Building Community Through Digital Humanities


Michigan State University has, since the beginning, been at the forefront of Digital Humanities (DH) research and scholarship, and helping lead those efforts for the past year and a half is Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Digital Humanities and Professor of English at MSU.

“That MSU is central to the development of DH thus far is undeniable,” Fitzpatrick said. “Between H-Net (Humanities and Social Sciences Online), which is one of the longest running digital projects within the humanities, and Matrix, which is the second oldest digital humanities center in the United States, MSU has long had an outsized footprint within the DH universe and has a particularly public-facing understanding of what the world of digital humanities is and ought to be in the contemporary scholarly environment. We also have a very strong sense of the global role of digital humanities, the ways in which the work that's being done here at MSU should invite the world into participation in what we're doing.”


Each year, MSU hosts the Global Digital Humanities Symposium, which brings together scholars from around the world and livestreams the presentations for a global audience. Matrix also has long worked on digital collections, digital archiving, and digital cultural heritage that goes beyond the United States. 

Fitzpatrick, who is the current Vice President and President-Elect of the Association for Computers and the Humanities, has written extensively on critical issues and ongoing concerns that address the growing digital humanities field. 

“DH opens up many different possibilities for humanities scholarship today, for thinking about what the forms of scholarship can be, that they can themselves be digital, that they can be networked, that they can be interactive, or that they can take on new kinds of shapes and new kinds of communicative possibilities,” Fitzpatrick said. “Digital scholarship also reaches out to new kinds of participation, both on and off campus, bringing new audiences into the work that’s being done and engaging with broader publics who are interested in the cultures that are under study.”

MSU has long had an outsized footprint within the DH universe and has a particularly public-facing understanding of what the world of digital humanities is and ought to be in the contemporary scholarly environment.

Collaboration and community building are both key elements of Fitzpatrick’s work. 

“I understand the work that I’m doing as being fundamentally about community building,” Fitzpatrick said, “between the work that I’m doing here at MSU that are creating collaborations and facilitating conversations across multiple centers and labs and so forth, and the work that I’ve been doing with Humanities Commons creating a platform through which individual scholars can come together, share their work, create discussions, find groups that they want to belong to, and represent the work that they’re doing in ways that help build future work within the community.

“One of the things that inspires me is the possibility of creating conversations among a wide and diverse group of participants – people both on campus and off, people in far-flung places, people who are able to connect with one another through community projects that they are really committed to, and that sense of being able to do something that functions as a mode both of advancing scholarship and of building community, is one of the things that gets me up in the morning.” 

That’s why I wanted to be here, to be part of that mission and to really think about what an institution of higher education with a public-serving focus can be in the 21st century.

The Digital Humanities work is not the only thing that drew Fitzpatrick to MSU, so too did its land grant mission.

“The mission of the land grant institution matters to me quite deeply,” she said. “This notion that higher education is something that should be provided to the citizens of the state, and that it is a state responsibility to bring that education to the people, that’s part of why I wanted to be here, to be part of that mission and to really think about what an institution of higher education with a public-serving focus can be in the 21st century. Particularly, when you bring it into connection with something like digital humanities, which is likewise motivated by bringing scholarship to the world, creating new connections among scholars, and really opening up new possibilities for the kinds of work that all of us are doing.” 

Since Fitzpatrick’s arrival at MSU in August 2017, one of the biggest digital humanities projects to launch is the new Enslaved project at Matrix, which is looking at the many different databases that are tracking some piece of the Atlantic slave trade and figuring out how to make them all work together and how they might share a common data model, thus creating a research environment where someone can begin with one database and end up finding information in another database.

Digital humanities...is likewise motivated by bringing scholarship to the world, creating new connections among scholars, and really opening up new possibilities for the kinds of work that all of us are doing.

“It’s an extraordinary model for the new kinds of work that is happening in digital humanities right now and for thinking about the ways that data across many projects might connect,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s also a really important model just in sheer collaboration, in how do you get nine PIs (principal investigators) from different projects all to agree on a common structure that might unite the work that they’re doing while retaining the individual identities of their projects.”

Without the digital aspect, Fitzpatrick says, a project like this would not be possible.

“It’s only in this networked digital environment,” she says, “that we can really take the data and connect it to everything else and figure out ways to allow users wherever they are to navigate and find the information they’re looking for.” 

Fitzpatrick admits she doesn’t know which direction MSU’s Digital Humanities community should go next, but she’s “looking forward to the opportunity of bringing them together, starting some conversations, doing some experimentation, and thinking with them about where we might collectively decide to go, and how to create the best possibilities for getting there. Those conversations, I think, are going to be really extraordinarily fruitful. And I think they’re likely to point us in some new and unexpected directions.”  

Latest Book


Fitzpatrick’s latest book, Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, just released this week, focuses on the relationship between higher education institutions and the public and proposes ways to nurture this relationship. One method through which this can be accomplished is by fostering an atmosphere of what Fitzpatrick calls “generous thinking,” which emphasizes listening over speaking, community over individualism, and collaboration over competition. She encourages people to listen to and engage openly with one another’s concerns by reading and exploring ideas together, by creating collective projects focused around common interests, and by ensuring that higher education institutions are structured to support and promote work toward the public good.

book with a yellow cover that says Generous Thinking on it and a lightbulb
Dr. Kathleen Fitzpatrick's latest book, "Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to
Saving the University"


During the editing and revision stage of the book, Fitzpatrick used an open review process by placing the entire manuscript online and allowing anyone to read it and leave comments. She ended up with 38 people leaving close to 400 comments. This feedback then was considered while editing and revising the book.

“It was important to me to make sure the project got input from people who were not necessarily on campus, and who were not necessarily the kinds of readers who the press might reach out to for their criticism. It was important that more people have the opportunity to help shape where I take the project,” Fitzpatrick said. “I received some really extraordinary feedback that really helped me see from different disciplinary perspectives, from different kinds of positions on campus, from different kinds of institutional positions, what the possibilities for the relationship between institutions of higher education and the public good might be.”