English MATTERS — SPRING 2010

By Jentery Sayers (Ph.D. Candidate)

In a moment saturated with things digital—iPhones, e-books, and Twitter—how is scholarship in the humanities changing? What happens as reading shifts from the printed page to the screen? And how are today’s students learning with new technologies, both in the classroom and out? At the University of Washington, questions such as these are now quite common. In fact, there is a growing interest in the “digital humanities,” a field that blends technical competencies in computing with critical approaches to literature, language, history, and culture. Like many scholars, practitioners in the digital humanities use websites and online archives to gather information and share their work with others. However, they also study technologies much like a literary critic would examine a poem or a novel. Thinking beyond the surface of the computer screen, they look closely at technologies to determine how they are made, how they function, and how they influence knowledge-making. Research in the field often requires literacy in source code, markup languages (HTML and XML), database design, data storage, and video editing, to name only a few. Put this way, “writing” in the digital humanities is broadly understood and occurs in places other than the word processor.

From the perspective of a graduate student in the English Department, the digital humanities have played a prominent role in my teaching and learning, altering my own perceptions of what humanities scholarship can do. As one example, three years ago a fellow graduate student, Curtis Hisayasu, and I started researching how digital maps (such as an online Google or Yahoo map) might help students in English composition collaborate with each other and make their academic writing more persuasive. At that time, digital maps were becoming increasingly popular on the web, and people began using them to geographically locate and visualize where exactly they captured their digital media, including digital photographs and videos. Hisayasu and I saw this emphasis on the context of digital media as a learning opportunity for English, namely because it simultaneously expanded the notion of literacy to include multiple modes of composition and enriched those modes through a strong sense of place and time. Rather than abstractly speaking about concepts such as “intended audience” and “rhetorical situation,” undergraduates could instead have the lived experience of saying, “I am here,” as they documented and analyzed the world around them.

With those benefits in mind, we designed a “geoblog,” which offered students a single online space to post digital audio, video, and image files; time-stamp them; map them; write about them; and invite feedback on them. After we tested the geoblog, we presented it at the Annual Computers and Writing Conference in Detroit and—with the assistance of our colleague, Megan Kelly—published an article on it in the academic e-journal, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. While the article was being written, I integrated the geoblog into an English composition course I called, “Composing a Virtual Campus.” Throughout that class, students collaboratively produced an interactive digital map of the University’s Seattle campus, and for the entire quarter they recorded audio, video, and imagery of the events happening near them, each time “pinning” the event to the class map. They then used that map to individually write essays on the relevance of media and geography to understanding everyday life at the UW. The results were far-reaching: not only did the students gain insight into how technologies allow people to frame events in very specific ways; they also produced scholarship that contextualized written arguments with digital media. In so doing, they became incredibly familiar with their campus and how they wished to represent it.

The Simpson Center for the Humanities has been awarded a $625,000 Challenge Grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to support inventive forms of scholarship inspired by new and emerging digital technologies. The largest NEH Challenge Grant ever received by the University of Washington, this award provides a powerful endorsement of the Simpson Center’s vision as well as a compelling incentive to support the humanities. With a successful 1:3 match totaling $2.5 million, the Simpson Center will establish and endow a total of eight summer fellowships for faculty and graduate students to work in the new digital humanities. For more information about the NEH challenge grant, please visit www.simpsoncenter.org.

After teaching that class, I wondered if the results were simply unique to English composition. That is, I wanted to know more about how others, especially those in other departments, were using digital maps in their classrooms and to what effects. Consequently, in 2008 I began collaborating with Matthew W. Wilson, who is now an Assistant Professor of Geography at Ball State University. With support from the Simpson Center for the Humanities and the Huckabay Teaching Fellowship, Wilson and I spent two quarters drafting a digital humanities curriculum for undergraduates. Together, we outlined what a year’s worth of courses in the digital humanities would include, and we designed prompts, lesson plans, and a geoblog for a “test course” on mapping and digital scholarship—a test course that I ultimately taught in 2009. This course was much more technical than the “Composing a Virtual Campus” composition course. As they studied and created digital maps of various sorts (e.g., a map of Jane Austen’s Britain), students developed competencies in markup languages and data visualization as well.

Fortunately, the project gained traction at and beyond UW. We are currently in the process of publishing an e-book chapter based on the project, and four students from the test course have since presented their digital humanities research at the University of California, Davis. Additionally, Wilson and I recently conducted an online forum entitled, “Mapping the Digital Humanities.” The forum was hosted by the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), a consortium which facilitates conferences and discussions on topics such as digital storytelling, technology-focused pedagogy, and race, gender, and sexuality in the digital age. During the online forum, we learned that, on campuses throughout the United States, practitioners in the digital humanities are exploring how interactive visualizations and maps enhance people’s knowledge of literature, language, history, and culture.

Like Wilson and me, these scholars see digital media and the web as providing opportunities for the humanities to expand scholarship beyond the printed page while also remaining critical about them. Indeed, the digital humanities have plenty to offer students and faculty of the future. From my experiences thus far, I would say that the field is exciting because of its collaborative character and its impulse for multimedia scholarship. Nevertheless, new technologies should not be adopted based upon their newness alone. The rationale for teaching and learning must be there, and within that rationale is precisely where the digital humanities rest.

Upcoming Digital Humanities events sponsored by the Simpson Center include:

“What Does Digital Scholarship Do?”: A HASTAC Conversation Series, featuring Amelia Abreu (UW Information School) and Deen Freelon (Communication), Spring 2010

“Communication, Power, and Counter-Power in the Networked Society,” with Manuel Castells (USC Sociology Department), April 8, 2010, 6:30 pm, Kane Hall 120

OMEKA Workshop on Curating Scholarly Digital Collections, featuring Dave Lester (University of Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities), October 22, 2010

Digital Humanities Commons Lecture, with Johanna Drucker (UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies), October 22, 2010

The Humanities and Technology Camp (THAT Camp), with over 75 participants from the Pacific Northwest, October 23-24, 2010

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