Digital Literacy for the Dumbest Generation

Marc Baeurlein argues that undergraduates now and undergraduates to come soon are “the least curious and intellectual generation in national history.”[i] Dubbing them “the dumbest generation” and “mentally agile” but “culturally ignorant,” Bauerlein decrees that The Web hasn’t made them better writers and readers, sharper interpreters and more discerning critics, more knowledgeable citizens and tasteful consumers” (Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation 110). The crux of this attack on digital culture lies in the link that Bauerlein and others (“Reading at Risk” xii) make between paper and digital texts: “the relationship,” Bauerlein explains, “between screens and books isn’t benign” (“Online Literacy is a Lesser Kind”). Like Bauerlein and the authors of the NEA report, Sven Birkerts maintains that book readers learn more because the book is a system that “evolved over centuries in ways that map our collective endeavor to understand and express our world and that “the electronic book, on the other hand, represents—and furthers—a circuitry of instant access” (“Resisting the Kindle”).

In contrast to this perspective, scholars and educators in the digital humanities have spent decades working with digital texts and arguing that advanced knowledge production is the primary function of using computational methodologies in the humanities. These scholars have situated advanced knowledge in humanistic inquiry as the primary function of computational methodologies in the humanities. In 1980, Roberto Busa argued that using computers for humanistic inquiry meant “the enhancement of the quality, depth, and extension of research and not merely the lessening of human effort and time” (Busa 89). In 2002, Koenraad de Smedt asserted that the primary goals of digital humanistic inquiry was to reflect on the content and, in a more general sense, the humanities discipline, maintaining that “there is of course nothing wrong with new ideas on how a subject is to be taught, as long as they start from the question of what is to be taught . . . the question of what is to be taught should be approached in the light of a reflection on why we teach and learn humanities” (de Smedt 90). Willard McCarty actually locates the work of DH research in the production of written texts, claiming that “research itself (e.g. in philosophy) or its synthesis into a disciplinary contribution (e.g. in history) takes place during the writing, in the essay or monograph, rather than in a non-verbal medium, such as a particle accelerator” (McCarty 13).      In short, The scholarship done by the digital humanities community demonstrates that inquiry enabled by modes of research, dissemination, design, preservation, and communication that rely on algorithms, software, and or the internet network for processing data deepen and advance knowledge in the humanities.

At the same time, more work needs to be done in thinking about the digital humanities from the perspective of the work we need to do to produce culturally literate and critically savvy—that is, not-dumb— undergraduate students. To date, discussion concerning undergraduate pedagogy within the digital humanities community remains limited and scattered. For instance, a search for the word “undergraduate” in the past five years of abstracts from the Digital Humanities annual conference (or the joint ACH/ALLC conference) shows that there have been less than five presentations specifically concerning undergraduate pedagogy (Jessop 2005; Mahony 2008; Keating, et al. 2009). This trend may be linked to the notion that an undergraduate curriculum is more about teaching and less about research (Smedt, et al. 16), but this answer is reductive if not partially untrue. At the same time, if we believe that the work digital humanists do “can help us to be more humanistic than before” (Busa 89), why isn’t there more discussion within the DH conference and publications about this essential aspect of undergraduate study?

This impression, that undergraduate studies are not well discussed within the digital humanities community, is part and parcel with the fact that it is a field or mode of study or methodology of knowledge inquiry and production that engages a wide range of disciplinary perspectives. It is a field that is represented by programs of study that are inflected by, but not necessarily called, Digital Humanities. While the website at Kings College still touts itself as “one of the very few academic institutions in the world where the digital humanities may be pursued as part of a degree” in undergraduate studies—a fact that is largely still true—but there are many programs without formal degrees where important pedagogy concerning digital culture happens.

This piece represents a movement to engage further (both in terms of more and deeper) discussion about undergraduate education in the digital humanities by creating a working bibliography of undergraduate curricula and programs at Currently, Willard McCarty and Matthew Kirschenbaum’s list of “Institutional models for humanities computing” ( (a precursor or coterminous name for digital humanities) is extensive, but it does not include an updated account of specifically undergraduate programs.[ii] The list included here includes a snapshot of a working, updated and annotated bibliography of current undergraduate programs that are inflected by the digital humanities. This annotated bibliography is being developed as the result of ongoing discussions with a disperse community (called to arms on Twitter, on the Humanist Discussion List, at THATcamp Prime 2010, and at Digital Humanities 2010), it reflects a wide range of programs that the community has itself defined as “inflected by digital humanities.” By an informal survey conducted on Twitter, and the blog U+2E19.

The fact that the list already includes a broad range of programs encompassing information science, digital cultures, new media, and computer science reflects the difficult nature of training an undergraduate student in the “methodological commons” (McCarty 131) of the digital humanities, but it also reflects the provocative nature of describing what that curriculum might look like. According to Unsworth, “the semantic web is our future, and it will require formal representations of the human record” requiring “training in the humanities, but also in elements of mathematics, logic, engineering, and computer science” (Unsworth). Patrik Svensson sees work in the digital humanities as a kind part of a spectrum “from textual analysis of medieval texts and establishment of metadata schemes to the production of alternative computer games and artistic readings of nanotechnology” (Svensson). Smedt and his colleagues choose to limit their definition of digital humanities undergraduate programs in order “to concentrate on computing and to avoid the fields of information, communication, media, and multimedia since these are generally considered as social sciences rather than as humanities” (16). Just as asking the question “What is Humanities Computing and what is not?” (Unsworth) generates more questions, asking the community to identify programs inflected by the digital humanities is sure to provoke more discussion concerning existing models. What is important to teach these students? What is the core knowledge base needed?

When discussing current models, it is equally important to make transparent the institutional and infrastructural issues that are specific to certain universities. What works for one institution will not necessarily work for another. By the same token, simply providing examples of existing programs would belie the extent to which scholars and administrators shape these programs (whether they grant degrees, certificates, or nothing at all) according to the needs of their specific communities. Consequently, in order to make these matters transparent and broaden discussion about the broad range of issues that underpin the formation of an undergraduate curriculum, I am also disseminating a survey to the digital humanities community asking basic questions concerning how an undergraduate program inflected by the digital humanities has been and might be developed within a variety of university settings. These questions are based on previous conversations (Hockey 2001; Unsworth, Butler 2001), but this previous work has focused primarily on graduate (or post-graduate) work. In my attempt to update the conversation with a focus on undergraduate study, I incorporate questions that concern curriculum and questions which point to infrastructural and institutional concerns that are specific to undergraduate education:

  1. What are the aims and objectives of your undergraduate program?
  2. How is the academic content of the program structured? What are the core modules/courses?
  3. What are the academic backgrounds of students accepted for the program? Are there any particular requirements?
  4. Does the program involve participation in research projects at area institutions or centers? If so, what factors influence which projects are chosen? How is participation monitored and assessed?
  5. What is the program’s relationship to the larger undergraduate community? Does the program include events, publications, or other opportunities for outreach? Does the program include a residential component, or other opportunities for community building?
  6. Does the program grant a certificate or degree? What are the key issues in establishing a certificate or degree for students in your program?
  7. How does the program fit into the overall structure of the institution?
  8. Are there classes already being taught at your institution? What are the key issues in bringing these classes together under the rubric of a single curriculum?
  9. What technical facilities are needed for the program and how are these supported?

10.  What are other important infrastructural issues and challenges in setting up a program within your institution?

Baeurlein complains that undergraduates are passive consumers of “information,” that they convert history, philosophy, literature, civics, and fine art into information,” information that becomes, quite simply, “material to retrieve and pass along” (“Online Literacy”). In contrast, Wendell Piez and other digital humanities scholars insist that when we study “how digital media are encoded . . . and how they encode culture in words, colors, sounds, images, and instrumentation,” we are “far from having no more need for literacy” (“Something Called ‘Digital Humanities’”). In fact, “being symbolic constructs arranged to work within algorithmic, machine-mediated processes that are themselves a form of cultural production,” the cultural work of encoding and designing for digital media requires that students “raise it to ever higher levels” (Piez). A glance just at the last ten years of the journal of Literary and Linguistic Computing, the abstracts from the annual Digital Humanities conference, and the first issues of the Digital Humanities Quarterly prove that the digital humanities community has worked hard to create these encoded resources. In addition, scholars in the digital humanities are already teaching the next generation of students not only how to use electronic resources, but how to create them, expand them, and preserve them. Now is the time to make that work transparent and to provide a resource for others who wish to continue, broaden, and support this work.

Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008. Print.

–. “Introduction.” The Dumbest Generation. Web. 11 Nov 2009.

–. “Online Literacy Is a Lesser Kind.” 19 September 2008. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 11 Nov 2009.

Birkerts, Sven. “Resisting the Kindle.” Atlantic Monthly. 2 March 2009. Web. 15 Nov 2009.

Burnard, Lou. “Is Humanities Computing an Academic Discipline? or, Why Humanities Computing Matters.” 1999. Web. 11 Nov 2009.

Busa, Roberto. “The Annals of Humanities Computing: The Index Thomisticus.” Computers and the Humanities 14 (1980): 83-90.  Print.

Hockey, Susan. “MA Programmes for Humanities Computing and Digital Media.” New York University, 2001. Web. 11 Nov 2009.

“The Humanities Computing Curriculum: The Computing Curriculum in the Arts and Humanities,” Malaspina University College, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. November 9-10, 2001. Web. 15 Nov 2009.

Jessop, Martyn. “In Search of Humanities Computing in Teaching, Learning and Research.” The International Conference on Humanities Computing and Digital Scholarship, The 17th Joint International Conference: Conference Abstracts (2nd Edition). 91-93. Web. 15 Nov 2009.

–. “undergrad programmes.” Humanist Discussion Group. 27 Oct 2009. n. pag. Web. 11 Nov 2009.

Keating, John J., Aja Teehan, Thomas Byrne. “Delivering a Humanities Computing Module at Undergraduate Level: A Case Study.” Digital Humanities 2009 Conference Abstracts 167-169. Web. 15 Nov 2009.

Mahony, Simon. “An Interdisciplinary Perspective on Building Learning Communities Within the Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities 2008 Conference Abstracts 149-151. Web. 15 Nov 2009.

Mangen, Anne. “Hypertext Fiction Reading: Haptics and Immersion.” Journal of Research in Reading. 31.4 2008. Print.

McCarty, Willard. “New Splashings In The Old Pond: The Cohesibility Of Humanities Computing.” 16. October 2002. The Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations. n. pag. 15 Nov 2009. Web.

McCarty, Willard and Matthew Kirschenbaum. “Institutional models for humanities computing” 12 Dec 2003. Web. 15 Nov 2009.

Nowviskie, B. and Unsworth, J., eds. Is humanities computing an academic discipline? An interdisciplinary seminar. University of Virginia, Autumn 1999. Print.

Piez, Wendell. “Something Called ‘Digital Humanities’.” Digital Humanities Quarterly. 2.1: 2008. n. pag. Web. 11 Nov 2009.

Orlandi, Tito. Is Humanities Computing a Discipline? 17 May 2002. The Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations. n. pag. Web. 11 Nov 2009.

Unsworth, J. and Butler, T. “A Masters Degree in Digital Humanities at the University of Virginia.” Session, ACH-ALLC2001, New York University, June 13-16, 2001. Web. 11 Nov 2009.

de Smedt, Koenraad. “Some Reflections on Studies in Humanities Computing.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 17.1 (2002): 89-101. Print.

Smedt, Konrad, Hazel Gardiner, Espen Ore, Tito Orlandi, Harold Short, Jacques Souilliot and William Vaughan (eds). Computing in Humanities Education: A European Perspective. Bergen: University of Bergen, 1999. Print.

Svensson, Patrik. “Humanities Computing as Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly. 3.3 (2009): n. pag. Web. 11 Nov 2009.

Terras, Melissa. “Disciplined: Using Curriculum Studies to Define ‘Humanities Computing Abstracts ACH/ALLC 2005. 15 Nov 2009. Web.

Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. “The New Knowledge Management and Online Research and Publishing in the Humanities.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 3.1 (2001). Print.

Unsworth, John. “What is Humanities Computing and What is not?” The Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations. 2002. n. pag. Web. 11 Nov 2009.

[i] Please see

[ii] At the time of this writing, Martyn Jessop has written in the Humanist Discussion Group to clarify: “Sadly the . . . minor at King’s College London has been closed down” though they “still operate ‘standalone’ modules in digital humanities for 1st and 2nd year students” (Jessop 2009).

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