Collaboration sparks conversation on humanities 2.0

By Andrew Good (USC News)

Eavesdrop on students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ new interactive media building, and you’d expect to overhear discussions on film, video games and multimedia design.

But on Oct. 9, these students mingled with those from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences for a discussion that’s sparking new connections across the university: the future of the humanities.

Both students and scholars turned out for the launch of USC’s Digital Humanities Program, a five-year training initiative that will develop the next generation of digitally savvy humanities scholars.

Interdisciplinary collaborations to come

The phrase “digital humanities” is still being defined, with a rich blend of perspectives informing what the field will look like. The program will prepare scholars to shape that definition through their research.

Program organizers hope to create interdisciplinary collaborations among a number of USC schools and departments, all while developing innovative technology skills that tell the story of the humanities in a fresh and exciting way.

Attendees at the launch got a first look at the kind of scholarship the program will support: Its first four fellows presented their current projects and aspirations for how digital media could complement their work.

The Digital Humanities Program was announced earlier this year, when the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded USC a $1.9 million grant supporting four postdoctoral researchers and 10 Ph.D. students for two-year fellowships each. USC will support another four postdocs.

The grant followed an earlier announcement that USC is committed to investing at least $1 billion in digital knowledge and informatics over the next 10 years.

Reinvention of the humanities

The program comes at a time of reinvention within the humanities, when traditional scholarship is crossing paths with technologists, big data science and access to new media tools.

In his opening remarks, Peter Mancall, vice dean for the humanities at USC Dornsife, acknowledged that there’s no set definition yet on what the field should look like. What is clear is that its future will be determined by a generation of digital natives. If they’re at USC, he added, they’re already positioned to benefit from the latest developments in technology.

Mancall, principal investigator for the Mellon grant, noted that the foundation recognized USC for already possessing “a moveable feast” of digital humanities experimentation. That includes the USC Digital Repository, which includes more than 52,000 digitized, indexed and fully searchable Holocaust testimonials from the USC Shoah Foundation.

It also includes the Institute for Multimedia Literacy, a research unit within the new Division of Media Arts + Practices. This innovative program offers courses combining digital media and scholarship — all the fellows will be supported by a selection of courses from the program.

Holly Willis, director of the Institute for Multimedia Literacy, said fellows had an “incredible luxury” in the resources available through the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Access to the newest digital tools will provoke new thinking about how they can be used to enhance serious scholarship.

“How can we question these elements and not just think they’re cool?” Willis asked the crowd at the launch event.

The projects of the program’s first four fellows cover a range of topics:

• Postdoctoral researcher Matthew Sargent is exploring data visualizations that map out the relationships between historical trade routes and the cultures they connected from Europe to East Asia.
• Postdoctoral researcher Justin Underhill presented a digital animation depicting Leonardo da Vinci’s use of natural light to enhance a viewer’s experience of “The Last Supper.”
• Ph.D. candidate Amanda Kennell presented her research on Japanese pop culture and manga comics. She spoke on the use of hyperlinked image archives, which could allow readers to explore visual research on their own.
• Ph.D. candidate Amber Rae Bowyer explained how early 20th-century animation changed the way people thought about visual learning, and how the modern digital revolution has had a similar impact.

Mancall said reaching outside of disciplinary silos will be a critical component of the program.

“We’re talking to people doing new things with classical texts or trying new techniques with film and images,” he said. “We’re looking for people who can tell a story beyond the narrow scope of their dissertation committee, in every sense moving out across disciplinary and technological boundaries.”