University of Canterbury Digital Humanities

The University of Canterbury Digital Humanities program is a growing cross-disciplinary initiative that will reach students at all levels of their studies, from undergraduate to PhD. The program emphasizes the use of digital humanities methods to better serve the entire humanities tradition. For more information, contact James Smithies or visit the website.


To create Digital Humanities pathways from undergraduate and graduate study to work-based internships, offering students the opportunity to apply their skills in real-world contexts while also increasing digital capabilities across the humanities and social sciences.

Building on the robust interdisciplinary work of the UC CEISMIC Canterbury Earthquakes Digital Archive, and following rigorous national and international review and acceptance processes, the University of Canterbury offers an Honors-level digital humanities program. The program, which includes hands-on work through internships and job placements, spans not only a wide range of humanities disciplines, but also social sciences, human interface technology, design thinking, and computer science.

The program is based around two key courses: ‘Digital Methods’ and ‘Digital Practice’. The first course provides a broad overview digital methods across all arts, humanities and social science fields, focusing on applied coding skills as well as critical analysis anchored through reference to the engineered nature of digital culture. In ‘Digital Practice’ students have the opportunity to produce a digital project and a 4000 word essay contextualizing it in the context of their core discipline. Students also have the option of completing a long research essay. An undergraduate minor, graduate certificate, masters, and doctoral courses are planned for the future. All of this activity is aligned with the College of Arts BA Internship Program, which provides 2nd, 3rd and (soon) 4th year internship-based courses, where students are placed in local businesses, NGOs, or cultural heritage organizations to undertake a project. Many naturally spend their internship in the UC CEISMIC Digital Archive Program Office, working on the collections. Other projects have included the development of digital strategy documents for local organizations, including the historic Arts Centre that was severely damaged in the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.

The University of Canterbury program isn’t limited to digital humanities. That pathway is mirrored in an increasing number of other pathways like Media and Communications, and Community Outreach. The same basic model is used, with the same goal of offering humanities students formative work experiences and opportunities to apply the skills they’ve learned. It is an example of fruitful collaboration between a digital humanities program and a broader internship program designed to serve all arts, humanities and social science students.


Students from a wide range of fields in the humanities and social sciences participate in various aspects of the program, from jointly-taught courses, to internships, to honors degrees and thesis work. The program is directed by James Smithies.

The program targets humanities and social science students with an interest in digital technologies, and offers various ways for them to learn and engage depending on their field and level of study. Because the UCDH program has fostered strong connections with local business, government, and cultural heritage organizations, students seeking to apply computational humanities or social science to career opportunities in those areas are also welcome.

James Smithies, Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities, leads the UC Digital Humanities program and supervises many of the digital humanities internships.

UCDH Director James Smithies

James Smithies

Smithies works primarily on the development of the Digital Humanities as a discipline, including the development of digital humanities projects and the articulation of new methodological practices. His scholarly work focuses on the digital humanities, literature & technology, New Zealand history, and the history of ideas. He also has experience as a technical writer, senior business analyst and project manager.

A number of other staff and faculty members also contribute to the program’s leadership. Stephen Hardman coordinates a college-wide internship program. He identifies businesses interested in using interns, and provides background seminars and pedagogical and emotional support for the internship students. Christopher Thomson, a digital humanist with a strong TEI background, manages the UC CEISMIC office, which serves as another internship and employment opportunity for students. Finally, Paul Millar, Head of the School of Humanities, works with department chairs at a strategic level.


The basic model is in place and working well. The team is now focused on building out existing pathways, identifying new businesses in need of student interns, and helping develop the approach across all arts, humanities and social science disciplines.

Because it is highly interdisciplinary in nature, the program depends on deep cooperation and collaboration across departments. The University of Canterbury is currently experiencing a great deal of change following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes that severely damaged the campus and the surrounding city of Christchurch. Because rebuilding is a major focus at this time, the campus community is open to innovation, and there is a strong sense of solidarity and positivity towards new ideas. The digital humanities ethos, with its strong community approach and outward-looking focus, has been a particularly welcome element as the city and campus rebuild together.

In the New Zealand higher education system, high-achieving undergraduates wishing to continue their studies commonly pursue a one-year Honours degree upon graduation. The Honours degree in digital humanities provides students with the opportunity to blend their home discipline with digital approaches. The degree is being offered for the first time in 2014, and UCDH anticipates a cohort of about 20-30 students.

In addition, UCDH is partnering with humanities and social science departments to offer courses that will help prepare students to apply digital methods to their area of study. Organized as a “Digital Pathway”, these courses help to prepare undergraduates for graduate study or meaningful employment. Courses with existing digital components have been identified, along with lecturers interested in starting to offer digital humanities elements in their courses. The goal is to offer students a robust pathway in digital humanities. Finally, the program is developing thesis support for master’s and doctoral students, again in collaboration with students’ home disciplines.

Integral to all aspects of the UCDH program are internships and work placements. The program has developed strong partnerships with organizations and companies in the community that value the skills that technologically fluent humanists can bring to the workplace. The internship program allows many students to gain meaningful work experience prior to graduation, and helps open the doors to rewarding career paths.


The core of the program is a year-long Honours degree blending the student’s home discipline with digital humanities methods. UCDH is also developing non-degree programs for undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral students wishing to incorporate digital approaches into their work.

Other students, from both New Zealand and the United States, have participated in summer scholarship projects involving the Omeka web application and the HathiTrust Research Center. Paul Millar and Chris Thomson worked with Jason Darwin from meBooks to create UC Digital Scholarly Editions. Students were closely involved with digitization, transcription, and text encoding. This project is an ongoing one that underpins the program’s efforts with the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). A variety of local students have participated in internships with local businesses, and summer scholarships working with Chris Jones, Katie Pickles and David Monger from the History department, and Erin Kimber from UC Library. The Canterbury Museum is also a regular collaborator.

As more students participate in the various aspects of the UCDH program, they will have opportunities to drive and contribute to a wide range of collaborative and individual research projects. Already, students have made substantial contributions to two projects related to the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes: the UC CEISMIC Canterbury Earthquake Digital Archive, and the UC QuakeStudies Earthquake Repository.


While the program is still too new to have many completed research projects, students have already been deeply involved in the development of the UC CEISMIC Archive and UC QuakeStudies Repository.

The UC Digital Humanities program is funded in the same way as other New Zealand academic programs, and is thus reliant on student demand. It is in startup mode and steadily developing its student base. The College of Arts BA Internship Program is funded on a similar basis. By coordinating their work, the two teams avoid duplication of scarce resources, and ensure high quality student experiences.


Support for the program is provided internally by the university, and is based on student enrollment.

As the UCDH program grows and solidifies, a strong area of focus will be on equipping students to apply digital methodologies within their home disciplines, effectively supporting broader humanities research initiatives and increasing digital capabilities across the field as a whole. An emphasis on openness and collaboration will help spark interest and engagement, even among those who are not directly involved in the program.

Rather than offering full degrees, the program will provide instruction and tools for students to apply across a range of disciplines, which will help ensure that digital humanities is deeply integrated into the university’s curriculum, rather than separated into its own department. By doing so, the program directors hope to create a vibrant and interdisciplinary digital humanities community across a range of fields.

As enrollment grows, directors hope to see a highly interdisciplinary set of student papers and theses emerging from across the humanities, social sciences, and computer science. As students complete their degrees having been involved in the program, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level, directors hope that they gain employment in a wide variety of positions across cultural heritage organizations, academic research institutions, alternative academic roles, private companies, and government sectors.

Nuts & Bolts

Interdisciplinarity and collaboration are the keys to the University of Canterbury approach.

Interdisciplinarity and collaboration are the key to the University of Canterbury approach. To develop an approach like this:

  • Assume that Digital Humanities can and should be encouraged across all arts, humanities and social science disciplines. It’s important to have a “capstone” course to provide focus and a challenge for especially dedicated students, but inter-disciplinarity is key.
  • Dedicated internship courses are an excellent way to provide hands-on work experience for students, especially when coupled with close academic guidance and support. These needn’t be run out of digital humanities programs if the people involved are eager to collaborate and share resources. In fact, by decoupling the internship component greater synergies can be realised, and the digital humanities program can focus on its core activities.
  • Don’t assume that digital humanities pathways and internships have to be digital. Most University of Canterbury internships are actually analog, which provides a useful point of reference and opportunities for cross-fertilization of people and ideas.