Teaching the teachers

During the winter semester of 2018 our Doctoral Training Unit on Digital History and Hermeneutics decided to introduce digital history to the first-year master students. We divided and conquered each lesson in pairs or groups of three PhD researchers, coordinated by Postdoc researcher Tim Van Der Heijden.

Preparing classes

Armed with the structure and experience from the previous teacher and fellow PhD researcher Max Kemman we discussed general content as a team and each took on two or three lessons to share the workload. For example, I took on the theoretical lesson on Publishing for the Web, and two practical sessions focussed on the When?-question, including Timelines and Databases, and Queries and Data Visualisation. In order to create a uniform structure for the students even with twelve different teachers, I first transformed the Hillary Clinton-emails from a spreadsheet to a relational database together with my colleague Shohreh Haddaddan for the practical sessions.[1]

Preparing Writing for the Webwas relatively straightforward with my colleague Marleen de Kramer, since we set our goal together and then divided the session into what (to publish on the web) and how (to set up a website). We provided the students optional readings and a mandatory HTML-module on codecademy so they could learn the basics on their own before class. We prepared group brainstorms to determine the goals and audience of the introdigitalhistory.dhlab.lu website.

On the 5th of October we followed a workshop by dr. Robert Reuter organised to prepare us for teaching this course specifically. We were asked to explain what and how we would be teaching, as well as how we would assess the learning and teaching afterwards. Together with Antonio Fiscarelli and Kaarel Sikk we answered these questions for the practical When-sessions. In general we explained concepts in the format of a traditional lecture. Furthermore we introduced practical tools such as database software MariaDB with the Navicat-interface and data visualisation software Tableau in tutorials for the students to follow at their own pace.

Trying to teach

We structured the Writing for the Web-lecture based on questions such as: What should we write? Who are we writing for? How do we write for the web? We also briefly introduced the Hillary Clinton emails and showed the website we created for the course. To determine the goal and audience of the course website students brainstormed in groups of two and together we created a persona. We tested their understanding of web-accessibility in the form of storyboards and wireframes. Students cooperated well in class discussions, but due to time restrictions had some trouble understanding the assignments.

In Timelines and Databaseswe included historical examples of timeline visualisations, and discussed the concept of time based on the article Is Time Historical? in a traditional lecture.[2] We wanted students to understand the link between a primary source and data, as well as the principles of a relational database. Therefore we prepared a step-by-step tutorial for them to create a database from scratch and manually insert data from the first 10 Hillary Clinton emails. Despite screenshots and a step-by-step explanation the students still struggled, although part of the struggle came from fear of the unknown. We also discovered some minor mistakes in the Windows-tutorial and were delayed by students who didn’t or couldn’t install the software beforehand.

For Queries and Data Visualisation we transformed research questions into SQL queries and discussed best-practices in data visualisation by criticising bad examples and introducing Edward Tuftes principles. The query-walkthrough also recapped the previous dataset structure and students started to better understand the dataset assignment. We were still short on time in class. Fortunately, the Tableau tutorial was much easier and most of the students finished quickly. We interpreted the timeline visualisation they created together at the end of class and gave them a month to repeat the exercise and reflect on their timelines in a blogpost.

Evaluating assignments

The storyboards depicted scenarios of use focussed on web accessibility and tested the student’s understanding of the course, as well as their creativity in problem solving. With a few minor exceptions, we were positively surprised by their first assignment. As for the wireframes we noticed that we should have provided clearer guidelines on web design, but we hope the feedback was useful.

Despite initial protest about the database assignment nearly all students scored very high, partially because evaluating a database is generally easier and more objective. For next year we do need more time to properly explain relational databases and the context and structure of the Hillary Clinton emails in particular. A separate session would furthermore ease the workload and give the students a little more time to build the database.

The timeline blogposts were challenging to grade even though we set out clear criteria from the start. This assignment sparked a serious discussion on bibliographic referencing in blogposts. We generally expected students to reference literature and emails either by including hyperlinks or adding a bibliography, but should have specified the format beforehand. Overall we were impressed by their historical analysis of events in their timelines of the Hillary Clinton emails.

[1] The procedure and code used to scrape and clean the Clinton emails can be found here: https://github.com/C2DH/A-Republic-of-Emails. We built a relational dataset by reformatting and cleaning the data from the spreadsheets using Python.

[2] Hunt, L., (2007). “Is Time Historical?” in Measuring time, making history. Budapest; New York: Central European University Press.

So you think you know Digital Humanities?

Although I have been enrolled in the Master of Digital Humanities (MDH) for a year by now, the discussion on “What is digital humanities?” remains relevant as there is no single answer to this simple question. In fact, there are several interesting definitions of digital humanities (DH) on the http://whatisdigitalhumanities.com/ website. Every time you refresh their website you get a different point of view, another attempt at defining DH.

In my opinion, DH comes down to two essential and complementary elements: employing digital tools to study the Humanities and Social Sciences, and criticizing the limits and biases those tools may cause. Unfortunately defining DH brings a whole new set of problems to the table. As Lisa Spiro clarifies in “This Is Why We Fight”: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities:

Even as the digital humanities (DH) is being hailed as the “next big thing”, members of the DH community have been debating what counts as digital humanities and what does not, who is in and who is out, and whether DH is about making or theorizing, computation or communication, practice or politics (Spiro, 2012).

The same people that try to define DH and therefore select the “chosen ones”, dwell on how wonderfull and revolutionary the community of DH is in comparison to other more traditional academics. Matthew Kirschenbaum noticed this (self)praise of Digital Humanities in his article on What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments? after the discussion on Croxall’s paper at the 2009 Modern Language Association (MLA).

Many seemed to feel that the connection to wider academic issues was not incidental or accidental and that digital humanities, with a culture that values collaboration, openness, nonhierarchical relations, and agility, might be an instrument for real resistance or reform (Kirschenbaum, 2012).

This brings me to my next topic: “What are the core values of digital humanities?”. Before I discuss these values, I would like to point out that the simple act of defining values, usually means these values do not (yet) exist in reality.

The first value Lisa Spiro discusses in her article is openness on two levels, both in the exchange of ideas, and in the strive for open content and software as well as transparancy (Zorich, 2008). I believe several issues arise from this strive for openness. The first issue regarding the exchange of ideas, will be discussed together with the second value. Secondly, open content and transparancy in humanities research, can violate the privacy of the participants. Once there are clear guidelines, I do believe openness stands at the core of Digital Humanities. You can find DH project guidelines here: Digital_Humanities (Burdick et al., 2012, 122-135).

Spiro goes on to the second value of collaboration, which does not only improve productivity, but also encourages new approaches. However, in the humanities identifying the author is key, since the author should get the credit. Articles from the natural sciences often contain an entire list of authors, contributors, and so on, that are ordered according to their contribution. The first author for example is the person that wrote the article, while the last author oversees the project. Therefore I feel DH needs a clear order of contributors with meaning attached to every position so that every person that collaborated gets the correct recognition for their work. As Bethany Nowviskie already states in het blogpost on monopolies of invention:

The biggest question for you may be how you’ll open potentially awkward conversations about status in a way that strengthens your team, creates – rather than limits – opportunity, and permits the kind of fluidity and professional growth we all want to foster over the course of long-term, collaborative initiatives. (Nowviskie, 2009).

This statement also connects to Lisa Spiro’s third value of collegiality and connectedness. I truly hope that the positive atmosphere from the MDH generation 1.0, will transfer to the generation 2.0. In our program I do feel there isn’t such a competitive spirit as in my previous field of study, and the feedback and encouragement of fellow students is really nice. Whether this atmosphere applies to the broader DH community, I do not know.

The final two values will probably recur extensively in my next blogposts, so I will not discuss diversity and experimentation in this blogpost. However, in the context of experimentation I would like to add that no result, is still a result and should definitely not be hidden. When a certain project fails, describing the steps in the process can actually help other researchers, as well as open the discussion on why it didn’t work and how it could work with another method/tool/dataset.


Spiro, Lisa. ““This Is Why We Fight”: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?”. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Zorich, Diane. A Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2008.

Burdick, Anne, Drucker, Johanna, Lunenfeld, Peter, Presner, Todd, and Schnapp, Jeffrey. Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.

Nowviskie, Bethany. “Monopolies of Invention.” Bethany Nowviskie. December 30, 2009.