Playing in the Digital Sandbox

In the weeks leading up to the Digital Sandbox Workshop, this blog will feature ruminations from the IUPUI community on Digital Humanities. This first entry, appropriately enough, is from Nancy Brown. Nancy graduated with her MA in history from IUPUI in May 2013, and will begin her doctorate in history this Fall at Purdue University. In essence, the genesis of this workshop was Nancy’s idea, after she plunged into the world of Digital Humanities in the Fall of 2012 while serving on a search committee for a Digital Historian position. We are excited to have Nancy contributing to both this blog and as a panelist.

When I heard that the organizing committee had named the upcoming fall workshop, “Digital Sandbox,” I smiled. I often use the expression, ‘play computer’ when I am working on a computer project. “Digital Sandbox” reminded me of the fun my children had while spending hours outside in their sandbox digging holes and building castles. After a quick Google search, I was surprised to find that “Digital Sandbox” is associated with with “safety” and “risk management.”  Perhaps it’s my age showing, but since when did a sandbox become synonymous with safety?

If you observe toddlers play in the sand, inevitably one of them will taste the sand and quickly discover how difficult it is to get out of a mouth. Someone else will experiment with throwing sand resulting in a painful lesson on sand in the eyes. Meanwhile, the ever present danger of bees, sunburn and evidence of a visit by the neighbor’s cat lurk in the background. As kids grow older, sandbox time includes arguments over who gets the special dump truck and complaints over smashed creations, as well as the risk of the not-so-friendly-swing of an angry shovel. Still, when the kids went out to play, the sandbox was a favorite destination.

It’s hard to play in a sandbox without getting dirty and having a few upsets. The same holds true for playing on a computer. We make mistakes. It’s certainly painful the first time your computer crashes in the middle of a writing project that you hadn’t backed up or after you spend days developing a spreadsheet and entering data and then find you forget an important field. One might wonder if the value of technology outweighs the potential for catastrophe.

Perhaps we view our acquisition of technology skills as means to an end. Educators have dissected the sandbox experience to justify its inclusion in the preschool and elementary classroom. According to experts, sandboxes improve fine motor skills, foster a sense of cooperation and demonstrate cause and effect.  Similarly, we might learn programing to strengthen our logic skills and participate in blogs to improve our analytical writing ability. Of course, as a parent I care about educational value, but truthfully, we built a sandbox for the kids because sandboxes are fun. I experience the fun in a digital environment as the process of creation and discovery—even if that discovery is something as simple as figuring out how to bold  a column in Excel.  I urge you to find what you enjoy about learning and research.  Bring those intrinsic motivations to the Digital Sandbox.

Often we approach learning new computer skills in an intense, anxiety driven manner. We need to learn Omeka to make ourselves marketable. We better learn Zotero to make our thesis research manageable. Everyone keeps talking about GIS, so we place it on our growing list of things we should know but don’t.  Instead of smiling when we learn a new keyboard shortcut or how to record a macro, we continue to fret about our schedule and time commitments.  Will the time spent learning new software justify the benefit? Kids continue to dig holes even though they never get to China because of the simple pleasure in digging. My advice to the Digital Sandbox participants is to set aside your fears and embrace an attitude of play while learning technology.  I encourage you to make some sandbox friends and continue to find time to ‘play computers’ when the workshop is over.  –Nancy Brown

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