Diversity and Democracy

Disrupting Institutional Barriers through Digital Humanities Pedagogy

In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Walt Whitman’s famous meditation on the possibilities of connection across space and time, the nineteenth-century poet projects himself into the future to imagine a fellow Brooklynite gazing at the island of Manhattan across New York’s East River. Asking this prospective New Yorker what the “count of the scores or hundreds of years between us” might amount to, the narrator decides that “Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not” (1992, 310). For Whitman, the printed page provided a vital connection to the future, one that would bridge differences of many kinds.

Over a hundred and fifty years later, Whitman’s poetry formed the basis of a pedagogical experiment that tested new kinds of bridges across space and time. “Looking for Whitman: The Poetry of Place in the Life and Work of Walt Whitman,” a project sponsored by two Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), brought together classes from four academic institutions in a collaborative digital environment that emphasized place-based learning and progressive educational techniques. The project set forth a new model for engaged learning that mirrored Whitman’s poetic ideals of democracy and diversity.

Photo by Matthew K. Gold
Students participating in the Looking for Whitman project visit the Brooklyn Historical Society. (Photo by Matthew K. Gold)

Place-Based Learning across Distance

Following from Whitman’s suggestion at the conclusion of “Song of Myself” that readers “look for me under your bootsoles” (1992, 88), “Looking for Whitman” was designed to help students and faculty members trace the lingering imprints of Whitman’s footsteps in the local soil. Using open-source tools to connect classrooms in multiple institutions, the project asked students to research Whitman’s connections to their individual locations and share that research in a dynamic, social, web-based learning environment.

As originally designed, the project would engage classes at four academic institutions (New York City College of Technology [City Tech], New York University [NYU], University of Mary Washington, and Rutgers University–Camden) located in Whitman’s three principal areas of residence (New York; Washington, DC; and Camden, New Jersey) in a concurrent, connected, semester-long inquiry into the relationship of Whitman’s poetry to local geography and history. In New York, students from my class at CUNY and Karen Karbiener’s class at NYU would explore Whitman’s early-career connections to the Brooklyn Waterfront, Lower Manhattan, and Long Island, focusing on the texts he wrote during the years he lived there. At the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, students in a class team-taught by Mara Scanlon and Brady Earnhart would consider Whitman’s mid-career writings and experiences as a Civil War nurse in Washington, DC. Students in two classes taught separately by Tyler Hoffman and Carol Singley at Rutgers University–Camden would investigate Whitman’s late career in the city where he spent the final decade of his life. The roster of schools eventually expanded when Karen Karbiener received a Fulbright Fellowship to Serbia and decided to include her class at the University of Novi Sad rather than the one at NYU.

A year of planning began in 2008 after the project received its first grant from NEH. During this phase, the project team, including faculty members, instructional technologists, and consulting Whitman scholars, held a series of in-person and online meetings to create shared assignments and activities and to train faculty members on project technologies. During this planning year, a team of technologists and web designers constructed the project website (http://lookingforwhitman.org) and began to create supporting materials. A second grant in 2009 helped fund additional technical support, curriculum development, project meetings, and a student conference that brought participants together in person at the end of the project.

Assignments created during the planning year formed the basis of connection among classes, fostering the creation of a project-wide community during the fall 2009 semester. Assignments ranged from “The Frontispiece Project,” where students across locations introduced themselves to one another using Whitman’s 1855 Leaves of Grass frontispiece as a model, to “The Material Culture Museum,” a collaboratively built virtual museum in which students examined the context of Whitman’s work through objects mentioned in his poetry, such as surgical saws or a ticket to one of Lincoln’s lectures. Other projects included networked annotations of Whitman’s poetry and “Finding Whitman,” a map of short videos of students reading Whitman’s poetry in locations relevant to his work.

Innovative Cross-Institutional Collaboration

While “Looking for Whitman” operated within existing curricular and disciplinary frameworks, it also subverted codified elements of those structures. Perhaps most radically, the project brought participants into virtual learning spaces linked across very different types of schools, including an open-admissions public college of technology, a highly selective and private research-intensive university, a public liberal arts college, and a public research university. Each course explicitly engaged learners with very different backgrounds and knowledge bases. At the University of Mary Washington, senior English majors took the course as a capstone experience. At Rutgers, one class engaged a mix of undergraduate English majors and master’s students, while the other served as an introduction to disciplinary methodology for new graduate students in English. At City Tech, third-year undergraduates took the course as part of their general education requirements. Graduate students at the University of Novi Sad added an angle of international collaboration that resonated with recent trends in Whitman scholarship and American Studies and reframed the poet’s work within global contexts.

In a significant way, the act of bringing together students from selective and open-admission colleges, undergraduate and graduate departments, struck at the heart of the systems of privilege and exclusivity that gird the power and prestige of many educational institutions. Elite schools typically promise prospective students sheltered learning experiences with accomplished faculty and the best and brightest of their peers. Just as Whitman’s vast poetic catalogues leveled differences between citizens, so too did “Looking for Whitman” penetrate the boundaries that educational institutions have erected around themselves. In the spirit of Whitman’s democratic beliefs, it offered the possibility that a radically diverse mix of students could enrich one another’s learning, with the place-based orientation ensuring that even the least advanced student could contribute unique material that would be valuable to students in other venues. Place-based learning thus became a great leveler, one that buttressed the ability of all students to contribute to the larger conversation.

Future projects based on this model of interconnected courses across institutions might benefit from some lessons learned through “Looking for Whitman”:

  • Real barriers to connection—socioeconomic differences between institutions and students, level of academic preparedness in shared subject matter, and willingness to share material—must be addressed openly. Students indicated that more face-to-face social engagement with students from other classes, especially at the beginning of the semester, would have made them feel more at ease with one another
  • Given funding limitations, future experimenters hoping to foster cross-campus projects should consider options to reduce costs. These might include implementing shorter periods of cross-campus collaboration and connection (week-long as opposed to semester-long projects), working with faculty members who are already proficient in the technologies to be used, and building on platforms for collaboration that have already been developed.

Ultimately, the learning experiences that can be fostered through cross-campus digital collaborations are too powerful to be ignored. As one student wrote in response to a survey question, “I am taking an English class unlike any other English class I have ever taken.”

Editor’s note: For more examples of digital humanities work supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, see www.neh.gov/ODH.


Whitman, Walt. 1992. Leaves of Grass. New York: Vintage Books (Library of America).

Matthew K. Gold is an advisor to the provost for Master's Programs and Digital Initiatives at the City University of New York Graduate Center and assistant professor of English at New York City College of Technology.


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