network graphs

Teaching Online with ViaX

Education has recently been turned on its head as schools all over the world have been forced to migrate their instruction online at the drop of a hat. I have already written a post about how I had to manage such a change in the context of the creative media education we provide at SAE Institute Paris. That said, one of the reasons I was able to make that change so quickly was because of my experience teaching online through the Chinese EdTech, ViaX. Indeed, both during and after my Ph.D., I actively sought out opportunities to work online, as I figured it was the perfect combination of my interests in both the humanities and STEM fields. And since graduating, my work with ViaX as well as with other EdTech companies (more posts to come) has grown in scope. Since I know that many Ph.D.s who are looking to transition out of the academy and into EdTech, I figured that this post might help people understand exactly what this sort of work entails.

1. Getting the Job

In January 2018, I was frantically finishing my dissertation and looking for jobs. I had done some curriculum design work with an EdTech company called Transparent Language the previous summer, as well as an intense amount of teaching English online. While I had a lot of experience teaching French language and literature in a traditional classroom setting at Princeton, as well as mentoring individual students through my work at the Princeton Writing Center, I loved these experiences since they gave me a glimpse into another type of education. Like many people, I had taken a few online classes throughout my own education, but was always somewhat dissatisfied. Curriculum design and teaching online courses myself made me feel like I could correct or improve upon those very aspects that I had found less engaging in my own student experience.

Well, it was right around this time that I got an email from ViaX saying that they found my profile and research interesting and that they suspected that their students might like to take a class with me. The email had a number of encoding issues, so had actually ended up in my spam folder (it turns out that this is a common issue when Chinese emails are received on non-Chinese servers) — thank goodness I checked! After I responded to this preliminary email, I had two interviews with one of their representatives, the second of which was more like a brainstorming about the type of class I could teach. Since their students were very interested in technical training and since they were leaning towards project-based learning, I proposed a course on Digital Humanities that would cover computer-assisted text analysis, something I had a lot of experience with myself, but not much formal training in. I was happy to see from that second interview that we were on the same page, so they sent me a contract and scheduled my first group workshop!

2. Curriculum Design

Before teaching my first workshop in April-May 2018, I had to design the class. And while I had dabbled in curriculum design before as I mentioned above, that was primarily for asynchronous instruction, namely designing reading assignments, multiple-choice quizzes, and various assessments for a class that would not happen in real time. This time, I had to design five classes of two hours each that would be taught synchronously via Zoom, and interface I had never used before save for a few online interviews. On top of that, I had to figure out how to teach technical skills (text encoding, making network graphs, etc.) in such a setting.

My first instinct was to structure the course according to a specific set of texts so that all students would have the same exercises, but then I realized that students would not all have the same interests. It’s true that I could have given them texts that I had already studied and encoded, but this would only be reproducing a certain kind of thinking. Then it hit me — by letting students choose their own topics, they would develop both their critical, analytical skills as well as the technical ones that got them in the classroom in the first place! With that in mind, I began by designing the homework assignments, with each one consisting of a technical assignment to introduce students to the specific tool they were studying that week, and another one more conceptual. The conceptual assignments were cumulative, building on one another to help students arrive at the final assignment, a research proposal.

Then, I began to design the lessons. Since I was used to teaching language classes, I wanted to foster active student participation through pointed questions. Therefore, I structured each lesson to include a number of different types of teaching: a mixture of lecturing, conceptual discussions, technical group activities, student presentations, and more. I hoped that this pedagogical diversity would allow all students to feel comfortable interacting in class, which I knew would help demystify these technical tools. Overall, I was thrilled to get to design the sort of class I wish I had had before starting my digital humanities work!

3. Online Teaching

My first experience teaching my ViaX workshop online was rewarding, but difficult. While I had designed each class with a number of interactive activities, I found it very difficult to get the students to engage with those activities. In class, the first issue I had was that most students signed into Zoom with their Chinese names, which I couldn’t read. Another issue with participation came from technical issues — when all students had their microphones on, I also heard a lot of echos and background noise. Yet, I didn’t want to discourage students from talking. I learned that it was extremely important to set the ground rules in the first lesson, or even before. While these sound like very minor issues, they turned out to be essential to keep the class running smoothly, and my Teaching Assistant was able to help a lot with online classroom etiquette. Finally, it was a challenge to encourage student participation. Not only is it unnatural to participate in an online classroom, but many of the students told me that they weren’t used to this sort of seminar-style class, as in China, the educational system is much more oriented towards lecturing and rote memorization. That said, little by little, I’ve managed to encourage more and more participation in these classes, which all students admit is extremely useful for them.

In addition to the classroom dynamic, certain aspects of the material that seemed second nature to me seemed extremely difficult for the students — for instance, many did not know what a plain text file was, let alone have any idea about how computers function. I realized that, for the next time I taught the class, I had to explain everything, even if I wouldn’t necessarily have considered it in a traditional classroom. Especially considering that many students did not feel comfortable speaking in class, it was hard for me to tell what they understood and what they needed more help on. This was why I also redesigned the homework assignments, making them far more user friendly as well as mandatory, so that I would at least have an email from each student every week. I will likely write another post about online teaching tips and tricks, but overall I have learned that the same pedagogical techniques apply in the online classroom, but are even more important online: especially, setting ground rules, encouraging participation, varying the rhythm of the classes, being explicit about learning objectives, and structuring the delivery so students are constantly in their proximal zone of development.

4. Consulting

In my first six months of working with ViaX, I was consistently impressed with the company’s mission and focus. Something that made me even happier with this job was that this respect was reciprocated — the ViaX team was always available to discuss ideas and work on improving the service together, resulting in my being invited to be a member of their Consulting Board. For instance, when I mentioned to them that their recruitment email had ended up in my spam folder, they were interested in how they could better recruit instructors. We collaborated a lot on this, and now I am often an important part in the hiring process, as many potential instructors want to talk with someone who is happy working with this company. I’ve also helped them with their website, I’ve participated in their webinar series about how to design a popular online class, and much more.

Working with ViaX has not only allowed me to improve my teaching, curriculum design, and consulting skills, but it has also given me a wonderful collection of friendly colleagues. Now I have WeChat on my phone and a dozen or so people I am in constant contact with — I’ve been learning about Chinese culture and education, sharing food pictures, and I even learned that my name in Chinese can be written like this: 娜塔莉 (apparently it’s not a real “name,” but it sounds the same and shows that I’m a girl). They have even sent me a lovely calendar for 2019, and most recently, a huge pack of masks since they were hard to come by in France during confinement!

Digital Humanities Summer School

Thanks to a travel grant from the Center for Digital Humanities @ Princeton, I have just completed the intensive week-long Digital Humanities summer school at the OBVIL laboratory at La Sorbonne. OBVIL stands for the “Observatoire de la vie littéraire” or the observatory of literary life. After my Digital Oulipo project and continued work on the Oulipo Archival Project, I cannot agree more with the metaphor of an observatory. Digital Humanities allow researchers to examine from a distance, which complements the traditional literary scholarship of “close readings.” Now more than ever, I believe humanities scholarship needs both perspectives to succeed.

In this intensive and rich program, I was able to continue to develop my skills in XML-TEI that I had been learning through the Oulipo Archival Project. Furthermore, I discovered exciting new software such as TXM, Phoebus, Médite, and Iramuteq and how they can be used to learn more about large corpuses of text. My favorite part of this program was that it was a specifically French introduction to European developments in the digital humanities, allowing me to broaden my perspective on the discipline.

Here is a brief summary of what I learned day by day. I am happy to answer any specific questions by email. Feel free to contact me if you want to know more about the OBVIL summer school, the specific tools discussed there, or just about digital humanities.

Day 1

The first day of the summer school was a general introduction to the history of digital humanities methods and how to establish a corpus to study using these digital methods. It was especially interesting for me to learn the history of these methods I have been experimenting with for months. I had no idea that the Textual Encoding Initiative (TEI) had been invented in 1987, before I was even born, as a new form of “literate” programming.

Surprisingly, the most useful workshop was a basic introduction to the various states of digital texts. While I knew most of the types of digital documents already as a natural byproduct of using computers in my day-to-day life, it was useful to discuss the specific terminology (in French even!) used to describe these various forms of texts and the advantages and disadvantages of each. For instance, while I knew that some PDFs were searchable while others are not, it was still useful to discuss how to create such documents, the advantages of each, and how to move from one medium to another.

Day 2

The second day of the summer school began by asking the not-so-simple question of “what’s in a word?” In the following sessions, we learned about everything from how to analyze word frequencies in texts to how to treat natural language automatically, through tokenization (segmenting text into elementary unities), tagging (determining the different characteristics of those unities), and lemmatization (identifying the base form of words).  We then had specific workshops meant to introduce us to ready-made tools we could use to treat language automatically. We did not discuss NLTK, however, which I am currently using to program the S+7 method for my Digital Oulipo project, most likely because using NLTK requires a basic understanding of programming in Python, which was out of the scope of this short summer school.

The second half of this day was an introduction to text encoding, how it works and why it is useful for analyzing large corpuses. While I was already familiar with everything covered here, it was still interesting to hear about the applications of TEI to something other than the Oulipo archive. It was especially interesting to hear about applications of TEI to highly structured texts such as 17th century French theater.

Day 3

This day was extremely technical. First we looked at co-occurrences of characters in Phèdre as an example of network graphs. Since the main technical work had been done for us, it was somewhat frustrating to be confronted with a result that we had no part in creating. While as a former mathematician, I knew how to understand the content of a network graph, many other students did not and took its spatial organization as somehow meaningful or significant. This demonstrates a potential pitfall in digital humanities research. One needs a proper technical understanding of the tools and how they function in order to interpret the results with accuracy.

In addition to network graphs, we also discussed how to use the XPath feature in Oxygen (an XML editor) to count various elements in classical theater such as spoken lines by characters, verses, or scenes in which characters take part. Once again, it was interesting to see how a computer could facilitate such a boring manual labor and how it could potentially be of interest for a scholar, but interpreting such statistical aspects of large corpuses of text is tricky work for someone whose last statistics class was in high school. This gave me the idea to create a course that would properly teach students how to use these tools and understand the results through workshops.

Day 4

This was another ready-made tool workshop in which we discussed using OBVIL’s programs Médite and Phoebus to edit online texts more efficiently and find differences between different editions. This was very interesting, but probably more useful for publishing houses than for graduate students.

The rest of the day was meant to introduce us to Textometry using TXM, but there were far too many technical issues with the computers provided by the university that we spent the entire time downloading the software on our personal laptops. This was not only frustrating, but ironic. One would think that a summer school in digital humanities run mostly by computer scientists would not have such technical difficulties.

Day 5

The final day of the program (Friday the 9th was devoted to discussing our personal projects with the staff) continued the work on TXM. In fact, as my section had had such issues the previous day, I decided to switch into the other group. This was a good decision, as the head of that session was more pedagogical in his approach, assigning a series of small exercises to introduce us to TXM. By experimenting with tokenization using TreeTagger and concordance of words, we were able to begin to write a bit of code that could parse a text and find specific groups of words.

This introduction was practical and hands on, but I wish there had been more. While I now know vaguely how to use TXM to analyze texts, I do not have experience coming up with the questions that such techniques might help me answer. This seems to me the key to effective digital humanities scholarship — asking a solvable question and knowing which tools can help you resolve it.