Molly Godwin-Jones & Devin McFadden
Molly Godwin-Jones & Devin McFadden are graduate students in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas
How do you get a linguist and a 20th century specialist interested in Tolstoy? You offer a Digital Humanities course on War and Peace, as Professor Ani Kokobobo did at KU in the fall of 2016. Traditionally, when students hear the title War and Peace, they may have the instinct to quiver and look away (or worse, drop the course). Everyone knows that War and Peace is one of the longest works in the canon of classic world literature, and as such, unless they are Slavic/Russian majors, many students tend to hesitate when they see this work on the syllabus. However, thanks to the prevalence of digital humanities (DH) tools, it is now possible for students to approach Tolstoy’s work through something they are intimately connected to: the digital world. Prof. Kokobobo’s class, The Russian Novel and Digital Humanities: Mapping War and Peace, explored varying digital devices and theories to unearth Tolstoy’s most lengthy novel in a new and accessible light.
As with any literature course, we started off the semester with a close reading of War and Peace. But that’s where the similarities to a traditional literature course end. In our weekly class sessions, we began with a discussion of digital tools that could help us untangle some of the complicated threads running throughout War and Peace. We used a free platform for creating websites to develop a global home: somewhere we could collaborate with each other (and the outside world) and ensure that we are all on the same page. As our knowledge of digital tools (and the novel) grew, so did the website, so that it now offers innovative perspectives on the novel’s characters and plot. Each student created a character map using the free online tool Story Maps, to help show how decentralized this novel actually is. What’s more, we created comprehensive narratives for several major characters to help flush out the connections between their movements and personal developments. Once we turned to our final projects, the website also became a platform for us to share our progress and final results.
Writing a final paper is a crucial aspect of any class on literature, and this course is no exception. However, the types of papers produced in a DH class are dramatically different. The wide availability of free and easy to use DH tools allows students to select their own area of specialization and their own amount of digital involvement. For the (rare) student who doesn’t like technology, there are simple visualization tools that can help convey research results to a broader audience. For those who are not afraid to tackle technology, there are more complicated digital tools, such as the coding language R. Several students from this course dived right into computer programming (despite being humanities scholars) and used R to elucidate subtle linguistic and social aspects of the novel, grounding their conclusions in literary theory to provide a fresh perspective on this epic masterpiece.
Ultimately, this class showed us the benefit of collaboration. Through DH, we were able to find common ground and become equally excited – something that is usually rare among students from varying specializations. We were not only able to find shared interests within the classroom, but also across campus. What this produced was new knowledge on a novel for which research seemed to be already exhausted. And all we needed was an open mind, an open book, and an open computer.