Update 2/23/12:

  1. This post was acknowledged as Editor’s Choice (11/28/11) for Digital Humanities Now
  2. See Pollyanna Macchiano talk about this project at THATCamp Pedagogy (video).
  3. The Project submitted a research proposal (pdf) to the CSU Student Research Competition and were chosen as one of four projects to represent the College of Arts & Humanities; they will now compete for one of four spots to represent SJSU at the CSU-wide competition. Wish them luck! [Update 3/28: They didn't advance in the competition but did receive some very valuable feedback, especially from the director of digital studies at our School of Library and Information Sciences]
  4. The group will represent the project as a poster at the Re:Humanities Conference, a gathering run entirely by and for undergraduates who perform Digital Humanities research and scholarship, held at Swarthmore College in March. See Video from the ReHumanities 2012 conference & Storify of tweets

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In my recent tenure dossier, to my university’s administrators, at conferences, in coffee meetings, over lunch, across Twitter, in webinars, within Day in the Life of Digital Humanities, and in an occasional article I’ve been discussing the efficacy of bringing students into Digital Humanities. I’ve accomplished this (somewhat) by inviting them to use digital tools to collaborate on assignments (TechnoRomantic Timeline) or to simply to expose their ideas by posting to class-public fora. I’ve moved beyond PowerPoint in the classroom, not because PowerPoint is an inadequate tool, but because we have other ways of generating and demonstrating their mastery of information and knowledge. My latest experiment, a la Cathy Davidson, was a collaborative mid-term for the Gothic Novel and Horror Fiction course. Of course, inherent to all of these pedagogical experiments is a sense of productive failure — for both me and the students. (The difference, of course, is that when I fail in an experiment, I often give extra points to overcome the shock of failure for the students.) All of this falls under the catch-phrase of student-centered learning. What we would like students to become are lifelong learners. Does this type of classroom activity inspire that?

Collaboration is the lynchpin to supporting all of this productivity, learning, experimenting, and knowledge acquisition.  This unwritten goal was reinforced by a few tech industry magnates at Stanford’s BiblioTech Symposium last year: the CEOs want liberal arts and humanities doctoral students who can command language, interpret technical jargon into metaphor and narrative, and work collaboratively in team situations. Humanities scholars often think of themselves as the lonely bibliophiles in the library stacks, quietly slaving over monographs. But, Digital Humanities has altered that paradigm — even required that Humanists consider exposing their collaborative work, even if it isn’t digitally-inclined. Paul Fyfe even proposes that teaching can assume the tenets of Digital Pedagogy without pushing an ON button. Adding to that conversation, I propose that undergraduates and master’s students can offer intriguing, if not altogether unique, perspectives to work in Digital Humanities — beyond the limitations of classroom-specific assignments. That life-long learning that could translate so well to economic/employment success.

That’s what we’ve done here, in the Beard-stair Project. Or, rather, this is what four intrepid, interested, passionate students have decided to do. There’s a story to the beginning of this project. Bear with me:

ONCE upon a time in early September, Jesus found himself in possession of five slim volumes that weren’t the property of the library where he was working. Someone had dropped them into the outside library return bin for some odd reason. According to Jesus, this happens all the time. The library staff usually sends the books to Friends of the Library for sale to the general public.  Jesus, having already taken my book-history-infused Digital Humanities course, brought them to me. We chatted for a bit, ogled the gorgeous illustrations, and wondered about this rag-tag collection of disparate artists’ books. There was no doubt that they were of some value. The handmade paper and uncut pages in all of them signaled a potential research moment.

After sorting through WorldCat, I discovered that two of the books were extremely valuable. (Egads! What else could be in that store then?) Immediately, it was very clear that these were not books that I was to own. With the rarity of at least one, I felt it incumbent upon me to create a digital edition — which would be easy enough considering that there were only a few pages in each volume. But the art history value coupled with the provenance, book history, literary history, and Victorian/Modernist specifics meant that the topics were out of my realm of expertise. And, I didn’t have time to work on them if I wanted to finish my book projects by the end of my sabbatical in August 2012.

I tweeted about it, discussed it in my grad course on Romanticism, and emailed Jesus and another digitally-inclined student.  Colette jumped on board from Twitter and also happens to be a student at SJSU’s School of Library and Information Science. Doll is an engaged MA student in our English Department and gleefully took the opportunity. Jesus, an English major and our link to the books, stepped in with a passion. And, Pollyanna, another English major, has a penchant for figuring out, theorizing, and operating digital tools in addition to a passion for design. All four demonstrated an immediate enthusiasm for the initial, exploratory meeting. I set the first gathering: my apartment, sit-down dinner, peruse the books.  At that meeting, we ate (panko-encrusted chicken cutlets seared in brown butter), then fondled the books. I took notes on a whiteboard while they talked. Because we were wildly traversing disciplines and historical moments, I turned my television into a makeshift display with my laptop. We couldn’t keep up with the ideas and the questions!

We determined a two-fold approach to the project:

  1. Fall semester goals: exhibit in Special Collections and research time to figure out the connections and contexts; and
  2. Spring semester goals: construct a digital edition supported and maintained by the library and to be peer-reviewed by NINES, if at all possible.

My goal: create a digital scholarly edition that would become a resource for scholars. This means that their research and writing would have to match scholarly requirements. It also means that we need an out-of-the-box platform. The closest we could come up with was Omeka with a WordPress plug-in, but the team isn’t necessarily satisfied with that.

After describing archival research and the exploratory impetus behind doing this kind of work, the team committed to follow any path or avenue that was compelling. And, more importantly, they agreed to update each other over our Google Group and to exchange books at each meeting. This way, each person would spend four weeks with a single volume. They were committed to going down the rabbit hole. (To tell you the truth, I think this is what drives them: not knowing what questions to ask but knowing that there’s more out there to discover. Derrida’s mal d’archive is written all over them.)

This Fall, we’ve met once each month, at my tiny apartment, where all I can do is encourage and feed them while they chat. I take notes, set goals for the month, post interesting/relevant links to our Google Group, look for funding, and send out reminders for the next meeting. I’m a project manager. They are the scholars. Each month, I keep expecting someone to fall away or become overwhelmed with the work (because they’re all taking a full course load+). But each month, they return energized about their discoveries and inspiring each other to dig deeper into histories. They’ve recently decided that they will consult other researchers and scholars, but they would like to maintain the sanctity of the group and write this material themselves.  They don’t want to be scooped! (Ah ha! they are indeed scholars now!)

Two of them submitted a proposal to the Re:Humanities conference; next semester, the four of them will submit a proposal to CSU’s research competition with the hope that they will be selected to demonstrate their project at a CSU-wide conference. One, Pollyanna, co-presented a bootcamp with me at THATCamp Pedagogy and described the project towards the conclusion of the presentation (see video in link above).

But, there’s a hitch with this incredible project-centered course. No one is getting credit for it. It became too complicated to involve the SJSU administration and various disciplines. We would have to request independent study for everyone, and with the budget crunch, my department frowns on that solution. Additionally, independent study shows up on their transcripts under the associate chair, not me. Consequently, it didn’t make sense. Quite frankly, this frees me from assessing their work — because assessing digital projects requires a different framework than assessing course work. I’m not focusing on the outcome, the product. Instead, we are engaged in a process; one that will take a year to come to fruition. They consider this project and our meetings their fun time. FUN TIME!

So, we gather, talk, eat, sometimes drink, touch books, exchange stories, make progress, ask questions, laugh, celebrate. But, most importantly, we collaborate. Correction. They collaborate.

I can’t wait to see what they come up with next, what they solve, what they query, where this project takes them.

This is the kind of teaching that I’d like to do: project-centered courses that resolve real-time issues.

Now, how can I get this written into the curriculum here at SJSU? Guess I’ll have to work on that one m’self. In the meantime, I’m preparing the menu for our next meeting. Lamb Tagine? or Braised short ribs?

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