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An introductory Humanities Computing course

General objectives

The general objective of this course will be to provide Humanities students with both an introductory "computer literacy" and an awareness of critical issues in the use of computers, at a level appropriate for granting credit at the first year.

The course will consist of four or more self-contained modules aimed at introducing different research methods and strategies, and the computing tools appropriate to them. The modules will be largely self-directed, and will be completed in the student's own time; students will have a degree of choice, since they need only complete three of the four modules. Each module will be structured on two levels: at the practical level there will be a series of exercises to ensure that students have full understanding of the capabilities of the computer tools they use, from word processing to the use of spreadsheets and graphing programs; at a theoretical level, students will be introduced to discussions that raise questions about the effect of computers in discourse, in our organization of knowledge, and in our wider perception of the world--as, for example, the metaphor of the computer processor has largely superseded earlier conceptual models of the brain. Computer-based resources lend themselves well to problem-based learning methods, and in the process they also raise important questions of ethics. Thus the course is an introduction to the new electronic medium as well as to computer skills.

None of the modules will be designed to provide students with specific programming skills; although the module on the Internet will introduce students to the concepts of HTML, they will be able to work on their own Web page without having to acquire a detailed knowledge of the code that is actually produced.

Most current courses in the discipline of Humanities Computing are at a higher level than the course proposed here, and assume basic skill and understanding of the electronic medium. Brigham Young University is an exception, as it offers a single introductory survey course in Humanities Computing covering much of the same ground as the course I am proposing. At Brigham Young, many Humanities strongly recommend the course for its students. There are higher-level introductory courses for selected students at institutions like Glasgow and King's College, London. None of these courses is taught in the way this proposal suggests.

Overall rationale

It is a truth generally acknowledged that a student in search of a job in the information age will be in need of a sound knowledge of the new electronic medium and the tools it offers. So the University of Victoria Information Technology plan proclaims, at any rate. In the near future, the Faculty of Humanities will address the means of equipping our students with what is often called "computer literacy"--though ideally the literacy would be more a critical understanding of the medium rather than simply the machine. I have already suggested that there are two possible approaches: students can be acquainted with the medium through what is termed an "integrated" approach, where they absorb skills through courses throughout the Faculty; or they can be provided with some kind of course that is specifically designed for those with an interest in Humanities disciplines, and which deals specifically with the business of acquiring skills and familiarity with the electronic medium.

The "Integrated approach"

The "integrated" approach is unquestionably an attractive one. While they are learning to write, or to think about History, or to speak another language, students will, by a kind of osmosis, learn to use computers. The best kind of teaching is by example, and it is by example that the integrated approach seeks to inform students about the use of technology. It's also attractive administratively, since no-one will have to test the students, and no-one will have to be hired to teach them. The UVic IT plan urges all faculties to "Integrate information technology into all programs by establishing information technology competency goals for graduates in every discipline and profession." This approach bears a striking resemblance to the high ideals espoused in the various attempts to introduce programs in "Writing Across the Curriculum" (WAC), where skill in writing would be inculcated by discipline area rather than by a dedicated course or courses in writing. The experience of those who have attempted to introduce WAC, however, is a warning sign to those who would introduce electronic literacy in a similar way: in general it doesn't work. To be sure, there have been successes, in small schools, usually liberal-arts, where there has been a high degree of commitment, and a suitably charismatic program director; but the overall experiment has shown decisively that instructors in disciplines other than English are unwilling to penalize students for their writing when it is inadequate, and are unwilling to spend the time needed to correct essays or other forms of writing that are deficient. A recent survey of Universities in the US that claim to offer WAC shows that most programs have dwindled to some kind of Writing and Resource Centre, to which students can be referred; a check of a list at Richmond University of "model WAC programs throughout the country" resulted in a surprising number of "404 file not found" responses to the links, suggesting that many have dwindled to even less. There is a limit to the amount students will choose to absorb skills by osmosis, and the institutional will to sustain a program of this kind is as unstable as the URLs of the programs' home pages.

To be sure, the current proposal at the University of Victoria for an integrated approach provides some checks on the competencies, and its aims--as in WAC--are admirable. In some disciplines, notably in the sciences and social sciences, integration will build on courses that already require significant understanding of computer-aided research. In the Humanities, however, there are at best a very limited number of courses that can effectively integrate computer interaction; those that do so are primarily in those disciplines within the Humanities that use the research approach of the Social Sciences, and are therefore unlikely to be chosen by the majority of Humanities students. A good example is English 135, a course which could certainly involve some introduction to advanced word processing and presentation softare; English 135, however, is specifically designed for the student who does not need to take English 115, but who is not interested in literature. Thus its constituency will not include many students in the Humanities.

The IT plan also suggests that it will be possible to "Increase information technology expertise through faculty renewal"; but it is inevitable that the time-delay while we wait for faculty renewal to provide us with expertise will be considerable, given the current realities of the paucity of new positions, and the fact that many current candidates for positions in the faculty will not necessarily be IT-savvy. Many current faculty will require retraining if the integrated approach is to move to other courses (English 115, for example), and the end result of this kind of training may be less than wholly effective in a world where the technology is still changing. Even assuming that it will be effective, the integrated approach will not provide concrete results for some time. Even when it is in place, I would argue that the best approach is one that provides both the benefits of a dedicated introductory course and the reinforcement of skills thus acquired through the integrated approach.

Drivers' licences

Introductory courses designed to provide students with specific skills have been described as providing the equivalent of "drivers' licenses." The analogy suggests that a course of this kind provides purely mechanical skills, and I think it not unfair to suggest that the clear implication is that the level of instruction is not appropriate to the domain of a university education. This implied criticism, however, is well worth examining. Let me take an example from our own English Department. As a part of all our first year courses (and over 90% of first year students take at least one course in first year English at the University of Victoria) there is a mandatory, pass/fail Library Test. It's a well-constructed, web-based test in which students complete a number of tasks and fill in appropriate forms that record the results of their searches. When they complete the test successfully, their instructors are so informed by email. Such a test might indeed be described as a "driver's license" for the use of the Library, its collections, and catalogues, though the possibility of those who do not pass it accidentally knocking over bookshelves in the stacks, or causing a crash in the Library server seems remote.

More to the point is the fact that one of the courses in which the test is imbedded is also designed specifically to provide its students with a skill: English 115, College Composition. Like many such courses, there is no requirement in the syllabus that any specific content be covered: during and at the end of the course, students must simply satisfy their instructors that they have acquired a sufficient level of skill in writing. The course is given normal credit, so it is clearly accepted as appropriate for University instruction. The principal difference between English 115 and the Library test is that the course requires students to develop arguments and to provide evidence of critical thinking as part of the process of learning to write. The Humanities Computing course as I envision it will in a similar way go significantly beyond the teaching of simple skills: it will challenge students to think about the effect of the technology on their own work and on the society of which they are a part. It will encourage critical thinking and evaluation of the technology as it teaches skills to use it. At the same time, the course itself is taught principally by computer-mediated methods, a fact which will in itself contribute to learning about--and questioning--the medium.

Course evaluation

One question that will inevitably be raised about the kind of course I propose concerns the question of evaluation, and the often-criticized use of multiple-choice, machine-marked questionnaires. Humanities disciplines are wary of this kind of testing, a caution that is both understandable and laudable. [Note 1] In the present proposal, however, there are a number of methods of evaluation that ensure that the student is not simply judged by even a smart and well-programmed machine.

  1. The machine-marked questionnaires will be designed principally to test a student's knowledge of factual matters related to specific goals in learning about relevant computer applications and the assigned readings.
  2. Where a project is a technical one and the content is immaterial (creation of a sample database, for example), it will be evaluated by lab staff.
  3. Where a project goes beyond the technical (a written project or essay in the word processing module for example), it will be evaluated by a trained graduate student.


Each module will involve all three kinds of evaluation, and in each case the evaluation will be made with clearly established criteria for both students and evaluators.


Note 1. Despite our skepticism concerning multiple-choice questionnaires, we should be aware that in some of the introductory Social Science courses, exams are conducted wholly through multiple choices. [Back]

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