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New Group Aims to Expand Use of Digital Humanities at W&L

A group of Washington and Lee University faculty and staff is exploring new ways to use technology in the University’s humanities disciplines.

The Digital Humanities Working Group is an informal organization of 15 faculty and staff whose goal is to lead the way in establishing digital humanities (DH) as a more commonly accepted method of teaching and research. The group is investigating the ways in which DH can enhance both teaching and learning for liberal arts students.

Paul Youngman, a 1987 W&L graduate and associate professor of German at W&L, and Suzanne Keen, the Thomas H. Broadus Professor of English and interim dean of the College, organized the initiative.

“We’re trying to get people to recognize that DH is here to stay, and that print is no longer the predominant means to produce or disseminate knowledge,” said Youngman. “While print is still around, it is more and more frequently embedded in some sort of digital platform. Text is therefore no longer bound and fixed.”

Youngman observed that DH is not a specialized field, but refers to all the different computing techniques that can be used in conducting and presenting research as well as in the classroom. He predicted that the term “digital humanities” will eventually disappear as it becomes widely accepted, and that people will simply call it “humanities.”
DH asks traditional humanities questions and then seeks answers by applying methodologies and tools provided by computing such as visualization techniques, data mining, statistics and computational analysis.

“If we’re talking strictly pedagogy, which is the mission of W&L, it will equip our liberal arts graduates with computing technology skills that can help them a great deal in the professional world and allow them to better compete for a job in the 21st century,” said Youngman.

He conceded that DH can seem daunting to those who are unfamiliar with it. One of the group’s goals next year is to bring DH experts to campus to discuss with faculty what DH is and what it can do.

Youngman was previously director of the Center for Advanced Research in the Humanities at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. He immediately began implementing digital humanities approaches into his W&L courses.

Having worked primarily with faculty at the center at UNC-Charlotte, Youngman found that introducing the techniques to his students was something new. He initially relied on the assistance of Brandon Bucy, senior academic technologist in W&L’s Leyburn Library, and Eric Owsley, manager of web development in the Department of Communications and Public Affairs, who created a travel blog for one of Youngman’s classes.

As a result, Youngman’s students don’t hand him assignments much on paper anymore; he does everything online, including traditional papers and grading. He stressed that text is still important, and that in using a digital platform he is still rigorously evaluating students’ German, albeit in a different way.

“Introducing digital humanities to my students was really fun to do, although it did take up some class time,” said Youngman. “But we need to teach this.”

One technique Youngman’s students used was Ngram analysis on the poetry of Goethe. Google Books’ Ngram Viewer is a project of The Cultural Observatory at MIT and Harvard. It allows a researcher to search all the digitized books to trace the usage of a word over several centuries and show a big-picture trend. “They call this ‘distant reading’ because, rather than reading a book, the computer is taking thousands of books and mining them for this data,” said Youngman.

“It gives students a different way of looking at the text. People have been analyzing Goethe’s poems for 200 years, but not many people have employed Ngrams to situate them in their historical context. It allows students to say something original about his poems, and I think undergraduates find that exciting,” he added.

Youngman’s students also used word clouds, where the more common a word is in a text, the larger it appears in the cloud. For example, a Goethe poem from the Sturm und Drang period in German literature, in which emotion and feeling is emphasized more than reason and intellect, shows “herz” (heart) as the predominant word. The word cloud is a visual way of representing this.

Youngman observed that while Ngrams and word clouds deal with text, there is also a whole array of techniques that deal with sound and imagery.

Rather than writing the classic end-of-term paper, where it’s a limited conversation between the student and the professor, Youngman’s students place their work on a digital platform where other people can see it. “Anybody can look at a project, and I think that puts a little more heat on the students because they don’t want their work to be presented to the world in a sloppy manner,” said Youngman.

A number of the members of the Digital Humanities Working Group, which formed in August 2012, have different DH projects underway, including faculty in classics, history, philosophy and English. Students presented several of those projects this year at W&L’s biennial research conference, Science, Society and the Arts.

The group has also recently begun to network with other institutions with active digital humanities centers and programs to discuss best practices and lay the groundwork for future collaborative research and teaching efforts.

Their work can be seen on a website, Generally Digital (digitalhumanities.wlu.edu), and the group has scheduled a May 2 seminar for the campus, Developing Digital Humanities Projects, at 3 p.m. in Northen Auditorium of Leyburn Library.

Other members of the Digital Humanities Working Group:

  • Alston Brake, digital scholarship librarian
  • Rebecca Benefiel, associate professor of classics
  • Brandon Bucy, senior academic technologist, ITS
  • Sarah Horowitz, assistant professor of history
  • Curtis Jirsa, assistant professor of English
  • Dick Kuettner, director of the Tucker Multimedia Center
  • Julie Knudson, director of academic technologies and client services, ITS
  • Yolanda Merrill, humanities librarian
  • Nicolaas Rupke, Johnson Professor of History
  • David Saacke, chief technology officer, ITS
  • Rachel Schnepper, Mellon Junior Faculty Fellow, history
  • Sara Sprenkle, assistant professor of computer science
  • John Tombarge, associate university librarian for digital services and strategies

News Contact:
Sarah Tschiggfrie
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