DH in the Classroom: Dr. Mónica Salas-Landa on Archiving “Nature” (Digitally)

Dr. Mónica Salas-Landa, Assistant Professor of Anthropology

Dr. Mónica Salas-Landa used a Digital Humanities in the Classroom Grant to develop a class project in her Spring 2017 course “Anthropology & Sociology 201: Environment and Culture.” Read on for her reflections on the semester!

How can we understand the many ways in which people shape their environments and are, in turn, shaped by them? Although this basic question might be an expected centerpiece of a 200-level course titled “Environment and Culture,” my class last spring invited students to engage with this line of inquiry in the most direct and substantial way possible: across the semester, students developed research projects on a local landscape in Easton and made an argument about the nature-human dynamics that they encountered there. They drew on ethnographic and historical methods in order to analyze their chosen landscape and participate in relevant scholarly debates, which we discussed in class. The goal of this assignment, then, was not only for students to gain experience “reading” an actual landscape but also for them to develop a more robust understanding of how their own existence at this time and place is inextricably connected to other complex relationships between humans and their environment.

A variety of images students encountered in their primary source research for the class Omeka project

Students’ ethnographically and historically informed research, moreover, served as the basis for a collective class project: the development of a digital collection and exhibition based on material connected to everything from local dams, industrial parks, and cemeteries to roads, community parks, and food markets. During their research, each student collected, on the one hand, an image, sound recording, or video of their field site and related it to a piece of historical evidence, which they found in Lafayette Special Collections & College Archives or at the Easton Public Library. Using Omeka, a web-publishing platform for displaying archives, collections, and exhibitions, students catalogued their material, entered metadata, and created an exhibit page in which they further explored the relationship between concepts discussed in class and assemblies of items from our collection.

The A&S 201 Omeka site

By incorporating a digital humanities component into this class, I was able to introduce students to ethnographic and historical research of primary sources as well as the critical thinking involved in creating an archive. Through the selection, organization, cataloguing, and analysis of a myriad of documents, photographs, sound recordings, and videos of the Easton area, students connected their own research to wider theoretical issues about how representations of nature are constructed and disseminated.  The site, which remains a work in progress, can be viewed here.  

Further, drawing on the digital humanities in this course has also helped me to imagine ways of expanding and sharing my own research results on environmental degradation in oil zones in Mexico. I hope to use Omeka to develop a public “toxic archive” in which community members can document and record the harmful presences of oil and its infrastructure. In a context where the invisibility of toxicity works to mask or deny it, rendering its noxious effects visible is of utmost importance.



DH in the Classroom: Dr. Lindsay Soh

Dr. Lindsay Soh, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Dr. Lindsay Soh used a Digital Humanities in the Classroom Grant to develop a class project in her Spring 2017 course “Chemical Engineering 370: Alternative Energy Sources.” In this course students are introduced to how to compare different energy technologies based on a number of different metrics. Read on for her reflections on the semester!

The idea of my Digital Humanities in the Classroom project was to communicate how an energy technology works to the general community and allow for greater understanding of the course metrics using data visualization. Specifically, the students’ project involved research into a chosen renewable energy technology.

The students first underwent literature-based research to understand the technology’s fundamentals. Next, they were asked to find and interpret data related to the technology in order to gain a deeper understanding of the feasibility of the energy source. The project consisted of a comprehensive report of the renewable energy technology that also incorporated how to communicate the findings with the general community. As such, the digital project included a visualization of the major findings that could be expounded from the data set and as related to the course metrics.

A data visualization created by Dr. Soh’s students on Tableau

Using the data analytics platform Tableau, students created public sites that provided a context and story for the visualization.   This resource is being made available to the Nurture Nature Center as a possible tool for their energy education program, and the public sites are also being posted on the my website.

Throughout the course, the concept of visualizing and interpreting data was discussed several times along with discussion and analysis. Furthermore, in collaboration with librarian Sarah Morris, the DH training consisted of several targeted sessions that sought to answer the following questions with the students

  1. Why is data visualization important?
  2. How to find and build data sets?
  3. How to use Tableau software for the final project visualization?

Upon reflection, I think that the integration of DH aspects into the course was largely successful. It has been my goal since coming to Lafayette College to provide students with the tools necessary to better communicate fact-based arguments. This project has served multiple purposes, allowing the students to explore a particular research question as well as develop ways to use data to explore a novel research question and communicate the findings.

The basic structure of the project worked well for these goals, however one shortcoming became apparent in the final products – the students were not able to utilize the data visualization software to its full abilities. For example, while the graphics that students produced were visually appealing, they were limited mostly to two variable comparisons; the beauty of data visualization is in the ability to elegantly intersect 3 or more variables to tell a different the of story with the data. I think that adding an extra deliverable would aid in this objective.