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Hands-on Humanities in a No-Touch World

Suzanne Magnanini & Sean Babbs
University of Colorado, Boulder

The Pedagogical Foundations

The transition to virtual classes during the spring semester 2020 provided many unique challenges for those teaching early modern topics. However, in some senses, working with texts that are hundreds of years old (and in the public domain) proved to be more amicable to virtual teaching than for courses on contemporary topics. Here, we (an Italian Professor and a Special Collections Librarian at the University of Colorado Boulder) highlight two case studies for classes that transitioned well to a virtual environment with limited notice. We hope these cases, centered on digital humanities and project-based learning, can help instructors with future hybrid or online teaching.

During the spring semester, Professor Suzanne Magnanini taught two courses at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) featuring Italian literary texts from the long sixteenth century. The first course, entitled “ITAL 3160: Literary and Artistic Cultures in Italy: 1200–1800” and conducted in Italian for majors and minors, examines texts that were either produced or gained canonical status during the sixteenth century through the lens of interart relations. The second course, entitled “ITAL 4600: Once Upon a Time in Italy” and taught entirely in English as part of the university’s general-education offerings, focuses primarily on two seminal texts of the European fairy-tale tradition, Straparola’s The Pleasant Nights (1550–53) and Basile’s The Tale of Tales (1634–36). In the final weeks of the semester, this course concentrates on the fairy tale’s new status in the nineteenth century, primarily as children’s literature, through the study of Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883) as well as contemporary Western fairy tales.

Before the semester began, using texts from Special Collections we designed hands-on humanities assignments that embodied many of the pedagogical ideals of both digital humanities (DH) and project-based learning (PBL). Many DH practitioners emphasize the importance of “building things” and the value of incorporating public writing into coursework.1 PBL requires that students have some choice in determining the object or question that will become the focus of sustained inquiry that leads to a public result that can be shared with and benefit the broader community beyond the classroom.2 Since both assignments required sustained observation of texts as material objects, we collaborated with CU Boulder Art Museum Curator Hope Saska, who created lessons in the museum that trained the students in visual thinking strategies (VTS) in order to make them more critical observers of visual material. PBL often inspires this sort of collaboration among different departments and entities on campus in order to provide students with the specialized training, materials, and spaces necessary for creating, displaying, and facilitating access to resources developed for public use.

When our campus closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic on 16 March, we faced the challenge of moving forward with our students to complete hands-on humanities projects in a no-touch, virtual world. Our original plans included hosting a physical, one-day exhibition of early modern printed books featuring bilingual (Italian-English) student presentations and launching a digital, annotated database of the fairy-tale holdings in CU Boulder’s Special Collections and Archives.3 Luckily, when the campus closed, the students had already worked in the art museum developing VTS, although this work could be done virtually. Below we share how we adapted, what we were able to accomplish, what we lost, and some suggestions for moving forward in the pandemic by pooling digital resources from diverse campuses and organizations.

From Physical Exhibits to Virtual

Besides teaching students about early modern Italian literary and artistic cultures, the course “Literary and Artistic Cultures in Italy” aims to develop students’ proficiency in Italian. The project we planned to help us reach these learning objectives involved the students collaborating to create an ephemeral “talking books” exhibit in the Special Collections and Archives department at CU Boulder. Each student would create a bilingual presentation to tell the story of the sixteenth-century book(s) they had chosen that would be given to a general audience of students from other Italian classes and community members during a one-time, physical event. After the presentations, students would serve as docents for visitors who could then examine the books firsthand and ask questions in English or Italian. CU’s Special Collections, like those of many universities, houses teaching collections on a growing number of topics that allows librarians and professors to center such projects in a variety of geographical and temporal periods. The collection of items the students examined for this course included thirty Italian books published between 1500 and 1700. Though this area is by no means the collection’s strength at CU, librarians have used targeted acquisitions over the years to improve teaching collections such as this one in order to support faculty research and student learning.

We scaffolded this public project by first providing students with a lower-stakes opportunity to work with early modern prints and drawings in order to create a traditional presentation delivered during class at the CU Art Museum study center. After this initial visit, using their own digital photos made with their phones and the museum’s catalog, which includes high-quality digital images of the collection, students worked from home and then returned to the museum a week later for their presentations. Students then attended a class session in CU Boulder’s Special Collections that focused on the history of printing and taught students how to examine texts as material objects that tell stories through their title pages, bindings, paratexts, and the marginalia added by readers. Each student was able to choose their books and return for one more in-person class to work with their chosen texts.

The closure required a quick pivot, as the ephemeral, in-person exhibit could no longer take place and we were involved in a salvage operation aimed at providing access to digital equivalents so students could still create their presentations. Luckily, many of these sixteenth-century texts have been digitized and made freely available online. We developed a bibliography that provided links to the same edition of the texts they had chosen from Special Collections, relying on our institution’s access to digital collections like Early English Books Online, Google Books, the Internet Archive, and HathiTrust. Students then used these digital resources to create presentations delivered in Italian to their classmates via Zoom.

A majority of the students in the class were graduating seniors and two had planned to begin teaching assistantships in Italy in fall 2020. Needless, to say, morale was quite low as we began remote class sessions and the students watched as the rituals and traditions of graduation, as well as plans to work and study abroad, were cancelled. Most students in the class, however, responded positively to this project because it allowed them to pursue their own interests or deepen their knowledge of a favorite author from the course (e.g., a Spanish major/Italian minor chose an eight language dictionary; a student interested in political science chose an early modern English translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince).

“Zoom fatigue” and scheduling difficulties prevented us from inviting other students or the community to join the live presentations, but we were able to conduct the presentations with time for questions and answers for each presenter during a class session. One advantage of presenting through Zoom was the ability to utilize four language skills (speaking, listening, writing, reading) during each presentation. I posed one or two oral questions to each student and their classmates posed other questions orally. During each presentation, I asked all students to enter a question via Zoom’s chat function and then asked the presenter to read and respond orally to at least one written question. While the presentations may not have reached as wide of an audience as we had hoped, students were at least able to do meaningful research and synthesis because of access to texts in a virtual environment. In the future, we plan to host these presentations in a virtual exhibit or virtual event through the library.

By collaborating with a librarian to create a physical collection of texts relevant to course content, or a virtual collection created specifically for a course, professors can easily adapt the “talking books” assignment for other languages, periods, and fields. Through the project, students acquire the skills and knowledge necessary for studying historical texts and have the opportunity to investigate new authors or to explore unique editions of the authors and texts they read for class (e.g., Machiavelli translated into English, an Italian edition of the Decameron printed in France). At the same time, students practice their language skills through their presentations and responses to questions from the audience.

Virtual Projects

For the second course examining Italian fairy tales, we developed a project aimed at engaging undergraduate students directly in the productive comingling of knowledge and data4 through the construction of a digital, annotated, and searchable bibliography of CU Boulder’s Special Collections fairy-tale holdings. This includes some 2000 fairy-tale pieces (books, postcards, stereoscopic images, etc.) published between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries. Although most of these books are findable in the library catalog, their entries typically include only basic associated metadata (title, authors, publication information, etc.). This is particularly problematic for the many early modern collections of tales and Victorian anthologies that consist of dozens of different fairy tales (such as Straparola’s The Pleasant Nights or any of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books). The entries for these works do not include a list of all the tales in the piece (or the source of the tales).

To address these issues, the students created a database of holdings that catalogs a tale through a variety of metadata, often more detailed than a typical library entry: date and decade of publication, language, fairy-tale type, country of publication, the source of the tale, and other categories. Each entry also includes two descriptive sections that showcase the students’ knowledge: 1) a description of the important variants in their version of the tale (e.g., “Cinderella” is a male character) and 2) a useful commentary regarding illustrations, interpretation, analysis, literary genealogy, etc. Users can search for tales published in a specific language, a certain decade, a geographical region, by the tale type or can simply search by keywords.

Students were first trained in VTS in the galleries of the art museum, since many of the fairy tales include illustrations that they would need to analyze. Next, they visited Special Collections to familiarize themselves with the collection and the variety of texts it houses. We divided the class into six teams based on tale types and each team member was to add two texts of that type to the database. The repository is currently supported on the Omeka-S platform and so we were able to create a form that students could use to submit the metadata and their analytical commentary. Before the semester began, we had worried about issues of equity and access, as students who worked full time might have difficulties accessing the physical holdings should they be absent on the day of their team’s visit and so we had already selected a number of fairy tales for digitization.

The closure due to the pandemic made it impossible for students to visit Special Collections to see in person the tales they would enter into the database. We assembled a bibliography listing ten to twelve digitized versions of each of the six tale types held in the fairy-tale collection but sourced these not only from the digitized collections here at CU Boulder,5 but also the Internet Archive and the University of Florida Digital Collections. Using these pooled resources, we were able to create and launch a beta version of the digital bibliography which we will continue to develop with graduate and undergraduate researchers this summer and fall.

When our campus administration allowed students to take all classes pass/fail, many of the students who had enrolled in this course to complete a general-education requirement decided to avail themselves of this option in order to focus on their major classes, to work longer hours at jobs, or just to cope with the stress of the pandemic. While accordingly some students opted to skip certain assignments, all students chose to submit the database assignment. Students also seemed to receive a morale boost when Librarian Sean Babbs joined the class to show the students the working database, thank them for their work, and celebrate their accomplishment. Indeed, one student confessed in an email that the class provided a sort of reassuring continuity that other courses could not because we did not veer from our initial learning objectives: the project set forth at the beginning of the semester was completed as planned.

Beyond psychological reassurance and student engagement, this project allows students to hone the skills typically addressed in advanced humanities classes. The database assignment required students to utilize skills from the upper half of Bloom’s taxonomy (analyze, evaluate, create),6 while engaging in one type of intellectual work typical of fairy-tale studies: undertaking a comparative analysis of different versions of the same tale type. In order to complete the descriptive fields for the database form, students had to analyze their chosen text and compare it to other versions of the same tale type we had read in class. In addition, students had to create a plot summary aimed at differentiating the tale they analyzed in a way that would prove useful to the database users. Finally, students had to respond to our editorial suggestions aimed at improving both content and style, and thus reconsider their initial submission. Since more refined metadata and detailed descriptions could potentially improve the searchability of any collection of artwork, texts, or objects, this project could be utilized for a variety of courses with the goal of creating a database, as we did, or a searchable exhibit using Omeka-S. For lower-division courses, focusing primarily on metadata can teach students classification skills and help them acquire basic knowledge of a field, while more advanced students can tackle analytical descriptions requiring more research and original writing.

The campus closure due to the pandemic taught us a number of lessons. First, we learned that attending to issues of equity and access benefits everyone. We learned that we can move forward with hands-on humanities or project-based learning involving early modern printed texts in the remote or online classroom, even if imperfectly, by developing our own digital collections and pooling multiple, digital repositories to replicate the physical holdings of our library’s Special Collections. We appreciate that we work at an institution where early modernists from a variety of departments have long collaborated with librarians and curators to create assignments and exhibits with and for students. We highly suggest that if such relationships do not exist currently on other campuses, professors begin to establish them with colleagues immediately in order to facilitate (virtual) access to the material objects and texts that make project-based learning possible. At the same time, we recognize that not all faculty and students will have access to such resources on their campuses. This experience suggests, however, an exciting possibility for the future: we might collaborate not just across departments at our own university, but also across institutions, sharing resources to increase access to early modern materials and uniting students on different campuses to pursue project-based learning focused on early modern texts and art.

Suzanne Magnanini is an Associate Professor and President’s Teaching Scholar in the Department of French and Italian at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She researches and teaches courses on fairy tales and early modern Italian literature. Her recent pedagogical research examines designing courses that integrate digital tools and rethink questions of race and ethnicity in Renaissance texts.

Sean Babbs is a Faculty Fellow in the Special Collections and Archives Department at the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries. In this role, he collaborates with faculty from across campus to design learning modules and assignments that incorporate primary source library materials, particularly rare books and photographs.

1 See, for example, Stephan Ramsay’s opinion cited in Matthew K. Gold, “Introduction: The Digital Humanities Moment,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), ix-xvi. 

2 For more information, see PBLWorks.

3 The database project is supported by CU Boulder’s Arts and Sciences Support of Education through Technology (ASSETT) Innovation Incubator. For more information, see Innovation Incubator.

4 We borrow the concept of the productive comingling of knowledge from Michael Ullyot’s essay “Digital Humanities Projects,” Renaissance Quarterly 66, no. 3 (2013): 937–47.

6 For a description and overview of its uses, see Patricia Armstrong, “Bloom’s Taxonomy,” Vanderbilt University.

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