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What is DHSS?

Digital Humanities and Social Sciences (DHSS) is an umbrella of convergent practices that enhance and expand the work of the Humanities and/or Social Sciences due to the intersection of digital tools and technologies with Humanities and/or Social Science practices and pedagogies.

By explicitly using digital technologies in teaching, research, analysis, and knowledge-sharing, the Digital Humanities and Social Sciences (DHSS) invites new or deeper methods of data collection, organization, analysis, and argument development into the ways we interact in, and with, the Humanities and Social Sciences.

In The Digital Humanities: A primer for students and scholars, Gardiner and Musto (2015) summarize that there are two ways for thinking of DHSS:

  1. Humanities or Social Science computing: The development or augmentation of tools and technologies that can enhance data generation, collection, analysis, and publication

  1. Humanities or Social Science meaning-making enhanced through the digital: “Harnessing computer power to facilitate, improve, expand and perhaps change” the generation, collection, analysis, and publication of work in Humanities and Social Sciences (Gardiner and Musto 2015, 4-5)

In this way, when one talks of “DHSS,” one could be talking about developing software or one could be talking about extending the possibilities of critical interpretation because of that software.

DHSS can have a reputation for being cliquish or exclusionary because many of the DHSS conversations over the last 20 years have seemed to be on computing. One may have felt as if one had to understand elements of programming (the “back-end” of the technologies we see and use) to fully appreciate or participate in conversations about the potential of digital technologies in the Humanities and Social Sciences. This expectation is sure to isolate those who do not know or understand computer programming.

However, digital technologies have developed to such an extent that their inclusion in our lives is now a “total social fact” (Mauss), especially in the classroom, and thus our participation in harnessing the power of digital technologies to enhance or complement meaning making is no longer contingent on us understanding computing or programming. Rather, our use and interest in digital technologies to enhance meaning making is aligned with our interest and willingness to see how we can use already developed technologies to enhance what we can do with, and in, our research and teaching.

Many of us already do this without calling it “DHSS.” When we ask our students to search for a website or an article, to map something on Google, to collaborate on an online document, to participate in a discussion on Facebook – these are all practices that invite students to find, collect, organize, and/or analyse using digital technologies.

What makes practices explicitly DHSS practices, is when we thoughtfully and explicitly use these technologies to develop the skills of critical thinking, doing, and communicating. Explicit DHSS practices invite us to be more thoughtful and creative with the potentialities of interaction in our digital worlds and provide us with more opportunities to consider practices and methods that shape, are shaped by, our digitally enhanced world (Marres 2017). DHSS practices can certainly help develop the technical, intellectual, and administrative competencies needed in our increasingly technologically advancing society (Burdick et al. 2012, Kim, Warga, and Moen 2013, Salehi et al. 2017), but they can also invite critical reflection, collaboration, engagement in ways that do not neatly fit into a competencies model.

DHSS assignments and activities that are explicitly planned, developed, and taught with the aim of engaging with, and enhancing, critical and active opportunities for meaning making, are able to explore new modalities and invitations for accessing and developing knowledge. DHSS can then help students (and researchers) come to know in ways in which traditional research and learning may not be able achieve (Marres 2017, Mortara et al. 2014, Ng 2015). In this sense, DHSS can provide opportunities for reflective problem-posing critical literacy (Freire 2006) and greater pedagogical opportunities for community engagement across and beyond our digital world.

To engage in the Digital Humanities and Social Sciences is thus to engage in the Humanities and Social Sciences differently, perhaps more interactively, perhaps more visually, perhaps more connectedly, because of our explicit use of tools, sources, and platforms enabled by the digital.

Our project, as well as the projects and scholars we have drawn inspiration and examples from, align with the meaning-making approach to DHSS. That is, in this Instructor’s Guide, we are not interested in Humanities and Social Sciences computing – we are not developing code nor building elaborate backend databases. Instead, we are exploring what can be done with digital materials in ways that allow us to understand and think through ideas, cultures, experiences, texts, documents, and images differently than analogue engagements alone. To ask and answer “research questions that cannot be reduced to a single genre, medium, discipline, or institution” (Burdick et al. 2012).

This Guide is interested in these ideas becoming part of our teaching practice.

Given that DHSS was developed with the principles of open access and democratization of knowledge, Digital Humanities and Social Sciences can invite new ways of thinking about content, content generation, and content dissemination in your classrooms in ways that bring course content into “big picture” conversations about digital literacy, public access, and community engagement. With these ideas in your classroom, students can work in an arena designed to blur the “distinction between the professoriate and amateur researchers” (Rockwell 2012, 151) and become active creators of knowledge for public access. In knowing this and being open to this, our courses and assessments can be organized in ways that make these ideas central to how students engage in course content. We can design courses and assessments in ways that invite students, as amateur or apprenticing researchers, to “engage in the research process typical for a humanities [and/or social science] scholar: namely, the discovery of artifacts, the formulation of research questions, followed by the analysis and synthesis of findings culminating in the publication of initial findings in a digital medium” (Jakacki and Faull 2017, 361), and then, following analysis and organization, students can take these materials and present them to the world in public on-line fora. While there are parallels to this work with the traditional essay, the process of explicitly engaging in these steps with digital tools and technologies, and thinking of the work as public-facing, makes students’ engagements with course content more embedded with 21st century competencies than a traditional essay would ever be.

Thus, while moving away from the traditional essay writing may seem scary, Digital Humanist Mark Sample (2009) reminds us that “the word text, after all, derives from the Latin textus, meaning that which is woven, strands of different material intertwined together.” Rather than solely using words to express an argument or present an idea, in his classes, Sample wants the “warp be words and the weft be something else entirely.” In this way, he commits to “moving away from asking students to write toward asking them to weave. To build, to fabricate, to design;” this similar to what Ng (2015) has called a “reflexive remix” (p. 221) or Dr. Amanda Starling Gould from Duke University called a “(re)mediated element” in her students’ “transmedia essays”.

With digital tools and technologies, students participate in a wider, perhaps more democratic version of knowledge production where they can create, develop, remix, and weave together arguments with multiple media. This allows them to participate in the work of the Humanities and/or Social Sciences writ large while also exploring the impact and implications of course content outside the course.

In this way, by bringing DHSS into your course, students learn about knowledge production, knowledge argumentation, and knowledge mobilization all through the content of your course, making the doing of learning as exciting and important as the done.

To learn more about what DHSS may look like in your classroom, navigate to the next section.