Integrating Technology into Liberal Arts Education: Digital Humanities, Critical Thinking, and Undergraduate Research

作者:陈松;转自:公众号  DH数字人文


Song Chen  / Department of East Asian Studies, Bucknell University

AbstractThe widespread interest in digital humanities (DH) has given rise to a lively discussion about the role of technology in undergraduate classrooms. This article discusses the author’s own experience designing and teaching two DH courses in a liberal arts college in North America and offers advice to others who wish to attempt similar courses. The different designs of these two courses serve to demonstrate different ways of tailoring pedagogical objectives and strategies according to the needs and readiness of different student audiences. Both courses illustrate how the infusion of technology into liberal arts programs advances student-centered learning and promotes the teaching of discipline- specific knowledge and critical thinking skills. They underscore the importance of blending technical instruction with methodological reflections and carefully scaffolding course content and activities.

Keywords: Digital Humanities Pedagogy; Critical Digital Literacy; Inquiry-based Learning; China Biographical Database (CBDB); Data Visualization



Digital humanities (DH) has sparked widespread interest in undergraduate programs in recent years. Since much of the DH work began at research universities, the transplantation of DH beyond its native soil has posed many challenges and inspired heated discussion among educators. In a workshop at the Alliance of Digital Humanities Association’s (ADHO) Digital Humanities Conference in Sydney, Australia—entitled “Starting from Scratch: Building Undergraduate #DH Programs”—participants evinced enthusiasm but also shared their concerns over the DH education in undergraduate-centered institutions. They questioned whether many undergraduate DH programs were “merely translating graduate work to the undergraduate level” without attending to the particular needs of undergraduates and the mission of liberal arts education. They were also concerned that “integrating a digital component into an existing undergraduate course without significant redesign”—which always requires some content be removed from the course in order to allow time for students to learn and apply the required technology—“may not serve any pedagogical purpose” and may even be to the detriment of both.[1]These concerns impel educators to reflect seriously on the pedagogical objectives and strategies of DH education in undergraduate-centered institutions: As educators, what do we aim to achieve in teaching DH to undergraduates? How can we meaningfully integrate DH work into the broader liberal arts curriculum, so that it is not a fancy add-on to traditional liberal arts programs but truly enrich these programs and facilitate the accomplishment of their pedagogical goals? To achieve these objectives and in consideration of the preparedness of undergraduates, what pedagogical strategies and practices should we embrace? In other words, how should we tailor both the content and pedagogical strategies of our DH courses when we transplant DH from research-oriented projects into the soil of institutions that are primarily geared towards undergraduate students? Drawing on my experience teaching two undergraduate courses in a liberal arts college, in the United States this article aims to address these questions and offer advice to others who wish to attempt similar courses. The following section discusses the intricate relationship between digital literacy and critical thinking, which lies at the core of liberal arts education. The third and fourth sections focus specifically on the two DH courses I have designed and taught in recent years and discuss how they have helped accomplish the mission of liberal arts education by blending technology with methodological reflections and student research. These courses provide concrete examples on how to tailor the content and pedagogy of DH courses to achieve different learning objectives and meet the needs of different target audiences. The last section concludes this article by emphasizing the need to integrate digital technologies into liberal arts curricula and offering some advice on successful pedagogical strategies.

Digital Literacy and Critical Thinking

To figure out what should be the learning objectives of DH courses in a liberal arts setting and how DH work may be meaningfully integrated into the curriculum, I will first begin with some ruminations about the mission of the liberal arts education in general. Jeffrey Scheuer has identified three nested conceptions of the liberal arts in common usage.[2] One conception, widely accepted by liberal arts colleges in the United States, embraces the idea of a broad curriculum that encompasses virtually all academic subjects from the humanities and the performing arts to social and natural sciences. As opposed to the specialized vocational curriculum that prepares students for a particular career, the purpose of liberal arts education is to prepare students for a life well-lived and help them become responsible citizens.[3] It is predicated on the notion that a liberal arts education produces well-rounded, well-informed, critical citizens who live better lives and are capable of making sound decisions in public and private lives. Its mission centers not on the development of highly specialized professional skills, but on the cultivation of more general intellectual competencies expected of responsible global citizens—such as the ability to think independently and out of habitual frameworks, respect for different cultures, and excellent communication skills—even though these competencies are certainly also desired by employers in many professions. As Michael Lind asks rhetorically, “In a democratic republic, isn’t it necessary for all citizens to have at least the basics of a liberal education? Even if their participation in public life is limited to voting occasionally, citizens cannot adequately perform that minimal duty unless they have the training in reasoning, rhetoric, and fact that in aristocratic and patrician republics was needed only by the few”.[4]

Critical thinking has been identified by many undergraduate-centered institutions as an essential component of these more general intellectual competencies that lie at the heart of a liberal arts education. “The core meaning of critical thinking,” John McPeck writes, “is the propensity and skill to engage in an activity with reflective skepticism.” A critical thinker is one who has the disposition and skill to suspend assent towards a given statement, established norm, or mode of doing things by temporarily rejecting available evidence as sufficient to establish the truth or validity of that statement, norm, or mode of action.[5] The advent of the digital age has made this disposition and capability all the more important. In the past decades, digital technologies have revolutionized the curation and dissemination of information in such a way that an impressive volume of information, with mixed quality and credibility, is now available to ordinary citizens within a few clicks. Not only have these technologies provided more open access to existing information (such as by digitizing archives and making them viewable online), but they have also promoted a certain degree in democratization of writing and publishing through a variety of online self-publishing platforms. To a significant extent, this has disrupted the traditional division of labor between producers and consumers of knowledge. As the threshold of publishing lowers, the responsibility of assessing the truth of a statement or the validity of a proposition has shifted from professionals in the traditional publishing process (e.g., professional journalists, peer reviewers, and book editors) to readers themselves. As a result, it has placed greater demands on the consumers to critically evaluate the information they receive.

However, digital technologies have often created formidable barriers that hamper the consumers’ ability to critically evaluate received information. In the last few decades, writers have taken markedly different views on the relationship between a person’s critical thinking skills and their knowledge in specific disciplines. These divergent views have given rise to a heated debate between the generalists and the specialists. While generalists like Robert H. Ennis treat critical thinking as a set of universal, general skills of judgment that are separate from any specific discipline-based content, specialists such as John McPeck argue that critical thinking skills are highly dependent on content knowledge. “For example,” he writes, “critical thinking about an historical question requires, first and foremost, the skills of an historian; similarly, critical thinking about a scientific question requires the knowledge and skills of a scientist”.[6] No skills of critical thinking, the specialists contend, can be exercised without at least some basic knowledge of the specific discipline in question. Today, the proliferating use of digital technologies has made McPeck’s argument all the more salient. As information is increasingly collected, analyzed, interpreted, and communicated with the aid of digital tools (e.g., digital mapping and network graphing) in academia as well as everyone’s everyday life, some basic digital literacy has become a prerequisite for any citizen who wants to think critically. To the digitally illiterate, the process of reasoning facilitated by digital tools is virtually nothing more than a mysterious and even intimidating “black box,” which precludes any meaningful critique of the validity of an argument.

Tim Hitchcock speaks most eloquently of this challenge from his decade-long experience developing online historical resources. While he started off with the hope of engaging and empowering a wide public by providing them free access to digitized archival materials and encouraging them to become creators of their own history, the digitized sources in the end provided “pretty big data” that beckoned sophisticated digital methods  of analysis, such as data-mining, corpus linguistics, network analysis, and interactive visualization. As his team began to pursue these analytical possibilities, Hitchcock “suddenly found [themselves] very much in danger of excluding precisely the audience for history that [they] started out to address.” Rather than promoting the public, democratic, empathetic form of “history from below” as he had envisioned, the projects ended up privileging scientific positivism as a mode of analysis and “giving over the creation of history to a top down, technocratic elite”.[7] In short, the proliferating use of digital technologies has not only provided opportunities for democratizing the access to information, but it also demands that an engaged citizen have at least some basic knowledge of the technology in order to effectively interpret the voluminous information that now lies at their fingertips and to critically assess arguments that are constructed with the aid of digital methods. This requires that critical digital literacy—that is, the knowledge of digital technologies  and the propensity and skill to think critically about information collected, analyzed, and communicated with the aid of these technologies—become an essential component of any liberal arts curriculum that aims to train its students into informed citizens and critical thinkers in the world today.

Teaching Critical Digital LiteracyDefining Learning Objectives

Helping students develop their critical digital literacy is the primary objective of my course “Humanities Visualization.”[8] I have developed the learning objectives for the course with two pedagogical convictions in mind. The first conviction, which has been argued at length in the previous section, maintains that the exercise of critical thinking skills in today’s world requires a basic knowledge of the digital technologies which increasingly mediate the relationship between evidence and argument and between authors and audiences.

The second conviction needs to be understood in the context of the debate between generalists and specialists about how critical thinking is best taught. For the generalists   like Robert H. Ennis, critical thinking is a set of supervening skills that constitute a subject of study in themselves and can be taught independently from any propositional content. Through the 1980s their views provided the theoretical foundation for the proliferation of stand-alone courses and tests in U.S. colleges and universities that focused on informal logic and general thinking skills. Starting from the 1980s, however, specialists like John E. McPeck began to challenge the Ennis line. McPeck dismisses the possibility of acquiring a general set of thinking skills, and he questioned the efficacy of attempting a program based on this assumption. In his forceful counterargument, McPeck stresses that the practice of critical thinking cannot be generalized and separated from the domain to which it is applied. Thinking, by definition, is “always thinking about something, and that something can never be ‘everything in general’ but must always be something in particular”.[9] Therefore, any attempt to teach thinking simpliciter is misguided. Instead, he argues that the development of students’ critical thinking capacity is best cultivated through prolonged immersion in the concerns and skills of a particular discipline.[10]

Despite these differences, both Ennis and McPeck seem to agree that at least at a certain level of abstraction, critical thinking is a set of cognitive propensities and skills that apply across different disciplines. While Ennis obviously believes that training in certain logical skills (e.g., induction, deduction, and identification of assumptions) will result in a general improvement in students’ ability of thinking about different disciplinary subjects, even McPeck concedes that “if we improve the quality of understanding through the disciplines (which may have little to do with ‘logic’ directly), you will then get a concomitant improvement in the thinking capacity”.[11] In other words, although critical thinking skills can only be developed within specific disciplinary contexts, students have the ability to carry these skills across the disciplinary divide once they have acquired them within a particular discipline. This epistemological assumption—that courses in the liberal arts education should cultivate, within particular disciplinary contexts, cognitive abilities which are transferrable across the disciplines—lies at the heart of many liberal arts programs today. As Jeffrey Scheuer contends, modern liberal arts education is predicated on “two intertwining assumptions.” One is that “every academic discipline has unique questions to ask, and thus its own techniques and epistemology,” while the other acknowledges that “each discipline is also linked to others through common questions, techniques, and ways of knowing.” “Critical thinking,” argues Scheuer, constitutes “a key part of this shared epistemology”.[12] This is the position I take when designing “Humanities Visualization.” In other words, I assume that critical thinking skills are best cultivated within specific disciplinary contexts, but once they are acquired, students may benefit from a general improvement in their thinking capacity and carry this propensity and skill across disciplinary boundaries.

These two convictions require that a good course on critical digital literacy focus on transferrable digital and cognitive skills rather than discipline-specific domain knowledge, but nevertheless cultivate these skills in the process of exploring specific disciplinary subjects. This is particularly important for “Humanities Visualization,” which is a freshmen seminar where students are new to college work and have vastly different disciplinary interests and career visions. Making the course content broadly relevant and easily accessible, therefore, is key to success. Therefore, the course is designed to value breadth more than depth and focus more on critical reflections on digital methods than the nitty-gritty details of technical know- how. This results in several pedagogical decisions in the course design.

To ensure its breadth, the course is divided into four modules, with each module centered on a distinct mode of analysis. The first module, “text analysis,” deals with the question of how to discover thematic and stylistic features in large collections of literary or historical texts. The second module introduces network graphs as a way of understanding the structure of social relations, economic exchanges, and literary influence and also as a way of discovering patterns of character interactions in literary works. The third module moves on to spatial visualization, including both online mapping and spatially informed digital narratives, and the fourth module explores different modes of image analysis.

Each module is distinct, but they all concern the use of digital visualization in the study of humanities subjects. This provides an ideal disciplinary context for this course, for it inevitably raises questions that invite students to reflect critically on the relationship between technology, visualization, and knowledge creation. These questions fall into three broad areas: Are these visualizations objective and reliable? Do these visualizations favor a positivist and naïvely empiricist model of understanding that ignores some of the core concerns in the humanistic tradition, such as emotions, subjective experience, and the socially constructed nature of knowledge? How do different modes of visualization frame our perspectives on a given subject by highlighting certain kinds of information and ignoring others? These questions constitute the central themes of the course, and the students’ quest for answers is facilitated by two pedagogical strategies. One is to ground critical methodological reflections in the instruction of technologies, and the other emphasizes task scaffolding. In the rest of this section, I will discuss in detail how these pedagogical strategies are implemented to integrate critical thinking with DH work.

The Objectivity of Data Visualization and Knowledge Creation

In “Humanities Visualization,” critical reflections on methodological questions are firmly grounded in the learning of technology. Each module focuses on one or two digital tools associated with the specific mode of analysis. The purpose of teaching these tools is not to have students develop sophisticated digital skills in any specific field of application, but to give them some hands-on experience that helps them better understand the technology and its relationship with the humanistic inquiry. Therefore, when deciding between multiple digital tools, I favored their ease of use over their analytical power. Whenever possible, I chose web-based applications that do not require any local installation, have gentle learning curves, and take input data in simple and intuitive formats. As a result, the course uses Voyant Tools for text analysis, Palladio for network visualization, ArcGIS Online for mapping and spatially-informed storytelling, and Neatline or StoryMapJS (not to be confused with the ArcGIS Story Map Journal) for image annotation.[13] Since these tools are relatively mature and widely used, extensive documentation and video tutorials are often freely available on the internet providing useful resources to both the ambitious students who want to explore more and the challenged students who need some memory aid on the technical know-how.[14]

The gentle learning curve of these tools allows students to have hands-on experience without spending much time on the technical details. and thereby directs their attention to critical reflections on the relationship between technology and knowledge. Students usually get a handle on these tools with one hour of instruction and become comfortable with them after an additional hour of exercise. Thereafter they are ready to start their own journey of exploration, applying each tool to a topic of their own choosing and creating a small project at the end of each module. The process of creating a module project on their own is a great way for students to see for themselves the powers and limits of digital methods.

Take the module on network visualization for example. This module uses Palladio for visualizing networks. Palladio offers only very basic analytical capabilities. It does little more than creating a network graph and sizing each node according to the number of connections it possesses. Nonetheless, it has great benefits for novices in data visualization. First, it is a web-based application, so there is no need to spend precious class time walking students through the process of installation and troubleshooting. Second, the format of its input data is simple and straightforward (it does not require users to create separate node and edge lists), which makes students feel very comfortable with compiling their own datasets. Third, in PalladioThird, in Palladio, a user may… a user may switch easily between the map view and the network graph view of the same input data, and the user may easily customize the display by applying different filters. The gentle learning curve and great flexibility make Palladio an excellent tool for data exploration. After two hours of demonstration and practice, along with some discussion of basic network concepts and their applications, students are ready to apply the tool and develop their own module project. To accommodate the diversity of disciplinary interests in my class, this course gives students tremendous freedom to choose a topic for their project. In past offerings of the course, many students were inspired by the works of Franco Moretti[15] and the moviegalaxies project[16] and decided on graphing character interactions in a movie or short novel. These choices often lead to the question of what counts as an instance of interaction between two characters in a movie or novel. Is it a conversation, a handshake, a fight, or simply appearance in the same scene? Should the graph take into consideration the intensity of these interactions (thus, for example, visualizing only those instances where the characters have several long conversations while ignoring those instances where the characters have only a short dialogue in the entire movie)? There are obviously no right or wrong answers to these questions. Each student, as the creator of a network graph, has to decide for themselves what a meaningful definition of interaction was in the context of their own research agenda. By constantly confronting them with these choices, the journey of creating a module project is full of moments of awakening for first-year college students. It underscores the omnipresence of the creator’s viewpoint both in the network graphs they create and the knowledge they derive from the graphs. This, in turn, urges students to reflect critically on the network graphs that others have created, such as the ones on the moviegalaxies website. Whereas many students initially take network graphs on the website as some sort of “objective” renditions, completely ignoring the technical fine print of the site founders, they come to understand fully the interpretive nature of these graphs after they experiment with Palladio themselves.

Critical reflection on the objectivity of data visualizations is not only expected in the module of network visualization. It is a thread that runs through the entire course. It is already foreshadowed in the first module, where students have to decide whether and how to customize the stop word list in Voyant Cirrus that generates word clouds. It is also followed up in the third module—i.e. the module of spatial visualization—where students have to choose between different levels of cartographic generalization, different mapping styles, and different methods of data classification when they are creating online maps. This is enriched by a class discussion that revolves around the writings of Mark Monmonier[17] and Mark Newman[18] , which articulate eloquently that maps should not be naïvely accepted as objective representations of reality but rather as mapmakers’ interpretations of it. These hands-on practices and theoretical discussions demonstrate for students, in persuasive and accessible ways, how seriously uncritical map readers could be misled by well-intended naïve mapmakers and malevolent manipulative cartographers alike. They warn students of the great risks associated with instant, no-thought mapping utilities offered by some mapping software that makes critical decisions on behalf of amateur users in order to give them immediate success experience. As Monmonier and Newman put it, analytical tools— including mapping software—are “rhetorical instruments” that can “distort almost as readily as they reveal,” and consumers of all data graphics must be “informed skeptics,” who “appreciate the perils and limitations of cartographic simplification as well [as] its power and utility”.[19] Assigned to students about half-way into the semester after they have already experimented with several digital tools themselves, these discussions easily find an echo with students. They lead students to think more broadly about how to evaluate visualizations as “forms of visual argument” and to contemplate on the issue of what John Theibault calls “rhetorical honesty”—that is, the ethical mandate that one should avoid presenting information in a way that, deliberately or inadvertently, creates false visual cues.[20]

The Positivist and Humanistic Approaches in Digital Humanities

Discussion about whether maps and other forms of data graphics are objective representations of reality or subjective interpretations of it leads students to think critically about the second big question raised in the course—that is, the tension between the positivist epistemology in many digital tools of analysis and the emphasis on meaning and subjectivity in the humanistic tradition. The tension is nowhere more prominent in the debate over GIS. Humanists criticize GIS for favoring the official representation of the world and rejecting alternate, non-Western conceptions of space, for privileging quantitative data and denying ambiguity and uncertainty, for conceptualizing space as a passive setting for historical action rather than an agent and product of historical change, and for ignoring subjective dimensions of space, such as emotion, experience, memory, and multivalent meanings. These concerns have resulted in many innovative uses of GIS technology. These uses seek to turn GIS into a companion of humanistic inquiry that helps create “a richer, more evocative world of imagery based on history and memory” and provide a multimedia and multilayered view of space by conflating “oral testimony, anthology, memoir, biography, images, natural history and everything you might ever want to say about a place”.[21] These efforts provide rich material for class discussion and exercise that enrich the module of spatial visualization.

To encourage students to reflect on these different uses of GIS technology, this module is divided into two halves. In the first half, students gain some experience with mapping in ArcGIS Online, more or less in the data-driven positivist fashion. In the second half, students are urged to explore the tension between the positivist tendencies in GIS technology and the emphasis on meaning and subjectivity in the humanistic tradition. It does so by engaging them in a wide variety of class activities. Students read and discuss theoretical musings by geographers and historians.[22] They present and discuss some innovative GIS works of pioneering mapmakers and humanists who experiment with expanding our cartographic language and constructing spatially-enriched multimedia narratives to communicate emotion and human experience.[23] They also explore various projects that infuse maps with narratives on ArcGIS platforms. Thereafter, they try their hand at multimedia storytelling by composing a digital essay using the Story Map Journal template provided by ArcGIS Online.

The two halves of the module, therefore, are designed specifically to help students understand the different epistemological positions underlying “the two distinct uses for  visualizations in the digital age” identified by John Theibault: “as a means of quickly identifying patterns in large datasets…and as a way to enhance the presentation of arguments” [Theibault 2013]. Accordingly, in this module, students complete two major assignments in line with these two different ways of employing GIS technology in the field of the humanities. The first assignment, due halfway into the module, requires that each student create an online map with two or more layers. They may use different layers to visualize different variables, identify spatial patterns in each layer, and detect spatial relationships by stacking up different layers. Alternatively, they may create different layers using the same variable but employ different mapping styles or methods    of data classification to demonstrate how mapmakers may manipulate their cartographic representations to promote a particular viewpoint. The second assignment, due at the end of the module, directs students’ attention from data-driven spatial analysis and pattern-finding to constructing multimedia spatial narratives. It requires that students use the Story Map Journal template and write a digital essay that develops a spatially informed interpretation of Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening.

The contrast between positivist and humanistic approaches in DH is also a central theme in the fourth module (i.e. the module of image analysis and interpretation). By engaging students in the two distinct ways of digitally empowered image analysis and interpretation, this module reinforces their understanding of the two approaches in DH.

Like the module of spatial analysis and storytelling, the fourth module is also divided into two halves. The first half focuses on pattern-finding in large image collections, while the second half turns to close reading of individual images. The first half begins with a discussion of Lev Manovich’s essay, which adopts a quantitative approach to identifying stylistic patterns in one million manga images,[24] and follows it up with a few lab sessions that allow students to experiment with Manovich’s approach to visual analysis using ImageJ.[25] The second half, by contrast, features Neatline (or StoryMapJS), which provides a platform for students to make annotations on an image that are enriched by texts, hyperlinks, and audio-visual resources.

How Do Different Visualizations Frame Our Perspectives?

As the preceding discussion shows, the four modules of the course engage students     in critical thinking about technology and visual representations by having them try out a variety of digital tools and immersing them in conversations about a wide diversity of academic subjects and modes of analysis. The disciplinary breadth of the course, therefore, not only accommodates the wide range of academic interests in my student body, but this “sampler of digital methods” in the various fields of the humanities also allows students to reflect critically on the third big question in the course: that is, how do different visualizations frame our perspectives on the same subject? That is, given that each digital method carries its own epistemological assumption and foregrounds particular dimensions (spatial, relational, or else) of a subject, how do different digital methods produce very different emotional impacts, value judgments, or intellectual interpretations?

This question runs through the entire course. It is first posed to students as early as they have gained experience with Voyant and Palladio. Immediately after they have graphed character interactions in a novel (or movie) and shared their interpretations of these graphs in oral presentations, students will complete an essay assignment. This assignment asks them to create a few word clouds for the same novel (or the script of the same movie) and reflect on how word clouds and network graphs lead to different interpretations of the same subject matter. In the past years when the course was taught, this assignment typically achieved its intended purpose. Essays from many students demonstrate a clear understanding that whereas word clouds effectively direct the reader’s attention to the themes and rhetorical devices of a novel (or screenplay), network visualization takes a relational approach to the subject and invites a reader to focus on the structure of character interactions, as opposed to the content of these interactions. This success owed much to the fact that students were reflecting on visualizations that they themselves had created and that the process of creating and interpreting these visualizations had already given them an insider’s view of these graphs, drawn their attention to some prominent differences between them, and thereby paved the way for more abstract, methodological reflections. In other words, the assignments of digital projects and presentations in the first few weeks of class, in effect, provided a form of intellectual scaffolding for subsequent methodological reflections and essay writing. In their feedback, students noted in particular how this helped them think more deeply. When asked about the most helpful elements of the course, they wrote comments like “We interacted with the tools [and] then wrote our thoughts on using them which helped deeper thought” and “I enjoyed the element how we gave presentations and then we wrote papers on those presentations.”

To further facilitate the conversation about how different tools shape our ways of understanding, I also chose a specific subject of study and used it as practice data for all the first three modules of the course. In our discussions of text analysis, network visualization, and maps and spatial narratives, students frequently return to this subject and interpret it through different lenses and using different tools. The subject of study I chose was Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, first published in 1899. This has several benefits. First, the novel is of moderate length, and as a landmark work of early feminism set in late nineteenth-century New Orleans, it deals with such issues as gender, romance, and race, which American college students are familiar with and interested in. Second, because the novel is out of copyright, it is easy to obtain a digital copy of the full text from Project Gutenberg for text analysis.
The novel is introduced to students at the very beginning of the semester. At first, students are told to do a close reading of the novel as if they were taking a traditional literature class, and three meeting hours are set aside in the first weeks for group discussion about the themes and style of the novel. In the meanwhile, the novel is also used in class as the practice text for exploring different tools in the Voyant suite. The word clouds and trending lines produced by these tools raise questions such as “Why do words like ‘house,’ ‘room,’ ‘water,’ and ‘children’ appear very frequently in the novel?” (Figure 1) and “Why does the frequency of ‘children’ drop noticeably in the middle chapters of the novel?”  (Figure 2) These questions effectively draw students’ attention to motifs, contexts, and rhetorical strategies that many have missed in their close reading. Thus, these exercises serve as an eye-opener for them that demonstrates the  power of digital tools as an aid— not a substitute—for literary analysis. 

Figure 1 Word cloud for The Awakening. Created in Voyant Cirrus.

Figure 2  Frequency of the word “children” in different segments of The Awakening. Created in Voyant Trends

In the second module, students return to The Awakening and work in groups to enter data on character interactions into a spreadsheet. This spreadsheet provides one of the practice datasets for Palladio labs. In the process of creating and filtering the network graph of character interactions, students are guided to make new observations about the novel. Many students observed, for example, the conspicuous marginalization of Léonce Pontellier in his wife Edna’s social circles in which Edna’s lover Robert Lebrun is deeply embedded (Figure 3). Exercises in the third module also use data related to The Awakening, including, in particular, map layers on population density, travel distances, women’s suffrage, distribution of plantations and French-born population in nineteenth-century America and New Orleans.[26]

Figure 3  Interactions between main characters in The Awakening.  The graph is created in Palladio. Each node represents a character and is scaled according to the frequency of interactions it has with other characters in the novel.

Thus, at the same time they practice basic GIS skills with these map layers, students also gain a deeper understanding of the spatial and historical context in which the novel is set. This is followed by a digital essay assignment that asks students to use these map layers and create a Story Map Journal to share their reflections on the relationship between the novel and its spatial context (Figure 4). Towards the end of the semester, we wrap up these different interpretive approaches to The Awakening with an hour of class discussion and a final essay assignment that requires students to reflect on how different visualizations encourage different interpretations of the novel.                               

Figure 4  A section of the Story Map Journal that discusses the spatial setting of The Awakening. This section focuses on the Creole influence in New Orleans. Student work using ArcGIS Online. Credit: The embedded map, showing  the French-born population by county in 1890, was created and generously shared by Janine Glathar   and Luyang Ren at the Digital Scholarship Center at Bucknell University.

In sum, while the four modules of “Humanities Visualization” cover several modes     of analysis and different fields of application—which covers text visualization, mapping, network graphing, and image processing—these modules also address a set of common methodological and epistemological concerns that are at the intersection of technology and humanistic inquiry and are an essential component in developing the critical digital literacy skills of our students. These questions form the backbone of the course and reach greater depths as the course progresses. Starting with the issue  of  the objectivity or subjectivity of graphic representations of the world, students are guided step by step to probe different epistemological assumptions underlying the different uses of technology in the humanities field and reflect on the ways in which different uses of technology frame our perspectives and encourages different interpretations. By having students probe these questions while trying their hand at the digital tools and by scaffolding digital project and essay assignments, “Humanities Visualization,” therefore, teaches digital technology and its application in a way that fosters the development of both digital literacy and critical thinking skills.

Promoting Undergraduate Research

Forms and Pedagogical Values of Undergraduate Research

Digital humanists have noted that some undergraduate programs teach DH by bringing students onto “large, faculty-run projects as research assistants” and molding them into “proto-graduate students or proto-faculty primed to explore the new possibilities of future digital humanities scholarship.” They express concern over both the practicality and desirability of this “apprentice-researcher” model of digital pedagogy. Not only is this model less feasible at small, undergraduate-centered institutions than at large research universities, but it also “assumes an intellectual trajectory that leads to graduate work and the professoriate.” This is at odds with the aims of the liberal arts, which is to help students become better citizens as opposed to preparing them for specific professional careers.[27]

While these criticisms have duly pointed out the dangers of moving graduate or faculty work directly to the undergraduate level without attending to the specific interests, needs, and abilities of undergraduate students, they unnecessarily pit graduate     or faculty research projects against undergraduate education. Rather, many writers have emphasized the pedagogical value of undergraduate research experiences. They describe undergraduate research as a high-impact educational practice, a key means to engage students in academic work, and an effective way of developing their intellectual skills.  Needless to say, the experience of designing and carrying out a research project is highly beneficial to students who intend to pursue a career in academia. For example, it gives them a better understanding of the research process and improves their ability to engage with primary literature in a specific field. Moreover, studies show that research experience also benefits students in areas that are not directly related to a particular discipline or career path. Students who participate in undergraduate research programs report gains in personal development, including the growth of self-confidence, independence of work and thought, and a sense of accomplishment. They also report gains in broadly applicable intellectual skills, such as information literacy, data collection and analysis, written and oral communication, and a deeper understanding of how knowledge is constructed.[28] These benefits are hallmarks of excellence in a liberal arts education.

While many recognize its benefits, opinions vary on what counts as undergraduate research. The Council on Undergraduate Research defines it as an “inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.”[29] While this is a broad definition that leaves open whether it involves student- student or student-faculty collaboration and whether the project is initiated  by students or faculty members, it nevertheless sets the bar  high, maintaining that the work “must be original and that it must contribute to the discipline.” For Tom Wenzel, this implies that the undergraduate research project must be “designed with the intent of creating new knowledge” and that the findings must be “disseminated among the relevant community through established means and [valued by] others in the discipline.” This requires that  the goal of an undergraduate research project is to present the findings at conferences and publish them in peer-reviewed journals.[30]

In practice, however, liberal arts colleges often find this research-oriented vision restrictive. Instead, they build undergraduate research programs in ways that are more consistent with their own mission. They attach greater weight to the process than the outcome, and they value undergraduate research as a form of inquiry-based pedagogy. They are content, for example, with undergraduates showcasing their findings at campus-wide symposiums or through publication in campus-based journals that are dedicated specifically to undergraduate work, as opposed to professional peer-reviewed journals.[31] Such adaptation has its merits. It recognizes that while many undergraduates may not—in the relatively short span of time they participate in research—get to see their work all the way through to publication in professional peer-reviewed journals, they could nevertheless benefit socially and intellectually from the experience of carrying out an investigative project. This view allows greater flexibility in the form and intensity of the undergraduate research experience, and it makes research experiences more accessible, more desirable, and less demanding for a large segment of the undergraduate population who are not intent on postgraduate work or an academic career. Such is the philosophy behind the undergraduate research program at institutions like Carleton College and Armstrong State University. “For students not planning postgraduate work,” educators at Armstrong contend, “the benefits of undergraduate research are also clear, as critical thinking, analytical abilities and problem-solving skills are all enhanced by undergraduate research.”[32] This view is shared  by their colleagues at Carleton, who make an eloquent statement on how undergraduate research experiences contribute to the development of students’ critical thinking skills. “Undergraduate research can be valuable to all students,” they maintain, “not just those bound for graduate school or research-oriented jobs. We are lifelong consumers of the knowledge that comes from research. Knowing something about how research is conducted can help students develop the skills necessary to evaluate claims from research that stand to affect their day-to-day lives.” Undergraduate research in these institutions, therefore, often takes various forms with different levels of intensity. Sometimes it takes the form of year- long, out-of-class collaboration between a faculty mentor and upper-class undergraduates that investigates a specific research question in great depths. At other times, it takes place in small class-based activities that engage freshmen and sophomores lightly in different aspects of the research process.[33]

This is also the pedagogic creed that underlies my course “Digital Methods in Chinese Studies” (hereafter “Digital Methods”). Its primary objective is to provide course-based research experience to undergraduates that engage them directly in the process of knowledge creation and help them become lifelong critical consumers of knowledge. Since research is always research into something, such experience is inevitably grounded in specific disciplinary practices (in this case, Chinese history). But it is not intended, for the most part, to make students budding scholars in Chinese history, but to help them become active learners and critical thinkers. It does so by giving them access to primary (or quasi-primary) sources, teaching them digital tools that help analyze these sources, walking them through every step of the research process, and encouraging them to critique received wisdom and develop alternative arguments. The course seeks to provide a structured environment for revisiting the assumed and familiar territories of knowledge and exploring the uncharted ones. By demystifying the process of knowledge creation, it gives students the confidence and wherewithal to question intellectual authority and a strong sense of empowerment and agency in conducting their own inquiries and making their own discoveries.

Challenges and Opportunities for Undergraduate Research in the Digital Age

The Carleton educators summarize the pedagogical goals of undergraduate research very well: “Undergraduate research is inquiry-based learning that involves practicing a discipline, not just being told about it. Students learn and apply the tools by which knowledge is created in their disciplines. They discover firsthand how the steps of the research process are related to one another, experience the triumphs and pitfalls inherent to the creative process, see that research is an iterative process and that ambiguity is part of the real world, develop an understanding and appreciation of how knowledge evolves, and produce an original contribution to that body of knowledge.”[34] But this is no easy task. As Christopher R. Corley observes, “humanists generally, and historians more specifically, have been slow to provide leadership in the movement [of undergraduate research].” Among other reasons (such as the absence of professional incentives for professors and the non- collaborative academic culture in the humanities), Corley points out that undergraduates often lack “the theoretical or linguistic skills necessary for diving into such a project”.[35] The language hurdle is all the more formidable for teachers who want to engage students in research activities on pre-modern, non-Western history. While China historians appreciate the need for undergraduate students to engage with primary sources, they are confronted with the reality that the vast majority of American undergraduates do not have the ability to read historical records written in classical Chinese. For decades, the solution was translation. Since the sixteenth century, Christian missionaries and scholars alike have been translating historical works from classical Chinese into Western languages. Following their steps, more scholars in the past decades have embarked on translation projects, big or small, and compiled sourcebooks to make an expanding body of Chinese texts accessible to English- speaking students. Nevertheless, these translations remain limited and highly selective. They focus primarily on canonical texts in China’s major religious, philosophical, and literary traditions. This contrasts starkly with the wealth of the country’s historical records, and its inadequacy becomes all the more salient as research interest widens to include areas such as social history and environmental history. Take biographies of China’s elite population for example. Biographical writing has a prominent place in Chinese historiography, arguably unmatched in any other historical tradition. At least 600,000 biographies are extant from Chinese history before the twentieth century.[36] A typical biography provides a wealth of information on its subject, ranging from the political career and intellectual achievements of the biographical subject to his or her family’s migration paths and affinal connections. Only a small number of these biographies have been translated into English. In the past decades, this treasure trove is accessible to undergraduate students only in snippets and excerpts, included in a few English-language biographical dictionaries that summarize and index a portion of these biographical materials.

The small quantity and the highly selective nature of translated sources have limited the range of research opportunities for most undergraduates in North American colleges who lack the necessary linguistic skills to engage directly with classical Chinese texts. Undergraduate research projects that require active engagement with translated primary sources usually focus narrowly on the interpretation of canonical texts and the life and thought of a few prominent political and cultural figures. This carries a disquieting methodological risk: it encourages students to focus on the “great men” and the “great traditions” while losing sight of the forests for the trees.

The stake is high, but solutions are limited. Since a complete translation of all extant biographies is impractical, one has to find alternative ways that give undergraduates access to this treasure trove. Recently digital technologies have offered a unique opportunity for attaining this goal. Nothing illustrates this opportunity better than the China Biographical Database (CBDB). In what follows, I will discuss briefly how the CBDB takes advantage of digital technologies to make historical biographies accessible to a wide audience. This brief overview will lay the groundwork for subsequent pedagogical discussions about how to adapt a research-oriented project like this to promote undergraduate research in a liberal arts environment.

The CBDB originated with the work of Robert M. Hartwell (1932–1996). Over the last decade or so, it has grown into a joint bilingual database project that involves scholars from different countries, academic institutions, and disciplines under the direction of a multi-institutional committee chaired by Peter K. Bol.[37] It adopts an approach markedly different from conventional scholarly translations. In place of translating the full text of each biography verbatim, it aims to extract biographical data from biographical narratives and organize them into structured datasets. For this purpose, it employs the entity- relationship model. An entity, sometimes known as “entity type” or “entity set,” is any object of informational interest that can be distinguished from other objects. It may be an abstract concept or have a physical existence. Entities that are most frequently encountered in Chinese biographies include, for example, a person, a place, a date, an office, or a text. Any particular occurrence of an entity is called an entity instance. Each instance is unique and may be described with one or more attributes that help distinguish him or her from other instances of the same entity type. For example, each person in history is considered a unique instance of the “person” entity and has attributes such as a surname and a given name that help distinguish it from other persons. Likewise, each office is a unique instance of the “office” entity and has attributes such as an official title and a rank that help distinguish it from other offices. Entities participate in relationship with other entities, and an entity instance also participates in friends with other instances of either the same or a different entity type. For example, persons hold offices, and one person may be relatives of other persons. In short, the entity-relationship approach conceptualizes the world as constituted by entities and relationships that exist between those entities. A bureaucratic appointment, for example, is an instance of a specific relationship between a person and an office on a particular date in a particular place, and a marriage is that between two persons for a specific duration.[38] In this view, a biography is no more than an account that registers the attributes of a specific instance of the person entity (i.e., the biographical subject) and its relationships with other entity instances, such as offices and other persons. By identifying these entities and their relationships in the biographies, one can transform texts into a relational database. And this is the task the CBDB team takes on.

 Figure 5  A highly simplified diagram of the entity-relationship model adopted in the CBDB

Needless to say, any attempt to transform biographical texts into a relational database comes at the price of losing the ambiguities and complexities in the narrative. But the gains are also substantial. First, it opens the door for efficient, computer-assisted harvesting of biographical information from a large collection of texts. The technical core of this procedure is text markup using gazetteer and pattern-based searches. A gazetteer is a list containing names and useful descriptors of entity instances, such as official titles and place names. By checking these lists against the biographies, computer programs detect references to these entity instances in the texts. But a gazetteer search has its limits. We know, for example, each email address is different and it is impossible to have a predefined list that contains all email addresses. To overcome these difficulties, gazetteer searches are combined with pattern-based searches. While an exhaustive list of all email addresses is not possible, all email addresses follow one of a few patterns (e.g., a string of alphanumerics followed by an ampersand and a domain name). By searching for these patterns, rather than a predefined list of specific email addresses, computer programs may find email addresses in a document with a reasonable margin of error. Biographies in Chinese history certainly do not contain email addresses, but their language also has rules and patterns. These rules and patterns are usually more diverse and flexible than the format of email addresses and may vary considerably because of changing stylistic conventions (“genres”) and author preferences. They nevertheless allow large-scale data harvesting in a highly efficient way, even though this is inevitably an iterative process that requires human editors to engage in constant conversation with computer programs, checking their accuracy and making improvements. With the aid of these technologies and also by incorporating several other biographical databases, the CBDB has grown rapidly from a database with biographical data on about 30,000 individuals in 2005 to approximately 427,000 individuals as of April 2019. It provides particularly rich data on the elite population from the seventh through the nineteenth century.[39]

Second, once biographical information is extracted from texts and stored in a database, it is very easy to make it bilingual. This is because in a relational database like the CBDB, each entity instance (e.g., a person or office) is assigned a number that serves as its unique identifier, and subsequent references to the entity instance cite only this identifier. All descriptors of the entity instance (e.g., a person’s name, dates of birth and death, or an official title and rank) are stored as its attributes. These attributes are recorded and translated only once in the database and shared by all data entries that cite the identifier of this instance. Compared to a verbatim translation, it significantly reduces the workload, minimizes inconsistency, and allows easy correction.

Third, this way of organizing and storing information also has the added benefits of providing great analytic potentials for research. Since surviving records focus only on a tiny segment of even the elite population, historical associations between different entity instances are often buried as disparate information in the sources. We may not know, for example, that two persons are relatives until we discover in several different texts that they are both kin of a third party. Likewise, we may not know that prefectural governors in early thirteenth-century China came predominantly from the coastal region until we cross- examine records of appointments and documents about each official’s place of primary residence. By systematically extracting every bit of biographical information from a large collection of historical records and storing it in a single database, the CBDB integrates data from multiple sources and facilitates the discovery of obscure associations among historical figures, the analysis of their social networks, and the cross-examination of different aspects of their lives. Its bilingual feature and its integration of biographical make the CBDB a rich gold deposit for undergraduate students who want to engage with (quasi-)primary sources in Chinese history but lack knowledge of the Chinese language.

A gold deposit as the CBDB is, to mine it is not easy. We are confronted here precisely with the two sorts of conundrums of “big data” that Tim Hitchcock takes issue with. The first, he writes, is “simple and technical,” and the second “more awkward and philosophical.” Technically, any serious attempt to exploit the opportunities provided by a database, like the CBDB, requires a certain understanding of its data structure and some knowledge of how to query it and analyze its output, which often contains hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of data entries. For Hitchcock, these technological challenges get in the way of his intellectual agenda, which aims to “empower everyone to be their own historian.” Philosophically, Hitchcock is concerned that these databases and digital tools of analysis encourage a “morality-free engagement with a positivist understanding of human history” and strip history writing of its meaning and purpose.  He confesses that he finds himself “caught between audience and public engagement, on the one hand, and the positivist implications of big data, on the other”.[40] These are big questions that all historians who want to engage with digital tools will need to reflect on. But these conundrums are less formidable than Hitchcock suggests. Technology can be taught and learned, and interest in the data-driven analysis does not necessarily oblige a historian to forego research activities beyond collecting data and making quantifiable observations. As Hitchcock himself recognizes, “history has always been a dialogue between irrefutable evidence and discursive construction.” Having abundant data readily available at our fingertips and having powerful digital tools to analyze them offers exciting prospects for a positivist analysis, but by no means does this forestall critical reflection on the input data, the analytical procedures, and the meaning and significance of the analytical results. By contrast, Stephen Ramsay proposes a more dynamic relationship between technology and the humanities. He challenges humanists to “create tools—practical, instrumental, verifiable mechanisms—that enable critical engagement, interpretation, conversation, and contemplation” and “channel the heightened objectivity made possible by the machine into the cultivation of those heightened subjectivities necessary for critical work”.[41]

The issues here are along the same lines but more pedagogical in nature.. I am primarily concerned with what these technical and philosophical conundrums have demanded of educators in colleges and universities. If technological challenges hamper public engagement with history, what training should we provide to undergraduate students so as to help them overcome these hurdles and become their own historian? Besides the challenges and hurdles, what opportunities do existing databases and digital tools also provide to facilitate critical engagement with history? And how can we take full advantage of these opportunities and integrate critical thinking about history into student-centered, data-driven research projects? In what follows, I will discuss how my course “Digital Methods” is designed precisely to meet these new challenges and take advantage of these new opportunities. Predicated on the belief that technology, if properly employed, will foster critical engagement with history, “Digital Methods” seeks to make use of the rich data in the CBDB and harness the analytical powers of existing digital tools so as to provide research experiences to undergraduates and help them learn through direct participation in the process of knowledge creation. To accomplish these goals, the course is designed with particular attention to three key issues: the choice of an appropriate disciplinary topic and appropriate digital tools, the structuring of course content, and the scaffolding of assignments and activities. The following discussion will address each of these issues in turn.

Choice of Topic and Tools

The first step towards a successful research-centered undergraduate course is to decide on an appropriate disciplinary topic and a set of digital tools that facilitate the exploration of the topic. These decisions are made with full recognition of how “Digital Methods” differ in important ways from “Humanities Visualization.” While both courses rest on the same pedagogical assumption that critical digital literacy is a set of transferrable skills that are best cultivated in a specific disciplinary context, “Humanities Visualization” and “Digital Methods” target different groups of students and pursue different learning objectives. The first difference is simple and institutional. “Humanities Visualization” is a freshmen seminar that serves students of diverse disciplinary interests, whereas “Digital Methods” is a course that meets major and minor requirements of East Asian Studies, History, and Digital Humanities programs besides general education requirements. The second difference lies in course content and objectives. “Humanities Visualization” is more methodologically oriented and urges students to reflect broadly on the relationship between technology and the humanistic enterprise by acquiring a basic understanding and experience of a wide range of digital tools and modes of analysis. By contrast, “Digital Methods” expects students to engage more deeply with each tool and develop an ability to use digital tools to analyze historical data, challenge received wisdom, and create new knowledge. Therefore, the course requires that students have a deeper understanding of the disciplinary subject (in this case, Chinese history) in order to formulate meaningful research questions. It also requires that they develop a good command of technology in order to carry out digital projects and effectively tackle those questions. For these reasons, “Digital Methods” values disciplinary depth more than breadth, and it prioritizes the analytical powers of digital tools over their ease of use.

Therefore, in choosing digital tools, “Digital Methods” values those that are powerful instruments of analysis that help identify patterns in large datasets, open new  lines of inquiry, and test hypotheses, as opposed to those tools that generate quick-and-  easy visualizations or provide platforms for presenting visually enriched, multimedia narratives.[42] Therefore, instead of Palladio, it uses Gephi for network analysis; instead of ArcGIS Online, it uses ArcGIS Desktop. Leaving out Story Map Journal and Neatline, it devotes lab hours to processing XML documents in EmEditor and on building and querying relational databases in Microsoft Access. Since these programs all require local installation and some work only in Windows environments, class meetings take place in computer labs where these programs are pre-installed on the machines. Moreover, since these programs usually have a somewhat steep learning curve, a few hours of instruction is typically needed for students to get a handle on them. The time, nevertheless, is well spent, because it provides an opportunity to engage students more deeply in the discussion of the key concepts underlying these tools, such as data structure of relational databases, vector versus raster data in GIS, and the distinction between nodes and edges in the study of networks.

In choosing an appropriate disciplinary topic, “Digital Methods” seeks to strike a delicate balance between specificity and broad relevance. Since it is open to all undergraduates, including those who have no prior knowledge of Chinese language or history, the course has to focus on a specific topic for inquiry so that students may develop a reasonably deep understanding of the subject matter within a relatively short time. Two considerations come into play in deciding which topic the course should focus on. First, while the best topic has to be specific and well defined, it also needs to be broad enough to ensure its historical significance and encourage different ways of thinking about history. Second and on the practical side, the topic also needs to deal with periods and themes that are adequately covered by my primary data source (i.e., the CBDB) so as to provide plenty of opportunities for student exploration. For these reasons, the Tang-Song transition becomes an ideal subject of study for this course.

The Tang-Song transition refers to a series of economic, social, political, and intellectual changes that took place between the middle of the Tang dynasty (618–907)   and the Song dynasty (960–1279). In many ways, these changes set the course for China’s historical development in subsequent centuries. Some early scholars emphasized the historical significance of this period by likening it to the European Renaissance and calling it the beginning of China’s early modern era. Since then, several generations of historians have devoted their research to exploring the various aspects of this transition. There is some broad consensus on the sweeping changes in this period. It is argued that the Tang-Song transition began with a dramatic increase in agricultural productivity that resulted from the introduction of new strains of rice crops and the invention of new agricultural technologies. In consequence, the population doubled and commerce boomed. Market towns mushroomed and money supply increased. South China, in particular, benefited greatly from these changes. Because of its long growing seasons and its intricate network of inland waterways, it replaced North China as the new center of economic activity and human settlement. Economic growth laid the foundations for social and political transformations. The accumulation of private wealth, coupled with the invention of printing, sustained a flourishing print culture and the growing ranks of the educated elite. In response, the state expanded its base of support beyond the capital-based aristocratic clans by recruiting into government learned men from the provinces. After the late tenth century, the civil service examination began to graduate far more candidates than ever before. Accordingly, learning replaced pedigree in defining elite status, and the center of elite life shifted from the capital to the local communities where the new elite resided. This was attended by the rise of a new intellectual movement, commonly known as Neo-Confucianism, which emphasized self- cultivation and moral leadership in local society.

This brief outline certainly does not do justice to the complexity of the topic. Within this broad consensus, scholars have debated in the past decades on many critical details of this transition and carved out new directions of research. It is these debates that leave much room for student exploration in the course. Scholars agree, for example, that until at least the ninth century the aristocratic clans all concentrated in the capital region and married exclusively among themselves,[43] but they disagree whether the newly-risen officeholding families in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries showed much interest in building marriage networks that extended beyond the borders of their native locales.[44] Likewise, scholars have long recognized that the elite after the twelfth century more actively engaged themselves in the affairs of their native communities,[45] but it is only recently that they have started to ask whether these men also actively participated in far-flung supralocal networks of information exchange that contributed to the formation of their class-based, empire-wide identities.[46] Moreover, while there is abundant scholarship on the moral philosophy and social program of the Neo-Confucians, intellectual historians have just begun to explore how their ideas disseminated through teacher-disciple networks and why some regions were more receptive to these ideas than others.[47]

These questions are particularly befitting topics for undergraduate students to explore. First, they urge students to think beyond “great men” and big events and to focus instead on long-term changes in social structure, social behavior, identity formation, and the spread of ideas. Second, these questions encourage students to take “space” and “relations” seriously in thinking about history. That is, they urge students to be mindful of regional variations and avoid the danger of generalizing about a vast historical empire like China. They also invite students to think about history in relational terms, grounding their understanding of social and intellectual change in an analysis of concrete social relationships and mechanisms. Third, since many of these questions reflect unresolved debates and represent emerging frontiers of research, they encourage students to critically evaluate the different answers   we currently have and to actively explore possible alternatives. With its rich bilingual data on officeholding (130,000 records), kinship (75,000 records), and social relations (35,000 records) from this period, the CBDB provides a treasure trove for these explorations. These activities, in turn, invite students to take a critical attitude towards digital methods and the creation of knowledge.

Blending History, Historiography, and Technology

To achieve the triad of learning objectives (historical knowledge, digital proficiency, and methodological reflections) and make research less formidable to undergraduates, this course takes to heart the pedagogical practices of blending and scaffolding. Blending in the sense that the course consistently integrates discussion of the history and historiography with labs on digital methods. It sets aside ample time for students to design, implement,  and share their own history projects with the aid of digital tools. In all modules, it also devotes substantial time to the reading and discussion of primary and secondary literature, which help to develop students’ skills of source criticism and textual interpretation. These discussions, labs, and projects are organized into three modules, with each module featuring a specific aspect of history, a particular mode of analysis, and a specific digital method. Scaffolding in the sense that these modules are designed to progressively lead students to greater depths of both the subject matter and the technology.[48]

The first module is a starter that introduces students to the topic of the Tang-Song transition and the practice of digital scholarship in historical studies. The central topic in this module is the economic transformation in the Tang-Song period, which provides the necessary context for studying political, social, and intellectual changes in the subsequent modules. In class, students discuss the prolific writings of economic historians on commerce, fiscal reforms, and state-market relations, and also interpret translated historical records that describe changes in the urban scene. This discussion is complemented by methodological reflections inspired by the works of historical geographers who remind us that economic changes in the Tang-Song period affected different regions differently. Their works urge students to think of China as constituted by several macroregions, each having its own developmental cycle. Such methodological musings, which emphasize the importance of space in the study of history, are blended naturally into the first labs on ArcGIS. In these labs, students start with some free exploration of existing historical GIS projects.[49] These explorations illustrate how the GIS technology is recently applied in the study of history, and they also provide concrete examples for understanding basic GIS concepts, such as maps and layers, raster versus vector data, point versus polygon features, and different projections and coordinate systems. After that, students receive hands- on tutorials on how to create maps using tabulated data on prefectural-level population figures in the Tang-Song period. These data are compiled by students themselves, with the instructor’s assistance, in simple spreadsheet programs.

In this module as in all the others, the instruction of technology often progresses alongside the discussion of history and methodology in a mutually reinforcing way. A map of prefectural-level population figures, for example, naturally encourages a class discussion about how the spatial pattern of human settlement changed in the Tang-Song transition. Sometimes such discussion leads to a debate about whether a map showing population density in each prefecture, as opposed to its absolute population size, might lead to different observations. At other times, the discussion leads to a conversation about whether more expansive physiographical macro regions—as historical geographers like G. William Skinner maintained—are more meaningful spatial units of analysis than prefectures. In either case, it becomes natural to provide some instruction on the technology, such as how to use spatial joins to transform a layer of point features into a layer of polygon features and how to calculate the area of each prefectural or macro-regional polygon. This way, the discussion of spatial patterns in the Tang-Song economic transition is seamlessly blended with the technical tutorials on making, interpreting, and revising maps. Maps give shape to the more abstract notions about regional variations and developmental cycles, while discussion about history and methodology, on the other hand, frequently generates new demands for learning more about technology, giving students a sense of purpose in the lab sessions.

If the first module is more of a warm-up that familiarizes students with the disciplinary subject, the technology, and how the two may be fruitfully combined in our intellectual inquiry, the second module delves deeper into all these areas and gives students more opportunities to carry out their own explorations. Leaving economic changes in the background, the second module shifts attention to the institutional history of the civil service examination and the attendant transformation of China’s political elite. Students read and discuss some of the best works from the last decades that study the geographic pattern of examination success and the regional origins of China’s political elite in the Tang-Song period. These works also serve as examples of how maps are effectively used to reveal macroscopic changes in history, a topic on which the CBDB provides abundant data for student to explore. To prepare students for such explorations, several class meetings are committed to discussing the method and the source materials. The method is prosopography—“the investigation of the common background characteristics of a group of actors in history by means of a collective study of their lives”[50] —and the discussion centers on Lawrence Stone’s classical review of the method in addition to a few influential works  in this tradition. The source materials are biographies and biographical databases. Students compare the tradition of Chinese biographical writing with that in the Mediterranean civilization, and they read closely the translations of a few Chinese biographies and work together to identify items of informational interest in the biographies. Technology labs in this module build on these discussions and teach students how to use computer programs to mark up, extract, and store these items. In these labs, students are first taught and quizzed on the basics of XML and regular expressions (regex), and they practice a few simple regex- based text mining algorithms in a lightweight text editor called EmEditor. Next, they are introduced to the concept of the entity-relationship model, its implementation in relational databases, and the data structure of such databases. Then, they learn how to build a simple relational database from scratch; they practice how to transform a set of spreadsheets into a relational database with linked tables; and they learn how to build queries in a relational database. Finally, after all this preparatory work, students are officially introduced to the CBDB, with all its data tables and querying modules. As the second module draws to close, students start their first small-scale research project, for which they need to ask a question that has a spatial dimension, make one or more queries in the CBDB, map the outputs in ArcGIS, and report their interpretations in class-wide presentations.

Research activities become more intensive in the third module, which surveys a wide range of issues about the Tang-Song elite: their relationship with the state and local society, their self-identity and self-representation, and their political views and ideological positions. The coherence of these issues lies in a shared concern about elite networks. Some scholars investigate whether the elite’s marriage networks were confined to the surrounding area of their hometowns and whether this indicated stronger attachments to their native places and a diminishing interest in court politics. Some explore how the elite participated in supralocal networks of political discussion and thereby fashioned class-based, empire- wide identities. Yet others focus on intellectual ties and exchanges of writings in order to explain the spread of ideas and the formation of political factions. Network analysis, therefore, becomes the featured mode of analysis in this module. Students are engaged in methodological discussions about whether history is better explained not by some intrinsic properties (such as class and regional origin) of individual actors, but by the structural properties of patterned social relationships these actors participated in. These discussions are structured around both sociological publications on network theory and seminal case studies that have employed network theory in historical research. These works spark conversations about how to analyze the positional advantages and disadvantages of an actor in a social network and how to identify tightly connected subgroups of actors in a network graph. These conversations are pursued in the midst of technical instructions about how to query network data in the CBDB and how to analyze the outputs in Gephi (e.g., different centrality measures and different approaches to clustering analysis).

Scaffolding Assignments and Activities

As the preceding discussion makes clear, the three modules of the course are structured in a way that adds incrementally to the repertoire of historical knowledge and digital skills needed by a student to formulate a research question and carry out a research project. Students start with familiar topics and tools, such as economic growth and spreadsheet programs, and are led gradually into less familiar and more challenging territories, such as moral philosophy of the twelfth-century men and the graph theory in network analysis. This type of content scaffolding helps students overcome their anxiety since many of them had little to no research experience and hardly any knowledge of Chinese history or digital methods.

Content scaffolding is complemented by task scaffolding.[51] The course is organized around two small-scale research projects, which are due at the end of the second and third modules respectively. Each project requires that the student make effective use of ArcGIS or Gephi to construct an argument, but the student has freedom to choose their own topic as long as it relates to Tang-Song history. While undergraduates usually welcome this freedom, many also find it intimidating to start from scratch and carry through a research project purely on their own. Therefore, a three-tiered model of task scaffolding is devised to guide students through the research process. In this model, each project is broken down into three tiers of tasks that are more manageable by undergraduates. The first tier of tasks is assigned for every class meeting. These include student presentations on the assigned readings, as well as exercises and quizzes on the digital tools. These lab exercises ask students to use a specific digital tool to answer a specific question (e.g., finding all members of the State Council in the CBDB, or creating a map that shows the native places of all examination graduates from the 1090s). The purpose of these straightforward assignments is to ensure that students have acquired the necessary digital skills and have engaged thoughtfully with the readings. Moreover, the course requires that students take turns to present the assigned readings in the author’s voice, pretending themselves to be authors of the assigned publications who are sharing their most recent work with fellow scholars. This impels students to think more carefully about the research agenda in these publications: What questions have these authors asked? What data have they collected from where? What (digital) methods and tools have they used to analyze the data? What conclusions have they drawn from the research, and what challenges are they expecting from the audience? These questions encourage independent learning and cultivate a sense of ownership of knowledge, They also help students critically evaluate the strengths and limits of existing scholarship and, in the meanwhile, develop some very preliminary ideas for their own projects.

The second tier of tasks builds on these reflections and is assigned on a weekly basis.  In some weeks, students write a critical review of the readings they have recently finished. In other weeks, the tasks take the form of exploratory projects. For example, in one week, students are told to make at least two queries on the network data in the CBDB, visualize the outputs in Gephi, and write a short interpretation for each network graph Gephi generates. For an assignment like this, students are not expected to produce an impeccable piece of scholarship. The idea is rather to give them more practice with the tool, help them overcome their fears, and encourage them to take the first step towards independent research. No less important is that these exploratory assignments give students an opportunity to try out a few research possibilities and thereby lay the groundwork for their module project.

The third tier of tasks is the module projects. By the time they start working on the module project, students have usually explored several possible ideas in their weekly assignments. They are advised to choose the most promising one and, with faculty assistance and peer input, develop it more fully, give a presentation, and write up a research report. The course concludes with a capstone final project, which is either a perfection of their favorite module project or an organic synthesis of all of their module projects.

In sum, the advent of digital projects, like the CBDB, has offered unprecedented opportunities for educators in the field of non-Western humanities who are interested in providing research experiences to undergraduate students who lack the necessary language skills. To take advantage of these opportunities, students have to develop a good command of the technologies as well as a critical awareness of their powers and limits. It has become necessary, therefore, to incorporate the instruction of technology into our humanities courses and blend it with critical reflections about history and methods. Since the integration of historical research, methodological reflections, and digital skills into one course, not  surprisingly, makes the course more demanding on students, carefully scaffolding course content and assignments becomes all the more important for its success. As an experiment in such an endeavor, “Digital Methods” aims precisely to teach Chinese history in a way that promotes student agency and project-based, inquiry-based learning. It encourages students to ask their own questions, design their own projects, and search for answers with the aid of technology. By having students learn history through hands-on experience in the process of knowledge creation, it helps students become critical consumers of knowledge that comes from the digital scholarship. When asked about the most helpful elements of the course, students in the “Digital Methods” course often responded that “it was very hands- on” and that “the projects were very helpful in learning about both the digital tools and the Chinese history.”


The use of technology in the humanities has caused as much concern as excitement. The concern and the excitement have a shared origin—that is, the growing abundance   of humanities data and the great analytical capabilities of digital tools that become indispensable for handling the data. Tim Hitchcock speaks eloquently of his two big concerns. One of them is political. While the use of technology leads to new discoveries,  he fears that this also empowers a “top down, technocratic elite” and creates a formidable barrier of understanding for the wide public. Hitchcock’s other concern is epistemological. He criticizes that the reliance on “big data” and technology encourages positivist tendencies in humanities scholarship. This view is shared by many spatial humanists who contend that the very technology of GIS “rests on a positivist and naive empiricism,” creates an illusion of precision and certainty, and privileges the Western, official conceptualization of space.[52] These are legitimate concerns, but as David Theo Goldberg aptly points out, “In the wake of the digital the humanities can no longer be engaged and exercised as though the digital revolution never transpired. Post-digital, the state of the humanities is analogous to the transformation of the commonplace of painting after photography”.[53] The widespread use of digital technologies has profoundly transformed how we harvest and store information, analyze and present data, construct and communicate arguments. As a result, exercising critical thinking skills in today’s world requires some knowledge of these technologies, their powers and potentials, as well as their limits and epistemological baggage. It is imperative, therefore, that any liberal arts program which holds critical thinking at the core of its mission also integrate a digital component into its curriculum.

Incorporating DH work into undergraduate education has raised practical concerns. Some writers worry that teaching digital technologies and methodologies encroaches upon the precious class time which is previously devoted to the teaching of discipline-specific knowledge and skills. Others are concerned that much of the DH work began as research projects at research universities and may not be appropriate for undergraduate education. Drawing on my experience designing and teaching two digital humanities courses in an undergraduate-centered program, I have so far provided examples that demonstrate how educators may overcome these obstacles and effectively infuse digital technologies into the liberal arts curriculum. It is my contention that the instruction of technology should not be pitted against the mission of undergraduate education and that the teaching of DH means more than walking students through a series of clicks and helping them produce beautiful graphics. A successful DH course always requires that the instruction of technology be embedded in specific disciplinary contexts and blended with methodological reflections so as to promote critical thinking and student research. It is also my contention that digital projects developed at research-intensive institutions are not necessarily inappropriate for transplantation into the soil of undergraduate education. Many of these projects, like the CBDB, provide exciting opportunities for undergraduate education. With careful planning and scaffolding of course content and activities, these digital projects and tools may be effectively adapted and utilized to achieve different learning objectives and meet the diverse needs of different student audiences.



陈 松

摘   要:近年来,学术界对数字人文的广泛兴趣引发了有关数字技术在本科课堂中应当扮演何种角色的热烈讨论。本文分享了作者在北美一所文理学院设计并教授两门数字人文课程的经验,为计划开设类似课程的学界同仁提供一些建议。通过介绍这两门课程的不同设计,本文阐述了数字人文课程应当如何针对不同学生群体的学习需求和知识储备来设定不同的教学目标和采用不同的教学策略。以这两门课程为例,本文指出将数字技术引入博雅教育可以帮助教师可以更好地实践以学生为中心的教学方法,这既有助于特定学科专业知识的学习,亦可促进学生批判性思维能力的培养。本文强调数字人文教学必须将数字技术培训和方法论思考相结合,在指导学生使用数字技术的同时,必须鼓励学生反思数字技术背后暗含着的不同研究方法,并遵循支架式教学理论来安排课程内容和教学活动。

关键词:数字人文教学 数字批判思维 探索式学习 CBDB 数据可视化



[1]Christian-Lamb, Caitlin and Anelise Hanson Shrout, “‘Starting From Scratch’? Work shopping New Directions in Undergraduate Digital Humanities,” Digital Humanities Quarterly, vol.11, no.3, November 11,2017,http:// Accessed on November 1, 2019.

[2] Jeffrey Scheuer, “Critical Thinking and the Liberal Arts,” Academe, vol. 101, no. 6, 2015, Accessed on November 1, 2019.

[3] Michael Lind, “Why the Liberal Arts Still Matter,” The Wilson Quarterly, vol.30, no.4, 2006, pp. 52–58; Dan Edelstein, “The University vs. Liberal Education,” October 14, 2010, views/2010/10/14/university-vs-liberal-education. Accessed on November 1, 2019.

[4] Michael Lind, “Why the Liberal Arts Still Matter,” pp. 52–58.

[5] John McPeck, Critical Thinking and Education, Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 1981.

[6] John McPeck, Critical Thinking and Education.

[7] Tim Hitchcock, “Academic History Writing and the Headache of Big Data,” Historyonics, January 30, 2012,

[8] All materials for this course—except student submissions and copyright-protected readings—are open to public, see The earliest version of this course was taught in fall 2015 (https:// The course was significantly revised in the summer of 2016 before it was offered again in the fall of 2016 and 2017. The development of the course was supported by the 2016 Mellon Digital Course Design Grant. I am also deeply indebted to Diane Jakaci, Janine Glathar, and Luyang Ren at the Digital Scholarship Center at Bucknell University, who provided invaluable advice on practice datasets, helped compile datasets and tutorials, and conducted teach-ins when the course was redesigned in 2016.

[9] John McPeck, Critical Thinking and Education.

[10] For an overview of the debate between generalists and specialists, see Tim Moore, “The Critical Thinking Debate: How General Are General Thinking Skills,” Higher Education Research & Development, vol. 23, no. 1, 2004, pp. 3–18; Susan Rebecca Robinson, “Teaching Logic and Teaching Critical Thinking: Revisiting McPeck,” Higher Education Research & Development, vol. 30, no. 3, 2011, pp. 275–287.

[11] John McPeck, Teaching Critical Thinking: Dialogue and Dialectic, New York: Routledge, 1990.

[12] Jeffrey Scheuer, “Critical Thinking and the Liberal Arts.”

[13] Developed by Stéfan Sinclair (McGill) and Geoffrey Rockwell (University of Alberta), Voyant Tools (http://voy- is a suite of web-based tools that perform simple tasks of text analysis, such as calculating word fre- quencies and generating word clouds. Developed by the Humanities + Design Lab at Stanford University, Palladio ( is a web-based tool that generates simple maps and network graphs. Neatline is a suite of add-on tools for Omeka ( StoryMapJS is a web-based image annotation and story-telling tool developed by Northwestern University Knight Lab (

[14] For some tutorials and documentations about these tools, see sources/software-tutorials/.

[15] Franco Moretti, “Network Theory, Plot Analysis”,“文学与形式”国际学术研讨会暨中国文艺理论学会年会论文集,南京,2010 年。

[16] Jermain Kaminski , Michael Schober, Raymond Albaladejo, Oleksandr Zastupailo and Cesar Hidalgo, “Movie- galaxies—Social Networks in Movies,” 2012, Movies.pdf.

[17] Mark Monmonier, “Lying with Maps,” Statistical Science, vol. 20, no. 3, 2005, pp. 215–222.

[18] Mark Newman, “Maps of the 2016 US Presidential Election Results,” December 2, 2016, http://www-personal. Accessed on November 1, 2019.

[19] Mark Monmonier, “Lying with Maps,” Statistical Science, vol. 20, no. 3, 2005, pp. 215–222.

[20] John Theibault, “Visualizations and Historical Arguments,” Writing History in the Digital Age , Ann Arbor: Uni- versity of Michigan Press, 2013.

[21] David J. Bodenhamer, “The Potential of Spatial Humanities,” in David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trev- or M. Harris eds., The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010, pp. 14–30.

[22] Examples include David J. Bodenhamer, “The Potential of Spatial Humanities,” in David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trevor M. Harris eds., The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholar- ship, pp. 14–30; David J. Bodenhamer, “Creating a Landscape of Memory: The Potential of Humanities GIS,” International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing, vol.1, no. 2, 2007, pp. 97–110; Sui and Daniel Z, “Alternative GIS (alt.gis) and the Six Senses of the New Mind: Is alt.gis Transforming GIS into a Liberation Technolo- gy?” in Francis Harvey and Yee Leung eds., Advances in Spatial Data Handling and Analysis: Select Papers from the 16th IGU Spatial Data Handling Symposium, Berlin: Springer, 2015, pp. 1–11.

[23] Examples include Margaret Wickens Pearce, “Framing the Days: Place and Narrative in Cartography,” Cartog- raphy and Geographic Information Science, vol. 35, no. 1, 2008, pp. 17–32; David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trevor M. Harris eds., Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Learn about the Holocaust (, and Todd Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano’s “thick mapping” project called “HyperCities” (http://www.

[24] Lev Manovich, Jeremy Douglass and Tara Zepel, “How to Compare One Million Images?” in David M. Berry eds., Understanding Digital Humanities, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 249–278.

[25] ImageJ is a Java-based image processing program that Manovich has used in his projects. This is the only pro- gram used in “Humanities Visualization” that requires local installation. The program operates on both Windows and iOS platforms, and Manovich provides an extensive lab manual and several rich practice datasets, see http:// More datasets for ImageJ labs are obtained from Kaggle for the “Painter by Numbers” challenge (, which has collected, formatted, and published a large collection of images available on Wiki-art (

[26] I am indebted, in particular, to GIS specialists, Janine Glathar and Luyang Ren, at Bucknell University for sharing these map layers, which they originally developed for a different undergraduate course. This pinpoints the importance of resource sharing and collaboration between faculty instructors and staff members in DH courses.

[27] Caitlin Christian-Lamb and Anelise Hanson Shrout, “‘Starting From Scratch’? Work shopping New Directions  in Undergraduate Digital Humanities.”

[28] David Lopatto, “Undergraduate Research as a High-Impact Student Experience,” Peer Review, vol.12 no.2, 2010.

[29] See

[30] Tom Wenzel, “Definition of Undergraduate Research,” https://pdfs.semanticscholar. org/d7bd/ac3544fa8de- fa724f96e330614cdad221851.pdf.

[31] Gregory Young and Jenny Olin Shanahan, Undergraduate Research in Music: A Guide for Students, New York: Routledge, 2018. For a list of undergraduate journals in the United States, see dents/undergraduate_journals/. Some national journals also publish undergraduate work, such as American Journal of Undergraduate Research.

[32] See Armstrong State University’s statement on undergraduate research, student-research.

[33] For an example, see the different forms of undergraduate research experiences provided at Carleton College,

[34] See Carleton College’s definition of undergraduate research, What.html.

[35] Christopher R. Corley, “From Mentoring to Collaborating: Fostering Undergraduate Research in History,” The History Teacher, vol.46, no. 3, 2013, pp. 397–414.

[36] Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A New Manual (Fourth Edition), Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2015.

[37] For an overview and history of the CBDB, see

[38] For a brief introduction to the entity-relationship model, see Toby J. Teorey, Database Modeling and Design:  The Entity-Relationship Approach, San Mateo: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, Inc, 1990.

[39] For current progress of the CBDB, see

[40] Tim Hitchcock, “Academic History Writing and the Headache of Big Data,” Historyonics, January 30, 2012,

[41] Stephen Ramsay, Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.

[42] John Theibault makes a neat distinction between these two uses of digital tools. See John Theibault, “Visualiza- tions and Historical Arguments.”

[43] Nicolas Tackett, The Destruction of the Medieval Chinese Aristocracy, Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2014.

[44] Robert P. Hymes, Statesmen and Gentlemen: The Elite of Fuchou, Chiang-hsi, in Northern and Southern Sung, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986; Beverly Bossler, Powerful Relations: Kinship, Status, and the State in Sung China (960—1279), Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 1998; Sukhee Lee, Negotiated Power: The State, Elites, and Local Governance in Twelfth- to Fourteenth-Century China, Cambridge: Harvard Universi- ty Asia Center, 2014.

[45] Hymes, Statesmen and Gentlemen.

[46] Hilde De Weerdt, Information, Territory, and Networks: The Crisis and Maintenance of Empire in Song China, Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2015.

[47] Peter K. Bol, “GIS, Prosopography and History,” Annals of GIS, vol.18, no.1, 2012, pp. 3–15.

[48] All materials for this course—except student submissions and copyright-protected readings—are open to public, see http: // digitalmethodschina. blogs. bucknell. edu.

[49] Some examples include Harvard’s China Map (http: // worldmap. harvard. edu/maps/chinamap/Wd8) and its Digi- tal Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations project (

[50] Lawrence Stone, “Prosopography,” in Felix Gilbert, E. J. Hobsbawm and Stephen Richards Graubard eds., Historical Studies Today, New York: W. W. Norton, 1972.

[51]On content versus task scaffolding, see https: //iris. peabody. vanderbilt. edu/ module/sca/cresource/q2/p03/#con- tent and https: //iris. peabody. vanderbilt. edu/ module/ sca/cresource/q2/p04/#content.

[52]David J. Bodenhamer, “The Potential of Spatial Humanities,” in David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trev- or M. Harris eds., The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, pp. 14–30.

[53]David Theo Goldberg, “Deprovincializing Digital Humanities,” in Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg eds., Between Humanities and the Digital, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2015, pp. 163–171.

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原刊《数字人文》2020第一期, 转载请联系授权。