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The Promise of Digital Humanities

September 28, 2011

WASHINGTON — “Secret plan to replace human scholars with robots,” read Brett Bobley's first slide.

“Oops!” exclaimed Bobley, director of the office of the digital humanities for the National Endowment of the Humanities, feigning embarrassment. The audience, made up mostly of NEH grantees, laughed. They were here at the endowment’s headquarters on Tuesday to celebrate their roles in forging a new frontier for the humanities -- a category of academic fields at risk of turning fallow for lack of public support.

Humanities research is often derided as gauzy and esoteric, and therefore undeserving of tax dollars. Amid financial crises, humanities departments at many public universities have been razed. But even amid cuts, there has been a surge in interest in the digital humanities -- a branch of scholarship that takes the computational rigor that has long undergirded the sciences and applies it the study of history, language, and culture.

“While we have been anguishing over the fate of the humanities, the humanities have been busily moving into, and even colonizing, the fields that were supposedly displacing them,” wrote Stanley Fish, the outspoken professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, on his New York Times blog in June.

“Everyone loves digital humanities this year,” said Bobley, citing the praise from Fish as the cherry on top of a steady stream of positive media coverage, which has buoyed public interest in humanities research that uses new, technology-heavy approaches to distilling meaning from old texts and artifacts.

The NEH held a symposium on Tuesday for 60 recipients of its 2011 Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants, most of whom were given between $25,000 and $50,000. They were allowed two minutes each to describe their projects.

Some were oriented to teaching history via role-playing games. Heidi Rae Cooley, an assistant professor of new media studies at the University of South Carolina, presented one such project, called “Desperate Fishwives.” The game “intends to introduce students to the kinds of social and cultural practices that would have been in play in a 17th Century British village,” Cooley explained. Students will be tasked with accumulating resources, completing social rituals, and solving some societal ill “before church or state intervene,” she continued. Afterward, students would render a prose account of their experiences — “and thereby learn of the nature and complexities of historiography.”

Lisa Rosner, a professor of history at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, presented her concept for a role-playing game called “Pox in the City.” The game has similar educational goals to “Desperate Fishwives,” although Rosner’s has to do with public health in 19th-century Edinburgh. Players can assume the roles of doctor, patient, or smallpox virus.

Other projects, while less whimsical, had to do with enabling learners to “experience” historical events or places instead of reading off a page. John Wall, a professor of English at North Carolina State University, said he is trying to recreate the spatial and acoustic dynamics of a sermon in St. Paul’s Square in order to better understand the likely effectiveness of the “public preaching” that emerged as the preferred method of public relations for church and political authorities in early 17th-century London.

Representing Data

Some grantees are trying to create visual representations, not of physical spaces, but of data. Several are looking to superimpose demographic and historical data onto geographic maps. One recurring theme in the presentations was the need for “linked open data” — types of research data that are tagged and stored in such a way that they can integrate with other research.

Linked open data could have the same leveraging effect that the World Wide Web had on computing, said Micki McGee, an assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University. For example: If one researcher had architectural data about New York City, and another had demographic data about the city, and each were able to cross-reference the other’s data with her own, it would deepen the context and understanding for both. The Web allowed thousands of computers to stop talking only to themselves and start talking to each other, McGee explained. With linked open data on the rise, the same could soon happen with research data, she said.

In addition to making humanities research richer, this could also make it more relevant to non-academics, said Bobley, the NEH digital humanities director.

“I think there is a real attempt in the digital humanities to broaden beyond academia and make information widely available,” Bobley said in an interview. “Linked open data is a very technical infrastructure, but the result of that is information that’s shared widely for free. A lot of scholarly data over the last hundred years or so is locked up in expensive journals that the public could never afford to subscribe to.

“We’re quite happy about how the digital humanities is, in some sense, opening up the scholarly world to a wider audience,” he said.

That could be the key to winning back support for the humanities, suggested Doug Reside, associate director of the Maryland Institute for Technology and the Humanities at the University of Maryland at College Park.

“I think that’s the way we will continue to make humanities scholarship relevant and sustainable into the future,” Reside told Inside Higher Ed. “That really is the way the rest of the world is going, and if we’re not performing those functions, then humanities as a whole are in even greater danger than they already are.”

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

 

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