UR Digital Humanities Professor Receives $35K Fellowship for Research on Oral Histories from the Great Depression

January 25, 2019

Tilton HeadshotA new open access digital book will enable scholars to analyze patterns in the oral histories of people living in the American South during the Great Depression. 

University of Richmond’s Lauren Tilton, an assistant professor of digital humanities, received a $35,000 NEH-Mellon Fellowship for Digital Publication to develop a digital book that will map out how oral histories collected during the Great Depression shaped American culture. The fellowship was awarded by the National Endowment of the Humanities and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Tilton will co-author the project “Voice of a Nation: Mapping Documentary Expression in New Deal America” in collaboration with University of Richmond statistician Taylor Arnold, and Courtney Rivard, director of the digital literacy and communications lab at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The digital book developed by the team will examine what at the time were called “life histories” collected during the Federal Writers’ Project Southern Life History Project, a New Deal initiative aimed at chronicling the biographies of people who lived in the American South during the Great Depression.

“Life histories were a new form of documentary expression used to capture everyday life of the people living in the South,” said Tilton. “The idea was to give the voiceless a platform to speak in order to better understand life in a region, which was viewed as antiquated at the time, and reposition the South’s place in American culture.”

The project will use computational methods to analyze more than 1,200 life histories. The end product will be traditional book chapters alongside layered and zoomable maps that will serve as an interactive tool scholars can use to personalize their own investigations of how oral histories shaped the notions of who belonged in 1930s America.

 “The project is a traditional book combined with an interactive interface for audiences to engage with and explore the life histories for themselves,” said Tilton. “Scholars will be able to research patterns in the data that reveal an entangled story about how life histories produced public memory, and how race and gender played a role in not only determining who was interviewed but also the stylistic and rhetorical choices used by writers to document the interviewee’s life.”

Tilton recently received a $100,000 collaborative Digital Humanities Advancement Grant. She has taught at UR since 2016 and is a research fellow in the Digital Scholarship Lab.

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Through NEH-Mellon Fellowships for Digital Publication, the National Endowment for the Humanities and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation jointly support individual scholars pursuing interpretive research projects that require digital expression and digital publication.