April 8, 2015

Designing Projects for the Digital Generation: The History of Biology Thumbnails Project

Emmie Miller, of Colorado, is a second-year graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Although she loves 20th/21st century zebrafish, she actually studies the relationship between humans and non-human animals in the early modern period. In December, she published a blog post at Shells and Pebbles entitled, "Dissecting the 'Chain of Creation': Edward Tyson and Anatomical Natural History," which she also discussed at an 2014 HSS Meeting session. Follow her on Twitter.

One difficult thing about being an instructor today is the concern that students, distracted by their buzzing phones and binging Facebook apps, don’t care to learn because they’re preoccupied with what’s trending. In addition to being sidetracked by their interpersonal relationships, higher priority classes, and other things of real significance, they are inundated with diverting alerts from their handheld media. This deserves to be reframed – our students now learn in different ways. We as instructors should realize that every time they text in class on their smartphone, they are playing right into our hands, but only if we are willing to incorporate into our teaching strategies the technology that so thoroughly captures their attention.

There are many ways to do this. Much has been made of the digital humanities in potentially transforming the way that historians think about and disseminate our work, but I think, like others, we must also utilize the digital humanities as a teaching tool, one that could potentially re-engage our distracted students. I had been wanting to design a digital media project for my students, in part inspired by the power of technology in telling us something about history (for example, this amazing representation of Darwin’s Origin of Species). I was faced with a series of decisions outside of the normal realm of classroom assignments. I had to decide, in the context of technology, what were my goals – they were more aspirational than a 140-character tweet – what platforms should I use, what history would I incorporate, and moreover, how would this help them learn? This post will detail my excursion into the digital humanities and explain how I approached some of these questions.

The course for which this was designed, Life on Earth: Perspectives on Biology, is a survey course in the history of biology consisting of mostly first and second year undergrads. I wanted to inspire in them an enthusiasm for history, making it tangible and real by putting primary sources in their hands while still maintaining the course’s relevance. A digital media project summarizing one of the longer units, evolutionary theory, would be perfect for my initial goal: covering a broad swath of the more significant themes in history of biology complete with access to original texts. This unit moved through nineteenth century life sciences from Georges Cuvier and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck to August Weismann and William Bateson. Speaking with the interim curator of the Wangensteen Library, Lois Hendrickson, we began assembling lists of relevant texts to the time period, some we’d covered in class, and some outside of the purview of the syllabus.

I had to think about what exactly I wanted my undergraduates to get from the texts. In a survey course, it makes little sense for them to go in depth with the material; it would have been downright futile to ask them to actually read the entire primary source. Instead, Lois and I decided that we should manipulate their desire to Snapchat duckface selfies and Instagram their dinners by incorporating that style of amateur photography into the project. They would take cell phone shots of the texts, their goal being to accentuate with the images the most significant aspect of their text or their author’s contributions to “science,” deduced through out-of-class research. So instead of steamed-milk hearts in their lattes, their phones would be full of images of century-old texts, complete with a useable hashhag, #Wangensteen. While this one element of the project was useful, I didn't think that I would attain my goals of a slightly more comprehensive look at the history of biology in the 19th century by assigning a 140-character tweet or an assemblage of hashtags under a fuzzy, cross-processed Instagram photo. Therefore, I decided to pair their snapshots – thumbnails – with a blog post describing the significance of the naturalist, scientist, or author to the intellectual climate at the time.

By this point, a cohesive project was emerging. Students in groups of 2 or 3 would be assigned an author, given a week to research said author, and then spend a classroom section flipping through one text by that author. They would then have another week to work together in drafting a short post concisely describing the author and his (they were all men) work. This was the most entertaining stage for me, because it required pulling book after book in the Wangensteen reading room and pouring over my selections, looking for something both representative of the author and their overarching significance. As a historian of science, I’d love to pay more attention to contributors who were less famous than Charles Darwin or Alexander von Humboldt, but in a survey class, that’s really not possible. I simply brainstormed the “biggest names in the field” (see image).

From there, I had to pair the authors with an available text. In some cases I knew a text was more significant than the author, like Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers. In other cases, I had a specific text in mind, such as T.H. Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature because of its incorporation of (what we call) anthropology into evolutionary theory. There were also a few texts that I decided to throw out – they just didn't offer enough that would attract the students. In some sense, this project was driven by what would be appealing and engaging. For instance, I learned that botany is very boring (in case I didn't know that before) to 18-22 year olds. Asa Gray, Joseph Dalton Hooker, and William Jackson Hooker didn't get much love, except for J.D. Hooker’s Antarctic wanderings.

Ultimately, my control over the project was in some sense dictated by the scientists and the texts themselves. Not everyone was available or suited to dissemination in this way. Lamarck and Cuvier were exclusively in French, posing a real challenge to my undergrads (though I still put them up to it). How can you profile Mendel without any books to use? (Ultimately those students who profiled William Bateson ended up profiling Mendel as well.) In addition, how does one talk about images when there are no illustrations in the books, especially when illustration was expensive! This behooved many of the students to read sizeable chunks of the text (to their benefit, without doubt) in search of iconic phrases that allowed the authors to speak for themselves. One of the most compelling was the Alexander von Humboldt post, captured with an image of the words, “Picture of Nature.”

Moreover, digital media projects as designed for undergraduate students are controlled by the technology itself, something easily forgotten. Upon discussing my project with a digital humanities expert/former librarian, I was told that one thing that most people forget when thinking about the digital humanities is how the projects are actually structured by their metadata – in other words, the nuance and the success of a really beautiful project requires finessed tinkering at the level of binary code and HTML. The digital humanities is not so simple as a superficial gloss of digitization and digital representation – there is a technological narrative built in to digital humanities projects. The way that the metadata is assembled, for instance in a library database or a Google algorithm, is meant to reflect the way the creator anticipates how users will utilize the platform. It is a highly specialized discipline, and that must be respected when incorporating their methods into our teaching. In short, we need the digital humanities specialists more than they need us un-tech savvy scholars.

Even without the sophistication of more professionalized digital media projects, ultimately my students learned about short form writing, how to think through non-textual material, or making textual material visual, and to consider historical figures on their own merit, rather than in relation to Charles Darwin (which seems to be an overwhelming tendency in the nineteenth century life sciences). In the future I would probably do things a little differently, including requiring them to spend more time on the project, rather than just three weeks. I think they could have used more time with their primary source materials and researching their authors. Despite the weeks of energy I poured into the project (honestly, I was shocked by the amount of work this took, despite its simplicity), I have never been more proud at how my students rose to the challenge. While I processed their work, my students impressed me with their diligence, creativity, and focus. It seems that giving them liberty to use their techno-epistemology contributed something special to their work: genuine dedication.

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