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Central Washington University

NEH Grant Has Paid Immediate Dividends for Digital Humanities and Other Initiatives at CWU

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The CWU College of Arts & Humanities has been the prime beneficiary of a $257,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Pictured above: American Sign Language is one of eight specializations in the World Languages and Cultures department.


When Central Washington University was awarded a $257,000 grant last summer from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the College of Arts & Humanities (CAH) and CWU Libraries had hoped to pay for a half-dozen new faculty positions for the 2020-21 academic year.

Nearly six months after the grant money was appropriated, CAH and the libraries have funded 15 faculty positions — including a digital historian/archivist — and have begun programming for the CWU EthicsLab, the first interdisciplinary, public humanities space in the Northwest.

CAH Dean Jill Hernandez said the impact of the NEH grant has been transformative for the departments she oversees.

“A large portion of the grant was used to pay for faculty salaries, and we were also able to secure more equipment than we anticipated for the EthicsLab,” she said. “We have hosted two public-facing virtual EthicsLab events that were very well attended, and we’re planning at least three more for the winter and spring quarters.”

The first webinar, “Racial Justice in the Time of a Pandemic,” was held October 19 and attracted more than 100 unique logins. The second, called “Social Media, Propaganda, and Public Opinion,” took place October 28 and saw a similar turnout. Both sessions were so popular that they went over the allotted time because the audience had so many questions for the panelists.

Hernandez said the widespread interest in the two webinars — which focused on important, timely social issues — showed her and her colleagues what the future of the EthicsLab may look like.

“I see these types of events changing the face of public humanities discourse at Central,” she said. “I’d far rather have 100 participants on a Zoom call, talking about issues that are really important to our communities, than have 10-15 people in a room. Our departments are beginning to see a real opportunity here on the public-facing side, and that will help us better serve the people in our county and across the state.”

CWU Libraries has played a key role in the development of the EthicsLab, lending technical support and providing the infrastructure to host the webinars. Meanwhile, the department has begun implementing a data visualization strategy using Tableau, a business analytics software program that provides researchers with advanced search capabilities for digitized, primary-sourced content across numerous databases. 

Marty Blackson, a senior lecturer who also occupies the newly funded historian/archivist role, has been taking the lead on the data visualization efforts. He said the project presents a world of possibilities for the university.

“This is pretty powerful software, and we’re barely scratching the surface of what we can do with it,” he said. “Eventually, we’re hoping instructors will come to us with ideas for digital projects, and then ask the librarians for help in putting them together. Students will also have access to the program, and they will be asked to share their ideas as well.”

Students and instructors both stand to benefit from the Tableau program, which is expected to be widely available on campus in 2021. Blackson also thinks the emphasis on data visualization could be an incentive for prospective students to consider CWU.

“What we’re doing with digital humanities is somewhat unique in Washington,” he said, adding that few higher education institutions in the state have committed this level of resources to digital humanities programming. “Tableau is being used heavily in industry, and this is a skill our students can use to help them get a job.”

Blackson led a digital humanities workshop for faculty in late October and will host one for students during winter quarter. The faculty workshop, titled “Introduction to Digital Scholarship,” is available on-demand at the newly developed Digital Commons website, which also was developed through funds provided by the one-time NEH grant.

“This workshop is only the beginning," said Rebecca Lubas, dean of CWU Libraries. “We’ll continue to develop and customize training in digital humanities, and expand the digital tool box.”

Lubas and Hernandez are already discussing plans for subsequent grant proposals next year. Given the early returns on the current grant, Hernandez is optimistic that this may only be the beginning of CWU’s transition into the age of digital humanities.

“I don’t see us going backward,” she said. “Rebecca and I are already talking about what’s to come and which grants we plan to apply for. Now that we’re on the NEH’s radar, that can only help us. If you can demonstrate that you’ve been an excellent steward of an NEH grant, you’re setting yourself up for success the next time. And I think we’ve really done that this year.”

Media contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs, David.Leder@cwu.edu, 509-963-1518.

 

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