Humanities Meets Digital

At Gustavus, where innovation in the liberal arts drives our work, digital humanities courses push students and professors in new ways.
Posted on October 25th, 2016 by

Professors Glenn Kranking, Carlos Mejia Suarez, Pamela Conners, and Micah Maatman all teach digital humanities initiatives.

(Note: This feature on digital humanities initiatives at Gustavus first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of the Gustavus Quarterly.)

Why Digital Humanities

glenn1By Glenn Kranking ’98, associate professor, History and Scandinavian Studies, and campus facilitator, Digital Humanities

I first came across the digital humanities in graduate school in 2007, in a course on “digital history.” I learned how technology was shaping a field dominated by the printed word, and the potential for new approaches, new connections, and new ways of presenting findings. I was fascinated by how a historian could work with data collected in archives to create projects beyond a standard research paper. I liked that digital projects tend to be public, which shifts the audience from professors and academics only toward engagement with the public.

I taught a digital history course my first January Interim Experience at Gustavus, in 2010. Students focused on using technology to research and present their scholarly findings. A primary learning outcome (as in most courses in the digital humanities) was to increase digital fluency. That means more than just being able to read and use digital materials. It means engaging in broader discussions to both critically analyze and create digital resources.

The digital humanities are driven by technology, but they are grounded in the long tradition of inquiry and study of humanities through the liberal arts. Here at Gustavus we are asking the questions we have always asked, using different methodologies and new digital tools to research and present.

The College is currently in the second year of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to broaden the footprint of digital humanities on campus. As one of the campus facilitators, I am joined by Denis Crnković, professor of Russian and director of Comparative Literature and Russian and Eastern European studies, who has used digital tools in textual analysis for decades; and Eric Dugdale, classics professor and associate provost and dean of education, who has students digitally transcribe and analyze ancient text.

In June, interested faculty participated in a week-long workshop to develop a digitally driven course for this upcoming January Interim Experience. The broader objective is to inflect digital learning across the curriculum, offering our students new opportunities in the humanities. Already in these courses, students have become more than consumers of technology, they have become digital creators, within the liberal arts tradition of critical inquiry. Through such innovation, we believe we position our students to use their liberal arts education to live and act on the great challenges of our time, with all of the tools available to them in our time.

Course: The War On Drugs 

Carlos Mejia Suarez, Spanish and modern languagesmejia-photo1

In this course, groups of students created digital visual representations of aspects of the war on drugs—from a video detailing changes in brain synapses under the influence of cocaine to an interactive timeline of Pablo Escobar’s empire. “In every decision, students were thinking about the level of interactivity,” Mejia says. “They had to understand storytelling as it related to interactivity, aesthetics, and their arguments.” For a complex issue like the war on drugs, there were plenty of lightbulb moments for students regarding the global drug trade. “They had to simplify the digital delivery while keeping the complexity of the issue,” Mejia says. Extra synergy: the student-run conference Building Bridges tackled the same topic, and projects made in this course were released to the public on the Building Bridges website.

“The interactive portion gave us, as students, an opportunity to connect what we learned about each aspect of drugs. It was truly the most intriguing class I have ever had.” —Brecklyn Schmidt ’19

Course: Food as Communication

Pamela Conners, Communication Studiespamweb1

In this class, students identified challenges the Gustavus dining service has communicating with the campus, and developing digital tools to help. (For instance: one project aimed to bring nutritional information on daily Caf offerings to students’ phones.) A surprise to Conners was students’ learning curve in creatingdigital tools. “Students are comfortable making videos on their laptops or using apps and social media. But the creation and imagination behind the tools really stretched them.” For 2017, says Conners, “I’m going to have students think more broadly: What do we decide is ‘good’ food, and how have standards changed
over time?” 
Digital humanities offers a different way of seeing, Conners says. “As a communication scholar, that is always what I’m trying to help my students do.”

“I learned that marketing food is very hard—trying to get the customer to buy your product but also being truthful and giving them the product they want. Gaining customer satisfaction is tricky.” —Olivia Hass ’19

Course: Arts Entrepreneurship

Micah Maatman, Theatre and Dance

micahweb1“In theatre design, a lot of the practice is naturally digital,” says Maatman. To make it an intentional part of the scholarship, this course created two artistic experiences: a physical, three-dimensional space in Schaefer Gallery, and a companion exhibit in a digital space. The project, says Maatman, was largely determined by who signed up—in this case, many visual artists. “I initially had scripted how that was going to go,” Maatman says. “But the students said, ‘We don’t need this much structure.’” Maatman took his hands off in the last few weeks, and it was deserving considering their ambition. “I gave the students a lot of freedom and they appreciated it.”

Digital humanities makes great sense in the study of visual arts, says Maatman. “It takes lessons from the arts and applies them to the humanities. It’s the merging of creativity and academic scholarship.”

“To be able to create a design online with a group was something new and useful, and being hands on and creating a physical space is something undergrad art students don’t often experience.” —Lauren Ihle ’18


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