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Digital Scholarship in the Liberal Arts Tradition

circuit pen[Adrianne Wadewitz is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College. You can find her online and follow her on Twitter at @wadewitz.--JBJ]

In the first post in this series, I explored “a day in the life of a post doc” at a liberal arts college, and now I would like to expand that to think about what it means to have a digital scholarship center at such an institution. Three years ago, Occidental College received a Mellon grant to examine the possibilities of just such a center and they have been experimenting with different models. A central operating principle was that the faculty and staff would have to learn and share their experiences with each other across the disciplines and departments. Thus, the center began a series of programs to introduce faculty and staff to different ways of thinking about using technology that would hopefully spread organically. I want to highlight several ways in which we have tried to bring this about.

For the past three years, the Center for Digital Learning + Research has run Digital Scholarship Institutes. Bringing together a small cohort of faculty from across the disciplines for a week-long intensive study of technology, these institutes emphasize not only learning new technical skills and programs but also a new outlook on technology in general – an experimental, do-it-yourself attitude. Each day is focused on a particular theme, such as scholarly communication, and begins with a theoretical discussion and broad framing of the topic while in the afternoon participants learn about a variety of related tools. Time is also budgeted for faculty members to work on digital projects that they want to develop, giving them that elusive chunk of “free time” to focus on a new class, assignment, tool, or method that they want to think through. Crucially, members of the previous years come back and talk to newbies, serving as models and mentors. Everyone is meant to disseminate enthusiasm and knowledge across the campus in small informal conversations at the printer or at larger formal faculty meetings. These institutes have been remarkably successful in building a general sense of enthusiasm and experimentation on campus as faculty consistently try new digital tools and raise campus awareness of issues such as open access.

Similarly, we have run iPad Faculty Learning Communities to give faculty a chance to meet and discuss the role of technology in their teaching and scholarly lives every two weeks during the semester. And there is nothing like the lure of a free iPad to get faculty together in a room to discuss technology! These events are gentle introductions to technology in the classroom and have led to some wonderful projects. For example, one Media Arts and Culture professor is using the iPad to design and run lighting installations for play productions and one kinesiology professor is using the iPad for an anatomy lab. Perhaps the most valuable element of these meetings, however, are the pedagogical discussions that result from the lunch meetings. Faculty have real time to reconsider their teaching strategies, since much technology raises fundamental questions about instruction.

Finally, we have hosted hi-tech happy hours on topics such as web annotation and done studio sessions on iMovie and Arduino. Crucial elements to all of these programs are a strong social component, a relaxed attitude, and an experimental atmosphere. Participants feel that they are there to learn from those of us in the Center as well as from their colleagues. Moreover, there is a very friendly atmosphere to all of the gatherings, promoted by sharing of our collective concerns, failures, and successes about adopting new technologies. We have found that it is the overall feeling of the groups than the specific technology that we share that creates success.

Beyond an emphasis on faculty and their teaching, however, Occidental’s digital scholarship center has furthered the liberal arts tradition of facilitating undergraduate research. For example, this summer a group of students – OxyCorps – worked with the special collections librarian and expert in documentary film to create an archive of alumni interviews which they then organized, transcribed and cataloged. They learned to produce viewable videos, to preserve digital files, and to create a searchable video archive. To illustrate the breadth of the alumni stories, the students designed, with the help of our Center, “Alumni Stories of Student Life,” an interactive website with a selection of video clips and links to transcripts that highlight such topics as political climate, academics, and campus life. This kind of collaboration – between librarians, our center, and undergraduates – shows the great potential of digital scholarship at liberal arts colleges.

Coming from a research background, I was pleasantly surprised by all of the institutional support given to faculty and staff to think through their digital projects. There are whole teams of people ready to assist them in conceptualizing their projects. At the beginning of the semester, for example, I was in multiple meetings that included not only members of our center but also IT staff, librarians, and other professors who are dedicated to helping faculty improve their use to technology. However, there is a limitation to that help – we do not have the expertise or resources to, for example, help someone code a large project. We can provide lots of initial help to conceptualize a project and motivation, but we cannot sustain large projects. Faculty and staff must find a way to make large scholarly projects work on their own by working with other faculty at our institution or others or getting grants. Large digital projects must reside at research institutions who can hire dedicated coders or be a collaborative effort of many small institutions who share the budgetary commitment.

As traditional liberal arts colleges are thinking about their future in the landscape of higher education, their libraries are reinventing themselves as well, as Timothy Lepczyk, in a similar position at Hendrix College, discusses on his site, Eduhacker. As Occidental strives to reshape itself for the digital future, the Center for Digital Learning + Research was integrated with the library into an Academic Commons, a place conceived of less as a traditional library space and more as a dynamic, communal space that lives both offline and online and where the lived experience of scholarship and intellectualism takes place. It is the ethos of such spaces and places that will shape the liberal arts tradition of the next century.

Next: How does one resolve questions of attribution on faculty-postdoc collaborations? How do collaborative projects count towards professional development? How much time should one devote to the job search and how much to professional development?

Photo DSC_0010 by Flickr user 76Winger / Creative Commons licensed BY-SA-2.0

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