Digital Savvy Humanists

Members of a new generation of digitally savvy humanists argue it is time to stop looking for inspiration in the next political or philosophical ism and start exploring how technology is changing our understanding of the liberal arts. This latest frontier is about method they say using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials that previous humanities scholars did not have.

A history of the humanities in the 20th century could be chronicled in isms – formalism, Freudianism, structuralism, post colonialism — grand intellectual cathedrals from which assorted interpretations of literature politics and culture spread.

These researchers are digitally mapping Civil War battle fields to understand what role topography played in victory, using databases of thousands of jam sessions to track how musical collaborations influenced jazz, searching through large numbers of scientific texts and books to track where concepts first appeared and how they spread and combining animations, charts and primary documents about Thomas Jefferson’s travels to create new ways to teach history.

Hoping to find the beef the National Endowment for the Humanities teamed up with the National Science Foundation and institutions in Canada and Britain last year to create the Digging Into Data Challenge a grant program designed to push research in new directions.

Analyzing unprecedented amounts of data can make patterns and trends and raise unexpected questions for study.

The emerging field of digital humanities is probably best understood as an umbrella term covering a wide range of activities, from online preservation and digital mapping to data mining and the use of geographic information systems.

Most humanities professors remain unaware, uninterested or unconvinced that digital humanities has much to offer. Even historians who have used data bases before have been slow to embrace the trend. Just one of the nearly 300 main panels scheduled for next year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association covers digital matters. Still, universities, professional associations and private institutions are increasingly devoting a larger slice of the pie to the field.

The humanities and social sciences are the emerging domains for using high performance computers.

In Europe 10 nations have embarked on a large scale project, beginning in March, that plans to digitize arts and humanities data.

One of the endowment’s grantees is Dan Edelstein an associate professor of French and Italian at Stanford University who is charting the flow of ideas during the Enlightenment phase. The era’s great thinkers –Locke, Newton, Voltaire — exchanged tens of thousands of letters. Voltaire alone wrote more than 18,000.

Where were these networks going? Did they actually have the breadth that people would often boast about, or were they functioning in a different way? We’re able to ask new questions.

One surprising revelation of the Mapping the Republic of Letters project was the paucity of exchange between Paris and London.

Online network of maps:

The online network of maps is distinct from most scholarly endeavors in another respect: It is communal. The traditional model of the solitary humanities professor, tolling away in an archive or spending years composing a philosophical treatise or historical opus is replaced in this project with contributions from a global community of experts.

The ease with which a community can collaborate on the production of scholarship is something that is fundamentally changing the way we do our work. Digital humanities is so new that its practitioners are frequently surprised by what develops

When the collected published works of Abraham Lincoln were posted online a few years ago, Director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, Daniel W Stowell, said the expected historians to be the most frequent visitors to his project’s site. But he was surprised to discover that the heaviest users were connected to Oxford University Press, editors of the Oxford English dictionary had been searching the papers to track down the first appearance of particular words.

People will use this data in ways we can’t even imagine yet Stowell said that I think that is one of the most exciting developments in the humanities.

Source: HRM