Spotlight: Digital Humanities Summer Faculty Workshop Projects

This article is first in a series to highlight the five 2017 Digital Humanities Summer Faculty Workshop Projects sponsored by the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, and co-organized by Northwestern University Libraries and the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences’ Media and Design Studio. Each summer five faculty projects are chosen for their role in developing digital humanities pedagogical and research projects with meaningful roles for students.

First up is Dr. Galya Ben-Arieh and her project “Refugee Neighborhoods Digital Repository.” The project asks a complicated question: what is our responsibility to refugees? That question is being explored through a new course, U.S. Refugee Policies & Localities, which seeks to put traditional understandings of social science data in conversation with the humanities to consider the many non-measurable, yet visible ways in which resettlement is primarily a local government matter.

Two of the major deliverables from this work are an interactive annotation of the 1980 Refugee Act and an interactive map of Chicago. The digital annotation will create a multi-media “process map” for understanding the Act – its key phrases, history, legal and political contestation, etc. – and the map will illuminate how the application this Act affects the everyday life of those resettling in its neighborhoods.

I recently caught up with Dr. Ben-Arieh to find out how her project has been going…

Q: Since the summer workshop, how has your project evolved?  

GBA: In some ways, it’s remained very true to the original idea. I'm really interested in empathy and concerned with the way in which people think about refugees.

Normally the narrative is: we have to get their stories out there. Yes, part of the issue is the fight to get stories out there, but more important is being sensitive to how people will hear those stories and the interaction between them and the stories. If you just put people’s stories out there, you're not necessarily going to change public opinion or how they’re understood in any way. The refugee journey is incredibly complicated. And when refugees have to tell their own story, especially when it’s a story that people may not want to hear, it's really a challenge.

This project looks at how the 1980 Refugee Act plays out in the real world. What locations did you focus on for this initial offering?

The students focused on three neighborhoods in Chicago: Uptown, West Town, and Little Italy. Those neighborhoods were chosen to enable students to think about how to use digital materials available to them through Northwestern’s archive to represent change over time during three periods: 1890s to World War II, World War II to 1980, and 1980 to today.

The time periods were chosen because, for example, from 1890 through World War II, no one was called a refugee, they were displaced persons, stateless persons or immigrants. There wasn't the label ‘refugee’ that we have today. In looking at this time period, the students had to grapple with questions like: What was whiteness? What was blackness? Who was an immigrant but might have really been a refugee? During the second time period, you had the refugee label but no legislation. And finally, in the last time period you have the Refugee Act so you can look at what’s changed.

For the students, the important questions to address were: How do we understand the relationship of services from the federal government to refugee populations and what does integration look like?

How did the students go about trying to answer those questions?

I ended up giving them four lenses to pick from: the refugee label and how it’s changed over time, concepts of integration, the relationship of refugee communities with a host community, and the structures of race.   

With the archived material, we were able to create a GIS (geographic information systems) neighborhood map of Chicago that incorporates census and crime data as well as employment and housing data. We also learned about how to use the Knight Lab’s StoryMap and Timeline tools, which are a really great way to bring a digital archive to life.

Below is a timeline created by student Jiajun Lu to look at the history of the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Act:

How was the class and research structured?

During the first part of the class the students were thinking about their assigned neighborhoods and learning about refugee policy. We were really digging in to the policy’s purpose when it was founded—how it was structured and its shortcomings. The midterm asked them to look at what they had been learning through the four lenses to determine what specifically they would like to investigate and required them to create a plan to collect the necessary data.

The second part of the class focused on the research so we went to the archives and spent time in the field. We went to Uptown neighborhood and met Neal Ball, Founder and Honorary President of the American Refugee Committee, at the building where the Committee was founded which was really cool and the students had a chance to meet with a couple of agencies there, RefugeeOne and Asian Human Services.

After the visit, the discussion really turned to thinking about how the Committee wound up there. Some of it was just happenstance—Ball was looking for cheap housing—but why Uptown at that time? It turned out that in the late 70s, Uptown was populated by a bunch of ‘hillbillies’ from the Appalachians who were considered unruly. The students had to grapple with questions of whiteness and allowed them to rethink how we understand why things happen and how they are now in the context of a neighborhood’s population.

Neal Ball, Founder and Honorary President of the American Refugee Committee, and students


Neal Ball and students at the Asian Human Services headquarters in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago

What surprised you about the work and how do you see that influencing future versions of the course?  

The projects and questions the students posed in this iteration of the course are really paving the way for how it will ultimately take shape. We couldn't have asked certain questions before they did the work, so what they’re doing is kind of groundbreaking. Nobody has done this. I think for next year I now have a set of really interesting questions for the new group of students to take on.

The other piece of the class was creating a curated annotation of the 1980 Refugee Act. I ended up assigning every person in the class to one line of the act and had them look at how it’s applied at the national, state, and local level. That was super interesting in the end because it can be very challenging to understand. Part of it says “you have to use cash assistance for good reason.” What does that mean? Or that a refugee has to stay with an agency or else they won't get access to something. There's a lot of provisions in there that are really quirky. And it was like, wait a second. How do people, let alone the government, understand these things? Some of the students found really interesting insights that I didn't anticipate.

Finally, what do you see as the benefit to humanities instruction as it moves into a more digital realm?

I think the most amazing part of it is the creativity. People have to know how to think and create something.  

Instead of telling the students to get a bunch of knowledge and report on it from the Internet in a research paper, the act of digital curation forces them to interact with material in a way they might not do otherwise. Taking the seemingly unconnected or thinking about ideas that aren’t yet fully formed is like taking a block of clay and deciding what it's going to be. I like digital because it’s easier to play with different source materials. And I think that it's allowing students to really challenge what can be done with them.