Mind-mapping the teaching principles for Digital Humanities & Technical Communications

This year, I’ve been applying digital humanities approaches most intensively in my technical and professional writing courses:

  • ENG 2105 Introduction to Technical Writing (see post)
  • ENG 3105 Professional Writing (see post)
  • ENGG 5115 Advanced Professional Writing (see post)

The digital aspects of DH are an obvious fit for practical courses like these that focus on production of professional genre sets. Modes of digital composing and distribution are inherently relevant. In the back of my mind, however, I’ve been questioning how an applied field like tech comm can be justified as also fitting within humanities.

My doubts were mitigated during a presentation by Cecilia Shelton at the Symposium on Teaching Composition and Rhetoric at HBCUs.  There, Shelton reframed technical writing as also civic writing, showing multiple examples of social justice rhetorical production that could be read through the lenses of technical communication’s principles of design and usability. She also cited Erin Frost’s feminist redefinition of efficiency in relation to technical communication.  Shelton’s talk helped me think harder about ethics and tech comm, social justice and tech comm. I can now take a more assertively humanist angle to these courses.

Practicing what I preach:  Using DH methods for concept development

I recently started working on a conceptual framework for teaching principles that result when putting digital humanities and technical communication concepts into proximity.

I asked myself, “What makes it digital work?” “What makes it humanities work?”  “What makes it technical communication?”  I then considered what those definitions suggested for teaching principles in DH-infused tech comm classes.

To work out these ideas, I used a combination of analog and digital practices — much as I do in workshops with students.

stickynote mindmap
I first used a sticky-note wall chart to brainstorm and detect patterns in my ideas.


Pedagogical Framework for DH-TC
A mind-mapping template from Canva helped me further refine the concepts for distribution.

I’ll surely continue revising what I think it means to take a humanist approach to teaching technical communication.  Fortunately, I have the community and the tools to do so.

Ripple effect for FHI-NCCU DH fellows

On Friday March 30, Russell Robinson and I presented at the United Negro College Fund on “Addressing Inequities: Forging Honest Relationships between HBCUs and PWIs” during the second national Symposium on Teaching Composition and Rhetoric at HBCUs.

During our panel, Dr. Robinson shared the experience of cracking open his pop culture class and experimenting with new ways of teaching.  I discussed disparities in bibliographic research access at NCCU and Duke.  The concepts, projects, and challenges we discussed were a direct result of our FHI-NCCU Digital Humanities Fellowship.

The occasion gave us an opportunity to reflect on what this partnership between Duke and NCCU affords and reveals in our ongoing work of addressing institutional inequities.


Developing a case study to teach digital image use

I’ve been working a long time on developing course materials that help writers understand their obligations and rights when borrowing images to use in their own work. Serendipity gave me a chance to expand my teaching repertoire on this recently.

My usual approach: During my fall 2017 undergraduate professional writing course, I asked students to pay thorough attention to image reuse in online contexts.  I gave them  resources and tips and asked them to attend to principles of fair use.  I modeled and insisted they work with best practices in selecting and acknowledging image sources just as clearly as they work with quoted text.

This does not come naturally.

Our digital habits: Contemporary digital culture makes image borrowing as easy as breathing. Many images used and reused online don’t attribute their photographers or origins at all. Most social media tools don’t make it easy to caption images, either.  Complicating this is that longstanding creative practices of sampling, quilting, and otherwise picking up scraps of others’ work and repurposing it make direct source attribution feel to some like an impediment to the creative method.

Teaching fair use and image attribution techniques can sometimes feel like driving north in four lanes of southbound traffic. So I’m always looking for better ways to explain why these matter.

It matters when it’s YOUR work: An NCCU alumnus told me recently that this issue finally made sense to him when he noticed someone had picked up one of HIS photos and reused it without permission or attribution. Then he got it because he felt some type of way.

Last week,  an acquaintance described a more complex situation that illustrated multiple ethical issues around online image reuse. I won’t go into specifics because I’m seeking permission from the people involved to create a more detailed case study. Here’s my stab at doing so without identifying data.

In a nutshell: Professional X is told by friends that she should go visit a certain Facebook group because there’s an image of something unique of hers there.

Professional X visits the group and sees the image of her unique thing being used without credit by Grad Student Y to illustrate a survey.  Professional X contacts Grad Student Y and says “Hey that’s my thing.”

Grad Student Y says, “I found it on the internet.”

(This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? My students tell me that often when I ask about image sources.)

Professional X seems more bothered that her unique thing is posted without attribution than that the image is not credited to its source. She tells me she paid for the unique thing to be made custom for her use, then she paid a professional photographer to take the image and she uses it on her professional website.  On that site, she does not attribute the photographer, but then again, Professional X owns the image. That same image has been reused online in the context of a review of Professional X’s work and her unique thing.  The reviewer simply indicated “Image may be subject to copyright.”

Professional X and Grad Student Y are now in communication about how to proceed.  Professional X has asked my advice.

I suggested:

  1. In this case, the unique thing in the image is not the issue. Unattributed images of the thing are the issue.
  2. Professional X could credit photos on her own website as a professional courtesy, even if she paid for them.
  3. Professional X could request that Grad Student Y caption any reuses of the image: “Image by W. Used with permission of X.” (W being the photographer or studio. X being image owner Professional X or her website.)

Teaching this case: My suggestions above are not important when posing the problem to students, so I’ll leave them out of the case. I might share them after students analyze. My goal is to write up this case well enough that students can analyze it themselves, putting principles of fair use to the test in this complex situation. I’m excited about this opportunity to create a real world case study for my students. I’ll be learning something new.

For reference:

Refocused: Digital Composing & Publishing

When I applied for the digital humanities fellowship, I had one idea about enacting DH. I was going to entirely transform a first-year course and learn a whole bunch of brand new things in order to do so. But my ideas have shifted as a result of conversations in our group, attending HASTAC, and experimenting last semester.

For spring 2018, I have refocused my pedagogical intentions on a class I have taught more than 20 times — intro to technical writing. I’m also focused on strengthening my existing knowledge in digital composing and publishing rather than learning something completely new from scratch. From this place of relative comfort, I am rewriting one unit entirely (there are four) and making adjustments to a second. These changes build on what I learned during my professional writing course of fall 2017.  Here’s the rewrite.

During Unit 3 of tech writing, we will host a panel,”The Risks and Rewards of Establishing a Professional Online Presence.”  I have lined up at least one former student, a DH colleague (Dr. Mac – thanks!), and the university’s internet security officer. I’ve also invited Career Services. Students in many majors are encouraged to create a LinkedIn presence, to create digital portfolios of their work, and/or to establish social media accounts for professional purposes. I want to have my tech writing students gain critical awareness about issues with such public writing so they can make informed decisions about self-representation in online environments.

The panel’s content is valuable, yet I’m also using it to model a typical kind of event that requires lots of writing to make happen. During the unit, I’ll have students select their own topics and organizations for which they will create mock or real panel events. In keeping with the course focus on workplace writing strategies, they will:

  • propose the event (the course description promised proposal writing),
  • invite speakers (business correspondence),
  • advertise the panel (to gain exposure to digital composing tools like Canva and practice integrating visuals and text rhetorically, to determine digital and analog means of distribution),
  • create a digital evaluation (to increase comfort with Google Forms and survey design), and
  • work with data from the evaluation in a followup report (to learn techniques for integrating quantitative visuals into narrative documents).

The version for students: Unit 3 Overview – Writing to Make an Event Happen

At the end of last semester, one of my realizations was that no matter how excited about a new approach I become, existing course objectives matter. So what I describe above is less a radical DH transformation of a course and more of a DH deepening in the ways I’m teaching it. Propose, correspond, advertise, evaluate, report: These are core workplace writing moves, most of which I assigned in prior tech writing courses already in various forms.  In my DH-informed version of the course, I’m deliberately ramping up my own and my students’ creative use of digital composing techniques and our critical awareness of issues in digital publishing.

Follow-up: Student examples

Differentiated Teaching Workshop Flyer Jessica Wilds-page-001
Jessica Wilds created a flyer on Canva to advertise her event. Used with permission.
2018-04-27 12.04.05
Jessica Wilds used Google Forms to create and distribute a survey to event participants. She interpreted the results in a report to the event sponsors. Used with permission.

I want to try it NOW

On our first Saturday together as a cohort of fellows, we learned about so many digital humanities resources (people and tools).  I’m now thinking of very different possibilities than I imagined in my original proposal.

I don’t want to wait until spring semester to dabble.  I want to try some experiments right away.  The question is do I try unfamiliar tools myself until I feel capable before I introduce them to students?  Or might I make tinkering with tools just something we do during some of the workshop class periods in my Professional Writing class, whether I’m quite comfortable or not yet? We’ll already be working with WordPress for digital portfolios, Canva for infographic design, and Issuu for conversion of documents to flip-page magazines.

In addition to the infographic, I’d like to offer other digital mini-projects that students could do that might become pieces to showcase in their professional writing portfolios.  I’m wondering which types are fast enough to learn (for me and them) that they could pull off a short well-polished example relevant to their career interests in, say, a week or two of fooling around. This time would include one class demo and one 60-75-minute in-class workshop period.  Something with mapping just seems eye-catching and informative to add to their showcase.

Students’ professional interests include law, education, medicine, public relations, and one plans to become a chaplain. The group already has a decent collaborative dynamic, so I know they’d help each other out. Any thoughts about a manageable mini-project to add to our repertoire?