Meet Seth Kotch, Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities

This month, we are featuring profiles of those who have joined the CDHI in 2014. Next up: Seth Kotch!

Seth Kotch is the first of three faculty hires made by the College of Arts and Sciences in conjunction with the Carolina Digital Humanities Initiative. An Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of American Studies, Kotch most recently served as the Director of Digital Projects at the Southern Oral History Program.

Kotch received his MA and PhD in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his BA from Columbia University. His research focuses on the death penalty and incarceration in the American South, especially in North Carolina, as well as on oral history and the digital humanities. Kotch is currently teaching a foundational course for American Studies majors, Historical Approaches to American Studies, and will be teaching the Digital Humanities Practicum course in conjunction with the Digital Innovation Lab in Fall 2014. With support from a course development grant from the Carolina Digital Humanities Initiative, Kotch will work with Malinda Maynor Lowery this summer to redesign Introduction to Oral History to incorporate digital humanities methods and practices.

During his time at the Southern Oral History Program, Kotch contributed to several important digital projects. In addition to working with the Digital Innovation Lab on the development of DH Press through Mapping the Long Woman’s Movement, he currently serves as a principal investigator on Media and the Movement, a project supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities that looks at the role of journalists and the media throughout the civil rights movement. He also worked on Oral Histories of the American South, a digitization effort in partnership with Documenting the American South at UNC Libraries; the Civil Rights History Project, a nationwide oral history research effort funded by the Smithsonian; and Publishing the Long Civil Rights Movement project, an effort to encourage scholarly research on the long civil rights movement and experiment with new ways of publishing scholarly outputs.

And now, a few words from Seth:

What first brought you to the digital humanities, and how has it influenced your research and teaching?

A lot of scholars are doing digital humanities work without calling it that. I was one of them, working with my colleagues at the Southern Oral History Program to think about new ways of doing (digital) work with oral histories. Asking the simple question, “How can we encourage people to use oral histories more often in research and teaching?” led us to questions about core practices in creating, storing, and sharing digital material. And those questions led me to the Digital Innovation Lab. For me, working in digital humanities has spurred me to think creatively about what people at colleges and universities mean when they say “research and teaching,” and, crucially, putting collaborative, project-based work at the center of both.

Tell us more about the DH courses you plan to teach. How will you bring DH to oral history and American Studies courses? What are you most excited to share with your students?

I am looking forward to teaching the Digital Humanities Practicum next semester, as well as continuing to integrate digital work into standard offerings like Historical Approaches to American Studies. I am also developing a first year seminar to introduce undergraduates to the core principles and practices of digital humanities and engage them with some digital public work that might benefit the university and its surrounding communities. I think doing digital oral history is a great way to do both, and I am excited about working with students to use digital tools to explore the significance of personal narratives.

Now that Mapping the Long Women’s Movement has launched—what’s next for you in terms of digital projects?

I am proud of how Mapping the Long Women’s Movement suggests a new way of experiencing oral history–it really is among the first efforts to really rethink oral history from a digital perspective, as opposed to retrofitting an analog collection with some digital features. But I see that project as a first draft. Its greatest strength will come when we can add many, many more oral histories to it. The next step is to do so. Ideally, I’d like all 5,500 of UNC’s oral histories available through the tool. And there are a couple other projects in the pipeline: an effort to visualize rural environments in Jim Crow North Carolina, a data-rich project on the death penalty, and a game. The challenge will be choosing where to concentrate my efforts.

What is a day of DH like for you? (They are all so different, so feel free to focus on a particular day from some point in the past.)

I don’t think a day of DH would be all that unfamiliar to anyone doing work on campus. It starts with coffee and email, and the rest of the day is spent finding time to work on my research between fulfilling other obligations, like teaching and faculty meetings. Lately I’ve been doing a good deal of reading on game development, trying to educate myself about the different programming languages I might be able to use to create a simple game. I also convened an advisory board for a project that aims to use oral history and documentary work, presented in a digital environment, to uncover roads in African American communities deliberately abandoned during the Jim Crow era. To learn more about the economics of Jim Crow, I read Gavin Wright’s _Old South, New South_, which helped me write a lecture on the Digital South.

Do you have a favorite DH project or two? Tell us about them, and why they are your favorites.

I really like the work Wraggelabs has done. It’s thoughtful, direct, and often fun. The Software Studies Initiative has produced a number of provocative, visually rich projects, as has Stanford’s Spatial History Project. And I’m keeping my eye on Mapping the Green Book. It’s a great project, still in its initial phase, in part because it can really realize the promise of digital humanities work to show as well as tell. It’s a research project on “The Negro Motorist’s Road Book,” which helped black families navigate the segregated South, that could never reach its full potential without producing the kind of map that’s in development.

American Studies