A confirmation of Andrew Goldstone on “Teaching Quantitative Methods”

At his blog, Andrew Goldstone has posted a pre-print of his essay on “Teaching Quantitative Methods: What Makes It Hard (in Literary Studies)” for the forthcoming Debates in DH 2018. It’s a “lessons learned” essay from one of his courses that is well worth reading if you’re teaching or taking that kind of a course in a humanities discipline. This semester I’m teaching my fourth course that fits into that category (fifth, if you count DHSI), and I can co-sign nearly everything that Goldstone writes, having committed many of the same mistakes and learned some of the same lessons. (Except over time I’ve relaxed my *nix-based fundamentalism and repealed my ban on Windows.) Here is a response to Goldstone’s main points.

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Syllabus for “Text Analysis for Historians”

This semester I am teaching an independent study for graduate students on “Text Analysis for Historians.” You can see the syllabus here. It’s an unashamedly disciplinary course. While of course the readings are heavily dependent on the work that is being done in digital humanities or digital literary studies, the organizing principle is whether a method is likely to be useful for historical questions. And the syllabus is organized around a corpus of Anglo-American legal treatises, with readings to frame our work in the context of U.S. legal history.

They are mentioned on the syllabus, but this class draws from syllabi from Ted Underwood, Andrew Goldstone, and Ben Schmidt, and Kellen Funk offered suggestions for the readings.


A Course in Computational Methods and Nineteenth-Century Religious Data

This semester I am teaching a graduate course on Data and Visualization in Digital History. The aim of this course is to teach students how to do the kind of data analysis and visualization that they are likely to do for a dissertation chapter or a journal article. In my way of working, that means the first part of the semester is an introduction to scripting in R, focusing on the grammar of graphics with ggplot2 and the grammar of data manipulation with dplyr and tidyr. Then the second part of the course is aimed at introducing specific kinds of analysis in the context of historical work. My aim is that this course will be the first in a two course sequence, where the second course (colloquially known as Clio 3) will have more programming in R (as opposed to scripting), will have more *nix-craft, will tackle a more advanced historical problem, will possibly cover more machine learning, and will end up creating interactive analyses in Shiny.

There are a few things about the Data and Visualization course that I think are worth mentioning.

First, I’ve been creating worksheets for historical data analysis each week. These worksheets tend to demonstrate some technique, then ask students to build up an analysis step by step. The questions within each worksheet range in difficulty from the rote and mechanical to the very difficult. While for now these worksheets are aimed at this class in particular, I intend over time to write worksheets like these for any topic in R I end up teaching. I’m rather pleased with these worksheets as a method of teaching data analysis by example.1 If I’m judging my students’ initial reactions correctly, they are also finding them helpful, if rather difficult at times.

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Don’t Waste Students’ Time Installing Software in DH Courses

Here is a summary of what I said in the DH pedagogy lightening sessions at the AHA.

Simple idea 1: Installing software takes a lot of time, and installing software can often be harder and require more technological skill than actually using the software.

Simple idea 2: You must scaffold your digital history courses, so that one assignment leads into the next, and so that students build the methodological and technical skills that they need as they go through the course.

The problem is that students need to install the software before they can use it. The most technologically difficult, and the least pedagogically or historically interesting task, happens at the beginning of the course. This presents a tremendous barrier to student involvement. It wastes course time early in the semester, when building momentum is crucial.

Not so simple solution: My solution to this problem is to try to take the burden of installing software on myself so as to not waste students’ time. For my “Data and DH” course next semester, as well as for previous courses, I have relied on an RRCHNM installation of RStudio Server. This lets students access a full development environment through their browser: no installing or configuring software.

You might object: there is no way my institution will give me a server of my own, and installing RStudio Server might be too difficult for me. For RStudio, at least, the analogsea package can help you get a server up and running at Digital Ocean. Assuming you already have a Digital Ocean account, it can be as simple as these few lines of code (though you will also have to add users and configure the memory).

docklet_create() %>%

The point is not that you should use RStudio Server (though it’s great), and there are other options like Anaconda for Python. The point is to find a way to reduce or eliminate the waste of student time and attention that comes from installing software. Find a way to scaffold your courses so that you can get straight into the digital history.