Imagining Digital Pedagogy at Fordham

This is your life:


You just finished teaching your American History class. You slam-dunked a lecture on the transcontinental railroad’s influence on national commerce, communication, and territorial expansion. Students nodded, took vigorous notes, and were eager to participate in a lively discussion following your lecture. It was a good class. You think to yourself: tweed blazers with elbow-patches do help you scrutinize the past and question mainstream ideas more effectively. As you make a note to add more iron-on patches to your shopping cart on Amazon, you see a particularly eager student waiting to catch your attention after class.

This student–probably two weeks shy of declaring a history major–stays behind to tell you about her family’s connection to the U.S. railroad industry. As you wipe the dry eraseboard clean, she draws insightful connections between your lecture and her family’s experience in Tennessee. Apparently, this student’s family owned a company that helped establish, build, and expand railroad lines in the region in the 1880s. She’s excited about the connection. She wants to understand her family’s influence on railroad growth in a broader historical context. She’s eager to use the research tools you’ve helped her cultivate. You know, there might just be elbow-patches in her future.

You give a passing nod to the frazzled composition instructor who teaches in the room after you; he’s carrying a stack of freshly graded three-paragraph essays and looks tired. In the hall, you continue talking to the student, asking leading questions, and giving insights–just as you begin to encourage her to explore the topic in her final paper, you realize: “I don’t want to read that.”

Let me rephrase. It’s not a question of what you want, exactly. You care about the student’s development as a writer, and you don’t question their ability to make a convincing historical argument. Rather, this student’s project presents a genre problem. An 8-page research essay on a Tennessee railroad, regional geography, and national commerce could indeed be compelling (hell, I’d read it). Academic prose, however, might not be the most appropriate genre for communicating geographical expansion over time; papers are an inherently limited, linear format. This research is perfectly suited for something more dynamic–like a digital map.

Anelise H. Shrout, Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Studies, shared an experience similar to this in her workshop on Digital Pedagogy on Friday, October 16th. In this session, Shrout encouraged an interdisciplinary group of Fordham graduate students and staff to thoughtfully integrate digital assignments into undergraduate courses.


Not only are some assignments better suited for digital media, but, according to Shrout, an online publication platform will give student work a life beyond the classroom. Student research doesn’t have to be limited to a conversation at the dry eraseboard or a document, stapled with one-inch margins. For example, if the aforementioned student created a Neatline map that tracked the growth of their family’s railroad over time, she could share her final product with her family and circulate it to people within the region of influence. Encouraging students to share the fruits of their research with people outside of academia might just spark intellectual curiosity and critical thinking in the vast elsewhere incorporated by the internet. Believe me, as a kid who grew up with spotty dial-up in the middle of nowhere, access and exposure to quality humanistic work can be transformative. And, yes, I’ll go there: if we are truly committed to “the discovery of Wisdom and the transmission of Learning” as our Jesuit mission would suggest, incorporating digital pedagogy can do a world of good.

Bringing computer power to old questions does not water-down the values humanists hold dear. Instead, digital innovation can help breathe new life into our teaching and research. As Shrout puts it, computers can help free up brain space for us and give us more mental energy to tackle big questions. Why not help our students understand humanistic inquiry through, against, and alongside the digital media that binds many of our social networks together?

Throughout the workshop, Shrout offered useful insights on evaluation and implementation of digital projects based on her extensive experience. She warned teachers that the guidelines need to be clear and evaluation must be explicit and fair. Even if you free yourself from the mountain of three-paragraph essays, you face new obstacles of evaluation. As someone who has enthusiastically embraced digital research and pedagogy, I’m with Shrout–I think these obstacles are worth taking on.

And in case you missed it, she offered several good avenues for the hows of digital pedagogy. I challenge you to take from this grab-bag of stellar digital tools (ranking from easiest implementation to most complex):

Post by: Christy L. Pottroff

Digital Humanities in its Most Minimalist Form

Not too many digital humanities talks begin with a discussion of humanistic practices, ecocritical theory, labor relations, and the politics of memorialization. But that’s how Alex Gil, Digital Scholarship Coordinator in the Humanities and History Division of Columbia University Libraries, opened the first graduate DH workshop of the year, hosted by the Fordham Graduate Student Digital Humanities Group on the Lincoln Center campus on Sept. 22, 2015. Twelve aspiring digital humanists gathered to listen to Gil talk about minimal computing, a critical movement based on environmentalist principles which asks for an ethical balance between the gains and costs of digital production in a capitalist-driven global information system.

Photo by Elizabeth Cornell
                                                     Photo by Elizabeth Cornell

More specifically, Gil walked us through the basics of Atom Plain Text editing, Markdown (a form of writing much more condensed and streamlined than HTML), and Pandoc, which can be used to convert files created in Atom into Word documents through your computer’s Terminal command screen. He also touched on building a static site website using Jekyll, which he used for his Around DH in 80 Days project.

Essentially, these tools help us find alternative modes of generating text documents, helping us learn, as Gil remarks, “how to write a dissertation without Word.” Microsoft Word is so embedded in our culture as the academic default that we tend to say “Word documents” the same way we say “kleenex” or “seltzer” in place of the products themselves. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Indeed, as Gil demonstrated, one single letter typed into a Word document generates thousands of bits, or pages and pages of data while a single letter typed into Plain Text requires just 8 bits. In this sense, turning to plain text editing for our scholarly computing needs can help us cultivate minimal computing practices within a medium that is often viewed as ephemeral, lying outside the realm of environmental impact, even though server farms are increasingly occupying natural resources, multinational tech companies facilitate an exploitative capitalist labor system, and, as mentioned on Twitter recently, “We kill people based on metadata.” While Word might not exactly be the NSA, learning to write with minimalist software accomplishes the same thing as recycling in its most idealistic form: helping users become more aware of the impact their quotidian practices have on larger socio-political structures, and giving them practical, everyday means to combat environmental decay and resist the commercial industrial complex. There’s also just something satisfying about creating a digital document on your own, without the corporate muscle of large word processing brands.

Photo by Boyda Johnstone
                                                    Photo by Boyda Johnstone

Gil opened his talk by challenging us to answer what we believed to be the purpose of the Humanities, a question which, during a time when humanities programs around the globe become increasingly defunded and attacked, we should all be prepared to answer. Humanists, we concluded, are “stewards of human memory,” and minimal computing practices can help us transform future memory in more ethically viable ways. In this sense, Gil’s talk beautifully balanced a discussion of why humanism matters with practical digital tools for using technology to aid humanistic practices, and was the perfect way to kick off Fordham’s new year of Digital Humanities workshops and lectures.

Useful links:

For more on Markdown, see here.

For installation instruction and tutorials on Pandoc, see here.

Tutorial on Prof Hacker by Alex Gil on installing and using Jekyll.