Focus on digital humanities: Initiatives bring technology to diverse disciplines
When you consider medieval literature, perhaps you imagine crackling sheets of vellum with the florid black handwriting of scribes, interspersed with colorful drawings. You probably don’t think of software or coding.
But technological tools and computational methods are playing an increasing role in the analysis, teaching and preservation of medieval literature and history, along with a wide array of other liberal arts fields, thanks to an emerging phenomenon known as the “digital humanities.”
During the past several years, the digital humanities has taken root at Binghamton University, thanks to collaborative efforts that include Harpur College of Arts and Sciences and the University Libraries.
“A lot of contemporary scholars who work in fields like English, philosophy, history and art history have become interested in data-driven methods, computation, and using the internet to disseminate their work in very new and dynamic ways,” explained Professor of Art History Nancy Um, Harpur’s associate dean for faculty development and inclusion.
Researchers in many disciplines are already collecting data and working on projects that would benefit from the digital tools currently available, said digital scholarship librarian Amy Gay. However, the wealth of options can feel disorienting and scholars interested in learning about them may not know where to start.
Enter the Digital Humanities Research Institute (DHRI), which began in 2019. During this weeklong, hands-on workshop, faculty members and advanced graduate students learn about the tools available to humanities scholars and receive training in their use, from generating a visual model of topics that emerge from a corpus of thousands of texts or coding in Python to scrape data from the web.
There are other initiatives in the works, too, including a potential digital humanities graduate certificate and an undergraduate minor in digital and data studies. Overall, the humanities stand to benefit from the influx of new technology and the new ideas they can potentially unearth.
“A great thing about the humanities is the analytical thinking that goes with the project; that really helps when it comes to the technical side,” Gay reflected. “You have to look at your research, your data or your texts in different ways. A lot of these tools and platforms are ways to make things more engaging and interactive.”
Support is the crucial ingredient in the success of digital scholarship, and Dean of Libraries Curtis Kendrick hopes to build that at Binghamton. His vision: building a community of practice around digital scholarship, coordinated by the library and supported by funding.
Prior to arriving at Binghamton in January 2016, Kendrick served as dean of libraries for the City University of New York (CUNY) system in New York City. The CUNY system is strong in digital scholarship, with hotspots of innovation seeded throughout its 20-campus system.
“It takes time and resources in order to make things happen, and I think it’s important for the library to be the place that’s doing that,” he said. “Otherwise, what ends up happening is that you get little pockets developing in different places around campus and they will pick different technologies that aren’t compatible.”
To that end, the library provides both the technology and the expertise to the campus. One major initiative is a pilot digital scholarship center, which opened in 2020 in the Science Library. In addition to providing a flexible, open space for collaboration, the center will also offer software and hardware, workshops, trainings and consultations. The library is also in the process of adding another digital scholarship librarian, so more help is on the way for researchers seeking to access these tools.
“Digital scholarship is a pretty wide open field, and no one place can be all things to all people,” Kendrick said. “We have to figure out specifically what digital scholarship means here at Binghamton, and what we need to invest in. Having a pilot digital scholarship center can help give us a better sense of where we need to make those investments, and help grow the community here at the University before our next Digital Scholarship Center is ready in 2024.”
“We’re only at the beginning of what’s possible, as far as new avenues for discovery and investigation,” Kendrick continued. “For scholars at Binghamton who are interested in pursuing what is possible, their first step should be the libraries. We’re prepared to provide the assistance they need to get started.”
Organized by Um and Gay, DHRI’s goal is to reach out to faculty members and advanced graduate students who are interested in topics ranging from coding languages to data visualization, but who lack the knowledge or confidence to use these techniques.
“We feel really strongly that we need to provide some scaffolding so that faculty members can develop their own capacities and hopefully bring these methods into the classroom,” Um said.
Digital publishing, podcasting and digital storytelling have been popular options, as well as mapping and the creation of multimedia exhibits. For literature scholars, there are several web-based tools that can analyze a corpus of text, showing the relationships between words and concepts through visuals such as bubble charts, word clouds and line graphs.
Databases and tools covered during the DHRI sessions included ArcGIS, Python, Tableau, Google Sites, R, GitHub, Command Line and tools for textual analysis such as Voyant.
“There is so much rich written material out there within humanities fields. Just by utilizing these types of digital tools and computational methods, you can really see research in new ways and have more engaging projects in the classroom,” Gay said.
Many of the methods behind the digital humanities involve calculation, an area where computers excel. For example, an individual human being wouldn’t be able to process 10,000 books at once, searching for specific phrases — a task that a computer can accomplish in minutes.
Scholars at the University already use these tools in their research and the classroom. During her time as a scholar in residence at the Getty Research Institute, Um first witnessed large-scale provenance research that involved digitizing records of artwork bought and sold in the 19th century. With these records, scholars could trace the lineage of particular paintings and the pathways they traveled, conduct quantitative analysis and collaborate with one another on open source platforms.
In the field of medieval literature, Assistant Professor Bridget Whearty is currently finishing a book about the digitization of medieval manuscripts called Digital Codicology: Medieval Books and Modern Labor. Whearty, who attended the 2021 DHRI, plans to create a digital supplement to her print book that will include full-color digital manuscripts — many presses only print books in black and white — as well as other aspects of her research.
She will also use digital tools to chart usage trends for a particular phrase in journal articles across a hundred-year span, as well as run a long poem written in the 1430s through multiple textual analysis tools to see what she learns — about the poem and the tools themselves.
Some of the techniques covered in DHRI are ones she currently uses in the classroom, such as having students render their essay drafts into word clouds to chart the concepts therein. Students also use mapping tools to situate medieval texts in both time and space, grounding their knowledge in a period that spans more than a millennium and a good deal of territory.
“One of the problems with teaching medieval studies is that everything gets kind of foggy and blended together; it’s all very long ago and far, far away,” she said. “But if students see how timelines and maps get built, if they are the ones who are building them, then they get to pick what data points are relevant and meaningful for the work that they’re doing and the questions they’re asking. Ultimately, we all just want our students to be empowered and digitally literate, and be able to use these tools to craft whatever futures they want for themselves.”
Maps and more
The 2021 institute drew faculty and graduate students from both Harpur and the College of Community and Public Affairs with diverse interests that included both research and instruction. In addition to workshops, participants from the 2019 workshop returned to share their projects and discuss how they have continued to apply the tools and concepts they learned through DHRI.
At the 2021 event, doctoral candidate Madelynn Cullings discovered a range of digital tools that she can use as a historian to read and interpret primary source texts, including Tableau, which offers unique ways to analyze and interpret textual data. She also learned some day-to-day best practices, such as how to work with the command line for storing and managing files on her personal computer.
“This was an incredible experience and one that contributed to my personal growth as a researcher and instructor,” Cullings said. “Having the opportunity to work with and benefit from the experience of Nancy Um and Amy Gay provided the chance to experience the direct applications and impact that technology will undoubtedly have in shaping trajectories of research and publication.”
A medievalist in the history program, doctoral candidate Jessica Minieri joined DHRI this summer to further her research in medieval women’s history. The skills she developed in Tableau and ArcGIS will prove invaluable for her current research project: building a digital map that shows the geographic and chronological positions of Europe’s regent queens from 1300 to 1500. The map will help visualize the location and ultimately the importance of female rulers in medieval European governments, she explained.
During DHRI, she also completed an exercise in the creation of digital timelines that she plans to use in the classroom. Minieri is currently a teaching assistant for a course on the Crusades, and she plans to have students lay out the chronology, along with the reigns of monarchs in Crusader kingdoms and other pertinent medieval events.
“I found the DHRI to be such a useful workshop and I look forward to continuing to get to use the skills that I learned there in my dissertation work and teaching for years to come,” Minieri said. “I encourage anyone at Binghamton who is interested in digital humanities to participate next summer!”