Iowa Alliance

Grinnell College and the University of Iowa announce a digital humanities partnership that may be a first for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

January 30, 2015

Grinnell College and the University of Iowa are using the digital humanities to bridge the physical distance and institutional differences between their campuses.

Over the next four years, the two institutions will encourage students, faculty and staffers to form “new kinds of teams” to collaborate on humanities research and use digital resources in the classroom. Supported by a $1.6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the initiative, titled Digital Bridges for Humanistic Inquiry, is being billed by university officials as the first time the foundation has supported a direct partnership between a public research university and a private liberal arts college.

Eugene M. Tobin, the foundation’s senior program officer for higher education and scholarship in the humanities, hesitated with handing out that label. Other grants “have involved very modest linkages between public and private research universities and liberal arts colleges,” he said in an e-mail, but he acknowledged that they have mostly gone to promote collaboration between groups of institutions.

“Still, this grant is noteworthy because it represents a true partnership across two sectors of higher education in which undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, librarians and technologists will use digital tools and methods to strengthen teaching and research in the humanities,” Tobin wrote. “I am interested in learning how Grinnell and University of Iowa faculty members use an inquiry-driven pedagogy to demonstrate that teaching and research are integrally linked and, especially, to see what kinds of future collaborations emerge from these initiatives.”

The foundation generally works with colleges that have at least 1,000 full-time students, although that’s not a firm cutoff point. In its most recent round of grants, for example, the foundation gave $50,000 to tiny Marlboro College, which averages fewer than 500 total students in any given year. But grants to individual small colleges rarely reach seven digits. By teaming up with a larger institution, Grinnell is able to benefit from greater resources -- both from the foundation and the university.

“We knew that Mellon had been supporting liberal arts college efforts in the digital humanities for some time now, and we saw that enough people were undertaking projects in that area at Grinnell,” said Erik Simpson, professor of English at Grinnell and principal investigator for the grant. “We also knew that we have this great opportunity in having the University of Iowa right down the road from us, and it’s sometimes difficult to find a way to capitalize on that proximity and form productive partnerships.”

While the idea for the partnership originated at Grinnell, Iowa won’t walk away empty-handed. The university has in the last several years made several investments in the digital humanities, including hiring a faculty cluster and creating a new graduate certificate program. Students in that program will be able to work with Grinnell faculty to learn how they create and use digital resources in a liberal arts college setting, which Teresa Mangum, professor of gender, women’s and sexuality studies at Iowa, said could help them find new career opportunities.

“This is the perfect time -- given where both institutions are -- to see what we could do together,” said Mangum, who is one of two principal investigators at Iowa.

The grant is intended to fund faculty and curriculum development programs and initiatives for library and IT staffers, but those plans are intentionally vague. Specific plans are “tricky to talk about” in the first days of the partnership, Simpson said, since they depend on which faculty members and staffers end up collaborating with each other over the course of four years.

“Partly it’s about gaining a sense of what we’re already doing and what we imagine doing as next steps with the support of the grant,” Simpson said. “The more we got into the planning for this grant, the more we saw on both campuses that there’s a lot that’s already happening, but we haven’t systematically tried to bring these people together, to add to the pool, to think how we can best support them at every stage of the project.”

Some of the projects already in the works at Grinnell and Iowa include mapping and visualizing social networks in the works of William Shakespeare and a collaborative reader’s guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Faculty members and staffers at both institutions also said they were interested in connecting their individual projects to the larger conversation about the use of digital resources in humanities research and teaching.

“I have a lot of friends around the country working in the digital humanities who are past the moment of the sheer pleasure of invention, of seeing what technology can do,” Mangum said. “Many of us are stepping back to think that this is clearly not just a new development in the humanities, but a really transformative force across our disciplines. But what is the intellectual rationale for the way we use mapping, visualization and distant reading technologies? The classroom seems like a great place to answer that question.”


Back to Top