One of the most common things I hear from colleagues who seem terrified by DAH is that it requires too much technology, takes too much class time, or just seems too out there for them. This post is for them, or for anyone else that thinks teaching DAH always has to involve computers, the internet, coding, or complicated software. It is my tried and true metadata exercise. Because I often scaffold assignments to help students learn about certain aspects of DAH that relate to a course project, I tend to do this exercise multiple times. The first time can be messy, with students trying to figure out what to write. But by the next couple of times we can have more complex discussions about metadata.
Here are the nuts-and-bolts of the exercise.
Students read a few short blog posts or other online sources that explain what metadata is.
I then ask students to create metadata for a specific object that we’ve discussed, possibly one from the previous class session or one they read about for the day’s lecture. Because I often use Omeka, I have them generate metadata using Dublin Core elements. Students work in teams to fill out this “easy” and “objective” information. Simple, right?
Inevitably, students get confused and frustrated. It is harder than they realize. What are they supposed to write? What is the right answer? And here is where the beautiful magic begins to happen. We then get to start an initial conversation about metadata’s fiction of objectivity. About how it creates meaning, reinforces biases or challenges them, or fails altogether.
The next time we do this exercise, I tend to give them an object that is much more difficult to categorize. Let’s say something that defies traditional art historical categories. Inevitably, students want to work through what we should write, and how what we write can completely alter how people access this information and how they understand it. We talk about ontology and epistemology. We talk about art historical terminology and stylistic categories. We talk about the history of art history. Students leave with questions. Usually really excellent questions.
And I do this entire exercise with pretty standard tech: paper and a pencil or pen. That’s it.
Certain DAH skills or ideas can be introduced in very low tech ways. This activity about metadata also allows students to think about a number of other topics that relate to the field of art history. It has been one of my most successful exercises, and students always feel empowered just knowing what metadata is, what it can do, and what it cannot do. They love thinking about how knowledge is structured.
So, colleagues who worry that DAH is not for them: what do you think? Could this work for you?