Spotlight: William Pannapacker

On February 24, 2015, Whittier College and DigLibArts were fortunate enough to host William Pannapacker, professor of English at Hope College. In addition to delivering a talk in Villalobos Hall, Dr. Pannapacker was also kind enough to grant one of our Student Technology Liaisons, Nicole Guzzo, an opportunity to interview him. The interview (transcription provided below) covered Dr. Pannapacker’s work in the digital humanities, as well as his vision of an ideal digital liberal arts program.

Nicole Guzzo: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you study? Where do you work?

William Pannapacker: Right now, I am a professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan, which is a liberal arts college similar to Whittier. Before that, I was a graduate student in American Studies at Harvard. My current role is directing something called the Andrew W. Mellon Scholars Program in the arts and humanities, [which is] something like a digital honors program. My other position is directing something called the Digital Liberal Arts Initiative for the Great Lakes Colleges Association, which is fourteen institutions in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

NG: You mentioned “digital liberal arts”. Could you define what that is to an undergraduate student who hasn’t heard about it?

WP: Sure. It’s really an effort to leverage new technologies in support of the things that liberal arts colleges have always done.  So it can mean something as basic as creating a website or blog, but it could also mean using new tools like geographic information systems, textual analysis, all the kinds of things that will enable students to ask new questions and create projects that can allow them to collaborate more effectively and engage with a wider community than normal scholarship will allow.

NG: Can you tell us a little about the work you’ve done in the digital humanities?

WP: Sure. I wouldn’t consider myself a digital humanist. I’m somebody who’s trying to support digital humanists and create programs that engage with the field, and we call it digital liberal arts primarily because it’s based in liberal arts institutions for us. But probably the best place to look for what I’ve done is the website of the Mellon Scholars Program, which you can find by searching that on Google [Editor’s Note: Or by clicking here], and that’s really the work of our students, and you’ll find videos there of our students talking about their experiences in the program as well as the projects that they’ve developed.  I think, beyond that, I hope to see twenty or more cross-institutional collaborative projects developed by the GLCA colleges in the next 1-3 years. So, the work that I’ve done is not my own, it’s trying to get others to develop projects in collaborative ways.

NG: Describe your ideal digital liberal arts internship or undergraduate program. What would that look like to you?

WP: I think it would have a digital liberal arts center, where students and faculty can come together-

NG: Like our collaboratory.

WP: That’s right. It would include faculty development opportunities to help the rest of the institution become interested and engaged with digital projects. It would include resources to send students and faculty to conferences and other events off-campus. It would include a repository of equipment that students can borrow… things like 3D printers, and drones, and iPads, and cameras. That’s a constantly changing set of things… It would have a curriculum that supports digital project building in addition to traditional scholarship. It would have faculty evaluation, promotion, and tenure guidelines that include digital project building and collaborative research, in addition to traditional forms, so that the incentive structures of the institution, for both students and faculty, are oriented towards doing those kinds of new things. Beyond that, I think it’s about scale, and achieving a critical mass of people who are engaged with these new ways of doing scholarship, so that they can support each other. But in the absence of that… and it’s hard to achieve in the liberal arts context…  In the absence of that, it’s about collaboration between liberal arts colleges sharing expertise and resources and interests, and, also, ideally, research universities, and you have the great advantage of being close to a lot of potential collaborators in this region.

NG: So what, for students before they graduate, what do you think are some digital skills they should have?

WP: That’s a question that I don’t like to answer, because it keeps changing, and it’s dependent upon the kinds of careers that they are embarking upon.  I would say that they need to follow their own interests that way and be aware of where the opportunities are for digital engagement and not depend on any single definition of what it is they should learn. On the other hand, I think there are foundational skills, and one thing that I didn’t mention in the answer to your previous question is that it’s very helpful to have an introductory course on digital humanities or digital liberal arts to allow students to get formal instruction in that area, as well as bootstrapping their way towards that knowledge. We’ve moved from that at Hope College, for example, from a bootstraps model to one that has more formal instruction and support, and we’ve achieved a lot more elaborate projects, multi-generational projects, through that means. But I can’t help but wondering if the first several cohorts of students who went through our program with more of a bootstraps  model didn’t in the end acquire skills that are more useful than those who had a vision of the digital liberal arts constructed for them by course work. I think part of the goal of a liberal arts college is to create students who will never say “I can’t do that”, but can say “I may not know how to do that now, but I’ll figure it out”, and that’s what that bootstrapping model cultivated, though I don’t think I’d go back to it.

NG: Well, with that, [do you have] any last bits of advice for the Poets here at Whittier?

WP: Well… take an interest in whatever interests you. Follow that as far as it will go. Use traditional scholarly means, but also explore what kinds of new tools are out there to allow you to ask new questions and develop new answers that can support your engagement with the community, as well as your engagement with other scholars… And don’t allow yourself to be limited to a single path defined by traditional disciplinary knowledge, but think about all the things that you could do, in fields that may not even exist yet. I think that’s why you go to a liberalarts college. Not because you want a specific job, but to hone your adaptability for a career that may not exist yet, but that you may want in the future.