By Mirabella McDowell
When English professor Jeremy Douglass was first asked by Humanities and Fine Arts Dean John Majewski to head up a new wall-less collaborative space on campus, he wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
“The vision was that the former arts library space (Music 1410) would become a campus center for public experiments in innovative research and teaching,” Douglass explained. “The initial focus on digital humanities expanded to embrace the arts as well, with Prof. Laurel Beckman proposing the name ‘DAHC’ – Digital Arts & Humanities Commons.”
Groups on campus were then asked to propose projects for the Digital Commons, leaving Douglass and his team to wait for the next great ideas to help define and enrich the Commons.
Months later, as Douglass walked through the wide open area, which held little more than a few tables and chairs, he reflected on how the project has evolved into a hub of innovation, creativity, and collaboration for humanities students offering “more than they could do in a bunch of little rooms apart from one another.”
Groups that have recently joined the main Commons include the Text Analysis Hackerspace, the REM Lab (Religion, Experience, and Mind), and the Scriptworlds project on the role of written languages in cognition, he said. The space is also open to any student organization that wishes to hold events related to digital culture. “It has recently hosted meetings and workshops of the UCSB Data Science Club, the SB Hacks 2018 hackathon, and a conference of the Alliance of Women in Media Arts and Technology (AWMAT),” Douglass said.
The Digital Commons is situated between impressive research spaces. The Maker Lab in Music 1404 showcases the history of printing and holds an 1800 lb., 19th-century pull press right beside a new 3D printer. On the other side of the space is the Video Game Studies and Virtual Environment Lab, which contains video game consoles as well as Twitch streaming. These advancements—in conjunction with other specialized equipment such as motion capture machines and laser cutters—showcase how the project merges the modern with the traditional. Online platforms co-exist with face-to-face human connection, and the tech and science world meet the humanities.
Douglass said the space will be chock full of state-of-the art equipment available to all students. Machines include scanners, printers, cameras, and brand new laptops available for checkout with an assortment of the latest software already pre-loaded onto them. This way, students can accomplish their best work without encountering high costs or a lack of accessibility to high quality technology.
Underlying the impressive technology is the notion that the Digital Commons will be more than a physically open space. The hope is that students will be open with each other as well – to wander around freely and check out other’s projects, see different things that interest, inspire, and excite them, and talk with people about their work.
Douglass noted that the initiative experiments with combining two kinds of space. “The first is a drop-in commons, accessible to everyone, with laptop checkouts, media carts, and moveable tables and whiteboards,” he said. “The second is an open floor plan dotted with research group zones and their special equipment such as microcontrollers or servers.” That’s why there are quite literally no walls in the space– to promote an open engagement with one another that is too often lost in the strictly digital and online world.
“There is a potential for mess and disruption,” Douglass explained. “But also surprise and excitement, with opportunities for neighbors to make unexpected connections.”
The DAHC director says he is open to any and all fresh ideas, and is hoping to receive even more applications than he has already received. “Come do a cool thing here and let us support you. Come be a part of this community,” he concluded, adding with a laugh, “Call us!”
Mirabella McDowell, a former intern with the UCSB Division of Humanities and Fine Arts, has just graduated with a BA in English.