Teaching East Asian DH: Overview

In Spring 2018, I taught the grad/undergrad seminar “East Asian Digital Humanities” via Penn’s East Asian Languages & Civilizations (EALC) department, listed as an elective for the undergrad DH minor at the SAS Price Lab. This course focused on digital humanities (DH) research and projects in an East Asian context. It was taught in English to make the course accessible across East Asian studies, which includes at least three languages and geographic regions, but required intermediate to advanced knowledge of at least one East Asian language. Because all of the students came from humanities departments (6 from History and 3 from EALC) they were well versed in East Asian studies but completely new to digital methods and strategies for humanities research.

Over the course of the semester, the students learned about 12 different topics under the DH umbrella in a more traditional seminar format: they read articles, watched video lectures, and looked at projects in preparation for each 3-hour discussion, then wrote response papers afterward. I also invited guest speakers, largely librarians but also a peer MA student in South Asian studies, both in person and over videoconferencing. They talked about their research or professional experience in everything ranging from metadata and Omeka to GIS and topic modeling. I chose to invite them both because I obviously cannot be an expert in all of the extremely wide range of methods we covered, and also to demonstrate the breadth of practitioners they might consult and learn from to become experts in their own domains. I also wanted to show the students that I am ready to admit when I don’t know something and need help from someone else!

The grades were mostly participation-based, but also included a final project. For the undergraduate, it consisted of a literature review, which he conducted on sentiment analysis of China’s Weibo microblogging platform. The graduate students, meanwhile, wrote a 15-page “project pitch” which also included a single-page cover letter. The assignment’s goal was to get them thinking about a dream project that would help enhance their research or answer a new research question, and to practice making the case for such a project in a concise and convincing way to a funding agency, advisor, department chair, or other authority. Instead of actually implementing the project, which wasn’t feasible due to their lack of technical skills, they had to explain exactly what the project would require: funding, skills and knowledge, technology, time, people, and any other factors they could think of. The main requirement of the paper was to “dream big” and yet also be realistic about what it takes to make a project happen and identify exactly what is needed.

The final project ideas ranged from a crowdsourced map of accessible spaces in Tokyo in preparation for the 2020 Olympics, to a $100,000 grant for improving OCR to enable topic modeling of interwar Japanese food magazines, and a digital museum of traditional Central and East Asian instruments including 3D facsimiles and sound samples. The students also gave lightning talks on their projects at the end of the semester and I learned that PhD students really hate this format! One insisted that he will never have to give a talk under 20 minutes, but in fact, this is a common length in the DH world and it’s important for students to realize they will need to build the skill of being concise and clear about their research and ideas no matter what field they go into. This is practice I never got in college or graduate school, so I hope it was a productive experience for them.

At the end of the course, one student told me: “I see DH everywhere now!” My aim for the students was to realize the breadth of the field, and how they themselves can contribute to it as the vanguard of East Asian DH, which is only beginning to take shape (especially in the English-speaking world). I hope to have inspired all the students to “see DH everywhere” and to use what they learned in the survey to also inspire their own future directions.

My syllabus for Spring 2018 (revised as the term went along) and a talk I gave at MLA 2019 on the course can be found on the Humanities Commons repository, and the living syllabus on my website. The syllabus is public domain so feel free to use it in your own endeavors! (Many thanks to Quinn Dombrowski for including some materials from my course in her own at Stanford in spring 2019, Digital Humanities Across Borders.)

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