New minor logs students onto humanities

A first-of-its-kind minor in Canada will help students examine some of the oldest questions using the newest technologies.

A new minor at Western – one in Digital Humanities – offered, for the first time this year, through the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, is bridging the past and future through innovative courses that will foster culturally and digitally literate students.

The minor is supported by the Interdisciplinary Development Initiatives (IDI) program at Western, which provides seed funding for projects that further research and teaching missions, attract scholars and graduate students and bring prestige to the university.

“I think the courses are very well thought-out in terms of what a new generation coming into the university needs,” said Juan-Luis Suarez, director of The CulturePlex research lab at Western who, with a diverse group of faculty, helped establish the new minor. “Students still want to deal with humanistic problems, know about their heritage and people and other cultures. But they feel the need to be doing that through digital tools, and not totally as a consumer – but as someone who is able to get an autonomous grasp of technology and tools, and at some point, use their own methods and solve their own problems.”

The minor brings together disciplines such as literary studies, history, media and information technology and computer science. Courses are designed to help students get a “good understanding of humanistic problems through digital technology,” giving them access to course materials on mobile platforms and equipping them with programming skills to create their own.

“Most of these courses will use a cell phone platform we’ve developed to teach the students so they can do their activities on an iPad, a phone, a BlackBerry – that’s completely natural to them,” Suarez explained. “And they will learn to program, too.”

The program is generating great excitement among students, so much so, the first two courses open to students – Digital Creativity and Programming My Digital Life – filled up within minutes, Suarez added.

“It has been a good response. Students and parents keep calling because they want to get into the program. With Digital Creativity, we had to change it to a bigger class; we have 80 students (registered) and over 20 students on a waiting list,” he said.

What’s fantastic about the program, Suarez continued, is has the potential to revitalize studies in the humanities and, likewise, prepare students with valuable, marketable skills upon graduation.

“Companies will be hiring people who have a good background in the humanities and understand big problems but the same time are able to talk to an engineer, because they have to work (together) to solve a problem,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s a very valuable addition to the marketplace. I think this is the way to go.”

The Digital Humanities minor will start off with two courses offered in the winter term. Dependent on resources, the plan is to offer all courses by next year and eventually offer a major.

IDI funded eight projects in 2007-08, five in 2008-09 and six in 2010-11. These 19 projects were selected from 47 proposals received. Among the notable alumni of the program are Environment and Sustainability, Neuroscience, Planetary Science and Exploration and Bone and Joint Health.

Round four of the program will take place in 2012-13, with a deadline for proposals to a dean’s office set for Oct. 1, and up to $1.5 million is available for projects of one to three years duration. Further competitions may be held in 2013-14 and 2014-15 if any of the funds remain.