Digital Humanities–Why Now?

September 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Originally posted on September 1, 2010 at NITLE’s Techne blog,

Why launch a digital humanities initiative now? Yesterday, when I introduced NITLE’s new initiative, I spent some time defining digital humanities and digital scholarship. Today, I’ll take a crack at the “why now” question, specifically for liberal arts colleges. (Tomorrow, I’ll explore why the digital humanities matter for liberal arts colleges and offer some ways for those at small liberal arts colleges to get involved and take action.)

Why Now?

So, why should we look at the digital humanities now, especially on the small liberal arts college campus? To answer this question, first we must look at the larger context of higher education. The digital humanities have been moving through the academy.

While I’ve been coming into contact with digital humanities projects since the 1990s when I was in graduate school (and I know they were around before that), in the subsequent decade that activity has moved more into the mainstream of the academy. For example, in March 2008, the National Endowment for the Humanities converted its Digital Humanities Initiative into a more permanent Office of Digital Humanities.  John Unsworth, in his plenary address at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, described this movement as the turning of a tide:

“it turned first in public research universities, is turning now in ivy-league universities, and hasn’t yet really begun to turn in many colleges and universities that are primarily focused on teaching.”

Scott Hamlin, Wheaton College

Unsworth is right about the trajectory, but within the NITLE community, we are already seeing the turning of that tide, as Scott Hamlin of Wheaton College lays out in his post, Digital Humanities on the Rise at Small Liberal Arts Colleges. There have always been individual and isolated digital humanities projects at institutions in the NITLE Network, but now the faculty and staff involved in those projects are increasingly talking to each other both within and between campuses. The community-organized Digital Scholarship seminar series set to take place this fall is but the latest example. The series has grown out of informal conversations, a formal session at the 2010 NITLE Summit, and multi-campus collaborations like the Publishing TEI for Small Colleges project, funded byIMLS.

If we take a look at the campuses organizing and presenting in the digital scholarship seminar series, we can see how interest in digital humanities is being organized. There are centers, like Occidental’s Center for Digital Learning and Research and the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab. There are organizations, like Hamilton College’s Digital Humanities Initiative and Wheaton College’s Digital Humanities Working Group.

We can also see the potential for more connections and collaboration when we look at the individual projects and ways of integrating digital humanities in the curriculum at institutions in the NITLE Network. Several have received NEH Digital Humanities Start up Grants, including three in the most recent round of awards: Lewis and Clark College for Intellectual Property and International Collaboration in the Digital Humanities: the Moroccan Jewish Community Archives(Oren Kosansky, Project Director); The University of Chicago for Cinemetrics, a Digital Laboratory for Film Studies (Yuri Tsivian, Project Director); and the University of Richmond forLandscapes of the American Past: Visualizing Emancipation (Edward Ayers, Project Director).

Kathryn Tomasek, Wheaton College

In the curriculum we find direct courses like Digital Humanities, taught by Kent Hooper at the University of Puget Sound. We also find disciplinary courses that incorporate digital humanities methods, like Kathryn Tomasek’s history methods course at Wheaton College, which engages students in transcribing and encoding primary sources. Kathryn speaks eloquently of the challenges of doing these projects and the collaboration required:

“As a comparative novice in TEI, I have only recently come to realize some of the complexities that result from our collaboration among students, the College Archivist, an academic technologist, and a faculty member.”

It is challenges like these, as well as the collaboration required in digital humanities projects, that have laid the groundwork for NITLE’s Digital Humanities Initiative.

I invite you to check in with me tomorrow, when I’ll explore why the digital humanities matter for liberal arts colleges and lay out some ways campuses can engage with each other and the larger community in this area.


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