Digital Learning in an Undergraduate Context:

… promoting long term student-faculty (and community) collaboration in the Susquehanna Valley

This is the transcript of the paper that Diane Jakacki and I presented on July 9, 2014 at DH2014 in Lausanne, Switzerland. We are currently expanding this paper into an article for publication. The PowerPoint slides that accompanied our presentation are included at the end of this post.

At several sessions and discussions at the 2014 Digital Humanities Summer Institute we noticed a marked increase in discussions focusing on teaching Digital Humanities; namely, how do we effectively port the tools and methodologies with which we work as researchers into the undergraduate classroom. Simultaneously, the question gradually shifted from “DO we teach Digital Humanities to undergraduates?” to “HOW do we teach Digital Humanities to undergraduates?”

For those of us who spend a great deal of our time thinking and writing and developing best pedagogical practices for DH these questions are not new. ProfHacker demonstrates the pragmatics of teaching with technology; Hybrid Pedagogy proposes ways to experiment with the digital to establish new learning paradigms. And of course there is an entire section on teaching in Debates in the Digital Humanities, as well as the volume Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics. Still, we would contend that although these essays and articles and posts are incredibly valuable in terms of establishing course- and assignment-design, and learning goals and outcomes, the scholarly focus of undergraduate DH teaching in the literature remains primarily at the course level.

While it is recognized that the most compelling pedagogical experiences bridge the divide between semesters – and even years – of study at the undergraduate level, there has been little examination to date of how Digital Pedagogy affords particularly effective forms of promoting long term student engagement, challenging faculty as well as students to consider and reconsider course matter from new and provocative vantage points. These opportunities for reconsideration, beyond the semester-centric engagement with DH tools and methods, support the development of habits of mind among undergraduates that are parallel to those encouraged in more traditional Humanities pedagogies. In fact, course integration is actually only the beginning of the undergraduate Digital Humanities experience, and those habits of mind require ongoing participation in Digital Humanities-oriented research projects.

In our paper we intend to demonstrate the following:

  1. That undergraduates at all course levels should be exposed to Digital Humanities tools and methods and that we as instructors should plan for these courses to be generative;
  2. That learning experiences beyond the classroom provide compelling collaborative scholarship opportunities for students; and
  3. That particularly rewarding points of engagement can grow out of interdisciplinary, cross-institutional public humanities projects that encourage student-driven DH engagement.

To demonstrate these arguments, we will present a case study of how an ongoing multi-faculty, interdisciplinary research project focused on the Susquehanna Valley watershed in Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland, based at Bucknell University, has created and continues to explore ways in which students can excel both inside and outside the classroom, on campus and in the community, and increasingly in Digital Humanities registers.


The Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project (SSV) began in 2009 as a unique research project focused on this particular environmentally challenged watershed . From the outset, the project utilized multimedia scholarship that was designed to articulate, highlight, and draw from stories that form the region in which Bucknell is situated, and also to empower our communities and highlight our ecosystems. Initiated through the collaboration with agencies outside academia, this project in environmental humanities, community studies, and natural history focuses on the question of what constitutes a “deeply (or thickly) mapped” eco-region as a confluence of cultures and ecologies. The project emerges from long term planning, and longer-developed expertises by Bucknell scholars in collaboration with members of the community and leaders of Native American nations and groups. The project has already garnered US Federal recognition of the cultural importance of the Susquehanna River through its designation as a National Historic Trail under the umbrella of the National Parks Service. Its partners include regional and national conservancy groups, Native American, specifically Delaware and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) leadership, and faculty from other colleges and universities in Pennsylvania and New York State.
In this project, Bucknell undergraduates work alongside faculty members and staff as research assistants on an unfolding, expansive, multi-nodal platform that affords otherwise unachievable opportunities for research-based learning. Initially based firmly within the realm of GIS, both historical and cultural, and moving into the narrativization of landscape, increasingly, student work has involved a breadth of Digital Humanities and Digital Media environments. In the process students have developed new skills and have participated in meaningful ongoing interactions between their home institution and the surrounding community that have, in turn, furthered the scale and scope of the project.

Of significant importance to the structure and success of Stories of the Susquehanna is the academic mission of Bucknell University, a private liberal arts institution in central Pennsylvania with a 10:1 student/teacher ratio. One of the tenets of the institution’s mission is to foster “a residential, co-curricular environment in which students develop intellectual maturity, personal conviction and strength of character, informed by a deep understanding of different cultures and diverse perspectives.” The SSV project fits squarely within such a mission. Often beginning with formal coursework, students who have been involved with SSV frequently spend subsequent multiple summers on campus working as interns with the PIs and sponsored by external agencies who expect professional level “deliverables” at the end of the internship.

Reflective of the importance of interdisciplinarity to liberal arts education at Bucknell is the Comparative Humanities program. Founded in 2001, and staffed by three dedicated tenure lines (in the subject areas of English, German, and Asian thought) the program in Comparative Humanities promotes at its core the education of students to compare intellectual materials of different or opposing types, whether textual or material; narrative or non-narrative; artistic or analytical. Given the structure of the CH major, beginning with three core overview courses of Western intellectual history, interwoven with the East Asian tradition, and culminating with advanced seminars in special topics and a thesis, the program provides a natural curricular home for DH at Bucknell.


Beginning in 2011, faculty in Comparative Humanities, English, Geography, and Environmental Studies have developed and taught a slate of courses related to issues vital to the interpretation and conservation of the environmentally-impaired Susquehanna River region. These courses form a de facto core curriculum designed around the region and consider questions of environmental effects on regional resources, the eradication of the traces of Native American history and culture as a result of European immigration and settlement, and economic under-investment in post-industrial rural towns.

In Fall 2011 I [Faull] offered HUMN 272 Nature and Enlightenment, an interdisciplinary seminar that examined the period of the anthropocene on the Susquehanna River in the North American Colonial period. Embedded in this course was the integration of spatial thinking; all students were required to complete an interactive mapping assignment as group mapping projects with the assistance of an IT specialist in GIS. The mapping component of the course worked well and some of these course projects later became the basis for further work in GIS (for example, on the Sullivan campaign, the emotional mapping of the Susquehanna River, and the mapping of traditional food resources). This component also provided pointers to more complex and interesting stories that could be told and more sophisticated ways to embed spatial thinking into future classes.

Parallel with this class, the SSV co-PI Alf Siewers in English offered a course “Visions of the Susquehanna” that examined early literature of the Susquehanna region. This involved students working in groups with Instructional Technologists on digital projects, including maps relating the literary works of James Fenimore Cooper and Susan Fenimore Cooper to the geography of the watershed, as well as focusing on the legacy of Joseph Priestley in the valley.

In Fall 2012, Alf Siewers and I [Faull] team-taught an Integrated Perspectives class, “Susquehanna Country” that drew on some of the materials and methods of the previous courses. IP courses become required for graduation for the class of 2018 and their very essence promotes collaborative interdisciplinary learning. This course again examined the interconnectedness of environment, philosophy, literature and human communities in the Susquehanna region but moved forwards into the 19th century, incorporating British and early American literature. The class invited students to study indigenous ideas of nature in relation to 19th century visions of the Susquehanna as a type of “new Eden.” Digital investigations were reinforced through a set of field trips, on which students engaged with contemporary Native American communities and current environmental issues and conservation projects.

From these three courses taught over the space of two years, several students emerged as SSV interns, who then continued over the summers of 2011-13 to produce high quality digital artifacts for outside funders such as Chesapeake Conservancy, National Parks Service, and working in collaboration with National Geographic.

As can be seen from the above descriptions, DH engagement in SSV focused courses centered on the collection and analysis of GIS-related materials. More recently, and as more of these place-based courses are offered, an increasing variety of DH tools and methods are being incorporated into syllabi. These include more expansive approaches to geospatial visualization, as well as textual and network analysis and artifact curation.

This coming year two new courses will be offered, both focusing on aspects of Stories of the Susquehanna research and both rooted in Digital Humanities methodologies.
The first is a new level-100 course in Comparative Humanities. This course is open to first- and second-year students and offered in two sections that we [Faull and Jakacki] will teach in collaboration, and will integrate research and place-based learning with the development of DH habits of mind. In the course students will work on material and digital archival materials found in Bucknell’s special collections – materials from the life papers of James Merrill Linn, one of the first Bucknell graduates and a captain in the Civil War. Our course design models the process through which DH collections are developed: students will transcribe and mark up a subset of Linn’s correspondence, which is rich with references to and descriptions of the Susquehanna Valley. They will then undertake a series of text, network, and spatial analyses to pose research questions about the subject, and then collaborate across sections to reflect upon these questions through public-facing digital platforms. This scaffolded pedagogical approach will lead them through introductory engagements with TEI, GIS, network visualization, and collection curation, while they learn about nineteenth century American culture and society.

The second course is a 200-level Integrated Perspectives course entitled “Digitizing the River”. In assessing the previous iteration of the course it seemed that DH offered a valuable springboard to enhance student assignments and that this work would in turn contribute to ongoing undergraduate research projects outside the classroom. The added development of textual markup and story-map projects as central to the syllabus teaches students to create metadata, marked-up text across multiple digital platforms (ArcMap, TimeMapper, Omeka/Neatline), and they can also create a digital environment that allows in unprecedented ways the development of connections between multiple digital, analog, textual, historical and cultural environments; and thus begin to develop a “showcase” of student work in the Digital Humanities.
With the addition of digital pedagogy as a central focus of the course, Digitizing the River also “encourage[s] an early awareness of the connections that exist between different ways of thinking by crossing borders that separate disciplines, and deepens this awareness as students move through the curriculum, examining relations among diverse works, across cultures and centuries.” “Digitizing the River” with its emphasis on integrative learning, critical thinking and the synthesis of ideas across disciplines aims to integrate digital teaching and learning into this new element of the core curriculum of the university. Taught within the framework of the general education requirements for the College of Arts and Sciences, the class also helps to model a central digital focus for humanities-related IP courses in future.


A particularly valuable area for ongoing pedagogical engagement is in developing this type of place-based project that also enlists local communities in the digital visualization of historical and cultural resources. And yet, such rich and nuanced considerations of local place, culture, and environment call for extended student engagement over time and even across years of undergraduate study, ideally working with a number of faculty to inculcate the importance of ideas and place. Thus, the traditional classroom model for the execution of such DH place-based learning is inadequate. Extending the classroom outside (both spatially and temporally) allows for the development of rich, deep knowledge in both digital tools and research subject matter. Indeed, extending the faculty-student collaboration to include students from outside traditional humanities departments also reifies the value of interdisciplinary research at an early level and reflects the professional Digital Humanities research model employed by larger scale projects.

This is where the Stories of the Susquehanna project continues to develop and transform itself, its principal investigators, collaborators, and undergraduate research assistants through public-facing Digital Humanities projects. As stated above, motivated students have moved beyond the classroom to continue work on specific DH projects in the summers. Funded through the Chesapeake Conservancy and the more local Degenstein Foundation, and working to produce an online interactive cultural and historical mapping of the Susquehanna River from Cooperstown and Clearfield to the Chesapeake Bay, this summer program has engaged over twenty-five students since its inception. Working in GIS, students have produced museum quality interpretive materials that have been instrumental to the increasing recognition of the Susquehanna River Corridor as a heritage site. In addition, students have had to learn to work to professional standards for the National Park Service, the Chesapeake Conservancy, and other local NGOs, and also develop intercultural sensitivities to work with Native American nations. The success of this program in training undergraduate DH practitioners can be measured in terms of both “deliverables” and also placements of our students in graduate programs, professional positions in corporations such as the mapping division of Google, and agencies promoting heritage interpretation.

Stories of the Susquehanna continues to generate new research opportunities. Moving forward there are two emerging projects that will again expand the scope of the broader research platform: born-digital projects that will challenge PI’s to find new ways to involve students. One such project is a crowdsourced transcription of the Moravian Friedenshütten mission diary that affords German-speaking audiences the opportunity to participate in the generation of a lightly marked up transcription of the culturally and historically important accounts of Native American communities on the Upper Susquehanna just prior to the infamous Sullivan campaign of 1779 that aimed to eradicate Iroquois peoples from Pennsylvania.

Another new project associated with Stories of the Susquehanna is Digital Linn. In its archives Bucknell holds a previously unexamined collection of life papers of James Merrill Linn comprised of manuscript correspondence and diaries, drawings and sketches, printed records, archival newspaper clippings and hand-drawn maps. Because of these multiple forms of inter-reliant media, the collection encourages digital analysis of people and places across document types. Furthermore, Linn’s relationship with place (Bucknell, the town of Lewisburg, and Civil War military campaigns throughout Middle Atlantic and Southern states) offers an opportunity to expand and reconsider Bucknell’s commitment to spatial thinking.

Both of these projects reinforce the model for collaborative Digital Humanities teaching and research at Bucknell set in motion by the larger Stories of the Susquehanna project, initiating faculty-student engagement with subject matter in the classroom and rooting ongoing generative research in more creative associations: merit fellowships, summer research stipends, independent study projects. This project also reveals how DH components are crucial to the empowerment of students as agents of public humanities. It is conceivable that these opportunities could evolve into honors theses or other culminating capstone experiences, completely integrating Humanities, Social- and Environmental-Sciences with DH methodologies.

Undergraduate Digital Humanities is well suited to a liberal arts environment committed to developing progressive forms of student academic research. Bucknell’s support for place-based research exemplified by Stories of the Susquehanna has provided the foundation for a transformative approach that demonstrates how comprehensive the undergraduate DH experience can be – with introductory exposure in first-year courses leading to long-term student collaborations with multiple faculty and staff throughout a student’s time at the University.

Such opportunities require the confidence of faculty and administrators to incorporate students in this way, and the commitment of resources – both in terms of personnel and infrastructure. But as we are seeing at Bucknell, this confidence and commitment delivers transformative experiences for all involved and provides a robust model for how the Digital Humanities can be incorporated at the curricular levels at undergraduate institutions.

DH2014 Presentation: Jakacki-Faull



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