A fellowship that trained me to become a digital humanities scholar

University of Toronto Scarborough’s Dr Andrea Charise had never tried to incorporate the digital humanities into her teaching and research - until she saw an opportunity for fellowship at the Jackman Humanities Institute (JHI). 

Andrea Charise with one of her students, pointing at a computer
Dr Andrea Charise with one of her undergraduate students.

Andrea’s research and teaching sits at the intersection of arts and health: how the arts can inform health practices, health education and clinical work. She is the lead developer of Canada’s first undergraduate program in health humanities, which looks at the impact of the humanities and critical social sciences on health.

“When I saw the fellowship opportunity at the Jackman Humanities Institute (JHI - UTSC Digital Humanities Early Career Faculty Fellowship), my initial reaction was that it wasn’t for me.

I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘digital scholar’. I didn’t use digital techniques in my teaching or research and had a pretty average command of the technology I needed to live my life and do my job.

But I had a neat idea in the back of my mind – a strand of research that I would love to do, if only I had the skills, motivation and time. I wanted to explore inter-generational storytelling as part of ageing and a digital element would bring it to life.

I was curious and interested in the Digital Humanities - how to create a meaningful and informed digital element into my teaching - but didn’t know where to start. The call for applications for the fellowship reignited that curiosity so I decided to find out more.

Building an application for the fellowship

I met with the Jackman Humanities Institute and some members of the Digital Humanities Network.

I felt sure they would confirm my initial thought: that this wasn’t for me, because all I had was an idea. I had no polished project to present, nor any experience in the digital humanities.

I was pleasantly surprised at their enthusiasm and they encouraged me to apply.

I then met with my local librarians. As a traditional humanities scholar, I think I had a very old-fashioned idea of what librarians did – that their specialism was with books.

However, most librarians are trained in the specifications of digital humanities projects. They understand what the back-end requirements are and the extensive considerations that need to be taken into account. They were a very valuable resource in building my application.

Training to become a digital humanities scholar    

I was delighted to be awarded the fellowship, which began in May 2017.

One of the best things about the fellowship, and what makes it unique, is the skills development. Most fellowships are focussed on the research outputs. Although these are important, I was very much encouraged to, not only develop my own skills in digital humanities, but those of my whole research team.

My research assistant and I were able to attend The Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria for two weeks. We learned about digital storytelling and sound which became the technical basis of my project.

Through working closely with librarians in a new way was also an opportunity to develop my knowledge and skills in this area.

The impact digital humanities can have on your research or teaching

The digital humanities, as a concept, is a very unique opportunity. It’s a very open community of people who are willing to talk and discuss new ideas. You can bring raw ideas and concepts to the community to explore and develop: an inviting space that is constantly evolving.

It’s a very exciting frontier for reconceiving what humanities research can do. It can be collaborative, engaging, inclusive and arts-based: aspects that are not always associated with some traditional humanities scholarship, especially literary scholarship.

I know I can write lots of articles, but exposure to the digital humanities made me question how my skills as a researcher could be put through a creative prism. How can I create and generate knowledge in a way that is artful and aesthetic? That speaks to societal issues in a way that is very meaningful, not just to me and a small group of scholars who are interested in the same things as me, but a much more general and diverse public than I was ever trained to communicate with? 

Completing this fellowship has given me the space, time, resources and skills development to explore and experiment with this. 

  • Do you want to learn how to write for different audiences and disseminate your research in non-academic circles? The Toronto Writing Workshop is open for applications until 25 April 2019.

Preparing to launch an inter-generational storytelling platform about growing old

My research project has been the development of an inter-generational storytelling initiative, which makes use of digital story-telling, to enable the interaction of different generations. I’m looking at how new ways of storytelling can impact or shape what it means to grow old in our current culture and society.

I’ve focussed on two main strands within this research:

  1. The idea of it as a truly mutual exchange of mutual benefit. This area of research is often one-sided when implemented (think ‘old people’ telling ‘young people’ about their lives). We’re living in an age-segregated society, particularly outside the family unit, and it’s very difficult to bring together people of greatly different generations. We’re creating real and virtual spaces to bring the generations together.
  2. Getting younger people to acknowledge ageing as a ‘life course’ issue. They are already engaged in thinking about what it means to grow old, often with negative connotations: of decline or anxiety. My hope is that younger people can engage with ageing and become less inclined to push the issue away. I want to make what ageing means to be more complex and multi-dimensional. That message then changes for the younger generation and the stories that they’re able to tell change too.

Through the fellowship funding I’ve been able to create a digital platform to make these stories accessible. The website will launch in June 2019 and will have a series of digital stories made by younger people on ageing. 

We will build that over the coming months to include multi-generational stories and other resources.

Without the funding and time enabled by the fellowship, this would never have come to fruition. It would have remained a ‘nice idea’ but not brought into reality, so I’m very excited to be at this stage of the project.”


The JHI - UTSC Digital Humanities Early Career Faculty Fellowship is open for applications until 10 April 2019.


More about Andrea and her research

Dr Andrea Charise biography

Health humanities: The U of T expert behind the multidisciplinary program (article on UofT news)

The Health Humanities Learning Lab: SCOPE

Senior undergraduate Health Humanities seminars run by Andrea: