Posted & filed under In The News

Cathy Davidson and Peter Jagoda were recently invited to a leader a workshop at the Chicago Humanities Summit, a part of the larger Chicago Humanities Festival.  The following notes were taken on the session: 


Session #3 – How to Do Digital Humanities Right 

Facilitator: Cathy N. Davidson (Duke University)
Moderator: Patrick Jagoda (University of Chicago)
Note Taker: Peter Mortensen (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Video available at: feature=c4-overview


In The Heart of the Matter (2013), the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences emphasizes that “[e]ven in a digital age, the spoken and written word remains the most basic unit of our interactions, the very basis of our humanity” (23). From this premise, the Commission argues that colleges and universities must redouble their commitment to “develop digital media resources to increase access to a worldwide public, gifted teachers and scholars from all domains of study will experiment with these methods and explore their new powers” (35). But what directions should this development take? Who should be involved? What should they do? The answers are in the making, according to Cathy Davidson (Duke University) and Patrick Jagoda (University of Chicago), leaders of a workshop on “How to Do Digital Humanities Right” at the Chicago Humanities Summit. Both contend that a “maker spirit” pervades the best new work in the digital humanities, and that it would benefit the humanities, broadly conceived, to adopt this same spirit. Supporting this contention, Davidson (CD) and Jagoda (PJ) delivered brief papers: CD discussed historical trajectories that bear on challenges faced by academic humanities disciplines in the current moment; PJ detailed specific lab models and projects in which participants are collaborating to fashion a future for humanistic inquiry at colleges and universities—and beyond. They then engaged participants in an exercise that elicited many local examples of “doing digital humanities right.”

Session Notes

CD likened the current transformation of the humanities to an earlier transformation that dramatically altered how humanistic knowledge was made and circulated in U.S. colleges and universities. After the Civil War, the European model of the research university, often referred to as the Humboldtian research university, came to have an impact on American higher education. The research university made learning a specialized, discipline-based experience that separated the “two cultures” of the arts, humanities and interpretive social sciences from quantitative social science, technology, and natural science. Higher education also became increasingly segmented into courses of standard duration, programs with fixed graduation requirements. This quest for order culminated in the mid-1920s, when the university curriculum crystallized into a form still recognizable now, in the twenty-first century.

One motivation for this transformation of the liberal arts model into the research university model of higher education was the U.S. economy. Many blamed the naiveté of American corporate leadership for the devastating Panic of 1957. Among those was Charles William Eliot, whose father had lost the family fortune in the Panic. Eliot strove, during his fifty years as President of Harvard University, to transform that institution into a modern research university. Along with Eliot, there was a major cultural emphasis on productivity, rather than process, and on fixed, machine-like results, all inspired by the monumental work of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor decided not to go to Harvard Law School but, instead, to work in a pig iron factory where he developed his theories of “scientific labor management” designed to regulate human workers in all areas of endeavor to the kinds of standardized, regularized, routinized productivity outputs of assembly lines and other forms of machine labor. CD argues that the same idea of quantifiable, measurable “outcomes” increasingly was applied to education, resulting in “scientific learning management.”

Results of this questioning include the refocusing of some college curricula on cost-conscious workforce preparation, coupled with the migration of student enrollments toward such curricula—and away from curricula that feature traditional humanities coursework. The consequences for the academic humanities have been harsh. But, CD argues, as this negative evaluation of the humanities has spread, so too have the elements—the tools and dispositions— of a reversal that could restore humanistic learning to the vital center of the university, and thus the university to the core of our common cultural life.

The tools are digital and the dispositions are those of “makers.” In CD’s view, digital tools applied with a “maker spirit” promise to transform humanities curricula such that outcomes are the inverse and opposite of what was valued in the university that evolved between the 1860s and the 1920s. Rather than sponsoring learning that is tailored (and Taylor-ed) to be quantifiable and measurable, the humanities in a digital era must prepare college graduates to adapt rapidly to changing social, political, and economic conditions, to work collaboratively across far-flung and cross-cultural networks, and to accomplish shared goals in environments filled with distraction. Adaptability, collaboration, accomplishment—these are the hallmarks of a new humanities for digital times. Unfortunately, just as academic humanists are discovering how these hallmarks might be enabling of a diverse, inclusive civil society, powerful voices of doubt are offering up pointed (though pointedly uninformed) criticism. These voices cannot be ignored, CD said. They must be engaged, engaged publicly, and engaged with compelling models of successful research and teaching. She concluded her remarks with a description of a course on the “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” ( Among other course activities, some 12,000 students in an online course, led by fifteen graduate students in an onsite course at Duke, will create a crowd-sourced, collaborative timeline of innovations in higher education around the globe. They will also engage in a “thought experiment” where they design an institution of higher education from scratch and produce the materials needed to promote it. The purpose of this experiment is to engage students and faculty in a humanistic exercise in thinking about the kind of higher education we might want, desire, and need if we did not have our legacies of Industrial Age divisions, bureaucracies, silos, and standardized metrics.

Complementing CD’s overview of transformations in higher education writ large and in the humanities specifically, PJ described various models of the sort that might, as CD suggested, lead to renewed public interest—and confidence—in the academic humanities. Among these models is the humanities “lab,” exemplars of which can be found at Stanford University (the Stanford Humanities Lab, and the Maker Lab in the Humanities at the University of Victoria ( In addition to established digital humanities and new media labs such as these, there is a “temporary lab” model worthy of attention. For example, Duke University evolved a temporary Haiti Lab in its John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute ( that concentrated and integrated research, educational, and practical resources in response to the January 2010 earthquake centered near Port-au-Prince. PJ’s own efforts have been focused on developing the Game Changer Chicago (GCC) Design Lab (, which is grounded in the belief that “[g]ames have the power to change reality” and that youth have the capacity “to create games that are authentic, meaningful, and powerful tools for learning and social change.” Games developed in the lab speak to social justice issues (e.g., homophobia and threats to environmental sustainability), as well as to the development of literacies appropriate to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) fields. The GCC lab also foregrounds digital and twenty-first century literacies. In PJ’s view, key benefits of the humanities lab model are as follows: (1) students master design principles not by means of abstract study but as they think through practice that features testing and iterating of key concepts; (2) labs enable flexible learning organized around a project in contrast to rigid learning that conforms to a fixed curriculum; (3) labs foster collaboration that overcomes the isolation of individual learners that has been characteristic of traditional models of humanities research and teaching; (4) labs are open to involvement by faculty experts who are not themselves expert users of digital technologies; (5) lab activities can focus on transdisciplinary forms of knowledge, promoting the relationship between the humanities and sciences; (6) labs support learners’ acquisition of real-world skills (including grant-writing and other fundraising skills); and (7) labs have the potential—not yet fully realized—to incorporate attention to social justice issues that became a priority in the humanities after their “cultural turn,” but that have often been bracketed out of early forms of digital humanities scholarship.

Participants’ Contributions

After delivering their introductory remarks, CD and PJ asked participants to engage in a “Think- Pair-Share” exercise. (For details on Think-Pair-Share pedagogy, see CD’s HASTAC blog post on the subject at transform-classroom-primary-lifelongl-any-size-.) The question put to participants was this:

Participants spent a short time thinking about and drafting responses on 4 x 6 in. index cards, then a short time paired

with partners with whom they shared responses. They then shared the responses with the group as a whole. What followed was an open reporting of individuals’ highest priority responses. Reporting and discussion were documented in a public Google Docs file by several University of Chicago students. At session’s end, participants submitted their index cards, and contents of the cards were added to the Google Docs file. What follows is adapted from the Chicago students’ documentary efforts.

Priorities voiced in group discussion by participants:

What things are happening at your institution to make the humanities central to your students’ lives? In particular, what are three things you have done or witnessed at your university or institution that support the humanities as they transform in the 21st century?

● WFMT Radio: As the home of Studs Terkel, work on digitizing his radio and audio archive, making it searchable with scholarly narrative, and creating the capacity for mashups.

● Jonathan Arac, University of Pittsburgh: Hope to make humanities central to students by giving students the ability to major in an area of knowledge (the humanities) in which they are interested.

● Field Museum, Chicago: Interactive with area university students, engagement with science and anthropology labs, an integration of science and cultural studies with an eye towards training students of all ages how to think about the world in an integrated way with hands-on experiences.

● Dartmouth College: An event that showcased how professors and students collaborate from different fields on a research program. Students would come up and explain that they didn’t even know they did research in the humanities. Important towards sharing the different kinds of collaborative relationships and spaces that exist, and how to get those messages out.

● Don Bialostosky, University of Pittsburgh: Meeting with students and parents at recruitment and major showcase events to speak to what they do in the humanities.

● Pacific Lutheran University: Get alumni together in order to talk about people out in the work world successfully with the hope that real world work experiences will positively influence students. Discipline focused university, so many students have their first experience in a humanities environment.

● California Digital Library, University of California: Working to provide tools and services especially for humanists. For example, the Data Management Planning Tool which can be used to help secure national funding. Looking to provide support for graduate students. Libraries across the country also support the digital humanities with maker labs. (,

● Lucy Rinehart, DePaul University: In general education curriculum, 4 of the 6 domains of the university are humanities-based. In upper-level English classes, social engagement classes have one or two English students. The term “humanities” often doesn’t mean anything to many students or their parents. Started a journal that publishes a best of graduating seniors; if you choose a field, this is what you can expect.

● University of Washington, Simpson Center: Offer the certificate in public scholarship for doctoral students in order to develop the notion that engagement in the practical arts should be in their portfolio. Mechanisms: flexible curriculum offering things such as one-credit courses in project management or for visiting scholars.

● Chicago Humanities Festival: Video tape almost all lectures, performances (events that are capable of being recorded). Available online. Online presence grown; almost the same number of people outside of US downloading the content as American users. Allows for reaching teachers. Ties together groups of programs that teachers will teach. Programs online that fit with MLK Day or give more resources. Kids can see these at home and then discuss in class. Focus is particularly high school students.

● Cathy Davidson, Duke University: In the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, students create professional websites for themselves that might include a professional blog, syllabi for courses they teach, teaching philosophy, a resume, published articles, a dissertation prospectus, relevant ancillary interests, anything that presents a well-rounded picture. A recent survey of those conducting interviews at a professional meeting showed over 70% Googled candidates to learn about them. A professional website ensures that curated content is what comes up first. In addition to curating their online professional identity, in making a website for themselves they master digital literacies, including design. In the PhD Lab, MFA and PhD students work and learn together, each offering a different set of skills and perspectives to the other.

● Patrick Jagoda, University of Chicago: The Game Changer Chicago Design Lab uses digital storytelling, computer games, and emerging new media forms to explore social and emotional health issues, social justice, and civic responsibility with youth on the South Side of Chicago. The Lab works primarily with urban youth of color between the ages of 14 and 20. The Lab brings together university faculty and game designers, as well as graduate and undergraduate students in the humanities, local high-school youth, visiting artists and designers, and community organizations. Collaborative projects include participants in digital media design, development, playtesting, dissemination, research studies, evaluation, and grant writing. One large-scale learning experiment was the alternate reality game, The Source, which was run in summer 2013 (


Priorities gleaned from participant-submitted index cards:

● Strengthening financial support for doctoral students in the humanities.

● Offering a one-year MA in Humanities with strong co-curricular support on academic and career networks.

● Curricular integration of college humanities courses with local art museums, libraries, and performing arts centers.
●  Developing new writing and DH course for computer science students.
●  Make 4-6 of the “liberal studies” requirements humanities areas.
●  Digital Studies Certificate initiative, across the campus.
●  Investment in undergraduate research, including in the humanities.
●  Increased humanities center programming of interest to students as well as faculty.
● Make creative writing courses that also fulfill the social engagement and service-learning courses, also a way to show power of good writing in social justice, public benefit, and society.

● Sponsorship of ethnographic inquiry into “university narratives” particular to the institution.

● New general education program that is both humanistic and career-centered, making case that writing, reading, literacy skills are humanistic and are useful to careers.

● General education program asks life questions about sustainability and other issues of concern.
●  Online instruction and joint classes offered to make university more accessible.
●  Retooling general education for an extended engagement with culture.


As befits an interactive workshop on the humanities in a digital age, here are two digital traces of what transpired during the session:
–  Google Docs accounting of participants’ discussion and index card submissions (

– A YouTube video (58:59) of the session produced by the Chicago Humanities Festival (

Leave a Reply

(will not be published)
Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

Follow Cathy