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  • From Text to Tags: The Digital Humanities in an Introductory Literature Course
  • Sarah H. Ficke (bio)

What role can the digital humanities play in the undergraduate classroom? Answering this question can be tricky because the topic, Digital Humanities, is so broad. Matthew Kirschenbaum describes digital humanities as “more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies” (par. 3). Rafael C. Alvarado associates the field with those scholars “who have embraced digital media” (par. 9). However, as he goes on to say,

Because the category of digital media includes essentially everything afforded to the humanist by the presence of available computing—everything from crowd sourcing and social media to natural language processing and latent semantic indexing to gaming and haptic immersion—the digital humanities is in principle associated with as many methods and tools as there are intersections between texts and technologies.

(par. 9)

The complicated variety of options, and the fact that the public face of the Digital Humanities is often made up of large-scale projects that display advanced scholarship and complex programming, can make it hard to see how digital humanities work can be part of the undergraduate classroom experience. As Bryan Alexander and Rebecca Frost Davis argue in “Should Liberal Arts Campuses Do Digital Humanities?” professors at small liberal arts institutions who are interested in doing digital humanities can encounter “problems of logistics, infrastructure, and campus identity” that are less likely to be found at larger, more research-oriented universities (par. 5). Even professors at those larger institutions can struggle with bringing digital humanities into a lower-level classroom. However, more and more professors are doing just that. In this article, I’ll describe my own experiences using freely-available tools and software to design assignments that introduce students to some basic elements of digital humanities work while developing and reinforcing the fundamental reading and analytical skills students learn in an introductory literature class.

Because my class was not a special course on the digital humanities, but rather our regular English major gateway course, I used the standard outcomes of the course to drive the types of digital assignments I created. The class, titled “Introduction to Literary Study,” helps students build the foundational skills commonly used for the study of literature, including [End Page 200] close reading, textual analysis, attention to genre and form, and attention to material and historical contexts. These are all skills that experts working in the digital humanities use to produce projects like digital scholarly editions, tools for large-scale analysis, and visual representations of texts and intertextual relationships. However, my students (largely sophomores), needed to work on honing those skills rather than applying them to a large-scale project or series of complex texts. With that in mind, I designed a digital humanities unit made up of a series of small assignments oriented towards experimenting with digitization and text analysis in a fairly low-stakes environment. The unit starts with identifying key elements of physical texts (rare books from the university library) and how those might translate into a digital environment. It then moves through digitization and into the ways that computers impact our reading and analysis of texts, focusing on some introductory text analysis tools and text markup. Though my assignments revolve around computers and bytes more than paper and highlighters, they share the goal articulated by Paul Fyfe in “Digital Pedagogy Unplugged”: “to keep students’ attention on the critical labor that digital resources seem to dissolve” (par. 12). By introducing my students to the process of creating familiar products like a digitized text or a word cloud, I hoped to demonstrate to them that the act of building a digital product or working tool is always an act of interpretation.

Thanks to extensive websites like the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, and Google Books, we are growing increasingly used to reading texts in a digital, searchable form. Both students and scholars rely on those sites, and others, to find and read out-of-copyright books otherwise locked away in distant libraries, and it is easy (especially for students) to equate that digital encounter with reading the actual book. It is...


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pp. 200-210
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