News

Mellon Foundation Awards Davidson $800,000 to Expand Digital Studies

by Robert Abare '13

Yasmin Shahida ’14 explains her project to Prof. Suzanne Churchill
At a recent showcase of projects by students in digital studies classes, Yasmin Shahida ’14 explains her project to Professor of English Suzanne Churchill, who taught a class in “Picturing Texts, Making Media.”

Davidson College has received an $800,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create a curricular model of digital studies that can be replicated by other small liberal arts colleges. The grant will support the development and expansion of digital studies throughout the college's curriculum, particularly in the humanities, during the years 2014 to 2017.

The initiative follows a year of researching best practices in the use of digital media and technologies for teaching and curricular development, which also was funded by the Mellon Foundation.

Davidson's program will reach a broad base of students and stresses collaboration among faculty, library and information technology staff, and students. It also seeks to create lasting connections between Davidson and the research-oriented universities in our region.

"Members of the Davidson College community have been experimenting with technology in the curriculum for a long time," explained Associate Dean for Curriculum Pat Sellers, who helped coordinate the research and writing of the grant proposal. "This grant builds on the preexisting interests of faculty, staff, and students, making it easier for them to develop their interests and expertise."

The grant focuses on four areas: (1) new faculty and staff positions; (2) student, faculty, and staff development; (3) curriculum design; and (4) a "digital collaboratory." Director of Digital Studies Mark Sample will lead the overall program.

New Faculty and Staff Positions

Katie Wilkes presents her project
Katie Wilkes ’14 presents a project for “Picturing Texts, Making Media” that involves digitizing rare books.

The grant will allow Davidson to hire new tenure-track professors in positions that are jointly shared between a Humanities department and Digital Studies. The grant calls for adding one tenure-track position in 2015-2016 and a second one in 2016-2017. Beginning in 2017-2018, Davidson will assume all costs associated with these positions.

"I'm very excited to bring in young scholars working on the vanguard of digital culture and tools," said Sample. "These new professors will help introduce new ways of thinking about the traditional humanities and the liberal arts from digital perspectives."

Davidson also will hire a two-year post-doctoral fellow to work within Digital Studies, starting next fall. The post-doctoral fellow will teach classes in his or her specialty and also mentor faculty and students in their own digital research. Davidson's library and information technology professionals will reevaluate skill sets and overall staffing in light of curriculum development, and increase permanent and fixed-term positions as necessary.

Student, Faculty, and Staff Development

The grant will promote several ways to develop student, faculty and staff expertise with key digital tools and platforms.

Among these initiatives is "Davidson Domains," which will provide every Davidson student a unique domain name and access to an open-source platform like WordPress. The Web domain will serve as a foundation for students' online presence at Davidson and beyond. As students progress through the Davidson curriculum, they will learn how to add content to the domain from any aspect of their experience. Students might use it to display outstanding assignments, samples of internship work or research experience, and more. 

Ideally, students will be able to keep the domain and content after leaving Davidson. The program will begin next year as a pilot using several sections of the required first-year writing course, with first-year students in 2015-2016 as the first full participants.

"Students' domains will function as concrete products of their work that are much more detailed than résumés," explained Sellers. "Domains will make it easier for Davidson students to show their collegiate achievements to potential employers." 

Other elements of the grant aimed at developing student, faculty, and staff familiarity and fluency with digital tools include:

  • Faculty and staff development programs. The grant will support faculty and staff involvement in the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, the Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching Institute, regional THATCamps and other workshops and seminars.
  • Digital Learning Communities. Groups of faculty and staff will meet semi-weekly to explore a particular tool or methodological approach, such as Big Data or GIS, and develop a curricular use for it.
  • Digital Studies Interdisciplinary Minor. The grant also will help the college to develop an interdisciplinary minor in digital studies. This minor will support students in any major as they critically approach digital culture, digital tools and digital methodologies.
  • Digital Innovation Micro-grants. Individuals or teams of faculty, staff and students may apply for microgrants for entrepreneurial digital projects that advance the liberal arts mission of the college. Possible projects might include apps, plugins, websites, podcasts and other digital tools.
  • Digital Course Development Grants. The grants will provide funds to support faculty and staff who want to "digitalize" an existing course or to develop an entirely new digital project that furthers the college's liberal arts mission.
  • Digital Collaboratory. Faculty, staff and students will come together to discuss innovations linking technology and curriculum. The "Digital Collaboratory" will fund guest speakers on the subject, digital projects and an annual showcase of curricular innovations using technology.
  • Cross-Institutional Student Writing. As part of the required first-year writing course, students will gain experience in writing for larger publics by sharing their work with students at other institutions. The shared writing and corresponding comments on writing samples will improve students' writing skills and prepare them to write for broader, more diverse and more public audiences.

Commitment to Digital Success

Mark Sample talks with student
Brian McRae ’14 and Associate Professor Mark Sample, director of Davidson’s digital studies program.

Davidson has made or is making commitments in several areas to ensure the success of the Digital Studies Program. They include the appointment of Mark Sample as Visiting Associate Professor of Digital Studies, the redefinition of information technology and library positions, including the addition of a specialist in digital preservation and curation, and hiring new staff to support the Digital Studies Program.

Additionally, information technology has recently converted a Chambers Building room into a pilot makerspace, named "Studio M," which features a 3D printer, material for physical computing and robotic toolkits.

Sellers explained what makes Davidson's approach to digital studies unique. "Other institutions have focused on developing digital tools and databases for professors' and students' individual research projects," he said. "We've taken a different approach by trying to spread digital studies as widely through the curriculum as possible."

Sample expressed his support for the college's commitment to promoting curricular digital integration. "Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff made a valid point with the title of his book Program or be Programmed," he said. "If we don't critically use and think about technology, then we will be used by technology."

Sample concluded, "It's almost impossible to be a responsible, informed citizen of the world without knowing, using, and having a critical stance toward technology and the digital world. Cultivating that critical stance fits in with Davidson College's liberal arts mission, and we're thrilled this Mellon grant will advance that mission."