Humanities in the Digital Age
Humanities in the Digital Age
From “Arboles de textos” (“Textual Trees”) by Santiago Ortiz. Published with permission of the author.
When Scott Weintraub thinks about digital humanities, he thinks of conversations — and, sometimes, trees. The assistant professor of Spanish is working on a book titled “Latin American Technopoetics: Scientific and Poetic Explorations,” an examination of how a number of Latin American poets are engaged in a “bidirectional dialogue” with a variety of scientific disciplines, mathematics and computational methods.
Those conversations manifest themselves in compelling, dynamic ways. Weintraub points to Santiago Ortiz, a Colombian digital poet who took four poems about trees, created an algorithm to measure the length of each word in each poem, and used the results to create digital “trees” out of each poem, with the longer words acting as the trunk and shorter words as the branches. The resulting project is called “Arboles de textos,” or, “Textual Trees.”
“He was trying to find some relationship between the length of a word and its semantic importance,” Weintraub says. “But I’d say there’s a more interesting narrative about science and the humanities being created in that project.”
Weintraub is just one of dozens of faculty and staff at UNH who are exploring and charting new territory in the constantly-evolving digital humanities landscape. For the uninitiated, digital humanities (usually known by its abbreviation, DH) looks at traditional disciplines like philosophy, linguistics, language, history and others, through the lens of computing, digital materials and other scientific areas.
Or put another way, it’s why students and colleagues passing by Weintraub’s office may see him reading a book on genetics so that he can better understand the relationship between DNA coding, computer coding and poetics.
“I see links between these disciplines and like to see what happens when you put them in conversation,” he says.
Digital humanities can take many forms. While Weintraub is studying digital poetics, associate professor of history Julia Rodriguez created the database HOSLAC — the History of Science in Latin America and the Caribbean, a digital collection of primary sources that was launched in 2010. And associate professor of English Siobhan Senier is using the field to see how indigenous communities use digital platforms to preserve, transmit and produce their own cultural heritage. Senier edited the anthology “Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England” in 2014, and as she worked on the manuscript, she knew that the project would need to live on outside the confines of a printed publication. That led to the creation of dawnlandvoices.org, a digital literary magazine that serves as a companion to the anthology.
“When our book came out close to 700 pages, we still hadn’t scratched the surface of all the writing we had found by Native Americans in New England. Taking this online gives us a place for tribal historians to start uploading the massive materials they have in their own collections, while also encouraging emergent writers to keep publishing their work,” she says.
Senier, Weintraub and others bring digital humanities into the classroom. Senier’s students have created Wikipedia entries for Native American authors who weren’t previously represented on the site, built digital exhibits of Abenaki baskets on display in local museums, and met virtually with Native authors and historians. Weintraub’s students, meanwhile, have turned poems into multimedia objects and written “hyper-papers,” papers with links to websites and other digital annotations that enrich their research.
History professor J. William Harris recently partnered with Bill Ross, special collections librarian at the Dimond Library, for a student-led digitization project. Ross and Harris’ students worked on transcribing and digitally annotating dozens of letters from Civil War soldiers that the library has in its collection.
“They had to do research knowing that … other people in the future would be counting on them to get the material right,” Harris says. “I think some of them felt more anxious about the project than anything they’d ever done — this responsibility to be the historian and not just learn the history.”
Collaboration is at the heart of the digital humanities, Harris says, and the project showed students how far that effort reaches.
“To (transcribe the letters) on a massive scale is not possible unless you have lots of people working collectively, so that’s what sets it apart,” he says. “Students could do it individually, one letter at a time, but in order to make the resource available to the world, they have to do them all, because one letter at a time doesn’t really provide the context researchers need.”
Collaboration between faculty members working in digital humanities is already taking place. The Digital Scholarship Working Group, co-chaired by Ross and associate professor and scholarly communications coordinator Eleta Exline, began meeting last year. The group is “focused on trying to figure out what the Library’s role might be in providing digital scholarship support,” Exline says.
That support might take different forms, according to Exline, from connecting faculty to different resources, maintaining digital exhibits and databases, or helping to train the next generation of researchers in the digital humanities.
As the conversation around the digital humanities develops, Weintraub believes the sciences and the humanities have a lot to learn from each other. While the sciences can provide “repeatable, reliable information about the way we use languages and the way culture circulates in large scale systems,” he says, the humanities show the sciences that “there are things that escape the rational, cognitive, computational model.”
And that’s important, especially in the current cultural moment, in which lawmakers and pundits are positioning science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the STEM fields — as the top priority in education.
“(Digital humanities is) not the end all, be all savior of the humanities … but it definitely has provided us a lot of opportunities to grow as scholars, thinkers and as human beings,” Weintraub says. “Whenever there’s energy driving in a positive way to build bridges across disciplines, I think it’s a very valuable endeavor.”