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A-State Professor Receives Start-Up Grant


JONESBORO, Ark. —Dr. Alyson Gill, associate professor of art history at Arkansas State University and Director of the Center for Digital Initiatives (CDI), has received a Digital Humanities start-up grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) for her proposal, “Dangerous Embodiments: Theories, Methods, and Best Practices for Historical Character Modeling in Humanities 3D Environments.”

The award is in the amount of $59,510 and is for the development and testing of a comprehensive typology for avatar (graphical representations of a user or the user's character) creation in historical simulations in digital heritage environments. A-State faculty members Dr. Eric Cave, professor of philosophy, is a co-principal investigator on the grant and Dr. Michele Merritt, assistant professor of philosophy, is part of the grant team.

“This proposal was born from conversations at the NEH Humanities Heritage Institute last summer hosted by A-State,” Dr. Gill said. “It has been increasingly clear that the impact of historical character modeling in the digital humanities has received little scholarly attention. Instead, when characters are used, emphasis often tends to be on the constructed space with less attention to the modeling of the characters themselves and how they impact the viewer.

“Avatars now have the potential to become increasingly realistic, presenting many conceptually significant choices as we create them. This proposal focuses on the ethics of avatar creation and why there is a need to consider the impact of avatars within virtual environments.”

The value of this can be seen in looking at analogue examples of embodiment in living history contexts. Dr. Amy Tyson, associate professor of history at DePaul University, has raised awareness of the emotional toll of interpreting (often painful) histories in living history contexts, and her study of gender and power at the Historic Fort Snelling in Minnesota discusses the emotional costs of living histories for the performers in public "edutainment." A vivid example of this can also be seen in a 1999 Colonial Williamsburg living history piece, Enslaving Virginia, in which reenactments were so realistic that some audience members attacked white actors in the slave patrol.

In the new "Ask a Slave" comedy web series, Azie Mira Dungey portrays the character "Lizzie Mae" who plays an enslaved housemaid in the household of George and Martha Washington and hosts a talk show where she fields questions from tourists. In a September 2013 interview Dungey notes, "One thing I noticed at Mount Vernon was how visitors felt such strong and immediate affinity to George Washington and his story. And rightly so, he deserves it. However, in this series, I hope people begin to feel that same passion for the Lizzie Maes of history as well. Her history belongs to all of us as well.”

In this proposal Gill argued that as humanists, we are challenged to question the impact of these embodiments, and to consider not only the ethics of character creation, but also the ways in which those characters impact the narratives that viewers take from them. Looking at the modeling of avatars from sites with difficult histories, there can be focus on the Lakeport Plantation as well as Soweto, South Africa. This work will culminate in a Dangerous Embodiments symposium hosted by A-State in 2015 and an edited volume with response essays by scholars working in the field of digital humanities.

This grant follows a 2012 NEH Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities “Humanities Heritage 3D Visualization: Theory and Practice” award and a 2007 Digital Humanities Start-Up grant, “Ashes2Art: Virtual Reconstructions of Ancient Monuments” that paved the way for the creation of the Center for Digital Initiatives, a Center of Excellence at Arkansas State University. For more information click on the following link: http://www.neh.gov/news/press-release/2014-03-27.

Gill Graphic