Decent curry in Switzerland! and reflections on DH pedagogy

I’ve been in my post in Bern for nearly two years now, which from a Swiss point of view is no time at all. Word of my existence is slowly percolating through the humanities faculty, and so I’ve had just as many messages this term as ever from various professors, postdocs, assistants, and so on proposing a get-to-know-you chat over lunch or coffee.

Which is how I found myself sitting in a small and pleasant Indian restaurant about five minutes’ walk from the office, across from a member of the English literature department who has just given her inaugural lecture last week as a Privatdozentin. It was sort of an appropriate day for our chat, since she is curious about DH and wonders where she (who disclaims any particular talent with technology) and her work (almost all of which was based on database collection) stands vis-à-vis the digital humanities. (That is of course a good question, since we who are unambiguously in the field have never agreed on any sort of definition of where its boundaries are.) Along the way I seem to have reassured her that she isn’t some sort of analogue dinosaur in a world of young digital natives, by telling my stories of what kids today don’t know about the technology that they use all the time.

We also talked a little about how to teach technical subjects to humanities students. This is something that has occupied a huge share of my professional thinking for the past two years (and, I suppose inevitably, slowed down my rate of research publication as I try not only to get my pedagogical house in order but to build it in the first place.) There is a tension between the somewhat rote but desperately needed teaching of fundamental skills on the one hand, and the critical exploration of theory and methodology that occupies a large share of the public conversation among DH practitioners on the other hand, that is extremely hard to bridge in any single curriculum devoted to “digital humanities”. I still don’t have a good solution to the problem of how to design a DH teaching program that ticks both the ‘intellectually rigorous’ and ‘practically useful’ boxes. If anyone is reading this, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts!