What can digital humanities do for you?

Learn what digital humanities can do for you

The digital humanities incorporate a variety of fields of study, such as history, theology, philosophy, English, to name a few. The digital aspect of the digital humanities requires students to use and design digital tools. Digital humanities is a fast-growing field. Are you wondering why you don’t hear about it more? It’s probably because the digital humanities are happening all around us.

Earning a master’s degree in digital humanities

What exactly does a master’s in digital humanities look like? Honestly, it depends on what your goals are. Concordia University Ann Arbor offers a Master’s in Digital Humanities. Recently, prospective student Paige Wilson sat down with Program Director Erin Laverick, PhD. Paige was able to bring her questions about the program to Dr. Laverick and get a sense for what Concordia’s Digital Humanities program is like.

Q + A with Paige & Dr. Laverick

This is a transcription of the video placed above. 

Paige: I have just a couple questions for you about the Digital Humanities program. I have done a ton of reading on Concordia’s website. I’ve also my own research via search engines just to learn more about Digital Humanities. But, I’m just wanting to understand even a little bit more.

Erin: Alright, well fire away! I’m excited to have this conversation.

Paige: Perfect, well, so my background is in art and theology. Like many people, after college I found myself working in a job that wasn’t necessarily what I studied in my undergrad. I’ve been working in the digital marketing landscape for a few years. Often, I find myself a little behind in the digital landscape. So, I stumbled across the digital humanities program, I think that it could help me in a lot of ways. I was wondering if you could just help me understand it. What does the digital humanities program at Concordia entail?

Erin: Sure, so the digital humanities as a field of study is very interdisciplinary. We have students who have academic backgrounds in art, philosophy, theology, English, history, literature, and computer science. They come to us maybe much like yourself. Maybe they’re lacking digital literacy skills or just technical skill sets. These are necessary to find employment and be successful in a global job market.

Lifelong learning + technical skill development

The program really blends lifelong learning with technological skill development. Students research topics of interest to them, but do this through a digital lens. So, for example, our program covers textual analysis or markup which is fancy word for “coding”. We also delve into digital archiving or digital curation. This could be used either for consumption or production.

So, how do we use digital archives for our own research? How do we create and produce digital archives for other people to use for their own research? We also will delve into data visualization. This means being able to identify where people are, what apps they’re using, what social media platforms they’re using and then finally geographical information systems or GIS. So, we will teach you how to use these technical or digital tools as I like to call them. This will help you conduct research in your area of study. Again these areas could be art history, theology, English, etc.

So, what is something you want to learn about art and or theology? Or, what is a problem that might exist in the fields? How can you use technology to answer that question? Really, what digital humanities is doing is giving you the best of both worlds. The digital humanities offers you a further step into the job market. However, if you are interested or have that lifelong dream of pursuing a doctorate- you would be fully prepared to apply to a graduate program and further your studies either in the digital humanities or your content area of interest.

Paige: Can you provide an overview of what the program layout looks like? I work full-time, and I have a life outside of my job. So, I’m a little bit nervous about balancing work and school.

Erin: Yeah, absolutely. I think coming off of a year where we’ve all been kind of hunkering down you know we’re just really anxious to get back to life as normal or a post-COVID world. I was really intentional when my colleagues and I first started designing this program.

Asynchronous platform: learn at your own pace

  • We decided to run it online. It’s in what’s called an “asynchronous platform”. This means you’ll be able to work at your own pace.
  • Classes are only eight weeks. You have eight weeks to focus on one class and we do have deadlines.

For example, if an assignment will be due in three weeks, you have the flexibility to get it done when you can. Or, an assignment could be due at the end of the semester, for example. But, since it’s self-paced, you can work in it when it makes sense for you. If you’re working, or maybe you know that you have other family obligations, our hope is that you’ll be able to really strike a balance between work, family, and school obligations.

Having said that, we also don’t want you to feel like you’re sort of living on this island doing your homework or your studies alone. So, that first class you’ll take is called “Digital Humanities by Design”. I’m actually co-teaching this class with Dr. Farah Kamw who is our Computer Science Specialist. Her specialization is in software programming and GIS. I’m going to tackle the humanities piece. Dr. Kamw is going to tackle that computer science piece. Then, we’re going to bring it all together.

You’re not going through this alone.

But, we don’t want you to feel like you’re just going through this program alone. So, we will set up a time to meet with you individually over Zoom to walk you through the steps of your final project. If you have questions, or if you want us to look at a draft of your project or just offer you feedback, that opportunity will be there. You will have constant support and collaboration.

Collaboration is key.

Collaboration is really key in the digital humanities. There’s no way you can be an expert in all the technology and all the content. We want to make sure that you’re fully supported. Also, you’ll have a sense of community as you go through your studies.

Paige: I love that. It sounds like you’ve worked really well with your colleagues to create a very open, flexible, but also personalized experience for every student. That makes me really excited about this program.

Before, I shared a little bit about my background with art and theology and my current position. I’m wondering, can you tell me a little bit more about how the program will help me to kind of fill in the gaps not only at my current position? Also, will it help me by building up my tool belt for the future job market?

Erin: Yeah, so I like that word “toolbelt”. I think that’s really what we’re equipping you with is this digital toolbelt. You know, digital literacy is becoming more and more important as we grow as a global culture or a global society.

We need to be able to use technology in order to communicate effectively. This isn’t just with our neighbors, but with people spanning across the world. So, our intention is to help you fill in those digital gaps that you might have missed in your undergraduate studies- just because even two three years ago some of the technology that we’re using today didn’t even exist.

The goal of the program is really to equip you with those skill sets or that tool kit/toolbox that you can continue to grow as a worker in in the workforce.

Workplace skills: what can students expect to walk away with?

Paige: That’s awesome. I know earlier you talked a little bit about the geographic information systems and you talked about coding- will there be any other kind of tangible skills that we can take away?

Erin: Our Graphic Design professor on the Wisconsin campus- her name is Dr. Tess Kenney- is teaching a class using Adobe Suite. So, students will learn how to use Photoshop and Illustrator and they’re going to learn how to tell a story. So, a lot of times especially people maybe in the field of literature or even art- you know thinking about how do we tell a story through a digital lens is really important.

Not just again as art students or as English students, but in the workforce. Think about how many times you have to put together a presentation to present to colleagues. Have you ever considered your audience? Your purpose? Why you’re giving this presentation? What is your goal in giving this presentation? How do you communicate not just through the spoken or written word- but visually?

In learning how to effectively communicate to tell stories, you will learn how to do so using digital tools like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, so that you can really effectively communicate messages not only to people you work with, but to outside audiences whether that be in a marketing department, a graphic design department, public relations- these are all really important skills to have in addition to having those technical skills.

Can students take electives?

Paige: That is exactly what I’m looking for, and my brain is already fluttering with all the ways I can use those skills. That’s exciting! Now, you had just said that you wanted to take that class too. Do we have the flexibility as students to take electives? If so, how many?

Erin: I think that’s what excites me most about this program. We’ve added a large layer of choice. Certainly not every student will come in with the same background, which is so exciting because we can all learn from each other. Right? But we want to give you the opportunity to really sort of delve in to what interests you.

Which path will you take?

So, we’ve set it up where there’s two paths. One is a practicum which if you want to use this degree to really hone in on your occupation or working in that global job market you can do the practicum and gain or receive some on-site training within a corporation or a business or even a church.

If you take that path, then you’ll be allowed or be able to select three elective courses and those courses could be anything from the arts, to more GIS work, maybe delving into the archives a little bit more- whatever interests you more.

If you decide to write a thesis, which would be a large-scale research project (personally what I think is cool is you don’t have to write that traditional paper, it can be a digital thesis if that’s what you’re looking to do). You would have the opportunity to select two elective courses because it does take a little bit more time to write and develop a solid research project.

But again, we want you to have that choice and to take classes that interest you that maybe fulfill that need for lifelong learning or equip you with more technical skills for the job market.

Is there the freedom to explore areas of self-interest?

Paige: That sounds wonderful and flexible. Again, I just love the freedom that  prospective students such as myself will have. So, I want to just kind of push a little bit more on the freedom to creatively explore areas of self-interest within the humanities piece. What does that look like within different classes? Is that student specific or course specific? Can you elaborate a little bit more on this?

Erin: Most, if not all classes, will have some sort of project tied to them. So, for example in the Digital Humanities by Design course you’ll learn about four different types of technology that’s commonly used in the field of the digital humanities and then your final project- you’ll pick one or maybe two of those skill sets and explore a topic of interest to you.

So, you know your background is in art and theology. Maybe there’s something that you want to delve into regarding art curation. Or, maybe there are some archives about former artists that you want to explore and delve into. Perhaps, you end up using those archives to put together a web page or rhetorically analyze their work. We want you to be able to use those tools to really explore topics that interest you. Again, not every student will come with the same knowledge or skill set. So, the content is what we use to teach the digital or the technical skillsets.

For example, I just got off the phone with another prospective student and his interest is in political science so he was really excited about archives and kind of like digging into spaces like the Library of Congress to learn more about our political history in the United States.

So, we want you to have that freedom to delve into topics that interest you because and this is like the nerd in me coming out, but school should be fun! You’re paying money to go to school- we want you to have fun, we want you to learn and explore topics that are of interest to you. Certainly, what I’m interested in, you’re probably not going to want to delve into rhetorical theory so that’s totally fine. We just want you to learn and be poised for that next step in your career- whatever that step may be.

Question: Is this program theory-based or more practical?

Paige: Awesome, so, I’m most excited about some of the things you mentioned: coding, data analytics, graphic design. There is one thing I am a little bit nervous about. It’s that I want to know if I’m going to be learning just the theory of things or am I going to walk away with tangible skills. I want to know what I can add to my toolbelt and take into the future job market.

Erin: Very good question. There’s a little bit of theory a whole lot of practice in this program. Theory is great if you choose to go down that path of academics, but if you’re looking to step into the job market you have to know how to use the software, how to analyze documents, and put everything together.

So, we’re really focused on the application or use piece with a little bit of theory so that you understand why you’re using the specific technology to communicate with an audience. Application is key. Then again, if you choose to pursue a doctorate more of that theory will follow. But, right now we just want to give you a really solid foundation on how you can use those tools.

Question: Should students who want to earn a doctorate pursue the practicum or the thesis option?

Paige: I love that. So, you explained a little bit about the two paths- the practicum and then the traditional thesis. Can you explain a little bit more about the two? Besides elective courses, what’s the major difference between the two and then also can students complete their practicum within their current occupation?

Erin: Yes, absolutely. So, let’s start with the practicum. The practicum is an eight-week course and you are most welcome to conduct your practicum in your current place of employment. For example, I have another student who works in an art gallery and she wants to use that space for her practicum- perfectly fine. We just ask that you have maybe a special or an additional project that you can complete for your employer that sort of goes above and beyond your day-to-day work.

So, your advisor would work closely with you and your employer to make sure that this project is in line with our expectations for the program, but then also meets the needs of your place of employment. There is a small research portion that you would submit, but a lot of it is just setting up the project, connecting it to your coursework, reflecting on what you’re doing for the project, and then submitting that final project.

Paige: Then, the second path is the thesis?

Erin: Yes, that second path is the thesis. The thesis is, as we talked about earlier, theory. There will be theory in that and you’ll have some secondary research to support your analysis or your research, but that’s going to be more academic in nature. So, then again, if you choose to apply for a doctoral program- you would have a nice body of work that you can submit to that university and say, “Hey, look at what I did in my master’s program” and be more than well prepared to walk into a doctoral program next.

Paige: If you choose to complete the practicum, are you still eligible to go into a doctoral program? Or, should you choose the thesis if you want to pursue a doctorate?

Erin: I would highly recommend the thesis if you’re looking at a program in the traditional humanities. They’re going to want to see some body of research or some element of work and that’s sort of just commonplace that you would submit a writing sample or maybe a webpage that you designed with that research embedded in the website. So, I would say if you have an inkling do the thesis, do it now.

I know a thesis can sound scary. But, you will have a team of professors with you walking you through step by step so you know we’re not just going to say, “Okay, go write your thesis on your own”. There will be guidance on how to do that and I think what makes it scary is maybe you’re just thinking of that end project when really you want to be thinking about okay first I’m going to get my research question. What do I want to learn or what you know what’s a problem that I really want to dig into okay now what do other people say about this? What research has already been conducted on my topic? Write that up. Okay, now I’m going to design my study based on holes or gaps that I’ve identified in the previous research. We kind of go from there.

So, like I said, we’re not just going to say okay start writing- have fun. Every step someone will be there with you and the beauty of this program is we’re pulling professors from different fields of study who can really walk with you.

Maybe you’re doing theology and you want to do some web development- well we’re going to have someone from computer science assisting with the web development and we’re going to have theological scholars assisting you with that theology piece. It just really creates this nice collaborative and supportive environment as well.

Paige: I love that. Thank you so much. My last question for you, Erin: What made you decide to start or what sparked your interest to start diving into the digital humanities and then also to create this program?

Erin: So, as a writing teacher, I’ve always embedded one assignment in my writing classes where students have to go sort of above and beyond just writing a traditional research paper. I’d have them really think about “how can I use technology to convince my audience about a topic”, or “how could I use a digital platform to present a solution to a problem?”

And, I find that students know how to use technology fine. They might know how to use iMovie, and they might know how to use social media. But, they don’t really think about how they use it to effectively communicate with an audience. That’s a really important piece of learning how to write or learning how to compose.

So, I always use that assignment as sort of like the sneaking the vegetables into their meal, right? That’s where my passion for the digital humanities comes in. My students love that assignment- it’s the fun piece or the exciting part of the of the class. So, that’s one and it might be sort of selfish because I enjoy doing it. But, when I first came to Concordia, we have all these really small academic programs, and I was told to start thinking about graduate programs, I thought, “Oh, how are we going to do that?”

We don’t have a lot of faculty, but we have really good faculty. So, I thought if we all come together and share our passions, interests and strengths- we could have a really good program and so that’s how it started. Some professors said they would love to do this and I thought it would be fun. So, then we started identifying different needs and skill sets that we need from the professors to build the program. It’s really been this grassroots movement within the School of Arts and Sciences, and we’re so excited to launch this program. It’s going to be great.

Paige: I hear and feel your excitement. Overall, what I hear from our conversation is the value in collaboration between students, but also just you yourself as faculty and instructors. I hear passion and I hear creativity and so all of those things get me as a prospective student really excited and also just for myself. Erin, thank you so much for your time and I am really excited about this program and even more so now that we’ve had this conversation.

Erin: You are very welcome, Paige. If you have any additional questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. If I can’t answer your questions especially about the theology or art pieces- I’m more than happy to put you in contact with other professors in the program who would be able to answer those questions for you.

Paige: Perfect, well thank you so much! You will be seeing my application very soon!

Erin: That’s great, I look forward to reviewing it.

Want more information on Concordia’s M.A. in Digital Humanities?

If you’re interested in learning more about this program, we’re ready to chat. You can book a call with one of our Inquiry Support Specialists. They’re equipped to answer your questions and connect you to the information you need.

— Vanessa Lane is the Content Marketing Lead at Concordia University and can be reached at vanessa.lane@cuaa.edu. When she's not at work, she can be found playing with her kids or watching NBA basketball with her husband.

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