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Two conferences should spark interest at LTU for digital humanities

Release Date: August 28, 2013
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Nathan Kelber (L), Melinda Phillips, and Lior Shamir have organized the Sept. 27 digital humanities conference at Lawrence Tech.

Digital humanities has become a passion for Melinda Phillips, an associate professor of English and the former chair of LTU’s Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Communication (HSSC). She hopes that two conferences at Lawrence Technological University Sept. 27-28 will provide some traction for a new approach to teaching the humanities at LTU that is gaining momentum nationwide.

HSSC will host back-to-back conferences on the digital humanities, Network Detroit: Digital Humanities Theory and Practice, on Friday, Sept. 27, and the Great Lakes THATCamp 2013 (the Technology and Humanities Camp) on Saturday, Sept. 28.

For a full schedule of the Sept. 27 conference and registration information, visit www.detroitdh.com.  

For information and registration for the Sept. 28 “unconference,” visit www.2013.greatlakesthatcamp.org/.

Tentative plans at LTU call for the creation of the Detroit Center for Digital Humanities (DCDH) and the introduction of a concentration in digital humanities by fall 2014. Phillips has been exploring the potential of digital humanities ever since she attended a meeting of the Association of Departments of English at Stanford University in 2011.

A paradigm shift
“Around that time,” Phillips says, “there was a push university-wide at Lawrence Tech to use more technology in the classroom, but I was skeptical.  I’m old-fashioned.  I love books. I want my students to read books, annotate their books, and keep them forever.  But when I attended a lecture by University of Victoria professor Ray Siemens called ‘The Digital Humanities and Literary Scholarship,’ I saw the light. I still love books, of course, and books are not going away, but Dr. Siemens outlined a marriage between computer science and humanistic study that allies computer literacy and humanistic scholarship in a deep, not superficial way. …   

“Our goal in the humanities is to teach students how to be careful, thoughtful, critical readers, writers, thinkers, and speakers.  We also want students to understand themselves in the context of the human timeline.  The Digital Humanities is more than just computers in the classroom, it is using computers to ask new questions of texts so as to expose patterns and relationships among texts that do not become visible by just reading them in print form.”  

Even more exciting, says Phillips, “We can now access facsimiles of original works you would have to travel great lengths to see.”  One of the most interesting debates in the field, she adds, is the role of the expository essay:  “Digital humanists build interpretations of texts as opposed to writing the typical three-five-page essay.”  

“For those of us who teach the humanities,” says Phillips, “the essential challenge is engaging our post-modern, 21st-century ‘techie’ students in difficult texts that can be alien from their own experiences.  I think the digital humanities is particularly suited to our type of students at LTU.  It is a way to draw them in.”  

Digital humanities at LTU
When Phillips returned from the conference at Stanford in 2011, she approached Associate Professor David Bindschadler, chair of LTU’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, about developing a concentration in the digital humanities within the humanities degree. Bindschadler steered her to Assistant Professor Lior Shamir, who is already doing digital humanities work.  For instance, Shamir has used computational methods to understand patterns among impressionist and modern painters.  

Phillips hired Nathan Kelber, a University of Maryland PhD candidate in English and the digital humanities, to teach composition and literature at LTU.  Kelber is living in Michigan while completing his degree. Phillips then enlisted Shamir and Kelber to “think big” about the digital humanities at LTU.  

In addition to a digital humanities concentration within the B.S. in Humanities degree, Phillips, Shamir, and Kelber are planting the seeds for DCDH, the Detroit Center for the Digital Humanities at LTU.

“A lot of people are doing digital humanities work in isolation. The DCDH would be a clearinghouse of sorts, a hub for projects in the southeastern Michigan area. We could link people up doing similar work and also troubleshoot problems as they arise.  We are particularly interested in projects with a Detroit theme,” Phillips says.

Advancing the cause with two conferences
To catalyze interest in the digital humanities in the Lawrence Tech community and beyond, Shamir, Kelber and Phillips organized Network Detroit: Digital Humanities Theory and Practice, a conference that will highlight digital humanities projects in the area and involve undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty in interesting digital humanities projects.  On Sept. 27, museum archivists, publishing executives, scholars, and teachers will report on the state of digital humanities projects and practices in their fields.  

That will be followed on Sept. 28 by the Great Lakes THATCamp 2013, a hands-on “unconference” for networking, planning, and building digital humanities projects.  

THATCamp has been organized by Michigan State University Assistant Professor Ethan Watrall, who is also the keynote speaker for the Network Detroit conference the day before.
Watrall, who teaches anthropology at MSU, is the associate director of MSU’s MATRIX: Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences and director of the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative.  

Scholars at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University created THATCamp in 2008. Two years later Watrall created the regional spin-off , which is being held at Lawrence Tech for the first time.

“This puts Lawrence Technological University on the digital humanities map in a major, not a minor way,” Phillips says.

Network Detroit  participants include representatives from the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, the Henry Ford Museum, the Detroit Historical Society, Gale-Cengage Learning, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Microsoft, the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint), Wayne State University, Hope College, Saginaw Valley State University, Mott Community College, Yale University, the University of Toledo, and more.  

Joining the digital revolution
“My goal all along,” says Phillips, “has been two-fold.  First, to educate the Lawrence Technological University community, students and faculty, about the digital humanities, and second, to connect students to interesting digital humanities projects.  We need a paradigm shift at LTU.”

Quoting from the book, “Debates in the Digital Humanities,” published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2012, Phillips notes, “We need to see technology and the humanities not as a binary but as …. necessarily interdependent, conjoined, and mutually constitutive.”

It’s a mistake, Phillips insists, to see the use of computers as inimical to humanistic study, quoting again from the book:  “We live in a world that is so thoroughly digital it is impossible, at this point, to talk about the nondigital…the only way to do scholarship now is digital.”

Finally, Phillips adds another quote from the book: “Technology has radically changed the way we read, the way we write, and the way we learn. Reading, writing, learning – three things that are pretty central to the humanities.”