Easing into Digital Humanities: DH Week 2019

Tessa Elizabeth Bullington

How do we perform humanities research in a constantly changing world? We know that our work must be relevant, accessible, and dynamic, acknowledging the ways in which knowledge is produced and shared in an increasingly digital landscape. We also know that DH, or digital humanities, can help – but what is our point of entry? How do we gain access to the benefits of DH when we know we lack technical knowledge – not only in terms of practical implementation, but even knowing what is possible?

Organized and hosted by the Digital Humanities Initiative at the Franklin Humanities Institute, Digital Humanities Week (March 25-29, 2019) provided opportunities for scholars at all levels to consider the potential for, and utility of, integrating DH into our scholarly practices. Initially an outsider, curious to learn if there could be any place for DH within my own work, I was looped into a community of experienced and engaged scholars ready to share their knowledge during DH week. These connections underscored the collaborative nature of DH projects, wherein even an “un-tech-savvy” humanities scholar (such as myself) can learn to operate and to produce meaningful results. I realized that one doesn't need to be an expert in writing code before embarking on a DH project – a little tech know how will certainly come in handy, but can also be learned “on the job.”

A point reiterated across panels and presentations was that DH is a space for enhanced collaboration; it is necessarily social and interactive. Suddenly the “D” in “DH” felt less intimidating. I do not actually need to know how to do DH inside and out – I just need to know what is possible and where to find it, or even, where to begin. I can then begin drawing on the resources that surround me. For scholars in the Triangle, DH Week showed me how abundant those resources truly are – even on a local scale – and opened my eyes to a new way of working outside the ivory tower and beyond the strict boundaries of discipline-specific research and expertise.

The week began with Monday’s Triangle Digital Humanities Network Institute on Pedagogy, a full day of panels, roundtables and workshops dedicated to the implementation of DH in the classroom. The speakers presented a comprehensive picture of how DH and DH projects can enhance student learning and engagement. In the afternoon, workshop sessions allowed participants to dive deeper into DH, with topics such as Breaking Down the Digital Assignment, Evaluating Students’ Digital Projects, Developing Student-Centered Learning Objectives with DH, and designing assignments using specific software (ESRI Story Maps and StoryMapJS, in this case). Never having designed a fully digital assignment, I came away from Monday’s workshops with an enhanced sense for how I can use DH in the classroom, and the expansive and interdisciplinary approaches to topics in the humanities -  and beyond – that I can bring to my own work.

Day Two of DH Week included two panels on Publishing In/With Hybrid Forms. Broaching the potentially challenging topics of copyright and the market-based interests of academic publishers in an increasingly “open-source” world, the panelists presented a broad array of considerations for fitting DH into their own publications, and best practices when choosing hybrid forms over print media. The panels were followed by a VR/AR Demo for DH technology currently under development in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies.

VR demo
A DH Week participant tries out VR technology during the afternoon demo on March 26, 2019. Photo by Dean Rhoades.

Day Three expanded upon the pedagogical discussion presented on Day One, with a panel on Engaged DH Pedagogies Outside the Classroom. Scholars using DH projects to engage undergraduate students beyond specific course-based assignments, presented various methodologies and rationales for the work, ultimately illustrating DH’s capacity to connect students’ experiences within the classroom to their lives more broadly. Projects such as Remembering the Middle Passage, Visualizing Suffering: Tracking Photojournalism & the Syrian Refugee Crisis, Project Vox (an online repository dedicated to the unheard voices of female philosophers throughout history), and Activating History For Justice at Duke (a cross-disciplinary project with a human rights focus, dedicated to addressing the invisible structures of institutionalized racism on Duke campus and in students’ lives more generally) demonstrate the practical utility for DH in bringing real-world issues to the fore in classroom assignments. Presenters spoke candidly of the challenges and benefits of working with emerging technologies, and offered insights into methods for introducing DH beyond the classroom.

Andrew Janiak speaks about Project Vox on the panel "Engaged DH Pedagogies Outside of the Classroom on March 27, 2019. From left to right, Astrid Giugni, Jessica Hines, Robin Kirk, and Charlotte Sussman. Photo by Dean Rhoades.

While the full series of events lasted throughout the week, I was only able to attend the first three days of offerings. Nonetheless, I came away from DH Week invigorated by a wealth of new ideas and resources, as well as personal connections to others working on projects similar to my own.

Tessa Burlington

Tessa Bullington is a Roysters' Fellow and PhD Candidate in Italian in the Department of Romance Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on the Renaissance/ Early Modern period, with specific interests in the Chivalric Epic Genre, Gender Studies, and the History of Medicine. Tessa will defend her dissertation, "Textual Healing: Gender, Genre & Disease at the Sixteenth-Century Italian Court," in Spring 2020.