Spring 2022 Course Spotlight

Humanities 215: Introduction to Digital Humanities Through Post-Soviet Identity and America’s South

Reflection by Susanna Weygandt, Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian

This past spring I designed and taught HUMN 215: Introduction to Digital Humanities through Post-Soviet Identity and America’s South. The comparative focus of the first part of the course juxtaposed the history of Russian serfdom to that of slavery in the United States, and we got at the historical understandings of slavery through readings in books and in digital archives. Through the Roberson Project for example, students learned about recent research to uncover the history of African Americans at Sewanee, including the historical era that is tied to the construction of the university. The Roberson Project, at the same time as being a source of deep historical information, is an exemplary digital humanities platform, and thus a model to incorporate into an introductory digital humanities course. Digital humanities platforms host unique collections, have search functions, and allow for collaboration, among other characteristics. Through hands-on training students learned to use digital tools to create visuals that augmented their research arguments: ThingLink, Omeka, graphing, and to analyze and display text: Scalar and Medium.com. In their assignments and final research projects, students demonstrated their fluency in digital tools by using them to support their claims and historical findings about the comparisons of U.S. slavery to Russian serfdom, rural capitalism in America’s South and Russia, as well as the future of the rural village in Russia.

One component of digital humanities projects involves essentializing and condensing chapters and bodies of knowledge into brief paragraphs (or even into labels and categories or numbers). In addition to employing digital skills to embed annotated images into their public-facing writing, the format of Medium.com’s platform helped students streamline their writing.  Students also learned lessons on concision via the art of annotation, which involves not only gaining technical skills, but also critical thinking skills. What does it mean to represent information, in particular historical information, online? When you label a historical document for display, for instance, what agenda are you ascribing to it? Thus, students labeled their chosen historical images after deeply researching their topic. As researchers of contradictory, unjust, and traumatic histories, students collaboratively developed their own definition of reconciliation: We cannot change the past, but we can use today’s technology along with historical research skills to uncover injustices of the past.

Literature woven into the course that led to some of the most dynamic discussions included:

For their final project, students wrote research essays based on reading passages that excited them and used visualizations to support their arguments. They displayed their chosen visualizations in a digital exhibition of historical images to highlight connections between US slavery and Russian serfdom. This digital companion to the final essay trained students in an essential digital humanities skill: online exhibition. It also helped students hone their writing skills as students’ exhibits were accompanied by robust written descriptions of the images for this compelling text+image display. The course exhibition can be viewed here: https://humn215.omeka.net.

For more details about course assignments and to view examples of students’ final project, check out Professor Weygandt’s course folder on Google Drive

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