Digital technology transforms and modernizes the humanities

Digital technology transforms and modernizes the humanities

Story and photos developed by University Communications.

Y ou might remember writing a research paper for class. Perhaps you included a chart or timeline, a poster or picture to jazz it up.

Today, digital technology has moved humanities off dusty shelves into a fast-paced, modern world—making literature, history, language, philosophy and religion courses more interactive, fun and visually appealing.

Words on paper simply don’t give justice to advanced technology students now use for reports, presentations and research.

And that’s the point.

Digital humanities are meant to be seen and experienced.

“In digital humanities, we’re using digital tools as a way to rethink humanities research and use digital tools to collect and analyze data in ways we can’t do with traditional research,” said Dr. Elissa Auerbach, professor of art history and faculty coordinator of the Digital Humanities Collaborative.

Dr. Elissa Auerbach discusses a digital humanities project with students.
Dr. Elissa Auerbach discusses a digital humanities project with students.

Digital skills easily transfer to other disciplines and the job market, making students more competitive after graduation.

... employers are looking for well-rounded humanists who can think beyond the narrow scope of their discipline and use digital tools to see things in a different way.
– Dr. Elissa Auerbach
“There’s an increased demand for students going into graduate programs to have technology skills. So, we want to make sure our students are equipped,” Auerbach said. “Most importantly, employers are looking for well-rounded humanists who can think beyond the narrow scope of their discipline and use digital tools to see things in a different way.”

Auerbach started Georgia College’s Digital Humanities Collaborative by sponsoring visiting scholars and holding digital workshops for faculty in 2019. At that time, Dr. Aran MacKinnon, chair of history and geography, was looking to use more technology in his department, as well.

They banded together to create an ad hoc committee and held several meetings headed by Dr. Eric Tenbus, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. A graphic design student created the program’s first website. Students can earn grants for presenting digital humanities projects at the university’s annual student research conference. The collaborative also recognizes faculty who give students research opportunities in the digital realm.

Last year, the collaborative supported faculty fellowships for digital humanities projects: A history project on women barbecue pit masters in Georgia and another on contemporary artists in Latin America.

More than 50 faculty now use digital humanities in their coursework.

The collaborative encourages students to use free online tools for data visualization like Datawrapper, which transforms artifacts and text into professional-looking maps, graphs, charts, dashboards and infographics, or RAWGraphs, which turns complex data into cool, colorful visual representations. Students use websites like ArcGIS Online to connect people, locations and data using interactive maps; Tiki-Toki to make interactive timelines with 3D capabilities; and Palladio, to visualize complex historical data and explore relationships.

Sophomore art major Ella Leach
Sophomore art major Ella Leach
Sophomore art major Ella Leach of Athens is getting a concentration in studio art with a minor in history. Last semester, she used Kumu to develop a virtual timeline that represented deities for Auerbach’s class on prehistoric and medieval art. A digital humanities approach helped Leach transform traditional research into a highly visual learning tool featuring video, imagery and maps.

“Timelines have always been a main aspect of education,” Leach said. “You could do the same research and plaster images on a poster. What I like about digital tools is you can see how everything flows and weaves together through each period.”

“Going into an art history class, I never would’ve thought I’d learn anything digital,” she added. “It has helped me develop skills—like data and spreadsheets—and shown me how to present information in a visually-appealing way, so anybody can see and learn from it online.”

Leach wants to be an educator. She plans to teach digital skills to her future students.

I can take the skills that I’ve learned and use them in another class or when searching for a job. Being able to use digital skills just opens up this whole new realm.
– Ella Leach

In Auerbach’s upper-level classes on Renaissance art, students were asked to research 15th- and 16th-century artists and their connections. Using Kumu, students translated Excel spreadsheets of facts into a giant online family tree image—with crisscrossing lines mapping out various artist relationships.

Senior art major Ashlyn Simmons
Senior art major Ashlyn Simmons
Senior Ashlyn Simmons of Columbus said the program gave her research “kinetic energy.”

Simmons is majoring in art with a concentration in studio fine arts. When she heard the class involved a digital project, she was nervous. Opening a spreadsheet on Excel was the extent of her technological knowledge.

She was impressed by the vast difference in scale between digital and paper.

“I personally found it really uplifting,” Simmons said, “because one of the biggest parts of art is community. Our graphic showed as early as the 15th- and even 14th-century and beyond, there are hundreds of people who made and appreciated art and worked to make things together. That’s awesome to me. I find that really inspiring.”

This wasn’t just a student project. It didn’t feel like that at all. It felt like a bunch of artists collaborating together.
– Ashlyn Simmons
“This wasn’t just a student project. It didn't feel like that at all,” she said. “It felt like a bunch of artists collaborating together.”

Students from Dr. Sidonia Serafini’s African American Literature class also did digital projects last semester. Serafini is a member of Georgia College’s Digital Humanities Collaborative and has organized physical and digital exhibits for the Digital Library of Georgia and University of Georgia Special Collections Library.

Digital platforms extend projects to larger audiences, she said. Sometimes, essays and reports don’t make it past library shelves to the public.

Serafini’s students used Canva, a graphic design platform, to create posters on over-looked writings of African American women from slavery to the Harlem Renaissance. Students searched old newspapers for short stories, poems, letters, articles, speeches and advertisements. Using material from digital databases, like the Library of Congress archives, students wrote analytical essays and condensed information into smaller, easier to read sections for public audiences.   

“That’s what I really love doing, especially working with untold African American stories, Serafini said. “It’s important we tell their stories—not just to each other—but by making them visible in a larger way. Digital tools and public humanities projects allow students to share their research and bring their critical thinking and writing to a broader audience.”

Digital projects from Dr. Sidonia Serafini's African American Literature class were displayed at Ina Dillard Russell Library in November.
Digital projects from Dr. Sidonia Serafini's African American Literature class were displayed at Ina Dillard Russell Library in November.

Senior English major Olivia McDuffie of Milledgeville said she wasn’t tech-savvy before this class.

Her project on Sojourner Truth, a Black women’s rights activist from the mid-1800s, was given a vintage, scrapbook feel with Canva. Her poster was part of a class exhibit at Ina Dillard Russell Library in November.

“One thing I really like about digital humanities,” McDuffie said, “is it shows history in a new, fun and engaging way for people who are visual learners, like I am.”