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Walt Whitman’s Democratic Spirit Lives on in Professor Gold’s Multi-Campus Digital Humanities Experiment

Photo credit: Nina Young

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) recently awarded Matthew K. Gold, assistant professor of English at New York City College of Technology (City Tech), a grant for his innovative digital humanities project, “Looking for Whitman: The Poetry of Place in the Life and Work of Walt Whitman.”

The project focuses on a new kind of interactive learning, made possible by recent advances in social networking technologies, that is gradually reshaping academia by expanding the boundaries of education beyond the “walled garden” of traditional academic disciplines, classroom activities, and online learning environments.

At the center of the project is an open-source website that will connect classes from four colleges (City Tech, New York University, University of Mary Washington, and Rutgers University, Camden), each of which is located in an area central to Whitman’s life and work.  As students explore those locations, they will document and share their research experiences with one another through Web 2.0 platforms such as WordPress, MediaWiki, Flickr, Twitter, YouTube and Google Maps.

City Tech students, for example, will investigate the Fulton Ferry Landing, which Whitman described in his famous poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”  They will share the photos and videos they create there with students from other classes, who will similarly share work from their own locations. Faculty members will encourage cross-classroom interaction and collaboration.

The project is part of a larger trend towards “open education” that is taking place across higher education.  “Humanities research and teaching need to shift in response to technological innovations that have made new kinds of collaboration possible,” affirms Gold, who has been teaching at City Tech since 2007. “Writing and reading have changed, and the academy has to respond. We have a tremendous opportunity before us if we’re willing to take advantage of it.”

Building a community of learners from a variety of institutions and with very different life experiences is very much in keeping with Whitman’s democratic spirit, Gold adds. “Whitman believed that America’s strength came from the diversity of its citizens. When he wrote the first edition of Leaves of Grass, the political and economic strains leading to the Civil War were pulling the country apart. He desperately wanted the country to cohere and hoped to enable his fellow citizens to think beyond divisions that separated them so that they might embrace the ties that bound them together. It was a radically optimistic text for its time and remains one today.”

The project takes advantage of City Tech’s proximity to the Brooklyn waterfront, where Whitman worked early in his career. Gold notes that the school is “two blocks from the site where the first copy of Leaves of Grass was printed, a short walk from the Brooklyn Bridge and close to the many Brooklyn locations in which Whitman lived. There is so much history here, but our students often don’t know about it. I want to connect our learning to these places, to get our students out of the classroom and into the streets, into the archives. I want our students to see the streets themselves as archives.”

In addition to the collaborative efforts by students from the four colleges, their professors will work with libraries, historical societies and museums to identify and make available site-specific resources and archival projects. Together, they are developing courses for each location that will help students experience the value and excitement of literary and historical research. They and their students will explore such sites as the Library of Congress Manuscript Division in Washington D.C., the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Walt Whitman House in Camden.

Gold says that an extraordinary team of Whitman scholars has joined the project, including David Reynolds of the CUNY Graduate Center, Karen Karbiener of New York University, Tyler Hoffman and Carol Singley of Rutgers, and Mara Scanlon and Brady Earnhart from Mary Washington. Cutting-edge technology advisors to the project include Jim Groom of Mary Washington and T. Mills Kelly of George Mason University. 

Gold’s $25,000 start-up grant was issued through NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities as part of the “We the People” program encouraging the study of America’s cultural heritage. As he explains, “The Office of Digital Humanities gives start-up grants, much like a venture capital firm, for relatively low-risk, high-reward ventures. They fund projects that are doing innovative work and fostering new modes of scholarship and learning.”

His project builds on two previous NEH grants to City Tech: “Retentions and Transfiguration: the Technological Evolution and Social History of Five New York Neighborhoods” and “Water and Work: the History and Ecology of the Brooklyn Waterfront.”

Gold began investigating Whitman as a graduate student; simultaneously, he was designing websites and working with digital technology and new media. His Brooklyn-born parents may have engendered this dual focus on humanities and computing: his mother, a Brooklyn College graduate, is a school psychologist; his father, a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduate, is a long-time IBM employee. “I was always around computers,” explains Gold, “and my mother always encouraged creativity.”

The collaborative learning environment envisioned by Gold enables him to combine his interest in poetry with his experience in digital media. “I believe that interdisciplinary study is a key to understanding the world,” he notes. “And collaborative technologies enable us to make creativity a central part of the educational experience in new and exciting ways.”

Gold hopes that the NEH project will help City Tech students share Whitman’s vision of Brooklyn with the world. “Whitman would have loved CUNY,” he says. “It fulfills so many of his democratic ideals. And students respond to Whitman because he helps them re-imagine not just what the world can be, but what it should be.”

03.10.09


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