DH & The Death of the Essay

In his blog post titled “What’s Wrong With Writing Essays,” Mark L. Sample describes how Digital Humanities can be applied in a more hands on and pedagogical way. Sample makes the claim that DH’s one great pièce de résistance, if you will, is that it has the power to supplant one of the traditional methods of student evaluation in the Humanities: the essay.

In his post, Sample makes the following statement:

 “Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking, be composed of words? Why not images? Why not sound? Why not objects?”

Why must students be evaluated only by how well they write or by how they articulate their ideas using words only? The essay, Samples argues, as a main method of evaluation, does not allow students to think critically nor does it allow any room for flexibility and creativity. Why, Sample asks, do we ask students to put all their time and effort into writing papers that “mean nothing to no one” or that no one will ever read?

However, the bigger issue at stake here seems to be the shift from scholars as researchers to scholars as teachers. This change is perhaps due to the ever shrinking market for tenured professors and an increase in adjunct lecturers. Therefore, instead of a focus on academic publishing and solitary work, there is a need for scholars who can teach and who actively look for new ways to engage their students in the classroom. Why this shift in teaching styles and student evaluation? Because traditional teaching methods ultimately fail students. There are many different ways that students learn- by seeing, hearing, doing- and these, Sample argues, should be implemented in the classroom.

And this is where DH comes into play. In contrast to other less hands on methods, DH facilitates student engagement using otherwise incongruous material objects. This practice, in turn, allows students to develop critical thinking skills, as they must reflect on the building process and the product that they are creating. This more active learning style is one that Sample incorporates into his own teaching- an approach that he calls creative analysis:

With this in mind, I am moving away from asking students to write, toward asking them instead to weave—to build, to fabricate, to design. I don’t want my students to become miniature scholars. I want them to be aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines, all the while through their engagement with seemingly incongruous materials developing a critical thinking practice about the process and the product. I call this type of critical thinking creative analysis” 

How does DH allow for more active learning? Well, the answer is that it can foster student learning in a number of ways. One of these methods is through games and gamification. In his video games studies class, for example, Sample has his students design an abstract visualization of a video game. In his post, he showcases the work of one of his students, who creatively “mapped” Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1991) onto a piece of driftwood. This method, Samples proudly claims, articulates the static nature of the video game and what the student was thinking, more than words or an essay ever could.


With Sample’s blog post in mind, I’ve been trying to think of other ways that DH can be used to encourage more engaged and participatory student learning. A few active learning sessions that incorporate DH and that could be used in the classroom include working together to create an interactive map, having your class update a wiki, or using data visualization and text analysis to create a word cloud.

How would you use DH in a classroom setting?

Sample, Mark L. “What’s Wrong With Writing Essays,” n.d. 20 June 2015. Retrieved from http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/42