A Digital Project for a Digital Generation

Building and Implementing DH into Language/Culture Curricula

Let me recount an anecdote as point of departure: I was dining at a fine restaurant of Kansas City when I received “You have been assigned a course on Transatlantic Hispanic Cultures to teach next semester because… (the given reasons)”. As an advanced graduate student about to enter the market, I said “Let´s do it! This will expand my medieval studies horizon and will let me work more conformably in areas other than my specialization”. The following days it was a non-stop of ideas to shape the course design. Then, the bulb of Digital Humanities lighted and resulted in the project I am dissecting in this three-blog-entry series. Here is the first one.

(I cannot continue without acknowledging the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Kansas, its head unit Dr. Margot Versteeg, and my HASTAC mentor Dr. Sean Gullickson, for their financial and academic support).

“Picturing Hispanismo: History, Voices and Texts” is a collaborative digital humanities project that I designed and developed as doctoral student instructor, together with my students from LAA 318 and SPAN 346 (Transatlantic and Transnational/Hispanic Transatlantic Cultures), during the Spring semester of 2021 at the University of Kansas. This digital site provides an overview of the history of Hispanic cultures, focusing on political, economic, social, and artistic developments from pre-contact times to the present. With an emphasis on the historical and cultural bonds between Iberia and Latin America, the site addresses the complex circulation of influences in multiple directions informing Hispanic communities and identities across the Atlantic.

Before getting into much detail about the final product, I would like to take a step back and center my reflection today in the work prior to the first stone of this massive structure. It is my intention to register the decisions I made, in what ways the overall design of the project was envisioned, and what were the goals and learning outcomes of our project. With it, I am hoping to first share my experience and see what conversation and discussions it might generate across the HASTAC community, and second, to incentivize similar teaching projects amongst language instructors and departments. Let this blog be a forum for interaction and further thinking of DH classroom activities.

The very first that came to mind was: “How I am gonna do this!?” No answer was available at the time, yet I soon found out that had resources. A couple of meetings with Betsaida Reyes (by then Librarian for Spanish, Portuguese, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, University of Kansas Libraries) and Karna Younger (Open Pedagogy Librarian, University of Kansas Libraries) were paramount to conceive a preliminary configuration. They were crucial for the inception of the project, especially in terms of administration and logistics. I was unaware of students’ rights and copyright issues when “publishing” a project online, open access policies and so on. Important to mention that without their encouragement and optimism, the totality of the endeavor here would not have been possible AT ALL. 

Once I confirmed the OK of the overall scheme, I went on. First, why this DH project? Well, it was during Covid times, I was seeking an appealing project for students to work on, rather than the traditional written essay to complete and submit from entirely form home, individually. I was also aiming at creativity and originality from a pedagogical standpoint, both in terms of methodology and practices. The idea was for students to create a collective text in which they could not just show me their learning progress and knowledge retention but their abilities to collaborate and present their work more publicly to a general audience in a non-classroom and non-academic setting. This project would incorporate all the course learning goals (I am happy to share these if somebody wants me to) of the cultures of the Hispanic Transatlantic into a unique online public repository. Students would then be able to access it, show it to friends and family and eventually see how valuable their humanities course was, even more during a pandemic that drastically affected our relationships and the way of living in a world together.

The project was based on dialogue and more dialogue. Sylvia Fernández (by then Public and Digital Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow, Hall Center for the Humanities, University of Kansas), assembled the more practical tools and suggestions, including what DH instruments were a good fit for us. She also visited our class twice during the semester to guide the evolution of students’ projects through workshops, once to offer a panoramic of Digital Humanities as a discipline, then to present and showcase the functionality of specifically Storyline JS, a digital tool to create storylines to be embedded in websites. As the reader can perceive here, the project was fundamentally grounded on group collaboration where everybody was necessary and valuable for the larger goal. 

However, looking backwards now, I believe what makes me mostly proud of this project is how much students were involved from day one to last. It filled me with joy every class to observe a sense of excitement and happiness in their faces, I could feel they were much into it, learning, radiantly content. As a clarification, this final project was principally developed by students towards the last quarter of the semester once they absorbed the necessary cultural information and historical background of the Hispanic world.  

One of the first decisions the class was assigned was to agree on what platform would host our project. I created a brief class activity as follows. Division of class into 3 groups, same questions to answer after a brief research exploration of each platform.

  • Group 1: Twitter
  • Group 2: ArcGIS
  • Group 3: WordPress
  • Provide a brief description of how information is presented.
  • What are some advantages you can perceive for a project like ours?
  • What are some disadvantages you can perceive for a project like ours?
  • Is this platform adequate for group collaboration?
  • Is this platform accessible, easy to navigate, and functional for a non-academic public?

After a couple of minutes, these were their conclusions (responses are original, not edited):

  • Group 1: Twitter

Description: blogging system where users can share thoughts, videos, and photos in brief posts.
Pros: accessible in academic and non-academic context, casual, you don’t have to have an account to view on laptop, good search engine.
Cons: word count very limiting, will require multiple tweets to go into depth about a topic, limited creativity (must use format twitter provides), not the easiest to app/website (takes time to get use to format), image limit per tweet, people don’t usually go to Twitter for academic info.

  • Group 2: ArcGIS

Description: moving story map with text boxes and embedded videos.
Pros: the platform is very clean looking and allows for the use of a lot of graphics/visual aid. Easy to depict maps, easy to divide work.
Con: could potentially be complicated to use, not easy to include lots of complex content/pictures. Only maps?

  • Group 3: WordPress

Pros: customizable (e.g. logo, name of site, presentation/format, navigation menu). Allows insertion of hyperlinks to primary/secondary sources, embedding videos.
Disadvantages: advertisements, potentially overwhelming getting started, free access to get started (1 year), but the free option has limited features.
Alternatives: instead of having to pay for a better version, websites like Wix or Weebly allow for the same format but without the money; Google Sites is also similar and easy to use.

As you see, they deeply engaged in critical thinking and program application to our tentative project in a way I was not expecting, but I should have. These new digital generation counts with an immediate awareness of the digital world that allows them to cultivate their decision-making more effectively and in a short period of time. This class activity was only 20 minutes. For our purposes, none of my suggested platforms was suitable based on their feedback. However, the third group mentioned Google Sites and after some thoughts, the group soon reached a consensus, Google Sites would be (later Sylvia Fernández opened our horizons and would suggest to incorporate Storyline JS to this site – more on this coming soon).

Once platform was selected, it was my task to design assessment and evaluation methods. Honestly, this was the most extenuating time as instructor. It required extra time on my end while creating and developing regular class lessons and management of the semester. It took me a couple of weeks to be back with all necessary course preparations, rubrics, and steps for students to complete the totality of the project. Around mid-semester our final DH project was beginning to be a reality: the class learnt about DH, we were supported administratively and academically, platform OK, methodologies confirmed, and overall project intention explained, ratified by students’ positive perception and enthusiasm. 

I think I will leave it here for now, hoping it’s enough for a point of departure. In my next entry I will move on onto the developing phases of the project, including examples of assessment and evaluation, reflections about students’ workload and general obstacles and challenges all throughout. Meanwhile, I hope I have sparked interest in the audience. Any question or comments, please do so as this blog is intended to be a catalyst for dialogue. Also, feel free to email me at Angel.Ranales@usca.edu for materials, examples, or any other information. 

If you have reached this far, thanks for reading 😊

2 responses to “A Digital Project for a Digital Generation”

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts on digital project teaching strategies! I find all of these initiatives really interesting, please, keep us updated!