Critical interventions & critical literacies: The perils of DH pegagogy

(This is part 2, read part 1 here)

While I am no longer sure I want to explore the marriage of ANT and social semiotics, I am thinking about ways that we can think productively about the theories of digital methods (be they archival, encoding, or algorithmic). McPherson‘s call to action strikes close to my heart as a compositionist interested in critical literacies:

In extending our critical methodologies, we must have at least a passing familiarity with code languages, operating systems, algorithmic thinking, and systems design. We need database literacies, algorithmic literacies, computational literacies, interface literacies. We need new hybrid practitioners: artist-theorists, programming humanists, activist-scholars; theoretical archivists, critical race coders. We need new forms of graduate and undergraduate education that hone both critical and digital literacies.

As I move towards a dissertation project that increasingly seems like it will be a research study using DH methods in a composition class, I wonder which of these literacies are important for my students to understand. I love the idea of having students encode their own writing in TEI. The main benefits I see of this is to make explicit the often implicit conventions of academic discourse. As Trey Conatser argues:

Requiring students to compose and tag their writing within an XML editor ensured that they explicitly and deliberately identified their own rhetorical and compositional choices.

I agree, but wonder how critical interventions made by scholars like McPherson, Koh, Bailey, and Cecire need to inform this practice? Can I have students compose in TEI/XML without addressing the hierarchical structure of XML tagging? Indeed, McPherson critiques the history of DH, as work “proceeded as if technologies from XML to databases were neutral tools.” If I want my students to curate multimodal exhibits, how do we talk about the politics of the interface, let alone delve into critical code studies? This becomes a logistical problem as much as it is a theoretical problem. How will students have time to meaningfully engage these methods while also taking the time to critically examine them?

One answer to this (on the TEI encoding side) is to have the class collectively create a schema for marking up texts. Conatser describes personally creating schema for each of the four assignment in his XML-based composition class:

For each assignment I specified a markup scheme in line with its most urgent goals.

For all the promise I think is in the idea of a XML-based composition class, this decision (most likely made with logistical constraints in mind), seems like a pretty prescriptive way to approach teaching a composition class. In the same way that I have student-sourced the creation of grading criteria in the past, I think a student-sourced markup scheme would allow a more complex conversation to arise around the structure of XML, writing conventions, and issues of authority. But even with a more student-centered approach, how do we get to the level of engagement that the scholars above (rightly) call for? This is a difficult issue for me, and one that I’m hoping my research will help me develop some practical pedagogical strategies to address.

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