Entering the World of Digital Humanities – Writing in the Margins
Faculty Research, Faculty Teaching

Entering the World of Digital Humanities


The Parliament Buildings at night (Victoria, BC)

The problem was, they didn’t offer “Digital Humanities for Dummies.”  I’m not a technology-savvy person.  Okay, let’s face it, sometimes my toaster is too complicated for me (revelation:  it won’t toast unless you actually plug it in). So why did I sign up to join three digital-sophisticated colleagues—professors Alexis Easley, Emily James, and Sal Pane—to travel to Victoria, British Columbia, to attend the annual Digital Humanties Summer Institute (DHSI)? I had discovered in my graduate classes that students were tackling compelling computer-assisted projects, having mastered some of the DH platforms and tools in their other classes.  I wanted to learn more about this brave new world and had two wonderful opportunities to do so during this past summer, 2015:  the first at DHSI in Victoria and the second in a Faculty Development Summer Seminar here at UST.

What is Digital Humanities?  It appears to be one of those fields where, if you lay all the specialists end-to-end, they won’t reach an agreement.  But the definition provided by Dr. Annie Swafford (SUNY New Paltz, one of the leaders of the on-campus DH seminar) is helpful.  DigitalHumHeader-Blog640She writes, “The field of Digital Humanities is an umbrella term for a wide range of activities that study the human record with computers and digital tools.  The goals are to (1) ask new questions; (2) answer traditional questions in new ways, e.g. ‘using quantification to prompt interpretation’; (3) share data/resources with the larger academic community and citizen scholars; (4) build new tools to ask/answer questions; and (5) augment/challenge print culture (i.e. challenge students to rethink in ways they might not otherwise when completing more traditional assignments).”  Side note:  coming to us from New York, Annie asked for a tour of the Twin Cities.  I took her to visit Minnehaha Falls (pretty, but dinky—I’m from Niagara Falls), the Guthrie Theater, the Walker sculpture garden (must-see “Spoonbridge and Cherry”), and ended with dinner at Nye’s Polonaise.  Annie’s ability to appreciate naugahyde booths and polka music (or at least her ability to appear to appreciate these things) was endearing.

agas_fragment640Back on topic:  DHSI ran from 8-12 June 2015 and, as I started to say, did not precisely offer an entry-level course.  Most of those gathered for the workshops were already adept in the field; I, the neophyte, joined the popular course, “Digital Pedagogy Integration in the Curriculum” taught by Diane Jakacki and Mary Galvin.  Since everyone (besides me) had fairly extensive experience using digital platforms and tools, instructors and guest lecturers coming to visit (in person or by Skype) focused on how to orchestrate DH assignments into a coherent project or full course structure.  For instance, we heard about Janelle Jenstad’s work on the Map of Early Modern London project (see sample above).  This is a collaboration between UVic students and students at other universities to create an interactive map of London circa 1561.  Janelle said that the most exciting thing about the project is that “students will make original contributions to the research” and that “faculty learn from students as students are learning from faculty.”  Along with hearing about this valuable online project, we explored Diane’s work with students to digitize and annotate Civil War archives at Bucknell University, and Mary’s efforts to use digital tools to improve the everyday lives of Alzheimer patients.

Butchart Gardens at Night

Butchart Gardens at Night

After the day-long workshops ended, I spent a couple evenings renting a bike and heading along the “Galloping Goose” trail into the spruce, fir, and cedar forests of Victoria.  Sampling the wonderful restaurants and tourist-spot shopping (where my tasteful selections for friends and family included moose boxer shorts, moose t-shirts, moose earrings, moose…well, you get the idea) was also fun.  Butchart Gardens, which I had to see before leaving town, fully lived up to its reputation as one of the best public floral gardens in North America.

Still, despite the manifest delights of the course and the area, as an unknowing newbie, I found myself longing for instruction in some of the basics.

And that’s where the next seminar, “Fostering the Digital Humanities at St. Thomas” (22-25 June 2015) came in handy.  Guest instructors Annie Swafford and Chris Wells (Macalester College) led hands-on sessions for beginners in Digital Humanities.  Chris addressed the question, “how can adding computers to the mix create new opportunities?”  He demonstrated the ways in which computers, in their ability to process huge amounts of data, open up new analytic possibilities:  they allow us to find patterns and relationships that are otherwise difficult to see.  Together, Chris and Annie introduced UST faculty to data visualization tools like Voyant and Google Ngrams; archival platforms like Omeka; GIS (Geographic Information System) and mapping tools from Google Maps, Neatline, and Mapbox.  Several of these tools and additional information on Digital Humanities can be found in the St. Thomas Library Research Guide for DH (http://libguides.stthomas.edu/digital_humanities) and in the “Pedagogy Toolkit” (http://pedagogy-toolkit.org).

Putting the two workshops together was ideal:  the second offered specific guidance for starting small, with individual tools and simple course assignments, while the first offered a “big picture” view of what could be done by scaffolding larger assignments or collaborating with specialists on course/project design.  Both seminars made this relatively new field and its technology more understandable and accessible, showcasing the many good outcomes possible when computer technologies are introduced into the humanities.

Craft-Fairchild172X250Cathy Craft-Fairchild is a professor in the English Department. Although her primary specialty is 18th-century British literature, she also teaches women’s studies, literature and film, Jewish literature, and most recently, a transatlantic course that combines British and American literature. Her current research centers on the writing of Anglo-Irish novelist and educational reformer Maria Edgeworth, while earlier research focused on 18th- and 19th-century women writers more generally, with particular reference to the image and experience of masquerade.

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