Using the Digital Humanities in Indigenous Studies Classrooms

In an interview with Liza Yeager, Anishinaabe comedian, writer, and media maker, Ryan McMahon talks about why he thinks podcasting is specifically useful medium for Indigenous storytellers: “I just think the medium is so exciting. It’s relatively inexpensive to produce; it’s a flexible creative medium that allows us to be publishers, you know? At the end of the day, legacy media does not belong to Indigenous people or people of color. We don’t own these places.” Podcasting is just one form in which Indigenous media makers are claiming space and pushing back against legacy media. Interactive websites, blogs, digital exhibitions, and virtual reality installations are all currently being mobilized in unique and exciting ways by Indigenous storytellers. The Digital Humanities courses I teach, are designed to provide students with the skills and confidence to share stories and ideas from and with Indigenous communities in digital forums and to address the specific needs and realities of those communities in engaging digital technologies.

These courses provide students with hands on training in the Digital Humanities (DH) and new media technologies, including social media, digital exhibition, podcasting, digital storytelling, sound editing, and video game development. At stake in all of the work undertaken in these classes are the impacts (both positive and negative) that new media has on decolonization, Indigenous resurgence and community-based research. Students receive basic training in the use of new (and old) media hardware and software, learn from experts in the field, and produce digital work with and for community. The goal throughout all of these courses is not only to thoughtfully consider the practices that support and amplify community voices, but to nurture development DH and new media processes that are attentive to cultural and socio-political contexts.

See the Novel Alliance New Media reading list here

If you’re looking for literature assignments, check out our world-building activity

Learning Objectives

In all of my DH classes, I emphasize digital literacy through the use and development of a variety of DH/media tools. Through hands-on practice, I aim to give students experience in what Garnet Hertz calls “critical making.” Critical making rejects the banal assumption that technology is, at base, about efficiency. Design today, Hertz argues, “is concerned with commercial and marketing activities, but it could operate on a more intellectual level, bringing philosophical issues into an everyday context in a novel yet accessible way.” I substitute “philosophical issues” with teaching from critical Indigenous studies and critical race theory. To that end students…

  • Learn the basic vocabularies and tools in the Digital Humanities and Indigenous new media, including podcasting, digital exhibition, and GIS, as well as creative commons and traditional knowledge licenses.
  • Think critically about the inherited colonial legacies that Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) operate out of (via Duarte’s Network Sovereignty)
  • Become familiar with important projects and resources in digital humanities and Indigenous new media, including resources available online, at our university, and through community.
  • Learn how to thoughtfully disseminate knowledge to public audiences using digital tools, recording equipment, metadata, storytelling, ALONGSIDE key lessons on representation, data sovereignty, and knowledge mobilization from Indigenous studies and the university BREB.
  • Research and critically analyze social media trends
  • Become thoughtful and critical users of the digital humanities
  • Study the spaces in which DH and Indigenous new media overlap and, sometimes more importantly, where they diverge
  • Learn and practice collaborative scholarship (with, if possible, a community partner) and knowledge dissemination
  • Practice DH and new media in Indigenous and community-based contexts

 Recommended Reading

 Other Recommendations

  • CiTR membership($10) Support you community radio station! We work with CiTR to train students in audio production and podcasting (see the PSA and Audio Storytelling assignments below). Partnering with the radio station gives students a chance to work behind a real mixing board. It can also lead to new content and/or shows for the station! Out of our partnership with CiTR, students developed: Recoding Relations, Carving Space, and the Indigenous Radio Collective.

Digital Humanities Assignments

Below are a few of the assignments I use based around specific technologies/media.

1) Twitter Engagement

Yes, I still use Twitter. Twitter is an active site for academic discourse and debate and figures

Drawing by Iona Julian-Walters

prominently in conferences and workshops. Knowing how to use Twitter strategically and responsibly provides students insights into their field(s) of interest and provides unique opportunities to share their work.

Tweets relative to courses like FNIS 401W allow me to gauge student interaction with the material and provide blended support targeted at student needs. Twitter also provides a secondary environment for classroom discourse—where we can continue conversations, expand on ideas, and share resources using the class hashtag.

Tweets relative to class should address projects and key concepts from the course. For instance, students may choose to write on their experience of the Twine workshop (see below). Or they might tweet a response to one of the course readings. The use of photos and images, and memes, as long as they respect copyright, is encouraged (in fact is a great way to start having conversations about creative commons and traditional knowledge licenses). Twitter is about conversation, so I encourage students to engage with  other Twitter users and, students in the class, tag each other, build hashtags, etc. We review Twitter engagement at the beginning of class each week and use it as a jumping off point for conversation about issues such as data sovereignty, surveillance, etc.

Students are ultimately responsible for submitting six tweets at the end of the class. They curate the tweets they best think represent your engagement and submit and email them to me as a single pdf. Threads count as a single tweet.

I grade Twitter engagement based on the following criteria:

  • Do the tweets provide new resources or ideas that add value to class conversations?
  • Are the tweets clear and grammatically correct?
  • Do the tweets include images, links, or ideas that enhance the topic?
  • Do the tweets represent a breadth of engagement across the course?
  • Does the user demonstrate engagement in a community? I.e. do the tweets engage with posts from other students from the class, or from users interested in similar ideas?

I allow students to sign up to Twitter with a pseudonym. They email me their twitter handle so I can keep track of who is who.

2) Hashtag Research

Hashtags are a mechanism through which online material is archived, searched, and disseminated. For this assignment, students are responsible for observing, tracking, and collecting the associated content of one hashtag related to Indigenous studies (e.g. #idlenomore; #NODAPL, #culturalappropriation, etc). After monitoring their hashtag (for at least a week), they write up a short (800-1000 word) analysis of what you’ve learned.

Netlytic Visualization of the hashtag #culturalappropriation

Each students usually studies a different hash tag and uses different methods for their analysis, so these projects will be unique in approach and in outcome. That being said, I encourage them all to follow similar steps in the work:

  1. Select a hashtag. Before they get started, we look at a variety of hashtags on Indigenous issues and unpack them together using close reading and critical thinking. We look at the traffic around a particular tag and what kinds of users are engaging it. I encourage students to look at active hastags. It is possible to do research on a stagnant hashtag, but this assignment is about conversations happening in the moment.
  2. Collect the data: once students have decided on a hashtag, they start monitoring the conversation happening around it using Netlytic, “community-supported text and social networks analyzer that can automatically summarize and visualize public online conversations on social media sites.” Netlytic is “made for researchers by researchers,” and does not require programming or API skills, so it’s a great introduction to data scraping. Monitoring a hashtag with Netlyic means checking in once of twice a day and taking notes/screen shots of the data and noting trends, parallel themes, sentiment, and primary nodes.
  3. Determine the method of analysis: We check in on data collection once a week once the project gets moving. Once students feel that they have a strong archive of data, we work on analysis. My goal here is for students to make evidence-based claims based on the data they have collected. We talk about how its not what they feel about a certain topic; it’s what the evidence proves. Many students struggle with this distinction. To grapple with this, I keep the stakes low. The final paper they turn in does not need to present an argument about the data (which is where students usually run into trouble). Rather, they need to use the data to uncover certain truths. For instance, the majority of tweets using this hashtag come from the users A and B. They are circulated in tweets that mention C. They are retweeted by users that also retweet D. With Netlytic, we also do sentiment analysis using the idea of “toxicity” as a starting point (Netlytic provides a great way to start this here).
  4. Write it up: The deliverable for this assignment is a short report that a) introduces the chosen hashtag; b) describes the methods used for collecting and analyzing your data; c) presents the findings. I encourage them to include screenshots and word clouds and sentiment analysis visualizations (which Netlytic provides) as part of the report.

Learning Outcomes: The goal of this assignment is to engage students with critical discussion around Indigenous issues on social media, introduce them to tools used in “big data” research, and to think critically about those tools, their effectiveness, and their impact.

3) Twine Remediation

For this assignment, students are responsible for remediating Jason Lewis’ poem, “no choice about the terminology”using the interactive storytelling software, Twine.

Twine is a lovely piece of digital storytelling software, which I sometimes go as far as to describe as a mini game “engine.” The mechanics are simple enough: the platform uses hyperlinks, inserted into text via a simple markup syntax, which can handily simulate movement through a complex and intricate world. As a developer, I can write about an encounter with a character named Lucy, for instance, and build an environment around their dialogue. The story that Lucy tells can include multiple hyperlinks to various spaces within in the narrative and game. If Lucy shares a history that involves mountain ranges, forests, and rivers, I can generate links built into that story that whisk the reader away to each of those spaces–which can be created visually (via the CSS and .png files) or by narrative/poetics. If they tell a story, that dances into the intricacies of a stanza of poetry, I can zoom into a single line of even a single word, spatializing the twists and turns of a metaphor. Pushing one step further, I can gamify this experience, asking, for instance, that players collect certain words.

It is at this intersection of game mechanics, virtual space, and poetics that I believe Twine is most effective as a teaching tool. It gives students, many of whom have zero experience with code, an opportunity learn basic programming in a low stakes environment. Twine has it’s own markup syntax, but it also accommodates HTML, CSS, macros and functions, and even some JavaScript. We begin by playing some of my favourite games: The Writer Will Do Something, Howling Dogs, Cat Petting Simulator, and The Uncle that Works for Nintendo.

Teaching Twine and Bitsy over the years, I’ve found that the biggest impediment to students deeply engaging with a game engine is content. Very few students, particularly in a survey course like this, have an idea of a game they want to build. One way to address that is via a robust prototyping process. I like using paper and pencil crayons, but there are a ton of great ways to get students brainstorming before they get to programming. Check out this primer on using prototypes in the classroom by Stan Ruecker, Celso Scaletsky, Guilherme Meyer, Chiara Del Gaudio, Piotr Michura, and Gerry Derksen.

In this class, however, we don’t have time for prototyping. I’m less interested in the content of the games than in students demonstrating a working knowledge of the technology–then we use the

reflection paper (see below) to capture the analytic thought process behind thoughtful engagement with the platform. In lieu of a prototype, I provide the content for them. A few years ago, when I was putting this assignment together, I asked Jason Lewis if we could use one of his poems, “no choice about the terminology,” as the class content for the assignment. Jason very graciously agreed. Using Jason’s poem as the content for the class Twine build is useful in a few different ways: 1) Jason Lewis is foremost figure in the world of Indigenous new media, so I get to introduce students to his work. 2) Jason’s poetry, taken from his PoEMM cycle, is already built for the digital, so it demonstrates how technology and poetics intersects. 3) The poem itself is full of twists and turns that allow students build an engaging and unique Twine game from it. You can see an example of a student remediation of “no choice” here.

I break the learning down into four workshops, which I also recorded during the pandemic:

  1. Intro to Twine and Basic Syntax
  2. Using HTML
  3. Images and CSS
  4. Macros and Functions
  5. Uploading to the web (we use itch.io)

Reflection: For this assignment, along with their remediation, students must also submit a 500-800 word reflection on their project. I ask them to take up one of the following prompts in their response:

  • What are digital and interactive poetics and how do they function?
  • How does Twine compel you (and your audiences) to engage differently with Lewis’ poem?
  • Did the meaning of the poem change in your remediation? If so, how? Was it intentional?
  • If your remediation didn’t quite make it to the place you’d hoped, you may also write here about what you had originally hoped for your project.
  • What problems did you run up against? What were the limitations of the platform? What would you do differently if you were to start over?

Learning Outcomes: This assignment introduces students to non-linear, interactive storytelling software and provides them with basic training in HTML, CSS, functions and macros. It also provides hands-on experience with digital poetry and remediation. Via Lewis’s poem, it provides ample opportunity to consider issues of digital representation, sovereignty, and digital poetics.

4) Digital Exhibition Review

For this assignment, in preparation for our work with Omeka, I have students write a 500-word summary/review of the Colored Conventions digital exhibition, “a collaborative DH project that brings nineteenth-century Black organizing to digital life.”

The assignment is to prep students in thinking about Omeka as a tool for the representation of sensitive content. I ask them to identify what they think this Omeka site does well. They look at it’s organization and design features, including plugins and other add-ons. But I also ask them to consider how this site conveys Black content and what they think it accomplishes in terms of the representation and organization of Black organizing. The idea of this pre-assignment is to get them thinking about curatorial systems and how they are being mobilized by BIPOC archivists. 

Digital Exhibition

As with Twine, working with Omeka is best if you have content. With Omeka, it’s even better if you have a partner, that is an organization that could use help cataloguing materials. These partners aren’t too hard to find on campus, but you’ll want to have a few meetings before, during, and after, to make sure they know what is expected of them and what they can expect of the students.

The last time I ran this assignment, we partnered with Indigitization to generate digital exhibitions featuring previously uncatalogued photos from their collections.

The Indigitization program provides funding, training, and a growing network to support analog media format digitization in partnership with Indigenous communities across British Columbia. Indigitization’s freely available, online Digitization Toolkits have step-by-step digitization processes, digital preservation strategies, and project management worksheet templates. Access the Toolkit and more here.

My students and I worked closely with the Indigitization team to tag and catalogue a large collection of digital photos, videos, posters, and consent forms. The deliverable, which we built iteratively with members of the Indigitization team, was searchable archive and exhibition space built out of the supplied materials, developed for for use by Indigitaztion, as well as researchers and community members. Students worked in groups of five to upload, catalogue, and display photos from the Indigitization archives. 

We do use Dublin Core metadata standards for this assignment. That said, we also spend a significant amount of time, at least one class, thinking critically about Dublin Core and it’s fit for community-based and Indigenous projects. Debroah Lee’s work and the work of Sharon Farnel, Ian Bigelow, Denise Koufogiannakis, Anne Carr-Wiggin, Debbie Feisst, & Kayla Lar-Son, & Sheila Laroque is uniquely helpful in getting students to think about the colonial legacies of cataloguing.

For this project students are responsible for:

  • Uploading their assigned photographs.
  • Integrating the metadata standards developed in class (via Dublin Core). This includes, standardization of titles and keyword items.
  • Identify Omeka plugins that they think will best meet the client’s needs and provide justification.
  • Team write a short introduction to the digital exhibition (800-1000 words). I ask that the introduction include a brief description of the photos in the collection, noting any exciting discoveries or omissions. I also ask that students conclude with suggestions for further development and how the collection might be best used by researchers and community members.

Reflection Paper: Each individual  is also responsible for submitting a 250-500-word reflection on the project. Some of the prompts I give here are: What went well? What didn’t go so well? What are you most proud of in your digital exhibition? What would you have liked to have been stronger? Do you feel you met the needs of the client? Why or why not?

Assignment Objectives

This assignment is designed to provide students with hands-on training in digital exhibition using metadata. Learning how to work well with a community partner is also an outcome. Students are accountable to a partner and must find ways to communicate and defend their design decisions, take and integrate feedback, and iterate based on consultation.

5) Audio Storytelling

Based on Siobhan McHugh’s Emotional History (EH) Model for audio storytelling, this assignment requires students to interview a classmate. Interviewees are asked to share a story about themselves that conveys a certain emotion (anger, sadness, happiness, surprise, etc.). Having recorded the interview, the interviewer must combine the story a non-verbal secondary sources (creative commons music or ambient sound) to create maximum narrative and affective impact. In order to simplify narrative coherence, the maximum length for the story is a hard two minutes. Some editing of the recorded interview may also be required.

For this assignment, we partner with CiTR, UBC’s campus and community radio station to provide student-led training in audio recording, engineering, and editing. One class is devoted to training under the guidance of CiTR staff at the station. At the end of the training, in groups of three, students are required to produce a Public Service Announcement (PSA) for the station. The PSA assignment is designed to get students comfortable with the equipment (microphones, mixing board, editing software) and techniques they will need for their interviews.

We also work with UBC’s Behavioural Research Ethics Board  and the Course-Based Research Guidelines, to ground the work in an ethical framework. While it’s an extra step, I do this for two reasons: 1) It provides the conditions for students, and me, to share the interviews more broadly, with student consent. 2) It gives undergraduates much-needed training in the ethics process. For our major, which culminates in a 6-credit community-based practicum project, learning to negotiate the ethics process is a core skill, so the more training the better.

I would add, if your students do any work with Indigenous communities, or any community that has been subject to the extractive forces of the academy, going through an ethics module will help you and your class to minimize harm–not just in your interview assignment, but in the work your students will go on to do.  

After training, students are responsible for booking their own studio time at the station for recording, editing, and producing their interviews.

Each student is responsible for:

  • Recording the interview to high technical, ethical, and editorial standards, incorporating deep listening, empathy and respect for privacy.
  • Logging the interview, identifying the parts that are most affective (have emotional impact) and effective (supply necessary information and are concise).
  • Locating a second (non-verbal) sound source that will enhance/illustrate the emotional moment.
  • Following the processes outlined by BREB
  • Locating music (non-copyright) if desired.
  • Crafting the elements of voice, sound (and music) together to optimum narrative effect and maximum affect, up to 120 seconds duration.

Reflection Paper: For this assignment, each individual is also responsible for submitting a 250-500-word reflection on the project. I ask them to consider what went well and what didn’t. I ask, what are you most proud of in your audio piece? And what would you have liked to have been stronger? This is a good place to have them reflect on the medium as well. For instance, what does your piece communicate, via sound, that is best suited to the audio format? How do you think this piece would be different if it was a video? A written transcript?

unceded airwaves (CiTR 101.9fm) began in FNIS 454

Assignment Objectives: This assignment is designed to familiarize students with the technologiesbehind broadcasting/podcasting, particularly the recording software and hardware specific to the media. Through McHugh’s method, emphasis is on communicating story and connecting to listeners through layered sound and subtle audio design, so students also develop an understanding of how to communicate emotion via audio. This assignment also connects students to resources and support communities that gives them confidence to produce their own audio content or develop content for an existing media. Students in my classes often go on to produce content for the Indigenous Media Collective at CiTR or gorgeous pieces like this.

6) Wikipedia Gap Analysis

For this assignment, working both individually and in small groups, students analyze, write and reflect on Wikipedia as a knowledge mobilization tool. Wikipedia is a multilingual, web-based, free encyclopedia based on a model of open community generated knowledge. The community driven nature of Wikipedia is meant to support Wikipedia’s goal of providing “…every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” However, information gaps, biases, exclusions, and assumptions about “neutrality” means there remains lots of work to be done, particularly within the contexts of settler colonialism. In the case of this assignment, students are asked to analyze a Wikipedia article about Indigenous issues to identify information gaps and help to build knowledge in that area.

There are three components to this assignment. We work on some of it together in class (I like to do the edit-athon-live, for instance), but the majority is take-home. 

Part 1: Gap Analysis

Building off of class readings and discussions, I ask students to select a topic, relevant to Indigenous studies, that they would like research on Wikipedia. We don’t write new articles for this assignment; we focus on analyzing and editing existent pieces, so I ask students to take some time to explore what’s out there and generate a list of 3-5 potential topics.

There are a number of ways to choose a topic. For instance, students might choose an author, artists, or filmmaker from the syllabus (I often teach this assignment in my literature, film and new media courses) and work on that page. They might also choose to edit an article about a particular piece of work, such as a specific Indigenous film, novel, or video game. In the past, I have also had students edit the pages on their home towns to more accurately represent Indigenous histories of those places. I had one student who completed a very successful Wikipedia assignment changing lower case “I”’s in “Indigenous” to upper case (as per Daniel Justice’s recommendation in Why Indigenous Literature Matters).

The choice is up to them. I am not so much interested in the amount of content they add as the critical insight they bring to those changes, which is where the gap analysis comes into play.

Part One: Conducting the Gap Analysis

The gap analysis represents the largest portion of the grade for this assignment. It is written individually (whereas the rest of the assignment is done in groups). A gap analysis is a detailed analysis of the Wikipedia article on the chosen topic. It includes critical insight into why certain material might be missing and how those gaps might be addressed through edits. For instance, the student who changed the lower case “i”s in “Indigenous” wrote about the ways in which the use of the lower case “i” in Indigenous undermined Indigenous sovereignty by relegating a proper noun to the position of an adjective. She used Daniel Heath Justice’s Why Indigenous Literature Matters as evidence for her claim and pointed to specific Wikipedia pages where this error was particularly glaring. She then built in citations from the Globe & Mail and the National Post as further evidence to changes being made in editorial procedure across Canada.

Part Two: Editing Wikipedia

The second portion of this assignment is the practical application of the gap analysis. I break the class down into groups of four based on gap analysis topics (literature, politics, film, etc.) Students begin by sharing their topic and selected materials from their gap analysis. As a group, they then decide on ONE topic they want to engage with on Wikipedia. Then they work collectively to make the changes addressed in the gap analysis and publish them to Wikipedia.

Training in Wikipedia editing is provided in class via the amazing librarians we partner with.

I ask students to publish their edits to Wikipedia before class on a given day and have one member of the group email me and the TA with:

1) summary of the selected gap analysis,
2) a summary of the changes made,
3) the URL of your edited Wikipedia page and
4) screen shots of the page before and after your edits.

Students then summarize their edits in class. We monitor traffic on their pages via the Wiki Education Dashboard.

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