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September 15, 2014

Professor Joe Nugent and his student Sarah Doyle both worked for two years on the digital version of James Joyce's 'Dubliners' (Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH).

The news from campuses around the nation is clear: as a concentration for study, the humanities have seen better days. That's what makes a two-year-old project at Boston College so interesting. At the Heights, it's the English Department that's pioneering technological change.

Dubliners, a collection of 15 short stories by James Joyce about Irish urban life published 100 years ago, is an unlikely launching pad for a pedagogical revolution.

But don't tell that to Professor Joe Nugent.

"Long before the term digital humanities came into the academy - before it began to sweep around the otherwise dusty corridors of academia - Joyceans were doing things that others weren't daring to attempt to do," says Nugent.

Like the characters in Dubliners, Nugent had an epiphany, a moment of cosmic self-realization that his old-fashioned, page-centric way of teaching Joyce's work to young students wasn't making it over the cultural divide.

“It was thanks to them that I embraced, willingly and unwillingly, but increasingly willingly, the digital humanities, says Nugent.

Over the past two years, Boston College students have been developing a digital project guiding readers through Joyce’s 15 stories. The online project is called Digital Dubliners, and it provides interactive maps, photos and interviews with Joycean scholars. You can even listen to some of Joyce’s favorite songs – songs that inspired the Irish scribe’s writing.

In short videos, each story is introduced by the student editors involved in the project.

“For digital books to work properly, they’ve got to provide an awful lot more than your average book," Nugent says. "And this provides things that simply can’t be made available through print.”

A self-described academic purist, Nugent admits that he was initially skeptical. Now, he predicts Digital Dubliners is what a textbook will look like in the future. That’s because his students are no longer mere absorbers of information. Technology allows them to co-produce it.

On campus, Nugent slides his finger across his iPad as he reviews the app with one of his students and co-producers Sarah Doyle.

“This is one of those projects where I actually found myself forgetting that we were getting graded,” says Doyle.

The 20-year-old from Andover is majoring in both English and Biology. In these digital tools, she sees the potential to embed information so you don't have to look for it elsewhere.

“When I’m reading texts now, I find myself going on to Google and looking up pictures of where they wrote about," Doyle says. "I want to know more about historical context.”

Of course this project comes at a time when the humanities are facing stiff competition. Price-conscious students, encouraged by their parents, are choosing majors like political and computer science because it seems more practical. And the liberal arts are coming under fire from business leaders and families to justify their existence as the cost of college skyrockets.

“The ability to appeal to undergraduate students in a language that they understand is crucial to any 21st century discipline,” says Joseph Valente, a professor and Joyce scholar at the University of Buffalo.

Valente thinks Joyce, who opened Ireland’s first cinema, would have appreciated this digital project.

"He would not only have been happy about its cutting-edge technology, he would have been happy about its pop culture sensibility,” says Valente.

A sensibility that's transforming teaching techniques.

“University education is now flexed in a way that it has never been before," Valente says. "It's not bound by specific dimensions of the classroom; it’s not bound by the temporal dimensions of the class period.”

Jeffrey Selingo, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, agrees. He points out that most 18-year-olds don’t want to attend school online, but they also don’t want the analogue experience with the professor at the front of the room lecturing at them for 60 to 90 minutes.

“And this idea that students come to the classroom much more prepared for a more in depth discussion, that is much more interesting than just sitting there and listening to a professor drone on for a while,” says Selingo.

The emergence of digital humanities, Selingo predicts, is just the beginning of a revolution.

“I think other disciplines will follow what the humanities are already doing in this area,” says Selingo.

And as students and faculty rethink higher education, some of them have already experienced an epiphany, one that might transform how we teach and learn.

dubliners, joyce, Boston College, technology and innovation

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