digital pedagogy and the experience of close reading

As the sun finally comes out on this last afternoon of the 2012 Digital Humanities Summer Institute and settles in pools in this quiet corner of the UVic library, I’m tempted to try and reflect on everything I’ve learned and all the questions that have been raised for me this week.

No doubt that process will take a (very) long time, yet one highlight (among many) from the Digital Pedagogy sessions at this week’s DHSI was from Jentery Sayers‘ presentation on the relationship between process and product in DH pedagogy. On the second day of our week-long class, Jentery used Google Maps as an analogy to situate us in a moment of “constant juxtaposition of the street level and the global view.”

As anyone with even cursory experience with Google’s mapping apps is aware, the ability to scale from global to intimate scale is not only a powerful learning tool, but also a tool that frames–divides, unifies, and layers different contexts upon–our world in a very particular way.

It’s also, let’s face it, an awful lot of fun to zoom around landmarks, distinctive landscapes, and the neighbourhood your grew up in.

Absolutely.

Yet…

What happens to the place itself, which now only exists in this spectrum of representations?

Similarly to Ursula Heise and Bill McKibben’s appropriation of a highly technologised view of Earth from the 1972 Apollo 17 mission as an image of a unified “blue marble,” the appeal to spatial representation in not without its problems: The proliferation of affective markers (the sentimental photograph of a particularly beautiful sunset or rainbow or alpine meadow) enabled by material culture (images taken by devices, uploaded to servers, imbricated with code, and represented on still other devices) most frequently underscores the movement through space rather than connection to particular places (Picasa images of people’s vacation highlights, Google Map flyovers, narrative sidebar directions, and so on).

If we do (and I think we do) suffer from “a general failure to blend the distant with the close” (Jentery again), then what approaches do we need to take (as humanities scholars) in order to layer the close and the distant in a more nuanced and intentional way?

With regard to close reading and textual analysis, for instance, we found that myriad tools exist to parse the occurrence of terms or concepts in a text, yet far fewer are available to drill down into the contexts, etymologies, and ambiguities of meaning in individual sentences and words.

Although I made an attempt at a DH-inflected assignment that asks students to use close reading of a passage as an entry to larger analytical and written projects (zipped Prezi available here through the course’s webpage), it’s just a first stab at a much larger issue–how can DH pedagogical approaches help us to ground student scholarship in first-hand experience with primary materials? Encoding text, annotating sentences, parsing paragraphs for word frequency–all of these are valuable approaches, which, if used carefully, can bring our students to textual analysis as a fundamental building block of humanities scholarship.

Attention to the labour of reading and the experience of the text can only enrich the connections scholars can make by looking at these narrower street views in the context of an ever-evolving map of the world.

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