Faculty and staff members took another step toward a more digital classroom experience this June, attending the annual Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria. The 10 attendees joined around 800 others in British Columbia, spending a week delving into new technologies that will impact teaching, research and the academic experience at Whitman.

Associate Professor of English and General Studies Sharon Alker has been interested in the field for some time.

thinking digitally“What came to light is that many people, over a several year period, started to realize that they were interested in digital studies, but weren’t sure how to connect,” she explained.

But over time, members of that group started finding points of intersection in their work, and Alker—along with Assistant Professor of German Studies and Environmental Humanities Emily Jones and Director of Instructional and Learning Technology David Sprunger ’96—created a more formalized project to explore the potential impact of digital tools, titled Thinking Digitally.

The project is three-pronged. First, members of the group attended DHSI. Secondly, a workshop took place in July, where the group shared what they had learned at the conference and narrowed down the focus to four or five key areas. And third, faculty and staff will co-teach a two-credit digital humanities course in spring 2017 that will “introduce students to digital studies, to thinking digitally.”

The course will likely be housed in the General Studies Program and be open to everyone, from humanities students to computer scientists. “The richer and more diverse the group is, the more interesting the class promises to be,” Alker said.

At DHSI—now in its 16th year—attendees take a weeklong course in a particular tool or technology. Last year, Alker and Jones learned to program using Python; this year, Alker learned about digital databases—exploring the possibility of creating a searchable database of the work of Scottish Romantic writer James Hogg—while Jones looked at digital text analysis and how it could help quantify the close reading instincts of humanities scholars.

“It’s an excellent way to show somebody who’s very scientifically or mathematically minded that what we’re doing is not just stating an opinion. We’re building evidence from a text,” Jones said. “If you can explain it in those quantifiable kinds of ways, it can be much more attractive to people who think differently.”

Another important aspect of the Thinking Digitally project is collaboration between staff and faculty members: eight departments and programs, as well as Technology Services, Instructional Technology, Penrose Library and the college archives are all involved.

“Each of us comes to the project with different expertise,” said Sprunger, who called DHSI a transformative experience. “Faculty members are the classroom leaders. Librarians bring their expertise in all the facets and nuances of information literacy, management and preservation. Instructional technologists bring to the mix a synthesis of technological thinking with an understanding of practical educational application.”

While the workshop will result in the beginnings of a course syllabus, just how the project will affect the curriculum is still not set in stone—Alker said that “something may come that’s more centralized. But it also may continue to spread in rhizomatic ways.”

Though it’s still early days, Jones called the project “an opportunity for students to develop new areas of knowledge and new methodologies in familiar areas of knowledge.”

Sprunger echoed the sentiment, saying that digital studies methodologies may challenge students and faculty members to examine texts in new ways. 

Alker added that it’s not just an issue of bringing digital tools to the humanities. “It’s taking the humanities to the digital. Then we can start asking: how does living in a dynamic technological world change who we are and shape our identity and culture? And these are fundamental humanities questions.”

Others involved in the project are: Amy Blau (instructional and data services librarian); Rachel George (assistant professor of anthropology); Sarah Hurlburt '91 (associate professor of foreign languages and literatures – French); Colin Justin (instructional and learning technologist for humanities); Justin Lincoln (assistant professor of art); Lydia McDermott (assistant professor of composition and director of the Center for Writing and Speaking); Ben Murphy (instructional and research librarian); Mike Osterman ’96 (director of enterprise technology); Nico Parmley (assistant professor of Spanish); and Melissa Salrin (archivist and special collections librarian). Funding came from the Cross-Disciplinary Learning and Teaching Initiative, Innovation in Teaching and Learning, the Office of the Provost and the Dean of the Faculty, the Office of Instructional and Learning Technology and Penrose Library.