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Students connect with cultural history through digital humanities

ASU humanities professor incorporates field into many of her classes


A photo from the view of a patio looking out to a lawn with a tree and a cloudy blue sky.

On a Taliesin West field trip in Scottsdale, Arizona, Assistant Professor Serena Ferrando's students worked on field research and collected data to map the desert, sound and noise, using different types of digital mapping software. They created sound walks, a walk focused on listening to the environment. Courtesy photo

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May 23, 2024

Digital humanities is a field that applies innovative digital tools to traditional humanities disciplines, such as art, literature and history.

In the School of International Letters and Cultures, Serena Ferrando, assistant professor of environmental humanities and Italian, frequently uses digital humanities in her classes, including ITA 494: City of Water — Uncovering Milan’s Aquatic Geographies, which wrapped up last semester.

Another of Ferrando’s courses, titled “Noisemakers!”, also utilizes digital humanities. Last semester, her students embarked on an overnight research trip to Taliesin West to create digital maps of Taliesin West’s auditory soundscapes. The experience inspired a master's student and an honors student who participated in the field trip to utilize digital humanities tools for their capstone project and thesis, respectively. Ferrando said the course is very versatile because it combines Italian studies, environmental humanities and digital humanities.

Digital humanities provides tools to analyze data and record sets and to visualize culture, history and literature in engaging and accessible ways, including virtual tours, sound maps and other interactive activities accessible to the public. It also encourages collaboration between students of different majors, who learn and grow from one another’s expertise. In fact, a mix of STEM and humanities majors enroll in Ferrando’s courses.

“I want them to — through the process of doing digital humanities — approach humanities-based questions in nontraditional ways. And to understand that their STEM-based contribution to questions that are usually discussed in SILC (School of International Letters and Cultures) courses are absolutely valuable," Ferrando said. "I also want my humanities students to understand that you can utilize techniques or platforms or tools from STEM fields to explore humanities-based questions. That's what the whole digital humanities is.”

The cultural conservation of water

The City of Water course expands students' skill sets and ability to think critically by using digital methods to examine such materials as photographs, maps, poems, graphic novels, music and historical accounts that are related to the history of the canals in Milan, Italy. 

These materials are used by students to create short texts, images, video clips or audio files that reveal the historical layers of Milan’s waterways. They then georeference this information into a digital map using platforms like Neatline and Story Maps. The course gave rise to the Navigli Project, an online public humanities exhibit that displays the students' work.

Students gain an array of skills through this project that can be applied to other courses and their professional careers. By creating cultural content through maps of Milan, students learn to think more critically and become proficient in using digital tools and methods to analyze Italian literature, history, philosophy and art as it relates to elements of water. 

Students also find parallels between what happened with the canals in Milan and the canals in Phoenix. 

“It resonates with the students here because Milan had many water canals until the 1930s, when they were covered. Now in Milan, only two small sections of the canals are still visible. And the same thing happened here in Phoenix, a city of canals. There is a visible connection between what happened in Milan, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and here,” said Ferrando.

The waterways in Milan were used for defense, irrigation and the transportation of goods, but there is so much more cultural history surrounding them. In the article “The Navigli Project: A Digital Uncovering of Milan’s Aquatic Waterways,” Ferrando states that the project encourages the cultural conservation of water and water education in Milan. The course gives students the opportunity to be involved in different social, cultural and political conversations with the people of Milan with the information they discover and map, despite being an ocean away. The City of Water course is also valuable for students because it teaches them how to work collaboratively while investigating Milan’s literature, history and geography as it relates to the canals. 

“So what we offer is a conversation with the people in Milan that can be informed with our work. They can actually see what the canals were at the time, and we can be part of conversations about this specific geographical territory on the other side of the ocean,” Ferrando said.

The Navigli Project started eight years ago from the City of Water course. Once the course ended, students wanted to keep mapping the waters of Milan, so Ferrando agreed to continue working with them on an exhibit, now known as the Navigli Project. Each semester, students add what they map to the project if it has yet to be replicated. Ferrando said they probably have over 200 records.  

“It was never my intention to create something like that, but it evolved organically from the students' work,” Ferrando said.

Embracing sound via 'Noisemaking!'

Ferrando also uses digital humanities as the basis for ITA 494: Noisemakers! Tracing Origins of Modern Music in Italy. Students examine the acoustic signature of Italy’s musical-literary history, but the course also challenges students to study the characteristics of their local environment, including Tempe and the ASU campus. In fact, they then create sound maps using various forms of digital humanities tools. Some sources could be noise clips, manifestos and scholarly works. Their projects feature Ableton, Max and AI, as well as futurist manifestos, local soundscapes and scholarly works.

Ferrando became interested in sound technology when taking sound engineering classes at Stanford University during her PhD.

“I just loved all the gear and all the tools that we had in this wonderful recording studio that was available to me at Stanford. And I thought, 'I can still utilize this expertise in a humanities setting,'” she said.

Her ongoing research in this area inspired her to teach courses on noise, such as Noisemakers! and another, Making Noise, Making Sound?, a humanities lab that she co-taught with Professor Kimberly Marshall from the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. Ferrando was also interested in noise because it often has a negative connotation, but she wanted to explore its positive sides as well.

“For me as an educator and a professor, the most important thing is that students learn how to read around them. They should be able to 'read' the environment. They should be able to 'read' a soundscape," Ferrando said. "Very often our hearing is very selective. During a sound walk, you completely open your ears to any type of sound or noise or anything that you might be hearing so you're not selectively listening; you're just hearing.”

One graduate student, Audrey Cullen, made a three-episode podcast series about sound in the environment based on the experience at Taliesin West for her capstone project for the certificate in digital humanities. Learn more about the project, "Soundwalking Taliesin West: Acoustic Ecology in the Built and Natural Environment of Frank Lloyd Wright," at soundwalkingtaliesinwest.com.

Otto Brink, a student in Barrett, The Honors College, conducted a thesis defense on the subject, creating a digital machine called a Rhythm Harmonizer (find two photos at serenaferrando.com/final-projects). Brink's thesis defense was hosted by the ASU Digital Humanities Initiative at the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics. 

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