Digital Humanities Summer Faculty Workshop

"Dwell in the ambiguity…"

Five heads nodded and wavered in puzzlement. The workshop coordinator explained further – to take a course traditionally taught with a textbook or some other physical media and translate it for the digital realm is not as straightforward a task as one might assume. To really be successful in creating a digital version that deepens and enhances the student understanding of a subject, one must embrace that ambiguity from the onset and use it as incentive to experiment with the new and emerging digital tools available to them, not simply convert ink to 1s and 0s.

These types of ambiguous pauses for reflection happened on a number of occasions during the recent Digital Humanities Summer Faculty Workshop. Taking place in the newly revamped Kresge Hall and sponsored by the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, the two-week workshop is designed for instructors seeking to create digital humanities classes or research projects that have impactful roles for undergraduates. Each year, five to six projects are chosen for sponsorship by Kaplan and the faculty take part in this kickoff clinic preceding their year of work on the project. The workshop itself is really an opportunity for faculty to stake out the time necessary to begin the conceptualization required to reimagine an old course and/or craft a new one.

The projects themselves range from public-facing to activities focusing on the classroom. This year’s faculty projects include courses from five Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences professors:

  • James Hodge, Assistant Professor of English and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities
  • Martina Kerlova, Assistant Professor of Instruction (German) and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Slavic department
  • Jules Law, Professor of English and Comparative Literature
  • Kelly Wisecup, Assistant Professor of English
  • Rebecca Zorach, Mary Jane Crowe Professor in Art and Art History

During the workshop, faculty participants benefit from a mixture of hands-on work, demonstration and discussion. Notably, it’s an opportunity for them to learn new digital tools that can be used to help teach their humanities courses from colleagues in Northwestern University Libraries Digital Scholarship and the Weinberg College Multimedia Learning Center (MMLC).

One of the early presentations that really resonated with the group was from the new head of the MMLC, John Bresland, on the creation and process behind his video essays. While some of the instructors are looking to do similar multimedia works with their class projects, it was beneficial for all to see the progression from a very traditional written essay to a fully-produced digital work that incorporates film, music, ambient recording and narration.

Reflecting on Bresland’s presentation, Kelly Wisecup offered the following food for thought to her fellow participants, “What routes can we take to create something new instead of defaulting to what we know and are comfortable with like the essay? How can we push students to think about form and how forms can support your argument?”

On the final day of the workshop, participants gave a short presentation that summarized their project and how they will use their newly-acquired skills to benefit their course project and the student experience of it. Here is a brief overview of the projects taking place during the upcoming 2016-2017 school year:

Hitchcock and Beyond by James Hodge will use the films of Alfred Hitchcock, particularly Psycho, to explore film techniques as well as their cultural impact. This will be done by asking students to create GIFs or supercuts to deeply examine recurring themes or specific elements at play as a tool to start interesting conversations about directorial choices. In addition to the software expertise needed to complete the creative assignments, Prof. Hodge hopes to help the students develop better close examination and close reading skills.

Chicago Mural Movement by Rebecca Zorach will use student assistance to catalog public art, specifically murals from the Black Arts Movement of the 60s and 70s, around the city of Chicago. In addition to authoring timeline and story map exhibits, Prof. Zorach and the students will use the associated metadata (artist, date of creation, location in the city, etc.) to create an interactive map that can be used for not only viewing mural images but also as a way to connect with other existing data sets like the CTA route map or census data to ask interesting questions about race, class, gentrification, and more.

Mapping Indigenous Stories of Chicago by Kelly Wisecup is an undergraduate course and research project about place-based indigenous stories in Chicago in the context of Native American literature and culture. Students will focus deeply on specific areas of historical and cultural importance, finding new ways to make visible the stories of places that do not have visible signs. Along with this research, students will think about mapping as a critical, conceptual tool, and as a way of thinking not just about space, but also relationships, boundary systems, time, and more. By using the Storymap JS software developed by the Northwestern Knight Lab, students also gain a sense of how their design choices can help make these connections.

Technologies of Language by Jules Law will look at theories and philosophies of language from the last two centuries to explore the question, "What if language itself is what forms the world?" Another question to be explored is whether or not a book changes when it is digitized. Can it still be considered a book in the traditional sense? By requiring students go to special collections in the Library and physically encounter an old book and the idiosyncrasies of an original and then do the same for the most recent version in digital form, Prof. Law and his students will examine what is preserved, lost, or added by digitizing books. 

Prague: City of Culture, City of Conflict by Martina Kerlova will use another Knight Lab creation, Timeline JS, to explore a century of ideologies through a collection of major 19th and 20th century novels. By looking at themes presented in Frankenstein or Kafka, for example, students will be able to see the temporal correlation between the writing of the novel and changes in political or philosophical ideologies during that period – i.e. the move from mysticism to science or the rise of totalitarianism.

The workshop concluded with a roundtable discussion on the future of digital humanities at Northwestern with all of the presenters, organizers, and participants from across the two weeks as well as previous workshop alumni. The discussion centered on an earlier session in which the group was looking at some computer-generated poetry and Jules Law uttered the phrase “this is almost something” under his breath. Beyond getting a few laughs, for the group the use of that phrase "almost something" came to represent a broader concept of things that are nearly there – the spark of an idea, an initial investigation, a probing question – but need further investigation and elaboration. The term itself could be used to represent the current state of digital humanities in general. While the majority of the instructors looking to reimagine their traditional courses have a general sense of what they want to accomplish, they are on the hunt for the right digital tool that brings it to life – a task that requires frequent iteration to keep up with the ever-changing pace of the digital realm.

“I thought the workshop did a great job of examining digital humanities from both the granular to the larger philosophical underpinnings. Though we only touched on a few of the many tools out there available to use, I feel empowered to do more exploring and find something that will be of value both to me and the students in my course,” said Jules Law.  

Updates on the faculty projects will be presented during the 2016-2017 academic year. Dates and times for those presentations will be made available when they are scheduled. For more information, please visit the Digital Humanities Summer Faculty Workshop site.