Digital humanities course offers real-world experience

· 4 min read

Digital humanities course offers real-world experience

Students from the Digital Humanities Practicum class meet with their clients, representatives of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs to go over changes and additions to the interactive map and website the students are developing for the Commission.
Students from the Digital Humanities Practicum class meet with their clients, representatives of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs to go over changes and additions to the interactive map and website the students are developing for the Commission.

On paper, the assignment might sound more like something from an advertising or technology class: Design a digital product for a client, a product that is interactive and chock-full of information. It can be an app, a timeline, a map, a 3-D model: The possibilities are endless.

Instead, this is a Digital Humanities Practicum course, in which students are conducting research and building products for actual Nebraska humanities organizations.

The course, made up of undergraduate and graduate students, is a blend of intense research and hands-on learning in using various digital platforms. Elizabeth Lorang and Andrew Jewell, UNL Libraries instructors who work in the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, lead the course, which they describe as a baptism by fire.

“Every student last year said it was a hard course, but they all identified that as a good thing,” said Lorang, a research assistant professor. “My hope is this year they’ll say, ‘Yes, it was really overwhelming, but in a really productive way.’

After two years as an internship class in which students were assigned to help on a campus research project, the class rebooted last year by grouping students to create projects for non-profits. The goal was to increase student collaboration and give them the freedom to create.

“The other model wasn’t bad, but they weren’t working together and had minimal interaction with their peers,” said Jewell, a UNL associate professor. “In this case, (students) have to work together to create something entirely new that they designed themselves. That act of creation is powerful.”

In the first year of the new format, a student group led by English majors launched a mobile app for Chautauqua program held by Humanities Nebraska.

This spring, Jewell and Lorang, both faculty fellows in the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, found three different clients with very different missions and projects. What resulted were three quite different projects:

  • An interactive map of the proposed Chief Standing Bear National Historical Trail for the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs. The trail commemorates the forced removal of the Ponca from northern Nebraska to modern-day Oklahoma in 1877, the return of Standing Bear to bury his son in 1879 and the trial that resulted in which Judge Elmer Scipio Dundy ruled that Natives are people in the eyes of the law.

  • A searchable catalog and series of exhibits on transfer-print ceramics unearthed at archeological sites in the Midwest for the Midwest Archeological Center of the National Park Service. Archeologists excavated most of these pieces from National Park Service sites, including Fort Scott National Historic Site and Lincoln Home National Historic Site.

  • A digital history tool and timeline for the Malone Community Center in Lincoln. The product will commemorate past leaders and history in a digital medium so it is accessible and interactive.

So far, each student group is on pace to have a presentable project to share with each organization at semester’s end. They will present their final products in an open forum at noon April 29 in 110 Love Library.

“I thought that we would be facing an unclimbable hill and that we would have to scale back considerably from the client’s targets,” said history graduate student Clayton Hanson, whose group is working with the Midwest Archeological Center. “I feel confident that we will exceed them in some areas.

“We may not have the most beautiful site in the world by May 1, but we will have one that accomplishes its task of providing an accessible record.”

The students said working with actual clients gives them valuable real-world experience.

“It provides an alternate perspective and experience to a lot of projects we work on in other classes or that we see from professors,” said Nora Greiman, a graduate student in anthropology and digital humanities whose group is working with the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs. “It is good to see the entire spectrum of possibilities in the digital humanities, not just from an academic or university-based setting.”

Which is why Lorang said she suggested to Jewell that the class seek out non-profits: “Students doing digital humanities work may or may not go on to traditional academic jobs, but there are many people who pursue work in the digital humanities in what we call alternative academic careers, such as museums or libraries or for non-profits, beyond traditional academic research,” she said.

Jewell said the involvement of outside clients also offers the opportunity to use different technologies, which allows the students to become familiar with what kinds of tools they can use in digital humanities. Many of students wouldn’t have that opportunity otherwise.

“The experience of creating something digital with humanities content will equip them very well to do their own projects in the future,” Jewell said. “It gives them confidence. Even if they don’t immediately know the technologies they need, they now know they can determine what they are and they can learn how to use them.”