Around the World in Six Novels: An Experiment in Digital Humanities

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What does it mean to experiment with digital humanities in the classroom?

English Professor Alessandra Grego and the students of EN310 Selected Topics in World Literature answered that very question on November 28, 2018.

“Digital humanities is defined as the use of digital or computational tools to investigate traditional subjects in the humanities, in order to approach these subjects from a fresh perspective,” says Professor Grego. “By introducing digital humanities to the classroom, two seemingly different areas of knowledge and research work together, thus increasing the potential to engage the student,” she explains.

The presentation focused on describing how digital humanities tools were used to enhance the Fall 2018 course, whose topic was “Around the World in Six Novels,” Students read Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, Niccolò Ammaniti’s I’m Not Scared, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, and Daj Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

Professor Grego began the discussion by describing how the class worked and how the use of the digital platform Omeka influenced the learning outcomes.

Professor Grego

Professor Grego during the Digital Humanities presentation

Digital Categories

With the help of JCU librarian Eleonora Moccia, the class navigated its way through in order to research the six novels and upload information in five digital categories:  Literary Criticism, Press Reviews, In-text References, Maps, and Historical Context. Professor Grego explained how each category prompted questions that facilitated the analysis of each text. She showed how so far, 332 items had been uploaded to the platform, and how each piece of information helped in interpreting the texts.

For example, the Maps category allowed students to visualize the setting of each novel, which Professor Grego described as leading to other questions about the narrative, such as “What place am I in? Where has this novel physically taken me? What is the climate of this place where I am now? How would this affect the characters?”

The In-text references tool allowed students to pick out specific content from inside the text and consequently pushed them to research who and what the author was referring to. Although this is something that should always be done, there is often not enough time in class. In the case of After Dark, students mentioned how one of the most surprising discoveries they made through Omeka was the musical aspect of Murakami’s text. Being able to quickly access the music that the author is referring to while reading about certain events in the novel greatly affects the reader’s interpretation of the text.

What the Students Say

Professor Grego then asked the students to describe their personal experiences with the digital humanities approach. Some students admitted that it was a challenge at first to learn how to use the platform, keep track of their uploads, and make sense of the bulk of information. Nevertheless, the general feeling was that the extra material was extremely helpful, and that knowing more about what they were reading actually changed the way in which they read.

Giorgio Millesimi, an English Literature major, said that although he is “used to reading novels,” the digital humanities aspect allowed him to develop a deeper understanding of the fiction he read in class. He explained how although he had already read I’m Not Scared in the past, he had never realized that there were more themes to the novel, in addition to the well-known mafia one.

Veronica Rusich, an International Affairs major, described the course as “life-changing” and said that she “would have never thought that such minute details such as the music mentioned in a novel could change the way in which she read the whole story.”

Giulia Maggiori, an English Literature major, said that her favorite part of Omeka was the map tool, due to her difficulty in geography. She explained how after having pinpointed the locations in the novel, she realized how far away she was from each place, increasing her fascination with the novel’s culture.

Conclusion

Professor Grego then explained how that this tool is especially useful for non-English majors and visiting students who may not have the same background as majors. “We have to address the problem of having half of the class not completely interested in the subject, so it is of primary importance for us to be able to engage with them in a different way and show them how it actually can be interesting,” concluded Professor Grego.