Digital Humanities on the Rise at Small Liberal Arts Colleges

I don’t have any hard figures or statistics, but my sense is that the title of this post is true. There does seem to be a growing interest — perhaps a groundswell? —  in incorporating Digital Humanities into scholarship, pedagogy, and the curriculum at Small Liberal Arts colleges.

What do I mean by Digital Humanities? I don’t mean just doing Humanities scholarship using a computer. Typing up a traditional paper in Word doesn’t count. Posting a pdf of a paper to the web doesn’t really count either (though I will admit that that act does bring up interesting questions about how you define the word “publish” nowadays — a related but separate topic).  If we think of Humanities as the study of the human culture and the human condition through the analysis of artifacts (texts, images, video, arctitecture, sculpture, and so on) in the human record, Digital Humanities simply extends that definition to include using digital technology to assist in that analysis. Usually this involves digitizing these cultural artifacts — often in the name of preservation — but also, as Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth point out, to facilitate and enhance scholarly analysis of those artifacts:

Yet many disciplines have gone beyond simply wishing to preserve these artifacts, what we might now call early forms of data management, to re-represent and manipulate them to reveal properties and traits not evident when the artifact was in its native form. Moreover, digital humanities now also concerns itself with the creation of new artifacts which are born digital and require rigorous study and understanding in their own right.

Susan Hockey says something similar in her essay that chronicles the history of Digital Humanities in the same book and notes that it brings together the methodologies of the sciences and the humanities:

by its very nature, humanities computing has had to embrace “the two cultures”, to bring the rigor and systematic unambiguous procedural methodologies characteristic of the sciences to address problems within the humanities that had hitherto been most often treated in a serendipitous fashion.

So, getting back to the title of this blog post… why do I think it’s on the rise at Small Liberal Arts colleges and universities? When I look around, I see Digital Scholarship centers appearing like the ones at Occidental College and the University of Richmond. Hamilton College has started a Digital Humanities Initiative. At the University of Puget Sound, the Director of the Humanities program, Kent Hooper, teaches a class to undergraduates entitled Digital Humanities. Here at Wheaton, faculty have started a Digital Humanities working group. We also have several digital humanities projects underway — a few that use methods from the Text Encoding Initiative to digitize and analyze texts, others that involve contributing to projects like the Diderot Encyclopedia translation project and the History Engine, and one using Lexomics — an approach which uses Computer Science and statistics to look for patterns in Old English texts. And as I write this, our college Archivist (Zeph Stickney) and an Associate Professor of History (Kathryn Tomasek) are attending and presenting a poster at the Digital Humanities conference in London.

The National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) has taken notice and has gathered a group of faculty members, librarians, and technologists together from Occidental College, Willamette University, Hamilton College, and Wheaton to plan a series of online seminars, which (according to Bob Kieft, College Librarian, Occidental College):

will showcase a variety of projects and issues in digital scholarship, [will address] these important themes:

  • connection to the undergraduate curriculum,
  • collaboration between faculty, technologists and librarians, and
  • strategies to cope with limited resources on liberal arts campuses.

And I’m sure there’s a lot more going on! This seems like a significant shift to me, because Digital Humanities used to be primarily within the purview of larger research institutions, because (as the last bullet above implies) these projects have been too expensive and large an undertaking for small colleges.

So, as a leader of a group at Wheaton focused on technology for research and instruction, part of my job is to figure out how to encourage and facilitate collaborations between faculty, technologists, archivists, and librarians and to work with others to find ways to make Digital Humanities projects manageable and sustainable. The IMLS-funded project that I am working on with colleagues from multiple small colleges aims to address this goal for one kind of Digital Humanities scholarship. “Publishing TEI Documents for Small Colleges” (a project still in need of a better name — any suggestions?) is attempting to help scholars, archivists, librarians, technologists, and students working on encoding scholarly texts with TEI-compliant XML find good, sustainable ways to store, represent, analyze and provide access to those materials online. We can all create the XML documents, but individually we don’t have the resources to build effective tools to store and use them. The way forward in our view is through collaboration between institutions — in this case through a shared service. And I think that will need to be the model for other kinds of Digital Humanities projects (video, GIS, image archives, and so on) occurring at small institutions (and even large institutions!) as well. If we want to ride this groundswell and succeed with Digital Humanities at our individual campuses, we need to look more toward sharing our resources.