Professors schooled in digital technologies


digital humanities institute
Faculty in the College of Arts and Letters listen to a presentation on incorporating digital technologies in the classroom during a recent session of the Digital Humanities and Social Sciences Institute.

How might professors in the humanities and the social sciences use digital technologies to spark innovation in the classroom and at the same time build upon the core skills and pedagogies within their disciplines? For 10 JMU faculty members in the College of Arts and Letters, that question was answered during the inaugural Digital Humanities and Social Sciences Institute.

With the help of facilitators Dr. Seán McCarthy, assistant professor of writing, rhetoric and technical communication, and Dr. Andrew Witmer, assistant professor of history, as well as staff from JMU’s Center for Instructional Technology and the Center for Faculty Innovation, participants learned how to incorporate digital tools and methodologies through a combination of readings, discussion, demonstrations and hands-on workshops.

The institute evolved out of a daylong CFI May Symposium on digital research. In the fall semester, a group of professors in Arts and Letters met to begin drafting a detailed proposal for an institute that would help meet the college’s desire for more digital instruction while retaining the classroom pillars of critical thinking, collaboration, production and openness.

“First and foremost, we want to introduce humanities and social sciences students to digital projects and digital scholarship,” said J. Chris Arndt, associate dean of the college and professor of history at JMU. “There’s a perception that they don’t have these skills. We want to at least make sure that those students who are interested have an opportunity to work together in teams in a digital environment, which makes them more marketable to graduate and professional schools and in the workplace.”

To help meet that objective, the institute requires participants to immerse themselves in the technologies that they, in turn, will ask their students to employ. “We’re looking for ways to encourage digital projects in the classroom and to network faculty who are interested in digital approaches,” Witmer said.

The pilot group focused on popular digital tools like WordPress, Twitter and cloud-based collaboration as well as the basics of video production and post-production. “Something very small like a Twitter feed or a Wiki page can have a huge impact if it’s used properly,” McCarthy said.

Many JMU professors are already using such technologies. The number of faculty using WordPress sites, for example, has tripled in the past 12 months, McCarthy said, and nearly 8,000 students are interacting with the online publishing platform in one form or another across campus.

Each institute participant was required to design a digital assignment for use in one of his or her classes.

Dr. Timothy Ball, assistant professor of communication studies, created a project for his GCOM 121 class based on the Madison Collaborative: Ethical Reasoning in Action, a campuswide effort to teach ethical reasoning skills to JMU's student body.  The project will push students to use collaboration and critical thinking to communicate with their audience through WordPress and Storify, a service that allows users to create stories or timelines with posts from social media. The project also requires that each group facilitate a discussion about their topic using at least three of the Eight Key Questions from the Madison Collaborative.

Ball's goal for the project is to "foster a commitment to openness and an exchange of thoughts and ideas." He says he isn’t worried about the pedagogical shifts that may occur when teaching with technology. "Being on a more level playing field was never a problem for me because as someone who believes in the power of active learning, I believe that learning is collaborative," he said. "That means that I am not the expert in everything having to do with the project.  It also means that the students and I will learn together."

Dr. Michael Galgano, professor of history, plans to implement a digital portfolio in his class. He admits his students are more comfortable with technology than he is and that the project will require altering his teaching methods.

"The support required from tech specialists represents a new experience for me, and that will require some loss of authority in the seminar and will demand adjustment," Galgano said. "For me, the key is recognizing that change is needed and then working with my students to achieve the changes. The end result remains to provide them with improved skills for the world they face."

This recognition among the participants is one of the goals of the institute.

“I think it’s really important that we start to promote these projects, but also the kinds of methods that those projects are using, so that we can turn our classrooms into spaces that follow the idea of the engaged university,” McCarthy said.

Arndt said the plan is to continue the institute in future semesters thanks to funding from the Office of the Provost.


Jennifer Eyring (’14) and Jim Heffernan (’96)

April 1, 2014

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Published: Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Last Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2016

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