Discovering new possibilities in academia

As a digital humanist, Ella von Holtum studies what’s possible rather than what’s already been done in academia.

She didn’t write a research paper for her capstone project in the Public Digital Humanities Certificate Program. Instead, she built a virtual 3D model of Megiddo, an ancient city featured in University of Iowa Professor Robert Cargill’s book, The Cities that Built the Bible.

Von Holtum constructed Megiddo’s six-chambered gate, wall, and well, allowing readers to experience the ancient world digitally.

“These models are really robust and interesting, and they add a whole new context to archeological scholarship through a freely available on-line map,” says von Holtum, a master’s student in the School of Library and Information Science (SLIS).

Von Holtum joined three other SLIS students—Patrick Curtis, Emily Jones, and Gemmicka Piper—as the first cohort to earn a certificate in the Public Digital Humanities. The certificate was created to establish a skill set—the digital humanities—that is not yet widely present within academia.

“The way scholarship is being done and the way learning is happening is changing radically,” von Holtum says. “The way it’s changing right now has a lot to do with the digital world, which we in the humanities haven’t been able to fully embrace. The only way to learn is to try something.”

Exploring unexplored areas

For his capstone project, Patrick Curtis worked with SLIS Professor Lindsay Mattock on Mattock’s Mapping the Independent Media Community project. Using a data set based on the Carnegie Museum of Art publication Film and Video Makers Travel Sheet (which aimed to draw attention to artists and their films and connect them with museums, universities, libraries, and other cultural heritage organizations) Curtis geocoded location information and created maps of artist and organization locations for future analysis, while exploring privacy implications of location mapping.

“Within the world of digital humanities, scholars are engaging in their respective areas of scholarship in new ways, with new tools, and librarians can position themselves to assist scholars in these endeavors,” Curtis says.

Emily Jones worked with staff in the UI Libraries’ Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio and in Information Technology Services to add publication titles and create a new web interface for the Little Magazine database, which enables users to search by poet, work, and magazine.

Gemmicka Piper created a project about African-American fandom. She pulled materials out of UI Special Collections, posted them on Tumblr, and facilitated an online discussion.

“Most scholarship is pushing toward open access, so if you’re a grad student or a faculty member this is an issue in which you should be deeply invested,” Piper says. “Through the digital humanities, you become more in touch with the community and learn what it means to be in the real world.”

Digital humanities expand academic reach

Professor Jim Elmborg, certificate director, says questions exist about how academics engage with the world around them.

While the foundation of academia remains strong, he says, digital humanities raise important questions about tenure, promotion, and rank.

“A lot of people are weary of the apparatus of academia—the writing of things that don’t really get read,” Elmborg says. “You’re producing papers and research, but does it have an impact on the world? All of our students worked on projects that are very public. The publications are going to be in public forums and they invite readership outside of academia.”

Traditionally in academe, professors publish peer-reviewed research papers to earn tenure. Digital humanists, on the other hand, push forward theories that are assumed to be true until someone disproves them or produces another theory.

“In the digital humanities, you’ll have a lot of failure, but you learn a ton from it,” von Holtum says. “We bring a really exciting attitude of forward motion. The digital humanities gives us an opportunity to reach deeper into the academic world and reach further out into the world around us. We’re going to open doors that we haven’t opened before.”

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