DeSpain and Hildebrandt host IRIS Center Open House, showcase projects

According to English professor Jessica DeSpain, William Pannapacker, writer for the “The Chronicle for Higher Education” called digital humanities not only the next big thing, but the future of all research.

English professors DeSpain and Hildebrandt co-founded SIUE's IRIS Center in 2009. Photo courtesy of Theresa San Luis.

“We need that on campus,” DeSpain said. “We need faculty doing that research and having the resources available to them to do it successfully.”

DeSpain co-founded the Interdisciplinary Research and Informatics Scholarship (IRIS) Center with English professor and co-director Kristine Hildebrandt.

She said the center is meant to provide faculty and students resources in sustainable research in which they use digital tools and methods to answer critical questions.

“Faculty really needed a collective space, equipment and expertise to take digital research to the next level,” DeSpain said.

On Wed., Oct. 8, DeSpain and Hildebrandt hosted an open house at the IRIS Center lab space in 0226 Peck Hall. Faculty and students exhibited seven ongoing IRIS projects. Theater professor Johanna Schmitz, for example, presented about Elizabethan Theatre. English professor Jessica DeSpain showcased Bertha the Book Scanner acquired in 2010 through a New Directions Grant from the graduate school. History professor Jason Stacy discussed with visitors his project Walt Whitman Before “Leaves of Grass.”

Hildebrandt said faculty support and interest in the IRIS open house have been great.

“We have fewer opportunities otherwise to show each other what we’re working on,” Hildebrandt said. “This is a great opportunity for everyone to come together to share what they’ve done.”

DeSpain said the IRIS center has definitely blossomed.

“We’re hoping it blossoms a little bit further,” DeSpain said. “It’s still a lot of labor of love that Kristine and I have put a lot of time into.”

Hildebrandt said that since starting the IRIS Center in 2009 with DeSpain, they have come a really long way.

“We really had to start with our hearts and minds convincing people that digital humanities is a big part of humanities and social sciences scholarship,” Hildebrandt said. “A lot of faculty didn’t really know what digital humanities was or what it was all about, or else they did but they didn’t really understand that this was a bigger trend beyond their own project.”

DeSpain said both she and Hildebrandt proposed the IRIS Center idea to Dean Aldemaro Romero during faculty roundtable to create a place to gather numerous digital research projects among faculty.

“[With] digital silos or separate entities, the goal was to have them come together,” DeSpain said.

According to Hildebrandt, the IRIS Center has received roughly four external grants from the federal government and 10 internal SIUE grants to fund projects. Among the internal grants are numerous Seed and Transitional and Exploratory Projects grants, a New Directions grant, and Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities research associate stipends and assistantships. Federal funding has come in the form of three National Science Foundation grants.

“That’s a huge amount,” Hildebrandt said. “IRIS is a place where not only research ideas can happen but where faculty can use other people’s knowledge and experience and advice to get their own funding.”

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