Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom: A Practical Introduction for Teachers, Lecturers, and Students

Sample Student Work

Virginia Woolf and DH

In Spring 2016, Shawna taught a class on Virginia Woolf. When she casually mentioned her research on the digital humanities, the students became very interested and wanted to incorporate some DH assignments into the course. She obliged and gave students the power to shape any Woolf-related project that used some kind of digital platform or communication tool. This openness meant that she had to do a lot of out-of-class work helping each student or group of students use their platform of choice, but it also luckily means that she can share a wide variety of work with you. She, of course, obtained their express permission to use their work and reproduce their names, using this formalized permissions form to emphasize how, precisely, they were allowing her to use their work.

Facebook and Emojis


One group, which included students Megan Dunn, Cody Lyon, Callie Wilhite, and Cassi Urbanowski, created a packet of downloadable Woolf emojis through the platform Telegram. (Those links require you to have the app loaded to your phone; to view the emojis without doing so, here are screenshots of their first set, their second set, and their third set of emojis.) These emojis represent multiple Woolf novels, including references to Mrs. Dalloway, The Voyage Out, Orlando, and To the Lighthouse. They also reference imagery that she uses throughout her career, including snails and flowers. This emoticon set represents their desire to integrate references to Virginia Woolf into their everyday practices of texting and other digital forms of communication.

This group also staged many interactions on Facebook; in this case, their ambition to do so many different projects made it difficult for them to produce something that they wanted to share with the readers of Digital Humanities in the Classroom, but their insights into social media and its relationship to Woolf's view on life were still quite enlightening. As Cody makes the case for why Facebook would be a good medium for novel writing, he also considers its drawbacks: "However, would details and imagery be lost without Woolf’s exposition, or what might happen if a character shared negative thoughts about another character? For example, if Facebook was created in Woolf’s time, should Lily Briscoe during the dinner scene in To The Lighthouse share her thoughts about Charles Tansley to the world?" And musing on the complexity of trying to reproduce the complex relations of a Woolf novel into Facebook, Cassi recalls, "I assumed this process would be an easy alternative [to a research essay], but it actually took a lot of time. These characters showed me reflection of Virginia Woolf and the people around her in life that help shape her into the person that she was. Whether these characters were a direct reflection of her, the people around her, or the person she continued to aspire to be, they were anything but simple.”

Tumblr Exhibitions
Emily Boyd used the blogging platform Tumblr to create the Oak Tree Exhibition, which features four original artworks made by the student, which she curated by adding them onto a new Tumblr and writing a lengthy paragraph that accompanies each piece of artwork. Her descriptions, which are written using scholarly citation practices, explain how the artwork was inspired by particular scenes in Woolf's Orlando. Likening her exhibition to Thomas Cole's series of paintings, The Voyage of Life, Boyd explains, "Orlando can similarly be seen as such an art piece, an exhibition of life on canvas. Orlando’s life in these pages can be taken and adapted on canvas into the impressions of moments, the general feelings of his/her experiences." Though she restricts herself to four pieces (for the sake of time and space!), she imagines that, ideally, she would fill "a gallery...full to bursting," creating "a single exhibition to fill the whole space depicting Orlando’s growing older, his life reaching farther, spreading like the branches of a great tree."

Another student, Miguel Lopez, also used Tumblr to blend visual art and scholarship about Virginia Woolf. This one, titled PokéWoolf, arranges sets of Pokémon characters that are picked for particular characters in Mrs. Dalloway. Miguel describes it as a "mashup" because it indeed remixes multiple, discrete cultural phenomenons into one new, single creative production. Summarizing the project, he writes, "Each character will have seven different blog posts each representing a Pokémon and a composite image of the specific character and their respective team. In those blog posts, I will rely on quotes from the novel, that describe the characters either being things they’ve said or other have said about them. These quotes backing the reasoning on choosing each respective Pokemon that are assigned to the make the information more visible.”

Although Emily worked primarily by hand to create her artwork (which she then imaged and uploaded), Miguel made liberal use of born-digital images and Photoshop. Both students, however, equally strive to combine scholarly and artistic modes of interpretation, and their work beautifully bridges everyday practices of digital culture with scholarship.


Like Miguel, Abigail Hanson was struck by Mrs. Dalloway and wanted to merge it with her personal tastes, her digital social communities, and her favorite media platforms. As an enthusiastic user of Instagram, she knew immediately that she wanted to find out what Clarissa Dalloway's Instagram account might have looked like. Musing about the likelihood that characters such as Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsay would use social media, Abigail explains, "
Social media extends a person’s public life into their personal, as it’s no longer necessary to physically be around people to face their opinions and influence. I have no doubt that both these character would be avid users of social media were it around at the time; however, it would also increase their problems with forming an identity for themselves outside of their public lives as wives and hostesses.” As a future secondary-school teacher, Abigail chose high schoolers and adolescents as her audience for this Instagram feed. Choosing evocative, lovely images, Abigail pairs each one with a quote from the novel, then provides a paragraph of plot summary and character analysis. This project therefore serves as a way to reimagine the online study aids that students typically turn to. Why turn to SparkNotes, Abigail pointed out, if you have something much more attractive?

Twitter and Storify

One group, consisting of Darienne Dickey, Kelcy Klein, Jordan Cooley, and Travis Howell, staged a Twitter event based on Woolf's Between the Acts. This event replicated both the characters' exterior actions and interior thoughts. As Travis notes, “We choose this book because we are interested in the interactions and commentary among the audience during the book’s plot and we want to explore what it would be like to adapt that commentary into a 21st century setting. After all, if this play took place in the present day there is a good chance that the audience would resort to social media to communicate about the play." 

After tweeting as characters from the play, they curated that Twitter event by posting in on Storify. Darienne then created a tutorial for Storify so that future students could easily make their Twitter events easier to share by placing them onto Storify. This group's effort shows how to combine multiple platforms to enjoy the immediacy of Twitter without sacrificing the stability of other platforms, and their attention to pedagogy (to teaching other students how to do this) is particularly exciting. The students, of course, found other elements of the project exciting. As Darienne wrote, "Because Between the Acts is sort of fragmented between different characters/scenes, live tweeting as certain characters really helped my group get more immersed into the story and thoughts of the characters (we probably had way too much fun creating the accounts and tweeting from their point of view). I was really able to separate the individual characters from the main storyline and get a better view of THEIR life stories, which I think is what one of Woolf’s main points is – the story of the individual contributes just as much to history as the stories of more prominent individuals and events."

Margaret Doyle created this interactive, annotated image on the Ideamache platform. This image annotation and creation platform is meant to be similar to pinboards (like Pinterest) but includes interactive elements that are similar to the animations and navigation norms of animated slideshows (like Prezi). Margaret used this platform to create an interactive, attractive timeline that shows three types of data: historical (what was going on in the world), biographical (what was going on in Woolf's life), and literary (which important literary works were being published). Also a pedagogical effort, like that of Twitter group above, Margaret's Ideamache represented an effort to teach her peers. Because she chose an unusual platform, she decided to learn about its particular risks, admitting, "I will need to comb through several sources to make sure the text and pictures I pull will not become invalid over time – this is because the medium I’m dealing with (Ideamache) uses hypertext for the sources, and if the source is changed then the information will disappear. This is a major concern if there is any hope that others will be able to view the Ideamache in the future. However, this problem is easily solved if I were to outsource the information – particularly pictures – onto my own server and manually input the hypertext data.”


About halfway through the semester, Shawna asked students to complete a survey. This survey asked students to explain how they studied for the course and how they developed coping strategies for reading difficult texts, as well as asking them what their most and least favorite texts were and which strategies Shawna had been using were most and least helpful for them. Megan, Cody, Callie, and Cassi (in addition to the emojis), summarized these survey results into a PointPoint presentation that was made to look like an infographic. The group also used GroupMe to ask students additional questions. One student, Callie applied what she learned from the survey when we discussed the initial reception of Woolf's works: “The survey helped me realize that it is tough when you have critics that expect things from you. In the survey, people’s responses were anonymous, so they could give their full interpretation of Woolf and her works. Woolf did not have that luxury when she was alive and actively writing. Her critics were very well known and made sure to let Virginia know exactly what they thought of her, and they could be especially awful to her because of who her father was and because she was a woman.”

Another student, Sarah Vickers, also created an infographic, using actual infographic software (try Canva if you are interested in trying your hand). Her infographic, "Reading Mrs. Dalloway: A Guide," is designed in a blue-and-white scheme to soothe and comfort readers who may feel anxious about reading experimental, stream-of-consciousness texts.

Sarah explains her rationale for this soothing design thusly: "I am leaning more towards the whimsical, and hand drawn approach. The pictures [used in other infographics] feel too industrialized and do not give me a complete feel of what Mrs. Dalloway represents.... Mrs. Dalloway represents a deep insight into the human mind and the destruction created by personal and government waged war [so] I want to convey how this novel was an entirely important piece of literature. But, somehow make it approachable and fun to analyze for future readers.” Unlike the group infographic mentioned above, whose purpose was to help the class and the instructor evaluate how well the course was proceeding (and what we might do to improve it), this infographic has the more focused purpose of preparing any person reading Mrs. Dalloway for the first time.


Online Visual Art

A few students preferred to create visual art that was web-enabled in very different ways. Jordan Brown painted a lovely portrait of Virginia Woolf, based on the popular photograph by George Charles Beresford that is quite popular on online image boards and blogs. She then surrounded the portrait with digital genres of writing, such as listicles and word clouds, which she created (but did not wish to be shared online, unlike the portrait, which she did want to share). In this mixed-media project, Jordan not only combined visual and verbal forms, but also mixed personal information about herself and historical information about Woolf, creating a highly personal form of mixed-media scholarship.

Harlee Lanier, an art student who knows how to produce web comics, wanted to sketch out possibilities for making a web comic based on Between the Acts. Rather than portray the events in the novel, Harlee imagines that the novel's playwright, Miss LaTrobe, is having a conversation with Woolf herself after the play has ended. In this character study, Harlee adapts the verbal descriptions of Miss LaTrobe and refashions Woolf as a foil for her. In this sample storyboard, Harlee depicts Miss LaTrobe's depressed spirits after the play and suggests that Woolf's conversation will pick up her spirits. As they discuss modernist aesthetics, Harlee uses shape, line, and shading to suggest the mood the permeates the end of Woolf's novel and to grapple with scholarship that connects Woolf's suicide to Miss LaTrobe's resigned attitude.


Fan Fiction

Haley Glover and Mary Sonnier, who were more interested in a text-based project instead of a highly visual project, wrote a six-chapter piece of fan fiction, "The Voyage Onward." Based on Woolf's first novel, The Voyage Out, Haley and Mary have invented two new characters, who are based on their knowledge of Woolf's life, the life of her sister (Vanessa Bell), and of Woolf's other works of fiction. The chapters alternate points of view between the two characters, allowing Haley and Mary to write collectively but remotely; like many writers of fan fiction (and many online collaborators in general!), they wrote the story using a "tag team" system. Many "in jokes" and allusions particular to Woolf abound, revealing what they learned during the semester in an unobtrusive way. Haley recalls, "There are many small themes in our story that point to Woolf’s life; her struggle against depression, the illness typhoid and how it affected her brother, her childhood summers at the lighthouse, and, of course, her first name Adeline. Not only are we trying to implement all of our cumulated knowledge gained through the class about Woolf, but we want the story to be enjoyable and interesting. It has fan fiction elements..., but mostly, it is an analysis and expedition of Woolf’s own history.”



Contemporary Fiction 

Claire taught two contemporary fiction classes in 2012 and 2013, both of which had course websites associated with them. They were built using Wix and can still be accessed (including a gallery of student projects for each course) here and here

Pedagogical Case Study: One Student's Portfolio

Over Spring 2017, Shawna's student Philip John Hathaway "test drove" the sample assignment sheets and activity sets featured in this Web Companion. His reactions to the assignment, and the details given about his experiences in completing the assignment, are featured here to provide an insight into students' reactions to the kinds of digital work we ask them to accomplish. Where possible, we have also uploaded his resulting assignments, which you are free to share with your students as an example of the possible work they might produce. These sample works were produced during the course of a normal semester, with its usual array of difficulties and hazards, and we have in many cases uploaded first drafts rather than the student's final revisions. As a result, we suggest showing these to your students along with the sample rubrics so that you can have "grade" these samples as a class activity.

Mediated Textualities Assignment 

While completing his mediated textualities assignment, Philip John visited the Texas A&M Special Collections at Cushing Library to view the first edition of The Hobbit, then compared different digital and print editions of it. As he completed it, he asked for a longer amount of time for completion after being shown the assignment sheet; with the visitation of the archive, he requested two full weeks for drafting the assignment. The student also suggested that a teacher might allow students to use poems or short stories as the basis of this project in case there was not enough time in the course to devote a three-week unit to the project. Shawna also found out that some students may prefer to complete the projects on audiobooks, film, or other visual media, so if you are adapting this assignment, you may want to decide in advance these questions about assignment length and the appropriateness of selecting non-books for analysis. As Shawna and the student discussed his work, they were able to have productive scholarly questions about authorial intention, about ideological assumptions regarding authenticity, and about the institutionalization of books (who is allowed to view a library's special collections?)

Archive Review Assignment

As Philip John completed his archive review assignment, Shawna also realized that she had to explain how to find, use, and cite digital images responsibly, as well as the difference between adaptation (e.g., a theatrical performance of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) and edition (a first edition versus a mass market paperback of Frankenstein). The student also asked for further clarification about the difference between the material and semiotic analysis of certain texts, on the one hand, and, on the other, the type of consumer-based reviews (such as a movie review on Rotten Tomatoes). These questions led to a productive conversation about how to analyze how a film, book, or other media object without thinking in terms of quality ("bad" or "good") or fandom (what the student personally likes); the student was encouraged to think not in terms of what was "bad" or "good" about how a text is being mediated, but rather in terms of cause and effect (why might this book look a certain way?)

Timeline Assignment

Philip John completed a Sutori timeline on H. P. Lovecraft and reported that it was easy to use. As he completed the assignment, Shawna realized the importance of stressing to the students that they should identify a thesis or purpose for their timeline. The word "timeline" often makes students think of the "A to Z," "alpha to omega" ideal of timeline that they encounter in history textbooks. Unless you ask groups of students (or an entire class) to collaborate on a single timeline, stress that the students don’t do everything, but instead be strategic, being very conscious of what goes in and what stays out. John Philip used his subtitle ("From Writer to Legacy") to help provide focus for his timeline.

As Philip John completed his timeline, interesting questions about the political contexts of his subject (Lovecraft) emerged. What would he say about Lovecraft’s racial politics? The student was aware of Lovecraft's racial anxieties—of the bigotry in Lovecraft's letters and stories, of how Lovecraft acknowledged (and sometimes criticized) his own racial prejudices yet continued to express them—and did not want to erase these problematic aspects of his life and writing. Yet, at the same time, he wondered how he could make a coherent timeline that dealt with his literary legacy and his racial politics at the same time. He and Shawna discussed how problematic it was to perceive the topic of racism as a "distraction" from the "main" argument and strategized how to create a timeline that did not ignore the issue.

ScannerPro (Digitizing a Text Assignment)

Shawna's student enjoyed using the ScannerPro app but acknowledged that he would have enjoyed the process more if he had been asked to pursue a specific research question. In this Web Companion, we have focused on creating a ScannerPro tutorial that explains how the technology works to your students, so if you decide to use this activity in your class, you will likely want to combine it with a longer project or activity, so that the students are adequately motivated to go through the imaging and OCR process. Alternately, the student suggested to fashion a quiz to see if they have sufficiently gone through the text, as you might assign any reading quiz. If you want to students to learn the technological process (e.g., this assignment is more about technology than it is about the text being digitized), you might actually ask the students to image and OCR the text as a mode of reading in and of itself. Another use that he found for ScannerPro that enhanced the usefulness of the activity was converting texts he was reading for other classes (in his case, Romeo and Juliet) into iBook form. This gave the student a heightened sense of control over the textbooks he uses in his other classes, and he now uses the program as a convenient way to access course texts in forms that are more suited to his preferred modes of reading and studying.

As Shawna's student completed the ScannerPro assignment, he noted that he was bothered by the curve of the page (he wanted to "correct" it even though the resultant OCR was sufficiently accurate) and frustrated by the need to correct the "dirty" OCR that resulted. Asking him to work in a team of two students would have presented the former problem (if your students are also inclined to perfectionism!). Regarding the latter problem, Shawna asked him what he was learning about the text as he corrected the OCR. He answered that he recognized a new motif that he had never perceived before (Lovecraft’s use of stars, water, dreams traced over many different stories and settings), despite having read the OCRd text multiple times before. Thinking about the issue of dirty OCR over the next few days, he realized that the  errors in the OCR seemed to invoke Cthulhu’s own appetite for destruction and for distortion, and he was inspired to write an analytical essay about what Lovecraft's most famous character can tell us about digital textuality. Shawna had never considered asking the students to draw thematic parallels between the content of the texts and the digitization process and is now forming a new assignment that will ask students to consider just such parallels.

VideoAnt (Annotated Video Project)

In the Web Companion, we have chosen VideoAnt as a platform because of its ease of use; it use an intuitive interface, and it uses clips from YouTube, with which our students are likely familiar. Shawna's student reported that he would be willing to use a more difficult tool if it allowed the user to annotate directly on the actual image. As you choose a platform for your video assignment, you will want to size up your particular student body (perhaps using the beginning-of-class survey we recommend in the book!) to discover if your students believe that a steeper learning curve would be worth the results. The other remaining shortcoming of VideoAnt is the difficulty of sharing results with the public; to view a video, one must be a user with a (free) account, and the creator of the video must share the video with the user who wishes to view it. This is why we cannot share a link to our student's sample video, which annotated a parodic music video about an important historical event. Like the clip itself, the student took a humorous approach to explaining the historical allusions and slang terms that the viewer would need to know in order to understand the video clip that was being annotated.

The student reported that the single longest task he completed the annotation project was simply the time he spent choosing the video. Warning the students that selection may take longer than they expect will help them to manage their time; alternatively, you could draft a list of video clips (or topics that the video clip should cover) for students to choose from. He also advises that students very carefully choose the times in the video clips during which the annotation will be visible in order to avoid "spoilers" and to ensure that the annotation does not flash on the screen when the frames related to the topic have passed on long ago. He found himself caught between two approaches—to use many short (in terms of word length) annotations or to use very few (but longer) annotations—and decided that he had better results with the second options. Fewer annotations that stay on the screen for a longer time allow the reader the best chance of keeping up.

Other issues you may want to explain when assigning this activity is to decide whether students should choose a video about which they already know quite a bit (so that the annotation assignment is focused on the student's expertise in annotation and video editing) or one that they do not know (making the assignment essentially a fun way to ask students to complete new research or to demonstrate that they have learned some concept or subject that you are teaching them in your class). If you will ask students to complete outside research specifically for this assignment, make sure to specify how much research you expect and explain how much of their grade will be focused on the depth and quality of the research, as opposed to the creation of the annotated video clip.

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