Digital Humanities spread in classroom and beyond

Computer science and the humanities don’t have anything to do with each other, do they? Code belongs in Sci, and books stay in the seminar room, right? Wrong! The two disciplines come together in digital humanities, a set of research methods that takes computer-assisted approaches to disciplines of the humanities. At Swarthmore, the college’s small size and liberal arts focus have produced a rich variety of digital humanities work spanning various departments and have positioned community members to make serious contributions to the digital humanities, even beyond campus.

Associate Professor of English Literature Rachel Buurma ’99 integrates digital humanities approaches in her classroom, as well as in her own research and published work. In Buurma’s “Rise of the Novel” course, which is taking place this fall, upwards of thirty students spend part of each week learning how to use data visualization tools, text mining, and digital mapping, among other computational methods, to analyze individual eighteenth-century novels.

One assignment, for instance, asked students to run a computer program which would extract all mentions of geographical locations from a digital version of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, create a map of these locations using Google’s MyMaps, and compare this map to one included by eighteenth century printers in early editions of the novel.

Now, Buurma’s students are applying text analysis to a wider set of novels in order to situate the smaller set of books read in the class within their greater literary context.

“This is a very canonical history and theory class, so I’ve tried to conceptualize how DH approaches can open it up so that we can test and look at the canonical novels against a bigger world of what people actually read and what printers actually published in the eighteenth century,” Buurma explained.

Buurma noted that she has been impressed with how interested students have seemed and how responsive they have been to her assignments.

“I’m getting more than I’m asking for from many students,” Buurma said. “That’s always true at Swarthmore, but it feels especially true here.”

Assistant Professor of English Literature Lara Cohen’s students, meanwhile, had great success with a digital archiving project in her Early African American Print Culture class two years ago. The project centered on one of the Philadelphia Library Company’s most-requested items, a friendship album kept by a woman named Amy Matilda Cassey. The album was one of several kept by women at the heart of the Black activist community in Philadelphia in the mid-19th century, and includes inscriptions from Cassey’s friends — including Frederick Douglass and other prominent anti-slavery activists — along with original writing and art and material copied out from other sources.

The project culminated in a digital version of the album. For each page, users can view a digital facsimile, a transcription of the text, and a student’s close-reading of that particular page. Cohen’s students also tagged the pages, so users can track different themes across the album.

Cohen explained that the original impetus for creating a digital version was to both reduce stress on the original object and increase the accessibility of the album.

“Scholars are aware of and curious about it, but so few people have access to it, so it seemed as though it would be really valuable to try and make it as easily accessible as possible,” Cohen said.

Cohen described herself as an amateur in terms of digital humanities but said that her interest in digital humanities methods and questions grew as the project continued.

“As we were working on it, the relationships between the kinds of reading practices that the digital makes possible and the types of readings that the album makes possible became increasingly clear to me,” Cohen said.

She explained that the album is at its core about a social network, and much of the text copied from other sources into the album was rewritten in a way to forge social bonds. The creation of a digital version of the album enables a somewhat more historical way of reading it, helping users contextualize its material and understand its references, Cohen said. Readers can click through on the digital version of the album and be linked to newspapers where an original clipping appeared.

Thus, Cohen explained, readers gain a sense of the interconnected and intertextual nature of the album in a way which is not necessarily available if one picks up the album in the library and views it as a singular object.

“That’s what I think is really interesting about the digital: repositioning the album in these networks that would have been much more visible to its contemporary readers than they are to us now…I like that ability to disrupt the kinds of reading processes that we’ve settled into,” Cohen said.

Buurma said that many to most of her fellow English department faculty already integrate or are working towards integrating types of text analysis, digital archiving, or contemporary electronic writing, among other digital humanities approaches, into their curriculum. This process has been mostly informal, but Buurma believes that in the spring the department will begin to think in a more concerted and formal fashion about ways in which to integrate, support, and make sustainable these types of computational approaches. Buurma is also hopeful that new classes in the future might be more fully focused on the digital humanities or adjacent fields such as digital methods, and that a newly formed, informal digital humanities student reading group might serve as a resource for thinking about upcoming curricula.

Digital humanities-inflected work at the college goes beyond the English department. Students in Professor of History Allison Dorsey’s class Black Liberation 1969: Black Studies in History Theory and Praxis created a digital archive of the college’s Black protest movement. The archive “challenges visitors to reconsider the stories that have previously constituted the official narrative and to engage with the black experience of Swarthmore in this critical period,” according to the project website, and includes information from college archives, interviews, personal collections of photographs and other documents, and newspaper records. Creative projects on the site feature an interactive map of the the 1969 sit-in spearheaded by students in the Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society and a visualization of Black student enrollment data. (See the February 12, 2015 edition of the Phoenix for more articles on the class and archive.)

The college’s contributions to digital humanities work are not limited to campus, however. Since 2009, Buurma has worked with collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania on the Early Novels Database, which aims to make eighteenth-century novels more discoverable and searchable by compiling tables of contents and indexes, careful descriptions of prefaces, introductions, and dedications, title-page genre terms, and footnotes from within the texts.

One of the END’s guiding ideas, Buurma explained, is that eighteenth century novels created multiple methods of telling readers about their content, much as the database seeks to do.

        “They gave readers access to their contents in multiple ways, they thought of literature as a form of knowledge that could be discontinuously accessed or accessed for particular reasons,” Buurma said. The END seeks to reanimate this kind of access, making data about the novels more aggregable and searchable.

In this way, the END highlights the relationships between digital and historical reading practices, similar to the relationship Cohen pointed out in discussing the advantages and dynamism of a digital version of Cassey’s friendship album.

        Though the END is a digital initiative, Buurma said, it is a deeply humanistic project at its heart. It is about collecting a specific, controlled set of data which machines can read, but it is also about students creating personal descriptions of early novels.

“It’s not just that we are using digital tools to do something to or with literature but that there’s a kind of poetics of the bibliographic data that’s at the core of the project.” Buurma and her collaborators are currently working to start up a summer node for the project at Columbia University, and that she and professors from Penn and Columbia are all integrating END data into their courses.

Beyond the END project, Buurma, Anna Levine ’10, and Professor and Chair of History Timothy Burke will all be published in the upcoming issue of Debates in the Digital Humanities, an annual publication which seeks to capture and critique current digital humanities issues. Buurma and Levine’s article looks at the relationship between the digital humanities and liberal arts, using Dorsey’s project as a case study of the ways in which undergraduate digital research can be tremendously useful for audiences both within the college and beyond. Burke’s piece focuses on “The Humane Digital.”

Finally, Tri-Co Digital Humanities, a research and teaching collaboration between Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore Colleges, funds faculty research, training in new methods and practices, curricula development, and undergraduate internships and research fellowships. On March 31 and April 1, Tri-co Digital Humanities will host “Re:Humanities,” at Bryn Mawr.  This is the sixth year that the conference — which is the first national digital humanities conference of, for, and by undergraduates, according to the initiative’s website — will be held.

Of course, both challenges and enormous generative possibilities are created in the process of bringing digital approaches and humanistic methods of inquiry to bear upon one another.

With Cohen’s project, making the move from physical object to digital version is necessary work but cannot entirely capture the friendship album’s materiality. The current online version, Cohen said, points to an effort to approximate as closely as possible the original object, though a perfect digital surrogate is not possible.

“When I look at the 3D rendering, all I want to do is hold it, particularly because it was passed from hand to hand and because it’s so affectively rich, I feel like the intimacy of holding the object matters a great deal,” Cohen said. “Digital humanities is cool and valuable and interesting, but it’s always going to be for me tinged with some sadness.”

At the same time, Cohen feels that the album itself predicts its digital future and that the process of digitizing it brings out this very theme.

“So many of the entries are about the slim chances people had of seeing one another again…because mortality rates were higher and the presence of death is always hovering over this album,” Cohen said. “So, so many of the entries are about how writing is an insufficient approximation of physical presence, so there’s a way in which the album itself anticipates the kinds of losses of its own digitization.”

For Buurma, one of the largest challenges posed by digital humanities work is seeing not only the problems but also the advantages.

“A digital facsimile of a text can show you things that holding it in your hands or reading it with your eyes can’t show you,” Buurma said. “There are all kinds of things we can learn about old books and old literature by looking at it in digital form.”

The college may be a uniquely fertile environment for work in the digital humanities.

“Swarthmore people seem very excited about DH and computational approaches to humanities studies,” Buurma said. She explained that the college’s computer science department has expressed tremendous interest in the digital humanities and has been quite open to collaboration.

“That’s a very small liberal arts thing…that’s a great opportunity for me and for teaching and research here that many places don’t have,” Buurma said. “You think of research universities as having the big research resources, you don’t think of liberal arts colleges as the place where new exciting work in fields happens, but of course that happens across Swarthmore, and especially here, we have the conditions to be doing really exciting new work.”

1 Comment

  1. This is a wonderful article that gives the reader the flavor of some of the work of digital humanists at Swarthmore. However, I would like to point out the substantial contributions of the Swarthmore College libraries to the projects mentioned above. In particular, Nabil Kashyap and Roberto Vargas continue to collaborate with faculty and students through projects such as SPEED (with ITS) and various workshops to explore modes of inquiry made possible through digital technologies. And librarians at all three institutions are part of the steering committee for TriCo DH.

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