Teaching Digital Methods

Methods for the Digital Study of Religion Workshop information

One of the hallmarks of the MA program in Religious Studies here at UA is the emphasis on digital humanities and on training students to work both inside and outside of academia. Students complete a mandatory “Public Humanities Foundations” course that has a strong digital media emphasis, and also complete a digital humanities credential through a variety of informal presentations, internships, and a Digital Methods course.

Teaching computational literacy in humanities contexts is a known challenge. Courses that try to do both analysis and technical skill building often end up underserving both goals. The problems we use to teach the computational skills are not interpretively interesting, and the interesting interpretive questions require more technical skills than we teach in one semester. But with few digital humanities courses in the existing curriculum, we are often left trying to make the best of the situation and teaching what we can in the time available, with the hope that students continue to develop their understanding of the connections between the two modes of analysis after the class ends.

With our Digital Methods course, we are trying a different approach. Rather than a full semester course that teaches both technical skills and their application to humanities questions, we have structured the course as a one-credit-hour workshop that meets twice during the semester (over a Friday/Saturday weekend). These workshops provide an initial introduction to various concepts related to programming in the digital humanities.

This initial term the topics were “computational thinking” and “web design.” Over the two weekends, students learned some basic programming concepts with Python and data analysis with Pandas, as well as HTML and CSS along with basic web design concepts. Students came in with some experience with media production and web publishing, but this was new material for most everyone in the room.

The structure of the workshop offers a low stakes introduction and aims to give students a foundation on which to build technical skills. For students who are perhaps more skeptical about their technical abilities or the usefulness of such skills to their research, the workshop structure helps reduce the cognitive weight of the course – they only need to get through 16 hours, rather than a whole semester. For students who are interested in the work, it provides a starting place from which to learn and reduces the amount of introductory material that other DH-focused courses have to cover. You can read a student perspective on the course at the department blog.

We are offering the Digital Methods course as REL 503 in the Spring, this time focused on data management and visualization. We will also be publishing the workshop materials in the Resources section of the lab site in the near future, so stay tuned!