The University of Arizona

UA Humanities Professors Take Digital Approach to Teaching the Past

By Amanda Ballard, University Relations - Communications | April 2, 2014

What do technologies like geo-tagging and augmented realities have to do with humanities? Everything, according to faculty members at the UA College of Humanities.

Africana Studies professor Bryan Carter is building a "virtual Harlem" that will take interactive learning to another level.
Africana Studies professor Bryan Carter is building a "virtual Harlem" that will take interactive learning to another level.

What do technologies like geo-tagging, informatics and augmented realities have to do with humanities?

Everything, according to faculty members at the University of Arizona College of Humanities.

"Increasingly, we're thinking about humanities from a big data perspective," said UA English professor Ken McAllister.

McAllister serves as the planning director for the UA School of Information initiative, which combines the School of Information Resources and Library Science and the School of Information: Science, Technology and Arts into a transdisciplinary, robust school that will prepare students in a variety of fields to use computer technology.

McAllister said that schools of information, known as iSchools, have become increasingly common in higher education. The UA's iSchool, slated to begin this fall, will be the first of its kind in the Southwest.

"These are highly transdisciplinary units tasked with approaching the world's problems from a collaborative and nondisciplinary perspective," he said. "We're not just talking about, say, an engineer and a literary scholar collaborating together. We're talking about an engineer who is a literary scholar."

McAllister said that digital humanities are an important component of the iSchool, adding that new computer technologies can help answer old questions and challenges.

Malcolm Compitello, professor and head of the UA Department of Spanish and Portuguese, is leading a digital humanities task force for the College of Humanities. The group consists of about 25 members who meet biweekly to discuss new initiatives and projects.

Using the virtual world platform called Second Life, Compitello created a virtual "Cibola" that consists of multiple environments, such as cafes in Spain and the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, where students can meet virtually to work on assignments or practice their Spanish and Portuguese.

"People who can't do a study abroad program can study overseas virtually," Compitello said. "I think it's a growing field. It's one that combines the very traditional and the very cutting-edge at the same time."

Africana Studies professor Bryan Carter is another faculty member using technology to teach humanities. While most college professors enforce a "no cellphones in the classroom" rule, Carter is teaching his students to harness the power of the digital world.

Carter, author of a new book titled "Digital Humanties: Current Perspectives, Practice and Research," recently presented at the Fourth Global Conference, "Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds," held in Prague.

For his "When African Americans Came to Paris" course, Carter collaborated with a Parisian tour company to develop an interactive tour supplement that utilized augmented reality.

Using an app called Layar, Carter's students created "augments" – photo slideshows, videos and information slides – that could be layered on top of the "real world" seen through tourists' cellphone cameras. Students got to finish and test the project in Paris in the fall.

"Say as you're looking at the doorway of Richard Wright's home, you might see a photo slideshow of Richard Wright," Carter said. "You might also get a link to his website. You could also hear audio or tweet or do any number of actions available on your screen. This additional information supplements what the tour guide tells her tourists as she takes them along a walking tour of Paris."

Carter said the app was a success with both the tour company and his students, who are excited to continue refining the project and looking forward to another trip to Paris to test it out in the fall.

"One of the students going this year is just enchanted by Josephine Baker, and she actually looks like her a bit," Carter said. "We're going to dress her up as Josephine and film her in front of a green screen. That way, when you scan the doorway of the theater where Josephine played her last performance, we'll incorporate geo-tagging and you'll see the student coming out of that doorway as Josephine."

In addition to teaching about the Harlem Renaissance in Paris, Carter is also working on building a virtual version of 1920s Harlem, New York, which he's planning to use for a spring 2015 course titled "Experiencing the Harlem Renaissance."

"Students are really, really excited about learning this kind of stuff," Carter said. "When virtual Harlem was first conceived, it was identified as one type of learning environment: to learn about the Harlem Renaissance. But I see it as so much more than that. I see it as a platform for not only teaching and learning, but also for research, archiving ... and connecting worlds together."