Teaching Digital Skillz

Digital Humanities.

Blah blah blah, digital humanities.

This coming Wednesday, I’m going to put up this great post about how the notion of “Digital Literacy” isn’t really a kind of literacy at all. I’m going to play devil’s advocate and tell you that maybe people don’t need to learn how to code. I’m going to tell you a secret about how most Millennials and Homelanders — generations who Da Nooz continue to believe are all the next Neo (or maybe the dolphin from Johnny Mnemonic) — actually know as much about computers and the smartphones as the average Baby Boomer knows about walkie-talkies and CRT televisions. And it’s gonna be an awesome post, so stay tuned. That’s not what I’m doing today, though. Today I’m talking about what I teach when I teach critical digital reading / digital literacy / digital humanities / whatever we call it, please know how to computer, dear students -skills. So in this post, I’m going to tell you why my syllabus is arranged thus. I’m going to defend my workflow.

Five Core Principles of Navigating and Participating in a Digital Environment

Core Principle One: Audience.

Navigating and participating in a digital environment requires that we know who we’re posting for when post anything, be it to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, SoundCloud, Tumblr, our blahgs, or even just the comments section on a YouTube video. We need to understand the differences between online genres (do you know how posting a picture to Instagram is different than posting the same picture, with the same caption, at the same time, to Twitter?). We need to know that what we post in our twenties might still be around, years later, in our thirties, when we’re trying to get a job. I try not to scare people– my rule is that it’s better to have a way to explain ourselves in the future than overly censor ourselves now (22-year old me was a jerk; I’m not that person anymore, but god help me there are still some publicly available LiveJournal posts that are just dripping with angst (and nudity, probably)). The most important part, though, is to learn to think about the audience as existing in three expanding spheres:
• Sphere One, the people you’re directly addressing; the people who go to your page/account to see whatever you’ve put up. Often times, this is a very small sphere.
• Sphere Two, the people who find your page/account only half-intentionally; the extended audience of a reblog, someone who finds your Instagram via reading your Twitter, maybe your colleagues. These are usually people who find Extended You by looking for Some Other Thing You Did, but Oh Look At What AltaVista Trudged Up.
• And finally Sphere Three, the complete happenstancers; the people you can’t predict; the unknown potential future audience; maybe you have a small but devoted following at Cubicle 349-B/2 in the NSA satellite office, you never know with Sphere Three.

ACTIONABLE SKILLS for Principle One: genre, blogging, commenting, GoogleDocs, privacy settings

IDEAL SUPPLEMENTAL TEXT: Allan Bell’s Language Style as Audience Design. For what it’s worth, how I teach the notion of Audience is directly lifted from Bell’s work. I’m a linguist, after all.

Core Principle Two: Metadata & Tagging.

We should know how to make our posts findable and we should know how others will box and target us based on how they come to find us. Metadata is data about data (duh). In a more advanced class, or for a more computer-savvy audience, I’d get into my thoughts on capitalization schema, embedded file info, good use of h1 and h2, SEO, and well commented CSS. In the intro class, I stick mostly to making sure photos have proper Titles and ALT tags, the use of #hashtags as a search tool, why informative captions are a good thing, and I introduce the notion of the Semantic Web. Of course the Five Core Principles all play against each other— using good ALT tags make your posts better for screen readers, which makes your stuff more accessible, and so on. Under the name of Responsible Internet Use, I urge my students to develop good habits about metadata and tagging, but #weallfallshort #iusebadattags #blessed. I’ve sometimes wondered if I should replace Metadata & Tagging with Basic Code Skills. But, honestly, most people will never need to know how to code, but everyone should know how to name the files they save.

ACTIONABLE SKILLS for Principle Two: curating, archiving, geotagging/GIS, some social data mining

IDEAL SUPPLEMENTAL TEXT: Roget’s Thesaurus (the Leibniz-inspired schema version, not the alphabetized dictionary version)

Core Principle Three: Images & Graphics.

The biggest (and often, only) difference between digital media and print media is that digital media is, inherently, mixed media. Most posts have images, possibly even to the extent that most posts ARE images, sometimes with text. So if we’re all going to be flooding the world with pictures, let’s make sure they don’t suck, yeah? Technologically-engaged sighted people should understand at least the very basics of visual design– the Five Paragraph Essay version of aesthetics. So I talk about the 3×3 grid in photos, the notion of girdding in website design, color pallets, color complements, and ugliness as a thing. I talk about the very basic notions of video editing (and that editing is a good thing, almost always). I talk about visual placement and prominence (a lot). And, because I’m me, I talk about what happens when we screw with these largely western, ableist, possibly masculinist notions of beauty. And then I defend the proper use of Comic Sans.

ACTIONABLE SKILLS for Principle Three: infographics, photoblogging, vlogging, typography

IDEAL SUPPLEMENTAL TEXT: Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color

Core Principle Four: Linking & Framing.

Okay, so I know I just finished saying that the biggest difference between digital and print media is mixing, but the biggest POSSIBLE difference is that digital media has the always available potential of being LINKED media. In George Landow’s Hypertext, he makes the point that digital text gives readers control not only over what they read, but how they read it. If you haven’t read Hypertext, you should. I’d link you to my illegally downloaded PDF, but idk, #thoughtcrime or whatever. But go read it.

So the first part of this Core Principle is linking– The basic notion of how to link something without posting an ugly two-line long URL address in your stuff. Ideas like target: blank and why the title tag matters if you have control over that option. We talk about how HTML allows a unique use of “extra text” — text that might be relegated to footnotes and endnotes in print media, but can be tooltip/mouseover text in digital media. Also, why would you want to include any links at all? And that brings us to the second part: Framing. The idea of “framing” is a broader idea that goes well beyond digital media. At the level of HTML coding, the framing is literal– DIV vs CLASS vs SPAN elements; what DIVs are inside what other DIVs? But there’s also the metaphorical notion– if someone comes to my site (my Instagram, my Tumblr, my About.me page) and sees a whole series of posts centered on #blacklivesmatter and then sees a link to Star Trek: The Original Series: Season 3, Episode 10: “Plato’s Stepchildren”, then that link already means something different than the same link on a James T. Kirk, Outerspace Makeout King! fanblog. And finally we circle back around to the issues we discussed with Graphics as we now talk about how a website (or any webesence) is, itself, a visual thing. A thing with layout, visual highlights, and subject to the flow of the eye. If this was 1997, I’d probably talk about <blink> at this point, but it’s not. I wish <blink> was still a thing.

ACTIONABLE SKILLS for Principle Four: citing your sources, social data mining, master posts, basic embedding

IDEAL SUPPLEMENTAL TEXT: lol, Landow’s Hypertext of course. Also, George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.

Core Principle Five: Rights & Accessibility.

Finally, we talk (for real) about Rights and Accessibility. At the most basic, personal level, consider this— You’ve got a Tumblr and an Instagram. Your friend has a Tumblr and an Instagram. You and your friend are mutuals on both. Your friend posts a picture to their Instagram, but not to their Tumblr. But you think it’s a hilarious picture and you want your Tumblr friends to see it (many of whom are not co-mutuals with the poster)– do you have the right to post that picture from your friend’s Instagram to your own Tumblr? Scenario B, you’re writing a blog post for a history class. You’ve found an image of whatever topic you’re talking about, but do you have the right to use that photo in your post? (and feel free to be sensational or not when you think about this example– you found your neighbor’s grandma’s picture of her living inside one of the American Japanese Internment Camps— or you found an online picture of an assault victim– or you found a video showing the bodycamera footage of someone getting killed… I try to avoid the sensational examples, but it’s pretty easy to go that way with this scenario). So we talk about Creative Commons and how to search for something that does give you all the right you need, and we talk about the ethics of using pictures that you may not have the right to use. And of course the issues aren’t even that simple– what happens when you use an image, CC-freely-distribute your post containing that image, but then the image holder later claims copyright on it? Eeehhhh…. I can’t provide my students with The Answers. I can only teach them to consider the potentials. If this were an advanced class, I’d go in depth on the problems of Copyright, but it’s not, so I just rant a little and then move on.

And then for Accessibility…honestly, I don’t talk much about it apart from a summary of all the times accessibility issues have come up in our four previous “digital learning modules”. This might be a failure on my part or a success (because I’ve so seamlessly integrated it into everything else), IDK.

ACTIONABLE SKILLS for Principle Five: Creative Commons, user experience, public domain

IDEAL SUPPLEMENTAL TEXT: a year’s worth of EFF blog archives; Cory Doctorow’s Makers.


And that’s it. That’s what I teach. You can see the full thing in action at my Digital Humanities Projects blog or check out my LING 101 course page. Mind you, because I teach these digital-dos-and-don’ts as part of an Intro to Linguistics course, none of it really gets the time it deserves and all of it has to be shoehorned into topics about language. And that connection to linguistics has probably biased what I see as the Five Core Principles– I mean, I know for a fact that I harp on Metadata and Tagging because these are useful skills in describing the properties of a language (the /f/ sound is #consonantal #labiodental #voiceless #fricative; Japanese is #sov #japonic #syllabic_orthography #advanced_literacy, etc.). I don’t think that invalidates my choice for the core, but it certainly makes allowances for other variations.

I’m seeing the white male dominated space of my Ideal Supplemental Texts. I’m going to have to work on that.

♥ dsb