The provocative role of the digital (in education and in the humanities)

Written by: Spencer Greenhalgh

Primary Source: Spencer Greenhalgh

This post is inspired by two other posts. The first is one written by my friend and colleague Leigh Graves Wolf, who wrote a about a Twitter discussion we were both involved in regarding whether educational technology was (already) its own field. The second is one that I recently wrote for the digital humanities seminar that I’m currently enrolled in and in which I suggest that a particular DH project might be too much digital and not enough humanities.

Based on my limited experience, this appears to be a common refrain in internal discussions about the nature, direction, and destiny of the digital humanities. Forte (2015) suggests that virtual archaeology “was born without an adequate theoretical background” (p. 296), Phillips and Rachman (2015) assert the importance of closely “integrat[ing] humanist questions” (p. 312) with digital methods, and Risam (2015) writes that the “relationship between theory and praxis is integral to the digital humanities” (para. 4).

I find this concern compelling, not least because it echoes concerns I (and others) have about my own field. Like in the humanities, research and practice in the field of education runs a constant risk of falling prey to buzzwords and unfounded assumptions—in short, there’s a very real danger that an educator exploring new technologies will become seduced by the shiny rather than guided by sound pedagogy.

Despite these concerns, I also want to make sure that our fear of “getting lost in the woods” doesn’t keep us from exploring there where there is not yet a path. For example, even if—in my previous post—I criticized the Kenya-Tweet project for not having a clear humanistic focus, I also described it as compelling enough to serve as an invitation to DH researchers to find a humanistic focus that those methods would serve well.

In this post, I’d like to flesh out that idea a little more and, in so doing, suggest that there is a provocative role to be played by those of us who incorporate technology into education, the humanities, or any other field. In so doing, I’ll draw from both the educational technology texts that have guided my graduate education thus far and the digital humanities texts that I’m just starting to read.

A rapidly changing world

The first point I’d like to make requires a visit back to Leigh’s post about whether educational technology is its own field. The discussion in that post more accurately revolves around whether ed tech has (or has not) already achieved this status, but I’d like to reframe the question a little bit differently: Should educational technology be its own field? I think that the answer is yes, and the best argument I’ve found for this is from Mishra and Koehler (2006), who suggest that teachers can no longer expect to use the same educational technologies at the end of their career that they learned to use at the beginning. The rapid “turnover” of today’s technologies requires that teachers be more conscious of their technology knowledge and, I argue, that researchers be dedicated to keeping up with this changing landscape.

Can the same logic be used to argue for digital humanities as a distinct field? Svensson and Goldberg (2015) describe DH as a “quickly evolving, contested and exciting field” (p. 1); while they acknowledge its roots as far back as the 1940s, surely it is the contemporary “quickly evolving” element of DH that (at least in part) makes it “contested and exciting.”

In short, things are changing so quickly in both education and the humanities that it’s worth having a subset of these disciplines that concentrates on the changes themselves.

A reciprocal relationship

So, perhaps educational technology and digital humanities are fields that are informed by their parent disciplines but distinguish themselves by their dedicated attention to how these parent disciplines are being changed by the contemporary technological landscape. Describing the relationship between these fields and their parent disciplines in this way reinforces the idea (described above) that educational technology should not stray from the bounds of education, just as digital humanities should not stray from the bounds of humanities.

That relationship isn’t just one way, though. Salomon and Almog (1998) argue that just as educational psychology ought to inform effective applications of educational technology, educational technology is actively challenging the field of educational psychology to come up with theoretical explanations that simply did not exist before. Are the learning theories of the 20th century capable of explaining and predicting learning that happens on smartphones and tablets? There’s no way to know until we start learning with smartphones and tablets and start studying what that looks like… and if the educational technologist finds information that strays from the marked path, it may serve to invite the educational psychologist to consider whether the path ought to be enlarged, extended, or even replaced.

I would guess that a similarly provocative approach would be of value in the digital humanities. Kenya-Tweet (or “virtual archaeology,” or any other DH project or trend) might very well stray from the theoretical-methodological balance that is currently valued in the humanities. Yet, in using methods that do not fit perfectly with a humanist question of interest, are DH researchers inviting their colleagues to come up with questions that do fit those same methods?

Of course, this doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind. Those of us who accept this provocative role should do so in a way that’s intentional, reflective, based on principle, and respectful of the established theory and conventions that already exist… but if our goal is to help the broader field stretch itself, remold itself, and improve itself, then we may do it a disservice by never going beyond what it is currently capable of explaining and understanding.


Forte, M. (2015). Cyber archaeology: A post-virtual perspective. In P. Svensson & D. T. Goldberg (Eds.), Between humanities and the digital (pp. 295-309). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2006). Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108, 1017-1054. Retrieved from

Phillips, N., & Rachman, S. (2015). Literature, neuroscience, and digital humanities. In P. Svensson & D. T. Goldberg (Eds.), Between humanities and the digital (pp. 311-328). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Risam, R. (2015). Beyond the margins: Intersectionality and the digital humanities. Digital Humanities Quarterly,9(2).

Salomon, G., & Almog, T. (1998). Educational psychology and technology: A matter of reciprocal relations. Teachers College Record, 100, 222-241.

Svensson, P., & Goldberg, D. T. (Eds.) (2015). Between humanities and the digital. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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Hi there! My name is Spencer Greenhalgh, and I am a student in the Educational Psychology and Educational Technology doctoral program at Michigan State University. I came to Michigan State University with a strong belief in the importance of an education grounded in the humanities. As an undergraduate, I studied French and political science and worked as a teaching assistant in both fields. After graduation, I taught French, debate, and keyboarding in a Utah private school before coming to MSU, where I plan to study how technology can be used to help students connect the humanities with their lives. I have a particular interest in the use of games and simulations to promote ethical reasoning and explore moral dilemmas, but am eager to study any technology that can help students see the relevance of studying language, culture, history, and government.

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