Becoming a Digital Scholar

Recently, I’ve posted a couple of times on my efforts to make connections with the world of digital humanities. This week, I continue those efforts by attending for the first time a Digital Humanities methods seminar that I’ve enrolled in.

As I’ve mentioned in those previous posts, I’m still working to figure out if/how I—an educational technology researcher—fit in the world of digital humanities, and I’ll admit that I’m having some of those same thoughts now as I get ready for class in just a few minutes. However, as I’ve gone over the introduction to our textbook, I’ve immediately found a few anchoring points that have convinced me that I can learn a lot from this seminar. In this post, I’d like to go over some of the passages of this introduction that really stood out to me, use them to frame my journey to where I currently stand in the realm of digital scholarship (whether in the College of Arts and Letters or the College of Ed), and maybe even tease out a few things of what I hope to learn from my instructor and my classmates.

This is not a volume about digital humanities, conventionally understood; rather, it is one that engaged with the interface between humanities and the digital

— Patrik Svensson & David Theo Goldberg, Between Humanities and the Digital, p. 9

It was when I read this passage that I immediately knew there was something for me in this book and in this class. I came to grad school knowing that I was interested in educational technology but not really knowing how to talk about what educational technology is. Over my first few semesters, I started to build an understanding of educational technology that now serves as a foundation for my teaching and research, even as I continue to add onto it. The crucial part of this understanding is knowing that educational technology isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) a truly separate, insular field. Rather, it is a field that examines the effect of technology on teaching and learning. Broadly speaking, introducing technology into the classroom shouldn’t change the philosophies of education, the theories of learning, and the pedagogical ideals that we espouse. Rather, it’s important that we understand how technology affords, constrains, or otherwise mediates those ideas.

More recently, I’ve started to realize that there is (or should be) a similar dynamic in our research. I sort of stumbled into digital research when I realized that I could use the application programming interface of my favorite board gaming website to collect already-existing data about educational games. I ended up building my second year research practicum around that data, and it wasn’t much later that I learned how to harness the Twitter API to find other data sources for my research pipeline. Some time after that, I read a piece by three professors in my department explaining how technology affects the work of educational psychologists, and suddenly all of my edtech thinking about affordances, constraints, and mediation was applicable not just to my teaching-self but also to my researching-self.

Svensson and Goldberg’s phrase “the interface between humanities and the digital” gives me a metaphor to describe the work that I’ve been trying to do, even if I need to replace the word “humanities” with either “learning” or “research” (and maybe replace the word digital, too, but that’s a bone to pick another time). If this is the approach we’re taking in the seminar, then I’m looking forward to applying it to my “home field.”

the starting point is often not research issues focused on content, but rather methodology, technology, and instrumentality

— Patrik Svensson & David Theo Goldberg, Between Humanities and the Digital, p. 10

It was when I read this passage that I immediately knew that I had something to learn from this book and from this class. George Veletsianos recently wrote a blog post where he suggested that “the most solid advice” for edtech researchers like me is to “study problems, not things.” As I mentioned above, I’ve stumbled into a lot of digital research because I’ve found some cool data sources, and those data sources (rather than a big problem in teaching and learning) have often been starting points for my thinking. I’m not sure this is entirely a bad thing, especially as education research begins to embrace digital methods. I hope to use my work to show what a digital methods approach can buy us, and I’d never claim that it is entirely complete in its perspective and its production. However, Veletsianos’s advice really made me take a step back and think. There are a lot of challenges facing education and educators today: Am I helping to do something about them? Or am I just playing with a cool toy I’ve found?

This passage from Svensson and Goldberg was a relief—that I’m not the only researcher to struggle with this—and a reminder that I need to constantly be thinking about this. I don’t deal with the same kind of content that digital humanists do, and the way that I approach interpretation is often different as well. There will likely be a lot of vocabulary I need to pick up for this seminar, and I’ll likely have to do some on-the-spot “conversion” to terms and contexts that I understand. However, if it means learning how to ask the deep questions about research (and go beyond the shiny new toys), then I’m willing to do the work.

2 thoughts on “Becoming a Digital Scholar

  1. Nice post, Spencer. I am really interested in what you are struck by in Svensson and Goldberg. What do you think is particularly apt about the use of “interface” as the key linking term? Webster’s gives us an array of possible meanings:
    : the place or area at which different things meet and communicate with or affect each other
    : a system that is used for operating a computer : a system that controls the way information is shown to a computer user and the way the user is able to work with the computer
    : an area or system through which one machine is connected to another machine
    : a surface forming a common boundary of two bodies, spaces, or phases
    a : the place at which independent and often unrelated systems meet and act on or communicate with each other
    b : the means by which interaction or communication is achieved at an interface
    Which ones are most pertinent to your inquiries? why?

    1. Thanks for asking such a thought-provoking question! I was so excited by the word itself that I didn’t take the time to really dive deep into what it meant. If I had to pick one of the Webster’s meanings that you list, I’d probably choose the first one, “the place or area at which different things meet and communicate with or affect each other.”

      I think this best captures what most stood out to me about their use of the word interface: It reminds us that fields like digital humanities (and educational technology) are not so much a single field as two separate fields, one of which (digital/technology) we use to communicate and interact with the other (humanities/education).

      I’ve found it very helpful in my studies so far to repeatedly remind myself to treat two interfacing fields as distinct entities, both of which I need to respect if I want to create something valuable. To borrow from one of the other definitions, it would be silly if we used a computer interface for the sake of the mouse arrow and the cursor (i.e., forgetting that there’s something deeper going on within the machine, some information that is of primary interest). So, it’s helpful to remind myself that no matter how invested or excited I get when working on the technology end, I really should be using that technology as an interface to work with something deeper.

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