Digital Humanities in Alberta, 2017

I started my job in the English Department at the University of Calgary five years ago this month, in 2007. When you move here, one of the things you notice is that Albertans start by making ambitious plans and only then sweat the details.  Approval for pipelines notwithstanding, this quality is pretty admirable.

So five years from now, in 2017, what will be the state of Digital Humanities in Alberta?

We’re already in a position of strength, with active researchers across the province. [I’m learning more as I launch my own SSHRC-funded project this fall, provisionally titled Encoding Shakespeare.] The U of A has a renowned Humanities Computing MA program, and its CIRCA is a national leader in humanities research computing. Dan O’Donnell at Lethbridge is breaking new ground by editing objects in the Visionary Cross project, and Nicole Rosen’s Cree-Innu Linguistic Atlas is a revelation. Our campus infrastructure attracts international attention, like when Dan Cohen tweeted about Calgary’s TFDL. But where can we go next?

I can foresee expansions of what we have already, and drawing together the community of Alberta DHers to address new problems. I see collaborative projects involving digital humanists from multiple universities; senior hires and national expertise on problems like big data; research funding from institutions and governments grappling with data visualization, natural language processing, the semantic web. I see DH research incubators at each university, with permanent offices and dedicated administrators to support our grant applications and project management.

I’m just beginning to grasp the state of DH in Alberta, but can already see that we’re moving in the right directions. I joined AbDAH’s exploratory committee to learn more about DH projects and experts today, but more importantly, to provoke discussions and plans for our future.



ABDAH is a proposal for Distributed Centre of Excellence (DCE) in learning, research and community engagement. It will leverage our existing strengths, using collaboration and digital connectivity to bridge institutions and regions of our province and to make Alberta a clear Canadian leader in education in the field.  ABDAH will attract the best and brightest students from Alberta and beyond to contribute to the Alberta advantage in digital arts and humanities. It will bring together faculty at all Alberta universities and the Banff Centre, in keeping with their varying institutional mandates. The DCE model has the following characteristics:

Network of Learning Opportunities: we will build a network of ABDAH certificates and degrees around the interactive arts and digital humanities, including undergraduate diplomas, undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees, and graduate certificates, designed for full-time and part-time students, and with multiple opportunities for laddering and built-in distance-learning components. In particular we will deliver part-time advanced learning programs accessible to working professionals throughout the province who need enhanced new media creation/communication skills.

Shared Excellence: we will develop shared ABDAH resources across the participating campuses that will make new media learning available across the province more efficiently. Common online tools from wikis and blogs to digital portfolios will be developed for all students. Common online learning modules will be developed and acquired to build a learning library. Faculty expertise at any of the sites will be available to students participating from any of the sites or even remotely from rural areas.

Shared Expertise: this proposal will fund the development of a core of shared ABDAH modules that run for students at all sites. This will mean enhancing some courses with distance components and designing new courses for distance delivery. In a few cases where a hands-on component is important, it will also mean developing hybrid ABDAH courses that have an intensive studio experience followed by distance components. These shared courses will be managed collectively by the Initiative. Shared courses mean that students at each site have access to a breadth of expertise from all other sites. This is especially important at the graduate level and would mean that Alberta students can get access to advanced expertise in the digital arts and humanities wherever they are.

Open Pathways and Competencies: all programmes across the Initiative will have well-defined ABDAH Experience components of 2 years each so that students can move easily from institution to institution. The Initiative will achieve this by standardized competency definitions around the Experiences so that students can combine them across campuses. For example, a student might do a 2 year ABDAH Experience at Lethbridge in online publishing and then switch to U of Alberta to do the second 2 year ABDAH Experience in interactive art and design. There will be well-articulated pathways through the system and across campuses based on competency descriptions. The competency approach will mean that students know what they need to know to be ready for an ABDAH Experience and what they will learn in each ABDAH Experience. Competencies also allow the Initiative to collaborate with public- and private-sector stakeholders in defining what students should know.

Interoperable Learning: working in concert with the more traditional units (faculties and departments, registrars’ offices) at the partnering institutions, we will ensure that ABDAH modules and ABDAH certificates are interoperable with existing fields of study and can form part of degrees and diplomas in disciplines like English, Philosophy, Fine Arts, and Sociology. ABDAH-equipped students in those programs will have an extra advantage in eventual employment,  will enhance the Alberta workforce with articulate potential employees who are also tech savvy, and will incidentally provide leavening to encourage the modernization of arts and humanities disciplines into tomorrow’s interactive digital world.

Community Engagement: there will be a community engagement stream of courses that ask ABDAH students to work with partners of different sorts to deploy new media. Students will be expected to contribute to local, regional, or national communities (all sectors) at different phases in the program. They will also be encouraged to spend a semester at a different campus or on an exchange with another university. In Level 4 they will be expected to return to the local community and provide leadership for Level 1 students. At the same time, we will involve community and private sector artists/developers/researchers in the design, management and research of this Initiative.

L2R (Learning to Research): ABDAH learning will be designed to involve students in meaningful creative, research, and communicative projects. The goal of this Initiative is graduates ready to lead and innovate in new media design. L2R will the focus of the Level 3 & 4 experience across the Initiative.

Institutes: to build community and maintain excellence across the Initiative sites, there will be annual ABDAH Institutes woven into the rhythm of the year. In late summer there will be hands-on training institutes to build technical skills needed for online courses. In January there will be an annual ABDAH Retreat where senior students, faculty and community researchers engage larger issues. In April there will be a celebratory ABDAH Institute Conference where students can show their work and the ABDAH Initiative can evaluate progress.

Shared Administration: the ABDAH Initiative, if it is not to devolve into separate solitudes, will need a robust and collegial administration that crosses the campuses involved, the disciplines involved, but also sectors so that community stakeholders are part of the administration. It will also need a fiscal model that gives the administration sufficient control that it can negotiate support and services across the campuses. We imagine a model with a mix of full-time hires to the universities and a budget for negotiating support and services across the campuses.


Lethbridge Graduate student Heather Hobma (left) with Professors Karkov (Leeds), O'Donnell (Lethbridge), and Rosselli Del Turco (Turin) on site in Ruthwell Scotland.

Alberta Digital Arts and Humanities (ABDAH) is a consortium of researchers, practitioners, teachers, students, and post secondary institutions dedicated to developing and exploiting provincial expertise in the Digital Arts and Humanities.

The Digital Arts and Humanities represent the “killer app” of the new Digital Economy. They are concerned with the ways we communicate, play, share, and express ourselves online and on the move: the the things that put the human back into technology.

Canadian successes in other aspects of Information and Communication Technology are well known and widely celebrated. A recent study of researchers in the Digital Humanities placed Canada second after only the United States in participation in major Digital Humanities organisations. Canadians were identified as being among six of the ten most connected participants in this study and researchers associated with Albertan universities at third, seventh, and ninth places.

Manuscript images of the Green Knight with and without his head on the title page of the University of Calgary's Cotton Nero A.x project, an edition of the medieval manuscript.

Alberta’s post secondary institutions are already helping students develop the cutting edge skills required to succeed in the new disciplines. With active teaching and research programmes in all provincial Universities and the Banff Centre, Albertan students have access to the latest technology and opportunities to work on sophisticated new applications and research. With ABDAH, these schools are preparing to take the next step: developing collaborative and closely integrated research and teaching in the Digital Arts and Humanities in order to ensure Alberta’s students remain at the forefront of the new Digital Economy.

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