Listen First, Collaborate Later: Possibilities for Meaningful IL+DH Collaboration

The University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Libraries Digital Humanities Lab started as an experiment in 2013 and has stuck around since, developing emphases and services to accommodate our faculty and students. From the beginning, instructors at UWM have looked to the Lab – and other entities on campus – to figure out how and why to integrate DH tools and methods into the classroom. To address those concerns, the DH Lab Advisory Board issued a call for “teaching fellows” in 2018 to create a cohort of instructors who were already incorporating digital or multi-modal assignments into their classes. The Fellows were asked to document their experience and share their tools, methods, successes, failures, and lingering questions. In its inaugural year, the cohort included six fellows teaching four classes (four of the fellows were team-teaching) from the disciplines of Linguistics, Architecture, History, Journalism, and Geography. Their classroom assignments included digital map-making, interventions in the comments and “community” of certain YouTube videos and memes, dataset creation and visualization to analyze regional word pronunciations, and public histories and counter-narratives told using maps and digitized primary sources. In its first year the Fellows program did not incorporate the expertise of our teaching librarians or actively engage the principles of information literacy, and instead focused on documenting the strategies our instructors were already employing. Librarians did not intervene in the process beyond providing a space for discussion and documentation, and where necessary, assistance with identifying and using digital tools. But as we discussed the assignments, outcomes, and student experience with instructors, we began to imagine a more active role for information literacy and our teaching librarians.  

Initially, the work of the Lab was largely focused on “tool support.” The DH Lab prioritizes tools that neither require expensive hosting services nor have a prohibitive barrier of entry when it comes to technical skills and design savvy. Meeting those criteria was surprisingly easy with the availability of well-designed, open source, hosted tools such as StoryMapJS and TimelineJS, and campus-based access to proprietary but ubiquitous tools such as Excel and Google spreadsheets. Where the cohort generated the most interest was in how those tools were used and how it changed the classroom and students’ learning outcomes when they worked in different modes of communication in more public-facing applications. The cohort conducted their classes in Fall 2018 and then discussed their experiences at a panel in March 2019. Opening the discussion via a panel brought other voices into the conversation, including those of our Libraries’ Teaching and Learning Team. Though the cohort itself never explicitly mapped the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education to their outcomes, assessment, or conceptualization, the teaching librarians in the room heard clear overlaps that got us, as leaders of information literacy and digital scholarship, thinking about how to engage more deliberately with those concepts in future DH-influenced assignments.  

Fundamental to the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (referenced hereafter as the Framework) are the six conceptual frames that help us teach a way of knowing and not just a way of doing, e.g., seeking and finding information. In particular, the knowledge practices and dispositions of the “Scholarship as Conversation” and “Information Creation as a Process” frames align with possible outcomes, assessment, and instruction for some of the DH Teaching Fellows’ assignments. The panel discussion surfaced several parallels, especially regarding how the nature of the multimodal and often public-facing projects led students to consider an audience that was more “authentic” and potentially engaged with what they were learning and articulating in their assignments. For example, Linguistics instructor Kelsey Patillo noted the advantage of using analytical tools and public-facing platforms in her assignment as a gateway for students who were just entering the field. According to Patillo, “…once we have these tools, students can do so many more things with them; it breaks the barrier between, ‘this is the theoretical work that I do, and this is something that makes what I do accessible to other people and something that can be shared with others with whom they can talk about what they’re learning and why that might be interesting.’” Geography Professor Anne Bonds articulated a similar shift in attitude in her class, where a counter-mapping assignment took on deeper meaning with the addition of a public-facing and “class-owned” tool: “I’d taught the basic assignment before with the difference that this was the first time that I’ve included the StoryMapJS tool. What was interesting to me was the shift in the students’ thinking about their work. They were very invested in this and felt like it was a class project; they liked being part of the bigger picture. And it was a marked difference from what I’ve seen in previous years. So, in addition to getting this basic literacy in primary research and this digital tool, they felt that they had something tangible that they could share.”  

These insights point to potential areas of collaboration between teaching librarians and instructors. For example, the “Scholarship as a Conversation” frame might be integrated into the design and development of Bonds and Patillo’s assignments, with the goal of intentionally engaging students in new and ongoing forms of scholarly and research conversations. In this case, the assignment would move beyond the introduction of new, public-facing tools, toward using those tools as a platform from which students can identify and assess multiple modes of scholarship and self-identify as producers of scholarship not just as consumers. In the case of Bonds’ counter-mapping assignment, students created a 2-page urban geographic analysis that informed their production of a counter map of a major east-west corridor across the city of Milwaukee (North Avenue). Here, the students have an authentic opportunity to understand and participate in a conversation that does not end when they turn in their assignment. Rather, subsequent classes can build on the data collected in previous classes and have a critical dialogue about what new insights can be achieved both by looking back at previous work and in collecting their own experiences along North Avenue – a corridor that itself will change over time, allowing the students to be in dialogue not only with other students but with the city itself. 

Building on this developing awareness of multiple modes of discourse, reflective practices, and evaluative criteria, the “Information Creation as a Process” frame might also be leveraged to help students transfer their assignment-based practices to the varied and evolving spaces of both commercial and academic discourse. In Marc Tasman and Chris Willey’s “Troll Project,” the instructors engaged students’ knowledge of the comments forum on YouTube videos to consider “the unique capabilities and constraints of [the YouTube video and comments] creation process as well as the specific information need determin[ing] how the product is used.” In this way, the assignment is already aligned with this IL frame, but the instructors are not explicitly mapping student outcomes to the knowledge practices or dispositions identified. It could be a small but enriching step to do so. The instructors also identified a missed opportunity for students to connect their observations of YouTube trolling with ongoing scholarly research – an opportunity to align with the “Research as Inquiry” frame. The assignment did not require students to cite sources, even though the intent of the assignment was to model how academic inquiry stems from observing artifacts that one finds curious. In the typical student experience, research is done for term papers, not for digital projects or journal reflections. In this case, incorporating citation might have encouraged students to think about the academic context that situates this very “un-academic” work, and look to the “spectrum of inquiry” arising from their own questions.  

We can also look to the documentation that the Teaching Fellows produced for the Lab to find more opportunities for incorporating the Framework. In Bonds’ counter-mapping assignment, one of the stated learning outcomes on the syllabus was, “cite examples of existing theory and research in the field of urban geography.” However, source citation was not included by students in their final digital story map even though the students demonstrated the ability to do so in the written analysis. The instructor expressed disappointment about this outcome but could not determine what led students to omit this information from their digital assignment. Looking at this through the lens of information literacy, we might venture that students do not grasp the value of citations to the scholarly community in the context of digital work. Citing sources is often framed as an anti-plagiarism strategy. “Information Creation as a Process” conceptualizes the practice of citing sources as a “discursive practice” engaging ideas across time and inviting future scholarly engagement with their own contributions. A collaboratively designed rubric could be one strategy for addressing this learning transfer regardless of the assignment modality.  

Likewise, in Nan Kim’s History class, a “storymap” assignment that produced richly researched projects encouraged students to remediate a primary source analysis they had completed in another class. By intentionally connecting prior academic research to the assignment, students carried over the academic practice of citing their sources, in this case, primary sources. One of the stated goals for history graduates is inquiry – asking questions about the present and the past. The final “storymap” projects lack bibliographies, recommended sources, or contextual notes from the authors as evidence of their inquiry. Could this have been an opportunity to enact inquiry in another mode? Were students encouraged to communicate historical research in this medium? Could there have been an opportunity to dialogue about the constraints of the medium? Perhaps employing reflective journaling utilizing dispositions of the “Scholarship as Conversation” frame could have engaged students explicitly in questions of scholarly dispositions, such as, how does this work engage the research of Milwaukee historians? As with the Fellows’ other assignments, both the stated goals of the syllabi and the student projects and outcomes are rich with possibility. 

As the DH Teaching Fellows program comes to the end of its second year, we reflect on what we have learned through creating a space in the library for teaching and dialog about DH-influenced assignments. While each project may be unique in the tools and digital skills required, what they have in common is an opportunity to incorporate information literacy concepts as a vital tool for instructors engaged in critical digital pedagogy. One of our next steps is to develop a DH-Lab sponsored summer training session on “Scholarship as Conversation” and “Information Creation as a Process” to provide a solid foundation on these concepts and provide constructive space for instructors and librarians to devise ways to develop assignments that improve critical thinking, and scaffold information literacy concepts into DH-based/multi-modal projects. We have more to learn, but together with instructors willing to try out new tools, methods, and concepts, we hope to learn (and share!) more about effective ways to help students transfer academic research and discourse practices into new modes of scholarly communication. 


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About the Authors

Kate L. Ganski is Assistant Director of Libraries for User Services at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Kate also is a presenter for the ACRL Roadshow, Engaging with the ACRL Framework, and has been teaching information literacy for over twelve years.

Ann Hanlon is Head of Digital Collections & Initiatives at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries. Ann is a co-founder of the UWM Libraries Digital Humanities Lab and leads the annual DH Teaching Fellows cohort program, now in its second year.