From Conversation to Collection

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a symposium on the digital humanities hosted by the University of Pittsburgh’s Digital Media research group. The occasion was the publication of “Debates in the Digital Humanities,” a collection addressing the changing nature of this emerging field. A number of contributors to the collection attended the symposium and shared some really exciting research, but what jumped out at me was a conversation between Matt Gold, the editor of the collection, and Doug Armato, the book’s publisher.

The two shared with the session the process that went into publishing the book (it went from idea to physical copy in around twelve months, a speed nearly unheard of for academic publishing) as well as how they dealt with taking diverse content, such as blog posts and other new media, and printing it in book form. While discussing the difficulties in stabilizing web content in a book, the question that came up was, why would you even want to? That is, what is the point of printing blog posts that anyone can read for free on paper and then selling them? Gold and Armato answered that in this case, it had to do with the audience for book. Debates was not intended for digital humanities practitioners, but rather for outsiders, those who wanted to learn more about what was going on in the field and the content of their current discussions. One way of achieving this goal was to take the conversations being had by DH practitioners and put them in a settled form so others could follow along.

While this comment was presented almost as an aside, it got me thinking. What if we taught our writing classes using a similar model?

That is, what if the goal of our teaching was to generate a lively conversation among our students that can then be collected as a record of the learning that happened in the class. While the debate over the digital humanities happened in blogs and social media, this classroom exchange could happen on private forums, in chat spaces, or in daily writing assignments where students reflect on what they have read or conversations with the class. Then, students and their instructors could gather this material, edit it to clarify points of view and areas where there were differing opinions. If necessary, additional commentary or analysis could be written to connect this work and contextualize it and the resulting whole could be published.

I’m not arguing that classrooms publish actual books, but it is certainly possible to share such a collection on a classroom wiki or website. More adventurous instructors could publish such a collection as an eBook or standalone document. While I think this method could have a number of benefits, I want to describe two. The first is that it would show students that their ideas are important. Having a publishable record as the goal of a classroom exercise changes the way students think about their work the same way that taking a quiz over a text changes how we read it. Next, I think it would show students how complex writing can be scaffolded using different genres. An idea that started in a tweet or a blog post can be expanded and developed and become the basis for a longer or more complex work. By modeling this process for students, they can begin to imagine the kind of writing that they do everyday—in text messaging and on social media sites—as part of a larger ecosystem that is connected to more complex writing that serves different purposes.

Banner image credit: the University of Minnesota Press