St. Olaf College | News

St. Olaf receives Mellon Foundation grant for digital humanities project

StOlaf470x325St. Olaf College’s aspirations to develop innovative digital resources and research methods in the humanities have garnered support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

A four-year, $700,000 grant from the foundation will provide St. Olaf faculty with digital tools to explore new ways of teaching and new lines of inquiry for their research. The “Digital Humanities on the Hill” project also enables students to learn digital research methodologies relevant to careers in the humanities and humanistic social sciences.

“Our goal is to ensure that humanities research remains as powerful and significant in the future as it has been in the past,” says St. Olaf President David R. Anderson ’74. “There is considerable interest among our faculty in drawing on digital technologies, collections, and applications for their teaching and research.”

Building on existing technology
The Mellon Foundation grant underwrites faculty development in the digital humanities. Students will gain skills as digital technology interns and refine their abilities through mentored undergraduate research. An instructional technology specialist and a faculty director will assist both faculty and students in achieving the project’s goals.

“Digital Humanities on the Hill” builds on the college’s existing instructional technology expertise as well as experience gained through a previous grant Mellon awarded to St. Olaf, Carleton, and Macalester colleges in 2012.

St. Olaf faculty and staff developed a number of pilot projects, including the use of digital technology on an archeological dig in Turkey, the creation of a virtual world where students can refresh and build on their Japanese language skills, and the mapping of 19th-century literary New York.

With this new grant, St. Olaf aims to increase significantly the number of humanities courses and research projects that utilize digital resources.

“Utilizing new modes of analysis through digital tools and gaining access to collections and artifacts via digital resources opens up new lines of inquiry, leading to new questions and exciting new discoveries,” St. Olaf Provost and Dean of the College Marci Sortor says.

“It will also create new opportunities for students to undertake mentored research in the humanities and humanities-related social sciences, much as students have the opportunity to conduct science in labs and fieldwork,” she adds. “Thanks to the Andrew Mellon Foundation, early innovators at St. Olaf College can expand their expertise, while other faculty members can explore how digital tools and access to digitized materials will advance their research and teaching.”

Developing customized digital tools
Among several options, humanities scholars at St. Olaf will have the opportunity to collaborate with the college’s computer science faculty and students to customize computational tools for use in humanities research and teaching.

An interdisciplinary course will pair a humanities faculty member and student with two computer science students and a computer science faculty member. As a team, they will develop custom software to assist humanities faculty members and students with their research or learning projects.

A pilot version of the course successfully created customized tools for several projects. In one, a computer science student and a historian devised a custom application to explore relationships among voting records and demographic data through interactive maps of Reconstruction-era Alabama.

In another, a student worked with a musicologist to search for and display the harmonic, melodic, and musicological features within a corpus of musical compositions.

“Such projects investigate the humanities using powerful tools of analysis,” Sortor says. “It remains for humanities scholars to render judgments and draw conclusions; no computer will supplant the ‘human’ in the humanities. But the combination of computer power and human ingenuity will open new doors for the humanities in the years ahead.”