What the digital and the humanities can do for each other, and how digital humanities can advance the work we do at Wake Forest

By Mary Foskett

Mary Foskett

Our readings and conversations have helped me to understand better and envision more clearly two things in particular: what the digital and the humanities can do for each other, and how digital humanities can advance the work we do at Wake Forest. While the majority of  readings we covered together tended to focus almost exclusively on the many debated issues that can or should — depending on the writer’s perspective — define and delimit precisely what the digital humanities entail, it is the application of the digital and the humanities in relation to one another that has captured my interest.  As one of the less technologically skilled members of the seminar,  I know I need to learn a lot more about digital tools and why (not just how) they work. Even with this deficit, I can see the potential impact of what can happen at the intersection of the digital and humanities scholarship and teaching.  For whether or not the digital humanities will ever be more tightly defined (doubtful)  and whether digital humanities discourse will focus primarily on tool users or on tool makers, what matters most to a campus like Wake Forest is whether the digital humanities has a contribution to make to the work we do in the liberal arts.

After our work together I am even more certain that it does.  The humanities — in the form of disciplinary and interdisciplinary teaching and research  —  remains a stronghold of a Wake Forest education.  What digital tools can do for the humanities is expand the questions and extend the trajectories of inquiry of which we humanists are so fond, because they allow users  engage language, art, history, texts and other materials in new ways. Early projects like The Valley of the Shadow didn’t just establish digital archives that replicated what could be found in a good print collection, they created – through the multiple perspectives and stories the site allows its users to construct — a new experience of the history that the students and scholars entering the site were seeking to engage in the first place. With new tools come new questions, different engagement and experience, and new knowledge.  If we locate the value of the humanities in the practice of critical inquiry into the human, then new ways of visualizing, conceptualizing and interacting with the questions, data and materials that serve as signposts in our conversation have the potential to expand the horizons of the humanities in ways yet to be discovered.  Moreover, as our world becomes an increasingly digital one, we can humanize that world and make it an object of critical inquiry by interrogating it with the usual lines of questioning that have shaped the traditional humanities.  As we continue to hold that the humanities have the power to interpret, interrogate, transmit and transform the human experience, humanities scholars ought to bring the same critical questions and perspectives to the digital.

Opportunities to advance the liberal arts tradition at Wake Forest, specifically, abound. With our embrace of the teacher-scholar ideal and our commitment to making something real of our motto, pro humanitate, we are well position to explore how digital tools, formats and intellectual landscapes can add to the flourishing of our faculty and students’ engagements with the humanities. The digital humanities can enrich and expand some of the hallmarks of Wake Forest’s educational values and commitments, such as faculty-student collaboration, interdisciplinary research and and teaching, and public engagement. The humanities serve as a major hub where much of this work on campus takes place. The intersection of the humanities and the digital can advance these efforts. For example, insofar as digital humanities projects are often inherently interdisciplinary and collaborative, they enable faculty and students to learn and utilize disciplinary practices in relation to other fields.  Digital humanities work also enables faculty and students to engage in collaborative research at various levels of expertise and to participate in research that may precede and follow their own direct contributions. This kind of research, which can bridge the classroom and co-curricular activity, allows students in the humanities to acquire research experience that is more akin to what students in science labs have long accessed.

Projects that are posted online advance Wake Forest’s commitment to public engagement. The Eighteenth Century Common is more than a repository or digest of scholarship in eighteenth century studies. It is a means of serving an intellectually curious public and bringing the humanities to bear on public discourse. If we are truly committed to the notion that the humanities serve the common good by creating a more informed and educated public, then

digital humanities projects have the potential to expand significantly Wake Forest’s commitment to pro humanitate.

As liberal arts institutions in general, and the humanities in particular, respond to charges of irrelevance and elitism, we have been challenged to find ways to articulate the value of the liberal arts for the common good and the world of work.  As university educators continue to point out the ways in which the humanities help students acquire the skills and knowledge they need to face the world they will entering upon graduation, it would serve us and our students well to note how the digital humanities can augment these skills. The creativity, translation of knowledge across fields and audiences, teamwork, etc. that digital humanities require will only strengthen the competencies that students will acquire in their work in the humanities.


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