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Looking into the Future with Digital Humanities: Vanderbilt's 2012-2013 HASTAC Scholars

By Miriam R. Martin

Vanderbilt HASTAC Scholars Miriam Martin, Don Rodrigues, Annette Joseph-Gabriel, and Zoe LeBlanc.

I am a graduate student in the Vanderbilt University history department who is also the proud recipient of the 2012/13 HASTAC Scholar Award through the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. In this capacity, I work closely with the Warren Center to plan and implement Digital Humanities events on campus, such as conferences and seminars. I am joined in these activities by three additional graduate students who are also 2012/2013 Vanderbilt HASTAC Scholars, each sponsored by a different campus program. Annette Joseph-Gabriel (French) is sponsored by Vanderbilt's Center for Second Language Studies; Zoe LeBlanc (history) is affiliated with the Center for Teaching; and Don Rodrigues (English) is associated with the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy. We are all extremely excited to be part of the HASTAC community at Vanderbilt, and are enjoying being part of a collaborative and vibrant scholarly community.

HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) is a consortium of individuals and institutions inspired by creative uses of technology and committed to collaboration and communication on networked research that extends across traditional disciplines. The HASTAC Scholars Program is a lively community of graduate students who are interested in Digital Humanities in academia. We represent over seventy-five universities and many dozens of disciplines. Vanderbilt's cohort of HASTAC Scholars will attend the international HASTAC symposium in Toronto in April, 2013. We will thus have the opportunity to supplement our "virtual" conversations with the HASTAC scholars from other universities with in-person conversations and cross-pollination of ideas.

Vanderbilt has hosted a number of Digital Humanities events in recent months. While there is a growing awareness and excitement in these conversations, I often hear the question asked: "

What exactly are the Digital Humanities?" I endorse Kathleen Fitzpatrick's definition of Digital Humanities: "a nexus of fields within which scholars use computing technologies to investigate the kinds of questions that are traditional to the humanities" (Fitzpatrick, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2010). Fitzpatrick suggests that DH is yet another tool by which we can answer conventional research questions. Indeed, many of us have come to DH by way of our traditional research in the humanities, and have engaged with DH foremost as a tool. But it is significant that Fitzpatrick also suggests that Digital Humanities are a "nexus of fields" insofar as this nexus, or network, can provide a directly accessible forum for interdisciplinary scholarship.

Patricia Cohen in the New York Times writes, "Members of a new generation of digitally savvy humanists argue it is time to stop looking for inspiration in the next political or philosophical 'ism' and start exploring how technology is changing our understanding of the liberal arts. This latest frontier is about method, they say, using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials that previous humanities scholars did not have" (New York Times, November 17, 2010, page C1, I believe that this frontier represents the future of academic research and teaching.

It is understandable that some scholars would be skeptical of yet another "emerging" field. However, the digital age is now entrenched in our society and culture. We have all heard of the powers and problems of social media and the uses and abuses of instant communication and smart phones. Few could now envision a world without the Internet. The accessibility and ease by which people consume information is remarkable, and this accessibility has changed the dynamics of the classroom and the methods of scholarly research in highly visible ways.

Digital Humanities in academia engages all of these developing technologies for use in our traditional research. We strive for a connection between our socially engaged lives and our research, sometimes merely for the purpose of camaraderie and connection, but increasingly for the purpose of disseminating research projects faster and to wider audiences. As a historian, I often spend many hours in a dusty archive, pouring over worm-eaten correspondence serials from the eighteenth-century. And as a specialist of Latin America, often my research takes me to remote areas. Meeting fellow scholars is always an encouraging connection, although invariably our overlap is only a few days or a week. Using DH tools and methodologies, we can address many of these difficulties and create new avenues for collaboration, communication, and scholarship. For instance, the dusty archival material in Latin America where I spent three months examining documents now exists digitally on my hard-drive, available for close re-examination under programs like Adobe Lightroom years later. Likewise, scholars exchanging business cards will always hold a traditional place in the "meet and greet" ritual, but now it is supplemented by a Twitter feed. Finally, I engage with public historians from remote archives, and we often use blogs and forums to examine archival finds and share information available on digital archival databases. And this is merely the beginning of the Digital Humanities intersection. Scholars in this field are pushing boundaries in many new avenues. Here are some thoughts from my fellow Vanderbilt HASTAC Scholars on their own digital crossroads.

DON RODRIGUES:  As a current Ph.D. student in English and a former computer programmer, I'm instinctively curious about academic opportunities that might allow me to synthesize my current research interests with my professional experience. In ways that I could not have anticipated before coming to Vanderbilt this fall, the HASTAC program has proven to be a perfect "fit" for me. It is great to be in rigorous dialogue with people interested in breaking down the artificial (but seemingly very real) partitions that continue to stand between humanistic and scientific methodologies.

ZOE LEBLANC: I was initially attracted to HASTAC in part because I was starting teaching for the first time this year, and I wanted to know more about what technologies I could use in the classroom. I also passionately believe that humanities have largely been left out of discussions shaping new technologies. Lastly, I figured that it would be good to have some structure to my unbridled Internet addiction.

ANNETTE JOSEPH-GABRIEL: I teach introductory French and I am always looking for ways to incorporate technology into my classes. [After] taking a digital humanities class here at Vanderbilt I became very interested in tools that bring my students and me closer to an immersion experience of language learning than the more traditional modes of instruction allow. HASTAC seemed like a fantastic opportunity to engage with like-minded teachers and researchers who are exploring the same questions and to have productive exchanges.

The Digital Humanities community is highly collaborative. We have academic interests that coincide with our public interests. The Internet is more than just a social tool though; it is a discourse and a platform for conversation. To that effect, many of us connected with HASTAC are working on projects of collaboration. Under the direction of Mona Frederick and the Warren Center, I have taken part in Digital Humanities conferences and conversations like THATCampVU. My own projects with Digital Humanities involve crowd-sourcing archival transcription and geo-spatial mapping of revolutionary era military interactions in the eighteenth-century Atlantic World. I am experimenting with mediums like Wordpress or Twitter, whereby the specialized micro-history that dominates so much of academic writing can find greater readership and a more dynamic interaction with interdisciplinary communities. Digital archives supplement my dissertation's primary scholarship, and I am excited to explore the future of these mediums using Vanderbilt's "Who Speaks for the Negro? Digital Archive" as an example of an online archival database brilliantly executed. Collaboration with the Warren Center has helped develop our understanding of the HASTAC community, and the other HASTAC Scholars are also exploring ways to engage this new medium.

DON RODRIGUES: Through HASTAC, recent coursework, my work through Vanderbilt's Curb Center, and my experience at Vanderbilt's THATCamp, I've very recently gained new and invigorating perspectives on possibilities for research in DH. I'm particularly interested in the idea of forming a collaborative research project with Ph.D. students interested in mobilizing energies around DH at Vanderbilt and in the greater Nashville community. This year and next, I'll be working closely as a Research Assistant to Professor Jay Clayton of Vanderbilt's English Department; through the Coursera platform, he'll be teaching a "MOOC" (Massive Open Online Course) titled "Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative." I'm also working with Elizabeth Long Lingo, Director of the Curb Scholars Program, to promote DH-related events housed at the Curb Center.

ZOE LEBLANC: [After] reading the posts on HASTAC, I'm not only developing a much more profound understanding of digital humanities, but I'm also being exposed to a whole new lexicon. From discussions about Omeka to Text-Mining, the breadth and scope of digital humanities seems endless.... I hope to use everything from GIS to Neatline for my research and teaching further down the road.

ANNETTE JOSEPH-GABRIEL: [I am] interested in exploring the collaborative aspect of technology use in the reaching out to language teachers and native French speakers beyond Vanderbilt and Nashville via Skype, weekly bilingual tweets, etc., in order to bring more authentic input to students who may not have the opportunity to travel and/or engage with the target culture and speakers of the target language. I am currently working on an English-Creole language interactive instruction manual in iBook form.... Martinican Creole is not taught in US institutions so I'm trying to figure out how technology can allow me to incorporate both the role of instructor and textbook into one super program.

This past fall semester as the Warren Center HASTAC Scholar has been an inspirational and creative whirlwind. My own research questions have expanded in unique ways, and our HASTAC Scholar collaborations have shown that there are new opportunities using rapidly developing research tools and within evolving intellectual domains. THATCampVU was a huge success on our campus and we are exploring the possibility of hosting another THATCamp next fall. The Vanderbilt HASTAC Scholars group is collating the various Digital Humanities research projects conducted at Vanderbilt in order to foster a digital space for disseminating information about Digital Humanities projects and DH events at Vanderbilt and beyond. The digital era has greatly expanded our potential learning landscape and we must explore these new boundaries of academia in order to better service our scholarship and our teaching. It is invigorating to be part of this community at Vanderbilt, and I look forward to the collaborations and conversations to come.