Pinning the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Curation, and Classrooms

It’s that time of year again…the point where I realize there is only about a month left of summer.  My next big task (and one of my favorites) is looming on the horizon…prepping classes for fall.  I was the dorky kid in grade school who packed my book bag two weeks in advance because I was so excited.  In college, I also kicked it up a notch by buying my books early, putting them on my shelves and admiring them for weeks before the term started. Now I am on the other side of the desk (so to speak) and I spend lots of time in the late summer thinking about what assignments to use, getting excited about readings and evaluating new tools. I also find myself collecting bits and pieces of media to share with my students.

I am a self diagnosed Digital History Hoarder so I collect links and sites and magazine articles and all manner of images, tidbits, trivia and show-and-tell items to share in class.  Those bits and pieces I bring in and share with students keep classes current and allow me to demonstrate connections from past to present and from discipline to discipline.  It also gives us a chance to talk about context, media, perspective and, digital literacy, topics that should be somewhere in the learning objectives of every class, especially in history. Many great class discussions have stemmed from magazine articles I found standing in line at the grocery store or from images I found on Google that perfectly capture a major class theme. My students also bring in bits and pieces of media that interest them.  Their explanations often start with something like: “I don’t normally read the newspaper but I saw this article and thought of our class.” Those words make me smile ear to ear: classroom learning meets lived experience meets students taking on the roll of teacher and sharing. But what do I do with all these clippings and screen captures?  Where can I pin all these great pieces and clever cartoons? One of the most annoying things about being an adjunct working at more than one institution is that I don’t have an office so I can’t pin things to my door or set up a bulletin board.  Much of this stuff ends up in the recycling bin as I walk out of class or it ends up in those damn hoarding folders on my desktop marked “save for later” or “good example for class” never to be clicked on again. More pressing is the question of how to make this information available in an interesting format for my online students, the ones I never see in person.

Back in grade school we had bulletin boards in the hallways and class pin boards to tack up “current events” and “books I’m reading” photos.  I know this is not practical at the college level but I’m thinking it is high time we start using virtual bulletin boards and pin boards as a tool for learning, teaching, curating, contextualizing and recontextualizing information. I plan to do just that this fall with class Pinterest boards. You can check out my recent foray into Pinterest at:

If you have read some of our other posts here at SH you likely already know that I teach f2f, online and hybrid courses.   I teach across disciplines in History, Sociology and Maine Studies and use multiple formats in each class and in a given semester. I teach anywhere from 2-5 classes each fall and spring and at least 1 class over the summer so I accumulate lots of bits and pieces.  These days I find myself clipping, collecting and sharing even more because I have access to so much media and information.  Every time I wander into Facebook or Twitter someone has posted something that I could turn into an example or lesson.  I have been searching for the equivalent of a portable, sophisticated bulletin board that allows me to post all sorts of media, curated to attract students attention,  arranged to be accessible and rearranged to be interesting and informative in multiple humanities and social sciences classes (no small task). I think I have found a workable solution with Pinterest.

Pinterest is a social media site that allows users to create virtual boards (usually the boards have a specific theme) and then “pin” content.  That content can be photos, videos, links etc. from around the web, pieces you upload directly or items that you “repin” from other users. Pinterest is a fairly new site, launched in 2010 and has undergone exponential growth in its short life, especially since the introduction of the Pinterest iPhone app. Currently the site gets somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 million hits per week (interesting article on that topic here).  Chances are some of my students already use Pinterest to collect and curate their own boards.  Much of the momentum on Pinterest is towards the visual and not surprisingly food, home decor, puppies, hair braids and babies are the focus of an enormous number of pins and boards (to get a sense of the most popular topics on Pinterest see here). Pinterest is especially popular among American women (which is interesting all by itself and will make for a great lesson of gender dynamics of social media in my next Sociology 101 class).  Women account for between 58% and 97% of all users (read more on that here).

The part of Pinterest that really appeals to me is the potential to reveal common links at multiple levels.  First I think Pinterest boards can be used to reinforce links between classroom content and current events.  For example, I have set up a Pinterest board that focuses on Environmental History and another that focuses on Immigration History.  I have pinned 15 examples to the Immigration History board over the past few days ranging from a story about the Irish Department of Justice lifting restrictions on the rights of Bulgarian and Romanian individuals to work in Ireland  to an image of the U.S. labor force divided by country of birth.  The Pinterest board allows me to collect these stories etc., add descriptions and arrange the content in interesting ways.  On the Environmental History board we have pinned blog posts, images, news stories and even a podcast (Radio Canada International Interview on Oil Pipeline Controversies with Sean Kheraj).  I think these boards will be very useful in juxtaposing all sorts of content and allowing for a myriad of opportunities for comparison, differentiation and contextualization. In addition I can add “pinners.” Depending on class size or topic I could add students as “pinners” and let them add to and direct the conversation.  All sorts of possibilities.

The second use I see for Pinterest is that it offers one more way to connect students to each other.  I started a Maine Events board which I plan to use with two of my classes in the fall.  Both are interdisciplinary area studies classes focused on the state of Maine.  One class is an online asynchronous class and the other is a hybrid course in which students complete about 70% of the class online and the rest in limited class meetings over the semester.  Some of the students in the hybrid class will be at remote locations around the state participating via videoconference. I have pinned a number of stories from local newspapers, photographs I took around the state, historical photographs, blog posts and fliers to the Maine Events board.  My goal is to use this board to connect students in each class and connect students between classes.  Both courses are delivered via Blackboard which isn’t very aesthetically appealing and feels sort of sterile.  I don’t want to overburden students with external sites and apps but I think Pinterest will serve as a nice catch all for those things I can’t do in Blackboard. I would like to get students around the state looking for bits and pieces of information that relate to class content and relate to classmates.  I hope to get these students curating their own pin boards focused on local Maine communities and then connecting to regional, national and international topics.

The third use I see for Pinterest is the possibility of connecting students across disciplines.  If you teach in multiple departments at multiple institutions like I do you likely end up reusing modified versions of the same examples and assignments.  Nothing wrong with this practice, in fact I think it is very important.  I use sociological examples in history and historical examples in sociology.  I use both in Maine Studies.  Often the discussions of a single example vary from class to class.  I can envision using Pinterest as a way to connect my Sociology students at the local community college to my advanced history students at UMaine.  Maybe even have them co-curating a pin board across discipline, institutional type, temporal and geographic limitations.

I have only been on Pinterest for a week so I am still feeling my way around and getting the lay of the land but I encourage you all to check it out.  You will, at first, be inundated with cute dog pictures (I fully admit that I am not immune to this…I made a board to share cute pictures and video of my dogs) but wander around and you will find things that interest you.  I also created a Digital Humanities board and a board with some of the books we have been reading.  I am now searching for others in the humanities to follow…I know there must be some digital humanists out there pinning more than pictures of cupcakes. If you are on Pinterest let me know, I would love to follow you and see what topics you are interested in. If you use Pinterest in class how has it worked for you?

14 thoughts on “Pinning the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Curation, and Classrooms

  1. I have set up boards for our 8 major habitats of our region…and for xeriscaping (waterwise gardening — we are under water restrictions)… my followers partially came over from Facebook… but have added new ones…my target audience are folks that live in our region…or people who are interested in the area..

  2. I’m fascinated by the idea you mention above of Pinterest being a largely feminine space–and by the idea that all our social media communities both favor one or the other gender and are subject to very different types of uses by members of different genders. Never gave that much thought with Facebook–but then I don’t give Facebook much thought. I’m told Twitter is a male-dominated space, though my own stream, heavily dominated by academics, does not reflect that at all. But then I read your piece, and I witness our already emerging trend with SH Pinterest boards. You’ve covered a virtual billboard with pins and launched a dozen boards, collected followers, and been liked and repinned all over the joint. I’ve barely covered a virtual refrigerator and as such have barely been noticed. I appreciate your post and the opportunities that Pinterest offers, but I don’t particularly take to it. But I wrinkle my nose at the idea that such trends can be explained away with gender alone.
    Nonetheless, the gender component is a fascinating one for social media, and I think raises some important questions as we think about deploying it in the classroom. So that’s my question…If in fact Pinterest is a female-dominated community and space, does this create a problem for using it in the classroom? Or does it create opportunities–like the obvious opportunity to talk about the nature of gender in social media communities!!

    • The gender component of social media is indeed fascinating and I am glad you brought it up Rob. All space is gendered whether physical or virtual and that is always worth discussing in the classroom (and outside). To answer your question: yes, Pinterest creates opportunities to talk about gender, femininity, masculinity, visuals, defining space, curating and performing gender etc. I can think of ways to talk about Pinterest and compare it to other social media that would work well in almost any class.

      As for using Pinterest in the classroom…a few things: I’m not sure what problem using a technology that currently appeals to more women than men presents for classroom use. If Pinterest appeals to women more than men at the moment I don’t think that indicates a flaw or something that needs to be remedied. I think that presents a somewhat unique opportunity to discuss a space (virtual) where women’s participation outnumbers men. Are there other spaces like this out there? Second, I read something this week about the power of Pinterest as a mechanism for directing consumers to retailers. Apparently Pinterest funnels more consumers than some of the other major social media platforms combined. I think this provides a good point to start a discussion about gender and consumerism. Third, I think the visual quality of Pinterest is interesting and is something that deserves consideration. We are drawn to the visual in many ways. A good conversation could be had about how/why men and women interact with the visual in the myriad ways they do. Fourth, I see a lot of crap online making fun of Pinterest as nothing more than a place for women to plan weddings they will never have, drool over clothes they cant fit into and save pictures of furniture they cant afford. I’m sure that is going on but it seems to me that we tend to make fun of Pinterest with ease because it is used more by women. I think we tend to dismiss it too easily. The fifth thing I would throw in is that there is what Bon Stewart calls “something terribly Stepford Wives about the whole practice.” Most of the stuff I scroll through every day is clean, sparkly, puppies, kittens and unicorns. And then it all gets repinned a thousand times. So there is a good conversation to be had about how social media both reflects and shapes who and what we are. Last point, Pinterest is interesting because of the virtual lack of context for pins and boards. Random images from who knows where on boards with news stories and ads and videos. Give the board one name elicit response X, name it something else, elicit response Y. For students I think this can be a great lesson in the power of curation, the implications of arranging and the politics of including/excluding.

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  5. I particularly enjoyed the picture of the “How to Save Paper” display. :-)
    I really appreciate how you’ve met the learner where they actually live and incorporated social media in such a meaningful and practical way as to improve learning.

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