Defining a Space for DH in Secondary Schools

I remember being somewhat irked this semester by Ryan Cordell’s criticism of DH. One line was particularly grating: “They speak of ‘DH’ as an identifiable and singular thing, even if that thing contains multitudes, when in fact DH is often local and peculiar: a specific configuration of those multitudes that makes sense for a given institution, given its faculty, staff, and students, and given its unique mission and areas of strength.” My perturbation sprung from the irony that Cordell was enjoying publication in Debates in the Digital Humanities. His thinking (even though it involved sniping at the very label under which he published) already had a home and a receptive audience. Secondary school digital humanists have no such luxury. Our pedagogical victories are painfully “local and peculiar,” dispersing themselves in the air (or worse, in the graveyards of our schools’ websites) with no choir’s “amen” or thoughtful challenges in response. And yet, we secondary-school educators have been doing what we now call DH for over two decades.

Early practitioners experimented in ways never intended by corporate programs to help students access, analyze, and create history, art, and literature. As I mentioned in our discussion about hacking, we turned Excel spreadsheets into clickable maps and art annotators, we asked students to use PowerPoint’s slide sorter view to group shards of Greek pottery into distinctive artistic periods, and we hijacked Word’s comment feature to have students layer collaborative literary analysis (literally by swapping machines) long before Google Docs existed. We even did our own low-tech version of distant reading, comparing word counts of novels or using the “find” tool to search for frequent terms.

As schools purchased hardware and software in bulk, companies such as Microsoft hosted grand national (and technically, international, with the inclusion of Australia and Canada) conferences for teachers of all disciplines to share their pedagogy, the majority of whom turned out to be humanities teachers looking to ignite hands-on interactivity and exploration in their lab-less classrooms.

That corporate interest dwindled as schools evolved their programs around 2005, some shifting to bring-your-own-device structures and some opting for free or open-source software. And as STEM became the educational acronym of the millennium, maker conferences eclipsed those focused on the humanities, and that has left us the nomads of the DH and educational worlds.

So, I’ve proposed DH Juvenilia: a digital humanities journal for secondary school educators. The  name is intended to be self-effacing, capturing both our nascent collective ideology as well as the wonderfully rough and unselfconscious nature of young adult education. As I mentioned in my lightening talk, the site would be modeled on the Journal for Interactive Technology and Pedagogy (JITP),borrowing its peer-review model and its editorial sections that include lesson plans, reviews of resources and conferences, and a celebration of classroom failures. But, given our work this semester, DH Juvenilia would also offer two additional sections: one dedicated to issues of race and accessibility in the secondary-school classroom, and another to partnerships such as those between private and public schools or between schools and institutions such as local archives or museums.

My research for the environmental scan confirmed my own lived experience. Like DH in its infancy in higher-ed, secondary-school DH programs are scattered, defining themselves under a variety of names and living largely solitary lives. They’ve been included in a few panels at recent DH conferences (thanks, Matt, for the heads-up on Trevor Day School’s program), but those flashes in the pan, without fellow secondary school attendees, have done little to foster a broader dialogue and a more unified set of practices. DH Juvenilia would meet that need.

What did surprise me was how many resources are just waiting to be tapped to define a national or international secondary-school DH scene. As the grant proposal structure required a work plan, I realized that I and my digitally inclined humanities colleagues have partnered with a host of institutions either directly or indirectly leading the field: we’ve recently coached the MLA on the future of humanities in secondary schools, and we’ve partnered with institutions such as Juilliard, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Kennedy Center. We’ve videoconferenced with classrooms around the globe, and we count among us native speakers of many languages. We are even (though not as much as I would like) a range of races, classes, disciplinary interests, and physical and attentional abilities. This recognition made the prospect of garnering writers, reviewers, supporters, and readers seem imminently doable. It also made my hopes of creating a diverse team (rather than reverse-engineering “accessibility”) somewhat possible.

In short, I finished my proposal feeling incredibly optimistic about the project. Sadly, I felt less optimistic in my abilities to write a grant. Trying perhaps too hard to fit the models, I found myself writing in circles, striving to cover too much ground too thinly. Arguments that could be paper-length in and of themselves got chopped into phrases to make way for the next claim, and I found myself writing much like I speak at parties: painfully self-consciously. Suddenly, the criticisms I leveled last week at authors who obscure their meaning behind multisyllabic academic jargon seemed to have been stones launched from the proverbial glass house. Clearly, while the semester is over, I still have homework to do: signing up for a grant-writing workshop.