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Move over, computer science nerds. Academic researchers in history and literature are increasingly adopting the techniques of the hard sciences to glean new insights into their research. It’s a field known as “digital humanities,” and some say it could transform the way scholars do their jobs. Tech Tuesday explores the possibilities of this new type of scholarship.
- Bill Ferster Director, VisualEyes, University of Virginia
- Brett Bobley Director of the Office of Digital Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities
- Dan Cohen Associate Professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University and the Director of the Center for History and New Media
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. Math, computer science, data analysis, they're not subjects you'd expect to spend a lot of time studying if your college major were history or literature, but technology is rapidly changing the ivory tower, and the humanities are no exception. At universities all over the country, data mining and other high-tech techniques are being used by scholars to find new patterns and trends and materials that are often centuries old. They're turning those findings into sophisticated maps, charts and other visual representations of their research. You can see what we're talking about if you go to our website, kojoshow.org. It's generating lots of excitement, but more than a few furrowed brows as well among old-school scholars.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk about this relatively new field of digital humanities is Brett Bobley, director of the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Brett, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRETT BOBLEYThank you, Kojo. Great to be here today.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Bill Ferster, director of VisualEyes at the University of Virginia. That's a Web-based tool to make it easier for scholars to create interactive visualizations of their work. Bill is also a faculty member in the Curry School of Education and Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. Bill, thank you for joining us.
MR. BILL FERSTERGreat. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us, Dan Cohen, associate professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University and director of the Center for History and New Media. Thank you for joining us, Dan.
MR. DAN COHENGreat to be here.
NNAMDIIt's your conversation. You can join it too by calling 800-433-8850. How do you think digital tools will change university research? 800-433-8850. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Let's start with a definition. How do you define this field that's being called digital humanities? Starting with you, Brett.
BOBLEYSure. What -- Kojo, you know, the humanities covers a large number of academic disciplines that most people studied in high school, things like history and literature, philosophy but also things like archeology and linguistics. But every one of those fields is being dramatically changed by digital technology. If you think about the things that you study in these fields, historians might study newspapers, and literature scholars study books, all these things are becoming increasingly digital. You've got millions of newspapers online now, millions of books being digitized. So digital humanities is really applying digital technology to doing traditional study and also trying to determine how do you use technology best in a classroom setting. So it's really about both the research and the education.
COHENI'm gonna agree with what Brett said. I think that really digital humanities is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of practices that apply digital media and technology to things that are going on in the academy ranging from education, classroom to research mode, scholarship and finally to the communication of those results both between scholars and to the general public.
NNAMDIAnd for you, Bill Ferster?
FERSTERI think I agree with both of them in terms of the fields and things like that. I think really what it is, is the Internet has really pushed digital humanities a lot further than just digital itself. I would say that that's been the biggest driver of the digital humanities at this point.
NNAMDIHow old is this field? When did it begin?
FERSTERWell, it depends on who you talk to. Actually, Dan and I were -- and Brett were talking earlier that that Roy Rosenzweig theoretically started using a Kaypro computer in the '80s. I guess, I would say -- think probably the '90s, early '90s is probably when it really began in earnest with -- really with the Internet coming out, you know?
COHENI think it can stretch back even farther really when we think about it to practices that really started with the origin of the computer. There were people doing humanities computing as it was called, even starting in the 1960s. I think, as Bill and Brett have said, what really has led to an explosion of work in the digital humanities is the Internet and the fact that these primary sources of our research in the humanities have been digitized and put online. And scholars, like everyone else in the world, are encountering these things online and wondering the ways in which they can make better use of them, again, in the classroom and in their own scholarship.
NNAMDISpeaking of making use of them, you've each been involved in a number of different projects that use digital tools to look at a topic in a different way. Starting with you, Dan, tell us a little bit about what you've done about the titles of British books published in English in the 19th century.
COHENSure. Well, we've been fortunate enough, the Center for History and New Media which Roy Rosenzweig founded, who Bill just mentioned a moment ago, to get a series of grants to do text mining on books. And text mining is a practice that comes from computer science where you take large masses of texts that have been digitized, OCR, which is a fancy way of saying transcribed from images of pages to the text on those pages. And you try to run algorithms and various other computational methods on them to extract patterns and anomalies and things that might give you a hint about how the past worked, how change occurred over time.
COHENWe recently got a grant from both -- the NEH gave us a very generous grant to study text mining among average working historians, as we call them, how they might use these techniques which we're borrowing from the computer sciences. And that has led to a subsequent grant from Google to study, in particular, Victorian books. And what we did is, we took 1.6 million Victorian books, which actually is about all of the books in the Victorian age, all English-language books printed in the United Kingdom in the 19th century, and we ran a bunch of experiments on them.
COHENOne that I'll briefly give, is we looked at something that historians often talk about which is called the Victorian crisis of faith, the fact that so many people in the 19th century in Britain experienced a crisis, a feeling that they weren't sure if the church was for them. The Bible seemed to be coming under criticism, literary criticism, historical criticism. And so there was a great deal of handwringing about this, and this is often talked among historians. But for this time, for the first time, we’re able to take over a million books and look at them all simultaneously. And what that showed us when we grafted, as you mentioned, when we go -- moved to a moment of visualization is that in the 1840s and '50s, terms like God and Christian actually were in many more Victorian titles than at the end of the century.
COHENIn fact, the graphs which you can see at victorianbooks.org are really striking. Nearly 2 percent of books published in 1840 had the word Christian in it. 1.2 percent of all books had the word God in it in the title. By the beginning of the First World War, those numbers were reduced to .4 and .3 percent, just a -- it's a very small fraction of all literature covering those topics. So for the first time, we’re able to see this trend, really a broad stroke.
NNAMDII know I'm gonna have to stop saying this after a while but the scope of the research does boggle the mind. After a while...
COHENIt really does.
NNAMDI...it has to stop boggling my mind. Bill Ferster, can you tell us a little bit about what's been going on at VisualEyes?
FERSTERWell, we've been doing a variety of different projects. VisualEyes actually is an NEH-funded project where we use it to take data, primary source data -- and when I say data, I'm using it in a broader sense than just numbers. It can be documents. It can be letters. It can be movies, if there were movies at the time, and let the data actually present the -- a story to -- for a scholar. And we've typically done it for scholars. We've done it in terms of classroom work too where we'll take a group of undergraduate students, fourth year history majors, and take a particular topic. For example, we had -- there was a neighborhood in Charlottesville that that was raised for urban renewal.
FERSTERAnd so we were able to get, through a Ford Foundation grant, the information from the housing appraisals for all those 145 houses in that area. And so we've got -- basically, have the students looking through all that data and making a visualization of it so we could reconstruct this neighborhood that was a vibrant African-American neighborhood in the '30s but no longer exists in Charlottesville at all. Actually, there's an Omni Hotel there, and I think there's a Wendy's and a few other non-descript things, and went through and tried and to figure out why this happened. And we've got -- found some interesting things about that in terms of the way that these neighborhoods are typically zoned, and that was a problem. And also the effect of the elevation, how that affected the property values and things like that.
NNAMDIThat's in Charlottesville?
FERSTERIn Charlottesville, yes.
NNAMDIYou also had a project which created visual representations of Thomas Jefferson's travels.
FERSTERYes. That was the first one we had actually done. The -- it was called Jefferson's Travels, and it -- we -- basically, the webmaster at Monticello suggested this because he had said, you know, it's interesting that Jefferson -- we know exactly where Jefferson was and when at any given time in his life. The man really wrote down pretty much everything. So we partnered with Monticello itself. And this was again done in the context of the undergraduate class where the students researched a trip that Jefferson took in 1786 to England, and they basically went through his memoranda book, and working closely with the historians at Monticello, were able to come with the visualization that was able to show what he did during that six-week trip, which had some interesting things. And were not quite as illuminating as "Vinegar Hill" but interesting nonetheless.
NNAMDIBrett Bobley, a year or so ago, the National Endowment for the Humanities created something called the Digging into Data Challenge, a global competition to inspire scholars around the world to come up with innovative new ways to use technology. What came out of that?
BOBLEYWell, we had actually quite a few very interesting results from that project. I think one of our goals -- I mean, Kojo, you mentioned a moment ago, that it kinda boggles the mind when you think of all this data. And, in fact, I think any of your listeners that Googles something, if you think about that, that is mindboggling in and of itself, and you can almost think of Google as being an example of these types of projects, in that it's searching millions and millions of pages across the world to try to find that one word or two words that you're looking for. And we wanted to bring to bear that type of technology to humanities research. So we got together with a number of other research agencies in both in Canada and in the U.K. We kinda put out this challenge to the world. We said what kind of amazingly cool research can we do at the large scale, at the mindboggling scale? And a number of really interesting projects came out of it. I'll mention one of them.
NNAMDIFirst and foremost, you only expected about, oh, maybe 20 teams to respond.
BOBLEYYeah. I mean, honestly, it's a pretty ambitious project because it involves not only humanities scholarship but some very advanced computer science as well. So you're absolutely right. We -- I kinda figure, well, maybe, there will be 20 different groups around the world that will know how to do this. We had about 90 groups apply, and these are big teams from around the world. In fact, most of these groups are probably two or three different universities working together in a big team. So we were blown away by the interest in this, an interest from all across the humanities and the computer sciences and the library sciences. And I mean, I'll give you an example of one of the projects.
NNAMDIOh, yeah, please.
BOBLEYIt's called Towards Dynamic Variorum Additions. Now, what the heck does that mean?
BOBLEYHere's how it works. It's pretty cool. What they want to do is they're -- they've digitized all these works, you know, ancient Greco-Roman works. So imagine you've got the works of Plato in your hands but not in your hands, on the screen, and you might find a phrase that Plato once said. And you can actually click on it, and it will search the entire Internet and gigantic digital libraries and find every time any other book ever quoted that same phrase. But here's the magic, not just in Greek, in other languages as well. So maybe, thousands of years later, a German writer wrote a book in which he quoted Plato. You'll actually be able to see how these ideas from Plato filtered down through history and impacted people and organizations and groups that you never had any idea to look. So it's sort of like Google in the sense that -- sometimes you'll search for something on Google and it'll find a page, and you'll say, gosh, I wouldn't have thought that that person would come up on that page. It finds new context and it shows you how idea is moved.
NNAMDISo if somebody says to you, Plato influenced scholars throughout the centuries, and you say, oh, I don't believe that. Prove it. You can now prove it.
BOBLEYYou can now prove it. And that's a terrific point. In a lot of ways and, you know -- Dan's a historian. He can tell me if he agrees with this or not. But oftentimes, historians have to base things on a fairly limited amount of evidence because a human being can only read so much in your lifetime, but a computer can read an unlimited amount of information. In fact, the folks at Tufts University that are leading that project were telling me that they've already found a remarkable influence of the Greco-Roman world on Arabic philosophy which wasn't obvious at first, but they're finding more and more influence. And these new computerized techniques are helping them find that sort of connection.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. But it's a Tech Tuesday conversation about how history meets high tech, the digital humanities. Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What impact do you think this research will have on history and on the social sciences? 800-433-8850. Or you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, and e-mail to email@example.com or join this Tech Tuesday conversation at our website, kojosjhow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Tech Tuesday. We're talking about how the digital environment is changing the nature and scope of research in the humanities. We're talking with Bill Ferster, director of VisualEyes at the University of Virginia. He's also a faculty member in the Curry School of Education and Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. Brett Bobley is director of the Office of Digital Humanities with the National Endowment for the Humanities. And Dan Cohen is a professor in the department of history and art history at George Mason University. He's also director of the Center for History and New Media. We were talking about how my mind was boggled by the scope and scale of these events. Dan Cohen, you wanted to say something?
COHENSure. I'd like to boggle your mind a little bit more.
COHENLet's take the exercise as a historian. Brett brought up this fact of historians just straining under the weight of so much being digitized and having to sort through these things. An example I'd like to give is of the poor presidential historian who wants to write a book on the Clinton White House. So Bill Clinton's White House, eight years, of course, is very different than the White Houses before it because it started to use e-mail, actually rather aggressively. And it turns out that just on their main e-mail server, there are 40 million e-mails that came in and out of the White House. So you can't do, as a historian, what we used to do in the '50s, where you could go to an archive and spend a few years leafing through the boxes and the folios one by one as you look at these White House memos.
COHENYou simply can't do that anymore. You know, the back-of-the-envelope calculation that I always give my students is, if you read one e-mail a minute with no sleeping, have plenty of coffee, as historians like to do, it would take 76 years to read every single e-mail. (laugh) So you can no longer do it. It's just a fact now of our life, that this mass digitization has simply has simply just changed the way that we'll have to go about our work. And I think it brings up what you brought up right before the break, which is that it also, in addition to the computational work, it requires large scale collaboration. And I think that's very exciting and unusual in the humanities. Because in the humanities, I think we've been used to, for generations, the fact of writing a book by yourself, writing an article by yourself.
COHENIt turns out that only about 3 percent of history essays, history articles are co-authored. Whereas in the sciences, there are -- most articles have many authors. So I think we're just now sort of approaching the kind of world that has existed in the sciences for many years, where you have labs like the ones that Bill and I work in, that have high levels of collaboration between programmers and database administrators and web designers and historians and researchers. And I think that's a very positive thing.
NNAMDIWe got a post on our website at kojoshow.org from someone who didn't want to be identified. Is this kind of digital research trickling down to undergraduate courses in the humanities? Are there opportunities for humanities majors to learn skills in information systems and perhaps gain some very useful marketable skills in the process? Or is this kind of research only now happening among a few professors and perhaps graduate students? Bill Ferster.
FERSTERActually, it's very much accessible to undergraduates, and we've done a lot of work with undergrads even the last couple years teaching first year, you know, freshmen students this kind of technology. It's valuable for them in terms of their future skills and also, really, what we're trying to teach them how to do is to do research and to look at all the resources out there. And there are new tools now. The Internet has provided a bunch of tools and -- but they're still old tools too. They're still -- we still send people to the courthouse to look at records and things like deeds and records, and we send them to actually talk to other people. It's still a valuable skill even in the age of Google, although to do it without Google would be hard. But no, we've done a lot with undergraduates and it's something we've focused on quite a bit at UVA.
NNAMDIOn to Doug in Arlington, Va. Doug, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOUGHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call.
DOUGI usually always hear politicians, now more so than ever, but they've always said things -- how we needed to get back to how our founders originally intended for our Constitution. But really our natural response is which founders since they were all pretty much -- it was hard to find them all united under really one topic. So it'd be really interesting to have a project where you have all the letters, all the Constitutional documents, all the ratification conventions digitized and then you'd be able to actually do data mining and looking to see the different things that they thought about different topics. Is there anybody, any institution that has a large collection of any of those?
COHENYeah. I'm glad you brought this up. Actually, we have a terrific collection that everyone who's listening to this program can go visit right now. It's called the Papers of the War Department. It's at wardepartmentpapers.org and it's a project of the Center for History and New Media that has digitized, basically, the record of the early American Republic from 1784 to 1800. It is an incredible archive of 55,000 handwritten letters by people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And it really gives everyone, for the first time, access to an archive that actually burned down in 1800 and was lost for nearly 200 years.
COHENAnd so another part of digital humanities is recreating lost primary sources like this. We were able to build on some work that was done by Ted Crackel, who then ended up heading up the George Washington Papers Project, who went around the country with graduate students and photographed all of these clerical copies of letters and then took them and bundled them up. We brought them to the Center for History and New Media, they were digitized and put online. We have our graduate students going through and adding what's called metadata or information about those letters, as well as some limited transcription and we're working on a tool to transcribe the rest of these letters. And so for the first time, you can do exactly what the caller says. You can look at the actual words of these founders and many others as they make their way in a very young America.
NNAMDIDoug, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIThe website, wardepartmentpapers.org, we'll provide a link to that. We've already got a link to the Victorian Books Web page at our website, kojoshow.org. So you can find it there. You'd like to join the conversation, call us. 800-433-8850. What impact do you think this research will have on history and on the social sciences? Let's move on to Nancy in Silver Spring, Md. Nancy, your turn.
NANCYHello, hey, thank you very much. I'm just wondering how far this search goes to, for instance, find of the writings of Plato quoted in people's books. I wrote a book called "Yoga Doll: And the Secret of the Moss-Covered Key to Atlantis." And I quoted a Plato's -- the story of Atlantis, the basic story of Atlantis as it was told to, stolen by the priests in Egypt. And I quoted the whole basic story. I was just wondering, how far, how low do you get? I mean, do you get an all kinds of exterior books or is it just...
NNAMDINobody would consider your book obscure, Nancy. But here is Brett Bobley.
BOBLEYSure, sure. The project I mentioned, the folks at Tufts University they're -- who are also working with a university in the U.K. and a university in Canada are currently working in partnership with the Internet archive and the Internet archive has digitized well over million books now. However, they're focusing right now on books that are in the public domain and they're doing that largely for copyright reasons. So if your book was written before 1924, and I'm guessing the caller's book was probably not -- then I'm guessing your book, probably, would not be included in the list. However, the technology that they're developing would certainly enable it to search books that are in copyright but they'll have to iron out some of those legal issues first.
NNAMDIWhen was your book written, Nancy?
NANCYWell, I -- my book was written in -- let's see, well, yeah. In '96, I finished it.
NANCYSo, at any rate, well, anybody has permission to quote my book anywhere.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Nancy. You too can call us. 800-433-8850. If you've already called, stay on the line, we'll get to your call. If you haven't yet, you can make that call now. I'd like to read to you a quote from a piece that ran in The New York Times a few months ago. In that piece, writer Patricia Cohen says, quoting here, "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." What do you make of that? Is this merely a method of doing research or an entirely new way of thinking and of viewing the world, Bill Ferster?
FERSTERWell, I think it is a fundamentally different way of looking at the world. It allows you, as Dan had mentioned earlier, the ability to do collaborative work and I think that's a big change, the ability to get access to a lot of documents and things that you weren't able to have before. And I think those kinds of things are fundamental game changers in how we think about these things.
NNAMDII'd like to hear what our listeners think. Do you think this is a fundamentally different way of viewing the world? Because John in Arlington doesn't seem to think that it does. His e-mail says, "My opinion is that digital humanities is an invented marketing term used to generate attention and hype in advance of funding for what is at the end of the day, humanity. It would be more accurate and less hype to say that what you are talking about is using digital tools to support the study and teaching of humanities. We don't need more hype than we already have to deal with every day." How would respond, Dan Cohen?
COHENSure. While naming fields is always sort of controversial. I think there was a subsequent New York Times' article in which some Harvard scholars renamed the digital humanities Culturomics, which someone on my Twitter feed said, sounds like an '80s new wave band. (laugh) And...
NNAMDINot bad. (laugh)
COHENYou know, so I think, sure there's -- you know, it's a name. I think it's a helpful name to be honest, but I also think it may imply -- and I think the caller -- I would agree with the caller here that perhaps this is a one- or two- or maybe three-decade project, where digitally savvy humanness figure out new methodologies for doing this work. And then the work becomes what most humanity scholars are doing all along. And I actually don't think there's a conflict between the digital humanities and the, I guess, analog humanities. I think we work together. We work with lots of historians, who are -- who don't know the technology. And I think it's just a complimentary project to really understand the way in which information technology can enhance and extend what we've been doing for generations.
NNAMDIWell, you used the term digitally savvy historians. What kinds of skills does one need to do this kind of research? It sounds like computer science and math are now more important and certainty in the future to humanity scholars than they used to be. What do you say, Bill Ferster?
FERSTERWell, it's not so much hard-core computer science and math. But it's a new awareness of how to use the digital tools that are out there. They're more consumer-oriented rather than programming per se. Although, obviously, the further you wanna get into it, the more you'll need true computer science programming skills. But things like Google Docs and they built -- and Flicker, and there are a bunch of consumer item -- things out there that allow people to make all kinds of things and use these advance tools, spreadsheets, and things like that are out there without a lot of advanced training. And it's actually very successful now. I think that's why it's becoming so interesting, and why the potential is so big at this point.
NNAMDIBrett Bobley, your job actually has the name digital -- the term digital humanities in it. Is this kind of research still on the fringe? How many university scholars are actually engaged in this work?
BOBLEYWell, I think at this point, if you were to look at the -- all the humanity scholars out there, it's still a relatively small number of people that would call themselves digital humanity scholars, because it is a specialty of a sort, you know? As Dan and Bill implied, certainly over time, some of the cutting-edge work that digital humanity scholars are doing is trickling down to students and other folks and other professors, et cetera. I do think that there will always be some advanced work going on. Technology isn't going anywhere. There are some humanity scholars who were working very closely and very collaboratively with computer scientists, information scientists, using super computers and using very advanced technology on new kinds of research that, perhaps, isn't research that the average humanity scholar would be embarking on themselves, but over time, will become more than enormous. Tools are developed that can be use by more general scholars.
NNAMDIBut Dan Cohen, how do I get tenure? This is what we got from Matt by way of e-mail. "I'm a history grad student, expected to write a dissertation on my own, which will hopefully be turn into a monograph. It sounds like all the projects you are mentioning involved multimember cross-functional teams of librarians, computer scientists and historians, working under very large institutional grants. Is there a concern that as history goes digital, either new historians or historians working at small or less endowed institutions will be priced out of the market? There is no way for me, as a grad student, to hire a number of computer scientists and work under a lavished NEH grant. A second question, since new histories hires are judged on the basis of their own research for tenure purposes, isn't this collaborative co-authored high-tech work something that new historians should avoid, at least until they obtain tenure?" Dan Cohen.
COHENThat's right. Well, tenure is the first question that when historians get together in a group, it's the first concern that comes up, right?
COHENI feel your pain. I do think that there's a few things that should make you feel better about this. The first is that, as a -- I think I was just hinting. Part of what we're trying to do, at least at the Center for History and New Media, is to create digital tools that bridge the gap between what the average-working historian might be doing and what the more digitally-savvy historian might be doing. So, we, for instance, have two open source free tools that anyone can use. One for displaying digital collections and contextualizing them called omeka.org, free download. And we have another called zotero.org, where you can get a digital research tool that allows you to do some of the things we've been discussing today.
COHENSo we're trying to create tools that actually make it easier for the scholar at, let's say, a small liberal arts school, to do this kind of work. And I think we'll continue to do that. The question, I think, though, is the worry about the book. And I think that is a big and important question that we'll have to tackle in this generation. I think everyone is used to, in graduate school, writing a dissertation that then becomes a book, that then gets them tenure and so forth. There's kind of nice flow to it. And I think we're going to have to get used to the fact that we might be doing work that will require, I think, more sophisticated parsing of what counts, what's good -- and that includes collaborative digital work.
NNAMDIHow do you address this in your own career?
COHENWorking very hard, I think. (laugh) Brett can tell you that. Digital humanity scholars work very hard. We have to do a lot of different things that we actually weren't trained for in graduate school. One of the things, actually, we're trying to do at Mason is to include advance new media training for graduate students, so that they have an easier time at it than we did. We had to pick up all these skills, programming and Web design, database administration, text mining skills. So we had to learn all that on the job, because we just didn't get it in graduate school.
NNAMDIMatt, we're inventing it as we go along here. Here is Frank in Bowie, Md. Frank, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
FRANKOh, hi. My name is Frank. I have a group called the Catholic Association of Scientists and Engineers. And we're very interested to a historian named Pierre Duhem, who died about 100 years ago. But he did some of this digital mining the hard way by going through all the libraries in France and looking at the medieval text and trying to find out how the physicists in the old days before Newton and all that worked. And he found an awful lot. He's got 10 volumes of published stuff. And I'm wondering if you guys are gonna translate it because it's all in French.
NNAMDII don't know if anybody has yet applied for a grant or gotten a grant to do that, but you may have given Brett Bobley a new idea. (laugh)
BOBLEYIndeed. We are -- here at the NEH, we have an entire division at the NEH called our division of preservation and access. And their job actually is to find important materials that humanity scholars might want to study or the American public might want to study, and digitize them and make them as widely available as possible, things like presidential papers, the papers of famous historians and scientists and the other. So we do indeed have a grant program for that. But whether or not anyone is working on that particular project, I don't know.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Frank. You might want to make that application yourself. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on what's being called digital humanities. I'm inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What is your understanding about digital humanities and how do you think it's likely to affect the future of research on history and the social sciences? 800-433-8850 or just join the conversation at our website kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIAnd the Tech Tuesday discussion on digital humanities, where history meets high tech. We're talking with Dan Cohen, he is a professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. He is also director of the Center for History and New Media. Bill Ferster is director of VisualEyes at the University of Virginia, a Web-based tool to make it easier for scholars to create interactive visualizations for their work. He's also a faculty member in the Curry School of Education, and Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. And Brett Bobley is director of the Office of Digital Humanities with the National Endowment for the Humanities. Your calls, 800-433-8850. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the people working in digital humanities are all young people who are now early on in their careers. Is that the case in your experience, Bill?
FERSTERActually it's almost quite the opposite. It gets back to the earlier question about tenure, to some degree, is that at least historically, the younger faculty have to concentrate on the book and the articles and refereed articles and have to -- really don't have the time to do it. So traditionally, the people that have really pushed out digital humanities have been fully, full professors and already tenured professors.
NNAMDIOh, okay. That absolutely makes sense. (laugh)
FERSTERBut young ones like it too.
BOBLEYYeah, I think Bill makes a good point. It's certainly a mixture. There are plenty of young scholars who are very tech savvy, who are definitely important figures in the digital humanities field. But I'll give you an example. I was at the annual digital humanities conference this summer, and many of the papers were being given by young researchers. But one of the best papers I saw was by Lewis Lancaster, who is an emeritus professor at Berkeley. And I don't think Lou would mind me saying, I think he's a elderly gentleman, and Lou actually kicked off his paper by saying, I'm pretty sure I'm the oldest person here at this conference. (laugh) But he then went on to give one of the best papers. He is actually using very advanced computational techniques to study ancient Buddhist documents. So I think it's a range, a range of ages in the digital humanities.
NNAMDIHere is Ian in Rockville, Md., who I think has a warning of sorts. Ian...
IANHi. Yes. My name is Ian Bates and I've actually been a -- I'm a physicist by trade. And I joined under this interesting research project where they were using fractal analysis, specifically measuring the dimensionality of a fractal and then applying that to Jackson Pollock paintings.
IANAnd unfortunately, this happened in a very prestigious academic journal called Leonardo. And unfortunately, all of these people were making these vast claims that were in a sense just drivel because they did not go in depth as to the computational methods that they are using. And as result, it leads to many misguided claims, a lot of like money wasted and time wasted on, like, academic research for people receiving funding for, what, in a sense, just a moot endeavor.
NNAMDISo you're saying that the professors and others, research or graduate students who are doing this kind of research in the digital environment need to have a clearer understanding of the computational systems that they're using in order to acquire this information?
IANNo. I believe that that is, in a sense, the cornerstone for what's giving legitimacy and to the study of humanities. But the danger is in what the humanities are claiming as result of representing whatever data set they have into a number. And that is, in a sense, like what causes so many travesties is that we see when we work with abstract data, like in the financial markets or unfortunately, any sort of social media that we see popping up, like, I don't know. It's just this availability of information and being able to associate abstract concepts to numbers is on the one sense, very necessary for the scientific progress, but on the other sense it's a risky endeavor.
NNAMDII'm not sure I understand how this would apply in the humanities, Dan Cohen.
COHENSure. Well, I think the risk that the caller is talking about is that by moving into a quantitative mode, let's say for our own project to reduce Victorian books down to just a graph, that somehow we lose sight of the underlying work of real people, the writing of real people. And we're very cognizant of this fact. I think as in all fields, there's going to be troubling work in digital humanities. I know there's troubling work in regular humanities, things that -- theses that don't pan out. So it's not just in the digital humanities. But I think there is a risk that we take the computational means too far and we disassociate it from the underlying primary sources.
COHENSo for instance, in our Victorian Books Project we are going to be sure in a second phase to then actually go down from the clouds, from this bird's eye view of the overall 1.6 million books down to specific titles and specific trends in very small regions, sort of micro-climates of books. So they get down to the actual books and read them as historians. So I don't think that there is a conflict again between what is sometimes been called distant reading and close reading, which is what we've been doing forever.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Ian. Here is Peter in Arlington, Va. Hi, Peter.
PETERHello, Kojo. Thanks for having me on.
NNAMDIYou're welcome. Go right ahead.
PETERYes. I'm a graduate student right now working on a doctorate in biblical studies. And of course the Bible is one of the most influential books in the Western culture. But the problem is, is that the interpretive tradition -- and you can find interpretive tradition, you know, written down all over the place. It's in, you know, monks. It's in church fathers. It's in medieval scholastics. It's in Victorian novels, as they said earlier. I'm just wondering if any of the guests anticipate that there'll be a search engine in the future that would enable you to, you know, to find how a given text has been received, you know, down through the centuries because, right now, the task is, you know, almost undoable, you know, except in a really superficial way.
BOBLEYI think the answer is a definite yes. (laugh) I think the point you raised is a very good one, that doing studies like you mentioned, biblical studies, involves text of all kinds, handwritten text, computerized text, from -- located at libraries and archives all around the world. That kind of study, traditionally, has involved, honestly, a lot of travel, going to musty archives, reading a lot of documents. And even so, it's hard to get your arms around the vast quantity.
BOBLEYI think that, over time, you will see more and more of sort of the human record digitized, and more and more development of search engines and other technologies that will help you search that information. As Dan was alluding to earlier, that doesn't replace reading the documents. But tools like Google and others can sometimes help you identify and find documents that you didn't know were there before, that you can then investigate more closely for your biblical studies work that you're doing.
NNAMDIPeter, thank you very much for your call. Dan Cohen, there's collaboration and then there's, well, collaboration. You've suggested that modern technology could allow the process of reviewing a scholar's work to be more open and collaborative. It's my understanding that idea created quite a backlash from some academics. Please elaborate on that. I read The New York Times piece that you wrote...
NNAMDI...and, frankly, thought there would be a backlash. (laugh)
COHENSure. I've been a strong advocate -- and, actually, all of us at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason have been strong advocates for what's been called open access, which is really a process of opening up scholarship to the wider world. It was part of the DNA of the center that Roy Rosenzweig gave us. He was a huge proponent of democratizing the writing of history and the access to history. And so we have been a proponent of it. I think that putting things on the Web and allowing other people to access it makes it less of a clubby feel in the humanities. And I think...
COHENYeah. I think, too often, humanities scholars just like talking to the 10 or 12 people worldwide that work in their little subfield. But I think in this day and age -- and I think, frankly, it relates directly to some of these funding questions that are going on right now in this economic crisis that surround the humanities. I think it's a good idea to get our work out there, get it in front of lots of people and have them contribute, you know.
COHENI think if you've got a project on the American Civil War and you put that material online, there's lots of incredibly intelligent amateur enthusiasts that are out there in the world that can make very cogent arguments and would love to have access to your materials and don't have the kind of access to the gated resources, the resources that are online but that are behind pay walls to get access to scholarship. So I think this is actually part of digital humanities. It's also saying there may be a new way that we can go about our work with the general public.
NNAMDIAnd the responses you got?
COHENWell, (laugh) you know, academics are a funny bunch, and I think they're also people who are a little bit thin-skinned. They don't like to get criticism. And there's a great worry that I saw in some confidential e-mails of, you know, well, when you open it up, what will this riffraff say about my prized work? So I think that's to be expected.
COHENBut I have to say, in many years of doing this, anytime a professor has decided to take this route, has decided to, for instance, start a blog, they have been rewarded with, I think, a tremendous influx of really good comments not only by the general public, but I think, just as importantly, from other fields within the academy that they would never have commerce with otherwise. I hear from people who are computer scientists, who are librarians, archivists, from people in psychology and various other social sciences that I wouldn't hear unless I put my work out there on the Web for anyone to access.
NNAMDIAnd I guess David, who contacted us via Facebook, would definitely approve because David's question is, "Shouldn't these datasets," all of the projects we were talking about earlier, "Shouldn't these datasets be saved with a creative commons license so they remain in the public domain?" Brett Bobley?
BOBLEYYeah. In fact, I completely agree. You know, certainly, the Digging into Data program I mentioned earlier, we do actually have a requirement that all of the grantees make the work that they create free and open so that others can share from them. And when we digitize projects -- when we digitize books and newspapers and things like that at the NEH, we strongly encourage and, in fact, give preference to projects that make them as widely available as possible. We want every American to be able to get access to things like the papers of George Washington and other important documents from our history.
NNAMDIHere's Ron in Arlington, Va. Hi, Ron.
RONHi, Kojo. I'm running a podcast for the last five years called "Mister Ron's Basement." I read public domain humor mostly from the 19th century, mostly gathered from newspapers and old books that I get from the Internet. It's over 1,800 episodes. I'm doing it strictly for the fun of it. It's not through any academic institution. One of the things I've discovered is that there are some sources out there that are very closed off to the public. I won't mention the name of who owns it, but there's a database of 19th century American and British newspapers that I had six weeks' access to. And it's simply not available if you're not a member of an academic institution that subscribes to it. And the thing is, is the stuff's in the public domain and there's no other way to get to it unless I want to check from city to city and look through newspaper more. More and more of this stuff needs to become...
NNAMDIUh-oh, we lost your last word, but I'm assuming that you're saying more and more of this stuff needs to become available to the public in the public domain. And what I am seeing around the table is nods of agreement. Brett Bobley?
BOBLEYI might mention to the caller that the NEH has a terrific joint project with the Library of Congress, and it's called the National Digital Newspaper Project, and you can find that at chroniclingamerica.org. And basically, what we're doing is we're taking newspapers from all around the country, old newspapers, and digitizing them and putting them up on the Web for free. And that is a growing resource. Every year, we're adding thousands of additional pages, and you can go to the Library of Congress website today and access all of those for free.
NNAMDIWe got an e-mail from Katja (sp?) , who says, "I'm a recent graduate of Mason's History Department and wanted to respond to a previous question about teaching undergraduates how to understand and work with this kind of technology. So many of my professors were truly excited about how New Media is changing the way we record and study history and incorporated digitally managed media at multiple levels of our coursework. As students, we got practical experience tracking down and then keeping track of digital resources and using New Media to support our peers' research objectives. We use these digital resources in conjunction with more traditional historical research. I logged plenty of hours with microfiche and archive boxes. And with the job market being what it is for recent grads, my ability to navigate and evaluate seas of digital information has been my most marketable asset. So thank you, Dan and Professor Shreck (sp?), Carton (sp?), Hamdani and Moore for your fantastic work at George Mason University." It seems that this region is a real hot spot for this kind of research. Is this just a fluke or is there a reason for that, Bill Ferster?
FERSTERWell, I think it has more to do with the personalities that were involved in it. We were actually talking about that before the show. I think for whatever reason that Virginia, because of Ed Ayers and Jerry McGann and some other people early on in the '90s, started doing digital research, digital humanities work, and then Roy Rosenzweig over at George Mason and Neil Fraistat over at Maryland. For whatever reason, it's -- they...
NNAMDIIt's centered in this region. Bill Ferster is director of VisualEyes at the University of Virginia. He's also a faculty member in the Curry School of Education and Arts and Sciences at University of Virginia. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIBrett Bobley is director of the Office of Digital Humanities with the National Endowment for the Humanities. Thank you for joining us.
BOBLEYThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIDan Cohen is a professor in the department of history and art history at George Mason University, and the director of the Center for History and New Media. Dan, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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