Who I am as a Digital Humanist: Reflections from the Digital Sandbox

Last week I participated in IUPUI’s Digital Sandbox Conference. The daylong event was geared towards graduate students in the humanities introducing them to various tools to conduct and organize their research digitally as well as tips for sharing their research and networking through blogs and social media. It was a terrific event and has me reenergized for the upcoming semester. The Digital Sandbox Conference also has me thinking about my own identity as a digital humanist.

I was lucky. I’ve been thinking about and playing with digital technology and history ever since I was an undergrad. During my senior year I was a part of an experimental, cross-disciplinary pilot course to teach undergraduates the basics of GIS.[1] Through that course I was encouraged to develop my own project and present at a GIS Day Conference at the University of Kansas.[2]

During my graduate work cooperation has remained an important part of my training. As I was working on a Masters of Liberal Arts degree, I enrolled in a number of online courses and became aware of new ways to interface technology and pedagogy. My instructors were remarkably innovative using things like Twitter, Skype, YouTube, and Google Sites to create digital learning communities and share content.

The idea of creating digital history started to fully emerge during my public history courses at the University of Nevada. There, Alicia Barber introduced me to the debates over design, interpretation, and memory while encouraging me to think about how to apply those principles to digital spaces. Indeed, she too was exploring new innovative ways to do cooperative digital history.[3]

Upon starting my PhD at Purdue, I began looking for a way to combine these ideas and further explore the digital humanities. I’ve read widely across the field hoping to get a taste of all of the various types of work being done. Through this exploration I’ve come to see digital humanities as being divided predominately into two groups: 1. those who use digital technology as a research and analytical tool and, 2. those who use it more as a presentation and publication tool to increase access to their work by a variety of publics. There are, of course, a lot of people doing both of those things simultaneously as well.

Hearing from other people doing work with and playing around in the Digital Sandbox at IUPUI helped reinforce this for me. It also made me think about how and why I am using digital tools to create digital history. I’ve blogged about this before, but I’ve always seen my personal approach to digital humanities as having two applications: 1. I see it as an extension of my public history work (and I see public history as an extension of my teaching) 2. I see digital humanities as a way to give students new, real-world, marketable skills that compliment and extend the more traditional critical thinking, research, and writing skills developed in my discipline (history). Last spring I digitized my senior thesis from undergrad into its own digital history exhibit following the model of the Nevada University History project at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the student samples at the University of Nebraska Digital History Project. My exhibit serves as an example for one my arguments for teaching and using digital humanities and digital history with undergraduates.[4]

Even as I have this distinct direction and view for how I want do teach and use digital humanities, the Digital Sandbox Conference kept reminding me of what else is out there. I felt encouraged and motivated to keep trying new thing and experimenting with new tools. No matter how much I’ve played around already, the different speakers encouraged me to never stop playing in the digital sandbox. It’s OK not to have a firm, set method or utility for digital humanities tools yet. And, perhaps, we never should. Whenever I’m asked to define digital humanities for people, I usually avoid offering a concrete answer. Instead I tell them that by defining digital humanities we’re imposing limitations, and the best thing about digital humanities so far, is that their application and utility are limitless. We too, as individual digital scholars, should be limitless, always learning, always exploring new tools and ideas, always playing.

[1] After the class one of my instructors published an article discussing our experiences and offering a template for others to follow: Julia L. Todd,  “GIS and Libraries: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach,” Online, Sept-Oct, 2008, Vol. 32(5), p.14-18.

[2] You see parts of my KU GIS Day presentation and recreated digital exhibit of the project here: https://admcgregor3.wordpress.com/dh-projects/the-spurgeon-note-book/

[3] Alicia Barber and her History 311 class created and Online Nevada University History exhibit through collaboration between the Special Collections and University Archives department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries, and the Public History program in the Department of History. You can see their work here: http://knowledgecenter.unr.edu/digital_collections/exhibits/university_history/

[4] I outline part of this argument on the exhibit’s blog here: http://bakertrack.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/digital-history-in-collaboration-and-pedagogy/

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