The 19 students in Visiting Assistant Professor of History Amrys Williams’ class are nearly ready to debut a semester-long project: an interactive map of the University campus. During the semester, the members of HIST211: Digital History divided into teams and worked to design a project that could feasibly be completed in the time allotted and that appealed to their interests. Williams designed the course with the newly emerging field of the digital humanities in mind, and she taught her class for the first time this semester.
“[The digital humanities] has a lot of definitions, one of which is the application of computer algorithms to analyze bodies of text in literature, or using geographic information systems and other special approaches to understand the past of a landscape,” Williams said. “So what I wanted to do in the course was familiarize the students with some of the major trends in the digital humanities and also familiarize them with the sorts of experiences that I have had in the digital humanities myself.”
Williams found her past experiences in the digital humanities highly collaborative, as they unite experts from a variety of backgrounds, not just technology or humanities. According to Williams, this stands in sharp contrast to the common conception of an academic historian, who tends to work alone examining documents and records.
Students in the course focused on the aspect of digital humanities associated with the use of geographic information systems (GIS). The project made use of the ArcGIS program and one of its features, story maps, in order to create a variety of interactive maps of the University campus. Maps can be laid over one another to see how the campus has changed over time, and a time-lapse feature gives users a visual representation of campus building projects. Additionally, students collected data about tuition, enrollment, and the endowment, which, along with the maps, may explain why the University made some of its building choices.
“We had a set of students who were really interested in data and data visualization and thought it would be really interesting to correlate those with changes in enrollment, tuition, [and] endowment, to see if there are explanatory factors for why the campus expands when it does, or why we build a bunch of dorms when we do…things that you can see when you look at a series of maps over time, but the explanations for which aren’t really apparent until you start looking,” Williams said.
Jesse Cohen ’17 further defined the project.
“Our project is a special history of Wesleyan that uses an interactive map that lets you explore the campus and look at oral histories and data visualizations and written information about the changes that have been made to campus,” he said.
In order to complete this project, some students compiled information from a variety of sources and others worked on more technical aspects of the project. Matt Weinstein ’15 began his involvement by searching through building records and blueprints at Physical Plant.
“I was part of the Physical Plant team, so our initial role was to go to Physical Plant, make friends over there, and then copy and scan the big aerial maps and blueprints,” Weinstein said. “Physical Plant has this amazing collection of blueprints of buildings all across campus. You got to see campus evolve through time.”
Other teams collected statistics about enrollment, the endowment, and took oral histories, aspects of which will be included in the final product.
Similar to many students in the course, Weinstein had no previous experience with the more technical aspects of the project.
“The funny thing about the class is that the overwhelming majority of us don’t know computer programming or even GIS, so it’s been a group effort, to utilize the people who know what they’re doing well, and then [utilize] people like me to help as much as I could,” he said.
Following his collection of records from Physical Plant, Weinstein worked on a team involved with data entry, in which Cohen also participated.
“I’ve been working on getting information about enrollment, endowment, and tuition, and trying to tell some stories about the accessibility of Wesleyan to the Middletown community and the world through data visualizations,” Cohen said.
Students met frequently outside of class to do research and get in more time working on the project. Williams expressed her satisfaction with her students’ work ethic and the course overall.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” Williams said. “The students have been so committed to the project. For a group of 19 students, it’s impressive that things have gone as smoothly as they have, and it’s just been really rewarding.”
When it becomes available to the public, Williams and her students hope that the information provided can prove useful in other academic pursuits and in the decisions of prospective students.
“Hopefully, this will be part of the permanent Wesleyan website,” Weinstein said. “If you’re looking at it for admissions purposes, you’ll be able to see how Wesleyan has grown through the years, which is a good feature.”