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Mellon Foundation Grants W&L Funds for Digital Humanities, Study of History

Washington and Lee University has received project grants totaling $950,000 from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation — one to develop new methods of teaching the humanities using technology and another to study how the lessons of history help us interpret contemporary issues.

The four-year, $800,000 humanities grant will enable W&L’s technology experts, research librarians and faculty to continue their unique collaboration in developing the university’s Digital Humanities (DH) Studio. The key innovation supported by The Mellon Foundation is the development of DH Studio courses, humanities lab courses in which students learn various DH methodologies that they can use in classes and in the data-driven, collaborative workplace of the 21st century.

The $150,000 history grant will fund new courses, collaborative faculty-student research and a symposium. Nationally respected scholars will participate, examining why history is studied, how it informs society, and how it is appropriated or misappropriated in contemporary debates.

DH is a fresh approach to the humanities — academic disciplines that study human culture, such as literature, art, music, theater, film studies — and the humanistic social sciences such as politics, anthropology, and sociology. It offers students and faculty new methodologies including data mining, text and network analysis, and data visualization. Such methodologies can enable researchers to formulate new questions and find answers to long-standing questions.

As Paul A. Youngman, professor of German and chair of the Digital Humanities Working Group at W&L, recently told a meeting of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges, “The fact is we no longer live in a world in which information conserves itself primarily in textual objects called books. And we do our students a disservice if we only train them to be fluent in one medium — the printed word.”

A prime example of an exciting, new DH project is The Ancient Graffiti Project (AGP) being developed by classics professor Rebecca Benefiel and computer science professor Sara Sprenkle. The aim of the AGP is to locate, study and preserve graffiti of the early Roman Empire cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The importance of the graffiti, often spontaneously scrawled, is that it gives a different view of Roman citizens’ thinking about their society and events than their formal histories carved in stone. The project involves archaeological field work, linguistic analysis, and the creation of a new graffiti-specific search engine. To see the project, visit ancientgraffiti.wlu.edu.

W&L courses that have incorporated DH methodologies include: French professor Stephen P. McCormick’s La Légende Arthurienne, offered with a DH Studio pilot course called Scholarly Text Encoding, taught by library faculty Jeff Barry and Mackenzie Brooks; religion professor Joel Blecher’s History of Islamic Civilization; and English professor Genelle Gertz’s Gaming in Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

In addition to the innovative DH Studio courses, the Mellon grant will fund faculty-student summer research projects employing DH techniques, offer grants to encourage additional faculty to incorporate DH in their courses, conduct workshops, and host internationally renowned digital humanities scholars to speak at W&L.

The history project, “History in the Public Sphere,” will focus on the purpose and value of history in a democratic society. The project will employ new courses, faculty-student research efforts, and presentations by nationally respected scholars to produce a roadmap to productive civic discussion.

W&L is particularly suited to undertake such a project. Its history parallels America’s from the founding period through the painful divide of the Civil War and up to the present time.

Founded in 1969, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation endeavors to strengthen, promote, and, where necessary, defend the contributions of the humanities and the arts to human flourishing and to the well-being of diverse and democratic societies by supporting exemplary institutions of higher education and culture as they renew and provide access to an invaluable heritage of ambitious, path-breaking work.