Practical Training for the Digitally Il/literate Anthropologist

Most graduate programs in anthropology require us to take a course in methods to prepare us to “do anthropology” on our own. In class, we discuss what makes a good research question, the trade-offs between qualitative and quantitative data, and the importance of taking good field notes. Sometimes we even get to conduct research and experience firsthand how to enter a community, recruit informants, transcribe interviews, and code data. This practical training allows us to try out the methods we are learning in class and troubleshoot any problems we have along the way with our professors and peers. In this post, I want to talk about the benefits of this model for cultivating a related, necessary, but often neglected skill-set in graduate school – digital literacy.

Digital literacy is loosely defined as the ability to understand and use a range of digital technologies. For an anthropologist, these are specific tools such as social media, digital repositories, or web design that can significantly augment our success as scholars. Most of us have heard about the benefits of using Twitter or have figured out how to post lecture slides onto our online course management systems. However, I have found from personal experience that it is not enough to know that these tools exist – we also need to understand and navigate the complex digital cultures which they (and we) are bound up in.

I mentioned in my previous post that I am a fellow in the Cultural Heritage Informatics (CHI) Program at Michigan State University. The purpose of this fellowship is for graduate students to gain hands on experience with a range of digital tools which can improve our teaching, research and professional networking. However, the value from these experiences comes from the fact that they are contextualized within broader discussions relevant to anthropology today. Examples include creating a digital article and understanding the controversy over open access publications; developing a mobile app for archaeologists and figuring out how to incorporate this technology into ones fieldwork; or designing a digital archive and discussing the importance of persevering and increasing access to large bodies of data.

During my time in CHI, I realized that each of these technologies comes with its own set of social and technical rules that are important to consider long before we can expect to become great tweeters,  online instructors, and anthropologists. For me, having a safe and structured space to experiment with these tools was an important part of realizing this. When I made a mistake, felt overwhelmed, or was just plain clueless about where to start – I had a support system to work through it and get the most out of the digital tools I was using. Although I can’t share every lesson I learned this year in one post, the following are a few examples of common misconceptions I and others have had about what it means to be a digitally literate anthropologist.

Digital Identity – in a world where most search committees will Google you before they hire you, learning how to manage you digital identity is an indispensable skill. It’s not just about removing all those questionable Facebook photos, but also making sure to put your best face forward on all social media outlets. However, figuring out how to do this effectively can take time. It is unlikely that by simply creating a website or a Twitter account that you will immediately reap its benefits. It would be like walking to your field site and assuming your participants are going to scream the answers to your research questions at you (wouldn’t that be great!) Social media has its own weird culture – take a few weeks to learn and observe before you ever open your mouth (or start blogging/tweeting). Also, make sure to ask your colleagues for constructive feedback about your blog, tweets, website, etc. so you know how others perceive your digital presence. For more information on how to manage your online academic identity, check out this blogpost from Katy Meyers at GradHacker.

Copyright and Fair use – as the online course supervisor for my department, one of the most common questions I get from faculty is “can I post this online?” This is an extremely important issue to consider before scanning an entire book or digitizing a Hollywood film that you would normally show in your course without a second thought. Intellectual property laws can be very confusing, especially in a digital environment when the rules are still being sorted out. For this reason, it is extremely beneficial to work with other colleagues in the development of your own course. They will be able to help flag potential copyright issues and offer alternative solutions which may save you a lot of headache in the long run. I mention this and other issues that are specific to teaching anthropology online in my article on Teaching Anthropology in the Digital Age in the spring issue of General Anthropology. If you are really confused about fair use and need help figuring out the policies, check out this detailed overview from the Stanford University Libraries.

HTML and web design – I have gone back and forth on how much someone really needs to know about web design as an anthropologist and as a graduate student. On the one hand, knowing HTML, CSS, Java or Python can allow you to do some really incredible things with your data. For example I am currently working on a project in using D3.JS which offers a number of really cool ways to visualize qualitative and quantitative data.  Check out some examples of what exactly that means. Learning basic web design has also allowed me to build my professional website which I can customize however I want. On the other hand, we are so busy in graduate school is it really worth the time to learn all of this stuff? It sure is, especially if you can do a little at a time. There are a number of self-paced programs which allow you to learn the language of the web in a hands-on way. The one I use is called Code Academy and is absolutely free. In the CHI fellowship, we completed Code Academy together which allowed us to troubleshoot our final projects with each other along the way. Although it does take time, the truth is we will never have more flexibility in our academic careers to learn some of these fundamental skills.


I realize that my experience in digital literacy training at Michigan State is unusual.  I have been fortunate enough to get involved in programs like the CHI fellowship and the CHI field school and work with mentors who understand and emphasize the importance of acquiring these skills in graduate school (if not sooner). After all, digital literacy training is not about becoming a “digital anthropologist” – it’s about “doing anthropology” in an increasingly digital world.

What kinds of digital literacy training are offered in your program? What kinds of misconceptions have you had about digital literacy in anthropology? Let us know in the comments section and stay tuned for my next post on demystifying MOOCs – an interview with the creator of the Foundations of Science MOOC at Michigan State University.

4 thoughts on “Practical Training for the Digitally Il/literate Anthropologist

  1. The CHI Program sounds great, and I wish it’s something my grad students had the time and money to participate in. Here at UWF, I gave a proseminar this spring on Presenting Anthropology, which touched on some of the current issues in anthro (e.g., social media, open access, digital identities), although we spent more time creating projects than having discussions. Blog posts about the course are here (, and several students have kept up their digital presence through blogs and tumblrs. It was a fun class, but it’s not something we regularly offer.

  2. There are also a lot of really nice tools that can be used effectively and creatively in the field (e.g. Evernote, smartpens) that can go far beyond a digital audio or video recorder. 🙂

  3. Actually my undergraduates doing senior independent ethnorgraphic research have been using digital media as part of their ethnographic praxis for a number of years.
    Such research topics have include: conflict resolution on Reddit; _Harry Potter_ in Globalization including fan fiction; the place of electronic media in undergraduate volunteer associations; the “personhood” vs reification of vocaloids. In fact, I advise all of my undergraduate ethnographers to be aware of the place of electronic praxis in their work.
    My Anthropology 100 students watch Amber Case’s TED presentations on the nature of cyborg anthropology and conduct a class research exercise related to the place of digital praxis in their own lives in place of a rather useless library research paper. They learn to keep a journal and devise basic coding, then share their research in a series of panels. They are also required to read some respected online news reports about the nature of digital media in developing nations in order to attempt a holistic perspective that requires they use the vocabulary and cultural relativism that was part of the “basics” of the course.
    Several recent graduates hope to go on in this area. Any advice for grad schools that will facilitate and mentor such a research interest?

  4. For graduate programs that address the digital aspect of people’s lives, I have found only one graduate program in anthropology, in England at Leeds. There are a number of interdisciplinary graduate programs available in the U.S–these include foci for those in the social sciences, as well as in the technological arenas. Apparently, behind the US Government, Microsoft is the biggest employer of applied anthropologists. Much of its research is proprietary.

    Is an interdisciplinary focus the way to go if a graduate student is interested in the relationship between digital media and culture? Should one pursue a ph.d. in anthropology and cobble together the support needed to make it work? Go to England? Would appreciate feedback from graduate students since so many of my undergrads are so interested.

    With appreciation. Happy to take it offline as well.

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