Object-based learning: teaching Digital Humanities

Specimen in Grant museum, UCL

Specimen in Grant museum, UCL

As I’m still working on a new post about pioneers I thought I’d take a slight detour to discuss object-based learning and how I’ve been integrating it into the one of the core Digital Humanities (DH) postgraduate courses that I teach in UCL. Yesterday in London’s Natural History Museum I took part in Universities week and in a public engagement session I showed one of the objects that we used in this teaching (Galton’s pricker gloves).

I teach three courses each year: Digital Resources in the Humanities (DRH), Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities and Web Technologies, Users and Management. It is mostly during DRH that I integrate objects into teaching; UCL (on their useful object-based learning webpages) describes the key benefits of this approach as including:

[the development of] core skills including team work, evidence-based learning and communication, as well as key research skills such as data collection and analysis, practical observation and drawing skills, literature review techniques and subject-specific knowledge. It can also trigger innovative dissertation topics (see here).

I’ve integrated this approach into the teaching of the course for many reasons and I’ll mention two here. Given the shape-shifting nature of DH, the content of DRH changes from year to year.  Whether we are covering text encoding, stylometry, 2D and 3D digitisation or GIS etc there are a couple of utterly fundamental points that I must communicate to students. The first is that in order to make, remake, analyse, break, evaluate or interpret a digital resource (or engage in any of the other activities that are seen as ‘DH’) it is essential to understand the characteristics of the physical object that the digital is based on. I feel that this also holds true in the case of a born digital object; even if there is not a one-to-one relationship between a physical object and its digital presence we will almost invariably see that the born digital object fits into longer intellectual and technological genealogies that, in the case of research tools, for example, can be traced back to the thirteenth century (see the work of the Rouses, for example). McCarty put this most elegantly when he wrote that “If we are to build genres that are as least as powerful as the old ones, we need to understand in their own terms what the makers of the codex genres were trying to do.” (see here p.98).

The other fundamental point is that the relationship between the digital and the physical should not be seen as oppositional or hierarchical. This may seem like an odd statement but I do find at the outset of the course that a significant number of students view the relationship in this way (i.e. that the digital or physical is somehow inherently superior to the other. Actually, come to think of it, it is not only new DH students who can hold this view, a recent example of it can be seen in the much debated New Republic article).  If this viewpoint is not reflected upon and critiqued it can be problematic because it can shut down critical and deep thinking. So too, I have seen time and again that fostering an appreciation of both the strengths and weaknesses of the physical and digital media can lead to some really interesting questions and debates that stretch us outside our immediate frame of reference, for example, can we have DH without the Digital? And this  involves wondering about new horizons like Quantum Computing as much as old, pre-digital technologies (say of the book).

Mark Carnall, Grant Museum

Mark Carnall, Grant Museum

As for the implementation of object-based learning, in UCL we are privileged to have extensive Special Collections, three Museums (the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, the Grant museum of Zoology and UCL Art Museum) and so-called ‘hidden collections’, which are available upon request but not on permanent display. The colleagues who work in UCL Museums and Collections are among the smartest and most creative one could meet. Last year I worked closely with Mark Carnall (Curator, Grant Museum of Archaeology) and Subhadra Das (Curator, UCL Teaching and Research Collections) on object-based learning sessions for DRH.

From my perspective the main benefit of these sessions was that they allowed the ‘fundamental issues’ described above not just to be explored and personalised but also to be problematized in ways that would have been impossible in the class room or by reading relevant literature only.

Class trip to Grant museum

Class trip to Grant museum

The session in the Grant museum brought students face to face with real world specimens that they had been asked to locate in the museum catalogue in advance of the class. The process of seeking out the artefacts in the museum underlined the different conceptual structures that shape the museum layout and in its online catalogue.  Once the objects were found students were required to compare and contrast the many differences between the real and digital specimens. These tentative conclusions were then explored and debated with Mark Carnall, who led a fascinating session where he asked, for example, how we can best digitise a specimen in a natural history museum? Currently there are no standards for doing this and it is easy to forget that whether the object is digitised in a straight forward way using an e.g. SLR camera or in a more sophisticated way using an e.g. Arius 3D scanner that a number of subjective interpretations will be embedded in the resulting object. How are issues such as this communicated to researchers and how do such decisions shape the kinds of research can be done on these objects? And what of the museum itself and the collections that are on display? What subjective interpretations are made by curators in the selection and display of objects and how does this shape our engagement with museums (and cultural heritage more generally)?

The second object-based learning session was led by Subhadra Das when she presented the Galton collection to us; it is one of the so-called ‘hidden collections’ mentioned above. It does have an online presence but the catalogue is difficult to use and really one must have some knowledge of the collection in advance in order to use it effectively.

16 glass eyes in tin, Galton collection

16 glass eyes in tin, Galton collection

The Galton collection was bequeathed to UCL by Francis Galton upon his death in 1911 and, I think, added to in later years.Galton was a complex man who made many important contributions that are still relevant today (e.g. the science of finger printing, weather maps, statistical methods etc). However he was also a racist who coined the term ‘eugenics’ “to describe the science and idea of breeding human ‘stock’ to give ‘the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable” (see here).  It is not universally agreed that he wished to see his theories expanded and taken to the extremes they were; yet, the Galton collection contains some items that are disturbing and students are warned of this in advance. One of the objects contained in the collection, die ‘Haarfarbentafel’, is one of a genre of tools that were used by eugenicists and viewed by them as being ‘scientific’. It is a collection of 30 samples of dyed hair, numbered from 1-30. Reeves has written of it and tools like it:

The hair scale is scientific. It is a ‘standard’ scale which means that all race scientists invest in its truth. The dark-haired races cannot escape the truth. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Treblinka, Hadamar, hair shaved from those who perish rarely matches samples 12 to 24. Most are piles of clipped raven’s wings (see here, p.61).

In the class debate that followed we discussed how UCL might set about making a more effective online exhibition of such artefacts? How could they be presented appropriately and sensitively and how could we govern their reception (even if we widely agreed that we couldn’t and probably didn’t even want to)? For next year, my plan is to riff more on definitions of ‘tools’ and laws of unintended consequences. The Haarfarbentafel does seem to have been made with terrible ends in mind but does it not raise wider issues about anticipated and unanticipated uses of tools and the ideologies that may utilize them? What issues does this create for DH?

Subhadra Das presenting item in Galton collection

Subhadra Das presenting item in Galton collection

We also reflected that the specialist knowledge of Subhadra and Mark resulted in insights into the respective collections that could not otherwise have been won. How could these be successfully integrated into a digital exhibition? Or should this be our strategy at all? Should the emphasis be much more on a blended approach that recognises that both physical and digital exhibitions and objects can work more in tandem and our emphasis should be on bridging these environments  (e.g. with Augmented Reality, QR codes (à la QRrator) etc) rather than focusing on seeing them as discrete environments?

The preparation of these classes involved a lot of planning, organising and thinking; their implementation involved a lot of work for Mark, Subhadra and me. And, of course, more time spent planning teaching means less research time (or, to be more honest, longer days). So, the question of whether it was worth it must be addressed. Well … yes, I’m pretty sure it was worth it. From my perspective I discovered a lot about UCL’s Museums and Collections, got to know some fantastic colleagues that I might not otherwise have encountered and gave much more thought to the interconnections between DH and Museums, on the one hand, and Universities and Museums on the other.  I must also say that when I saw that student evaluations were, in the vast majority, extremely positive that I also felt pleased. I think there is no better reward than when students write that they not only had fun but that they thought about the world in new ways.

I’ve discussed Object-Based leaning in the context of DH in much greater detail and especially in terms of wider issues about interactive learning in a chapter in the forthcoming Integrative Learning: International Research and Practice – Routledge Research in Higher Education.


Julianne Nyhan

Associate Professor of Digital Information Studies, University College London. Main research: Digital Humanities, Oral History & History of Computing. Publications page: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/dis/people/juliannenyhan / Research: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Julianne_Nyhan

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