Archiving History With Pitt-Greensburg’s Digital Studies Program

Issue Date: 
January 19, 2016

Decades before writers Sinclair Lewis and Ida Tarbell gained renown for their investigations of American materialism and big industry, a little-known female journalist named Nell Nelson exposed the abuse of women and children factory workers in a gripping 1888 news series in The Chicago Times titled “City Slave Girls.”

Rebecca Parker, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, decided to bring Nelson out of obscurity by creating a digital archive of the journalist’s writings. “The Restoration of Nell Nelson” is published online as Parker’s capstone project in a new certificate program launched during the fall 2015 semester on the Greensburg campus.

The Digital Studies Certificate program teaches students how to write computer coding and to use digital tools to analyze, transcribe, and present literature and other research material. The archival websites that result are easy to update, and they give the public easy access to centralized and comprehensive information on various subjects—while fostering interdisciplinary collaboration that benefits students, faculty, and the community.

Pitt-Greensburg English professors Sayre Greenfield and Elisa Beshero-Bondar have led the initiative, placing Pitt at the forefront of an emerging academic field. The award-winning duo shares a passion for using computers to explore literary texts as a research method. Over lunch one day in 2012, they conceived a digital humanities class that combined Greenfield’s experience exploring texts in historical databases with Beshero-Bondar’s expertise in computer coding. Co-teaching the course that fall was “the beginning of an adventure,” says Beshero-Bondar.  

It’s an adventure that has taken them around the world and led them to others on campus who were exploring digital advances. Soon, the idea of a full-fledged digital studies program was born. Greenfield—who chairs the humanities department at Pitt-Greensburg—and Beshero-Bondar began meeting with other interested faculty beginning in summer 2013. The result was the Digital Studies Certificate—something not common at U.S. universities and made even more rare because students elsewhere usually are not taught coding. 

The University approved the program last summer, while Greenfield and Beshero-Bondar were in Australia at a global conference on digital humanities. The 18-credit program requires six courses from requirements and electives such as humanities, literature, research, editing images, coding, data visualization, web design, digital storytelling, and digital archives. All students learn how to write coding and hard-code websites using XML and DXML coding languages.

“This technology basically puts students inside the texts,” says Beshero-Bondar. “They’re editing, marking, becoming more observant, getting up close with knowledge. It teaches students how to learn and be adventurous and not be afraid to look under the hood—and how to translate those skills into real life and the real world.”

Greenfield calls the program “mind stretching. The right brains get introduced to their left brain, and the left brains get introduced to their right brain.”

The pioneering program has attracted students such as Parker, a senior who is double-majoring in English literature and social sciences with a history emphasis. She and Rob Spadafore, an English writing major and editor of the student newspaper, are on track to become the first students, this spring, to complete the certificate program. 

Parker, 25, got involved with Beshero-Bondar’s Digital Mitford Archive project in 2013 when the student was preparing to be the professor’s research assistant as a Green Scholar in 2014. Parker became passionate about the work and has been assisting Beshero-Bondar in creating course materials, becoming one of the first students to help develop such a program. At a recent humanities conference for undergraduate students at Davidson College in North Carolina, she was one of only two attendees among about 35 who knew how to write coding, thanks to the program.

“Because of the nature of the studies, my relationship with the professors is one you usually only get at the graduate level, and I am getting it at an undergraduate level,” Parker says. “Creating the website helped me visualize the project better than just reading materials. The most exciting part is the tangibility of what I produce. Not many undergraduates have the ability to publish their research in public places or to learn to do so properly. But I have had the opportunity to be mentored while producing an entire digital and public-facing archive.”

The program at Pitt-Greensburg has given Parker an impressive portfolio—and, she says, a competitive edge over humanities graduates who are “less digitally inclined.”

“Companies today look for versatility,” she says. “I will benefit from having these unique skills. I don’t just look at digitizing materials with the eye of someone who knows how to code. I also have the humanities and behaviorial sciences approach to analyzing data. The digital studies program allows me to have hands-on experience developing research/data for others to view and work with. This will benefit me in searching for a job because I already have evidence of the kind of work I can do.”

Students don’t have to be tech wizards to enroll in the program. In fact, the assumption is that students do not know how to write coding. 

One computer-savvy senior, information science major Alex Mielnicki, says his knowledge and skills improved by taking the Coding and Digital Archives course and working on Parker’s project. In addition, he collaborated with three other students under Beshero-Bondar’s supervision to complete a digital archive that compares some of Emily Dickinson’s published poetry with her original writings. All of the projects are published on, a site created by Beshero-Bondar and hosted by the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center.

Greenfield and Beshero-Bondar are published in peer-reviewed scholarly venues about their digital research, including an article this month in the giant two-volume “Cambridge Guide to the Worlds of Shakespeare” based on Greenfield’s digital text mining. Beshero-Bondar publishes her digital archives and her students’ digital archives on the web, and her long-term work with an international team was published online as the first comprehensive scholarly work on the writings of 19th-century author Mary Russell Mitford. Both professors are members of Pitt’s cross-disciplinary Digital Humanities Research Group, and in October, Beshero-Bondar was elected a member of the international Text Encoding Initiative technical council in Lyon, France, at the consortium’s annual meeting.

Pitt-Greensburg President Sharon P. Smith is thrilled with the new program.

“It makes learning more powerful,” she says. “It’s rigorous, flexible, and it relates to other disciplines. The innovative ideas are in the spaces between the disciplines. It also aids research collaboration virtually. Digitalization has changed everything, and the program recognizes the change.”