The bright reds, blues and greens of City Sounds appeared on a wall in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood in 1973. The mural, sponsored by the Community Arts Foundation and the Chicago Board of Education, depicts the haunting sirens of a fire truck, a construction worker handling a deafening jackhammer, a train whirring by and a woman – wide-eyed and open-mouthed – taking in the city’s commotion.
City Sounds is one of hundreds of murals catalogued by art historian Georg Stahl in the 1970s. Inspired by Stahl’s work, Northwestern Art and Art History Professor Rebecca Zorach, who participated in the 2016 Kaplan Digital Humanities summer workshop, is digitizing murals across Chicago in the hopes of modernizing and expanding Stahl’s project.
In the first-year seminar she led last winter, Zorach created an interactive map detailing the Chicago murals. She codified Latinx murals in Pilsen, those depicting different phases of black power movements and even a few centered on children. Users can zoom in on pictures of each piece to view every paint stroke. She also had freshmen use the Knight Lab’s Story Map – where users can plot a point on a map, and add pictures, videos and text – to present each sites’ significance, and view locations and details on each mural. Zorach originally found the information via a detailed spreadsheet, but she thought she could do more with it.
“I knew if we could search, using the map, by artist, date, subject matter or keyword, that we could discover new patterns,” she says. With instruction from Kaplan’s Digital Humanities summer workshop, Zorach integrated her research into the classroom.
On Oct. 5, 2012, 60 Northwestern students and faculty crammed themselves into the narrow conference room at the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities to listen to Gender Studies Professor Jillana Enteen and History Professor Michael Kramer speak about a growing field that would ultimately change how faculty worked with the humanities in the classroom and in research.
“Everyone wanted to figure out what it was,” says Enteen. She and Kramer provided recommended readings and links to blogs and essays on the subject to build on their presentation.
Digital humanities involves the integration of technological tools with traditional humanities research. Kramer and Enteen founded the Northwestern Digital Humanities Lab (NUDHL). NUDHL is a group effort involving faculty, graduate students, technologists and librarians to bring technology into the humanities. Faculty can take a two-week summer workshop with Digital Humanities Librarian Josh Honn to learn new ways to incorporate technology into their various disciplines. Year round, NUDHL is a place to share the work and incorporate new ideas into undergraduate classes. Enteen says the goal is to allow humanities scholars to change presentation and discussion of humanities research.
Six years later, NUDHL and the summer workshops inspire faculty members to bring digital tools into their undergraduate classrooms and research. The results dazzle: a digital walking tour of ancient Rome, an online exhibition of multiethnic poetry and Wildwords, a collaborative encyclopedia of Northwestern-centric dialect to explain words like Norbucks or Hobartian.
In a small classroom in Kresge this February, Enteen sits reading off bits of paper from her students’ exercise with Honn. The 10 or so students have written down what comes to mind when they see the word ‘cloud.’ A chuckle makes its way around the room when they hear Enteen say: “startup.” But that’s what Honn wanted; it’s a metaphor for the students to consider the language people use and the possible connections that exist among different ideas and words. He then flips to a slide with a picture of one of Apple’s iCloud farms: gray buildings covered in solar panels with pipes pumping out nothing close to white, marshmallow clouds. Enteen diligently takes notes on her computer in a document titled, “Josh Wisdom.”
Enteen’s research focuses on cultures of the internet (in the past she’s taught classes with titles like ‘CyberQueer’ and ‘Imagining the Internet’) and she likes to think she has worked on digital humanities since before the name existed. NUDHL’s co-founder Michael Kramer, has also worked heavily with technology and its relationship to the humanities.
In the past, the two talked with envy about what other institutions had done, like Loyola University Chicago, which has had a digital humanities master’s program since 2011. Enteen and Kramer wanted to bring the digital humanities to Northwestern. With encouragement from Northwestern’s graduate program, they created NUDHL.
“We started seeing in job applications that graduate students need digital humanities experience. There was no way for that experience to happen at Northwestern,” Enteen says. Rather than leaving Northwestern with a history and English degree and only knowing how to write a paper, Enteen and Kramer pushed for humanities majors to learn how to create web projects from research. With the digital humanities, a paper on international Shakespeare performances and interpretations becomes “Shakespeare’s Circuit,” an interactive world map detailing each performance with an accompanying essay. The digital humanities breathes life into research and teaches students different ways to present materials.
Northwestern is one of six universities from the greater Chicago area involved in the Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities and Computer Science, an annual academic conference where professors share ideas and discuss new ways to combine digital tools with the humanities. “Someone from Loyola came up here and made an effort and asked why are [we] all doing the same thing alone?” Enteen says.
The colloquium started in 2006, with each university rotating as host. Academics shuffle around conference rooms, listening to talks about individual projects. Each year, the host institution creates a website to present all of the discussion from before, during and after the event. Enteen hopes the digital humanities will continue to grow at Northwestern. NUDHL’s speakers and events have long interested faculty and graduate students; even undergraduates now attend the events that go on during the academic year.
“I see a lot more opportunities every year for undergraduates. There are a lot more faculty and graduate students who are not scared of the digital humanities and want to share it,” Enteen says. She believes students have no excuse when it comes to incorporating technology into their learning experience.
After attending Kaplan’s workshop, Zorach learned new ways to approach material with her students, who eventually assisted with the interactive website for her Chicago murals project. The students surprised Zorach with their creativity, their ability to learn and use new technology and their general enthusiasm.
“My favorite part was working with students,” Zorach says, “I thought I knew the collection and the interface pretty well, but [the students] came up with ideas and approaches within the mural that I couldn’t have come up with.”