Blog Post

Digital Humanities Conversation at Iowa: Databases, Access, Tools, Pedagogy...

It has been a super-busy couple of HASTAC weeks at Iowa! We’re hoping to work this year to draw together a lot of Iowa’s digital community, and so we decided to start big: with a large-group conversation about “Where to begin?” with digital humanities on campus. The discussion, hosted in the gorgeous arts-and-crafts library at the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, was something of a microcosm of many (though by no means all) of the projects going on at Iowa.

The conversation focused around really big-topic issues on campus, asking participants what would make their work easier as regards digital humanities, and what issues they thought were important. In short, where were the gaps on campus?

The conversation could only be described as trying to get a sip from a fire house, and it's utterly impossible to do all of its participants justice in a quick recap. Topics included but were not limited to:

How to bring tech to disciplines like religious studies, especially really portable technologies—podcasts, cloudsharing, repositories, source management (metatagging), social media for instruction, and digital modeling. How to take into account end-user experiences. How to become proficient in databases, and also how to encourage campus specialists to creatively experiment. How to efficient manage and create large indexing projects. How to take into account the cultural and social assumptions inherent in any databasing project. What technology can do for the humanities, and how it might shape or reshape our disciplines and projects. How to choose between available software tools. How to plan for rapid technological obsolescence. How to share multimedia production and editing tools. How to engage faculty in tech, and in what areas. How to bring in, train, and connect graduate students who are interested in digital humanities. How to effectively teach people how to engage with types of technologies, not train them on particular software. How to balance a project’s goals with the technological tools available, and vice versa.  Excavators v. illustrators; tools v. methodologies.

(Needless to say, Melody Dworak and I might a few ideas of our own: how to even start talking about all of these ideas, concerns, projects...?)

A brief recap follows of the main elements of the group's conversation follows.

Jim Elborg, Associate Professor at Iowa’s School of Library and Information Science, responded to "where are the gaps?" with what may well have been the quote of the conversation: “It’s all gaps.”  He described his own experience in creating databases for Iowa, and suggested that a workshop on how to become proficient in databases would be useful—how to plan infrastructures, keeping in mind the end user; how to manage large indexing and access projects.

Robert Cargill, a biblical studies scholar and archaeologist, asked how to encourage scholars to bring technology to fields like religious studies, particularly scholar-friendly, mobile notation tools (Evernote, Zotero). He described how scholars might share notes—particularly if they were usefully metatagged—into a shared cloudspace repository of collaborative work. He also suggested that scholars could become more familiar with coordinating notes, schedules, web materials, and social media.

Teresa Mangum, Associate Professor of English and director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, said that she viewed herself as an example of a scholarly end user, and noted that the Chronicle of Higher Education blog ProfHacker has struck a good balance of advocating new technologies to scholars while keeping things simple and useful.  

André Brock, Assistant Professor at Iowa’s School of Library and Information Science, emphasized the importance of asking “What technology can do for the humanities?”, rather than allowing digital tools to limit the sort of questions that we ask.

Nicki Saylor spoke about her work as the head of Digital Library Services (DLS), where she works on research and development for digital tools for cross-campus use. She mentioned exploring programs like HyperCities to see what might be useful for campus users.

Jon Winet, Associate Professor in Media | Social Practice | Design – Intermedia in the School of Art & Art History, and head of Iowa’s new Digital Studio for the Public Humanities, asked how we can be savvy about how we learn new tech tools: rather than learning particular pieces of software, learning enough engineering and coding to get along with various different types of changing software, or, in the case of databases, knowing structures rather than systems.

Jean Florman, director of the Center for Teaching, described how the Center has partned with many different parts of campus, including technology services and  the library, in creating digital projects. She added that the Center for Teaching was also home for service learning/civic engagement through pedagogy, and emphasized inquiry-based teaching and learning.

Paul Dilley, Assistant Professor in Religious Studies / Classics (specializing in Ancient Mediterranean Religions), mentioned his work on the philological/heretical implications of poorly-preserved early Christian manuscripts that require multi-spectral imaging to be read. He added that he is planning a database for Egyptian art, and is working on how to make it public / open access, while accommodating copyright and financial issues. He also suggested the potential value of graduate seminars on campus, as well as GIS workshops.

Kathrine Moermond, Old Capitol Museum education and outreach coordinator, spoke about having students developing a website for computer interaction through the museum's exhibits. As an example, she described the recent “Art Iowa: Then and Now” exhibit, which was a collaboration with the Museum of Natural History and Museum of Art. Like Winet, she emphasized the value of long-term technology skill sets.

The conversation moved to how projects can shape the knowledge the produce, and how to balance available technical tools with broader project goals in sometimes-experimental ways, in what Winet described as a “symbiotic relation between tool and goal.” Cargill suggested that database creation and mapping often took a sort of “excavator vs. illustrator” model, with scholars and programmers in separate camps. He noted that the next generation of scholars should be poised to bridge this gap and become excavators/illustrations, able to reconcile their research and methodologies with the technical tools used to share them with the public. Florman, Winet, and Brock also discussed how databases can determine what cultural concepts get mapped, with implications that scholars must stay aware of--since, as Brock described it, “databases are tied to cultural and social imperatives.”



1 comment

You captured things so perfectly here. Of course, it's nothing compared to being in the room, ideas lingering in the air for anyone to snatch up. To other HASTAC Scholars who have read this, I *highly* recommend trying to organize an hour or two where those at your institution working on digital humanities projects can get together to discuss their work. It's such a learning experience.