April 25, 2020
Fr Howlett project

Innovative History Department course engages students in collaborative, technology-based research project

“Digital humanities” is the marriage of traditional scholarship in humanities subjects such as History with information-technology-based applications and analysis.  It allows complex source materials – texts and graphical images, for example – to be digitized, curated, organized, and presented in ways that creatively rearrange traditional formats of research and teaching.  In recent years, History departments across the U.S. and beyond have incorporated digital humanities into the training of their students, not only as tools for scholars but also as part of students’ preparation for careers as research and information specialists in a wide array of settings.  Catholic University’s Department of History has been increasing its offerings in this area.

During the Spring 2020 semester a new course, HIST 394, “Digital Humanities: A Practicum”, taught by Dr. Caroline Sherman, Associate Professor of History, provided an opportunity for students to work collaboratively on a digital research project.  The result has just gone live as a web-based presentation, which is accessible here.  The project used Scalar, an open-source web-authoring app that makes it possible to assemble text and other materials in digital form.

The project focuses on Father William J. Howlett (1847-1936), a son of Irish immigrants who spent parts of his early life in Michigan and Colorado, began priestly formation in Kentucky before entering seminary in France, travelled extensively in Europe, and from the late 1870s served as a missionary priest back in Colorado before ultimately becoming chaplain to the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in Kentucky, where his sister professed religious vows.  Willa Cather used Howlett’s 1908 book, The Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf, as a source for her Death Comes for the Archbishop.

The principal source for Father Howlett is his The Recollections of My Life and Reflections on Times and Events During It: A Memoir, a typescript in the collections of the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives on the Catholic University campus.  The only earlier edition of the Memoir was produced decades ago and is not easily available (more details here).  The students in Professor Sherman’s class produced a digital text from the typescript, and the project website presents that text side by side with images from the typescript.  The students also extracted from the Memoir a timeline of events Howlett mentioned, in his own life and in local and national affairs of the U.S. and beyond, and the project site includes a genealogy, maps, and other supporting material for a reconstruction of the world the Memoir reveals.

The introduction to the project notes that “The life of Rev. Fr. William J. Howlett is, in a way, just a string of circumstances. At different moments, he shares his experiences of life as a child of immigrants, a nomadic laborer, an international traveler, and missionary priest on the American western frontier.  As one contributor, Thomas Lynch, a senior History major, aptly noted, Father Howlett is like the Forrest Gump of the Catholic community of his time.  He reports on each of these roles with the same humility and power of observance that carries his memoir.  His writer’s voice is delightful and his attention to detail, meticulous.  As such, his perspective is valuable to enthusiasts of many topics: those interested in the histories of Catholicism, American western expansion, and even the particulars of nineteenth-century communication and interpersonal relationships will find use in Fr. Howlett’s memoir.”

The project challenged students to work as a team, assign respective tasks, and produce a collective end-product.  All of them reflected upon the new perspectives the project gave them.  Maria Letizia, a sophomore History major with a minor in Anthropology, reports that she really enjoyed how the class “could all come together to finish and make something really cool. We had 16 weeks to turn a 98-page memoir into something more and did.”  Commenting on the seeming ordinariness of Howlett’s reminiscences, senior History major Veronica Smaldone said “those who would deem themselves insignificant in the eyes of history can offer some of the most charming accounts of it.” 

Professor Sherman commented “I was so impressed by the students: they really took charge of the project and worked together collaboratively. It was very inspiring and made me reflect on how else I might ‘get out of the way’ of student-led work.”

Professor Sherman emphasizes that the course was made possible through the support and help of many.   Kevin Gunn, Coordinator of Digital Scholarship for Catholic University Libraries and Lecturer in the Department of Library and Information Science, contributed guest lectures about digital humanities for the class.  Dr Laura Morreale taught HIST 516, “Digital Approaches to History” in the Spring 2019 semester, aided Professor Sherman in her own preparation for the practicum, and thus helped to pioneer digital humanities teaching in the Department.  Shane MacDonald, the Special Collections Archivist at the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, not only made the initial scan of the typescript but also gave the class a tour of the collections and introduced students to many of the digital tools at the disposal of the archives.  Ayla Toussaint, archivist for the Loretto Heritage Center in Kentucky, supplied some photographs and was setting up a research trip for the course’s students when the coronavirus pandemic cancelled all their travel plans.