My latest at NITLE’s Techne blog: A Snapshot of Digital Scholarship at Liberal Arts Colleges

November 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Originally posted on November 15, 2011 at NITLE’s Techne blog,

A snapshot of digital humanists, Kathryn Tomasek (Wheaton College), Ryan Cordell (St. Norbert College) & Janet Simons (Hamilton College)

Digital Scholarship has exploded at liberal arts colleges in recent years.  In order to capture a snapshot of that explosion, planners of the Digital Scholarship Seminars kicked off this year’s series with a panel presentation representing eight institutions: the Tri-College Consortium (Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, Swarthmore College), Hamilton College, Occidental College, University of Richmond, Wheaton College, and Willamette University.

With six presenters, there was quite a bit of information to take in.  If you missed it, or like me, want to hear it again, you can listen to the recordingand view the presenters’ notes, powerpoints, and links in this google doc.  In this blog post, I want to summarize themes I heard across all six speakers and during the following discussion.

Our panelists were:

One caveat—I will be using the terms digital scholarship and digital humanities.  The first indicates digital methodologies across the curriculum and disciplines.  The second takes in the humanities and the humanistic social sciences. We like the first term because it hails even those who don’t self-identify as humanists and the second because it is a more clearly defined movement in academia.

Under the Umbrella of Digital Scholarship

Patio Umbrella by flickr user BlackburnPhoto

Several of these institutions described how their efforts were a way to bring together those already doing digital teaching and research.  At Wheaton College a lunchtime series showcases digital experiments in the classroom to demonstrate how to use technology on a broader basis and to raise the bar across the curriculum and faculty.  Likewise, both Hamilton and the Tri-Cos use the term “digital humanities” as an umbrella to pull together previous digital efforts in teaching and research.  These efforts echo the movement in the digital humanities community towards the “big tent” of digital humanities.  They also remind me of a comment John Seely Brown made at last year’s NITLE Summit in the working session on digital scholarship: “There is far more digital work in the humanities than we are willing to admit.” One challenge, then, is uncovering that digital work and hailing those scholars.  The terms digital scholarship and digital humanities have become convenient labels for that purpose.

Need for Critical Engagement

While digital scholarship has exploded, there are still many who are indifferent or critical without really being aware of the work being done.  In part this relates to the challenge of uncovering existing digital work.  Many see digital work as something different from their discipline rather than a continuation of traditional humanities research with digital methodologies, as Oya Rieger found when she interviewed scholars at a humanities center. Tim Burke, especially, spoke of the challenge of indifference and of critics who won’t engage.  This is the curse of the easily-dismissed early adopter.  By contrast, Tim pointed to a recent exchange in the blog, The Aporetic between blog owner Mike O’Malley and Zachary Schrag about the forthcoming American History Now (a new kind of professional journal), as an example of the kind of critical engagement we need.  A subcategory of the lack of critical engagement, is the tendency to label any work on a computer as “digital scholarship”.  For Tim, just moving your work online without transforming it to take advantage of new media or the social connectedness of the web isn’t true digital scholarship.  But rather, as Rob Nelson described the work at the University of Richmond, digital scholarship is “using new media to reach new audiences and use new methods to answer new questions.”  Nevertheless, that movement online may be a first step towards other digital methodologies.

Text analysis

Several trends in digital scholarship emerged during the seminar.  Text analysis is one common methodology that builds on textual traditions in the humanities.  For example, as part of the Wheaton College Digital History project, students transcribe and mark-up texts in XML according to the standards of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). Essentially, it’s a way of marking up texts in computer-readable encoding to allow for other ways of analyzing the text.  The process of transcription and mark-up encourages students to do a close-reading of the text, a traditional humanities methodology.  Perhaps that relation and the relatively low barriers to entry explain why TEI has become fairly common at small colleges.  Publication of these texts, however, presents more of a challenge.  In response, Wheaton and several other small colleges have joined together with Brown University in the TAPAS Project to create infrastructure for publication of TEI encoded materials that will transform these materials into other outputs, e.g., pdfs, websites, etc.

Topic proportions in a piece from the Richmond Dispatch; blue is anti-northern diatribes and green is poetry & patriotism; click the picture for more information.

A second variety of text analysis is topic modeling; Rob Nelson described his current research on civil war newspapers.  Rob explained topic modeling as magic for identifying themes and patterns in large bodies of text. Topic modeling demonstrates the value of digital technologies to do new types of analysis that would be otherwise impossible.

Beyond Text

Digital scholarship also includes alternatives to text.  Patrick Rashleigh described student oral presentations and digital storytelling.  Students at Occidental use Sophie and Hypercities.  At Hamilton College Professor Kyoko Omori is creating a comparative Japanese film archive.  At Willamette University, students create virtual museum exhibits.  At the University of Richmond there is a strong digital storytelling initiative; also President Ed Ayers and Scott Nesbit are co-PIs on an NEH-funded project “Visualizing Emancipation,” a project that will use maps to analyze the complicated process of emancipation.  With the growing trend towards multimedia communication, it seems only natural that we also integrate multiple media into teaching, learning and research.


Collaboration goes hand-in-hand with digital work.  We see it between scholars (Ed Ayers and Scott Nesbit as co-PIs), between institutions (Tri-Co digital humanities), between sectors (faculty, technologists and librarians collaborate on projects, e.g., at Wheaton), between community and college (Occidental College supports several digital projects that engage the community), between college and museum (Willamette’s digital projects have centered on virtual museum exhibits), between students and faculty (Hamilton supports faculty-student collaborative research), and between students (Wheaton college listed numerous collaborative student assignments).  As Janet Simons noted, this can be somewhat intimidating for some humanities faculty, especially with the humanities tendency towards individual scholarship.  At the same time, this collaboration complements trends toward collaborative learning and the growing prevalence of teamwork in the workplace.

Collaboration brings with it challenges for support, as well.  Where do you situate a collaborative or interdisciplinary course? Under what department? How do you credit collaborators?  How do you support collaboration if you do not have a collaborative infrastructure?  One participant asked, “Collaboration is great, but are there aspects of digital scholarship support at any of your institutions that you see as library only or IT only?” Daniel Chamberlain replied that at Occidental College in bringing postdocs in, it is ideal to have them partner with faculty, but if those collaborations aren’t there, they still want to produce illustrative digital scholarship for their community.  At the University of Richmond, Rob Nelson noted they collaborate in areas where they have expertise, e.g., with Americanists but have a lot of autonomy about going in directions that they find interesting.  Both of those cases demonstrate the advantage of separate centers.   It turns out the original question came from a participant whose institution no longer has a merged IT-library organization and who is wondering who should support what.  In a later email to me, Mike Spalti wrote,

I think that for institutions like Willamette, where extra $$ for centers and innovation has already been allocated to other worthy causes, there’s an identity crisis for people like me who are driving a ds agenda from the library.  We are looking for collaborators who will be the other half of what we do or what we want to be identified as professionally.  The situation is different at a place like Oxy or Richmond or even Hamilton, where a team exists and can offer fully-rounded examples of ds.  My feeling is that collaboration is essential, but there is a chicken and egg question that people in my situation grapple with.

In the end, the range of examples represented on this panel demonstrate that the question of support for collaborative projects is one that must be worked out by individual institutions, but the examples on this panel should give some ideas of the possibilities.

Getting Started and Keeping Up

Discussion touched on how to get started and keep up in digital scholarship. The Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria offers one well-regarded opportunity to gear up in digital humanities skills.  THATCamps are another great way to connect with the DH community.  The second annual THATCamp Liberal Arts Colleges will take place June 1-3, 2012 at St. Edwards University in Austin, TX.  For more ideas in how to get started in digital humanities, see my colleague Lisa Spiro’s excellent blog post on the topic.

Once you’ve gotten started, keeping up can also be a challenge.  Two solutions are:

  • Digital Humanities Now which “showcases the scholarship and news of interest to the digital humanities community, through a process of aggregation, discovery, curation, and review” and was the topic of a google hangout I hosted last week.
  • DHCommons, a hub for connecting people with projects and the tools that enable them.

Lisa lists others in the blog post cited above.

Links to Undergraduate Education

Another question asked about trends in digital humanities that link to undergraduate education. Hamilton College specifies that any projects they support through DHi have a curricular connection—e.g., either collaboration with a student, or course assignment, or a whole course—and then support that connection happening through HILLgroup, HamiltonInformation & Learning Liaisons, a collaboration of the Library, Instructional Technology Services and the Oral Communication Center.  They also have undergrads look at HASTAC, do their own blogging there, and figure out how they interact with the digital scholarship community.  Similarly, Tim Burke noted “a significant uptick in use of WordPress or CommentPress in classes, including some which do not otherwise have a strong attention to digital media as subject matter.”

Student working on the Homer Multitext

The digital humanities also provide an excellent avenue for students pursuing undergraduate research in the humanities.  In January, apanel of faculty and staff from the NITLE network will present at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities on “Digital Humanities for Undergraduates”.  They will share how students have used digital methodologies to engage in authentic, applied research and prepare to be citizens in a networked world. One of those panelists, Chris Blackwell co-authored with Tom Martin an excellent article on how undergraduate research in the digital humanities:  “Technology, Collaboration, and Undergraduate Research.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 3, no. 1 (Changing the Center of Gravity: Transforming Classical Studies Through Cyberinfrastructure Winter 2009).

Critical Mass?

At the end of the seminar Brett Boessen of Austin College raised a question that is relevant for all the institutions represented on the panel.  When Tim Burke suggested that about a quarter of the faculty across the Tri-College Consortium had been engaged in their initiative, Brett asked about how to grow to critical mass: “I’m just wondering if developing a critical mass of such faculty is situational or is something that can be developed.”  Tim replied, “Brett, I guess we hope ‘developed’ but so far the evidence is more ‘situational’. The initiative is a test of development.”  This is a question for all small liberal arts colleges as well as others trying to grow digital scholarship on their own campus.  How do you develop critical mass and what does that mean?

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