Digital Literacies in and Beyond the Classroom: Some Reflections on DH in Teaching with Dr. Paula R. Curtis

Over the last decade, the growing number of accessible digital archives and repositories has been matched by the continued development of new digital tools for conducting analysis. This growth has significantly widened the scope of research for scholars working in Japanese Studies, but it has also contributed to a growing pool of scholars who use these tools in their teaching. For students, this engagement has enhanced many aspects of the classroom experience, including how they investigate, analyze, and integrate Japanese historical materials in their research. For professors, it has also demanded new pedagogical frameworks for how and in what contexts these tools are most effectively deployed in the classroom. With the acute technological integration necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the promises (and limitations) of digital technology in the classroom have remained in constant negotiation. Where are we now? And what are we to make of digital pedagogy in light of these negotiations? Most importantly, how might professors continue to leverage technology in ways that enhance the learning experience of students in Japanese Studies as the field continues to evolve?

In order to shed light on the current state and future possibilities of teaching through digital tools, I corresponded with Dr. Paula R. Curtis, a historian of premodern Japan and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies and Lecturer in History at UCLA. Dr. Curtis’s research focuses on the history of metal caster organizations and socioeconomic relationships in medieval Japan, as well as on premodern documentary cultures and forgery. She works collaboratively with the Digital Humanities Japan initiative, maintains a database of digital resources in East Asian Studies, and tracks and analyzes data on academic employment opportunities related to East Asia. She also manages the blog “What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies? (Shinpai Deshou),” a rich resource guide for leveraging one’s undergraduate training in the field.

Dr. Curtis’s experience with digital humanities in Japanese Studies provides an important counterbalance at a moment when all of us have been forced to become more technologically dependent inside and outside of the classroom. On the one hand, the pandemic has demanded creative solutions to what appeared, at the start of 2020, to be basic pedagogical impossibilities (e.g. how to deliver a course lecture over Zoom, or how to rethink traditional assignment formats), and videotelophony platforms have met these demands with general success. On the other hand, it has also renewed interests in technologically innovative pedagogy (e.g. utilizing new virtual “tours” of spaces across the world, or crowdsourcing data for digital mapping projects). While these two levels of technological integration are distinct, they do share in the fact that digital tools—from Zoom to text-mining software––have a greater presence in academic contexts than ever before. The pandemic has not simply created digital humanists out of all of us in the traditional sense, but it has indeed revealed previously unseen possibilities for “digital pedagogy,” some (not all) of which may categorically align with the field of digital humanities. As a digital humanist, Dr. Curtis takes great care to recognize the range with which scholars and teachers identify with technology in their teaching:

Both “teaching with technology” and “digital pedagogy” have intersections with what we might consider the “digital humanities,” but it’s unproductive to quibble over where those boundaries begin and end. DH can be defined a myriad of ways (just look at whatisdigitalhumanities.com!) and what it is, or can be, is in part a function of how you choose to use it. Personally, when I talk about digital humanities I am interested in DH as a method for approaching humanistic research questions using digital tools and techniques. But this might look very different for someone with another goal or focus.

A job ad might ask an instructor to be familiar with “teaching with technology.” This does not necessarily mean that they want them to be proficient in network analysis or text mining, which are frequently associated with DH methods, but rather virtual instruction and technology-based assessment. Yet, it would not be incorrect to say that one is teaching with technology or deploying DH methods if the goal of your course is, say, using ArcGIS or StoryMaps to develop digital storytelling as a pedagogical exercise. As much as we like to cling to the idea that we can fit this or that into categorical boxes and claim expertise, one of the benefits of digital work is that it can be porous, opening up new possibilities for exploration, research, and teaching. What labels do what work for you might change depending on the context.

While this porous quality of digital work may offer many new approaches to teaching, it may also give the false sense that “one size fits all” when it comes to deploying digital tools in the classroom. There is, after all, an excitement and eagerness that comes along with discovering a new digital tool or platform, and while it may serve the professor in narrow pedagogical contexts, there is also sometimes the tendency for widespread use for the sake of maintaining a continually innovative classroom. For this reason, recognizing the proper context in which digital tools may be most useful is just as important as understanding how to use the tools themselves. Of course, this rings true even for analog pedagogical methodologies; exercises in close readings and textual analyses, for example, provide distinct benefits depending on the learning outcomes intended for the students and the materials at hand, and it ought to be exercised judiciously as those outcomes and materials change. For professors new to digital tools and who have committed to their curricular integration, even at a small scale, this same judiciousness applies here. Dr. Curtis sees these principles as an important part of effective teaching with digital tools:

As with any pedagogical practice, digital methods need to be deployed with intention. What skills or approaches do you want students to develop and learn from your exercise? Without clear goals in mind for any exercise, it’s bound to fail. And I think here we need to be careful to make a distinction between “digital literacy” and “digital humanities literacy.” The former is broader and can encompass anything from evaluating online resources to learning how to navigate a teaching platform like Canvas or Moodle. In contrast, if it is a question of digital humanities literacy, for my classroom, at least, it has more to do with interpretive and research skills.

This is a crucial distinction to keep in mind, especially since “digital literacy” very often develops alongside “digital humanities literacy.” Students are more tech-savvy today than they ever have been, but this is only one part of the puzzle. While they may be more intuitively able to navigate a user interface, run basic searches, and gather data, that maneuverability leads nowhere if students are unable to effectively interpret the data they gather. Dr. Curtis keenly recognizes this imperative to simultaneously cultivate a “digital literacy” and a “digital humanities literacy,” and one example from her curriculum makes this clear:

In my course on text and textuality in pre-1600 Japan, I like to do a demonstration with Voyant, an out-of-the-box text analysis tool. I’ve created several corpora for the Goseibai Shikimoku 御成敗式目, a thirteenth-century law code–one is the original, in all Chinese characters; one is the yomikudashi, or the reading of those Chinese characters into a premodern Japanese orthography; one is a modern Japanese translation; and one is an English translation. Each law article is its own text file.

After a brief introduction to text analysis and some of its research possibilities, I provide students with two or more of these datasets and ask them to play around with them in Voyant, looking at word frequency, concordance, article length, and more. Even after a short time they can see that in one version there are issues with word division, while in another, keywords that would seem to have some kind of statistical significance in one corpus might seem negligible in another. They aren’t by any means text analysis gurus by the end of class, but this kind of exploration of how the different corpora reveal very different emphases guides students to understand the transformative nature of translation,  how it can affect research outcomes, and how digital infrastructures, reliant on what we feed them, can aid our thought process as much as mislead it. These are lessons they can take into close readings of primary and secondary sources, even if they then choose analog routes of analysis.

Voyant interface with the Goseibai Shikimoku, manually segmented, with stop words.

One aspect of effective teaching through digital tools, therefore, is the simple recognition that the core skills that professors are seeking to cultivate—the interpretation, analysis, and synthesis of information—remain unchanged. Likewise, the beauty of platforms like Voyant is that they offer inroads to analysis that are inherently familiar to the current generation of users. Users can produce word clouds using the Cirrus tool and linear graphs using the Trends tools, and can also gather data using standard search techniques like truncation. This means that even if students in Dr. Curtis’s classes have no experience with Voyant, her demonstrations play to already-familiar mechanisms and methods of data gathering and visualization. Students therefore begin their work by leaning on pre-existing experiences with technology and end it having built upon those skills in at least two ways: they sharpen their “digital literacy” and cultivate new skills in “digital humanities literacy.” In a world where technology saturates the lives of students both inside and outside of the university, careful attention to the expertise that students bring into the classroom, the learning goals of the class or assignment, and the transferability of skills fostered in digitally rich classrooms can yield great benefits for both the student and professor that need not be confined to digital spaces.


Collection of word clouds of each Goseibai Shikimoku corpus, with and without stop words added.

Of course, part and parcel of integrated technologies in the classroom is the potential for collaboration among teachers across the world. In the case of premodern Japanese Studies, especially, new avenues for text- and image-based analysis have become possible through efforts to digitize, organize, and make accessible otherwise rare and archival materials. This is especially promising for colleges that do not have access to rare collections on campus, or that lack the necessary resources and support for hosting workshops with local or national specialists. As a specialist who continually collaborates across international divisions, Dr. Curtis recognizes the future promise of this shift toward more transnational and inclusive modes of instruction through technology:

One area where I can see the “digital shift” encouraging many more collaborative opportunities in Japan Studies is through the application of technologies like IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework). With the ability to share high-quality digitized surrogates of rare and valuable texts and images with users around the world and ever-evolving crowd-sourcing platforms, it has become easier to incorporate archival materials into the classroom. Though I have not yet had the opportunity to do this myself, we have already seen it at work in collaborations like the Early Modern Japanese Palaeography workshops hosted at Cambridge. Yuta Hashimoto, who developed the crowdsourcing transcription platform Minna de Honkoku*, and Laura Moretti (University Associate Professor in Pre-Modern Japanese Studies) have been using these technologies to train students in calligraphic transcription and translation of early modern woodblock printed manuscripts. With more and more Japanese scholars and academic institutions embracing workshops and exchanges over Zoom, it’s not difficult to imagine the impact this could have on transregional collaborations, with different groups of students and educators oceans apart collaborating on the study of the same materials. 

If recent years are any testament to the importance of transnational collaboration, it seems very clear that more large-scale, generative projects that both draw from and serve the community of scholars in Japanese Studies will be on the horizon. Today’s classrooms are globally networked, and taking advantage of the expertise within a vast network of specialists can help to collectively advance the field of Japanese Studies researchers and teachers. And while the last two years of the pandemic may have dictated an overwhelming presence of technology in our classrooms at the logistical level, the type of measured approach advocated by Dr. Curtis’s models of digital pedagogy, which carefully consider the goals, orientations, and transferable skill sets of students, is important to bear in mind as the category of “digital humanities” remains fluid.

The divisions between “digital literacy” and “digital humanities literacy” may have become a bit blurrier given the radical transformation of our relationship to technology in recent years, and yet it is important to remind ourselves of the distinction as we slowly return to the in-person classroom. As more scholars join the ranks of digital humanists in Japanese Studies and become eager to deploy digital tools in innovative ways, the core pedagogical principles that guide learning outcomes remain the same; professors seek to foster interpretive and analytical skills, and the use of digital tools are only one among a range of possible approaches. In this way, Dr. Curtis’s encouragement to deploy these tools with intention is one way to ensure that classroom technology remains a means rather than an end.

Keep an eye on this outlet for highlights of future projects by Dr. Paula Curtis focused on digital pedagogy. For more information on her work as a scholar and digital humanist in the classroom, please visit her website. Please also read her excellent contribution (with co-contributors Hoyt Long, Molly Des Jardin, and Mark Ravina) on the collaborative potential with Digital Humanities Japan.

*For more on Minna de Honkoku, please see this interview conducted by Digital Orientalist managing editor for Northeast Asian Studies James Harry Morris.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s