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title subtitle chapter URL tags author editor publisher type
Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities
Concepts, Models, and Experiments
hands-on, experiential, practical, making, performance
family given
family given
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J. K. Purdom
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Matthew K.
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Modern Language Association

PRAXIS (Draft)

Bethany Nowviskie

CLIR/DLF | Digital Library Federation

Jeremy Boggs

University of Virginia | Scholars' Lab

J. K. Purdom Lindblad

University of Maryland | MITH

Publication Status:
  • unreviewed draft
  • draft version undergoing editorial review
  • draft version undergoing peer-to-peer review
  • draft version undergoing MLA copyediting
  • published

Cross-Reference Keywords:

Design, Fieldwork, Hacking, Labor, Play, Prototype


We understand praxis as thoughtful performance: a way of making and building less oriented toward the construction of end-products and more concerned with exposing the processes through which ideas become objects in space or actions in time. In the classroom, a praxis-oriented pedagogy helps students engage with theory through concrete action, and promotes understanding of the complex, playful, and materially-grounded ways in which theoretical or ideological concepts can be realized, exposed, critiqued, and iteratively generated. The pedagogical resources gathered here connect with praxis as an opportunity to:

  • embody an idea. Students make or do something that represents an existing theory or idea. They demonstrate prior understanding through successful performance and instantiation.
  • illuminate an idea. In the process of making or doing something, students reveal theoretical and intellectual complexities that may have been hidden to them in their initial understanding.
  • critique an idea. Students challenge or question existing concepts or ideologies by building or performing new alternatives.
  • generate an idea. New theories or concepts arise, often iteratively and playfully, through performance, construction of objects or systems, and embodied understanding.

Attention to praxis can encourage students to look beyond academic literature in developing an understanding of the content of a course. It can inspire them to contribute to knowledge representation and creation in new ways, and to move with confidence across disciplinary and professional boundaries. (See, for instance: the work of hairdresser Janet Stephens, now a published experimental archaeologist who has untangled the mysteries of Roman coiffures; dancer Anni Brøgger, whose interpretation of the kinetic properties of the burial costume of the Egtved Girl helped shift scholarly debates; or the collaboration between micro-brewery Dogfish Head and biomolecular archaeologist Patrick E. McGovern on a line of "ancient ales," based on historical research, analysis of residue from unearthed pottery fragments, and ingredients-sourcing from contemporary, indigenous cultures.) Project-based learning can also foster life-long learning, as students learn to negotiate more fluidly and at earlier stages between the practices of classroom spaces and those of the working world.

Our Own Pedagogy

We compiled these resources from the perspective of three digital humanities practitioners engaging in the extra-curricular mentoring and methodological training of graduate students across disciplines at a digital scholarship center: the University of Virginia Scholars' Lab. At the time of our partnership there, almost every program on offer at the Scholars' Lab—from internal, staff research projects to workshops and partnerships with faculty, support of undergraduate research, and hosted graduate fellowship programs—featured praxis as a central concern. The lab, then under Nowviskie's leadership and with Lindblad in the role of Head of Graduate Programs, took an uncommon position for a library-based service unit. It was more oriented toward building up people as mentors and partners, than toward building websites or tools as an on-request service. In our teaching at the Scholars' Lab, we were therefore always careful to emphasize how and why to make or do things, and to promote design thinking and reflective practice. Despite staffing changes, this emphasis on praxis remains core to the ethos of the Lab and to nearly all of its interactions with collaborators. We fostered it there because we felt that students, scholars, and cultural heritage or information professionals alike needed to engage more deeply with making and building as a way of knowing, as they prepared to take part in more active and hopeful futures for 21st-century humanities.

A pedagogy based in praxis can appreciate and analyze built objects or working systems, but importantly also attends to the processes, underlying theories, and methods of making that lead to them. It helps students understand the humanities both in terms of finished products and limitless paths.

Rationale and Criteria

We have selected the following resources according to three broad principles.

First, we chose resources that were open-access, available to instructors under fair use or fair dealing, or otherwise publicly accessible.

Second, we wanted to include a range of resources: syllabi that discuss, organize, and present praxis-oriented theories and activities to students; sample lessons that themselves embody praxis in the sense that they detail processes and outline possible, theoretically-informed outcomes; reflective demonstrations of completed projects or showcases of the tools and processes that have gone into making a particular project, object, or system; and articles that discuss the importance of praxis for teaching and learning. It was important to us to include resources that varied in type or format and in domain of application, to show that praxis can enter the classroom in a variety of ways.

Finally, we sought "artifacts" that demonstrate symbiotic relationships among praxis, theory, and product. All of the resources offered here highlight the importance and interconnectedness of these relations: none can or should be understood to exist in isolation, and exploring one aspect of an object or exercise should necessarily mean exploring the others. We feature resources that, in our view, succeed in demonstrating that the best way to learn is through active engagement. These entries do not just talk about the importance of praxis in the abstract: they provide examples of embodied, theoretically-informed learning in action.


“Bibliocircuitry and the Design of the Alien Everyday”


"Bibliocircuitry and the Design of the Alien Everyday" details student exploration of the concept of reflective design through projects that investigate the book as interface. This activity perfectly highlights the way that exposure to and emphasis on process leads to unforeseen insight. These student authors also emphasize that digital work requires consideration of hardware and physical/tactile design. Instructors inspired by this article might select a particular type of object and ask students to devise ways to alter or enhance users' interaction with it. Students would demonstrate learning not only through their work in designing/redesigning objects, but also through oral or written presentations of them (much as the student authors of this journal article have done).

"Doing Feminist Theory Through Digital Video"

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"How to 'Do' Feminist Theory Through Digital Video" is a reflective essay detailing an undergraduate assignment (titled, "Doing Feminist Theory Through Digital Video") and the literature informing the development of the assignment. Noticing her students were struggling to connect rich theoretical discussions within the classroom to "real life," Hurst offers a pathway for specific theoretical considerations (like feminism) to shape and be shaped by the application of praxis. Hurst applies Paulo Freire's definition of praxis ("reflection and action upon the world in order to change it") with the goal of fostering sustained deep reflection, both of the theoretical foundations of her course as well as on the student's emerging scholarly voices (Freire, [1970] 2000: 51). A semester-long, service-learning project is difficult to integrate into a content-based course. Hurst's article outlines strategies for nurturing deep learning through reflection and praxis. Reflecting on her process as well as implementation, Hurst points to methods for demystifying knowledge creation through iterative, collaborative work.

“Extraordinary Materials”

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"(Extra)ordinary Materials" is a Human-Centered Design and Engineering course focusing on "thinking and experimenting with materials that have extraordinary properties around ordinary practices as an entry point for identifying new affordances in form-giving work." With a detailed syllabus and a blend of intriguing readings, hands-on experiments, and student participation, "(Extra)ordinary Materials" exemplifies praxis through deep investigation of material culture and objects alongside exploration of the concepts of "mutability, reproduction, age and belonging." Readings are paired with hands-on, individual and group investigations and reflective reports. Rosner includes thoughtful learning outcomes along with explicit pairings of experiential work and theoretical readings to best explore a range of materials and properties.

“How Did They Make That?”


Miriam Posner offers a modest gallery of various digital projects, virtually disassembling them according to the tools and techniques used in their production. Her goal is to show how each is made, so that others might feel empowered to build similar projects or extend the ones highlighted. The site is a helpful starting point for students beginning their own digital projects. Have students explore the site, then visit each example project, to see how the list of parts and techniques correspond to and are manifested in specific results. Get a feel for the affordances of different types of digital projects. In addition to the post, Posner also offers a video version of "How Did They Make That."

"Kits for Cultural History"


Nina Belojevic provides an introduction and rationale for the Kits for Cultural History project at the University of Victoria's Maker Lab in the Humanities. These kits help humanists explore questions and topics related to history and culture. They are not intended to be simple instruction manuals, with step-by-step instructions to complete, but rather serve as examples, encouraging inquiry, modification, and reflection. Kits include: Electric Jewels, which explores 19th-century wearables, and Tennis for Two, which looks at the first video game. The kits suggest that praxis goes deeper than simple problem solving. One obvious way to integrate these kits into the classroom is to attempt a group project recreating or extending one. From there, students could be asked to create their own kits, and to write rationales, documenting the process through which they researched and designed them.

“Lying about the Past”


Mills Kelly has taught several iterations of an undergraduate history course entitled "Lying about the Past." The course conveys historical research methods and ethics by asking students to examine and debunk historical hoaxes. For their final projects, students create a convincing hoax of their own. The results have been explosive. Alongside the emphasis on understanding history by re-shaping it, we find this an excellent example of a praxis-based syllabus, in which Kelly makes it clear that he considers his students as collaborators, and depends on their active engagement to shape the course.

The Scholars' Lab Praxis Program and Praxis Network


The Praxis Program is an extracurricular attempt to reimagine graduate training in the humanities for the demands of the digital age. Each year, the Scholars' Lab brings together six graduate students from across the humanities and social sciences to theorize, design, build, and reflect on the process of constructing a digital tool. Praxis Fellows work alongside the Scholars' Lab staff throughout the cycle of creating and launching a digital project. Before working on that project, Praxis fellows work together on a written charter. The charter provides a shared space to describe the goals of the group, the ways in which the group expects to extend credit for individual and collective work, and the overall tone for their collaborative work.

“Victorian Literature + Victorian Informatics”


Victorian Literature and Victorian Informatics is a richly detailed English syllabus exploring "canonical Victorian literature through the lens of Victorian Information theory and knowledge organization practices." Buurma blends close, middle-distant, and distant reading techniques with an emphasis on digital methods for re-reading/re-making literary texts. With its variety of workshops, demonstrations, discussions, and readings, Buurma's syllabus is exemplary in incorporating fresh critical methods and interpretative tools into a more familiar and canonical reading list. Instructors experimenting with this model could readily incorporate related readings, tools, and workshops into a smaller unit within an existing course, but it is also easy to imagine developing a new one, organized along similar topical or thematic lines. The key innovation here is the integration of digital humanities methods and skill-building into a content-based course, rather than positioning praxis as something that stands alone, outside the core curriculum.

“The Wikiblitz: A Wikipedia Editing Assignment in a First Year Undergraduate Class”

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Graham describes an in-class assignment designed to "explore how knowledge is created and represented on Wikipedia, by working to improve a single article." This assignment was situated in a course exploring historical materials on the Internet. Graham reflects on the overall course and the specifics of the Wikipedia assignment with a particular focus on preparing students to engage with and critique the tools available for writing history in our digital age. Graham's article is particularly useful in that it outlines how the assignment fit into the broader course, its expected and unexpected outcomes, and his rubric. It also shares student feedback. Graham details the work invested in preparing students for the 2-session assignment, which could smooth the process of adapting this idea for other courses.

“Writing on Clay”

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Baron's deceptively simple in-class exercise with writing on clay encourages students to think about how context-specific technology affects their composition practices, reading, and understanding across media. Foregrounding the materiality of expression, this activity makes obvious how many layers support the physical act of communication. To write on clay, a student must prepare his or her surface, estimate the expected space needed for writing, adjust methods for correcting mistakes or revising the text, and call into question ways of sharing and preserving the finished writing. An exercise like this requires little pre-planning, but does demand time for reflection and in-class discussion.


Drucker, Johanna. “Theory as Praxis: The Poetics of Electronic Textuality.” Modernism/Modernity 9.4 (2002): 683-691. Web. 20 October 2014.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2000. Print.

Ito, Mizuko, et. al. “Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design.” dml Research Hub, January, 2013. Web.

Pope, Rob. Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Studies. Psychology Press, 1995.

Thomas, Douglas and John Seely Brown. New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. n.p. 2011. Print.


Baron, Dennis E. A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Web. 20 October 2014.

Belojevic, Nina. “The Kits for Cultural History at HASTAC 2014.” Maker Lab in the Humanities. University of Victoria, 5 September 2014. Web. 20 October 2014.

Buurma, Rachel Sagner. “Victorian Literature + Victorian Informatics.” Swarthmore College, Fall 2014. Web. 20 October 2014.

Drucker, Johanna. “Theory as Praxis: The Poetics of Electronic Textuality.” Modernism/Modernity 9.4 (2002): 683-691. Web. 20 October 2014.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2000. Print.

Graham, Shawn. “The Wikiblitz: A Wikipedia Editing Assignment in a First Year Undergraduate Class (Spring 2012 version),” Writing History in the Digital Age. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds. Web. 20 October 2014.

Hancock, Charity, et. al. “Bibliocircuitry and the Design of the Alien Everday.” Textual Cultures 8.1 (2013): n. pag. Web. 20 October 2014.

Hurst, Rachel Alpha Johnston. “Doing Feminist Theory with Digital Video.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology. No. 5 (2014): n. pag. Web. 20 October 2014.

Ito, Mizuko, et. al. “Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design.” dml Research Hub, January, 2013. Web.

Kelly, T. Mills. “Lying about the Past.” George Mason University. Fall 2008. Version 1.2. Web. 20 October 2014.

Pesta, Abigail. "On Pins and Needles: Stylist Turns Ancient Hairdo Debate on Its Head." Wall Street Journal. 6 February 2013. Web.

Pope, Rob. Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Studies. Psychology Press, 1995.

Posner, Miriam. "How Did They Make That?" Miriam Posner: Blog 29 August 2013. Web. 20 October 2014.

Praxis Network

Rosner, Daniela K. “Extraordinary Materials.” California College of the Arts, Fall 2011. Web. 20 October 2014.

Scholars’ Lab. “Charter.” University of Virginia Library, August 2014. Web. 20 October 2014.

Stacey, David E. Review of Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literacy, by Rob Pope. JAC Online 17.1 (1997): n. pag. Web. 20 October 2014.

Thomas, Douglas and John Seely Brown. New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. n.p. 2011. Print.