Blog Post

What are the Digital Humanities? A report from the CIC | ACM Digital Humanities Meeting

This weekend, I spent two days with a brilliant group of faculty, library staff, and consortium leaders for a joint meeting to brainstorm how CIC schools (Big Ten + UChicago research institutions) and ACM schools (a group of Midwestern liberal arts colleges) can collaborate within the digital humanities.


Liberal arts institutions and research universities share an interest in reinvigorating the humanities in the public sphere and a commitment to teaching undergraduates.  In addition, ACM students often go to grad school at CIC schools, and CIC institutions frequently place their new PhDs in positions at ACM schools.  (In fact, I am an example of movement in both directions.)


What do these two types of institutions have to gain from each other?  And how do we honor the different learning and research goals of R1 and liberal arts schools?


Conversations like this one have been gaining steam recently. Organizations like NITLE are exploring the integration of "inquiry, pedagogy, and technology" specifically within the context of liberal arts education.  Rebecca Frost Davis (St. Edward’s University, NITLE Fellow) has recently conducted a survey on digital humanities at small liberal arts colleges. She explores the motivations and practices of liberal arts-based DH work, and suggests that the high-impact practices of these projects support the liberal arts mission of promoting undergraduate education and democratic citizenship.


William Pannapacker (Hope College) has written more explicitly on "Cultivating Partnerships in the Digital Humanities: What Teaching Colleges and Research Universities have to Gain from Collaboration." Preferring the more inclusive phrase "digital liberal arts," Pannapacker argues that "we pride ourselves on excellence in teaching, and we have well-coordinated curricula, but we could benefit from access to a wide range of specialists who are primarily identified with the digital humanities and who can help us with assignments, modules, courses, and projects." Working on concert to develop hybrid courses, faculty at both institutions could benefit from such a partnership.  For Pannapacker, the key is to take advantage of potential collaborators in close proximity, to develop regional networks and digital initiatives.


I have particular commitment to promoting inter-institutional collaboration, as my own research and teaching is heavily invested in a partnership between Monmouth College and the University of Iowa.  During graduate school at Iowa, I participated in an interdisciplinary research team called UCOL, which brought together faculty, staff, and students from the departments of Library and Information Science, Computer Science, English, and Art, along with partners in the Virtual Writing University and the UNESCO City of Literature board, to create a mobile app celebrating Iowa City's literary history with multimedia biographies of local writers.  My role on the team was to develop a literature course called "City of Lit" that asked undergraduate researchers to create content for the app by interviewing writers, geo-tagging maps, creating self-guided tours, and identifying Iowa City references in literature.


When I came to Monmouth College in 2011, I continued collaborating with our UCOL team to develop a course called "Local Heroes" that would bring the spirit of "City of Lit"--undergraduate research, civic pride, and interdisciplinary practice--to our community.  In partnership with the City of Monmouth, the Warren County Public Library, the Warren County Historical Society, and the Buchanan Center for the Arts, we've just launched the Warren County Virtual Museum and are developing exhibits curated by college students and citizen scholars.


"Local Heroes" is offered as part of our interdisciplinary senior capstone course called “Citizenship,” which prepares students to engage in "conscientious action" in their communities.  Continuing to collaborate with my partners at Iowa has allowed me to continue an active research agenda that dovetails with my teaching, and it has given me an opportunity to collaborate inter-institutionally and locally on a project that I find professionally and personally meaningful.


My experience with DH-based collaboration is something shared by many participants at the meeting, and I was energized by the amount of enthusiasm generated by imagining new partnerships.  Liz Ciner (ACM) began the meeting by pointing out how many of our institutional seals include books at the center.  “Books are our talismans,” she said.  “The Digital Humanities are disruptive, but exciting.”  That welcome set the tone for our conversation.


While the meeting focused on potential means of collaboration, I want to highlight a few projects we learned about to illustrate the “best practices” of digital humanities that emerged from the meeting.  


At its core, Digital Humanities values…


1.   Undergraduate Research


Digital humanities projects give undergraduates new skills, but also new ways of thinking and creating knowledge.  Moreover, undergraduate research allows faculty at both colleges and universities to build connections between their teaching and research.


One of the projects I was most excited about was "The Ashplant Project" created by Erik Simpson (Grinnell).  Named after the walking stick in Ulysses, his student-created scholarly companion to the novel is "not a crutch, but an instrument for pointing, drawing, and breaking things."  Within the digital sandbox, his students developed an impressive array of research projects ranging from a spreadsheet of place mentions outside Dublin to an interactive bookshelf of Leopold Bloom’s favorite volumes.  The project taught students how to research, write, and edit, but also developed their digital literacy.


Martyn Smith (Lawrence) talked about a reflection-focused approach to digital literacy in his "Apple Google Facebook" class, that prompts students to think critically about the digital goggles through which they view the world.  Lawrence is developing a fabulous network of digitally engaged courses from the freshman seminar to senior projects, including a digital literacy certificate that is in the works.  I was surprised and excited by how many institutions either have or are creating digital certificates and minors for undergraduate and graduate students (Michigan State, UW-Madison, UN-Lincoln and others).


Liz Elliot (Northwestern) teaches an undergraduate course in which students co-author a dictionary of Northwestern.  Students learn how digital media change the way we think engage with dictionaries, and they learn about the prejudice that can be found in dictionaries (and how digital tools may mitigate this prejudice).    


Susannah Ottaway (Carleton, director of Humanities Center) shared her "DH Interns" or "DH Associates" program, in which work study money is used to provide training to students and set up centers for students to work on DH projects for faculty.  She talked about the ways in which students take ownership of their work--in addition to learning about the technology, students gain project management skills and learn how to collaborate with faculty and staff.


In each of these projects, digital humanities projects are revolutionizing possibilities for undergraduate research.



2.   Collaborative Research


Another theme that emerged in our meeting is the idea that DH research is collaborative--between disciplines, between institutions, and between faculty, students, and staff.  

For instance, Timothy Howe (St. Olaf College) teaches a collaborative research and pedagogy project in Digital Archaeology, using high definition cameras and on-site research to help graduate and undergraduate students to work together.

Mary Finn (Northwestern) talked about a grant-funded DH workshop for faculty, which requires faculty proposals to either develop a new course or include undergraduates as researcher partners.

Dean Rehberger (Michigan State) and William Pannapacker (Hope College) talked about the Mellon Scholar program at Hope College which aims to use digital humanities projects as a means to expand collaboration on campus.  The Digital Liberal Arts Fellow program, for instance, is a half-time position for advanced graduate students to co-lead a faculty development series in digital liberal arts, and part of a larger initiative to add a DH component to freshman seminar.  Hope faculty are participating in faculty development programs at MSU, and they are actively preparing undergraduates at Hope to be competitive applicants for graduate programs at MSU.  There are also plans in the works for a joint online journal and collaborative hybrid DH courses in order to "naturalize" the digital liberal arts as a daily part of the liberal arts.   



3.   Community Engagement


Because Digital Humanities projects are place-based, problem-based, and project-based, they are ripe for community engagement.

Elizabeth Lorang (UN-Lincoln--Center for Digital Research in the Humanities) described classes at her institution that include both a humanities-based challenge and a technology-based challenge.  One offshoot of this project-based pedagogical approach is "The History Harvest," a public digital archive project.  Undergraduate researchers contribute as researchers and curators, alongside local historians from libraries, museums, and historical societies.

Chris Wells (Macalester), in collaboration with George Vrtis (Carleton College), is building a virtual tour of the Minneapolis waterfront.  Their academic book on Minnesota’s environmental history provided a platform for a public history initiative intended for a public audience, in which a smartphone stands in for a tour guide.  They use Omeka and "curate scape," an Omeka plug-in, to curate the Minnesota landscape.  

Many of these digital, community-engaged projects are deeply rooted to a sense of place and take advantage of digital mapping technologies.  Ned O'Gorman (U Illinois) talked about "reframing the online video archive," using layers of archival documents and commentary connected to video archives to create a rich interconnectivity of archives and user contributions.  Jennifer Huiliano & Renee Ater (U Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities) shared their interactive mapping project, which uses Google Earth to track movements of people, movements, and art on Google maps, providing a background for the interaction of cultures across the world.  


William Bridges (St. Olaf) offers a Japanese 111.5 class (between fall 111 and spring 112) to provide a bridge over winter break: "Second Life, Virtual Immersion, and Japanese Language Pedagogy."  The online course includes 30 animated powerpoint lectures and a digital Japanese honors house in Second Life for students to get together, participate in collaborative activities, or chat in the language exchange cafe.  The program provides virtual immersion, as an alternative to study abroad that helps students achieve fluency.  In addition, the program connects students students from Japan and Tokyo, with two sections from each location currently participating in the Second Life spaces.




4.   Creativity


At Michigan State, the lab-style DH research space is aptly called the “Creativity Exploratory.”  UIowa’s Digital Studio for the Public Humanities recently became the Digital Studio for Public Arts & Humanities, pointing to new possibilities for collaboration with disciplines in the arts. Creativity came up again and again as a crucial element for digital humanities research.  


David Staley (Ohio State) presented on "Big Data and the Creative Humanities."  There is a tendency to think of becoming "statisticians" of our texts, he argued, while the goal should be to read on a macro-level and read bigger patterns.  "It's interpretive work on a different plane.  I'm more interested in data visualization."  For a research project on word frequencies, Staley printed a 3D map of his results.  What does it mean, he asked, to be able to touch your data?  The creative humanities, as a part of the digital humanities, is about building, making, and creating new cultural objects.




Many thanks to Amber Marks (CIC), Liz Ciner (ACM), and Cara Pickett (ACM) for coordinating a fabulous event!


For more information about the meeting, see the ACM article on the event:



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