Cross-disciplinarity at the Crossroads

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 1.20.10 PM

Informal survey at ALA Annual illustrating library’s interest and investment in the future of digital work.

Support for digital humanities, either through a dedicated physical center or a collection of skilled positions under the “digital scholarship” banner, are increasingly found in libraries, rather than in departments. It is often argued that this is a practical move, since libraries facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration. While the disciplines move to the library’s physical space, few are invested in moving their curricula into the library’s intellectual space. As libraries scramble to accommodate the needs of digital humanists, they struggle to incorporate the questions of the digital humanities into their graduate curricula. This discussion between Micah Vandegrift and Sarah Stanley explores how our current educational systems create miscommunications between library professionals and humanists. Through a review of self-described “digital humanities” syllabi, half in humanities programs and half in Library and Information Studies (LIS), this paper examines how digital humanities’ curricula often fail to emphasize efficient and meaningful cross-disciplinary collaboration. The conversation gestures towards pedagogical alternatives that address the shifting mode(s) of labor in DH.

Micah: As the digital scholarship coordinator at FSU Libraries, I’ve invested in the practical applications of digital work in the library. My path began when I studied “digital librarianship” in library school after completing a traditional humanities M.A. My experience in both of my graduate degrees culminated in a blog called Hack Library School, where I and a group of co-bloggers interrogated our educational experiences, questioned our curriculum, and challenged the supposed bridge from library school student to working librarian. I’ve remained interested in library schools curriculum and the preparation of librarians for the actual work of the profession.

Sarah: Although I am the Assistant Digital Scholarship Coordinator at FSU Libraries, my background is in the humanities. I received a master’s in English from Northeastern University in August of 2015. Part of my interest in digital humanities education (both in LIS and humanities programs) stems from the fact that I am a library professional with a non-library educational background—which is increasingly common in the “alt-ac” landscape.

Syllabus Analysis

Affiliated data set:

Vandegrift, Micah; Stanley, Sarah (2016): Crossdisciplines at the Crossroads. via figshare.

Sarah: For this study, we decided to look through the Digital Humanities Syllabi collection in Zotero. We wanted to specifically look at courses that marketed themselves as being “Digital Humanities” courses, so we only collected syllabi that either had “Digital Humanities” in the course title or featured heavily in the description. For the humanities syllabi that I studied, I left off courses that referenced only one specific subfield in its title (e.g. Anthropology, or New Media) and focused on courses with broader titles. Micah similarly looked almost exclusively at courses entitled “Intro to DH” or simply “Digital Humanities.” I studied 12 humanities syllabi and Micah studied 15 Library and Information Science syllabi.

Micah: Lisa Spiro’s work on digital humanities curriculum grounded our research questions for this project; what can syllabi tell us about the program, students, professors, and ultimately the direction of the “field” of digital humanities? Instead of looking at a lot of syllabi from afar (as Spiro does), we decided to look at a small number up close. We looked individually at syllabi instead of doing a distant reading of the entire collection. We decided to look only at syllabi starting in 2011—the year of Lisa Spiro’s syllabi study—to take a more recent view of the field. Additionally, we were interested in the iSchools and Digital Humanities project, which promised to enhance LIS training with internships in three DH centers. That project successfully trained a cohort of students who became professionals in digital areas, but its influence on the wider LIS curriculum isn’t plainly evident.

Sarah: Syllabus analysis has proved a complicated way to determine what actually goes on in DH programs. Syllabi are necessarily an imperfect record of what happens in the classroom, but since (as resources like the Open Syllabus Project would indicate) syllabi are used to analyze the trends in a field or build out curricula, it means something if certain topics are absent from syllabi. It is common for instructors to draw heavily from pre-existing syllabi; even from the 12 syllabi that I studied, it became apparent that instructors were relying explicitly on the teaching techniques of people who taught and designed similar courses. Ryan Cordell acknowledges debt to Brian Croxall, Elisa Beshero-Bondar to David Birnbaum. The Digital Humanities course taught at University of Alabama had content passed down from David Ainsworth to Jennifer Drouin. This seems to indicate that some of the trends we note in this analysis are a result of the passing down of standards from syllabus to syllabus. The fact that syllabus content is being passed down indicates that topics that aren’t included in these records are likely to be left out of curricula.

Micah: The LIS syllabi I reviewed are unique in a few aspects. Because of the nature of expertise in this area, four professors taught multiple “Intro to DH” courses, providing a glance at the continuity and growth of DH pedagogy in library schools over time (Figure 1). Also, “digital humanities in libraries” came into its own during the years that I investigated (2011-2016). With each syllabus I looked for general focus (is it tools-, training-, or topics-focused?), the breadth of assigned readings (is the literature from librarianship, humanities fields, or both?), and the structure of project(s) (collaborative, individual).

Figure 1 – Continuity in LIS courses over time

LIS Course Title Instructor School Year
Introduction to Digital Humanities Tanya Clement University Texas at Austin 2011
Introduction to Digital Humanities Tanya Clement University Texas at Austin 2012
Introduction to Digital Humanities Tanya Clement University Texas at Austin 2014
Introduction to Digital Humanities Tanya Clement University Texas at Austin 2015
Introduction to Digital Humanities Tanya Clement University Texas at Austin 2016
Making the humanities digital Ryan Shaw UNC-CH 2011
Making the humanities digital Ryan Shaw UNC-CH 2012
Digital Humanities John Walsh Indiana University 2013
Digital Humanities John Walsh Indiana University 2014
Digital Humanities Tassie Gniady Indiana University 2015
Digital Humanities Chris Alen Sula Pratt Institute 2012
Digital Humanities Chris Alen Sula Pratt Institute 2015

Sarah: I analyzed DH syllabi (both graduate and undergraduate) from humanities fields from 2011 to 2015. I looked at whether the courses: 1) required a collaborative project and 2) set aside time to discuss the challenges of collaboration or cross-disciplinary research (or had readings that indicated such). Both Micah and I took a pretty hard line marking courses as explicitly discussing collaboration. We only marked “yes” for courses with readings or discussion topics focused around the logistics of interdisciplinary work, the labor of collaboration, and/or managing digital projects. We only marked syllabi “unclear” if 1) the specific readings for the course weren’t given or b) it was unclear if “collaboration” on the syllabus referenced a time to work collaboratively on projects or an actual discussion of the labor of collaboration (see for example the “Collaboratory” on Carol Chiodo’s syllabus). For the humanities syllabi, I also asked how many tools were being taught in each course.

Micah: A theme that I noticed in the LIS syllabi, echoing an ongoing discussion in DH in libraries, was emphasis on hacking/doing/building/making with a smattering of theory. A tools-and-skills-heavy curriculum, without a counterbalance of DH+LIS theory, could teeter toward DHaaS (digital humanities as a service), particularly when blended with traditional library courses which often emphasize service. Nine of the fifteen syllabi had readings that challenge the DHaaS perspective (Muñoz, particularly), but we can’t know to what extent the courses highlight librarians’ disciplinary perspective about information, content, and data.

Sarah: Humanities syllabi also tended to focus on multiple tools, rather than one specific methodology. I looked at thirteen syllabi, and twelve specified which tools and methods they would teach. Of these twelve, each course taught about five tools on average (see Figure 2).1 Yes, five tools per course may be a sampling of all the methods students could employ, but it does not promote any depth to their knowledge of DH methodologies.

Figure 2 – Humanities Syllabi: Tools Taught

Course Name Instructor Institution Year # of tools/ languages taught* list of tools/ languages/ methods/ software (etc.) taught
Introduction to Digital Humanities Brian Croxall Emory University 2011 1 Google Earth (spatial humanities)
Digital Humanities: New Approaches to Scholarship Stefan Sinclair McGill University 2011 3 3 at least: text encoding; analysis tool; visualization tool
Introduction to Digital Humanities Paul Fyfe Florida State University 2011 4 TEI; “text analysis”; ngrams; GIS
Digital Humanities Matthew Wilkens University of Notre Dame 2012 9 Cmd line; Python (programming historian lessons); ngram; voyant; wordhoard; MONK; MySQL; GIS; MALLET
Introduction to Digital Humanities Todd Presner UCLA 2012 4 TEI; Manyeyes; Protovis; GIS
Digital Humanities Lauren Klein Georgia Tech 2012 5 Google Earth; Map Warper; Voyant; Jigsaw; TEI
Travels in the Digital Humanities Carol Chiodo Yale University 2013 4 TEI; Omeka; GIS; topic modeling
Digital Humanities: Topics, Techniques, Technologies J. Paradis; Kurt Fendt Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2013 5 XML; TEI; RDF; Mapping; DataViz
Texts, Maps, and Networks Ryan Cordell Northeastern University 2014 5 Markup (TEI); Text analysis; Omeka; Neatline; Gephi
Digital Humanities/Digital Studies Elisa Beshero-Bondar; Gregory Bondar University of Pittsburgh 2014 7 XML; RELAX NG; HTML/CSS (treated as one unit); XPath; RegEx; XQuery; JavaScript
Introduction to Digital Humanities Jeffrey Drouin University of Tulsa 2015 5 TEI; Voyant; some timeline tool; Gephi; Google Maps
Alabama Digital Humanities Seminar Jennifer Drouin University of Alabama 2015 (updated from 2013) 6 TEI; TAPoR; Voyant; Wordle; MySQL; RDF;

Micah: Surprisingly, only 50% of the LIS syllabi clearly require a collaborative project, and only a few discuss project management or project design. While we both looked for an explicit or direct discussion of collaboration within each syllabi set, I didn’t find much beyond assignments to work together on the final project. Extrapolating, one could posit that students in this cohort of LIS courses are being taught to be software generalists but not necessarily how to work with disciplinary partners, or to advocate for the library’s essential role in DH projects.

Only one of the syllabi had readings that suggested a focus on the logistics of collaboration.

Sarah: Humanities programs don’t seem to promote effective collaboration either. Of the thirteen syllabi I looked through, ten required some form of collaborative project, one stated that collaboration was optional, and the other two were unclear. However, only one of the syllabi had readings that suggested a focus on the logistics of collaboration. It seems that humanists teach students to strive towards collaboration for vague reasons, rather than teaching them about the actual labor of collaborative research.

Micah: Six out of fifteen LIS syllabi dedicated a course module to scholarly communication. The overlap between openness and digital humanities “publishing” is clear, but the pedagogical goals of introducing students to scholarly communication through digital humanities is not. I wonder if exploring academic publishing in a DH course in an iSchool deepens the perception that open access is solely a library issue. Comparatively, seven of the syllabi introduce the students to seven or more digital tools, so it appears from my small corpus that working knowledge of scholarly communication is nearly as important in DH+Lib circles as competency with Omeka and TEI.

Sarah: The problems outlined here are interconnected. Many of the DH courses we reviewed don’t effectively discuss collaboration between humanists and librarians. This dynamic is evident in the way we teach tools and methods. The whirlwind-tool-tour in the humanities classroom leads to surface-level understanding, which prevents humanists from using digital tools in meaningful ways. Humanists cannot learn collections management systems from one week of Omeka, nor are they taught that librarians are trained in this area. By not connecting humanists to practicing librarians, humanities students may function under the false assumption that they are the most prepared to use certain tools. This perpetuates the idea that librarians are service-people and humanists are experts, which is the exact labor relationship we want to dispel!


Micah: Three words: critical digital pedagogy. It seems that DH is nearing a saturation/maturation point in both LIS programs and Humanities coursework, and taking a reflexive view of what is being taught—as well as how, through which lens, to what end, etc.—is timely. We have breadth in our curricula from DH’s evolution, what we need now is some depth and critical distance. The mad dash from “define ALL humanities” to “text encoding as the ultimate DH skill” in one semester may introduce a student to the field, but it doesn’t adequately prepare them to challenge labor conditions in the academy. Examining the curriculum with the goal to break and rebuild it is my primary recommendation.

Sarah: For humanities-based DH courses, it comes back to Bethany Nowviskie’s “It Starts on Day One,” where she says we need to “kill all the grad-level methods courses.” She does suggest incorporating digital tools and methods into humanities courses, but with the intent to foster meaningful collaboration. I would argue that the DH-methods course has replaced the grad-level methods course. Instead, we should be teaching students resources for working better (both together and alone), rather than what the GUI on different mapping tools looks like.

Micah: One goal for this dual-disciplinary investigation is to revive the questions that Spiro and others have initiated: are we sufficiently preparing students on both sides of the aisle for the shared labor of cross-disciplinarity in DH? I am heartened to see that the course the Tanya Clement is teaching at UTexas’s iSchool this Fall is co-listed with reserved seats for humanities students, perhaps related to their joint Masters in Info Studies and English. Creating cross-pollination between departments is laudable, and we want to see more co-listed and co-taught DH courses wherein instruction duties are shared between working librarians, LIS faculty, AND humanities faculty.

Sarah: Perhaps we should aim for a course designed for both humanists and library school students. Preferably one that covers both library and humanities literature and makes connections between the two. A course that attends to the fact that tools require infrastructure and preservation. A course that acknowledges that infrastructure and preservation are a whole area of study and expertise for some people.

Ultimately though, we need our DH courses to teach people more than they teach tools. We should structure our curricula not around vague gestures towards collaboration but meaningful practice of it. We should encourage library students to see their work as meaningful and integral (and we should demonstrate this to humanists as well). And we should teach humanists that there are faces behind the tools they learn in class. Not until we model effective relationships in our courses will we be able to produce digital humanities work that is just and equitable.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Show 1 footnote

  1.  I would like to mention here, that my method for counting the number of tools/languages taught in each course is a little imprecise. So, for example, I counted 7 in Elisa E. Beshero-Bondar’s course from 2014, but all of her tools were related to XML. So even though she included 7 tools, there was a methodological cogency to her course, where each unit built off of the previous unit. However, most of the courses did jump from tool to tool without building up on the previous technologies taught. I have listed the tools I thought were being taught in the analysis spreadsheet.

About the authors

Sarah Stanley is the Assistant Digital Scholarship Coordinator at Florida State University Libraries. Her primary duties include consulting with faculty on research design, and developing a digital humanities program and initiatives for the University Libraries. She specializes in text encoding, the documentation of digital scholarly projects, and digital pedagogy. She received an M.A. in English from Northeastern University in 2015, where she studied digital humanities and medieval and early modern women's writing.

Micah Vandegrift is Florida State University’s Director of Digital Scholarship. Micah heads up the Office of Digital Research and Scholarship (DRS), which provides consultations, infrastructure, and project development in the areas of: academic publishing, data services, digital projects and digital pedagogy.