming a DH teacher in English. This is not necessarily the fault of the editors: there were perhaps few community college faculty publishing on digital humanities at the time, and more generally, the academic world is only now recognizing the importance of digital humanities in community colleges. But to support this new attention on community colleges as sites for DH work, we need to ask how we can help those new to the field develop sustainable workflows that reflect the circumstances of community college students and faculty.
For one, we need to recognize the radically different landscape that community college faculty face as compared to our four-year colleagues. For example, the 150–180 students whom I teach each semester translate into fifteen hours of in-class instruction and five required office hours. If I spend just five minutes assessing each piece of each student’s work, I add more than thirteen hours of grading a week. That leaves around six hours for reading, lesson planning, service, or any other activity I choose to pursue during a nominally forty-hour workweek. That is the reality for community college faculty across the United States. In such circumstances, an emphasis on workflow helps ensure that I have time to include DH projects in my courses and that students can get meaningful feedback that improves their learning. My workflow allows me to spend two hours preparing an assignment, four hours coaching students through the assignment, and two hours grading using rubrics, for a total of eight hours. The quality of the work is high because I spend four hours coaching students how to do it. In contrast, if I were to spend four hours fiddling with the alignment of skills, content, and learning outcomes in a student assignment, an hour lecturing my students on how to complete the assignment, two hours working with the students on the assignment, an hour of formative assessment of the learning outcomes, and two hours answering emails because I spent more time on outcomes than a well-structured workflow, I would be on the hook for eight hours of additional grading required to carefully ascertain whether students met the learning outcomes. That amounts to eighteen hours of work for roughly the same assignment. With a slightly different emphasis, students can do more work on their own, cover more history, and get feedback faster—and I spend less time grading.
I wrestle with time constraints in a different way in my capacity as a leader of faculty professional development. Our college celebrates a culture of teaching excellence, and our excellent teachers are those who mind their time carefully. A minor tweak to a learning management system that results in three additional mouse clicks might occasion some grumbling among our four-year colleagues, yet it can result in massive pushback from community college faculty because of its practical consequences. We grade more than four-year faculty because we have more students; assessment efficiency matters. Like cooks at a diner, we must work fast, prepping, cooking, and delivering a high-quality dish. There are no mise en place community college teachers.
Community college faculty need to carefully consider the workflow of their DH assignments. My own path to a well-structured assignment workflow, such as the Omeka assignment described earlier, was born out of frustration. Like many faculty, I began my assignments with what I thought were simple instructions, like a three-line recipe. Mix ingredients, bake until done, enjoy. Quickly, I realized that students needed additional guidance, such as “please use Firefox or Chrome as your browser and make sure the pop-up blocker is disabled.” Then I realized that my students succeeded at much higher rates if I used videos or embedded pictures into the instructions. Screen-capture videos were easy to make, but time consuming to edit. As an alternative, I used the installed applications, such as the Windows Snipping tool, on whatever computer I had in front of me, dropping screen grabs into a word-processing document. But tinkering with the images and inserting arrows that pointed to key elements proved time consuming as well. And even after creating these techno mash-ups of assignments, I struggled to give timely responses to students.
But I am still doing DH work in my classrooms. So what changed?
First, I abandoned any software that slowed me down. I swapped out word-processing software for writing in a plain text editor, which allows me to focus on formatting only when I am ready to publish my lesson plan to the class. I had read about other DH scholars who made the same change to plain text for scholarly publishing or coding reasons, but my choice was both practical and pedagogical: writing in plain text saves time that I can better use with students. In addition, I switched to an application called Clarify that allows me to do screen grabs from any screen on my computer directly into a plain text document. Finally, I focused my attention on reproducibility. Every assignment now begins with the same template, ensuring both good teaching practices and avoiding excessive time spent on framing a lesson plan.
I also deliberately select those tools for my assignments that will allow me to manage my time most efficiently. For instance, there are multiple, high-quality GIS platforms that allow students to add historical data to maps, such as CartoDB, MapStory, and ArcGIS. But I use GIS plugins with Omeka because I can grade those assignments most efficiently. Of course, there is a counterargument that smells vaguely of superlative, techno-utopia and runs as follows: “We should use the best technology available because that will best prepare our students for the workplace.” But I far prefer a student who is competent with a historical GIS program than one who is marginally familiar with the industry-standard software, ArcGIS.
Finally, and most importantly, I bake as many learning outcomes as I can into the assignments themselves. In this way, students can learn the necessary history and demonstrate the required skills simply by completing the assignment. Rather than offering holistic grading comments, I now use rubrics that evaluate whether the students have successfully completed the required tasks, and I include the rubrics in the initial assignment so the students know how they will be graded. For example, a rubric for an assignment that results in an Omeka digital exhibit might include the criteria that a student select three primary and three secondary sources, correctly add Dublin Core metadata for the six sources, and create a thesis that is provable, non-obvious, and appropriate for the time period under discussion. Using rubrics as assessment instruments certainly has its issues, but the practice has also allowed me to give meaningful, actionable, and timely feedback to my students.
We need digital humanities in community colleges. The analytical and technical skills along with the digital literacy embedded in digital humanities are vital to sustaining a productive workforce, an informed electorate, and an engaged citizenry. According to the College Board, 42 percent of all undergraduate students attend community colleges, and many will complete associate of arts degrees or leave college without degrees (Ma and Baum). For many students, community colleges offer the only exposure to the valuable practices and theories of digital humanities. And yet, most community college students work more than twenty hours a week. At the same time, almost no community college instructors have course release for research, professional development, or curriculum development. If we do not carve out time for ourselves and our students, digital humanities will never spread at the community college level.
At its best, DH courses locate knowledge in a student-centered process, one in which students create projects from information they have found themselves, with their instructors serving as content advocates or skills coaches. Students simply cannot do digital humanities by listening to a lecture or watching a film. They must take knowledge, interrogate it, change it, remix it, and present it. Put another way, students must create their own education—which, indeed, is one of the great goals of higher learning.
I anticipate that advances in DH tools, theory, and scholarship will continue to be partly driven by research-oriented four-year schools. Nevertheless, leaving the digital humanities to be defined only by elite institutions denies our students a powerful learning experiences. Having students do digital humanities at the community college level challenges the epistemological orientation of digital humanities as a subject for the few and instead claims the practice for the many for whom it has the most significant benefits. We owe it to our students, and especially to our students at community colleges, to consider how digital humanities operates at two-year schools, why it is valuable and necessary, and how it leads to deeper learning for our students.
1. A meta-study conducted in 2014 compared 225 studies “that reported on examination scores” of students in science, technology, engineering, and math courses using “traditional lecturing versus active learning.” The “results indicate that the average examination scores improved by about six percent in active learning sections, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were one-and-a-half times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.” (Freeman et al.).
2. A 2016 study concluded that of four factors in online courses (course organization and presentation, learning objectives and assessment, interpersonal interactions, and use of technology) only “strong meaningful interpersonal interaction” between faculty and students predicted higher student grades (Jaggars and Xu, 2016). Based on this research surrounding active learning and student engagement, I deliberately spend 75 percent of my time in one-on-one interactions with students about their DH projects.
3. To wit: the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded a $3.1 million grant to the Humanities Alliance to pair graduate students from the Graduate Center, CUNY, with students and faculty at LaGuardia Community College (Davidson). And I benefited from the new focus on digital humanities at community colleges as a participant in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute at Lane Community College during the summer of 2015.
Davidson, Cathy. “$3.15 M Mellon Grant Focusing on the Humanities, Community Colleges, and Next Generation Graduate Training.” HASTAC blog. October 19, 2015, https://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2015/10/19/315-m-mellon-grant-focusing-humanities-community-colleges-and-next.
Eddy, Sarah L., and Kelly A. Hogan. “Getting under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work?” CBE-Life Sciences Education 13, no. 3 (September 21, 2014): 453–68, http://www.lifescied.org/content/13/3/453.full.pdf+html.
Freeman, Scott, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth. “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, no. 23 (June 10, 2014): 8410–15, http://www.pnas.org/content/111/23/8410?tab=related.
Hittinger, Francis. “Introducing Digital Workflows for Academic Research on the Mac.” Butler Library Blog. April 3, 2014, https://blogs.cul.columbia.edu/butler/2014/04/03/introducing-digital-workflows-for-academic-research-on-the-mac-2/.
Jaggars, Shanna, and Di Xu. “Examining the Effectiveness of Online Learning within a Community College System: An Instrumental Variable Approach.” 2013, http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/media/k2/attachments/examining-effectiveness-of-online-learning.pdf.
Jaggars, Shanna, and Di Xu. “How Do Online Course Design Features Influence Student Performance?” Computers & Education 95 (April 2016): 270–84, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.01.014.
Ma, Jennifer, and Baum, Sandy. “Trends in Community Colleges: Enrollment, Prices, Student Debt, and Completion.” CollegeBoard. April 2016, http://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/trends-in-community-colleges-research-brief.pdf.
McGrail, Anne B. “The ‘Whole Game’: Digital Humanities at Community Colleges.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, 16–31. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
“Normandale Factbook.” 2016, http://www.normandale.edu/Documents/about/2015-2016%20Normandale%20Community%20College%20Fact%20Book.pdf.
Norton, David. “Digital Humanities Lesson Plan Template.” June 2015, https://www.dropbox.com/s/eol3n9tgvbcovk7/DHLessonPlanTemplate.txt?dl=0.
Norton, David. “Lesson Plan 1 (using Omeka and Neatline).” September 2015, http://jacknorton.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/time-i-assignment.html.
Turkel, William J. “How To.” 2014. https://williamjturkel.net/how-to./.