KCL • CCH • Minor programme • AV1000
AV1000 is the initial course in a minor programme “with the Digital Humanities” offered in conjunction with the Departments of Classical Studies, French, German, Spanish, Modern Greek, Music, Portuguese and War Studies. AV1000 focuses on the basic methods and habits of mind in the digital humanities. AV2001 and AV2002, which comprise the second year of the programme, concentrate on texts and databases in the humanities, respectively. AV3000, taken in the final year, is devoted to an independent project. Successful completion of these three courses leads to a B.A. degree in the humanities subject “with the Digital Humanities”. Details are set out fully in the Programme Handbook, of which you should have a copy.
AV1000 may also be taken independently of the Minor Programme (as may AV2001 and AV2002). The CCH also offers AV1003, “Computing skills for the humanities”, an introductory half-course intended for undergraduate students not enrolled in the Minor Programme. It offers them the opportunity to acquire a basic grasp of the technical skills commonly required when working with humanities data.
AV1000 covers four major topics in the digital humanities and supports these with background material in critical thinking and in basic computing concepts. These four topics are as follows:
More will be said about these topics below.
The course meets twice each week: Mondays 10–12 and Thursdays 12–1. Monday sessions focus somewhat more on practical work with computers, Thursday sessions somewhat more on lectures and discussions. See the Calendar for a list of every class meeting.
Attendance at all scheduled sessions is mandatory. Although some supporting materials are online and a course bibliography is supplied, the content of lectures, in-class discussions and the practical exercises are not duplicated anywhere and change, sometimes radically, from year to year. Students are responsible for everything covered or discussed in all classes, without exception.
Asking questions in class, venturing ideas and engaging in discussion are very strongly encouraged. You are here to think and to learn, not to be told facts for later repetition or to be trained in purely mechanical skills. Learning requires dialogue as well as solitary work, so take advantage especially of the laboratory sessions to interact with other members of the class as well as with the lecturer.
Working together in small groups is also strongly encouraged. The assessed exercises, mentioned below, must be your own entirely, but for those who enjoy collaboration learning how to do them is often best done together. For this reason 2 laboratory sessions are allotted for work on each of the 4 assessed exercises.
Collaboration is one thing, plagiarism is quite another. Plagiarism is “the wrongful appropriation or purloining, and publication as one's own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas (literary, artistic, musical, mechanical, etc.) of another” (OED). In terms of classwork, this means submitting someone else's work as your own, or as part of your own without full acknowledgement. It is regarded as a form of cheating and is expressly forbidden by the College Disciplinary Code. See the Handbook for details. If you are in any doubt about how to acknowledge another's work or help, see the course lecturer.
The course lecturer keeps regular office hours, which are given in the Handbook. Do not be shy about arranging an appointment or dropping by during office hours.
Electronic communications and publishing
It seems obvious now (though it was not a few years ago) that among its other forms, computing plays a prominent role in communications of many different kinds. Competence in using the computer effectively for communications and publishing is close to a requirement for participation in urban society.
Basic competence with e-mail is assumed for this course, but from now on you should take the opportunity to observe your own and others' use of e-mail, particularly to reflect on what it is particularly good for and what it is not. When, for example, do you prefer to use the telephone? Why?
Publishing means “making public”, i.e. putting ideas into circulation. Whatever the other differences may be from print, the digital medium makes it significantly easier for ordinary individuals to do this. Electronic publishing, via e-mail, discussion groups and the World Wide Web, call for new skills and critical abilities. In addition, the accumulated body of materials online, chiefly on the Web, require us to rethink our bibliographic procedures and research methods: how do we find stuff online, evaluate what we find and then document it?
In this part of the course we begin with intelligent use of existing online resources: how to locate and join academic discussion groups, and how to search for, evaluate and document material on the Web. We then take up the design, construction and maintenance of a Web-site, including basic HTML, which you must be able to write directly.
This part of the course has two objectives. The first is to give you the technical skills required for competent use of the online medium at a basic level, both passively, as a resource, and actively, as a publishing mechanism. The second is to train your critical abilities in how to think with and express your ideas in this medium effectively. Of these two the second is the more challenging and will receive most of the emphasis.
Text-analysis is the application of computing tools, chiefly interactive concordancing, to the analysis of written and transcribed oral text. An interactive concordancer is software that produces lists of the words in a text together with surrounding context; it also generates word-frequency statistics. Concordances (made by hand from the late twelfth century until the 1950s) comprise one of the oldest tools to help us understand how and where a text says what it says. More generally it gives us powerful means of studying how language actually works in practice.
Concordancing is not primarily for finding interesting parts of a text to quote, although you can use it in that way. Its primary function is to group together verbally related passages and to find patterns of meaning and usage in a text.
Concordancing is likely to be the least familiar topic of the course. You should note, however, that it is used (though somewhat crudely) in help-systems, for example by Microsoft Windows operating system. It is also related to the lists produced by Web-searching mechanisms such as Google. In academic work concordances are central to language-study and are relevant to all disciplines concerned with how people say what they say.
In this part of the course we use interactive concordancing software to study the behaviour of specific words in context, the meaning given to them, habits of usage that yield clues to an author's purpose and other strategies for determining meaning in very large textual corpora (Latin pl., from corpus, “body”).
The objectives in this part of the course are to give you the basic technical skills for analysis of electronic text, to enable you to think critically and strategically about textual meaning with them and to get you to reflect on the limitations as well as benefits of computing written or transcribed language. As a set of techniques concording is a much more analytic topic than the previous one, but in the attention to and evaluation of verbal clues, concording shares with intelligent use of the Web many of the same critical abilities as well as fundamental need for sensitivity to the qualities of an individual artefact.
In the humanities we seldom deal explicitly with quantities of things, but one could easily and successfully argue that quantities—e.g. the number of times particular words are mentioned in a text—figure significantly in our perceptions of the artefacts we study. Of course writers and artists have other expressive means at their disposal, but exact repetition is certainly one of them. Repetition of a word is also a frequently attested sign of concern if not obsession with a particular idea.
Numerical analysis is concerned not with counting phenomena but with how to represent and manipulate numbers once we have them. It also deals with the sometimes complex relationship between the representations and the things quantified.
The most basic aspects of spreadsheet software are likely to be familiar to many of you, though knowledge of Excel is not assumed. The emphasis here will be on basic analytical skills in two areas: simple manipulation of numbers to reveal their significance for the object or phenomenon of study, and reading of the graphical representations (i.e. charts) we generate from them. To some degree we will deal with “visual rhetoric”, that is, how images communicate.
The objectives in this part of the course are to give you the technical skills required for basic applications of Excel (importing data, writing formulas, addressing, formatting, design and generation of charts) and the methods for numerical analysis of problems and of their graphical representations. The problems considered here are uniquely numerical, and they are visual in a rather difference sense from those raised by design of Web-sites in the first segment of the course. Nevertheless, the analytic skills, attention to detail and need for sensitivity to anomalies—i.e. the ability to see that certain data-points or patterns are anomalous—are continuous with the rest of the course.
Relational database analysis
Analysis of textual and numerical data that by nature or approach to them occur as relatively small chunks we call “tabular” because the table is such a useful way to represent and manipulate them. Thus spreadsheet data (which can be verbal as well as numerical) is tabular. Data which are tabular by nature but too structurally complex for effective representation in a single table we call “relational” because the relational database model suits them best. The relational model—so called because it comprises two or more tables we can relate in various ways—allows a collection of data to be rearranged again and again from multiple perspectives. It is the tool of choice for disciplines such as history and archaeology but has uses throughout the humanities.
A collection of tables is formally called a “database” (which in popular usage simply means a collection). In this part of the course we use a database management program, Microsoft Access, to build small databases from structured data and to analyze structured data in an existing database. We also look at how data about quite common objects might be structured.
The objectives in this part of the course will be to familiarize you with the technical basics of relational databases and elementary uses of the software and to consider analysis as an aspect of database design. We also briefly touch on the interpretative nature of database representation to suggest how the design and construction of databases in the humanities involves scholarly understanding of the data.
Each segment of the course includes an assessed exercise involving both practical work and a written essay, for a total of four in the year. In addition your knowledge of and abilities with computing will be tested in two examinations held during Summer term. For the relative weighting of exercises and exams see the programme Handbook, section 6.1. An exam revision session will be offered early in Summer term.
Assessed exercises are assigned and due according to a schedule shown in the Calendar. Late submissions will not be accepted under any conditions. If illness interferes with your work, a doctor's note will allow us to take your verified reason for incomplete work into consideration, but it will not allow you to submit late.
For other regulations concerning assessed work, see the Handbook.
In each of the four major segments of the course, then, there are two major emphases: (1) the technical skills and knowledge required to apply each set of techniques competently, and (2) the analytical methods that guide application and that serve the relevant disciplines. Both are essential, although as noted the emphasis in this course falls on the latter.
As you move through the course, each of these segments will expose you to very different software and skill-sets. Technical continuity is, however, provided by a common operating system, the more or less consistent interface of the software applications and the methods of handling data that these share. By the end of the course you should be able to figure out the basics of a previously unseen Windows application—providing that this application has been competently designed, of course.
The deeper continuity that this course strives to communicate is among the analytic methods, or more broadly, the ways of thinking with and against the computer experimentally. Technical skills are, as noted, essential: you cannot do anything thoughtful with a computer if you do not know which buttons to push. But the aim of this course is to go as far beyond mere technical competence at the beginner's level as we can, to instill an understanding that will allow you to figure out new applications of computing for yourself. Software changes rapidly, systems become obsolete in a few years. Hence rote methods of work are very fragile. What lasts are the ideas and analytical habits of mind; these are our aim.
To support the technical and methodological continuities of the course, lectures are given on basic concepts and on critical thinking and writing skills. In addition each of the four assessed exercises is as specific as possible about the form of the essay so that you can determine what is expected of you.
So-called “transferable skills” are those which survive the transition from the classroom out into real life, whether this be in scholarship, business, government or wherever else. As the course does not offer complete coverage of e.g. Excel or Access, focusing rather on how to think with such tools, you will not be equipped to take on a job as a technical expert. Rather, providing you work hard, intelligently and consistently, you can expect to take away with you the following transferable skills and supporting knowledge.
The digital humanities (also known as humanities computing) is a relatively new field, an “interdiscipline” that has been practiced since the late 1940s but has only recently achieved institutional recognition and a degree of self-awareness. King's College London is one of the few institutions in the world where it may be studied as an academic subject, although programmes are now becoming more common. (See Willard McCarty and Matt Kirschenbaum, “Institutional models for humanities computing”, www.allc.org/imhc/, for details.) The teaching staff of the Centre are leaders in this field.
The newness of the field has consequences for the kind of experience you are likely to have in the course. These consequences will be covered below.
Although as a student in school you may have received some training in “communications and information technology” (C&IT), this training prepares you only partially for the technical aspects of the course. (Some knowledge of computing is assumed, but students who have none or very little are offered remedial sessions at the beginning of term.) Equally important is your background in the humanities, particularly in what are called “critical thinking” and research skills, which this course undertakes to develop. Basic competence in essay writing and in English composition generally is assumed. Course-work places strong emphasis on essay writing.
There are four main reasons why the course is highly likely to differ from anything you have done before or are doing concurrently. The first two are considerably less important than the second two, although they are not negligible.
The first is that the technology is as we all know changing quite rapidly. Unlike a beginning language course, for example, written materials to support the low-level, nitty-gritty procedures with software would have to change too often to make keeping them current a practical option. Particularly with spreadsheet and database software, and perhaps also with the basics of Web design, you may have received training recently enough that you will not need to worry about learning these procedures. But there are few sources for instruction in their application to the data of the humanities outside of this class.
The second reason is that students' level of preparation is changing significantly year by year. As a result a certain amount of the lower-level instruction is dropped when the course is revised, which happens every summer, and more attention is given to the cognitive skills and implications of the practice for the humanities. You cannot therefore rely on what you may have been told about the course by students of previous years. Nor can you rely on previous exercises and exams in the way you can for many other courses. (Note, however, that help is provided for exam preparation, in the revision session held during Summer term.)
The third reason for the unique nature of the course is that the subject has no widely understood tradition on which to depend. Most students in, say, a literature course will know very soon after the beginning of term what is expected of them and will have a fairly good idea of how to assess their progress. They will have to hand the means for knowing what an essay in the course should be like and in general how segments of the course follow one from another. In this course, however, each topic is significantly different from the rest. Different kinds of skills tend to be required. There is no tradition or other means for students to determine beforehand what is expected of them.
The fourth reason is that the digital humanities are interdisciplinary. Although every effort is made in class to relate the current topic to the concerns of your home discipline, you must realize the connection for yourself. This puts an extra burden on you, but at the same time the interdisciplinary perspective we share in the course gives you a considerable advantage over more narrowly trained students.
For the above reasons, significant effort is made during the course to address the nature of each topic, how it is related to the other topics and what is expected of you. This is done briefly below, but the effort will continue throughout the course.
Two important consequences follow from the novel qualities of this course: you must be in class, and you must pay attention.
revised September 2007