This semester marked the first offering of a “Gateway” course in the Digital and Computational Studies Initiative, INTD 2041: Gateway to the Digital Humanities. As a new faculty member at Bowdoin, the title of the course gave me pause: what is a gateway and how does it differ from other points of entry? Also, the course is my own professional gateway to Bowdoin and to exploring a new area of my research in digital humanities. Since Pamela Fletcher (co-director of DCSI), Jack Gieseking (New Media and Data Visualization Specialist), and I have offices in the Visual Arts Center, I immediately thought that the Class of 1875 columns (top right) would be an appropriate image for this first blog post about arriving at Bowdoin, but I have since learned that Bowdoin has no fewer than 3 other sets of gates on campus, and so my image (left) needed to be a collage (something for which the Gateway students will be learning to write code later this semester).
My doctoral training in Italian literature immediately suggested Dante’s famous gates to the Inferno as an archetypal model for this kind of opening:
|Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore:
fecemi la divina podestate,
la somma sapienza e ‘l primo amore.
Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
|Through me the way is to the city dolent;
Through me the way is to eternal dole;
Through me the way among the people lost.Justice incited my sublime Creator;
Created me divine Omnipotence,
The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.
Before me there were no created things,
My early experiences at Bowdoin certainly have nothing in common with the city of woe, eternal pain, or residing among the lost that Dante’s Gates of Hell announce! (Given the troublesome relationship many of us have with computers, I do feel obliged to acknowledge a final project in my 2009 Dante seminar in which a student revised Hell for a digital world so that a judging figure of Bill Gates evaluated the technical skill of all newly arrived souls and sent the digital sinners to various eternal tech support lines.) In spite of metaphorical limitations, I do think Dante’s structure can serve as a useful means for understanding the multiple gateways present: for me, this seminar is a point of entry to academic life at Bowdoin; for DCSI this is an opportunity to explore curriculum possibilities; for many of the students this is their first exposure to a new discipline.
In Canto III of the Inferno, the gate itself is doing many things. It is not a passive threshold, but rather, it acts. It speaks to the pilgrim, it touches the emotional quick of the soul, and it verbally maps the entire structure of Dante’s vision of the afterlife. This is not a window that allows a protected glimpse of content or external possibility. This gateway is part of the architecture of the imagined space of the afterlife and a fundamental structure in the poem: it immediately enunciates and performs the trinity with the repetition of “per me” and its triple terzina length; Justice, the emotional motivator of Dante’s poem is given the emphatic position of first word in the middle terzina; and the guiding principles of the organization of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise are the triplet of power, wisdom, and love. The final tercet tells the fascinating autobiography of the Gates of Hell. This Gateway was not necessary until a dramatic shift in creation (here, Original Sin) established the categories of immortal and mortal. The gate tells new arrivals to abandon all hope, but careful readers know that this admonition does not apply to Dante, and should not apply to them if they follow Dante’s lead by observing, questioning, and applying what they have learned to their own lives.
So, how is INTD 2041 a gateway? Hopefully the language of my poetic analysis will have already hinted at the powerful ways that the “Gateway to Digital Humanities” course is prompting action in the classroom. Where Dante’s gate acts out the trinity, Gateway to DH students are asked to act out the practices of humanists. My sense is that the motivation for taking the course comes from a potent blend of curiosity and the sense that the material can be immediately applied to life and work outside the classroom. The discussions and activities are organized by categories of materials that humanities disciplines investigate: images, spaces, texts, and networks. The course itself is necessary because of the unfolding changes that the digital world is bringing to higher education and society at large.
In a way that I feel is indicative of the broader field of digital and computational studies, this seminar on digital humanities obliges participants to be rigorous intellectuals who are also creators. I am delighted to have learned recently that there is already a precedent for the Bowdoin community and Dante’s famous gates, a 2009 exhibit on Auguste Rodin in which preparatory pieces for his sculpture “Gates of Hell” featured prominently. I look forward to seeing what we are able to create this year as the DCSI begins.