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Teaching and the Digital Humanities: Symposium at Emory University

Watch video of this event.

At Emory University on April 2, 2015, Jonathan Fanton introduced a panel of experts on the subject of the digital humanities, including faculty and senior administrators from Emory, Hamilton College, Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and Whittier College, as well as the former Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

In these opening remarks, Dr. Fanton discusses the digital tools that are expected to factor into forthcoming work from the American Academy on both foreign language learning as well as the study of postsecondary education.

I would like to thank Emory president James Wagner for welcoming the Academy to this beautiful campus. I also want to thank Professor Ronald Schuchard for his help in making this day possible. Ron joined us in Cambridge last October for our annual induction ceremony and strongly encouraged us to come to Emory. We are so pleased to be here for the first time since 1979, when the Academy participated in a conference on scholarly inquiry and the limits of scholarly interaction.

That conference, organized by Emory president James T. Laney, was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the university’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Among the featured speakers were philosopher Stanley Cavell and paleontologist Stephen J. Gould, and the proceedings were published in “Intellect and Imagination: The Limits and Presuppositions of Scholarly Inquiry”—the Spring 1980 issue of our quarterly journal, Dædalus. Until today, that conference was the Academy’s most significant activity in the city of Atlanta.

Later this afternoon, the American Academy’s Lincoln Project will be meeting across campus. The Lincoln Project is examining ways to preserve and strengthen our nation’s public research universities at a time when government support has been shrinking. I want to thank all of the project participants and guests who are with us this morning, especially our cochairs Mary Sue Coleman, President Emerita of the University of Michigan and Robert Birgeneau, Chancellor Emeritus of the University of California, Berkeley.

As some of you may know, the Academy was founded in 1780, during the American Revolution, by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and other leaders who helped establish the new nation. The Academy’s founders believed that a strong republic must be grounded in open discourse, engaged scholarship, and an informed and active citizenry. Over time, the Academy has expanded to include leaders in all fields and disciplines, many of whom work together through the Academy to address topics both of timely and abiding concern.

The first Academy Fellow to be elected from the state of Georgia was Atticus Greene Haygood, a name that may be familiar to many of you. Haygood was president of Emory from 1875 to 1884. His inspirational words, “Let us stand by what is good and make it better if we can,” are etched above the Haywood-Hopkins Gate that welcomes students and visitors to this campus.

I believe they are a perfect epigram for our program this morning. Humanities education, properly understood, is our attempt to transmit “what is good” from one generation to the next. And the digital revolution has offered us new ways to make humanities education better, more accessible, and more interactive. Like Haywood, we should be cautious in our optimism about the digital future—not every innovation is an improvement or comes without unintended consequences. We should make things better if we can. But I think we can, and I know that we will hear some ideas this morning that will justify my optimism.

This morning’s program is inspired by the work of the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, which was formed in response to a bipartisan call from U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Mark Warner, and Representatives Tom Petri and David Price, to assess the state of humanistic and social scientific scholarship and education. The Commission was cochaired by Duke University president Richard Brodhead and John Rowe, retired chairman of Exelon Corporation. It released its influential report The Heart of the Matter in 2013. Among its many recommendations, The Heart of the Matter suggested several ways to broaden public and scholarly access to digital resources, including revised fair-use and copyright regulations, and it encouraged new partnerships to ensure that all students have access to quality online teaching materials, especially those in economically disadvantaged K–12 schools.

One recent outcome of the Humanities Commission’s efforts is a new request from a different bipartisan group of U.S. Senators and Representatives, asking the Academy to undertake a follow-up study of the state of language education in America. That project is just getting underway, but we expect that digital tools will play a significant role in recommendations to strengthen the nation’s approach to language learning.

Digital resources will also be central to the work of our new major commission on postsecondary education. That commission acknowledges that postsecondary education continues to be one of the most important avenues of opportunity in American society today, and that there are ever more options for how, where, and when Americans receive their postsecondary education. New populations, for whom the traditional four-year degree was once an impossibility, can now pursue undergraduate education in two-year, four-year, for-profit, and online institutions, according to schedules that fit their own lives.

At the same time, financial challenges at every level of American society have resulted in rising costs of postsecondary degrees and have reduced the effectiveness of student aid. Supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Academy’s commission will examine the current state of postsecondary education, imagine what the nation’s education needs will be in twenty or thirty years, and offer recommendations for addressing the rising costs of college and ways of financing postsecondary education that protects wide and equitable access.

These are important projects. They reflect the interests of the Academy’s members, who help us identify new challenges for our nation and the wider world—challenges that can be understood and met through the application of members’ research and good judgment. So let me invite each of the Academy Fellows here today to think about new topics that would benefit from an Academy study and new opportunities for service in our quest for a more just, humane, and peaceful world. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

At this point, Dr. Fanton introduced panel moderator Erika Farr, Head of Digital Archives at the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University.

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