A Master's Degree in Digital Humanities:

Part of the Media Studies Program

At The University of Virginia

John Unsworth

Delivered at the 2001 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities, Université Laval, Québec, Canada, May 25, 2001


The program I'm about to describe developed out of a year-long open seminar that involved faculty (local and visiting, humanities and computer science), graduate students, and library staff. The seminar was organized around the question "Is humanities computing an academic discipline?" Not surprisingly, the seminar concluded that it was, and that it should be taught as such at the University of Virginia. In the course of the seminar year, we heard from a number of visitors from institutions with academic programs in humanities computing:

The programs these people described differed from one another in various interesting ways-some leaned more toward media studies, some more toward linguistics, some more toward informatics. The model that seemed to fit best with the interests and resources already in evidence at Virginia was somewhere between media studies and informatics, as you'll see in what follows. I should note that UVa has no library science program, no journalism program, no communications program-so the potential for overlap between this new MA and existing graduate programs was effectively nil.

The name of the program ("Digital Humanities") is a concession to the fact that "Humanities Informatics" (which would probably be a more accurate name) sounds excessively technocratic, at least to American ears. The other obvious alternative-"Humanities Computing"-sounded too much like a computer support function (but it is a term I sometimes use in what follows). Perhaps if this M.A. sprouts a Ph.D., its students can graduate as Doctors of Humane Computing.

So, first I'll give an account of the rationale for the program, followed by an overview of its requirements, and then a more detailed look at the sequence of courses over the four semesters of the MA.

The Rationale:

The basic impetus for this degree program is the simple observation that our culture and our cultural heritage are migrating very rapidly to digital forms, and in order to manage that migration and take advantage of the new intellectual and creative possibilities it offers, we will need trained professionals who understand both the humanities and information technology, and we will need them in a number of different areas-in museums, libraries, teaching, scholarship, publishing, government, communications, entertainment, and elsewhere.

We can already see that this is true: libraries are putting millions of items online; every major art museum now has a Web site; computers have become part of the teaching of literature, history, religious studies, and other disciplines; the next generation of scholarly editions of major authors will be electronic editions, and the next generation of paperbacks will be E-Books.

The Master's Degree in Digital Humanities prepares graduate students to meet this immediate cultural need, and offers them the training to apply information technology to the intellectual content of the humanities, and to experiment with the analytical possibilities that information technology offers the humanities.

At the end of the first year of this program, students should have a broad but practical sense of the challenges that one must overcome in making humanities content tractable to computational methods. By the end of the second year, students should be able to meet such challenges, even if doing so requires building new tools or inventing new methods. The program aims to provide students with experience in recognizing and articulating problems in humanities computing and working collaboratively to solve them, as well as providing hands-on experience in designing and creating digital media.

Students who have completed this degree might go on to further graduate work, for example a Ph.D. in a traditional discipline of the humanities (about which, more later), or they might elect to seek employment in publishing, communications, commerce, cultural institutions, or any of a number of other areas in which their skills and intellectual training would have immediate value.

The Requirements:

The course of study for the MA in Digital Humanities is a two-year cycle of core courses and electives: in order to complete the program, a student will take at least nine 3-credit courses at the graduate level (where three credit-hours is the usual accounting value of a full-semester course). In addition, a one-credit internship and a one-credit teaching seminar are required, and students will enroll in several non-topical research courses ("non-topical research" is the category used to account for independent research, for example towards a thesis or dissertation). The MA requires a total of 48 credit-hours.

Concentration Electives:

Students will complete at least three humanities electives (as part of their nine courses) during the M.A. program. These courses must be at the graduate level and they must be chosen in consultation with the faculty advisor. They will normally be courses in the College of Arts and Sciences, but they may also be chosen from approved humanities offerings outside Arts and Sciences (for example, in Architecture, Education, or Law). The purpose of the concentration electives is to provide each student with in-depth graduate coursework in a humanities subject area, as a context for that student's humanities computing-for example, a student with background and research interests in medieval literature might choose to take these electives in medieval literature, medieval history, and linguistics, might choose to intern with an ongoing faculty research project in medieval studies, and might design a thesis project that applies humanities computing tools and techniques to a research problem with a particular medieval text.


Successful completion of this MA program requires students to have, or to acquire, a working familiarity with major computer operating systems (PC, Macintosh, Unix) and software more specialized than the usual office applications (e.g., visual programming software, multimedia authoring tools, databases), as well as with markup languages (e.g., SGML, XML) and programming languages (e.g., Perl, Java).

Programming Language Requirement:

Entering students should be able to demonstrate competence in at least one computer programming language by passing a ninety-minute examination, administered by the Computer Science department at the University and designed to ascertain the student's understanding of basic concepts and principles of computer programming. For students entering without this competence, an intensive summer course will be offered in conjunction with Computer Science; other options for acquiring this competence include taking an undergraduate course in the College of Engineering (provided that prerequisites are met), taking a course at the local Community College, or learning through project-based self-instruction. Whatever method is chosen, students must pass the competency exam no later than the beginning of the third semester.


Working with a faculty advisor, each student will develop a thesis project that consists partly of work in team-based environments and partly of individual writing and reflection.

Teaching and Practicum/internships:

In addition to their course work and thesis project, students are required to complete internships in "real-world" projects: most students will also lead discussion sections for Media Studies 110: Information Technology and Digital Media.

The Sequence of Courses:

First semester:

3 courses, plus 3 hours of non-topical research. Coursework is aimed at introducing students to the concept of design as it is understood in both computer science and the humanities, and to the topic of knowledge representation, as a practical issue in domains as diverse as artificial intelligence and text encoding. This semester also includes the first humanities concentration elective, in which students study a particular humanities problem-area.

MDST 501 - (3.0) (Y) Design in the Context of Information Technology

This course takes a case-study approach to the analysis of design within information technology and digital media, with emphasis on fundamental principles of structure, organization, and interface.

MDST 831 - (3.0) (Y) Knowledge Representation I

This seminar provides a forum for study and discussion of materials in the history, theory, and conceptual understanding of classification systems. Topics include logic, philosophy of language, visual representation, bibliographic methods, information design, visual and textual models of epistemology, aesthetics and metaphysics of form.

Humanities Concentration Elective

MDST 897: Non-Topical Research

Second Semester:

3 courses (the advanced seminar on knowledge representation, plus two humanities concentration electives), a one-hour internship with an ongoing faculty research project in the area of humanities computing, and two hours of non-topical research. By the end of this semester, students will have a solid background in knowledge representation, a good idea of what knowledge representation problems look like in a particular humanities discipline, and some hands-on experience working with such a problem in a research context.

MDST 700 - (1.0) (Y) Internship Projects: Design and Implementation

Internships will be in ongoing projects in the application of digital media and information technology to the humanities, preferably at the University of Virginia (perhaps in faculty projects, library centers, or the new digital imprint at the university press) but possibly elsewhere. Progress in the projects will be assessed and discussed on a regular basis. In many cases, internships will continue through summer as employment opportunities.

MDST 832 - (3.0) (Y) Knowledge Representation II

Prerequisite: MDST 831

Seminar with continued discussion and examination of materials in the history, theory, and conceptual understanding of classification systems.

Humanities Concentration Elective

Humanities Concentration Elective

MDST 897: Non-Topical Research

Third Semester:

Two courses, plus five hours of non-topical research, plus a one-hour teaching internship. By this point in the program students will have passed a programming-language competency exam, and some of their coursework in this semester will focus on how to build software tools for solving humanities research and teaching problems. Also in this semester, students will take a seminar that will provide them with the background they need, as they need it, to teach a first semester of MDST 110. They will also take part in a one-credit pedagogy seminar, and begin work on their year-long thesis project.

MDST 585 - (3.0) (Y) Software Engineering for the Humanities

Prerequisite: Completion of the Computer Programming Competency Exam

Client-based approach to developing software for the humanities; projects and assignments will be based on actual needs and examples, students will design software for ongoing research projects.

MDST 810 - (3.0) (Y) Cultural Issues in Digital Media and Information Technology

This seminar focuses on the cultural premises and effects of information technology and digital media. It is preparation for teaching in Media Studies 110, and it should be taken in conjunction with MDST 701.

MDST 701 - (1.0) (Y) Teaching Media Studies

Co-requisite: MDST 810

This workshop provides training in pedagogy for students serving as teaching assistants in MDST 110: Information Technology and Digital Media. Issues of pedagogy and the use of information technology in the teaching environment will be addressed. This course should be taken in conjunction with MDST 810.

First semester of teaching MDST 110

MDST 897: Non-Topical Research

Fourth Semester:

3 hours of coursework-a final seminar that both sums up intellectual issues in humanities computing and digital media, and allows students to talk with their professor and peers about the intellectual issues raised in their year-long thesis projects. 9 credit-hours of non-topical research in this semester permit students to complete that project, and to reflect upon it (in MDST 898). Students also teach a second semester of MDST 110.

MDST 811 - (3.0) (Y) Intellectual Issues in Humanities and Computing

This seminar will discuss critical issues and theoretical concerns that emerge from the intersection of humanities research and teaching with the tools and concepts of computational approaches to analysis and interpretation.

MDST 897: Non-Topical Research

MDST 898 - (1.0 - 12.0) (Y) Non-Topical Research

Each student will draft a paper analyzing the implications, problems, successes, and issues that arise from their research projects. This is meant to be an opportunity to reflect self-consciously upon some aspect of epistemological inquiry that arises from the thesis project. Students will be required to give a public presentation of their theses during the final semester.

Second semester of teaching MDST 110


Over the last eight years, a surprisingly large number of humanities faculty at the University of Virginia have become involved in humanities computing, through programs offered by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, through the outreach and training activities of the Library's digital centers (for electronic texts, geospatial and statistical data, rare books and manuscripts, and digital media), and through the University's Teaching with Technology Initiative. Until now, the only way for a student to participate in such activities was to work as a paid assistant to a faculty project, or as paid staff in one of the library centers-many have done just that, and indeed, one of the things I like best about what's happened at the Institute is the way it has helped to produce a highly skilled, collegial, and interdisciplinary group of graduate students. The new MA program aims to offer formal training in humanities computing-not in order to replace or supplant the project-based learning, but to supplement it with coursework and guided research.

Finally, as to future plans: The MA requires six new full-semester courses, and we expect it to enroll up to 15 students per year. The College of Arts and Sciences has committed to hiring two new faculty to staff these courses, and we expect those faculty to reside in existing departments. Also, once the MA is in place and enrolling students (a year from this fall), we will begin department-by-department negotiations for dual admissions to a combined MA/Ph.D. consisting of an MA in digital humanities followed by a Ph.D. in a traditional discipline (English, History, and Religious Studies will probably be the first departments we'll approach).