It all starts with a question: Where do Bucknell students get their friends, and how does the physical space of the University encourage or discourage diverse friendships among the student body?
That question was the starting point of a paper Bucknell Student Melissa Eng '16 wrote last semester, but answering it fully would involve more than a few weeks of reading and philosophizing. It requires polling the student body about their friendships, and employing sophisticated social network analysis and mapping tools to analyze how physical space and friendship interact at Bucknell. Luckily, Eng now has resources to access those tools, and guidance in implementing her analysis.
Eng, along with her philosophy professor, Sheila Lintott, is one of five recipients of summer research project grants disbursed by Bucknell's Digital Scholarship Center (DSC), which are funded by a $700,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop digital initiatives at Bucknell.
"As a geography and philosophy major, I've thought about how certain spaces on campus can lead to certain types of identity formation, and how a sense of place can make people feel more or less comfortable interacting with certain people," Eng said. "It's finding the connection between physical space on campus and personal interaction."
Throughout the summer, Eng and Lintott will develop their questionnaire, and, in collaboration with Digital Scholarship Coordinator Diane Jakacki and GIS Specialist Janine Glathar, identify digital tools to help them dive deeply into the data the survey provides. DSC staff approach each project they aid individually and according to its own needs — letting the researcher's question lead them to the best tools to answer it.
"One of the things that distinguishes us is that we provide a really high level of support and partnership," said Glathar. "We do more than explain how the tools work; we get heavily involved in the application, methodologies and approaches."
"I have no fear that the complexities that come up — the messiness of humanities — are going to be lost in the results," added Lintott. "There are different ways to hit different layers of information, so there's no threat it's all going to be flattened out in a way that undercuts the importance of what we're trying to get at."
Lab to classroom, classroom to lab
The research project is likely to continue throughout the year, and Lintott imagines portions of it could make their way into her philosophy of friendship class. That's par for the course for digital scholarship at Bucknell, which stands apart among American universities in incorporating digital research and teaching techniques into the undergraduate curriculum, Jakacki said.
"We're introducing these types of experiences at a much earlier level," she said. "Most of the digital humanities community considers student involvement in projects and courses at a graduate level, and the fact that we're introducing experiences like this from the get-go distinguishes us."
Students have opportunities to pursue digital humanities research as early as their first year, and increasing numbers of Bucknell faculty have begun introducing digital methods into courses.
We're trying to find ways to strengthen and expand relationships between faculty members and students, and these projects become a springboard to do more things," Jakacki said.
Last summer, for instance, Professor Amanda Wooden, environmental studies, was awarded a summer research grant to study the attitudes of central Pennsylvania residents regarding environmental concerns about local industrial development, specifically Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling and plans for constructing a tire incinerator in nearby White Deer Township (which were withdrawn amidst public protest). Students collected data over the summer, and during the fall semester worked to transition that data into a series of classroom labs using GIS mapping, which were presented by Wooden and Glathar in Wooden's environmental studies 302 course. In the spring, student researchers continued work on the project, and presented their work with Glathar at an Association of American Geographers conference in Chicago. Wooden's digital scholarship grant has ended, but the project has grown its own legs.
"Professor Wooden is continuing to work with one of the same students from last summer, and we're talking about writing a paper about the project, which would include students as contributors," Glathar said.
Supporting course design
While digital summer research projects often find their way into coursework, the DSC also supports course development directly. In addition to summer research grants, this summer the DSC disbursed six course design grants to assist faculty in creating new courses or modifying existing courses to include significant digital scholarship assignments, modules or projects.
Professor Martin Isleem, Arabic studies, will use his grant to build, in collaboration with Jakacki and student app developer Cole Conte '16, a smartphone app that teaches spoken Arabic. Isleem said the app is needed because existing programs only teach Standard Arabic, a formal, primarily written language that often differs greatly from the colloquial dialects in which Arabic speakers converse.
"What's also unique about this app is that it relies heavily on audio materials rather than written," Isleem said. "We hope the app will enable users to record their production of Arabic and give them audio feedback. After testing the app in the fall, we will turn to work on a broader project, building an Arabic iBook, which is our ultimate goal."
As for Eng, she plans to continue work on her project throughout her senior year, and may make it the subject of a senior thesis. She and Lintott also hope to share their findings with University leaders, who may take them into account when designing new buildings and reimagining uses for older spaces, ultimately making Bucknell a more inclusive place.
"In the most idealistic sense, I hope it can help arrange campus so that we can change the campus climate a bit — or a lot," Eng said. "If our campus is not fostering more diverse friendships, why? How could we get people to leave their comfort zones and interact with those who are different them? Those interactions can enhance their own identity creation."