Teaching DH

Though I’m woefully behind on nearly everything, it’s wonderful to begin a new semester, to meet new students, and to remember that with so many extraordinary new resources and projects and tools, teaching is something to relish. My DH class is perhaps the most challenging and the most challenged, as we’re starting with a DH definition – assessing others’ and offering our own.

While I’ve pointed students readily toward Unsworth and the Day of DH bloggers and Julia Flanders’ interview, among other excellent resources, I am compelled as well to point them toward Terras, who, as recently as July 2010 during her DH closing plenary,  expressed the urgency of engaging in dialogue about DH and offering a definition [“What’s interesting is the big space for a mission statement, and a definition of the field (which we at DH don’t have, yet!).], and, I find, most remarkably, who effectively framed the argument by entitling the talk “Present not Voting: Digital Humanities in the Panopticon.”

I’d love to think of panopticon[1] here strictly in terms of its etymons, and the Bentham reference is really, really brilliant, but, to me, there’s no mistaking the more serious intention behind the title – we’re in a prison (of sorts), and we’re being watched (and we don’t always know who is watching).

… the makings of a tough, rough start. Maybe. But I’m treating it as an opportunity for a passionate defense. Admittedly, for the sake of the students, I’m eschewing the larger political issues so rightly emphasized in the plenary, but the work I am drawing on in my course, that of loads of innovative DH teachers and researchers (all the materials are digital; all are free[2]), makes being one architect of the defense incredibly interesting.

The most difficult aspect of preparing the syllabus has been deciding what not to include. I have, rather restlessly, resigned myself to the fact that I can only reasonably cover so much, and even that only cursorily in just one semester, but even still, I think fifteen weeks is time enough to begin to convey the what, the how, and the why of DH, and, I think it’s enough time to illustrate the significance of DH as well.

But what can I say about the “charlatans” we have to contend with and, whether we intend it or not, according to Unsworth, to some extent ostensibly are? (seriously, though, this is such an important point and such a crucial moment for evaluating various resources related to the same topic, two resources on Jane Austen or two on Dante, to illustrate what Unsworth is getting at, and there is no question that there is a difference between pretty, flashy web pages and those resources that enable interactivity, research, new models, and so forth)

And worse, how to ameliorate the whole prison allusion. yikes.  I’ve already contemplated the standard Socratic line: “okay class, we’ll acknowledge that what we know is that we don’t know… and what we don’t know is what DH is…” But wow, really, do you mean to tell me that I am teaching a course whose subject I can’t define? I’m just not that audacious or irresponsible. And I don’t buy that line anyway. The presence of conferences and journals and workshops and academic programs (etc.) illustrates that there is a consensus; we do know (we’re just not that vocal, as Terras points out). And I anticipate having loads of fun making the case.


[1]“panopticon.” Def. 2. OED Online. “A circular prison with cells arranged around a central well, from which inmates can be observed at all times […] The design was first proposed by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) in 1787.”


[2]I confess I purchased a .pdf of one excellent text and am sharing it with my class, and we’re using Diigo to manage the not-so-easy task of relying exclusively on digital media.