The Digital Fellows spent the first few weeks of this semester completing a number of digital challenges. Depending on internet tutorials and each other, we learned how to download XAMPP or MAMP for a local installation of WordPress on our laptops and began to trudge through manipulating CSS and PHP, slowly but surely. It was a group assignment, meaning that if one of us failed, we all did. Through flurries of emails, meetings in person, and the occasional phone call, we triumphed as a group, proving just as many people have before us that collaboration is key for most digital projects. But an unintended side affect for me was some useful introspection into the ways that individuals learn within a group setting.
Some people like to know the “why” of everything they learn, (for instance the overarching concepts of how PHP relates to HTML); others just want to know that a formula works. People comprehend information in myriad ways. For every stage of our project, there were dozens of tutorials available on the internet. The quality varied wildly, but even among the best of those, none stood out as perfect. The members of the group had different criteria as to what made an ideal tutorial—lots of screen shots for some, vocabulary for others, and big-picture conceptual explanations versus just the facts.
My response to this is that despite the unabashed interdisciplinarity of Digital Humanities, newbies might do well to remember what drew them to their chosen academic field. Of our group, Laura is the philosophy major. She realized pretty quickly that the logic of philosophy and the logic of hacking complement one another quite well. I teach my art history students that the key to learning images is through repetition, considering them in a variety of contexts. And sure enough, in learning to hack WordPress themes, I needed to hear the vocabulary and concepts several times, from several sources, to make them stick. Through video tutorials, a self-study book, workshops, conversations with the other fellows, and hands-on tweaking of code, I’m pushing my own boundaries a little farther with each repeated how-to.
I don’t think that everyone who studies a particular subject learns the same way, of course. But the way a person approaches her chosen field could be a useful guide to approaching digital projects as well, intuitively playing to one’s strengths and worldview. This isn’t an entirely original concept. Aaron Knoll, a consultant in the GC’s New Media Lab, notes that even if twenty people ask him the same question, they all absorb and respond to the answer in a different way. In the midst of collaborating, the way each individual approaches a project is key. As we learn to play to our strengths, I will be interested to see how the six fellows incorporate their personalized methodologies into a cohesive group.