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4 Digital-Humanities Projects From ‘Chronicle’ Readers

A collection of articles in this week’s issue of The Chronicle explores how the digital humanities play in the undergraduate classroom, whether they pay off in tenure and promotion, and what it takes to create a work of digital scholarship that will last. As part of that collection, we asked readers to tell us how they integrate digital platforms into their humanities teaching and scholarship. Following are four submissions we found particularly interesting.

When we hear the phrase “I Have a Dream,” most of us probably think, “I know that speech.” One of the goals of Freedom’s Ring is to break through that assumed familiarity by surrounding Martin Luther King Jr.’s words with art and context that locates them politically, both in their own time and in their contemporary resonance. By turning the speech into an animated, annotated mural, the project aims to open new doors for students, teachers, and the general public to explore Dr. King’s response to the moment he found himself in as part of a broader movement and history.

liberty

The project is based on a platform called Scalar. Our team developed Scalar to make it easier to author long-form, media-rich scholarship. Scalar’s annotation features made it possible to turn the audio of the speech into a content spine which could then be linked, phrase by phrase, to supplementary materials. Since Scalar projects are built from easy-to-understand structural “primitives”—links, paths, and tags—that can be combined in a variety of ways, the team was able to focus on the content at hand instead of worrying about conforming to an elaborate information architecture. Scalar’s API then enabled both the content and the structure to be used to power a custom-designed interface that turned the speech into an audiovisual text for users to explore.

Evan Bissell, Erik Loyer, and Tara McPherson
University of Southern California
Los Angeles

“Century America,” launched by the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, is a digital-humanities project in which undergraduates on nearly a dozen campuses will produce a website documenting daily life during World War I.

The project combines the virtual and the local—engaging students in exploring and mastering digital tools and resources while delving into the histories of their own campuses and communities. By semester’s end, the undergraduate researchers will produce a web-published product that will provide narrative and photographic overviews of campus and community life during World War I. The project will also document the impact of the global influenza epidemic of 1918-19 on those communities. This final product, accessible online, will make contributions to historical understanding locally and nationally.

Using distance technology, student researchers on the 11 campuses will collaborate with one another and be guided by academic mentors—Ellen Holmes Pearson, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and Jeffrey McClurken, chair and a professor of history and American studies at the University of Mary Washington.

Students enrolled in the online seminar will blog about their progress, learn to create digital maps, integrate timelines into their work, and practice digital presentation. That approach to collaborative learning blends the traditional benefits of a liberal-arts classroom, high-impact undergraduate research, online teaching of digital skills, and the technical proficiency necessary for historians in the digital age.

The “Century America” program receives generous support from the Teagle Foundation of New York.

William Spellman
Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges
Asheville, N.C.

I’m a junior computer-science student at St. Olaf College. My collaboration with an associate professor of history, Tim Howe, is still ongoing, and I’ve worked on it for about a year now. Our goal is to create a website that allows the user to essentially re-perform the archaeological work that he did. This is being accomplished with satellite imaging and three-dimensional rendering. We aim to create an overview of the site with aerial imaging, marking where artifacts were found. Each artifact will have a 3D texture rendering, to which the user can apply filters to manipulate and enhance the image. A good amount of the work is done, but not all of it yet.

The software that I am using is extremely new and experimental, so it’s a lot of work. It’s also pretty revolutionary for the archaeological world. No one has done anything like this yet. So far results are good. Some artifacts, like coins, look like hunks of dirt. In the software, really clear images appear on the coins. We hope to have something to present at conferences soon.

I also collaborated with a fellow student, Michael Stone, under the guidance of Professor Dick Brown, to help Professor Michael Fitzgerald visualize voting returns. We went through the data that he gave us, entered the data into our system, and created a map of Alabama in the Reconstruction era. Each county was colored according to its voting returns. Filters between years altered the map, and other filters calculated the difference. For example, it could show that a particular area became more Democratic or more Republican after certain laws were passed.

This was helpful, as it showed easy-to-understand representations of the data, which are significantly harder to get from pure statistical data. It identified patterns and concentrations of voters, as well as how strongly polarized each county was. From a technical standpoint, it was fairly straightforward: a lot of data input and coloring.

Both are rewarding, as they illustrate the relevance and the versatility of computer science as pertaining to other disciplines. This is beneficial for archaeologists and historians as it unlocks new capabilities for their work. It’s also beneficial to students and computer scientists as it gives us applicable work to do that has real impact in a discipline.

Maggie Wanek
St. Olaf College
Northfield, Minn.

I have long wanted to integrate more-sophisticated digital tools in my “Introduction to Women’s Studies” here at Wheaton College, to teach students how to engage deeply with digital tools and empower them to be participants in digital knowledge production. So I had students create digital timelines to document an issue or topic related to our class.

Together, the students and I learned to use Timeline JS, an open-source tool that enables users to build a visually rich interactive project, incorporating multimedia elements (music videos, archival images, political cartoons, charts) and scholarly sources to enhance their message. Working in groups of four, students selected a range of themes, including pay equity, beauty standards, reproductive-rights activism, women in the music industry, women in the civil-rights movement, sex trafficking, and women in American politics.

Each group was asked to plot and annotate their timelines with primary materials such as photographs, letters, poems, legislation, political manifestoes, videos, data, newspaper articles (and other media coverage), cartoons, artwork, political posters, and other ephemera. Record-album covers, artwork, clothing and fashion, architecture, and memorials were also included. Students read and included relevant scholarship in order to provide the critical framework for the project. Some timelines included historical figures who influenced change, or who somehow had an impact on the group’s topic.

The project provided students with practical, transferable skills that they can apply to future coursework, to internships, and to their careers. Each and every one of them left the class with a much greater familiarity and experience with new technologies, and an understanding of how the technologies can enhance learning in the humanities.

I would like to acknowledge Peter Coco, a digital learning strategist at Wheaton College, who collaborated with me on this project.

Kim Miller
Wheaton College
Norton, Mass.

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