Meet Our First Digital Humanities Graduate

One evening in April 2013, I left a dispiriting meeting of beleaguered humanities department chairs at Bethel University, walked back to my office, and wrote up a tentative proposal for a new major in the digital humanities: the emerging field that seeks to use computing and other digital techniques and tools within the context of history, literature, art history, archeology, philosophy, and similar disciplines. To help explain my proposal in an email to some colleagues that night, I referred to a then-new DH honors program at Hope College:

It’s an intriguing vision — far more, to my taste, than much of the DH literature itself, which is preoccupied with scholarship by and for scholars and seems little concerned with undergraduate pedagogy.

But why limit such a program to a small pool of honors students? Couldn’t we open this up to any humanities majors looking to marry their studies in languages, philosophy, theology, or history with the development of a digital skill set that will make them both better citizens and more marketable to employers?

I pitched a relatively small major taken in conjunction with another program. DH students at Bethel, I thought, could take a couple of new interdisciplinary DH courses, complete some training in computer programming, graphic design, GIS, media production, journalism, etc., and complete digital projects in more traditional humanities classes.

Over five years later, the DH major at Bethel — one of the only programs like it in the country — has an energetic coordinator in the person of my Roman historian colleague Charlie Goldberg and the approval of the Higher Learning Commission. Because we couldn’t formally recruit until the HLC signed off, we’re just now hitting double digits for new majors, but Charlie has a bunch of Intro to DH students signed up for next spring.

Most of those students are in their first or second year at Bethel. But we’ll graduate our first digital humanist this year: a Missional Ministries major named Bobbie Jo Chapkin. A profile of her is the current cover story of Bethel’s student newspaper, The Clarion. It’s a remarkable story of a young woman whom Charlie calls “the bravest student I’ve had.”

Lots about Bethel’s DH program has changed since my email that night back in 2013, but the focal point of the profile is Bobbie Jo’s experience of an element that was part of my original proposal:”Students would complete an internship… with some connection to their DH coursework,” I suggested, “with a museum or library, publisher, church, non-profit, corporation…” As Clarion reporter Molly Korzenowski explains, Bobbie Jo

knew right away what the goal of her Digital Humanities capstone would be.  She wanted to do an internship allowing her to work with people living on the margins, a place she knew very well. This passion led her to work with Sanctuary Covenant Church on Broadway Avenue in North Minneapolis, a community shrouded in stereotypes.

“I wanted to shed some light on what it’s really like, show that there’s a lot more beauty to the area,” Chapkin said…

Chapkin’s project focuses on profiling individuals she meets around the church. During her internship, Chapkin visits the Sanctuary Covenant Church every Monday and Friday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. She walks along West Broadway and through the nearby neighborhood with Mike Hotz, the associate pastor of care and outreach, or church member and Bethel alum Steve Hildebrant.

Chapkin hopes to use videography to record the stories of people she meets on her walks. She said she plans to post these videos on her own personal blog and present them on the Church’s website.

Bobby Jo Chapkin
Bobby Jo Chapkin – Bethel Clarion

I love this story for so many reasons. But especially because it has always been important to us that DH at Bethel amplify the power of history, literature, and similar disciplines to tell human stories. All the better when that storytelling helps us meet Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors! Bobbie Jo told the Clarion that “hopes that sharing their stories might help break the stereotypes” about “an often neglected community.”

(Given that some people assume that DH is only for technophiles and coders, I was also thrilled to learn that Bobbie Jo chose this field of study knowing that “working with technology was not one of her strengths. She chose to pursue the major anyway because she saw its usefulness in telling stories.”)

I know that DH at Bethel, like any new program, is only just starting to work through its growing pains. But I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to see a five-year old seed of an idea starting to bear fruit, thanks to Charlie’s vision and leadership and the trailblazing work of students like Bobbie Jo.

Read the full Clarion profile here. And if you’re interested in learning more about DH at Bethel, email Charlie.