Digital strategies enrich humanities research

Marisa Parham having a conversationIt’s no lucky accident that Marisa Parham was chosen to head the Five College Digital Humanities Project, an Andrew Mellon Foundation-funded, multiple-year effort to introduce digital tools and mindsets to humanities research in the consortium. An associate professor of English at Amherst College, Marisa’s own background parallels the evolution of Digital Humanities in higher education. As a political science and English major in college in the mid-’90s, Parham’s work-study job was in the IT department. The World Wide Web was in its infancy, but Parham was drawn to the possibilities of online communication. By graduate school, “I had a dissertation that I very much wanted to be a proto-digital project,” she says, but the technology wasn’t there for her.

Nevertheless, the technology progressed, and by the time she was a newly minted instructor, Parham was able to incorporate digital tools into her courses, and as the technology evolved, so did her teaching and research methods.

Parham describes her current work as what she would have done with her dissertation if the technology had allowed. “It’s a project that is an interactive digital essay, and the first book-length project I’ve done entirely online.” The project is live as she develops it, so each “draft” is available for the world to see, and respond to. “It’s deeply unnerving,” she says with a laugh, “because part of being an academic is you only reveal things when they’re done. But it’s awesome.”

Despite her own background, Parham stresses that incorporating Digital Humanities techniques into one’s research does not require technical expertise. “People don’t always just need workshops on how to do coding," she says, "they need workshops on how to work with people, on how to get organized and on how to identify technologies that are useful to their interests. Digital Humanities is more about implementation than technology.”

That’s in part because of the resources that Parham’s program offers. “One thing the Five College Digital Humanities Program does is help. Our job is to help get people over the hump.” She has a staff of three post-baccalaureate fellows who help match researchers to the tools best suited to them. “I send the post-bacs out to anyone who’s starting a Digital Humanities project. They have the time and energy to work closely with them throughout the process.”

Visit the Five College Digital Humanities website

See Marisa Parham's interactive digital essay

See more of Parham's online work