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History Students Use Technology to Explore 'Living Late Antiquity'

While historians can often be found in dusty archives pouring over parchment, graduate students in a Saint Louis University history seminar could recently be found traveling back in time using 21st Century technology as part of their “Living Late Antiquity” Website project.

Graduate students working on 'Living Late Antiquity'

Students in Douglas Boin's graduate history seminar this fall developed an interactive Website, "Living Late Antiquity," as their final project. Submitted photo

The interactive digital humanities site launched on Wednesday, Dec. 6, at SLU’s Academic Technology Commons in the Pius XII Memorial Library. It allows visitors to explore urban life in the fifth century CE, just as the Roman Empire crumbled. For Boin, giving his students a chance to apply their research and writing skills to a real-world, tech-oriented project is a way to show humanities students that the skills they develop in departments like history have a place in the start-up world.

“I really wanted them to drive the whole thing,” Boin said. “What a humanist can bring to those conversations in the tech world, in the professional world and the classroom, is how do make this about people? How do we connect with them emotionally? How do we make it relevant to our lives?”

Domnall Hegarty discusses 3D printing and digital history with Nancy Brickhouse, Ph.D.
Donal Hegarty, of the Walter J. Ong., S.J., Center for Digital Humanities discusses using 3D printing to replicate medieval seals with University Provost Nancy Brickhouse, Ph.D., during the opening of SLU's Academic Technology Commons in December 2017. Photo by Amelia Flood

The digital humanities have been a focus of SLU research for years and the University is home to the Walter J. Ong, S.J., Center for Digital Humanities and projects including the center’s Broken Books and Sounding Tennyson. SLU’s recent investment in its new Academic Technology Commons includes software and resources for digital humanities projects including the ability to 3D print items like medieval seals. [insert Hegarty photo from ATC opening] Research by Boin’s colleague, Tom Finan, Ph.D., which combines unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other technology with medieval archaeology was recently featured in a documentary, True Gaelic.

“I’m interested in the voices of people who were lost and to recover those stories, I need a broader landscape,” Boin explained. “The city provided that. [The students] gravitated toward it in many ways because it expressed their vision of what you needed to make these spaces.”As a historian of late antiquity – the transition period between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Middle Ages – Boin designed his fall 2017 seminar course to tap into the stories of people living in urban areas and specified that its end project would be digital.

His seven students had their own research specialties but learned skills ranging from coding to navigating copy-right law to picking the right platform to host their final project. The experience, Boin said, was intentionally set up to mimic what he experienced while consulting with an tech start up based in Austin, Texas, over a summer.

[Name pending]
History graduate student Kailen Kinsey discusses the work of the "Living Late Antiquity" team at their Website's launch on Wednesday, Dec. 6. Submitted photo

“There’s something infectious about the tech world,” the SLU associate professor of history recalled. While on the consulting job, Boin worked as a member of a start-up team, stepping out of his academic comfort zone and learning along with the start-up’s team what it took to launch a social media community for people interested in faith and spirituality.

“It was a transformative experience for me as a professional,” Boin explained, noting that even though he held a doctorate at the time, he learned skills that weren’t introduced in his own graduate work. He returned to St. Louis ready to pass those skills along to the next generation of scholars.

Saint Louis University is a world-class Catholic, Jesuit institution educating nearly 13,000 students on two dynamic, urban campuses - in St. Louis, Missouri, and Madrid, Spain. Founded in 1818, the University is now celebrating its bicentennial.
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