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Pushing the Curriculum Envelope

Professors Elizabeth Matelski and Philip Lombardo working at a table
Data analysis meets liberal arts through the Davis Educational Foundation Grant as part of Endicott’s Digital Liberal Arts and Critical Inquiry Initiative
11/1/2018

When you think about digital research methods and large-scale data sets, the humanities aren’t likely to be the first thing to pop into your mind. But, at Endicott, we’re trying to shift that thought pattern.  

That’s thanks to a two-year grant from the Davis Educational Foundation, which was first awarded in November of 2016. This grant lends our liberal arts faculty support in their efforts to integrate digital research and critical inquiry strategies into their courses through collaboration with computer science faculty and workshop facilitators. The goal? For digital research pedagogy to come to the forefront of our liberal arts coursework.

"If computer science brings more precision to humanities planning, then humanities brings more creativity to the technical."

The variety of pilot projects our faculty have implemented through this grant include analyzing the text of large Victorian novels and comparing them to social networks of smaller works, using geographic information systems to map community level characteristics associated with opioid related deaths in Massachusetts, building a data set of Holocaust memorials to create an interactive map and timeline of U.S. sites, and using digitized Salem Witchcraft Papers, to create a network analysis of the persons involved in the Salem witch trials of 1692.

Samuel Alexander, associate professor of English, and Henry Feild, assistant professor of computer science, co taught an Honors Seminar, which used a network analysis software to analyze social networks of characters in HBO’s The Wire. The course also used these methods to study the networks in the Virginia Woolf novel, Mrs. Dalloway.

“It’s really interesting seeing students write about all the things English students write about, but also using that evidence along with quantitative evidence to make an argument,” says Alexander, “If computer science brings more precision to humanities planning, then humanities brings more creativity to the technical.”

Feild supports that idea. He says, “I feel like doing things the pen and paper way is very time consuming. If you can have students spend less time on tedious work (by utilizing software) and more on what kinds of interesting questions you can ask, then it moves students to a higher level of cognition.”

Big data reveals connections between all parties involved in Salem Witch TrialsElizabeth Matelski, assistant professor of history, worked closely with Philip Lombardo, associate professor of mathematics, on network analysis that focused on the Salem Witch Trials. The course utilized three different web-based tools to analyze complex data to make informed observations.

“It’s combining that qualitative history and adding this data set to create new arguments that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to create,” Matelski explains, “Our goal is for these kinds of programs to become part of our students’ toolkit.”

Lombardo stresses the importance of incorporating digital tools into liberal arts curriculums, “I think it’s becoming a necessity. More and more successful companies, researchers, and people, are incorporating how we can put some sort of numerical or data driven approach to things that were traditionally more qualitative.”

“It’s amazing to see our faculty so willing to try out these things,” says Feild, who explains how willing our faculty are to work together.

Alexander says that the reception of this kind of teaching has been remarkable, “There is a lot of really cool collaboration that goes on here. It ties into Endicott’s emphasis on experiential learning, too. It’s not about disciplinarian turf wars here at Endicott.

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