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Tapping the Potential of Digital Scholarship

“We have inherited a cyber-infrastructure of systems, data, and services that arose from and is optimized for research in science and engineering. As a result, humanists have access to technology but are in search of questions: What scholarship becomes possible when, from their desktops, scholars can access vast stores of admittedly highly heterogeneous data together with powerful capabilities for analysis and presentation?” This is the question that Amy Friedlander, Senior Advisor in the Office of the Assistant Director of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences at the US National Science Foundation, raised in a 2008 paper, “Asking Questions and Building a Research Agenda for Digital Scholarship.”

It’s a great question, and gets at the heart of what has been called the “digital humanities,” or, more recently, “digital scholarship.” Digital scholarship, if I had to summarize it in one sentence, is about directing the massive computational power we now have at the mountains of data that have been digitized in recent years (texts, artifacts, images, sounds, etc.) to ask questions that have previously been inconceivable and to generate insights that can be truly astounding. The potential of digital scholarship to unearth new knowledge is breathtaking. I first became aware of what I would call the “low-hanging fruit” of digital scholarship — database searching — some years ago when, in the midst of another project, I came across a curious early 19th century neuroscientist (at least, that’s how I began to think of him). Alexander Walker studied the brain and the nervous system in Scotland and practiced medicine in England in the early decades of the 19th century. But he barely creased the historical record there. Quite by accident, after I had come upon a newly digitized collection of 19th century U.S. newspapers, I popped his name into the search box and discovered that he actually had quite a following in the U.S. South. (He seems to have been adopted by those seeking to advance a “scientific” authority for racism.) In any case, searchable databases opened potentials for research that would have been inconceivable previously. And this was just the beginning of the data and text mining possibilities of digital scholarship.

From searching digital sources, the field of digital scholarship has expanded widely, suggesting yet another way that liberal arts colleges can leverage its strengths to produce new knowledge and draw students into significant research projects, especially in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. By linking our computational scientists and information specialists with colleagues from other field (and other colleges), we are perfectly situated to take advantage of this potential.What can be done? Among the what I assume to be thousands of on-going projects in the U.S. and elsewhere, here are just a few examples drawn from Oberlin as well as other colleges and universities.

* Historians of science who specialize on the Iberian world have long explored the nature of scientific inquiry in Spain and the Americas, in the 17th and 18th century. A critical study on the topic was published in Barcelona in 1983 (Diccionario Historico de la ciencia moderna en España, 2 vols.). The dictionary provided information on 360 individuals active in scientific fields in Spain during this period, and was quite useful when any of these individuals crossed your radar screen. But what if you wanted to see how all of them interacted, how their interests changed over time, where and when they were active? A project out of Stanford (Mapping the Republic of Letters) has produced a remarkable database, “An Intellectual Map of Science in the Spanish Empire, 1600-1810.”  Scholars working on this project created a database with 18 different entry points which, when examined, disclosed that, as just one example, Jesuits dominated the mathematical and geographical sciences in the seventeenth century, but naval officers took that position in the eighteenth century.

* The end of slavery in the U.S. Civil War came not simply through presidential or legislative decree but through the actions of enslaved people and soldiers in the field as well.  These interactions and policies developed unevenly over time and space.  By examining the maps in Visualizing Emancipation and the primary sources found there, scholars have uncovered (and students can examine) the factors that enabled men and women to escape slavery and the geographic patterns that marked emancipation.

Fugutive Slaves, Runaway; Freedman's Colony, NY, 1864

* During the summer of 1919, a delegation under the leadership of Oberlin College President Henry Churchill King and Chicago businessman Charles R. Crane traveled to areas of the former Ottoman territories. Even as the fate of these lands was being decided at the Paris Peace Conference, The King-Crane Commission, as it became known, met delegations and invited written petitions from various religious and political groups in order to find out what their wishes were in this regard. A digital collection of the records of the King-Crane commission was recently compiled under the direction of Oberlin Archivist Ken Grossi, Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics, Maren Milligan, and Ted Waddelow ’12.

Group portrait of the King-Crane Commission and other persons unknown, in Damascus, 1919

* The Grinnell Beowulf is a translation and teaching edition of the Old English poem. Six students worked with a faculty member to translate Beowulf into readable and poetic modern English. Planned as what Grinnell calls a MAP (Mentored Advanced Project), Beowulf provided an opportunity for the students to produce an edition designed for an undergraduate audience, which includes 165 annotations as well as introductions to the poem and the translation process.

Some Digital Scholarship Research and Projects

Here are just a few sources on digital scholarship to give you a greater sense of its potential. There are many, many more.

Council on Library and Information Resources, Promoting Digital Scholarship, “Formulating Research Challenges in the Humanities, Social Sciences and Computation.”


Edward L. Ayers, “Does Digital Scholarship Have a Future?” EDUCAUSE Review, Aug. 5, 2013.

Lisa Spiro, “Doing Things with Text,” 2013 and “Creating Timelines”.

Digital Scholarship at Oberlin and the Ohio 5

The field of digital scholarship is rapidly emerging as can be seen by its institutional emergence in many colleges and universities. At Oberlin, we are fortunate to share the expertise of Jacob Heil, the Mellon Digital Scholar shared by the Ohio 5 Colleges. You can read more about the digital collections  at Ohio 5 schools here, and the on-going digital scholarship projects here.

Digital Scholarship Workshop at Oberlin: Wednesday, Feb. 12 (4:30-6:30), CTIE

Jacob Heil will be join a workshop on digital scholarship co-sponsored by the library and CTIE on Wednesday, Feb. 12. The purpose of the workshop is to introduce those less familiar with digital scholarship to full potential, to help faculty and staff begin to formulate their own DS projects, and to acquaint those who have been formulating DS projects to the resources we have to advance those projects. The workshop will also showcase DS projects by Oberlin faculty.

Size Matters: How Much Reading to Assign (and other imponderables)

Steve Volk, CTIE (Sept. 24, 2012)

One question that comes up often for beginning faculty, but reappears almost every year you plan a syllabus is: How much reading should we be assigning in our classes? Is there an amount that is so reduced that students will think that my course is a “gut” (do they still call it that?); is there an amount so large that its only purpose is to signal how hard the class is? Obviously, any answer will depend on the course, the topic, the placement in the syllabus, etc. Five pages of a physics article may take as much time to “read” (more on why this is in quotes later) as 100 pages of history or a 200-page novel…but maybe not. Hence we keep asking ourselves the question.

Higher Education seems to be beset by a lot of hand wringing these days, or at least that’s the case for pundits who write on trends in higher education. Some of this angst has been spurred by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 2011 which argued, very briefly, that student aren’t learning what they should in college and much of this is due to the fact that they aren’t being challenged. Among other factors, students are not reading enough, they are not writing enough, they are not studying enough. The authors highlight as an example of this that 32% of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of assigned reading per week. One of the concerns I have about Academically Adrift is that I don’t know exactly what to make of this. Should we be happy that nearly 70% of the students are reading more? Are the 32% of the “light-reading” courses in the sciences, math, poetry, creative writing, studio art, etc? And finally, for the purpose of this discussion, do we have any research to suggest that more is better?

So, other than to recommend that you assign at least 41 (!) pages of reading a week so as not to fall afoul of Arum and Roksa’s follow-up study, I will suggest (as you already know) that there is no magical formula by which you can arrive at an abstract optimal number of pages that students should be reading each week. Instead, I’ll try to provide some suggestions for ways that you can think about this in order to come up with something that works for you (and, more importantly, for your students).

(1) Perhaps the most important starting point when thinking about assigning reading is: What do you want the reading to do? Is reading assigned as a background that will inform the week’s lectures but won’t be directly discussed in class? Are you expecting that, as in a seminar, it will generate the entire classroom discussion? Should students be reading for detail or for narrative argument? Do you have in mind the exact arguments you want your students to get from the reading, or do you really want them to explore in a more “free-writing” kind of way? The first point, then, is that the amount of reading you assign needs to be associated with what you want it to accomplish. Students will have a hard time successfully completing a close reading of 60 pages of text, whereas a longer text-book reading of material that they will go back to frequently as they clarify points raised in lecture can be longer. Unfamiliar language (whether English texts from the 18th century, texts in foreign languages, deeply theoretical texts, etc.) will take much more work. Students may “read” the entire text (i.e. their eyes will “touch” each word), but they won’t be reading it.

(2) A second point to consider is where the reading comes in the course, a question which relates to the issue of what role reading itself will play in your course. Is one of the overall learning goals in your course teaching student how to read sociology, anthropology, physics, or musical scores?  This may sounds a bit unusual since our students, by and large, need to be very well prepared in order to even be here. But being well prepared doesn’t mean that they know what is involved in reading at a college level.  I am most familiar with how students are prepared in history, and it’s very clear to me that even the best prepared students have not had practice in reading history monographs in high school, so they will not know how to get through a 220-page text in a week. And they won’t be able to do this because reading history in high school often means reading to memorize details which will later “be on the test.” The same thing will be true for literature students who certainly have read novels in high school, but not necessarily with the tools of textual analysis and close reading technique. Students often come in as consumers of texts, comprehending content and relying on us to give me some guidance as to what is relevant, the points at which they should question the text, etc. Since one of my overall learning goals in my introductory courses is to help students learn how to read college-level history, I try to assign shorter, more directed readings in the earlier part of the semester and only build up to more lengthy reading later in the class. But even in upper-level courses, I will start slowly just to get a sense of where the students are in their practice of reading.

(3) Less can be more. Timothy Burke, who teaches history at Swarthmore, observes that the reading we assign bears little or no resemblance to the sort of reading we do for pleasure, or for our own work. In fact, we assign more than anyone, let alone an undergraduate, can possibly read in any “normal” fashion. When I was in college, we carried around as a pretty twisted badge of honor the excessive amount of reading we had to do each week. No, I didn’t do all that reading, but it was assigned, and I think that as faculty, many of us carry that practice along with us to our own syllabi. Many colleges survey their students’ self-rated study practices. Invariably, when students are asked what percent of time they come to classes “well prepared,” the number hovers around 70%. When faculty are asked to rate what percent of time they think their students come prepared to class “well prepared,” the number falls to around 30%. Does that mean that students aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing or that we faculty are requiring too much preparation? I can’t answer that, but it’s likely somewhere in the middle. None of us wants to sacrifice the reading we think essential for our own classes…but, is there a price we are paying in student learning when the overall student reading load is excessive?

Unhappy with how discussions went when I assigned a 200-page monograph in an intermediate-level class, even when I felt that I had scaffolded my students’ learning appropriately by preparing discussion questions and study tips, I began instead to assign an article by the same author that (at least in history) is always published in a top quality journal prior to the book’s publication. Discussions improved. Similarly, assigning four different articles in one week might mean than they aren’t getting as much as they could out of any of them. Less can be more.

(4) Novices and experts. Many of the above points relate to the fact that we read as experts while our students are still novices and are really learning how to read appropriately to build up their expertise. There are a lot of excellent guides for how to help undergraduates read effectively in their discipline, but let me suggest just a few here. As faculty, we wouldn’t have made it this far (we wouldn’t have finished those 800+ page weeks) without knowing how to skim. Novice readers don’t know how to skim, or rather, they think that skimming involves making sure their eyes “touch” each word but at a quicker rate than regular reading. Timothy Burke (referenced above), who writes a lovely blog called, “Easily Distracted,” uses Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (Verso Press) as an example for how to help students skim for arguments.

In an 2008 article in Teaching Sociology (“Deep Reading, Cost/Benefit, and the Construction of Meaning: Enhancing Reading Comprehension and Deep Learning in Sociology Courses”), Judith C. and Keith A. Roberts suggest a number of ways to use reading responses to help student develop stronger reading practices. These include:

  • Connecting to the text—Underlining key ideas and making marks and comments in the margins. Students are encouraged to go back through the reading and write five “big” questions on key concepts in the chapter. They can then answer some of those questions or write a commentary on why they think these are the core issues in the reading.
  • Summarizing the readings and visualizing the key ideas—Summarizing the reading by using visual or graphic approaches, charts, lists, etc.
  • Reading response journal—Each portion of the reading assignment is responded to with a question or comment.
  • Studying as a group—Two or three students discuss the readings, focusing on key concepts. Ideas are recorded and then written up.

(5) Don’t lose track of the calendar (or your syllabus). Always try to keep in mind where in the school year you are and where in your syllabus you are. We all know this, and most of us ignore it anyway. Very lengthy reading assignments during mid-term week or at the end of the semester will not be read. We may feel that we have to squeeze that extra bit of reading in, but it is generally expecting something that won’t happen as students have much too much else going on during those weeks. Similarly, assigning a heavy reading load during the same week that you have assigned a paper or an exam is not likely to produce the results that you were hoping for. Keep those calendars in mind.

So, how much reading should you assign each week? Try 72 pages and call me in the morning!

For some additional tips on reading, Eric H. Hobson has written a nice paper on “Getting Students to Read: 14 Tips” .

Finally, many disciplines have prepared their own guides for reading in their discipline. History, for example, has The History Guide: A Student’s Guide to the Study of History: 2.1 How to Read a History Assignment.”

If you have a particularly good guide for your discipline, please send it to me or write it in the comments below. (Other comments, as always, are welcome!)

Welcome to CTIE

Welcome to the Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence (CTIE) blog. This blog is available for your use, to write about issues of teaching, pedagogy, learning, curriculum, course design, higher education, and all other issues that you think worthy of a chat.

—Steve Volk, Director