The Rarest Thing in Higher Education Is…

I know, there are a lot of ways you could fill in that sentence to make it a joke. But in seriousness, it’s struck me in the last few years that the rarest thing in higher education is a truly distinctive academic program. At least among four-year, residential, non-profit universities that lay any claim to the liberal arts, there just isn’t a lot of variation in what majors are offered. Go to a college guide like Peterson’s, search for traditional programs in arts, sciences, humanities, and professions, and you’ll get roughly the same number of results for almost every major.

So it’s genuinely exciting that our department is finally able to advertise a new program that is truly unique: a major in the Digital Humanities (DH).

I think I wrote the first draft of that proposal five or six years ago, and even after we hired my colleague Charlie Goldberg to coordinate DH and teach ancient history, it took time to work through various internal and external approval processes. But the Higher Learning Commission has given us its blessing, Charlie has taught the first iteration of DIG200 Intro to Digital Humanities, Bethel has published its first news story on the major, and we’re starting to have students declare themselves DH majors.

While I know of DH minors and honors programs at colleges and universities like ours, I have yet to see anyone else create a full-fledged major. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) Here’s a thumbnail sketch of what the DH major involves at Bethel:

  • Two stand-alone DH courses with Charlie, built around collaborative projects in which students learn to use different digital tools to answer the kinds of questions typically posed by history, philosophy, literature, languages, and the other humanities disciplines. For example, Intro students used Sketchup to model alternative versions of Bethel using archival blueprints and prototypes, and they mapped everything from Lewis and Clark’s expedition to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment using ArcGIS.
  • Introductory classes in computer programming and digital media, plus at least two more “technical and applied” electives in fields like computer science, graphic design, communication studies, media production, geographic information systems, education, and journalism.
  • At least twelve credits of classes from a core of humanities disciplines
  • And a DH internship as the culminating experience

The major is designed to be taken in tandem with any other major at Bethel. While it’s an obvious fit with humanities programs like mine, we’re also hearing interest from Computer Science, Education, Marketing, Journalism, Graphic Design, and other students.

There’s a lot that I like about this major, including its inherently interdisciplinary, collaborative, and experimental ethos. But what’s most exciting about DH at Bethel is that the major seems to reconcile two visions of higher education that often are in competition with each other:

• On the one hand, DH encourages students with a passion for fields like history, English, Spanish, philosophy, and theology to study what they love — whether they major in those fields or not — and ask what I’ve called the “timeless questions whose answers — however hard to see — ultimately lead back to the One who was, is, and will always be ‘the way, and the truth, and the life.'”

• On the other hand, it makes those students highly attractive to a wide range of employers, since they develop both the “soft skills” associated with the humanities (reading, research, critical thinking, writing, etc.) that are attractive to most all companies and digital age skills (e.g., coding, design, data analysis, problem solving, teamwork) that are harder to find and much in demand.

And all of this in the context of a Christian liberal arts college: the students who complete this program will be Christ-followers who have learned better how to live in a digital world, but not of it.

Charlie Goldberg and Bethel University digital humanities students
Charlie (center, looking sharp as always) with some of our pioneering DH students – Bethel University

Of course, the chief advantage of being distinctive is also its chief challenge: if you try something this innovative, you can’t assume that prospective students and their parents will know what it is! (It’s the inverse problem faced by my colleagues in fields like engineering and athletic training, who don’t need to explain what they do… but have to explain why they do it better than dozens of nearby competitors.) So now we need to turn our attention to getting the word out.

So whether you’re a prospective student, or a parent of one… a high school teacher or guidance counselor… an employer looking for interns and future hires… if you’re interested in learning more about the DH major at Bethel, please get in touch with Charlie.

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