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Catching up with Dr. Stephanie Seal Walters, USM Digital Liaison in the Humanities

Wed, 11/18/2020 - 08:59am | By: David Tisdale

Dr. Stephanie Seal Walters University of Southern Mississippi (USM) alumna and staff member Dr. Stephanie Seal Walters is Digital Liaison in the Humanities for USM’s School of Humanities, and in this role assists fellow faculty members, staff, and undergraduate and graduate students in the establishment or expansion of Digital Humanities (DH) projects, playing a key role in advancing a plethora of research interests.

Dr. Walters is PI (principal investigator) or co-PI on grant applications for Digital Humanities projects for professors and the School of Humanities, and assists with creation and teaching of Digital Humanities courses for the school, and Digital Badges. New DH classes at USM that she has helped develop include HUM 501—Graduate-level introduction to Digital Humanities and HUM 402/502 Undergraduate/Graduate specialized Digital Humanities class. She will be the first to teach the latter course at USM in spring 2021, which will focus on online exhibit building using the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi Digital Edition, directed by USM History program faculty member and DH historian Dr. Susannah J. Ural. These new DH classes build on existing DH courses in the School of Humanities, including ENG 365 (Digital Literacies) and HIS 306 (History in the Digital Age).

Dr. Walters’ work at USM also includes hosting workshops on new DH tools for research, organization, and publication; individual consultations with faculty/staff/graduate students on how they can use digital humanities tools for their publications or research; and assisting USM's DH team with design work for outside entities like Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH), Hinds Community College, and Vicksburg National Military Park, among others.

She is currently serving as assistant editor for Dr. Ural’s Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi project (CWRGM) where she uploads documents and manages transcriptions in the From the Page transcription account, and assists with transcription quality review. The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) of the National Archives generously provided the funding for her role in this project.

Dr. Walters earned her bachelor’s degree in history in 2011 and a Master of Arts in History in 2013 from USM, and holds a Ph.D. from George Mason University in American History, with focuses on digital humanities and the Atlantic World. Recently, she took time out of her busy schedule to discuss with David Tisdale of Southern Miss Now what DH is, her experience as a student at USM and how that brought her back, what she loves about her work and what we can expect in the future from DH at USM.  


DT: What is Digital Humanities, and how are we using it in higher education instruction and research?

SSW: Digital Humanities (DH) is a large umbrella term for how computer software can aid those in the humanities with understanding and/or publishing humanities-style topics. These tools can range anywhere from mapping, network analysis, online exhibition creation, text analysis, crowdsource transcriptions, and research organization—to name a few.

DH is a method for conducting, understanding, and publishing research. It is considered a complement to traditional curriculum design, instruction, and research, and is not meant to replace what we in the humanities have been doing for hundreds of years. Instead, it offers additional tools to reach larger/broader audiences, and to understand humanities style data.


DT: Talk about your days as a student at USM and how that experience shaped your career path and return to the university.

SSW: As an undergraduate I knew after my first few history courses that I wanted to be an academic historian. All of the history faculty members I took courses from were phenomenal storytellers and teachers. I knew I wanted to be like them.

When I decided to apply for M.A. programs, I only applied to one: USM. That’s because I knew I wanted to study Early American History with Dr. Kyle Zelner, and I wanted to be a part of the War & Society program. I always felt like the history professors wanted me to succeed, and that I would have their support throughout my education at USM. Throughout my M.A. program, I was given incredible opportunities to work for the—now—Dale Center, and to present at local and national conferences.

My professors all supported my decision to go for the Ph.D., and Dr. Zelner particularly pressed the importance of learning Digital Humanities. George Mason University (GMU) has one of the top digital humanities programs in the country, so I took Dr. Zelner’s advice and chose GMU upon acceptance.


DT: What’s going on now in Digital Humanities at USM, and your role in these activities?

SSW: Our current projects include The Gravestone Project; The Mississippi Cookbook Project; The Keats Letter Project; The Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage Project; The Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi Project; and The Virginia Loyalist Claims Project. When I first started my position as Digital Liaison in the Humanities, the School already had well-established or expanding projects such as Dr. Andrew Haley’s Mississippi Digital Cookbook project, Dr. Emily Stanback's Gravestone Project, and Dr. Susannah Ural's CWRGM digital edition. My job was to help faculty and students sustain and grow their DH work, and I'm excited to see how successfully we’ve done this.

Over the last 14 months, DH productivity has exploded in terms of size and interest at USM and across the region. Our DH team in the School of Humanities, led by Dr. Ural and me, formed partnerships with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to design and create educational resources for K-12 teachers. We developed partnerships that we hope to grow with grant funding with the National Park Service’s Vicksburg National Military Park, a Digital History Preservation project with Hinds Community College, a collaborative mapping project with USM's Computer Science program, and a text analysis/mapping partnership that reaches to the U.K. All of this reflects the investment USM has made in DH, the growth of that field, and USM's emerging role as regional DH leader.

Our new DH initiatives are also geared toward our undergraduate and graduate students who will benefit tremendously from digital humanities skills on the increasingly competitive job market. Our new course offerings and workshops are meant to teach our students important field-specific software such as Omeka and Omeka S and text analysis tools, and mapping technology such as Voyant and Palladio. These software are used frequently in the museum, archival, academic, and educational fields. Our goal is for our students to walk out of USM with advanced knowledge of DH methods and software that make them highly attractive in a competitive job market.

While the majority of our digital projects are currently faculty-based, it is important to recognize the hard work of our graduate and undergraduate students. In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic last spring some of our public history students, including Billy Loper, Amy Myers, Grant Jones and Cody Turnbaugh, created a digital humanities project for the city of Vicksburg. In their public history class with Dr. Joshua Haynes, they designed a mapping tour for Vicksburg, met with community leaders to be sure they were meeting their needs, and then gifted their project to the city’s Chamber of Commerce. Their project is currently being used to promote tourism.

Recently, Mr. Alan Wheat (director of education at Mississippi Department of Archives and History) was awarded a $7,500 Mississippi Humanities Council grant to hire our USM DH team, led by Dr. Ural and me, to create additional online educational exhibits based on some of MDAH’s most popular holdings in their digital archives. This expands on the work our team was already contracted to do this fall, and by May 2021 those exhibits will feature the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, the Anti-Slavery Alphabet, three natural disasters (the 1927 flood, Hurricane Camille, and Hurricane Katrina), and the health records from Sunflower County (with parallels drawn to modern health crises like Covid-19).


DT: What’s been the response to your outreach/work with faculty and students?

SSW: Before accepting my position at USM, I was told that there was a lot of interest at Southern Miss in DH. They weren’t wrong! I was lucky that before I returned to USM that Dr. Ural and our DH committee took initiative to spearhead the initial DH goals for the school. Since coming to campus, I’ve received nothing but positive responses about my role at USM, and my weekly calendar remains full with individual consultation meetings with faculty and students, project management tasks, and course preparation.                          

Thanks to the faculty and students' interest in DH, strong partners at USM Libraries, in our School of Computing Science and Computer Engineering, Polymer Science, and elsewhere, I only see this interest expanding.


DT: What can we expect, going forward, for Digital Humanities at USM?

SSW: My goal, and the goal of a lot of faculty members and students, is to sustain and grow USM's reputation as the home of DH in the region. We’ve proven over the last year and a half that DH attracts and prepares our students for complex markets (and not just in the Humanities), and that our faculty and students are securing the major funding required to support their research and ensure that it reaches academic and public audiences. These grants will include support for graduate student internships and involve several USM scholars. I'm also collaborating with colleagues at the University of Virginia and Shepherd University, who reached out to me for my expertise in Atlantic World history and DH.

It's an exciting time to be a part of Digital Humanities at USM, and I'm thrilled to play a central role in that growth.