Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

January 20, 2015

Students step up to collaborate as a professional research team

Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Newbook Digital Texts in the Humanities

“We basically structured the project like a business. We have various departments, and we do everything from marketing to publishing. So the students that hang with us and do the work get a pretty good picture of what professional life is like.”

Walter Andrews
Research Professor, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations


Under the direction of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) faculty, undergraduate and graduate students hone skills in historical research and computer programming as they digitize, transcribe, translate and edit century-old texts from Ottoman Iraq and Egypt. As these students advance the growing field of digital humanities, they also experience how diverse teams work in the professional world. A key example is the independent, web-based publishing house Newbook Digital Texts in the Humanities led by Walter Andrews.

Collaboration is the future of research and of work: The project has drawn together an interdisciplinary team to solve complex research puzzles and give students experience working in diverse professional teams. The team includes:

  • Undergraduate and graduate students from an array of UW departments, including Biology, Math, History, Computer Science & Engineering and the Jackson School of International Studies
  • UW faculty, including visiting scholar and Egyptologist Sarah Ketchley
  • Iraq-based researcher and dialect expert Nowf Allawi, project co-founder

Project leaders and participants see such interdisciplinary, international collaboration and open-access digital publishing as the future of research. “Having digitized primary sources has opened up research in ways that were simply impossible even twenty years ago,” says Kearby Chess ‘14, whose master’s thesis relied on Newbook Digital Texts sources. For example, the Svoboda Diaries, a detailed first-person chronicle of trade and travel in one of the world’s last multi-ethnic empires, were scattered among libraries and personal collections. Access to many of the original diaries was lost after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Thanks to the work of UW students and their collaborators, copies of the diaries are becoming available online both as annotated transcriptions and through the “Svobodapedia” wiki.

Students work with primary sources, such as photographs and handwritten diaries, to illuminate life in Ottoman Iraq. Above, steamships arriving in Baghdad, captured by Alexander Svoboda, ca. 1900. Image courtesy of the Svoboda Diaries Project and Newbook Digital Texts.

Students work with primary sources, such as photographs and handwritten diaries, to illuminate life in Ottoman Iraq. Above, steamships arriving in Baghdad, captured by Alexander Svoboda, ca. 1900.
Image courtesy of the Svoboda Diaries Project and Newbook Digital Texts.

“I didn’t know how history and computer science could work together prior to this.”

Kelsie Haakenson
UW senior double majoring in History and Computer Science & Engineering


History students learn to code; computer science majors learn to work in interdisciplinary teams: Unexpected cross-pollination can happen when students from different disciplines work together towards a shared goal.

  • Kelsie Haakenson came to the UW planning to study history with an eye towards preserving historical buildings and artifacts. Last spring, after working with the Svoboda Diaries team for a year and teaching herself the Python programming language, she was accepted to the UW Computer Science & Engineering program. Now she envisions a career in the digital humanities, blending her passions and professional goals. “I want to focus on online publishing of primary sources and user-friendly ways to display information rather than fixing artifacts and leaving them in a museum or an archive somewhere,” Haakenson says. “In digital form, sources are more accessible and hopefully have more longevity.”
  • Undergraduate intern Sarah Johnson also developed an interest in programming through the project. “I would never have taken a computer science class, but now that I see the content it’s creating and that it’s a necessary step in making this historical research available, it’s more interesting to me,” she says.
  • Students on the technical team have also explored new territory. Intern Tori Wellington, an undergraduate Informatics student, learned to facilitate communication between the programmers and historians on the team. Ketchley notes, “Tori has been able to take the technical jargon and present it to less technical teammates in a palatable way. That’s a real skill.” Wellington adds, “It’s a challenge, but it’s fun to make it less intimidating.”

“The project is full of invaluable people, both students and teachers. I try to learn as much from each of them as possible and to emulate their skills.”

Rachel Elizabeth Brown
Graduate student, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations; Project Manager, Newbook Digital Texts


A student-driven project fosters leadership skills: “Walter has a knack for seeing things in students they don’t see in themselves,” says graduate student Rachel Elizabeth Brown. “He spots potential really quickly.” And Brown should know. She grew from an undergraduate intern who doubted her ability to contribute, to the lab’s project manager. Faculty leaders envisioned an organizational structure for the project that put students in leadership and management roles, and Brown made it happen. Although Andrews describes her as a “whiz” at project management, Brown recalls she had a lot to learn. “I was convinced he was crazy for accepting me, that I didn’t have the skills needed to work on the project,” she says. “Walter is really good at letting students find their niche. It turns out that organizing is my thing. I love helping students figure out what their skills are and find a place in our organization that will make them happy and proud to work with us.”

Through scholarly research, students learn practical problem-solving skills: Student interns and employees on the Newbook Digital Texts team learn to push the boundaries of scholarly research through digital publishing. They also learn how a professional team works to solve complex problems beyond any one person’s expertise. As Haakenson discovered, it is often necessary to identify and fill gaps in one’s own skills and to reach out to peer experts for help. “I found an online tutorial on starting with Python and worked through the different lessons,” she says. “Whenever I came in contact with a problem I couldn’t figure out, I would use the group email list to send out questions for more experienced people to answer. The tech team is really supportive when you’re learning new things.”

Learn More

Read the full Provost report on how to link academic passion to life and careers.