My latest at NITLE’s Techne blog: Digital Humanities and Liberal Education

March 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

Originally posted on March 2, 2011 at NITLE’s Techne blog,

Students at the RE: Humanities Conference Hosted by Bryn Mawr & Haverford Colleges

While the digital humanities first found a home in public research institutions, we are seeing them more and more at small liberal arts colleges. Why is that? How do the digital humanities fit with liberal education?

To answer that question, we first need to define liberal education. In her article, “What’s So Liberal about Higher Ed?”  Jo Ellen Parker, NITLE’s former Executive Director, lays out four different definitions for liberal education that may be invoked by liberal arts colleges.

  • the study of the liberal arts and sciences
  • pedagogical methodology that emphasizes active learning, faculty/student collaboration, independent inquiry, and critical thinking
  • preparation for democratic citizenship and civic engagement, including skills specifically believed to be central to effective citizenship
  • a specific institutional type — the small, residential, privately governed, bachelor’s granting college

Like digital humanists, small liberal arts colleges are, to a certain extent, self-identified, and they define themselves by the above definitions in any number of combinations. Understanding these values can help us understand how different colleges might receive the digital humanities.

Artes Liberales

Septem Artes Liberales by Flickr user Stefan Rimm

For example, for those who define liberal education by discipline, as the artes liberales, those traditional areas of study appropriate to a free man, the digital humanities may be seen as a challenge to traditional humanistic study. At the same time, the humanities are widely considered to be under attack, and the digital humanities offer one way to fight back as Kathryn Tomasek, Associate Professor of History at Wheaton Colleges argues in her blog post, “Why the Humanities Matter.”  She includes digital methodologies in her methods course for history majors. For her, digital humanities represents an avenue for transforming the traditional discipline of history.

If we can say how digital media fit inside disciplines, then we can say how they fit within liberal arts in general. How can liberal arts disciplines of the past translate into what is valuable and needed now? How can we unite the old and new?  Prof. Kent Hooper addresses these questions as the director of their Humanities program at the University of Puget Sound. In NITLE’s inaugural digital scholarship seminar in Fall 2010, Prof. Hooper explained how he and his colleagues are transforming the humanities into the digital humanities.

Pedagogical Methodology

For those who view liberal education as a pedagogical methodology, the question becomes how do expertise, fluency, and sophistication in digital media belong in a liberal arts institution? What can our students do and what should they know how to do? How can we help students link high order thinking and high level technology skills that they can employ beyond social-personal environments? Digital humanities projects offer opportunities to engage students in pedagogical practices like undergraduate research, genuine inquiry, active and collaborative learning, and interdisciplinary study. At Bryn Mawr College, Jen Rajchel completed her senior thesis as a website in comment press: Mooring Gaps: Marianne Moore’s Bryn Mawr Poetry. When I interviewed her, she spoke eloquently about how this digital humanities project helped her develop liberal arts abilities of critical thinking and writing.

Preparing Citizens

Global Network by Flickr User WebWizzard

In a world where almost all information is now digital, people need to be grounded educationally in the digital. How can liberal arts education prepare our undergraduates to be citizens in a networked world? For those interested in developing citizens, digital humanities offer students the opportunity to use digital media, the tools for today’s political discourse. Online publication also intersects with public humanities and opportunities for students to serve the public. Other projects, such as mapping projects, may involve community based learning. Consider Jack Dougherty’s Smart Choices, a Web-based map and data sorting application, that empowers parents to navigate and compare their growing number of public school options in metropolitan Hartford, Connecticut.  Prof. Daugherty explains,

Overall, our project supports two liberal arts learning goals: to deepen student interactions with members of our urban community, and to nurture student participation in creating original research for real audiences.

Both the pedagogical and citizen modes emphasize specific liberal arts abilities like critical thinking and effective communication. In the world of webs and networks, many institutions increasingly see a need to develop multimedia literacy in their students as a way to update liberal arts abilities in a digital context.  For example, at Hamilton College, the moving images working group became one of the foundations for their Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi). At other institutions, media study faculty like Kathleen Fitzpatrick, at Pomona College lead the way for engaging with the digital humanities.

Institutional type

Hamilton College Digital Humanities Initiative

Finally, we come to institutional type. There we run into quite a few challenges for digital humanities because, as Diane Zorich explains in her Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States the digital humanities are most at home in a particular institutional context—a digital humanities center at a large, public research institution—that is the antithesis of the small, private, undergraduate-focused, residential college. The digital humanities center is a rare thing at these institutions, though that is beginning to change. Occidental College has a Center for Digital Learning and Research. TheDigital Humanities Initiative (DHi) at Hamilton College models itself on a center. The University of Richmond also has a Digital Scholarship Lab, but then again, when your president is a Ed Ayers, you ought to. Like centers at R1s, these structures bring together faculty from different disciplines to create a sense of community. They also support projects and can help get funding.  I suspect, however, that we will not see a proliferation of such centers at small liberal arts colleges.  Instead, the digital humanities will have to find a place within existing structures like the interdisciplinary, collaborative Connections program at Wheaton College.

Focus on Students

I hope this brief survey has shown that, depending on how you define each, the digital humanities and liberal education can fit with each other. That fit becomes strongest when we focus on students, which is, after all, the mission of small liberal arts colleges. Digital Humanities projects offer students many opportunities for undergraduate research, genuine inquiry, active and collaborative learning, and interdisciplinary study. In the process, they help prepare undergrads to be citizens in a networked world. By figuring out how to integrate digital humanities into the undergraduate curriculum, digital humanists at small liberal arts colleges have much to offer digital humanists at other institutional types whose focus is more research than teaching.  More importantly, students at small liberal arts colleges may become the digital humanists of tomorrow and help promote the (digital) humanities to the general public.


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