DH and undergraduate research

Universities and liberal arts colleges seem to be increasingly interested in fostering the undergraduate research experience. For disciplines in the humanities, this has often posed a problem: if the sciences have built into their workflows researchers with different levels of expertise and if they conceive of research projects as providing, in part, training for higher level research for novice workers, there is no equivalent standard practice for the humanities.

How might digital humanities be able to change that practice of humanities research, and, perhaps, to improve on the sciences model of research? Can DH provide undergraduates with the opportunity to conduct independent research without using them only to provide grunt labor? This query raises a whole host of other questions: what qualifies as research and what as grunt work? Does grunt work provide as equally valuable experience as much lauded research? Should the output of such DH undergrad research be something that will serve the uses of other scholars? Or can it be an end in and of itself? Does the research part of the equation happen in humanistic inquiry or in developing digital skills?

This session is in many ways similar to the one proposed by Tonya Howe, Archives, Encoding, and Students, Oh My!”. Indeed, the sort of work I do with students in rare book collections is much like what Tonya is doing with her students. (And I wonder if it’s more than a coincidence that both of us work with books printed before the nineteenth century.) But I’d like to expand the question beyond the logistics of one approach to teaching students and to think about the ways in which DH can be a valuable and multi-valent approach to undergraduate research.


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  1. Amanda French

    I taught an undergrad research (slash / info literacy) course at NCSU for Honors students: i’m perennially interested in how we can teach research skills to undergrads. I’m in.

    I guess I’d also say that teaching people how to do research in the digital age IS digital humanities — the way we taught the class, it was very much informed by a history of how online research got to be the way it is, the history, the economics, the privacy issues, all that.

  2. Jeffrey McClurken

    I think this is an important session too, on its own, and in the areas that it overlaps with Tonya’s session.

    I’ve struggled with the questions you ask about the role of undergraduates in research as well, and I’ve tried a variety of levels of projects with my own students. [See the syllabi and project links at dh2010.umwblogs.org and digitalhistory.umwblogs.org.]

    There’s clearly a great deal of interest at this year’s THATCamp for a conversation along these lines.

  3. Sarah Werner

    Thanks for the links–I’ll look forward to exploring them. There does seem to be a thread of interest through the proposals in pedagogy. And one way of thinking about this, too, is to see it as a way of getting support for teaching & digital projects that might not otherwise be seen as a priority. In other words, reframing this sort of DH work as undergraduate research might give it an in with administrators, funding agencies, and other faculty.

    And I think Amanda’s right, too–there are benefits to students beyond teaching research skills in getting them to engage with questions of digital literacy and advocacy. All research is moving towards use of the digital, and that’s got to be something that undergraduates learn how to navigate.

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