Teaching “East Asian DH”

January 14, 2019
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In Spring 2018, I taught the grad/undergrad seminar “East Asian Digital Humanities” (EALC111-511), which was also listed for the undergraduate DH minor via the Price Lab. This course focused on digital humanities (DH) research and projects in an East Asian context. It was taught in English but required intermediate to advanced knowledge of at least one East Asian language, and because of this, all the students who took the seminar were well-versed in East Asian studies. The students included six History department PhD candidates, three EALC graduate students, and an undergraduate EALC/Poli Sci senior.

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. The grades were mostly participation-based, but the seminar 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 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 such a short format! One insisted that he will never have to give a talk under 20 minutes, but in fact, this is a common format 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!” (That student has gone on to be one of the first to pursue the Price Lab’s graduate certificate in digital humanities.) 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 (PDF). Feel free to use the syllabus in your own endeavors!