Digital humanities creating a buzz

Posted on Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A man and woman smile for the camera.

Professor and digital humanities co-ordinator Kyle Conway with history professor Jo-Anne McCutcheon , one of the instructors for DHN1100 this session. 

By Brandon Gillet

What’s a cool new way for the digital generation to come to grips with a philosophical treatise written more than 2,300 years ago?

In Kyle Conway’s digital humanities workshop in the winter term (DNH2100), students will delve into Aristotle’s Poetics as they explore how to tell stories digitally. This is the beauty of digital humanities, says Conway—a classic work on aesthetics written a couple of millennia ago can be used to help understand something as modern as video storytelling.

“And I love teaching video production,” Conway says, “because I give students the tools, put a camera in their hands and say ‘go forth and make cool stuff’…and then they do!”

Starting this fall, uOttawa students can take a minor in digital humanities. Conway says this hot new field “uses digital tools to answer questions that have traditionally belonged to the humanities. At the same time, it’s an effort to use the tools developed in the humanities to answer questions about our digital world.

“So it’s bringing these two sets of tools together to ask a new set of questions about our relationship to technology now, and what it means to be a person.”

After completing two core courses, students select six optional courses that have a digital humanities component offered by various departments at the University, followed by a six-credit capstone project.

“The exciting thing about digital humanities is that it’s not tied to any specific department or discipline,” Conway says. “There’s history, English, music—really anything that deals with the question of what makes us human and other reflective questions that give meaning to our lives.”

The push for digital humanities at uOttawa began before Conway arrived from the University of North Dakota in January 2015. Once here, he joined the Faculty of Arts committee looking into what the University could offer that would be distinctive.

“The program was developed by Andrew Taylor, professor of English and vice-dean of undergraduate studies, who deserves our thanks,” says the dean of the Faculty of Arts, Kevin Kee.

When the new dean arrived at the University in August 2015 and was delighted to discover the appetite for a new minor in the field.

“Everybody knew that I had an interest in digital humanities,” says Kee, who came from Brock University, where he held the Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities. “But what was amazing to me when I got here was how many people were already involved. About 20% of the professors at the Faculty of Arts were talking and meeting about it and had decided we needed a program.

“I feel really lucky because I inherited everyone else’s enthusiasm. Digital humanities is something we know our students and professors want—so, as dean, I have the privilege of supporting that which was already well under way.”

Kee is particularly excited about uOttawa’s partnership with the Canada Science and Technology Museum, which will give students opportunities to collaborate with museum staff in developing apps, games and websites.

The dean calls this a win-win situation, because the museum, which values the “amazing creativity” of young people, is able to work with these highly skilled digital natives as they try out new ideas. And students benefit from an enriched education that “gives them something special to point to when they graduate.”

Indeed, one of the main things that attracted Kee to uOttawa was its location at the heart of the National Capital Region, within easy reach of many of the country’s major museums and galleries and the national archives.

“What we can do that nobody else can do is partner with them to take what’s in those places and share it with the world,” Kee says. “Canada has so much to offer, and we can be the bridge that shares Canada with the world and, in that way, make the world a better place.”

See also Digital humanities helping uOttawa students defy the conventional class project.

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