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Digital study of humanities offers new avenue for research

With technology playing an increasing role in educational research of all fields, educators in the humanities at schools such as Boston University are incorporating digital resources into their own forms of undergraduate research.

Digital humanities creates a new avenue for scholars and researchers by applying technology to the traditional study of humanities, said Modern Language Association spokesperson Kathleen Fitzpatrick. The role of technology in the study of humanities was a major topic of discussion at the MLA’s annual meeting, which concluded Sunday.

“The popularity of the digital humanities stems at least in part from a recognition that computer-based technologies provide us with new ways of approaching the kinds of questions about literature, language, culture, art and history in which humanists have traditionally been interested,” Fitzpatrick said.

Megan Tyler, a humanities professor at BU, said digital humanities is evident in the use of ePortfolios, which she uses as a resource for her students to creatively engage in the topics studied in the classroom. Students are often required to post work online in digital forms such as text, audio and video.

“Sometimes I have my students sing and record songs,” Tyler said. “We did a discussion of a medieval ballad, and I said ‘okay, go into your room and video yourself singing this ballad,’ and they were less nervous to do that within the privacy of their room than they would be in public. It was really cool to see the results of that.”

Digital humanities has also been key in educating two of Tyler’s undergraduate classical studies students, who have created an online database to present their research and encourage scholarly discussion, she said.

“What we have created is this large conversation between students and scholars about the references to the classical past in Irish literature,” Tyler said. “It’s great for the students to have something like this to do because it’s not just like writing an essay that gets shoved into a drawer or thrown away. There’s physical evidence of their research and analysis, and it’s up there for people to see and contribute to.”

Digital research has long been common in science-related fields, said digital humanities expert Rebecca Frost Davis from St. Edward’s University. Now, digital humanities offer researchers a method that allows room for cooperation and communication.

“There is a very strong push for undergraduate digital research at all kinds of institutions, but it really flourishes in the sciences,” Davis said. “The sciences have figured out how to get undergraduates to do cooperative research with faculty, but with the humanities, there’s a tradition of individual scholarship.”

While digital research has been ubiquitous in graduate education, undergraduate programs are adopting digital humanities in order to include undergraduate students in sophisticated forms of research in their disciplines, Davis said.

“In classical studies, in order to do serious research, you’d need to know Greek and Latin to do the primary texts, and also German, French and Italian if you want to do the secondary research,” Davis said. “Most undergraduates don’t have that ability. What digital humanities has done is in some ways is familiarize the research, so it makes scholars look at the research again.”

Davis also said the usage of digital humanities expands the coursework for humanities subjects, which traditionally are limited to researching and writing essays, by engaging undergraduates into the growing world of technology.

“Instead of writing yet another research paper on Oedipus, you might actually be transcribing an ancient Greek text, and you feel like you’re doing real research instead of just repeating what’s been done before,” she said. “…On the one hand, it helps them critique the media of the world around us, but it also gives them avenues for doing assignments.”

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