December 07, 2015, BY Matt Hughes

Effective 2016–17, Bucknell will establish a minor in digital humanities, making it one of the few universities in the U.S. with a formal undergraduate program in the emerging discipline.

Digital humanities applies computational techniques such as GIS mapping and network visualization to pose and answer questions within humanities disciplines. The new minor builds upon existing courses applying such methods to subjects including comparative humanities, history, English and religious studies.

"I think of digital humanities as another way to extract information from data," said Jiayu Huang '17, a computer science and engineering major considering adding the new minor to his degree. "When we do close reading, we extract information, line-by-line. When we do digital humanities, we're just using a different way to extract data — maybe through word frequency or relationship analysis. We find a new angle to solve a problem."

The minor's establishment follows five years of digital humanities instruction at Bucknell, which began with Comparative Humanities Professor John Hunter's course The Posthuman Humanities and was bolstered by a 2013 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. That grant of $700,000 established a Digital Scholarship Center inside Bertrand Library and has supported smaller grants for faculty to develop digitally focused courses and teaching modules, as well as for students and faculty to conduct digitally enabled research.

Professor Katie Faull, German and humanities

"It's amazing to see how quickly things have grown in just a few years," said Katie Faull, a professor of German and humanities and member of the minor's coordinating committee. "And there's been so much student interest."

"The Mellon grant provided a framework for me to have conversations with faculty who were interested in doing these kinds of things — or perhaps didn't yet know they were interested in doing these kinds of things," added Diane Jakacki, Bucknell's digital scholarship coordinator and another member of the coordinating committee. "It started a dialogue that has been really fruitful in connecting people with one another. It's been generative."

Those efforts have made Bucknell a model for teaching digital humanities at an undergraduate institution, Jakacki said, and in establishing a minor Bucknell again is leading the way. In proposing the minor, the coordinating committee surveyed U.S. colleges and universities teaching digital humanities and found fewer than 20 schools offering a major or minor in the discipline, nearly all of them large research institutions.

"Traditionally the focus has been on graduate school, and it's only in the last few years that schools have begun to recognize undergraduates as having the skillsets and intellectual maturity to work in these types of environments," Jakacki said. "There are very few places that have embraced it at a curricular level. Among our peer institutions, some schools have started to teach classes, but there are very few minors and no majors."

Fulfilling the new minor requires four courses (two foundational courses plus two electives) as well as an independent study in which students prepare a portfolio of digital humanities projects. All of those courses emphasize hands-on research in which students learn alongside their professors, generally with the intent of publishing their findings online.

"We're taking what has been hidden in archives — in boxes, on fading paper — and making it public and accessible to people," Faull said. "It opens up a world that our students haven't seen before, and the realization that they are making that public for the first time is really radical."

In recent projects, students have analyzed language and word frequency in presidential debates (both historic and contemporary), created a web tool to visualize connections between cities in the ancient Mediterranean, and even shone a spotlight on Bucknell's own curriculum.

"I created a visualization of the texts taught in each of the core courses in the humanities one semester," said Erin Frey '17, a comparative humanities and creative writing major who took her digital humanities course this year. "By doing that I revealed holes in the syllabi — we didn't read many books by authors from the Southern Hemisphere, for example.

"That may not be obvious just looking at the list of texts, but it was very obvious if you put them on the map," she added. "I'm really interested in invisibility, and making the invisible visible. That's easy to do with digital humanities."