Shira and I headed out Friday afternoon. It ended up taking about 5 and a half hours to drive to Holland so we had a lot of time to talk, sing along to the radio, and listen to podcasts. I had never been to Michigan before and it was a pleasant change of scenery from Ohio (it’s always nice to be reminded that trees and hills exist).
We arrived at the hotel at 6 (exactly when dinner was supposed to start). The first surprise of the weekend was walking into the hotel lobby and discovering that one of the organizers (a fabulous undergraduate from Davidson) was someone I had met a year earlier, while studying abroad in Copenhagen. The rest of the group kindly waited for us to check in and put our bags down before heading to dinner. We ate in a cosy room just off the Hope College Dining Hall. Shira and I sat with Dr. Jacob Heil, the keynote speaker, and two students of his from Wooster, Tanaka and Scott, who did not have a project of their own but were interested in the digital humanities. After dinner, still a bit stir-crazy from the long car ride, and looking to make new friends, we invited Tanaka and Scott to walk around the town with us. We headed off in search of a good place for desert and found a cozy little chocolate shop a block away from the school. Everyone was exhausted from their travels so we didn’t stay out long before returning to our hotel rooms. Shira and I watched the Olympics and turned in early.
The next morning began with “speed dating” in which we were each given a minute to introduce our project before being told to move on the next person. As I talked to the other students I was surprised at the wide variety of academic backgrounds and schools represented. There were projects related to English, Historical Memory, Art History, Sociology, Public Health, and LGBT Studies, designed by students from small private colleges and larger research universities in the United States, Canada, Nigeria, and Pakistan.
What also struck me about the projects was how many of them were related to social justice issues. There was a project about using social media to mobilize women in Nigeria to fight against Boko Haram. A pair of students from Pakistan were working to use GIS mapping to inform people in Karachi where they could access drinking water. A group of students from Dickinson were collecting and sharing stories from refugees, stories meant to humanize them rather than merely elicit pity. Another project examined the successes and failures of digital tools for police accountability. Even the many projects that were not directly addressing issues of social justice, addressed an issue often neglected in academia or highlighting . For instance, one project analyzed online book clubs and forums and looked at how members discussed books that addressed more pressing social issues (such as The Handmaid’s Tale) and whether discussing or reading these books changed anyone’s perspective. Even our project was focused on highlighting a historical narrative often neglected, the experiences of ordinary women and African-Americans in 19th century Washington, DC and their attempts to navigate a system that made few provisions for their success.
Thinking about this more, it shouldn’t be all that surprising. When we were designing our projects over the summer, one thing we kept talking about was how to ensure that people outside of Oberlin would be able to understand and enjoy our exhibits. The digital humanities has the potential to reach a wider audience than many other academic research projects, so it’s not surprising that people would want to use it to not only expand the discourse surrounding a certain topic but actively work to find solutions to larger global issues. In addition, this conference was specifically for undergraduates and thus is a reflection of the concerns of driven, young people, many of whom, understandably, want to use their education to solve what they see as larger problems in the world. For me, it was most exciting to see the ways in which members of my generation are trying to expand both the possible audiences and long-term effects of their work.