Some Assembly Required: teaching through/with/about/by/because of, the Digital Humanities (slides & notes)

I’m giving a keynote address to the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education conference, at Carleton on Thursday (10.30, River Building). I’ve never done a keynote before, so I’ll confess to being a bit nervous. ‘Provoke!’ I’ve been told. ‘Inspire! Challenge!’ Well, here goes….

These are the slides and the more-or-less complete speaker’s notes. I often write things out, and then completely adlib on the day, but this is more or less the flavour I’m going for.


I never appreciated how scary those three words were until I had kids. ‘Some assembly required’. That first Christmas was all, slide Tab A into Slot B. Where’s the 5/8ths gripley? Is that an Allen key? Why are there so many screws left over? The toys, with time, get broken, get fixed, get recombined with different play sets, are the main characters and the exotic locales for epic stories. I get a lot of mileage out of the stories my kids tell and act out with these toys.

My job is the DH guy in the history department. DH, as I see it, is a bit like the way my kids play with the imperfectly built things – it’s about making things, about breaking things, about being playful with those things. This talk is about what that kind of perspective might imply for our teaching and learning.


I don’t know what persuaded my parents that it’d be a good idea to spend $300 in 1983 dollars on a Vic20, but I’m glad they did. You turn on your ipad, it all just happens magically, whoosh! In those days, if you had a computer, you had to figure out how to make it do stuff, the hard way. A bit disappointing, that first ‘Ready’ prompt. Ready to do what? My brothers and I wanted to play games. So, we sat down to learn how to program them.  If you had a vic-20, do you remember how exciting it was when that ball first bounced off the corners of your screen? A bit like the apes in the opening scene of ‘2001’.  At least, in our house.


‘Wargame’, film with Matthew Broderick. This scared me; but I loved the idea of being able to reach out to someone else, someone far from where I lived in Western Quebec. So we settled for occasional trips to the Commodore store in Ottawa, bootleg copies of Compute! Magazine, and my most treasured book, a ‘how to make adventure games’ manual for kids, that my Aunt purchased for me at the Ontario Science centre.


Do you remember old-school text adventures? They’re games! They promote reading! Literacy! They are a Good Thing. Let’s play a bit of this game, ‘Action Castle’, to remind us how they worked.

To play an interactive fiction is to foreground how the rules work; it’s easy to see, with IF. But that same interrogation needs to happen whenever we encounter digital media.


Games like Bioshock – a criticism of Randian philosophy. Here, the interplay between the rules and the illusion of agency are critical to making the argument work.

When you play any kind of game, or interact with any kind of medium, you generally achieve success once you begin to think like the machine. What do games teach us? How to play the game: how to think like a computer. This is a ‘cyborg’ consciousness. The ‘cyb’ in ‘Cyborg’ comes from the greek for ‘governor’ or ‘ship’s captain’. Who is doing the governing? The code. This is why humanities NEEDS to consider the digital. It’s too important to leave to the folks who are already good at thinking like machines. This is the first strand of what ‘digital humanities’ might mean.


A second strand comes from that same impulse that my brothers and I had – let’s make something! Trying to make something on the computer inevitably leads to deformation. This deformation can be on purpose, like an artist; or it can be accidental, a result of either the user’s skill or the way that the underlying code imagines the world to work.


‘Historical Friction’ is my attempt to realize a day-dream: what if the history of a place was thick enough to impede movement through it? I knew that I could find a) enough information about virtually everywhere on Wikipedia; that b) I could access this through mobile computing and c) something that often stops me in my tracks is not primarily visual but rather auditory. But I don’t have the coding chops to build something like that from scratch.

What I can do, though, is mash things together, sometimes. But when I do that, I’m beholden to design choices others have made. ‘Historical Friction’ is my first stab at this, welding someone else’s Wikipedia tool to someone else’s voice synthesizer. Let’s take a listen.

…So this second strand of DH is to deform (with its connotations of a kind of performance) different ways of knowing.


A third strand of DH comes from the reflexive use of technology. My training is in archaeology. As an archaeologist, I became Eastern Canada’s only expert in Roman Brick Stamps. Not a lot of call for that.

But I recognized that I could use this material to extract fossilized social networks, that the information in the stamps was all about connections. Once I had this social network, I began to wonder how I could reanimate it, and so I turned to simulation modeling. After much exploration, I’ve realized that what I resurrect on these social networks is NOT the past, but rather the story I am telling about the past. I simulate historiography. I create a population of zombie Romans (individual computing objects) and I give them rules of behavior that describe some phenomenon in the past that I am interested in. These rules are formulated at the level of the individual. I let the zombies go, and watch how they interact. In this way, I develop a way to interrogate the unintended or emergent consequences of the story I tell about the past: a kind of probabilistic historiography.

So DH allows me to deform my own understandings of the world; it allows me to put the stories I tell to the test.


There’s an awful lot of work that goes under the rubric of ‘digital humanities’. But these three strands are I think the critical ones for understanding what university teaching informed by DH might look like.


Did I mention my background was in archaeology? There’s a lot that goes under the rubric of ‘experimental’ archaeology that ties in to or is congruent with the digital humanities as well. Fundamentally, you might file it under the caption of ‘making as a way of knowing’.


Experimental archaeology has been around for decades. So too has DH (and its earlier incarnation as ‘humanities computing’) which goes back to at least the 1940s and Father Busa, who famously persuaded IBM to give him a research lab and computer scientists to help him create his concordance of the work praesans in the writings of Thomas Aquinas.

So despite the current buzz, DH is not just a fad, but rather has (comparatively) deep antecedents. The ‘Humanities’ as an organizing concept in universities has scarcely been around for much longer.


So let’s consider then what DH implies for university teaching.


But I feel I should warn you. My abilities to forecast the future are entirely suspect. As an undergrad, in 1994, I was asked to go on the ‘world wide web’, this new thing, and create an annotated bibliography concerning as many websites as I could that dealt with the Etruscans. The first site I found (before the days of content filters) was headlined, ‘the Sex Communist Manifesto’. Unimpressed, I wrote a screed that began, “The so-called ‘world wide web’ will never be useful for academics.”

Please do take everything I say then with a grain or two of salt.


Let me tell you about some of the things I have tried, built on these ideas of recognizing our increasingly cyborg consciousness, deformation of our materials, and of our perspectives. I’m pretty much a one-man band, so I’ve not done a lot with a lot of bells and whistles, but I have tried to foster a kind of playfulness, whether that’s role-playing, game playing, or just screwing around.

[15]epic fails

Some of this has failed horribly; and partly the failure emerged because I didn’t understand that, just like digital media, our institutions have rule sets that students are aware of; sometimes, our ‘best’ students are ‘best’ not because they have a deep understanding of the materials but rather because they have learned to play the games that our rules have created. In the game of being a student, the rules are well understood – especially in history (which is where I currently have my departmental home). Write an essay; follow certain rhetorical devices; write a midterm; write a final. Rinse. Repeat. Woe betide the prof who messes with that formula!

I once taught in a distance ed program, teaching an introduction to Roman culture class. The materials were already developed; I was little more than a glorified scantron machine. I was getting essay after essay that contained clangers along the lines of, ‘Vespasian won the civil war of AD 69, because Vespasian was later the Emperor.’ I played a lot of Civilization IV at the time, so I thought, I bet if I could get students to play out the scenario of AD69, students would understand a lot more of the contingency of the period, that Vespasian’s win was not foreordained. I crafted the scenario, built an alternative essay around it (’play the scenario, contrast the game’s history with ‘real’ history’), found students who had the game. Though many played it, they all opted to just write the original essay prompt. My failure was two-fold. One,‘playing a game for credit’ did not mesh with ‘the game of being a student’; there was no space there. Two, I created a ‘creepy treehouse’, a transgression into the student’s world where I did not belong. Profs do not play games. It’d be like inviting all my students to friend me on Facebook. It was creepy.

I tried again, in a history course last winter. The first assessment exercise – an icebreaker, really – was to play an interactive fiction that recreated some of the social aspects of moving through Roman space. The player had to find her way from Beneventum to Pompeii, without recourse to maps. What panic! What chaos! I lost a third of the class that week. Again, the concern was, ‘how does playing a game fit into the game of being a student’. Learning from the previous fiasco, I thought I’d laid a better foundation this time. Nope. The thing I neglected: there is safety in the herd. No one was willing to play as an individual and submit an individual response – ‘who wants to be a guinea pig?’ might have been the name of THIS game, as far as the students were concerned. I changed course, and we played it as a group, in class. Suddenly, it was safe.

[16]epic wins

But from failure, we learn, and we sometimes have epic wins (failures almost always are more interesting than wins). Imagine if we had a system that short-circuited the game of being a student, to allow students the freedom to fail, to try things out, and to grow! One of the major fails of my Year of the Four Emperors experiment was that it was I who did all the building. It should’ve been the students. When I built my scenario, I was doing it in public on one of the game’s community forums. I’ve since started crafting courses (or at least, trying to) where the students are continually building upwards from zero, where they do it in public, and where all of their writing and crafting is done in the open, in the context of a special group. This changes the game considerably.


To many of you, this is no doubt a coals-to-newcastle, preaching-to-the-choir kind of moment.


And again, I hear you say, what would an entire university look like, if all this was our foundation? Well, it’s starting to look a little better than it did when we first asked the question…

 [19]dh will save us

…but DH has been pushed an awful lot lately. DH will save us! It’ll make the humanities ‘relevant’: to funding bodies, to government, to parents! Just sprinkle DH fairy dust, and all will be safe, right?

[19]memes & dark side

You’ve probably heard that. It’s happened enough that there’s even memes about it.

Yep. No doubt – a lot of folks are sick of hearing about ‘the digital humanities’. At the most recent MLA, there was a good deal of pushback, including a session called ‘the dark side of DH’. Wendy Chun wrote,

For today, I want to propose that the dark side of the digital humanities is its bright side, its alleged promise: its alleged promise to save the humanities by making them and their graduates relevant, by giving their graduates technical skills that will allow them to thrive in a difficult and precarious job market. Speaking partly as a former engineer, this promise strikes me as bull: knowing GIS or basic statistics or basic scripting (or even server side scripting) is not going to make English majors competitive with engineers or CS geeks trained here or increasingly abroad […] It allows us to believe that the problem facing our students and our profession is a lack of technical savvy rather than an economic system that undermines the future of our students.”

  (That’s not a DH that I recognize, by the way, as I hope you’ll have noticed given my three strands).

Now, I wasn’t at that meeting, but I saw a lot of chatter flutter by that day, as in that same session MOOCs were conflated with the digital humanities; that somehow the embrace of DH enables the proliferation of MOOCs. As Amanda French, who has coordinated an extraordinary number of digital humanities ‘THATCamp’ conferences, has said, ‘I don’t know a single digital humanist who likes MOOcs.”

We’ve heard a lot about MOOCs today, and I’m certainly in no position to critique them as I’ve never offered nor successfully finished one. But as I’ve identified the strands of DH today, there *is* an affinity though with the so-called ‘cMOOC’.

[21]Know Your MOOCs

Before there was coursera, udacity, and glorified talking heads over the internet, there was the cMOOC. The Canadian MOOC. The personal learning environment. Isn’t it interesting that Pearson, a text book publisher, is a heavy investor in the MOOC scene? Frankly, as xMOOCs are currently designed, they seem to me to be a challenge to publishers of textbooks rather than to teaching. We can do better, and I think DH ties well with the idea of personal learning environments. ‘Massive’ is not, in and of itself, a virtue, and we’d do well to remember that.

[22]Rainbow Castle

So, following my three strands, we’d:


-identify the ways our institutions and our uses of technology force particular ways of thinking

-we’d deform the content we teach

-we’d set up our institutions and our uses of technology to deform the way our students think: including the ways our institutions are set up.


So let’s turn the university inside out. It’s been about silos for so long (also known as ivory towers). I grew up on a farm: do you know what gets put into a silo, what comes out? It’s silage, chopped up, often a bit fermented, cattle food: pre-processed cud. Let’s not do that anymore.

[25]Walled Gardens, online dating

For all their massiveness, MOOCs and Universities are still walled gardens. And what’s the unit of connection? It’s the course. It’s the container. I used to work with a guy who often said, ‘once we get the contract, we’ll just get monkeys to do the work’. That guy is no longer in business. I used to work for a for-profit university in the States that had a similar approach to hiring online faculty.

MOOCs are not disruptive in that sense. Want to be really disruptive? Let’s turn to a model that massively connects people together who have a shared interest. I hereby banish the use of any metaphor that frames the relationship at a university in terms of clients, or customers. Instead, what if the metaphor used was more in line with a dating service?

In online dating, the site brings together two kinds of people, both looking for the same thing. Typically, the men pay a fee to be on the site; women are wooed to the site by all sorts of free promos etc.  No point having a dating site that does not have any available ‘others’ on it. In which case, the university could be in the business of bringing together students [the ‘men’] with faculty [the ‘women’]. If a university had that metaphor in its mind, it would be thinking, ‘what can we do to make our site – the university – an attractive place for faculty to be?’ Imagine that!

Students would not be signing up for classes, but rather, to follow and learn from particular profs. Typically on something like eBay or a dating site, there are reputation systems embedded in the site. You do not buy from the person with the bad rep in eBay; you do not contact the person whose profile has gotten many negative reviews. Since the university knows the grades of the students and has teaching evaluations and other indicators of faculty interests and reputations, it has the ability to put together faculty and students in a dynamic way. “Others who have enjoyed learning about Roman civilization with Dr. Graham have loved learning about Bronze Age Greece with…”.  Wouldn’t it be something to allow students to select their areas of interest knowing the reputation of the profs who work in a particular area; and for profs to select their students based on their demonstrated interests and aptitudes? Let faculty and students have ‘tokens’ – this is my first choice, this is my second choice, this is my third choice prof/student to work with for the session. Facilitate the matching of students and faculty. Let the student craft their way through university following individuals, and crafting a ‘masterpiece’ for their final demonstration of making as a way of knowing, for their BA? Hmmm. Kinda sounds like a return to the Guild, as it were.

You might not like that, which is fine; there are probably better ideas out there. We’ve got all this damned information around! Maybe there are earlier models that could work better with our new technologies, maybe there are new models for our new techs. But surely we can do better than merely replicate processes that were designed for the late 19th and early 20th century? Whatever metaphor we use to frame what the university does, it goes a long way to framing the ways learning can happen. That’s what DH and its exploration of a cyborg consciousness should make us at least explore.

[26]domain of one’s own

And once we’ve done that, let’s have some real openness. Let the world see that faculty-student, and student-student, relationship develop. Invite the rest of the world in. Folks like Ethan Watrall at MSU already do that for their on-campus courses putting all course materials and assessment activities on open websites, inviting the wider world to participate and to interact with the students.

Give every student, at the time of registration, a domain of their own, like Mary Washington is starting to do. Pay for it, help the student maintain it, for their time at university. At graduation, the student could archive it, or take over its maintenance. Let the learning community continue after formal assessment ends. The robots that construct our knowledge from the world wide web – Google and the content aggregators – depend on strong signals, on a creative class. If each and every student at your institution (and your alumni!) is using a domain of their own as a repository for their own IP, a personal learning environment, a node in a frequently re-configuring network of learners, your university would generate real gravity on the web, become the well out of which the wider world draws its knowledge. Use the structure and logic of the web to embed the learning life of the university so deeply into the wider world that it cannot be extricated!


Because right now, that’s not happening. If you study the structure of the web for different kinds of academic knowledge (here, Roman archaeology), there’s a huge disconnect between where the people are, and where the academics are. If we allow that to continue, it becomes increasingly more easy for outsiders to frame ‘academic’ knowledge as a synonym ‘pointless’. With the embedded university, the university inside out, there are no outsiders. If we embed our teaching through the personal learning environments of our students, our research production will become similarly embedded.


If the university is inside out, and not in splendid isolation, then it is embedded.

Forget massively ‘open’.

Think massively embedded.

Think massively accessible.

(Not the best image I could fine, but hey! that boulder, part of a structure, is embedded in a massively accessible landscape.)

[29]Check mark list

So what’s tuition for, then? Well, it’s an opportunity to have my one-on-one undivided attention; it’s icetime, an opportunity to skate. But we need to have more opportunities for sideways access to that attention too, for people who have benefited from participating in our openness, our embeddedness to demonstrate what they’ve learned. There’s much to recommend in Western Governors’ University’s approach to the evaluation of non-traditional learners.


The digital humanities, as a perspective, has changed the way I’ve come to teach. I didn’t set out to be a digital humanist; I wanted to be an archaeologist. But the multiple ways in which archaeological knowledge is constructed, its pan-disciplinary need to draw from different wells, pushed me into DH. There are many different strands to DH work; I’ve identified here what I think are three major ones that could become the framework, the weave and the weft, for something truly disruptive.