Digital Literacy on a Dime: Designing Community-Based Digital Humanities Institutes across North Carolina Universities

The Digital Humanities Collaborative of North Carolina (DHC-NC), formerly known as The Triangle Digital Humanities Network (TDHN), is a cross-institutional community of practice for the digi-curious humanists in North Carolina. The mission of the DHC-NC is to promote DH projects and practices across North Carolina in an inclusive and equitable fashion. In the Fall of 2018, a team of two Library and Information Science graduate students, Kristina Bush and Claire Cahoon, and Nathan Kelber, the Digital Scholarship Specialist from the University Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill), formed an advisory council for the DHC-NC to create an interdisciplinary community focused on developing critical digital literacy skills by framing DH from a library perspective to emphasize research literacies rather than just tool competencies. To work toward this goal, the advisory council organized an ongoing series of local, small-scale educational events highlighting DH literacy, called “Institutes” as a nod to the Digital Humanities Research Institutes that inspired this project.

The 2019 Institutes focused on digital pedagogy, tools-based workshops, and networking.1 Each Institute was hosted at a different institution in North Carolina and had a loose theme. The advisory council designed the Institute series to be choose-your-own-adventure in terms of organizing, scale, funding, programming, and staffing. While each institute incorporates themes of DH literacy, the focus of this article will be the Institute in the spring of 2019 because both authors were involved in and present at these events. In May 2019, with three council members and a small budget, we were able to pull off a three day unconference using our connections across the state of North Carolina to recruit instructors to teach tools and pedagogy workshops within their skillset. UNC-Chapel Hill has a wealth of expertise and resources (staff, hardware, and software) in the Digital Research Services Department of the University Libraries, which we drew upon in developing technical workshop content for the event.

A major focus of each Institute was fostering a DH community by giving educators (faculty, staff, and even students) the opportunity to be a part of the scholarly conversation by sharing their work with colleagues from different disciplines and institutions.

Each Institute’s theme embodied values described in Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) Library’s model of digital literacies. The Virginia Tech model identifies communication and collaboration as a core competency of digital literacies and aligns these skills with information literacy concepts such as source evaluation and participation in the scholarly conversation. A major focus of each Institute was fostering a DH community by giving educators (faculty, staff, and even students) the opportunity to be a part of the scholarly conversation by sharing their work with colleagues from different disciplines and institutions. Another aspect of the digital literacy model is creation and scholarship, which was addressed by teaching hard skills like Python or Tropy as well as holding pedagogy-focused sessions like “From Product to Process: Creating Student-Centered Learning Objectives for Digital Projects,” which focused on distilling student-centered learning objectives from tool-centric classroom projects. Another example of a digital literacies-focused workshop is “Teaching with Scalar,” which discussed using Scalar to allow students to creatively communicate and curate their research. Both of these workshops highlighted the importance of student-focused education to digital literacy. Virginia Tech’s definition of digital literacy puts the student at the center and encourages using media, data, and information literacies to become “engaged global citizens.” DHC-NC workshops teach instructors the skills necessary to use DH projects to empower students in developing digital literacy skills by moving beyond basic tool competency to engage in the scholarly conversation.

The talks and workshops at the Institutes taught participants that DH is more than knowing how to use a tool; it is about developing critical digital literacy skills. Models of digital literacy, including Belshaw’s 8 Elements, agree that collaboration and civic participation are key components of digital literacy. Belshaw defines the civic element of digital literacies as knowing one’s digital rights, responsibilities, and digital environments to participate in social processes and advocate for change online. Many participants came to the Institute with an idea in mind to give voice to historically-underrepresented communities through DH projects; unconference style discussions such as speed networking, birds-of-a-feather, and lightning talks connected these ideas with the tools and area specialists to develop projects. While technology proficiency is a core component of digital literacies, to be digitally fluent, we must also be mindful about how we use our technology of choice to communicate effectively and ethically in diverse digital environments. With this in mind, thoughtfully incorporating DH into the classroom through careful pairing of a tool with a project enriches a student’s critical engagement with course content. The Institutes create a space that applies critical pedagogy to teaching and learning tools, and encourages collaboration and civic-mindedness in our community.

Belshaw’s model of digital literacies includes the element “civic;” the spirit of civic-mindedness shapes the way the DHC-NC designs and plans Institutes. To invite a more diverse community of attendees to the summer 2019 Institute, the advisory board chose to delay registration to faculty and staff of R1 schools such as Duke University, North Carolina State University, and UNC-Chapel Hill. Large, well-funded institutions often offer professional development opportunities to their faculty and staff – we wanted to provide affordable and accessible DH training that transcended institutional boundaries. The Institute series brought together scholars from all disciplines and backgrounds to participate in a co-learning experience. There were even visiting international scholars!2 Being actively open and inclusive has allowed the network to grow, expanding our community from just the Research Triangle to the entire state of North Carolina, necessitating the recent name change to DHC-NC.

[W]e wanted to provide affordable and accessible DH training that transcended institutional boundaries.

The 2019 series of Institutes allowed us to work with a variety of scholars, instructors, librarians, and students to practice holistic digital literacy, all while maintaining small scale and low cost events. The themes of pedagogy, tools, and representation highlighted digital literacy for our attendees in a way that facilitated critical thinking about DH. The DHC-NC’s collaborative approach to scholarship supports learning, engaging, participating, and building community through DH literacy. DHC-NC participants are invited to share their expertise and collaborate in order to build the DHC-NC community of practice centered on DH and digital literacy. If you’re in the North Carolina area, keep an eye out for future Institutes!


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  1. In Spring 2019, Duke University hosted the first Triangle Digital Humanities Institute on DH Pedagogy. The second Institute, styled as an unconference, was hosted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill) in the Summer of 2019. The third and most recent Institute was hosted in the Fall of 2019 by North Carolina Central University with the theme #RepresentationMatters.
  2. The scholars from Pakistan were participating in an exchange program organized by NCCU Professor Matthew Cook as part of the Duke-NCCU Digital Humanities Fellowship program. Read more about the program and the scholars here:

About the Authors

Kristina Bush is Digital Literacies Librarian at the University of California Berkeley. She graduated with her MLS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May 2019 where she was a Carolina Academic Library Associate (CALA) in the Sloane Art Library and member of the TDHN Organizing Committee. She has also been involved with Stanford’s Digital Analysis of Syriac Handwriting project since 2014.

Claire Cahoon is an Information Science graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, graduating in May 2020. She currently works in the UNC-Chapel Hill University Libraries as a Carolina Academic Library Associate (CALA) within Research and Instructional Services and Digital Research Services, focusing on digital scholarship and digital pedagogy. Developing the DHC-NC has been a major part of this work, and she currently serves on the DHC-NC Executive Board. After graduating, she will join the North Carolina State University Libraries as a Fellow for 2020-2022.