In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones—perhaps the last heroic professor to appear in a major Hollywood film—survives a series of adventures involving spiders, snakes, treacherous colleagues, and countless Nazis who are determined to recover the ark of the covenant for their Führer. Apparently the ark has mystical powers: If you open it with the wrong intentions, it will melt your face or explode your head.
Ultimately, Jones recovers the ark: He really delivers on his grant. But the great artifact is not displayed in a museum or used in the war effort; instead it is enclosed in a packing crate and wheeled into a vast government warehouse, never to be seen again.
That's what happens to the majority of undergraduate projects in the humanities. Heroic research is undertaken, and the student suffers mightily during the writing process. But after being submitted for a grade, the results of all that work are filed away, never to be read again. (Of course, the same could be said of most dissertations and many academic monographs.) It's as if we've entered the print revolution while most of us are still illuminating manuscripts. What are we doing all this work for—one might ask—if not to make some kind of impact on the world? And why should anyone continue to pay for it?
Fortunately, we are living at a moment when our students can undertake a far wider range of learning experiences than was possible when the traditional research paper was the gold standard of scholarly production. I've written several columns about what the "digital humanities" movement means for scholars. But as a teacher at a liberal-arts college, what also excites me about the digital humanities is what it offers to undergraduates: Students can "build" as well as "write."
The digital humanities, or "DH," encourages scholars and students to use the Internet to present their work to a global audience. There's no guarantee that the world will beat a path to your online project, but at least it's available, and updatable. It's not a moribund, bound manuscript shelved in a university library's off-site storage warehouse.
Brian Croxall, who teaches "Introduction to the Digital Humanities" at Emory University, asked his students to work in groups to trace the movements of characters in Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway. The students brought back some interesting discoveries. For example, Clarissa and Elizabeth Dalloway are such different personalities that one moves north-south and the other moves east-west. Peter Walsh, on the other hand, moves in a large circle, which makes sense considering how he always finds his way back to Clarissa.
"There were a lot of other things we learned," Croxall notes, "such as the different parks the characters stop in and what would have likely been visible from the different locations." (The assignment and finished products can be seen at http://www.briancroxall.net/dh/assignments/mapping-mrs-dalloway.) It's important to note that such projects not only allow students to visually represent their findings but also encourage the asking of entirely new questions about works and subjects that might otherwise seem exhausted. "I had some students who had already read it three times and didn't think there was anything else to learn about it," observes Croxall.
Almost every English professor knows the cautionary tale of Edward Casaubon from George Eliot's novel Middlemarch. Casaubon is a desiccated, isolated old man who labors away, decade after decade, struggling to complete The Key to All Mythologies, not realizing that the project is already outdated. Without any collaborators, Casaubon is trapped in a scholarly time warp; his project is destined for the Indiana Jones warehouse before it is even completed.
Similarly, my first years of graduate school were spent in a kind of scholarly isolation that is unimaginable now: no e-mail, no Facebook, no Twitter. You could call a scholar in your field on the phone, but you probably would never do that as a graduate student. Nor would you be likely to write a letter. You worked with your adviser—one voice in a larger conversation—and read all of the published materials on your subject, the most recent of which had been written at least a year earlier. There was a good chance that the conversations related to your subject had already moved in other directions. You might be able to learn that at scholarly conferences, if you could afford to attend them.
The situation was worse for undergraduate researchers. They could hardly hope to produce something that was not outdated—a mere apprenticeship exercise to be shelved, gladly, once it was completed and graded.
Today my undergraduates still conduct their preliminary research in books and journals, but they also engage in active scholarly conversation in ways that were impossible 20 years ago. Students remain reluctant to e-mail or call an expert out of the blue, but they are connecting with other students—and, eventually, with major scholars—using social media. They are reading the blogs of graduate students and assistant professors, some of whom are developing their projects online and welcome the dialogue of the scholarly community with each new installment.
If they can't attend a conference, my students are watching via the Twitter feeds of those who can, and they are able to interact with those correspondents. The scholarly conversation is happening in real time, and the digital humanities has led the way with an inclusive culture that can only accelerate and enhance the quality of scholarly work at every level, especially for undergraduates.
Landmark projects—such as Looking for Whitman, directed by Matthew K. Gold and financed by the National Endowment for the Humanities—have brought together the scholarly and imaginative work of students and faculty members at four institutions to explore the poet's connections to places in the past and the present. Looking for Whitman is representative of a growing number of undergraduate projects that are collaborative, not just with students in a single class, but across classes and cohorts and at other institutions, as well as with faculty members, independent scholars, and the general public. Such strategies are becoming more widely adopted. Consider, for example, the presentations of undergraduates last April at a session held by the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education.
At this point, if you teach undergraduates, I hope you are DH-curious and excited about the kinds of projects you could undertake in your courses. The hardest thing about getting involved is facing the fear of something new—it's like being an undergraduate all over again, and there is always the possibility that our students will know more than we do. In that way, the initial experience of teaching DH cultivates the idea of research as a partnership between professors and students rather than a hierarchy in which the senior scholar must know everything: We are all bootstrapping together. And if you run into difficulties, you can seek solutions together via the Association for Computers and the Humanities' Web site on "Digital Humanities Questions and Answers."
For starters, I recommend that you expand your visit to the Web site of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. Consider some of the resources it offers, like Lisa Spiro's Digital Research Tools (Bamboo DiRT), which provides a sampling of applications you can start playing with right away, following what Stephen Ramsay, of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, calls Screwmeneutics, "the hermeneutics of screwing around." Spiro's blog includes an extraordinarily helpful post, full of links: "Getting Started in the Digital Humanities."
One of the easiest ways you can begin to gain some confidence is by trying out Google's NGram Viewer. At the most basic level, it allows users to graph the relative frequencies of search words and phrases in a variety of languages over more than two centuries in the Google Books database.
It has relevance for almost any field. Try searching, for example, "War on Poverty," "War on Drugs," and "War on Terror" in English between 1960 and 2008. Or consider the relative standing of "God" and "money" since 1800. The NGram Viewer often proves what we suspected all along, but it can also open up entirely new lines of inquiry for anyone interested in the patterns of culture and language across centuries. Once you become moderately proficient with the NGram Viewer, you can build exercises around it, and you can rightly claim that, in addition to traditional research, your students engage in "data mining and visualization," as well as with the growing field of “culturomics.”
At the same time, start exploring the Internet, looking for examples of what others have done. There are multimedia publications like Southern Spaces, digital authoritative scholarly resources like the University of Nebraska's Walt Whitman Archive and Vanderbilt University's Who Speaks for the Negro?, and dozens more sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.
For examples of projects that use geographic information systems, or GIS, consider the Cleveland Memory Project and Civil War Washington. Prepared to be dazzled by 3-D simulations such as the Digital Roman Forum and the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Browse the projects sponsored by the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities. (There are thousands of projects out there—new ones appear every day—and I hope readers will suggest other impressive places to visit.)
For more extensive reflections on the emergence and development of the field, consult A Companion to the Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth; it is freely available online. My favorite recent book—an accessible anthology on the state of the field—is Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold.
While you’re exploring all of those things, I recommend that you create a Twitter account and begin following the members of the DH community. They will find you before too long—they’re standing by to respond to your observations and questions—and then you will begin to have a support network.
In what seems to be the worst of times for higher education, the digital-humanities community is cultivating an academic culture that enables new directions in research while it reduces the warehousing of neglected scholarship and the isolation of scholars. You just need to take a few initial steps to join it.