Digital Humanities and Teaching Technical Skills to Novice Learners with The Carpentries 

Apr 25, 2022

By Elizabeth Parke

It was in 2016, as the newly hired University of Toronto, Digital Humanities Network – Council for Library and  Information Resources (CLIR) postdoctoral fellow that I first learned about The Carpentries. The Carpentries: Data, Software, and Library Carpentries are communities of practice that offered me, a very novice technical skills learner, a way to think about the DH work I wanted to do in conjunction with the skills I needed to learn in order to do this work. I knew that I wanted to use Augmented Reality (AR) with archival photos of Contemporary Chinese Artists doing performance artworks, and I the GPS locations of the performances, but the how of bringing photographs, AR, and GPS data together wasn’t yet clear to me. As I was thinking more about what I wanted this AR project to do and thinking through the research questions I wanted to answer with the use of AR, Carpentries offered me a simultaneous glimpse of what data skills I would need to do this work alongside a clear curriculum and lessons (Open Refine, Data Intro for Archivists, Spreadsheets for Social Scientists for developing and building up these skills. Moreover, the clear indication of Carpentries commitment to spaces of inclusion—from the easy to find and prominently linked Code of Conduct–to the articulation of the organization’s values my insecurities about lacking proficiency in coding languages like R and Python began to subside as I learned the value of Carpentries instructors teach using live-coding. Live-coding as a pedagogy means errors will happen in syntax or a forgotten bracket—this is a feature because it shows us as learners that even instructors make mistakes, and those mistakes are opportunities to learn.  

While it was four years before I checked out and became a certified instructor myself, being able to return to the Carpentries community locally at UofT  (UofT Coders; the 2019 Carpentries UTL project team) and virtually through their website and Git pages was a consistent reminder of the type of technical skills community of practice and pedagogy I want to foster at UofT at CDRS and at CDHI. For instance, communities need maintenance and so having a listserv so people can interact asynchronously or doing cross-over Python and R sessions like we do at CDRS with the Academic Skills centre (RGACS) at UTM with Carpentries helpers are critical. Pedagogically speaking, actions can be seemingly small—avoiding phrases like “oh it’s easy, you just do x, y, x”; avoiding jargon, and meeting novice learners where they are—but have deep impacts on learners, particularly novice technical skill learners who may feel they are already ‘behind’ because they don’t know how to write code (yet!). Moreover, I use the pedagogical approaches taught in Carpentries Instructor training in my classrooms where the content is visual culture and contemporary Chinese cinema. For instance, the concept of cognitive load and how it relates to students’ learning outcomes profoundly changed how I structure my Introduction to Visual Culture Class and now include formative assessments and opportunities for reflection to support my students’ learning. While I don’t live code in my visual culture classes, I do introduce errors in my PPT in order to demonstrate failure and use it as a teachable moment. Mistakes help us learn! And that it’s ok to fail in public when we’ve created learning spaces that are generative. Aside from becoming a more confident user of technical skills, the meta-skills emphasized in Carpentries Instructor training are invaluable for anyone looking to be a better more approachable instructor. 

It was clear to me from my own experience the value of Carpentries Instructor training and in the fall of 2021, I had the opportunity to pitch the idea to support more instructor training to CDHI. As a result, CDHI agreed to support the Chief Librarian Innovation Grant funded Technical Skills Outreach project and secured dedicated Instructor training seats as part of the 50 seats negotiated for the UofT Carpentries Membership agreement for 2021-2. I was keen to have the chance to offer training to current graduate students working in a range of DH spaces and research interests. Here was the chance for graduate students to have access to the training before they completed their graduate work! This training would be useful in tutorials AND in their own learning in becoming DH scholars. 

Over the past year, we’ve trained seven CDHI members and some have already completed the official Carpentries “checkout” process and are certified Carpentries Instructors! We are busy planning for programming for 2022-3 with the knowledge now that there are Praxis workshops that will now have many skilled Carpentries-trained assistants willing to lend a hand; communities of practice are emerging around GIS and mapping, and will no doubt tap into the wealth of knowledge and training that the Technical Skills Outreach team has fostered. The addition of the Graduate Student Library Assistants (GSLAs, Meaghan Carthy, Sarah Park, and Arun Jacobs) in the Winter 2022 term has ensured this community will continue to grow and adapt to the technical skills needs of our institution. Their enthusiasm for the ideals of the project that are embedded in notions of equitable access and community care as well as their careful consideration of platforms and tools for long term persistence of the Carpentries community at UofT are commendable.  

Investigating and understanding how our DH tools work, what their inherent biases are and how we can acknowledge them is an on-going project of the CDHI. The engagement with The Carpentries as an organization and the UofT project team in particular highlights the need for and importance of teaching novice learners technical skills all the while continuing to learn how we ourselves can be better teachers (and learners). I’m so excited by the successes of this year and look forward to what’s coming next. Be sure to read the other blog posts in this series about Carpentries by Graduate Student Library Assistants (GSLAs) Meaghan Carthy and Sarah Park. 

Elizabeth Parke is the Senior Research Associate Collaborative Digital Research, OVPR at UTM and the Critical Digital Humanities Initiative.

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