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'LEADR' lab gives history a digital lens

November 9, 2017
Grad students Daniel Fandino, Julia DeCook, and Jack Biggs work on part of their project on Nov. 3, in Old Horticulture Hall.
Grad students Daniel Fandino, Julia DeCook, and Jack Biggs work on part of their project on Nov. 3, in Old Horticulture Hall. —
Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

One of associate history professor Thomas Summerhill’s students discovered Civil War maps studied by scholars for years were radically off.

She found this while this using modern GPS and historical maps to reconstruct Civil War battlefields as a part of a research project. 

Digitizing maps noted the inaccurate portrayals of the battles recorded in history. 

“It opened up an entirely new world,” Summerhill said. “She left the hanging question, how much do we really know about these battles if the original maps are so far off?” 

Another student reconstructed the 1880 Republican National Convention using a series of tweets for a history project. After researching documents of the historical event, he used software and familiarity with the topic to accurately capture the convention on an entertaining, modern-day social media platform. 

Summerhill calls this “rethinking old wisdom.” The modernized form of research within history and anthropology studies is done in the Lab for the Education and Advancement of Digital Research, better known as LEADR

A new facility located in Old Horticulture Hall, LEADR is changing the way social sciences and humanities is traditionally researched, turning text-heavy publications into documentaries and podcasts and photographs and diagrams into 3-D models or interactive maps. Basically, the program veers away from traditional historical and anthropological research and switches to modern, digital, innovative platforms.

“History as a profession is very, very tied to print,” Summerhill said. “It’s tied to formal articles, books, a very rigid publication system. ... But for most students that is an impenetrable world and their alternative to doing quality research online is something like Wikipedia. So there’s not much interpretation, not much of the necessary original research to play around with, rethinking old ideas and events.”

As the only physical space for research in the digital humanities in MSU, LEADR was built for and is used by the history and anthropology departments. 

“In our department, in some ways we’re a little bit ahead of other social science and humanities fields in the sense that we’re emphasizing it and we’ve invested in it,” Summerhill said. 

Changing research 

Three years ago, Brandon Locke was appointed the program’s first director. As digital humanities became a growing subcategory of work for people in history, English, literature and media studies, academics needed a space dedicated to their research.

The team behind LEADR received funding help from Matrix — the center for digital humanities and social science at MSU, which are grants provided by private donors interested in digital pedagogy — and support from the provost. 


“It’s not just a paper that is read by the student and the professor and then is thrown in the trash, but they’re projects that contribute to ongoing discussions about history, culture and heritage,” Locke said.

The lab’s tools vary across all digital media: desktop computers equipped with multiple programs, laptop computers, camcorders, DSLRs, 3D headsets, smartphones to test mobile sites, a small library of books, 3-D printers and augmented reality technology. 

“It’s given me the ability to be digitally literate,” anthropology senior Hannah Trevino, who has used the lab for five classes, said. “In one of my classes I learned how to code, which allowed me to maybe not do it proficiently in my own setting, but I can at least speak the language.” 

Trevino didn’t know how to utilize technology tools before her class — few have prior experience with resources before the lab, according to Locke. 

From learning to use digital tools, more job opportunities open up. Locke said a student who created interactive timelines through LEADR was recruited for an internship. 

“Students can come to us with any level of skills, or lack thereof, and we really try to meet them where they are and figure out what methods would be best for their project, whether that’s a class project or a personal project,” Assistant Director of LEADR Alice Lynn McMichael said. “We try to talk to them and figure out, ‘What do you know’, ‘What do you need to know’ and ‘How do we help you meet that.’”  

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Students also work in lab groups — another difference from traditional historical and anthropological research. 

“We have much more collaboration in history than people see from the outside,” Summerhill said. “It’s hard to practice it in any other way than sitting together in a lab and actually looking at each other’s work and helping build and create it and having that real time critique, comment, suggestions, idea sessions.”

According to Summerhill, LEADR was established early compared to other history departments across the country. 

“History is very locked into an older system of scholarship, especially at my level as a faculty member, which revolves very much around traditional publication in journals and with university presses for books,” Summerhill said. “That means that the standards in the way we evaluate digital research has not solidified yet and that means MSU can be a part of establishing what those standards are, and I love that.” 

Changing Storytelling

Locke and McMichael, as director and assistant director, take care of curriculum development, teaching and research. Part of the bigger digital humanities movement is to engage in different kinds of research, text mining, computational image analysis, sound analysis and large data bases to present research and tell stories. 

“I like the cultural part of it and understanding other people’s stories,” anthropology senior Monica Williamson said. “Appropriate representation is really important especially with native communities. Being able to put it on a digital platform makes it accessibly to anyone, the community and people who are unfamiliar with the indigenous knowledge.”  

Williamson uses LEADR through her internship at Indigistory, a film group through the Native American Institute. The group specializes in digitally archiving native storytelling

She works alongside communities to create videos, recording footage and teaching them how to use online systems to have control over their own stories. Williamson said she enjoys interacting with communities through modern research.


“We had to conduct our own ethnographic research,” Williamson said. “I interviewed faculty, students and community involved with the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program at MSU. My project was titled the Powerful Presence of American Indian and Indigenous Knowledge ... there is actually so much native history even though it’s not necessarily well represented through MSU’s history.”  

Trevino tells stories digitally using different methods. She made a site report of Egyptian archeology using code, Google Maps and Omeka, an online museum exhibit. Trevino sees other students share their work on social media where audience can share and spread the research. 

With LEADR, outside groups and departments reach out more frequently to utilize the online aspect. According to McMichael, a lot of people were interested in LEADR’s Malcolm’s Lansing Project from fall 2015, which mapped Malcolm X’s role in the city.  

“That has certainly had a lot of resonance with people here and elsewhere,” McMichael said. “We have a lot of classes and students do work on Detroit, and that has a lot of local resonance with their families and wider communities.”

A lot of the work LEADR does is more community-based, and that’s where Locke sees digital storytelling becoming influential in impacting society. In a class he is currently teaching, they’re documenting the lives and family histories of the Latinx community in Lansing. 

“Those community-based archives are changing the atmosphere of who gets included in stories, it’s not just the senators and the mayors that leave behind paper collections, it’s the everyday experiences of people,” Locke said.

Modernizing history

Though this digital approach to research is innovative, Summerhill believes its portrayal is essential. 

“We run the risk in the digital world of just seeing history as simple information because of the presence of Wikipedia,” Summerhill said. “But there’s nothing interpretive about simple facts, human beings always interpret and rethink the past and get new lessons out of the past.” 

LEADR aims to take well-researched information and use it to help people navigate the world. With computers and phones becoming more accessible, this digital way of documenting could change history. 

“The more of a footprint that history can have in the digital world and the higher the quality of the research and interpretation, the more people will feel like they can use history in their everyday lives,” Summerhill said. 

To the students, projects relating to media trends and global issues help develop their arguments and stances in their research. 

“Something like that, where it’s engaging day to day news,” Trevino said. “It’s stuff like that that’s going to have a good effect on society.”

LEADR is not the only center of digital humanities on campus. This upcoming spring, the library will be opening a research space called the Digital Scholarship Lab. But for now, LEADR is a physical space for students. 

The growing number of interest in this kind of research is seen as a good thing. 

“The more conversant students are in the digital space the more effective what we’re trying to do over here in LEADR will be,” Summerhill said. 

Though this digital space is taking over, traditional means of research still have an appeal to students and faculty and will continue to be utilized, McMichael said. 

“I love to do the traditional methods,” McMichael said. “I’m an art historian, I look at a lot of objects, I look at monuments. But I’m also really happy that I can build on that and apply more methods and to think about this material in new ways.” 

LEADR is not completely veering history and anthropological studies from what they used to be, it’s simply adding another necessary dimension to what historical and anthropological studies have always stood for. 

“It makes it much more fun and engaging,” Summerhill said. “My students, especially my history majors, but not exclusively so, do not want to lose touch with the analog world either. They’re interested in history because they want to read old papers, they want to go in and look at old letters and decipher the writing and learn about people’s lives at that time. They don’t want to do everything in the digital space. But they really like the fact that they could share what they learned so effectively with people in the digital space. I love this about my students because they have their feet in both worlds, and they want both world to continue to exist and LEADR gives opportunity to achieve that.”


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