English department introduces interdisciplinary digital humanities minor

Framingham State University’s English Department has developed an interdisciplinary digital humanities minor that will be listed starting in the 2021-22 University catalog.

The minor consists of five courses, including Introduction to Digital Humanities, a computer programming course, and an internship.

Desmond McCarthy, former chair of the English department, brought together several professors from the English and history departments last spring in order to create the minor, including Kristen Abbott Bennett and Bartholomew Brinkman of the English department, and Joseph Adelman and Sarah Mulhall-Adelman of the history department.

McCarthy said, “I’m particularly proud that it’s a minor that serves every department in the humanities and that it provides a wide array of opportunities for students to work independently with faculty on research projects.”

The minor also received support from the Dean of the College of Arts & Humanities, Marc Cote.

“I think it’s an important and engaging new direction for those [humanities] departments. I think it does give the students some good competencies as they graduate from Framingham State – interesting ones, too, that they can really talk about in a job interview and add to their CVs,” Cote said.

McCarthy, Abbott Bennett, and Adelman said there are many definitions for digital humanities, but it boils down to humanities research and technology.

McCarthy said, “Digital humanities brings the power of technology and computational analysis to bear on literary and historical texts to unearth startling new information about our cultural history.”

Abbott Bennett said while digital humanities is a “computational approach to knowledge making,” it’s also “so much more than that.

“Yes, it’s computational. That’s what’s under the hood. But if we’re thinking about it, we’re using technology to see texts in new ways and images and asking questions that we couldn’t [previously] address,” she added.

Adelman said, “At a really basic level, [digital humanities] is doing humanities research – thinking about human life, and the ways in which we interact with each other in society and culture.”

An example of digital humanities research for an historian would be looking into and digitizing census records, according to Adelman.

Digital humanities can also include more creative aspects, such as designing video games and interactive learning, Adelman said.

“I’m teaching a book right now on the Boston Massacre and the historian who wrote it also worked on a game version of the Boston Massacre,” Adelman said. “That’s an iteration of digital humanities that is thinking about presenting and producing research and teaching tools in different ways, rather than just writing an article or a book.”

Abbott Bennett, the founder of the Kit Marlowe Project, an international online digital humanities site focused on Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, said, “What digital humanities does and what the minor does and will do for people is to teach them how to be intellectually flexible – how to adapt their learning. To learn how to learn.”

Abbott Bennett is currently teaching the first Introduction to Digital Humanities course. 

In the introductory course, Abbott Bennett’s students are working with computers and learning about metadata. 

“We’re working with Heda Monahan in the library to input the metadata and they’re generating metadata about these projects, to describe the project, and also to learn about what metadata is and about how that works underneath the project,” Abbott Bennett said. 

“When we’re using images, that’s a form of metadata,” she added.

Kelsey Rhodes, a junior English major, is currently enrolled in Abbott Bennett’s Introduction to Digital Humanities course.

“I was recommended this course by my advisor due to my desire to become a librarian. Since librarians work closely with digitizing humanistic material, we thought it would be a great class to take,” Rhodes said.

Additionally, Rhodes said the class is currently learning about how texts can be analyzed and “mined” for information, including adding metadata to create a website about digital humanities projects that currently exist.

“Dr. Bennett has been wonderful to learn from. She is very enthusiastic and clearly very invested in digital humanities which helps interest students,” she said. “She also includes a wide range of materials which demonstrate how important digital humanities is to us as a society, to marginalized people, and to those with disabilities which make accessing digitized and non-digitized texts difficult.”

While the Introduction to Digital Humanities course is the introductory course for the minor, the class can also fulfill a student’s General Education requirement under Domain II-A: Analysis, Modeling, & Problem Solving, according to Cote.

Cote said, “That particular subdomain involves computational methods and quite a bit of quantitative study and a lot of that is what happens in that [Introduction to Digital Humanities] class. Students gather, model, quantify, and visualize humanities data in ways that are appropriate for that.”

Aside from the courses a minor in Digital Humanities requires, students need to complete an internship for their final course. 

In previous years, Brinkman has sponsored an intern at the Modern American Poetry Site (MAPS), a digital humanities site which he directs.

MAPS is one of the largest academic sites devoted to the teaching and study of 20th and 21st century American poetry and receives between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors monthly.

Adelman said in the past, students have interned at various historical sites, and those options will be open for those minoring in digital humanities. 

A student has interned at the Kit Marlowe Project site since Abbott Bennett started teaching at Framingham State – an internship she said will be open to those who minor in Digital Humanities as their capstone course. 

The Kit Marlowe Project is “a student-generated digital repository of material related to Christopher Marlowe’s life and times,” Abbott Bennett said.

The project began when Abbott Bennett was a professor at Stonehill College after she sent her students on a scavenger hunt for information on Marlowe and realized there was not a lot of reliable material on him. 

Abbott Bennett said while she may be the director and founder of the Kit Marlowe Project, the site is “what students want to bring to the table.”

She added there are several aspects of the site that students came up with that she had never thought of before. 

“I love the story of the family tree, because I was like, ‘This is not interesting to me as a scholar.’ But it’s really interesting to students, and people gravitate towards that family tree time and time again,” Abbott Bennett said.

She added all of her interns can “play to their strengths or interests.”

Graduate student in English Andrew Jeromski served as an intern at the Kit Marlowe Project in spring 2020.

Jeromski said, “The experience has helped me academically in several ways. It [The Kit Marlowe Project internship] really gave me a lot of experience using diverse databases and an increased confidence in moving outside of my go-to search tools to broaden my horizons in terms of research, and it gave me some experience in working with primary source materials in an indirect way.

“The coolest thing I did was probably transcribing, editing and encoding the prefatory epistles to the 1591 edition of ‘Astrophel and Stella’ by Thomas Newman and Thomas Nashe,” he said. “That allowed me to learn TEI [Text Encoding Initiatives] encoding, which is something I am very happy to have gotten some experience with.

“I think it is impossible to do any writing with, or for her [Abbott Bennett] and not come away a better writer than when you went in. While it wasn’t necessarily related to The Kit Marlowe Project, I had the opportunity to co-write a piece on Queen Elizabeth I with Dr. Bennett for an exhibition on a website run out of Northeastern, and that experience has done wonders for my confidence and taught me a lot about working with early modern sources,” Jeromski added.

Junior English major and current Kit Marlowe Project intern, Eli Pare, wants to dedicate her semester at the project to making the site more interactive.

She said, “I’ve been rearranging and adding to the content of the posts in the mini-archive just to spruce up the look of them. I’m also trying to take on the ‘Games and Quizzes’ section as part of my internship since that page is lacking in posts and I have some ideas.”

Pare added, “It’s very inspiring to work with her [Abbott Bennett] on something she’s so passionate about because that passion is very contagious and it makes the projects I’m working on feel much more fulfilling because it’s just so enjoyable.

While current Kit Marlowe Project interns focus primarily on research and professional writing, Abbott Bennett said she would like to see her digital humanities interns “take more of a digital humanities approach to text analysis to create networks.”

Both Adelman and Abbott Bennett stressed there are many reasons students should consider minoring in digital humanities.

“I think it gives students a fantastic toolset to take with them,” Adelman said.

“The English department and the history department do a great job teaching students traditional forms of writing and research. Digital humanities just adds new layers of ways to get at research and ways to present and use knowledge and things that you’ve picked up,” he added.

Abbott Bennett said, “It’s proof that you can sustain your focus on a topic and look at it from multiple perspectives, and think critically and be creatively engaged with the material.”

Additionally, Abbott Bennett said, “It’s [digital humanities] always going to be cutting-edge technology. It’s always going to have to change, so we have to be prepared to grow with the field.”

McCarthy said, “The skills gained from digital humanities are eminently applicable to a wide range of 21st-century information technology jobs – including data analysis and search engine optimization, just to name a few.”

Cote said, “I think they’re [Abbott Bennett, Brinkman, Adelman, and Mulhall-Adelman] going to be giving their students a lot of great information – useful information that will help put them on a pathway toward better understanding a lot of highly applicable skills that will put them in good positions for jobs that haven’t been invented yet.”

As for the future of the digital humanities minor, Cote said it opens many “threads of possibilities” for Framingham State students.

“I look at some of the work Dr. Bennett’s doing with the Kit Marlowe Project, and with Rams Write, even. Also, Dr. Brinkman and his work in data mining. Dr. Adelman and Dr. Mulhall-Adelman are both doing work that is relative to digital humanities, and I think they’re imagining some great possibilities as well.”

[Editor’s Note: Desmond McCarthy is the advisor for The Gatepost.]