Digital Scholars Institute at Mary Washington

I’m blogging this time in English after a few months of Spanish-only, to share with my non-Spanish-speaking colleagues some of my work and ideas about digital scholarship as I practice it. This semester I’ve been participating in Mary Washington’s Digital Scholars Institute a group of faculty interested in digital issues related to pedagogy, research, and scholarship. We’ve met every other week since the end of February in two cohorts to share our work and discuss pertinent issues. This project has been a natural next step for a campus that has been active in these issues for years with help and leadership from the great staff at the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies and the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation. They have given the faculty and students at Mary Washington the opportunities, training, and tools we have needed to jump in to digital work, especially through initiatives like Faculty Academy,  UMWBlogsUMWDomains, and OpenVA.  As a result of those years of cultivating, coddling, preaching, and even sometimes prodding, there is a sizeable group of faculty here that is doing VERY COOL stuff! What has most impressed me in my own cohort–Andréa Livi Smith (Historic Preservation), Shawn Humphrey (Economics), Jack Bales (Simpson Library), Steve Gallik (Biology), Mary Kayler (CTEI), Jim Groom (DTLT), and me, Betsy Lewis (Modern Languages and Literatures)–has been the creativity with which each person has approached his/her discipline and then how that work has directly benefited students, even when not expressly (or exclusively) “pedagogical”. Check out to see their work, and the work of the other 5 faculty participating in another cohort.

So on Thursday April 24th it’s my turn to present my work. Some of what I’m going to outline below, I’ve narrated elsewhere before, so I’ll link to those places and you can read or skip as you wish. I’d like to focus on a digital project I’m finishing right now, sharing some of the frustrations, questions, and doubts I’ve had throughout, and end with some future projects I hope to start soon.

First of all, I don’t consider myself an accomplished “digital scholar”. It’s something I’ve been pursuing (more like playing with!) for years, and if you’re interested I’ve already reflected a bit about my trajectory thus far (“Domain of One’s Own Faculty Initiative”). I say play, because that’s what the digital has added to both my teaching and my research: active engagement of new skills, creativity, along with a sense of joy and wonder.

I have numerous colleagues here at Mary Washington to thank for everything I’ve learned and accomplished professionally in digital pedagogy and digital scholarship. They have helped me see my work as part of an intellectual and global community.

First, UMWBlogs inspired me to use technology in my classes. Through digital applications and blogging, Spanish 413 (Advanced Writing) evolved from a grammar and writing course (a snooze-fest for me and the students!) to be about writing and creativity through the composition of a large digital project. In Spanish 375 I took a nineteenth-century novel course (again, hard to get the students enthused), and made it about film adaptation of novels in which students story-boarded and eventually produced their own video adaptation. In both I saw the digital medium as a way to engage students in exciting, creative and more real ways, turning boring and dry courses to something much more interactive and rewarding for all involved. I then decided to go a step further by involving students in my research. As part of that, in 2011 I decided to try for a Digital Humanities start-up grant from the NEH . I was denied the grant, but still took two groups of students to Madrid to do research at the Biblioteca Nacional, and created a digital exhibition with them (more about that in a minute).

When UMWDomains came along, I tried to be a little more intentional about my  web presence apart from my courses, through bringing my work together on my own domain, I started keeping a personal blog more regularly, where I write about my research, my teaching, and some issues that I see in the academy, which has included among other topics diversity, disability studies, language study, and the future of the book . Sometimes blogging feels a little disconnected–is anybody actually reading this?? But it has been a useful tool for me to work out some of my ideas and to reflect, if nothing else.

The bulk of my digital scholarship recently has been through the creation of a digital exhibition on the evolution of women’s charity in Spain. I’ve reflected (in Spanish) in my blog on the experience of working with students on such a project (“Haciendo humanidades digitales con mis alumnos”).  I’ve also presented some preliminary results of our work at several conferences: at the Asociación Internacional de Literatura y Cultura Femenina Hispánica XXIII Congreso Annual held at Pomona College in October 2013 (“Concepción Arenal’s La Voz de la Caridad Through the Lens of a Database“), a poster presentation with my students at the OpenVA conference also in October of 2013, and next month I’ll be presenting the whole site as a poster/demo at the Segundo Encuentro de Humanidades Digitales in Mexico City.

This work with my students has been amazingly rewarding, and lots of fun, and I think it has been a great experience for the three groups of freshman and sophomores who worked with me. But is it scholarship? It’s certainly not what I had envisioned when I proposed the project to the NEH three years ago. Lack of time, money, and resources have all limited what I could actually accomplish without the grant. Another issue I’ve had has to do with permissions from libraries and archives to display the material I’ve collected from them. Due to the permissions that I needed (still need), I haven’t made the site publicly available. Even though everything I display is OLD and in the public domain, the National Library in Madrid requires that I pay 25 euros per image to display them (that is up from 7 euros last fall, when I wasn’t quite ready to apply for permission!). Wasn’t the web supposed to be free and open? I suppose I can’t begrudge a library that has given me and my students open access to their collections the funds they need to keep their own work going, but it has made things difficult, if not downright expensive.

Despite these frustrations, I’ve learned TONS through this process over the last three years: about digital applications, issues of digital humanities, and about researching with students.Which leads me to my next steps. I’m offering a first-year seminar Digital Don Quijote, in which the students and I will use Cervantes’ great novel as way to approach some of the issues of digital humanities and digital studies that I’ve mentioned, and others that I haven’t (See my post “Quixotic” that I wrote last summer as I prepared to make the proposal for the FSEM).  It was originally planned for this spring (2014), but no one enrolled (another topic for discussion) so I’ll be trying it again for Fall 2014, with the senior seminar in Spanish planned for spring 2015, the 400th anniversary of the publication of the second volume of the novel. I’m trying to get together a bike tour of the Ruta del Quijote for spring break, something like this video below. Andy Rush has already got me psyched about mounting cameras to our helmets to document our experience to share with the world! Oh, and I’ll be department chair too. ¡Qué loca soy!

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