When the Public meets the Digital Humanities

This blog entry is part 1 of a two-part post reflecting about my experiences with the Mellon Institute in Digital and Public Humanities.  Please click here for part 2.

This summer, I signed up for the Mellon Institute in Public and Digital Humanities at the Vanderbilt Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy. (#VandyPDH) While I’m usually very type-A, I was running on empty and didn’t have time to form any goals or expectations going in beyond learning all the things. This lack of specific goals for the workshop turned out to be a major lesson in being open to unexpected partnerships and projects that form organically. It would hold the seed of  creating an experimental class for Vanderbilt undergraduates interested in Digital History. More on that below.

The institute was a glorious week away from routine to soak up the latest developments from the public and digital humanities. I haven’t been able to devote so much intense reading and discussion to any topic outside of Atlantic history since I was in grad school! But more than that, it was the breath of fresh summer air that I needed, for two reasons.

  1. The people: Everyone else who was there asked great questions,  pushed me to sharpen my ideas, and gave generous feedback. It was obvious that Mona Frederick of the Robert Penn Warren Center and Elizabeth Meadows at the Curb Center, as well as the others chosen to participate were there because they had a passion for connecting and collaborating through the humanities. Participants included graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, administrators, professors, and humanists working in the public sector- a very productive mix of people.
#VandyPDH
Look at this glorious group of people! The participants of the 2016 #Vandypdh, courtesy of @RPWCenter. I’m tucked away in the top left corner.

2. The week-long seminar was intelligently constructed in a way that allowed me to learn about these subjects in layers that built upon one another and facilitated new ideas and approaches. The main focus was on how the digital can serve the missions of the humanities, and how to build partnerships with the public. I’ve worked both as a professor in a university setting, as well as a research assistant in a maritime museum, using digital tools in both places, so am all about the practical  digital solutions and building those mutually beneficial bridges. It was so energizing to find people who were just as passionate about that.

We began with an interactive overview of what it takes to be publicly engaged as a humanist by Teresa Mangum of Iowa University’s Oberman Center for Advanced Studies, who helped us brainstorm ways to build lasting partnerships between universities and community organizations. Then we moved to Todd Hughes of Vanderbilt’s own Center for Second Language Studies, who explained where we are right now with the Digital Humanities, and how digital tools could serve to strengthen those partnerships. To further connect these two fields was Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching, who showed us some very neat techniques that allow students to tailor the material to their specific styles of learning and enable wider class participation.

The group then met some potential collaborators from the academic and public sectors of the humanities through two field trips: the historic Civil War site of Fort Negley and the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library. Both places offered a lot of potential for collaboration, because there was so much overlap in missions, values, and goals with Vanderbilt University.  Discussion with Krista Castillo, the intrepid Museum Coordinator of Fort Negley, sparked an idea for the creation of a class that could be beneficial to both the site and my students by incorporating elements of both the digital and public humanities.

You see, during the Civil War this Union fort was built by escaped slaves looking to gain their freedom. During Reconstruction, the site was used as a meeting place for the KKK before it was shut off to the public. But like any large outdoor setting in the middle of the city, shut down didn’t mean isolated. As the city of Nashville expanded around the fort, trees and shrubbery grew, hiding it from public view. When Fort Negley was reopened in the early 2000s as part of Nashville’s Parks system, almost an entire century of the fort’s history was unknown. Quite regularly, maintenance and gardening crews find artifacts on its grounds that give clues as to what may have occurred up there.  Castillo showed me photographs of the boxes upon boxes she keeps tucked away in the Visitor’s Center. I can think of few things more exciting for students interested in history than to examine them and help find the context in which they make sense.

Right away, the type-A in me woke up to take over, creating learning goals and structure. After another brainstorming session with the workshop participants, I created the proposal to teach a digital microhistory lab that would in essence allow Vanderbilt’s freshmen to help an important historic site fill in some of the blanks about its past, while learning how to perform primary source research in the city’s archives. Another part of this class will involve digitally storing, organizing, and tagging our findings in ways that are publicly accessible and searchable. In the last part, students will present their findings to the historians at Fort Negley, and discuss potential ways their research could be used by the Visitor’s Center. This helps incoming students learn the value of public scholarship and creating partnerships of their own.

Fort_negley_1864
Photo of Fort Negley in 1864, by George Barnard (1819-1902).

The idea for this digital microhistory lab (which the dean has just green-lighted for Spring of 2017, hooray!) was truly a collaborative effort. From the brainstorming sessions with the Public history Mellon partners and other institute participants, to the discussions centered around forming healthy and mutually beneficial partnerships, to the hands-on exercises concerning digital curation and visualizations, to thinking through how each of these factors manifest themselves in the carefully considered classroom, the institute allowed for a most collaborative approach to creativity in the humanities. If we are to truly help our students understand why the public and digital humanities hold such intrinsic importance, showing them how their research and hard work can affect a community is one powerful way to do it. Potentially solving a century-old historic mystery is just the icing on the cake.

Over the semester I’ll be fine-tuning this class. If you have taught something similar in the past, or have ideas for me now, please get in touch! In the meantime, check out some of these Additional Resources:

Brukardt, M.J., and Holland, B., et al. (on behalf of Wingspread Conference Participants). (2004).  Calling the Question: Is Higher Education Ready to Commit to Community Engagement?

Burdick, Anne and Johanna Drucker, et al. Digital_Humanities, (Cambridge, MIT Press: 2012)

Jay, Gregory. “The Engaged Humanities: Principles and Practices for Public Scholarship and Teaching.” Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship 3.1 (19 June 2012)

Lubar, Steven. “Seven Rules for Public Humanists.” Steven Lubar’s Blog: On Public Humanities

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