Next Generation Digital humanities: A Response To The Need For Empowering Undergraduate Researchers

Taylor Elyse Mills (),


Integrating the digital humanities (DH) into undergraduate level higher education programs has often been a difficult and ambiguous process. Faculty sometimes struggle to create syllabi that incorporate technologies but that do not require constant redesign as technologies evolve. Institutions may lack systems to connect students with faculty and staff who are interested in collaborative research, and collaboration beyond one’s own institution can be complicated or inaccessible for students. These are real challenges; as institutions increasingly develop DH courses and degrees, the impact on undergraduate students is diverse, ranging in minimal involvement, to career-altering. So, what should the role of the undergraduate in DH be, and how can we address these challenges? For the past three years I have explored these questions. This exploration has led to helping redesign and teach the foundational seminar for Hope College’s Mellon Scholars DH Program, as well as co-founding and chairing the Undergraduate Network for Research in the Humanities (UNRH), an undergraduate-led organization with the mission of reimagining the undergraduate role in DH through the establishment of a network of digital humanists who present research, collaborate, and share ideas. On the basis of these experiences as an alumna of Hope’s DH Program and UNRH Chair, I have been considering the ways in which faculty, staff, and institutions might support undergraduate DH researchers. My work has culminated in a series of models, programs, and initiatives that address the need for fostering the next generation of digital humanists in the classroom, at the institution, and beyond.


2.1-CLASSROOM The first challenge I consistently identified in DH courses was an incohesive structure that treated the digital and the humanities as separate units rather than an interconnected academic space. Secondly, seminar themes grounded in particular technologies had to be redesigned frequently as these technologies evolved or became outdated. This was the case for the year-long introductory seminar for Hope’s DH Program. Each year students felt that the seminar was two unrelated courses, one focusing on a particular area in the humanities, the other, teaching technologies like GitHub and data analysis. The course was a noble attempt but ultimately inconsistent, incohesive, and not a truly interdisciplinary approach to DH. I set about designing a seminar model that was adaptable to new technologies yet still focused on an intersectional theme. I consulted with educators at conferences and researched seminar formats at other institutions, but unsurprisingly there was a wide range of approaches that seldom emphasized independent research quite like Hope’s program. Thus, I grounded the seminar model in that very aspect: a chronological approach to independent research in the humanities. Over course of four units students engage with the evolution of humanities-based research and with the research process from beginning to end. During the first unit, students work in the archives, practice cataloging primary sources with tools like Zotero, develop strong but focused research questions, and discuss literature to answer the ever-present question “What is DH?” The second unit follows the progression in humanities-based research, moving from sources like libraries and datasets into the first examples of DH: text analysis. Students curate their own text-based datasets, analyze and visualize them, present them with Omeka, and discuss research project methodologies of source compilation and argumentation. The third unit it titled: CCP-Collaboration, Communication, & Presentation. It involves group research collaboration and finalizing research projects through effective communication and presentation. Students complete writing workshops in which they must adapt a piece of writing for different audiences and styles, from conference abstracts to blogs and tweets; they also practice oral and web presentation skills. The final unit addresses advanced topics and tools which require students to focus on race, gender, sexuality, politics, and socioeconomic status. Students learn that equity and accessibility are paramount when creating public scholarship, digital or otherwise, and they are exposed to a survey of technologies in efforts to broaden their concept of what form research can take. The outcome of this course should be a comprehensive and diverse approach to humanities-based research projects through the chronological progression that research in the humanities has followed.

2.2-INSTITUTION For collaborative research, students and faculty alike find it challenging to make necessary connections with one another in the four short years that students have on campus. My solution is Bin(d)r: the Baccalaureate Interdisciplinary Network for (Digital) Research. Stemming from an initial idea of a physical binder with pages featuring the profiles of faculty, staff, and students interested in collaborative research, Bin(d)r: is ideally implemented as a searchable database of anyone on campus with research interests and skills. It is like Tinder for academics. All faculty and staff interested in collaborating simply create a profile on a site with tools like WordPress’s “Ultimate Member” Plugin. Students are invited to create profiles if they are interested in research. By including specific research interests and skills, faculty and students can get “matched” in a timely manner. Bin(d)r: has parentheses around “digital” because this tool does not have to be exclusively for digital projects, but it would provide an extra level of support for digital projects, connecting computer science students with humanities faculty, for example. Bin(d)r: is capable of being entirely free, low maintenance, highly interdisciplinary, and ultimately a tool for encouraging undergraduate research. Furthermore, if the digital Bin(d)r: takes off at numerous institutions, searching others’ databases would foster cross-institutional collaboration.

While considering the institutional level, I would also argue that institutions must make space to hear the voices of their students. I propose that institutions establish a quarterly forum for undergraduates, faculty, and administrators to gather and discuss how the institution can better support students. Academic institutions are designed first and foremost to educate their students, so I assert that students have the right to tell institutions how they can improve, and institutions have the responsibility to listen. Simply creating space for dialogue is empowering.

2.3-BEYOND I also argue that empowering undergraduate researchers means providing agency, accreditation, and opportunities to join a community. Because DH is emerging at different rates across the globe, many students never meet other students engaging in their work. Furthermore, exposure to different methodologies, technologies, and project ideas has a profound impact. Faculty and staff gain this exposure at academic conferences and within their departments. UNRH aims to give this space and community to students, too.

Our method of creating UNRH relied heavily upon initial organization, forming a Steering Committee, review system, and website. The format of our conference was meticulously designed. We created a “speed-dating” session for rapid introductions and elevator pitch practice, a formal project presentation session, informal poster-style presentation sessions, a keynote address, and workshop sessions. These workshops include technology tutorials, panel discussions about different students’ roles and experiences at their institutions, and design-thinking sessions to address the needs and concerns of students striving to develop DH projects.

Beyond the conference we have been developing an online network space in which students create profiles and can share project updates, articles, conference opportunities, and requests for peer review. In essence, each of our decisions was an effort to create space and flexibility for students to answer for themselves the question of what the undergraduate role in DH can be.


3.1-CLASSROOM The feedback from my students who experienced my seminar model have been positive. The survey results indicate that the seminar has largely met the learning outcome goals, and students indicated increases in confidence and preparedness in conducting independent research (approximately 30% average increase) and using new technologies (approximately 37% average increase) according to a seven-point scale. Those who indicated having less prior experience (1-4) had an average increase of about 33% in independent research and about 39% in technology use. I plan to track program retention rates in the coming years to hopefully see improvements as the sophomore students navigate from the structured seminar into the independent research spaces of their junior and senior years.

3.2-INSTITUTION Bin(d)r: has not yet been implemented but is in development for implementation at Hope College in the coming year.

3.3-BEYOND The results of our efforts exceeded expectations. Since our first conference in 2015, we have accepted over 50 projects, involving over 80 undergraduates from 31 institutions all across the United States, Canada, Nigeria, and Pakistan. According to in-person comments and our post-conference evaluations, students have felt empowered, encouraged, and independent in their research. Moreover, students were amazed at what they learned and accomplished by interacting with undergraduates from other institutions.

Through our initial design and modifications over the years, we feel confident in the model for an organization and conference that grants agency to undergraduates, and space to understand their own roles. Now in my third year as Project Manager/Chair, when I consider again the undergraduate role in DH, I think of students as connected learners and independent researchers pursuing their own interests while learning from peers and mentors alike. Within and beyond this space, each student must determine her role for herself.

Instructors, institutions, and organizations, invest in these students, for they are the next generation of digital humanists.