Back to being a student

This week Kate and I are attending the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at UVic. I feel like I’m going back to being a first-year undergrad (with all the awkwardness and confusion that implies) while also attending a wonderfully nerdy and welcoming summer camp. The experience (and being confronted by the realms of my ignorance) have made me reflect a bit about why I have wanted to get involved in the digital humanities. I think I need to figure out what I was thinking when I signed up to learn about IIIF Image servers or presentation API’s…

Most of my early connection to computers was for entertainment – my parents got my brother and me a colecovision console in the early 80s and then sent us to mini-university computer camp to teach us how to program on a  Commodore 64 (which we then used exclusively to play games). Since both of my parents were teachers, we had a steady stream of early Apple computers intended to be educational. These were the first machines I did something other than play games on – learning (maybe?) from vaguely educational software (e.g. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego) or writing up school assignments. And this is in essence how I have also used computers – for entertainment and for composing papers. Throughout grad school and to this day for my research, I have rarely used my computer as anything more than a word processor and, these days, increasingly a means to read pdf article and books. So, as my history shows, I really don’t have any background nor any reason why I should be trying to teach about Digital Archives.

In teaching, however, I have often sought to have students use digital environments to see historical practice from a new perspective. Almost a decade ago, I had my students in classes on medieval intellectual life edit wikipedia articles to get them used to the idea that others would see what they write or that their writing could impact how the Middle Ages is perceived (and also to improve the quality of scholarship of Wikipedia in those early days). More recently I’ve tried to incorporate smaller digital assignments to help student re-imagine their research process such as using Knightlab’s Timeline which was meant to provide a new structure for constructing historical chronologies. I’ve found that using these tools (which are really just new versions of tools long used by historians), students were able to better understand how and why scholars work the way they do.

It is with this in mind that I want to create a new course devoted to the process of digital archiving – even though I takes me far outside my comfort zone (reading and thinking about Medieval Latin texts), and into the terrifying world of Unix and command line editing. Thank goodness I have a graduate student to act as an Ariadne in this DH labyrinth.


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