A few months ago, Lisa Spiro asked me some questions about my experiences using digital tools, content, and methods. She was preparing a presentation, and her questions reminded me of a series of posts that I have been meaning to write for some time. For a variety of reasons, including family needs, I have not had time to do this writing, so I am taking a shortcut to get these ideas out there in short form. With many, many thanks to Lisa, I am publishing this post in the form of an interview, so as to give her credit for the prompts.
Lisa Spiro: How have you integrated digital tools, content and methods into your teaching?
Kathryn Tomasek: In more ways than I can count over the past twenty years. Early on, I was interested in using online discussion to expand opportunities for students who were uncomfortable speaking in the classroom. In the past ten years, my focus has been on finding ways to use digital tools to help students do historical research. Some examples have been using transcription and markup of primary sources in our local archives and special collections to teach students close reading and interpretation and scaffolded assignments using online collections and digital publication tools for similar purposes. For transcription and markup, we have used spreadsheets, the oXygen text editor, eXtensible Markup Language and the guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative. And for online peer review and publication, we have used the History Engine as well as local wikis in our Moodle LMS.
LS: Why? What motivated you?
KT: When I began teaching in the 1990s, the college offered incentives for course transformations that included digital tools. I was also a feminist teacher with less interest in being a “sage on the stage” than in finding ways to empower students as learners, and that search led me to experiment with digital tools.
A combination of outreach from the Text Encoding Initiative and opportunities fostered by NITLE prompted my turn to text encoding and project-based learning in 2004. The opportunities included participating in piloting use of the History Engine outside its original institution—the University of Virginia, learning about digital publication and libraries, founding the Wheaton College Digital History Project, attending the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, and becoming involved in the international Digital Humanities community.
And the American Historical Association has recommended that students be taught to “do history” rather than simply to take notes and regurgitate information into the pages of blue books. I was very surprised in fall 2010 when Robert Townsend published the results of his study on the impact of digital publication and research in the discipline. I had hoped to see more impact on teaching, but that was the portion of the profession least affected, according to Townsend’s data.
LS: What have been the results? What have been the impacts on student learning? On your approach to teaching? On your career?
KT: The first project that involved transcript and markup of a nineteenth-century woman’s journal had such a striking impact on students’ investment in their research and writing that I became determined to continue such work. The sense of ownership and of the significance of their work both for their own learning and for its contribution to the larger fund of knowledge about the past that the students expressed has led me to try to find ways to include project-based learning with digital tools in at least one course I teach each semester since fall 2004.
For some individual students who continued their work with the various projects outside the classroom, opportunities have arisen for collaborating with me in presenting our work at conferences and for attending events like DHSI. The student who attended DHSI with me in 2009 has gone on to complete library school, and I expect my current research assistant to achieve significant successes in fields that bring together history and new media.
My career has gotten a real boost from this work. The successes of the first text encoding project and of subsequent assignments using project-based learning inspired me to tell others about forays into this kind of teaching and learning, so I have presented at numerous conferences, written for a number of publications, and offered workshops for members of faculty and staff interested in digital pedagogies. My research agenda has expanded, and I was PI on Start-Up Grant from the Office of Digital Humanities at the NEH.
Our college has also benefited. Members of our team have gone on to participate in a large and well-funded project that extends beyond our own campus, the TEI Archiving, Publication, and Access Service (TAPAS) Project.
LS: What challenges have you run into? How have you addressed them?
KT: I think the biggest challenge has come in the form of institutional understanding of the projects, their need for support in the form of staff and funding for Library and Information Services, and the importance of computational thinking for undergraduate liberal arts education. By institutional understanding I mean that of both administration and faculty members. I served for many years on the committee that addresses Library, Technology, and Learning on our campus, and I found myself frustrated with the way this committee comes last in order of importance from a faculty governance standpoint. It has been important to me to bring in additional colleagues as advocates for the role of LIS in the curriculum. I led a faculty working group with the goal of articulating this role for the institution, but progress stalled with new leadership of the Educational Policy committee. From the administrative angle, difficult economic times have meant that funding for LIS has been stagnant or cut over the past five or ten years, and we have lost staff FTE at a time when expansion would have seemed more appropriate.
LS: What suggestions do you have for faculty interested in experimenting with digital pedagogy?
KT: Go for it. Digital technologies are both the present and future of higher education in the United States, and there is much more to digital pedagogies than MOOCs. Using digital tools, content, and methods in liberal arts classrooms gives educators ways to expose students to computational thinking, project-based learning, and real research problems that translate into skills they will use for the rest of their lives. Other faculty members and administrators will come around eventually, and those of us who do this work now are mapping the future course of higher education.
LS: Anything else?
KT: I started my own work with digital pedagogies after I was granted tenure. That gave me the privilege of room to experiment without threat to my job security. Faculty members who are part of the extraordinarily small proportion of the professoriate who are either tenured or on the tenure track have an obligation to acknowledge, encourage, and advocate for the courageous people in adjunct, contract, and alt-ac positions who are advancing work in digital pedagogies and other areas involving digital tools, content, and methods without the protections of tenure.