Based in five years of experience teaching digital humanities (DH) students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), our paper tells the story of an evolving approach to teaching "practical" skills. We argue that the most important skills DH students need to learn are not particular programming languages or specific research methodologies, but team-based problem-solving. Furthermore, an effective way to achieve this learning is for students to work together to design and build a digital project that addresses a real challenge, draws upon their commitment to the humanities, and serves the mission of a local organization.
When UNL formed its Graduate Certificate Program in Digital Humanities, the organizing committee knew it wanted students to have a substantial engagement with the intellectual theory undergirding digital humanities as well as with DH praxis. To accomplish this, UNL created two courses to form the heart of the Certificate: the Interdisciplinary Reading Seminar in Digital Humanities and the Internship in Digital Humanities.Note: Full details of the UNL Graduate Certificate Program are available at http://www.unl.edu/dhcert/
The Internship in Digital Humanities, originally available only to graduate students, embedded students within faculty DH projects at UNL. Students worked on these projects for seven hours per week and spent one hour in class learning some "basic skills" for digital humanists. After running the course this way for two years, we determined we were not fulfilling the goals of the curriculum or the needs of the students. In the best cases, students were fully integrated into project teams and were challenged with new experiences. Other students, however, performed menial and repetitive work throughout the semester. We also underestimated the challenge of making students collaborators in this limited time, especially when project staff faced deadlines and needed to focus on production rather than instruction. The weekly class sessions, too, were mere introductions; students could not truly learn new skills because their projects did not provide opportunities to work with the introduced technologies and strategies.
The mediocrity of this approach and the inclusion of the course in a new Undergraduate Minor in Digital Humanities forced us to think more deeply about what it means to teach DH project development. We wanted a higher level of student investment in the work and for students to be involved from conception to implementation. And opening the course to undergraduate students made us even more aware of the need to present students with varied projects, not just those emerging from faculty members at a research-intensive university.Note: Our approach acknowledges Jakacki and Faull's perspective that undergraduate digital humanities education often focuses on specific tools or techniques rather than "habits of mind" (2014). Our course and pedagogy also take up the "three major questions in digital humanities pedagogy" raised by Smith: is there a "common core of learning objectives" around which DH programs should be structured? How vocational should DH curricula be? Should DH curricula focus on skills, method, "or critical perspectives on technology and its application"? (2014).
For the revised version of the course, known as the Digital Humanities Practicum and launched in 2014, we adopted a service learning--or community-based learning--model. Both undergraduate and graduate students enroll in the course, and it is cross-listed among several departments including Anthropology, English, History, and Modern Languages & Literatures. (We are faculty members in the UNL Libraries, and the Libraries also play an important role in the course.) Under the new design, we partner with local organizations who have identified challenges suited to technological, humanities-engaged solutions. Over the course of the semester, students respond to those challenges, first conceptualizing a solution, iteratively building their solution (and sharing iterations with classmates), and then presenting their solution to a public audience at the end of the semester.Note: The skills we teach with this class are consistent with those outlined by Rockwell and Sinclair (2012): working in interdisciplinary teams, managing projects, applying digital practices, and explaining technologies. The practicum engages and implements key values of community-based learning, including a "recursive style; direct, high-impact method; and emphasis on abstraction embedded in practice" (Grobman and Rosenberg, 2015). In addition, the course now advances a team-based experience that focuses not only on academia but looks outward to the humanities' roles in society more broadly.
A fundamental difference between the Digital Humanities Practicum and the earlier internship course is that the Practicum focuses on team-based problem-solving rather than specific technical skills. For example, Humanities Nebraska, a state-wide humanities advocacy organization, challenged the students to improve communication about their annual Chautauqua event while engaging new audiences. In response, a team of undergraduate students proposed a mobile application that would serve as an information platform and provide opportunities for social media engagement. Entering the course, the students had limited experience with web technologies and no experience with mobile application development. While they researched what might be involved in creating a mobile application, we reached out to others on the UNL campus who could work with students to help them learn specific skills and made sure they would have access to necessary hardware (such as a variety of mobile devices for testing) and software. By semester's end, the application was available in the Google Play store, and shortly after was published to the Apple App Store. During this experience, the students learned much more than new technology proficiencies. They performed research about Chautauqua and the Chautauqua theme ("Free Land"), considered how best to communicate this information to the audiences they sought to reach, and interacted effectively with their client and mentors about their ideas--including accepting and responding to criticism of approaches that were not working.
This model requires significant flexibility on the part of the instructors and students. The syllabus is largely unfixed, as it must respond to the students and their needs, based on their background and experiences and also on the solutions they seek to pursue. Therefore, most of the fifteen-week semester cannot be planned more than a week or two in advance. Students, however, use an agile development approach so that they and we learn early where they will confront difficulties in implementing their solutions and what resources--whether people, hardware, software, or strategies--we need to connect them with in order for them to develop their projects.
Successful implementation of this model also requires that faculty and students are frank about knowledge limitations. As the instructors, we confess at the beginning of the course that we don't ourselves know everything the students will need to learn to be successful. But what we offer the students--and model for them--is the ability to figure out the necessary skills and seek appropriate resources. As we routinely tell the students, the requirements to solve these problems are not technical skills, but courage and perseverance. Our students have learned to weather discomfort not only because we implore them to do so, but because the iterative development model insists upon it. By having the students produce and demonstrate results early and often, we get them accustomed to a new kind of relationship with their coursework and to problem solving.
Based on our observations and student evaluations, it is this iterative process that imparts the learning. Furthermore, student investment in the projects is encouraged by the "realness" of the challenges. Unlike many classroom assignments, the problems in the Digital Humanities Practicum are authentic challenges brought in by external organizations with real missions, and their work can have application beyond the classroom. Students have assisted the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, for example, in their effort to secure federal legislation designating an historic trail. For the next iteration of the course, offered in Spring 2016, we plan to work with organizations that are not principally humanities organizations. These include a children's museum, a community supported agriculture and food education organization, and a social justice organization. Our goal is to broaden understanding of where humanities work can happen as well as demonstrate possibilities for solving problems by joining diverse areas of expertise. While we do not yet know the outcomes of the 2016 Practicum, the course will conclude before DH2016, and we will share both the student projects as well as an evaluation of the approach.