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Professor William Thomas explained the four "commonalities" to digital scholarship.

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Bridging Disciplines with Digital Liberal Arts

December 16, 2014

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – William G. Thomas III, a leading proponent for the digital liberal arts, detailed the ways that institutions can “organize and engage with the digital world” during a lecture on December 8 in the Axinn Center at Middlebury College.

Thomas, a University of Nebraska professor of history, was introduced to the audience of more than 60 faculty and staff as “a pioneer in the digital humanities dating back as far as 1998,” which Middlebury Professor of Geography Anne K. Knowles said qualifies as “almost pre-history” in the emerging field of digital scholarship.

His lecture, said Knowles, was intended to help “solve the interesting and difficult problems of how to create a culture of high-quality digital scholarship and teaching here at Middlebury.”

Middlebury is in the midst of a digital liberal arts initiative. The College has a three-year grant from the Mellon Foundation to assist faculty who want to expand their use of digital technology in their teaching and research. Next summer there will be a two-week workshop at Middlebury on the deployment of videographic criticism funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Last fall the Clifford Symposium was a thought-provoking two-day event titled "Transforming the Academny in the Digital Era," and last summer Middlebury conducted an institute on digital mapping and art history funded by the Kress Foundation.

The guest speaker, Professor Thomas, in his presentation titled “Why the Digital? Why the Digital Liberal Arts?” pointed to four commonalities to the use of digital technology in higher education today. He said each commonality can extend into any field and across the liberal arts, and he devoted the majority of his talk to expanding upon each of the four in detail, with quotes from leading thinkers on the subject and numerous examples from his own work and the work of his students and colleagues.

Thomas said he chose the word “commonality” to group his four concepts, but they could also be viewed as common properties, characteristics, or approaches to the subject at hand.

Watch a video of Professor Thomas's presentation

His first commonality is that digital scholars are performing “an act of knowledge representation,” i.e., they are attempting to model the knowledge that is basic to their disciplines. The second is that digital scholars are trying to understand the affordances of the digital medium, or “what does the digital medium allow or not allow?” for teaching and learning.

The third commonality of digital scholarship is its iterative nature or process. Digital scholars think of their work as building on the efforts of the scholars who came before them, like the stacking of blocks, Thomas said. And the fourth commonality, which is applicable to the classroom, is the adaptation of digital tools and techniques into what Thomas termed “the critical digital technology.”

Thomas is a faculty fellow at Nebraska’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, and his most recent book is “The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America” (Yale University Press, 2011). He concluded his talk at Middlebury with a look at the future of digital from the perspective of the student.

“There are numerous ways for digital practice to bridge the disciplines so that students gain mastery and knowledge by building on domains that have long been separate in our liberal arts colleges and colleges of arts and sciences. A course in computer science tailored to data visualization, for example, might allow students to work with data in another course in the social sciences, the sciences, or in the humanities,” Thomas said.

“This generative approach to teaching and learning promises to tie together what students have previously experienced as separate intellectual action,” he concluded.


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