Digital Bridges

A new collaboration between Grinnell College and the University of Iowa.

GUEST COLUMN | by Erik Simpson

CREDIT Grinnell CollegeTo sustain collaborative digital projects in undergraduate teaching, we need to cultivate a kind of pedagogical improvisation, to borrow a metaphor from Jesse Stommel. Effective improvisation requires a culture of shared skills and expectations, a culture difficult to maintain in undergraduate education, where students’ experiences are shaped by the boundaries of departmental curricula, academic terms, and the rapid turnover of the student population. With the help of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we at Grinnell College and the University of Iowa are working to foster such a culture by bridging our two campuses and sectors of higher education and producing well-supported exchanges of ideas and practices.

The students of each generation working on the project edit and build on the work of their predecessors, and understand their own work to lay foundations for their successors to build upon. 

A New Direction for the Mellon Foundation

The Mellon Foundation grant, “Digital Bridges for Humanistic Inquiry,” will last for four years and will focus on fostering work with digital tools and methods in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Although the Mellon Foundation has supported work in the digital humanities at many colleges and universities, this is the first grant to focus narrowly on a partnership connecting a private liberal arts college and a public research university.

Like many other colleges and universities, Grinnell and the UI have seen many faculty incorporating digital tools into their teaching and research, along with some efforts to consolidate those efforts into larger initiatives such as Digital Grinnell, a project based in the Grinnell libraries, or the UI’s hiring cluster and new graduate certificate in the Public Digital Humanities. The grant will enable us to expand and support these efforts, building on the practices of collaboration that already define much of the digital liberal arts.

With the support of the Digital Bridges grant, Ph.Ds from the UI with digital skills will become postdocs at Grinnell; Grinnell faculty will become scholarly fellows at the UI; workshops and institutes will bring potential partners into conversation; pedagogical projects and student exchanges will allow faculty, staff, and students from both schools to experience each other’s cultures of teaching and learning.

A Network of Interdisciplinary Nodes

The organization of the grant involves connections among centers and programs that already foster interdisciplinary activity, including the UI’s Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, Digital Studio for Public Arts and Humanities, Center for Teaching, and graduate certificate program in Digital Humanities; Grinnell’s Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab, Center for the Humanities, and Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment; and both schools’ galleries and libraries.

In this context, interdisciplinary activity is the starting point rather than the result of our collaboration. The grant thus draws on the experience and skill of people on both campuses who have already focused most intently on the flow of ideas across and to the side of disciplinary structures.

Beyond the Academic Term

These digital projects may challenge the structures of higher education in an even more fundamental way, however, by weakening the boundaries of the academic term. When my students work to create web resources for readers of Ulysses, for example, they join a community that not only brings together the librarians, technologists, and interdisciplinary faculty who collaborate on the project but also involves an inheritance of classroom culture. The students of each generation working on the project edit and build on the work of their predecessors, and they understand their own work to lay foundations for their successors to build upon.

Already, I see digital methods making their ways into our classes without explicit training of students in digital skills. When my colleague Timothy Arner assigned his Beowulf seminar the creation of a music video as an exercise in translation, his students worked together, finding that the class included excellent singers, an experienced video editor, and some actors. They produced this piece and, in the process, preserved the challenge of translation and energized it by adding elements of publicity and performance. In other classes and dorm rooms, students who have already learned some topic modeling or network analysis, digital art or interactive theatrical design, talk to their classmates and hallmates.  As a result, our students come to our classrooms and office hours with ideas and questions that we were not hearing even five years ago.

Our new projects must maintain the traditions of analysis, critique, and inquiry that lie at the heart of the humanities and social sciences. Building a culture of skilled creativity with digital tools allows us to expand on those traditions, emphasizing the sharing of skills, distributed authority, and public engagement. In such a culture, we can approach our teaching not only deciding on readings for a syllabus but also asking the questions of improvisation: what will we make together, and for whom?

Erik Simpson is professor of English at Grinnell College and principal investigator for the “Digital Bridges for Humanistic Inquiry” grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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