Documented Exploration of a Digital Humanities Tool

(Worth 25% of your grade; due on November 17)


As part of your work on the individual final project, you will teach yourself how to use a new digital tool, documenting your learning process as you go. “Learning” a new tool does not mean mastering it, but it does mean familiarizing yourself with it enough to teach other novices how to use it. Your final deliverables for this assignment will be an article posted to Medium and an in-class tutorial for your classmates.

Completing the assignment

As you did with our first assignment, you should begin by surveying a wide variety of tools that interest you. You will find an excellent list of digital research tools on the DiRT Directory, categorized by functionality. These tools range from open-source software packages that you can install on your own computer, to web-based applications that run in your browser, to mobile apps for your smartphone or tablet. (And some are expensive, proprietary applications, but for the sake of your bank accounts, we will try to avoid these.) If you don’t find what you’re looking for on the DiRT site, or if you have another particular tool in mind, I am more than happy to consider other possibilities, so please don’t feel limited to tools in the DiRT database.

One more bit of advice about choosing a tool: As you consider various options, try to home in on tools that (1) are specifically designed to support digital humanities work, (2) don’t require an extraordinary amount of effort to install, and (3) push you to try something you haven’t done before. In other words, screencasting software might be interesting, but its centrality to digital humanities work is questionable; software that requires you to have your own server might be too complicated to install; and a new word-processing application wouldn’t challenge you at all. Everyone in class has different interests and different technical skills, so I don’t expect all of your projects to look the same. However, I do expect all of you to get out of your comfort zones and commit yourselves to becoming our in-house experts on your chosen tools.

Once you have selected a tool, you will begin learning how to use it, carefully documenting your work each step of the way. This means taking lots of notes, screenshots, screencasts, etc., in the moment rather than trying to recreate your learning process later on. (Collect these materials in your shared Google Drive folder, even if you don’t end up using them all.) As you explore the basic functionality of the tool, consider two broad questions: (1) What are the affordances of the tool? In other words, what does the tool allow or encourage you do? What does it make easy for you? (2) What are the constraints of the tool? In other words, how does the tool limit your ability to do things you want to do? What does it make difficult for you? Think about which features of the tool are intuitive and which features are “hidden” or only available to advanced users (or users who have paid for a “premium” version). Documenting your answers to these questions will help you remember what it’s like to use the tool for the first time and anticipate your readers’ needs and questions.

Your primary deliverable for this assignment is a web-based article designed to help novice users learn your tool. The precise length of your article will depend on several factors, but aim for 2,000 words. You should comment on your tool’s strengths and weaknesses, but this article should lean more toward software tutorial than academic critique. Practically speaking, that means you should include annotated screenshots, discuss use-case scenarios, and address your readers directly. (ProfHacker has some great models for writing about academic software, and the tutorials written by the students in my previous section of ENGL 5074 are still on Medium. At the conclusion of this project, you’ll add your article to that collection.)

In addition, I’d like to use some of our in-class workshop time for learning the various tools you’ve chosen, so we may revise the calendar as the deadline for this assignment approaches.

Submitting Your Tutorial

Your tutorial is due before you come to class on November 17. To submit your tutorial, simply add your post to our class publication and email me with the URL for your essay. If you would like me to review or consider any additional materials, please upload them to your shared Google Drive folder.

Evaluation Criteria

I will evaluate your project using the following criteria:

  • Does your article introduce your chosen tool in a way that will help novice users understand the tool and apply it to their digital humanities work?
  • Does your article successfully situate your tool within the field of digital humanities and among other tools that do similar things?
  • Does your article contain evidence that you have attempted to learn how the tool functions and the various ways in which it might be used?
  • Does your article fairly address the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen tool?
  • Does your article incorporate visual elements (either screenshots or screencasts) that enhance your written text?
  • Does your article meet the minimum requirements for length?
  • Does your article adhere to the conventions of standard written English (i.e., spelling, punctuation, grammar)?
  • Is your in-class tutorial carefully planned and geared toward novice users of your chosen tool? Does it make good use of our class time?