Student-Led Initiative(s) in Digital Scholarship: An Undergraduate Perspective from #budsc15

Ian Morse
This guest post was provided by Ian Morse, a double-major in history and economics-mathematics at Lafayette College.


Bucknell University’s second annual Mellon-funded digital scholarship conference,
Collaborating Digitally: Engaging Students in Public Scholarship, was proof that there is hidden power in the digital scholarship world. It’s in the undergrads. Their presentations[pullquote1 align=”right”]There is hidden power in the digital scholarship world. It’s in the undergrads.[/pullquote1]
revealed that when they are given a new world and ample resources, they rush to fill it with scholarship. The conference was an opportunity to explore how best to accommodate undergrads, as well as allow them to discover the rigor required for exemplary work.

The conference began on the afternoon of Friday, November 6 with reception conveniently located in an art exhibit that used data to create geographic and rhetoric art. It concluded on Sunday, after a keynote, five presentation sessions, plenary session, and a cocktail hour. I think it safe to say that Micki Kaufman’s keynote began the conference with a bang that impressed all approximately 150 attendees. She formulated her research on Kissinger’s communications while in the White House into a talk that was meant to motivate, calling it, “Everything is data, and you can too!”

The hashtag #budsc15 exploded on Twitter the next day. Three different rooms presented on different topics, but you could keep up with the discussion in other rooms by following the hashtag or glancing at the screens displayed in every room that scrolled through the hashtag. Some overarching themes of the sessions were public and local history, digital pedagogy, incorporating sound and film into projects, and generally engaging students in projects. A lot of the questions and answers focused on how undergraduates were able to complete work and what they would change about the program that allowed them to do their work. Librarians presented on methods to streamline faculty publications and make them available in a repository

[pullquote1 align=”left”]I will disclose that I am an undergraduate and this was the first conference where I presented.[/pullquote1]
Five students (one was a Ph.D. candidate) occupied the plenary session in the middle of Saturday’s events. Eric Rhodes from Antioch College discussed his project on the segregation of Dayton, Ohio through insurance and credit maps. Levi Fox from Temple University presented on his ‘more than a road trip’ to identify and locate Korean War memorials to test his hypothesis that the war was a forgotten war. Haley Tilt of Reed College showed the audience the project that consumed her summer and taught her valuable programming skills. She created a map of Livy’s writings of Rome, with locations annotated with pictures of their current state and importance in the book. I described the questions that arise from my research on press freedom and text analyses of journalistic articles. Laura Lujan form Bucknell University showed clips from her film project of stories of the Susquehanna River Valley.

I will disclose that I am an undergraduate and this was the first conference where I presented. I was entering into a new world of a burgeoning field of academia and public scholarship, which, suffice it to say, made for some interesting observations.

The most powerful observation I saw over these two days was this enormous initiative that undergraduates demonstrate. Two students from Lafayette College talked in depth about their project to analyze relationships between the economy and music. Over just six weeks in the summer, they spent hours upon hours gathering, cleaning, and playing with data. They directed their own project, and because of that, they were able to brilliantly field difficult questions thrown at them by every audience. Four students from the College of the Holy Cross spoke about their fully student-run club to digitize various editions of Homeric texts and their scholia. They’ve been able to find correlations between editions over large amounts of time and travel to present papers that have come from this research. A team from the College of Wooster found their motivation in a way that only digital public history can; they acquired a following of local residents that followed the team’s exploration of the town. Other humanities students are not only learning complicated coding languages as their project necessitates it, but they are eagerly asking to do so.

Happening at the same time as this conference was the completely student-run UNRH conference. The Undergraduate Network for Research in the Humanities was new to me as a recent entrant into the field, but also to many others who have been working in DH since its initial buzz. The students of UNRH, struggling with funding, put together a conference for students from all over the country to showcase and discuss their DH work. Members of each conference were in contact constantly over Twitter, and from what I could gather, it was a massive success on their end. I joked at the time that it was a bit annoying to have this competition for undergrads at the same time – I would really have liked to go to that conference and experience an alternative feel for DH conferences. Regardless of the joke, this was fantastic news. There is a competitive demand for undergrads who know DH. Not only are we not short of conferences and resources to use, but we actually are forced to make a decision between an array of choices. Whether by faculty, librarians, or fellow undergrads– we are wanted!

This massive motivation seems to only require an open and level playing field. I was absolutely and pleasantly surprised with the people I presented with in a panel session and in the plenary session, and met just about everywhere. Not only were they doing stellar projects that demonstrated deep thought and real humanities inquiry, but they came from all levels of a university. Undergraduates like myself, graduate students, professors, CLIR fellows and librarians coalesced into an ocean of DH projects that represented just about every kind of DH.

The playing field is not only level, it is also opening up. Students like those from Lafayette College, College of the Holy Cross, and St. Olaf College, among many others, are beginning to give their students the rosaries necessary to carry out student-directed projects. There were an unfortunately large number of undergrads who were directed by professors and may have given themselves the title of ‘research assistant.’ One of the students from Lafayette College voiced that concern, surprising the audience at his panel when he emphasized the need to push back against professors. His pushback led him to his own project chronicling the lives of two of the first black students at his college. The plenary session presenters also seemed to unanimously agree that giving an undergrad independence on a project is one of the best things to do for a project. (When we also agreed that money was necessary, there was a[pullquote1 align=”right”]DH is about stepping back from the data we have.[/pullquote1]round of applause from the crowd.)

A lot of the discussion recognized this and concentrated on how best to allow that initiative to blossom. But making sure the right things are allowed to blossom with library and grant money is essential. Encountering so many DH projects at once allows you to get a feel for the possibilities the field, and for the projects that others consider to be DH. I witnessed what seemed to be a field that is still struggling to define itself, which could be the root of many criticisms of DH. I spoke to as many people as I could about how we could settle on definitions for DH. If I may offer (likely controversially) our definition of DH, it is the study for which the interpretations that come from it require a digitization of humanities inquiry. It includes projects that seek to amplify current research but excludes projects that aim to engage on a ‘digital’ level because it looks interesting. DH is about stepping back from the data we have, but we need to remember to step back from our projects, as any scholarly inquiry requires.

I received the most skepticisms and criticisms and recommendations on my work not in person, but by hearing other projects. All presenters delved into their projects with impressive amounts of knowledge and passion. The conference did what it was supposed to do; give constructive feedback, inform where there needs to be improvement, and most importantly, motivate.

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