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Washington and Lee Students Create Symposium for Undergraduate Research in the Digital Humanities

On Nov. 6-8, Lenny Enkhbold and Lizzy Stanton, juniors at Washington and Lee University, will attend the inaugural Undergraduate Network for Research in the Humanities (UNRH) symposium at Davidson College to present their work with W&L Professor Paul Youngman on creating a web-based map of railway travel portrayed in 19th-century German Realist literature (read more about their research here). They also have another connection to the symposium — they created it.

The idea grew out of discussions the two had in August with their peers about the role of the undergraduate in faculty research while attending a week-long digital humanities workshop, the Institute for Liberal Arts Digital Scholarship (ILiADS), at Hamilton College.

“As students, we invest a significant portion of our time and skills into these research projects,” explained Enkhbold. “It gives us a certain authority to present at conferences like the ILiADS, but there isn’t enough institutional support for undergraduates doing research in the humanities, and we’d like to change that. This symposium gives us a physical platform for students to network and share their digital humanities projects.”

Youngman, who also chairs W&L’s Digital Humanities Working Group, sees his students’ involvement in creating a symposium for other undergraduates as an exciting development. “ILiADS was the first conference that either Lizzie or Lenny had attended, and part of the educational experience for them was to not only present their work to other scholars, but to also see firsthand the kinds of collaborations going on at other institutions. To have them take the lead in continuing to engage undergraduates in research in the digital humanities is fantastic.” The two will appear as co-authors on the paper he is writing about their research results.

In the past few years, more faculty at W&L have been incorporating digital humanities into their pedagogy and research, and in July, the university received an $800,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop new methods of teaching the humanities using technology. “Digital humanities offers faculty and students in a liberal arts environment useful tools and techniques — data mining, text and network analysis and data visualization,” said Youngman. “Text is no longer the only medium the world uses to acquire information. The printed word is becoming more and more embedded in a digital platform, and these methods open up entirely new ways of approaching the objects of our research.”

He added, “Today’s world is collaborative and data-driven, and we need to build our students’ skills in computer literacy, research, writing and presentation, which will serve them well in the job market. Having our students work with us on digital humanities projects is one way to meet those objectives.”

As co-hosts for the UNHR symposium, Enkhbold and Staunton are already putting those kinds of skills to work. Along with students from Davidson, Hope College, Grinnell College, Antioch College and Cornell College, they crafted a mission statement for the symposium, determined a location and created a web page (unrh.org). Plans are underway to find a keynote speaker, choose participants and finalize the schedule. One of the greatest challenges was communicating the call for proposals to interested students. “Each member of the team contacted 10 to 15 schools,” said Stanton. “We wanted to encourage as many students to apply as possible, because we think participating in this symposium is an important part of their education.”

In addition to urging students to network at the symposium, Enkhbold and Staunton have planned sessions for their peers to develop professional skills, as well as discussion groups on the current undergraduate research model and ways to change it. “We talked a lot about these issues at ILiADS,” said Enkhbold, “and we hope to continue those conversations in November. As more students become involved in digital scholarship, we’d like to provide them with guidelines on payment, academic credit and scholarly recognition.”