Digital aid for humanities

Sophia DiBattista

sodibattista@ursinus.edu

     Ursinus’ Digital Liberal Arts Working Group (DLA) uses students as a resource to help humanties students and faculty with digital tools. Led by co-directors Dr. Kara McShane and Dr. Meredith Goldsmith, the DLA has invented innovative ways to combine the 21st Century’s cutting-edge software with the creativity of the liberal arts and the determination of young Ursinus students.

     McShane, an English professor, spoke with enthusiasm about the group. Said McShane, “The Digital Liberal Arts Working Group is a group of faculty and staff who promote digital literacy and digital work on campus, including faculty who have strong digital components in their research and teaching as well. We have been working for about a year and a half now.”

     Before the DLA, there was another group at Ursinus with a similar purpose. However, this did not focus as much on student inclusion with the organization itself.

     According to McShane, “There was a committee for the digital humanities, which was one of my specializations. We opened it up to the liberal arts because we think that it acknowledges better what we do here and the kind of interdisciplinary place we strive for. It gets English, history, and philosophy faculty talking to computer science, politics, environmental studies, and even music faculty to get us to a holistic approach and seeing where there are connections.”

     “Professor Goldsmith and I said, ‘We need to get people together about these issues, especially students,’” said McShane. By obtaining permission from former Dean April Edwards, the group put forth a proposal for the DLA Fellows. The Fellows are students who assist others, including faculty, staff, and outside students who want to learn more about expanding their own technological horizons and advancing their knowledge in the digital humanities. The four current Fellows are Shelby Bryant, Shelby Carmichael, Tiffany Eckenrod, and Paige Szmodis.

     McShane continued, “We applied for a grant through the Pennsylvania Consortium for the Liberal Arts. Our goal was to put students at the center of this initiative because a lot of projects on this campus were student-driven.”

     As a result of this proposal, the DLA received the grant.McShane and Goldsmith used the funds to finally produce the Digital Liberal Arts Fellows. McShane stated how there was a meeting between various institutions, including Muhlenberg College and Gettysburg College, that endorsed the same goal. This created the opportunity to collaborate with other Fellows on how best to bring the literary and technological worlds together.

     Said McShane, “The job of the Fellows is both partnering and pairing students with faculty. The Fellows have ‘drop-in’ hours for people who are interested in learning new programs or [want] help with using them.” These programs include but are not limited to: Audacity, Omeka, StorymapsJS, StorymapsJS, and WordPress.

     When it came to bridging the gap between the differences of technology and literacy, McShane explained that it is not as challenging as it appears.

     “Here’s what I think we forget when we think about digital literacy. You need the same writing skills because when you put something out digitally, all the questions are the same as when you are doing other kinds of work. It’s not a difficult bridging process because it empowers students. When I have students writing a public blog and then sharing it all over social media, it completely changes how students perceive what they are doing. As researchers and scholars, thinking about the audience makes us better researchers and scholars because we are not writing to each other anymore.”

     She acknowledged the daunting act of learning something new and how inexperience can create a barrier. “It’s always uncomfortable when you’re suddenly in the position of learning something again and saying, ‘Oh I don’t know how to do this!’ It was like that for me: I was a medievalist first, then I started getting into digital humanities. I think it’s enriching for faculty, and it can breathe new life into what you have been doing.”

     Shelby Bryant, one of the head Fellows, praised the DLA and her co-Fellows, but she described her duty as difficult at times. “We get supplemental training to make sure that we are up-to-date on the digital humanities trends, and we have to make sure that we can explain some fairly complex ideas easily. However, I think that because we’re students, that comes a little easier to us.”

     Bryant encouraged people to “take advantage of the many different aspects of the DLA. Our workshops are geared specifically toward classes and Ursinus experiences, and our office hours are meant to assist students with many different aspects of their projects. DLA Fellows are students who have all used different tools and platforms to get our humanities projects into digital formats, and we know firsthand the different challenges that come about when creating these projects.”

     The DLA Fellows are available to meet with students in Myrin 124 on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. or on Thursday from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. While there, they can answer questions about technology, walk individuals through how to use certain software, and assist those who are not accustomed to technological programs.

     Appointments with the Fellows can be scheduled on the Ursinus College website at www.ursinus.edu/library/digital-liberal-arts.