A Carleton Family Convocation Story

By Joseph Mathieu

Born to a family of academics, Jenna Herdman wasn’t sure she wanted to follow her parents’ subjects but knew she wanted to delve deep into study.

In August, she completed her MA in English with a specialization in Digital Humanities and immediately began her PhD in English this September.

“The strong research opportunities and faculty support of the Department of English just made me want to stay,” she says.

Her interests in politics, history, and creative writing, led Jenna to Dalhousie in 2010 where she took an Honours BA in English, journalism and political science. Near her graduation, she knew she wanted a master’s but wasn’t sure where until she discovered the digital humanities program at Carleton.

Soon Carleton changed from just “back home” to her top choice for continued education.

“I don’t know if we had any influence on her coming back,” says her father Chris Herdman, “but it’s always hard when your kid goes away so we were quite happy.”

The unique interdisciplinary field of digital humanities was the draw for Jenna. By expanding the study of language, society and culture with the technology of the 21st century, digital humanities offers new answers to the same old research questions using digital tools.

“I’m working on producing and studying digital archives of 19th century texts, and how digital remediation offers innovative new methodologies for looking at print culture,” she says.

Brianna Herdman, Jenna’s youngest sister, also chose Carleton for her undergrad studies, and has just started her third year in History. The sisters grew up walking through campus as kids, exploring the tunnels, and attending camps in the summer. Living in Old Ottawa South, the family walks to campus together if their schedules align, and often spend family dinners talking about university events and current issues.

“Mom’s office is three storeys up from mine,” says Jenna, “and dad’s is not far away. Grad school can be alienating for a lot of people, so having family close by and a support system is invaluable to me.”

Both her parents work on campus in the departments of Cognitive Science and Psychology. Jo-Anne LeFevre, the director of the Institute of Cognitive Science and Chris Herdman, the scientific director of Carleton’s Centre for Visualization and Simulation have done research together into reading skills and aviation psychology. They met as PhD graduate students at the University of Alberta, and shared an office together. In 1998 they moved to Ottawa to work at Carleton.

“It was very unusual to get two academic jobs in one place,” says Chris. “But we had made up our minds, we were going to be upfront with the universities that we wanted to come together.”

With their daughters born in 1992 and 1996, Carleton was often considered a staple of family life. However, it was important for Jo-Anne and Chris that their daughters find their own interests.

“Certainly Jenna’s always been an academic-oriented person, even as a kid. She was a very serious reader and writer,” says her father, who notes that in Grade 6 Jenna published her first letter to the editor in The Ottawa Citizen about the importance of funding public libraries. This letter was re-published in The Globe and Mail.

Each member of the family helps the other to learn about different disciplines and research. Both Jo-Anne and Chris read each others drafts, Brianna reveals what she learns of Russian history while Jenna shares what she’s deciphering from the 19th century.

“You can always learn from your kids,” says Chris.

“And I see now how important cognitive science is in everything I do,” says Jenna.