Digital Humanities Opportunities Take Off

Photo Courtesy of Sydney Cope

Ursinus’s digital humanities programs are continuing to thrive after the first digital humanities course last semester.

Courtney DuChene

Students on campus have been delving more into a new frontier of academia: digital humanities.

Last semester Ursinus held its first digital humanities class, Bears Make History. This semester, students and staff are getting more involved with digital humanities programs with classes such as Mapping Realism and through independent research.

Digital humanities classes help students create research projects that are different from traditional papers.

“We’ll create maps from novels and we’ll also create digital collections,” librarian Elena Althaus explained. “We also have an Omeka site, [a web publishing program,] where students are creating their own digital projects.”

There are currently three different student projects on the Ursinus Omeka site: “Bears Make GSA History,” “Breaking Ground: A History of Construction, Destruction and Renovation at Ursinus College,” and “Ursinus Remembers: Experience and Memory in the Face of Tragedy.” These projects were made by groups of students as part of the Bears Make History course.

The Bears Make History class was funded by the U-Imagine center and was co-taught by English professor Dr. Kara McShane and history professor Dr. Susanna Throop. The projects in the class focused on digitizing materials from the college archives.

“Bears Make GSA History” curated the first ten years of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance and the controversies surrounding the group; “Ursinus Remembers” looked at campus responses to tragedies, such as Pearl Harbor and 9/11; “Breaking Ground” examined the history of three buildings on campus: The Berman, Myrin, and Bomberger.

McShane thought the class was a good experience for students.

“The cool thing about [digital humanities] when it’s done well is that it’s really a space for students to do original research,” she said. “We didn’t want [the class] to have an agenda. We wanted students to care [about] and design the projects from the ground up.”

McShane also discussed the practical skills students gain from creating digital humanities projects as opposed to writing research papers.

“We emphasized marketing and networking,” she said. “Students thought about how to build a network and promote a project.”

This semester, English professor Meredith Goldsmith is teaching the English course Mapping Realism, which is also working with digital humanities projects.

Goldsmith explored digital humanities projects during her residency at Duke University last year, where she created her own digital project in the form of a website called “Mapping Literary Visions” about her work on Edith Wharton’s novel “Age of Innocence.”

Goldsmith also discussed the differences in digital humanities courses from typical humanities classes.

“It’s a little different from a traditional literary approach because you’re focused on data– whether developing, harvesting, or curating–and sometimes less traditional close reading,” she said. “But my hope is the data-driven approach can take you to new interpretations of texts.”

Junior Sarah Gow is currently taking the Mapping Realism class.

“Essentially my mapping class is the same as a normal 300 level English class as far as the level of discussion and reading, only we also have to learn and incorporate QGIS, [a digital mapping program], to help us interpret the literature with a new tool,” Gow explained.

Goldsmith emphasized the significance in a liberal arts education using new digital technologies.

“It’s an important direction in the field,” she said. “If we’re going to embrace a 21st-century approach to liberal arts, the digital is certainly included in that.”

Gow also said that they would recommend the class to other students because learning how to use new technology is a great resume booster.

“Employers want people willing to engage with new technology and who aren’t afraid to learn new skills,” they said.

This course is not the first time Gow has worked with digital humanities. For their 2016 Summer Fellows project, they made an online exhibit for Mabel Dodge Luhan, a historical figure and patron of the arts. Gow looked at all of Dodge’s documents from 1910-1919 and examined her role in counter-culture movements. Without digital humanities, a lot of Dodge’s work would have been lost.

“Most of her work is out of print or not even attributed to her, so by digitizing her work, my project not only examined her role in history but also helped preserve her influence as part of the work of reclaiming women’s voices,” said Gow.

Ursinus currently has plans to offer digital humanities courses next semester as well. McShane was optimistic that Bears Make History would be returning in the fall. She also said that English professor Jon Volkmer was interested in offering a DIY publishing course, and Environmental Studies courses were also using digital mapping.

Gow is excited about the movement towards digital humanities projects.

“I think the power of literature studies comes from connecting outside of just that academic bubble,” they said. “I think using digital humanities is one way to interact with literature in a new and more accessible way.”

McShane was also enthusiastic about the future of digital humanities at Ursinus.

“A lot of schools are starting to have this interest,” she said. “One of the things that’s distinct about Ursinus is that it extends the kind of research opportunities we have for [undergrad] students.”

Students who are interested in checking out the current digital humanities projects can access them through the Ursinus Digital Commons found on the college’s website.

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