Invention, curriculum, and digital humanities

In the humanities’ ongoing struggle to find its way back to wherever the students are (or lead the students back from wherever they are), one of the more written about tactics involves the digital humanities. Basically the premise is that many students are STEM focused, so connecting with more technical matters is a way to bridge with students’ existing academic pursuits, and other students, who either are in the humanities (or arts or social sciences) or might choose that path, might appreciate a pathway to developing technical expertise they would not otherwise acquire.

For example, Carnegie Mellon recently announced a minor along these lines, called Humanities Analytics. As they put it, the minor “will provide technical training to humanities students — e.g. classes like “Machine Learning in Practice”— and humanistic training to technical students — e.g. “Intro to Critical Reading”— in the growing field of digital humanities.” They have an interesting strategy for approaching this in terms of curricular design. In short, there are three required courses and three electives. If one is in humanities then one takes technical electives. If one is not in humanities then one takes humanities electives. The link above is just to a PR release, so it’s light on details. I am interested to see how it works out pragmatically. I’m thinking that if a similar minor were delivered here, students in the minor would find themselves in English elective classes with students not in the minor and those courses might not be particularly focused on digital methods (or perhaps not even mention digital methods). So that would be a problem. I’m guessing CMU has a different kind of faculty from ours. I’m less certain how it would work on the technical end, which sound mostly like Computer Science courses to me. A reasonable question to ask is what kinds of technical capacities would one develop from taking 3-4 courses (assuming one is starting from square one with no programming experience, high school math, and no background in statistics).  That’s not to say I don’t think it’s a good idea. I actually do. It’s a way of getting students introduced to how these disciplines can speak to one another. For that matter, it’s a way of getting faculty introduced to this idea.

It does spark my own thinking about such matters, which likely tend to the overly ambitious. Now I see two ways to view “digital humanities.” The first is as a scholarly specialization that employs digital technologies to undertake the study of traditional objects within a discipline (e.g., in literary studies the study of literature by means ranging from creating digital archives to data analytics and beyond). I view that as something other people do. The second perspective sees digital humanities as the coming together of humanities disciplines with digital technologies and cultures resulting certainly in the transformation of the former and hopefully a transformation (or at least better/new understanding) of the latter. And that is very much where I live, professionally speaking. It is with the second view in mind that I think about the design of an undergraduate major.

At UB, a Computer Science degree requires around 80 credits, about half of which are required CS courses. I’m guessing that’s  typical.  Our English degree is 30 credits, which is also fairly typical. So I’m wondering if we could create a DH degree that was 50-60 credits of CS, math, and other technical courses and 30 credits in the humanities? Or maybe it wouldn’t need to be quite that CS heavy. A minor in CS at UB is 22 credits, but to that you’d probably want to add some math/stats courses, so maybe 30 credits on the STEM side and 30 on the humanities side. Either way, I would think those humanities courses would necessarily address technical-professional communication, data visualization, digital composing, etc. but would also have space for courses that address subjects from the other, narrower version of DH (e.g. a course analyzing a large corpus of literary texts) and courses focusing specifically on political, historical, ethical issues. Probably those courses wouldn’t all be in English; they could be history, philosophy, communications, art, media study, etc. I am very wary of the notion of dividing classes into the “practical” and the “theoretical,” which I think does service for no one. But I do think we could divide classes into four broad categories (which isn’t to say there wouldn’t be some overlap):

  • Programming
  • Computer science and mathematics
  • Media production (including writing)
  • History and culture

I think we’d still struggle at UB with getting courses in that last category that really spoke to the others, but we could probably offer one or two per semester. That might be enough.

I guess the real question is whether or not there’d be students attracted to a curriculum like this. I’m guessing there would be. At UB anyway, there seems to be a fairly large cohort of students who go into CS and then figure out along the way that it isn’t really for them. On the flipside, there are students in and around the humanities (and in communications and psychology, which tend to be default majors for some students) who don’t really know what they want to do and sense they probably should be more technically literate than they are. They could just minor in CS, but in a way those courses can be so alienated from their other work. This would be a way of addressing that. It’s true these students wouldn’t have the technical expertise of someone who is double-majoring in CS and math. Probably they aren’t going to get jobs as programmers at Google or whatever. Presumably they’ve figured out that’s not what they want to do (or they would be CS majors). On the other hand, they will develop abilities in rhetoric, cultural analysis, aesthetics, and particular kinds of research. They’ll also acquire an understanding of culture and history and discourses for addressing political and ethical matters. Ideally they will embody the humanities foray into the digital. I’m thinking such students will be as well prepared as conventional non-STEM majors (or even much better prepared) for many of the paths they might follow out of college.