Teaching Greek… Archaeology

It’s not quite midnight in Austin, so I’m going to say this still counts as Day of DH. Once again I’m focusing on the use of digital tools in teaching, this time in relation to visual and material culture. I started thinking about this after a class that covered “Classical Archaeology” in the broadest possible terms (the entire Mediterranean world from the birth of writing until the foundation of Constantinople). I wanted to emphasize synchronic connections between cultures and diachronic development within cultures, rather than teaching a series of discrete spatio-temporal boxes focused on a particular floruit (Egypt of the Pharaohs, the Golden Age of Greece, Augustan Rome). But this was endlessly confusing for the students, who had a very hard time keeping track of where they were supposed to be in time and space, and what things looked like there.

The result was GeoDia, an interactive spatial timeline of the ancient Mediterranean, which came out of a very lucky collaboration with my brother Nick Rabinowitz (then at the Berkeley i-School), Peter Keane and Stuart Ross (both then of the Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Service at UT Austin). The site was meant to combine spatial, temporal and visual information to provide students with context for the images and historical events they were learning about. I expected them to use it to study and to build visual literacy in the context of classes on archaeology.

In practice, however, things didn’t work out this way. I talk more about this here, but the gist is that it rarely occurred to them to use the site to study, since it didn’t match the presentation of the textbook and didn’t provide encyclopedia (Wikipedia)-style information about the sites included. On the other hand, they did really seem to learn from the creation of data to put into GeoDia. In my original plans for the site, a second phase of development would have provided an interface and management system for user-generated content, as well as a quiz-style match-image-with-site-and-time interface. We ran out of time and money, though, so my assignments for students required that I correct and enter all the data myself, which of course meant that most of that material is still waiting to be entered. Even so, the act of researching and gathering accurate and authoritative information about archaeological sites or historical events seems to have been a very effective pedagogical strategy. More than ever, I am convinced that digital tools for humanities education will work best when they allow the user to create and contribute knowledge in a structured and rigorous environment.

I’ve used GeoDia for assignments in three courses now (one Greek Archaeology and two Greek Civ), but UT likes one-off projects a lot more than projects requiring ongoing maintenance (that is, all projects that result in something more than a series of static HTML pages or a PDF), and I have not yet been able to find a way to ensure the longer-term survival of GeoDia, and I’m getting nervous about basing class assignments on it. If it breaks mid-semester, there is now no one left in LAITS who will be willing or able to fix it. So this semester I’ve pursued a different strategy, using a better-established platform that is consistently maintained and set up for user management: Pleiades. I’ve been working with the Pleiades folks this semester to have my students work in groups to gather information about locations (i.e. monuments or buildings) within Pleiades places, which they will then add to the site. This highlights another thing I consider to be a crucial element of digital humanities: the encouragement of contributions to knowledge by people other than scholars.

I continue to think that the creation of order from a mass of apparently arbitrary content is fundamental to learning. I’ve also been working on that this semester, but with a commercial classroom-response platform called Tophat Monocle. I have been working with this group to produce an interactive image drill that will require students to place images in time and space, using other images as cues. I’m hopeful that this will cover some of what I’d hoped to do with a later stage of GeoDia. But it won’t be open, and it’s built as part of a commercial system — so does that count as digital humanities? Do we draw a line between “pure” digital tools for scholarship and commercial products, and if so, where — especially given, say, the recent NSF grant to Azavea for historical mapping tools?

In case anyone’s interested, you can find the assignments for the three phases of my Pleiades-based group projects for my Greek archaeology class here. The second-phase submissions were getting pretty good, so we’ll see how this all turns out.