Engaging Students in Digital Scholarship

By Haley Tilt posted

Earlier this month, scholars, technologists, librarians, graduate and undergraduate students met at Bucknell University to discuss challenges and successes in digital scholarship. At the conference, “Collaborating Digitally: Engaging Students in Public Scholarship,” a Twitter feed channeled a shared sentiment: “a common theme at #BUDSC15: how can data visualization generate stories about human history that otherwise could not be imagined?”

I approached this question in the work I brought to Bucknell this year. As a Classics major at Reed College, I have had myriad opportunities to study ancient texts. My recent work on the Roman historian Livy has led me to observe that geography plays a crucial role in Livy’s characterization of early Roman history. Unfortunately, no resources to date provide a student with adequate tools to understand that geography. In response to this challenge, I created an interactive map of the places and monuments that Livy describes in the first book of the Ab Urbe Condita. 

I originally conceived of the project as a teaching tool. I thought that being able to visualize how Livy “builds” the ancient city would encourage students to consider the relationship between text and space (to consider, for example, how Livy links the geography of Rome to its surrounding peoples in order to explain the architectural splendor of his contemporary city as a product of imperialism). However, working with digital mapping tools ultimately provoked me to ask new questions about how maps themselves manifest space. In response to a question following my talk, I addressed how the Mercator projection itself “writes” a kind of space that may or may not reflect space as it is experienced. In trying to create a resource that would allow students to imagine the ancient city alongside the modern, I realized how difficult it is to create any two-dimensional model of lived space.

The challenges I encountered were precisely the kinds of challenges presenters at Bucknell hoped to pose to their own students. From integrating StoryMaps into a course on WWI, to engaging students in open-source municipal mapping, presenters ran the gamut of innovative approaches to digital scholarship. Each of these methods hit on two essential questions: How do we help students create new narratives out of disparate data? How do we help them think critically about those data? 

Instruction technologists Carey Sargent and Christopher Gilman provided one answer in Occidental’s new multimedia wall. Anyone at Occidental can contribute digital content to be displayed on the wall, which Gilman curates with a team of students. The wall encourages students to think critically about their work’s context and audience and to “make critically” within this framework. Students who take advantage of the wall’s capacity to display alternative perspectives side-by-side and to juxtapose various media will be most successful.

Sargent and Gilman highlighted how the wall could open a new space for peer collaboration and student-driven narratives. Not only could student makers practice constructing complex or contradictory narratives, the wall could even encourage viewers to become creators, stitching together relevant data and noticing difference between divergent representations. In the discussion that followed, it was clear that the wall, at its best, could provoke a paradigm shift in which the process of making took precedence over the finished product.

As an undergraduate presenting at my first real conference, I felt the full weight of a paradigm shift that would value digital scholarship not only for its finished content, but also for its capacity to foster student growth through critical making. By privileging graduate and undergraduate voices in their NextGen Plenary panel, Bucknell manifested their commitment to supporting this model of student scholarship, which would seek to empower students by encouraging them to construct their own narratives.

One question in particular spoke to this issue. Following the session on Occidental’s new media wall, a participant questioned what role the wall could play in subversive discourses. How might it compare to another wall, located in the Student Union perhaps, whose dynamic content consisted of paint and graffiti? 

I was glad to hear similar challenges throughout the weekend, questions concerned with how the digital humanities should be situated within the academy. Digital scholarship, because it facilitates a new kind of argument—one based on juxtaposition, impermanence, and collaboration—can open new questions to a wider audience, but as scholars we must take care to reflect on whom we tacitly include or exclude from these new methods of meaning-making. As digital humanities becomes increasingly sanctioned within the institution, I hope that it remains aware of its own capacity to sanction, curate, and schedule other voices.

Haley Tilt is currently a senior Classics major at Reed College in Portland, Oregon