Grinnell College and the University of Iowa have received a $1.6 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop humanities-centered collaborations that expand the use of digital technology among faculty and students.

The new partnership is distinctive because it is the first time the Mellon Foundation has supported a collaborative digital project between a private liberal arts college and a public research university — institutions with different missions and strengths.

The project, titled “Digital Bridges for Humanistic Inquiry,” will support increased integration of digital resources into the undergraduate curriculum at Grinnell and the UI over four years. The grant will support creative collaboration between Grinnell and the UI involving faculty, postdocs, graduate students, undergraduate students, library faculty and staff, and IT staff.

“The faculties of Grinnell College and the University of Iowa have different institutional environments but a shared commitment to scholarship, teaching, and public engagement,” said Erik Simpson, professor of English and principal investigator for the grant at Grinnell.

“This grant will enable us to build on the digital projects already underway at both schools to establish new communities of thought and practice. Teams involving faculty, staff, students, and community partners will be able to use digital tools to produce new forms of analysis, creativity, and critique that are fundamental to our disciplines.”

Through this initiative, faculty members in the humanities will build their digital skills, develop innovative new courses, and collaborate with students on ambitious digital projects and research programs. The project also will provide support for UI graduate student instructional technology assistants who will help faculty incorporate digital technology into their courses, and the creation of postdoctoral positions at UI to train future faculty for careers in the digital liberal arts and public humanities.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for faculty to bring new, innovative approaches into their teaching and scholarship. The benefits for students will be transformative as well,” said Michael Latham, vice president of academic affairs and dean of Grinnell College. “As they use new technological resources to study the humanities, they will also develop greater digital literacy, gain valuable skills in collaborative writing and research, and create knowledge for broader, public audiences. Those experiences will serve them well throughout their professional lives.”

Grinnell students already are developing digital literacy through research projects such as “Mapping the Global Renaissance.” Directed by Assistant Professor of English James Lee, this project applies “big data” techniques (natural language processing algorithms, data mining, topic modeling, and mapping) to examine 50,000 early modern texts. By using these techniques to analyze early modern England's early representations of different people and their geographical contexts around the world, students acquire a better understanding of how race and racial differences were understood at that time.

UI students also are gaining digital literacy through the university's Public Humanities in a Digital World initiative, the Digital Studio for Public Arts and Humanities and the new graduate Digital Humanities Certificate. Roy J. Carver Professor Ed Folsom is co-founder of one of the nation's earliest and most successful digital projects, The Walt Whitman Archive; students, scholars, and high school teachers from Iowa and around the world have contributed to the project. Assistant Professor Blaine Greteman welcomes his students into the study of the Renaissance and book history through his digital project Shakeosphere: Mapping Early Modern Social Networks. He and Professor Lee are already planning ways to collaborate across the two campuses.

Teresa Mangum, director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies and professor of gender, women and sexuality studies, and co-principal investigator Jim Elmborg, associate professor in the School of Library and Information Science anticipate that faculty and students alike will be inspired by working with art, languages, history, literature, philosophy, and world religions in the “hands on” ways digital work encourages: “Jim and I have already benefited from conversations with our colleagues at Grinnell,” Mangum said. “Among the innumerable advantages of this partnership, we look forward to mining the rich potential of shared, project-based learning. We picture professors and students working side-by-side in linked classrooms that connect Grinnell and Iowa, as they archive and visualize their research projects, sharing their discoveries and insights with diverse virtual audiences across the world.”

Major activities to be funded by the grant, which begins this month, include:

  • Faculty development initiatives, such as summer institutes, collaborative projects between Grinnell and UI faculty and training in digital liberal arts techniques.
  • Undergraduate curricular development initiatives, such as new digital liberal arts courses or course modules, developing courses that bridge the two institutions and supporting student-faculty collaborations.
  • Engagement with the broader digital liberal arts community, including a conference to be held at the UI in 2018, support for conference travel to share exemplary digital projects and learn from the work of others, and a web presence for the project that features an online inventory of digital projects.
  • Support for library and instructional technology faculty and staff members who help make digital projects possible, including professional development funds as well as funding for software, digitization, and other research expenses.  

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