Digital Humanities: My Introduction 1.2

This post is part two of a three-part series charting my introduction to the digital humanities. My entrance largely follows from attending a seminar that meets twice a quarter on Saturday mornings entitled, “Demystifying the Digital Humanities” (#dmdh). Paige Morgan and Sarah Kremen-Hicks organize the seminar and it is sponsored through the University of Washington’s Simpson Center for the Humanities.

The first post in this series attempted to define the digital humanities by considering some of its values. Today I want to make two points regarding what a digital humanist is and does. First, a digital humanist is not the same thing as a scholar. While the same person may occupy both roles, these roles nevertheless perform distinct tasks. Second, the digital humanist is distinguished by the tool set, and those tools are primarily for the purposes of visualization. So let’s explore these two points in greater detail, and I’ll conclude by looking at one of the many tools you can use in your own introduction to the digital humanities.

Tools, Tools, Tools!

On the last day of our Demystifying the Digital Humanities seminar (May 4, 2013), the organizers drew our attention to something surprising with regards to digital humanities scholarship: it may not be scholarship, at all. Many of those coming to the digital humanities already know how to conduct research, build and organize an archive, and employ “critical thinking” in order to arrive at some conclusions. The final step is often a presentation of these conclusions in the form of a written essay or a book.

Rather than adding data and conclusions in the scholar’s process, the digital humanist multiplies the perspectives and the media. The digital humanist uses tools in order to view and present collected data in the form of a diagram, graph, word cloud, map, tree, or timeline (or whatever you invent). Because a visual image allows us to see the “same” object or data set in a different way, the tool increases the scholar’s range of conclusions. So the scholar must demonstrate significance, but it is the tool that functions as a “bridge” for the sake of achieving that end.

Given the literary scholar’s tendency toward close reading, certainly an abstract diagram of the work(s) will lead to a less insightful reading. But here we are operating as if the tool provides a conclusion, which is the wrong assumption. The tool does not provide conclusions. The tool only allows us to see more at once.

My close reading of a romantic poem might be the most accurate, interesting, or revealing, but if I can see the same information in relation to more texts, across spatial and temporal fields, my tools will make conclusions regarding historical time periods outside my area of specialization. Wrong again! The map or graph only demonstrates correlations, intersections, and divergences. It is then up to the scholar to investigate those areas.

As the historian Mills Kelly says in his contribution to Debates in the Digital Humanities, “instead of an answer, a graph…is a doorway that leads to a room filled with questions, each of which must be answered by the historian [or literary scholar] before he or she knows something worth knowing.”[i] In this sense, the diagram functions like a treasure map that makes the X’s more explicit. And while that map will tell a scholar where to dig, it cannot tell us why the artifacts matter, what they mean, or how they are useful.

If the burden of the conclusion falls on the scholar, the digital humanist has aesthetic and logistic responsibilities. The digital humanist might ask questions like, “What kind of visualization most effectively represents my data?” It will also be important to consider financial issues like cost and maintenance. Often times, visualization software is free. But when depending on others for your tools, there are risks like the issue of ongoing support. If I use an online tool made by a company that suddenly “disappears,” I may have to go shopping. And let’s not forget the attachment people feel for an accustomed piece of equipment. Whatever tool one chooses, the old rule applies: backup your files. If you lose a tool you have only lost the medium through which you represent your information. Lose your information, and—well…

But everything we do comes with risks. To balance your decision as to whether or not you want to use these tools, I suggest having some fun with them first. An easy and fast way to see the benefits yourself is through IBM’s Many Eyes, a website devoted to free visualization software. The disadvantage is that Many Eyes’ visualizations must remain online; on the other hand, the site is so easy to use that you can test the water within minutes.

Below is a screenshot of a word tree I made from the Lyrical Ballads. In order to generate the tree, first I use the browser in the “data sets” to find the Ballads, which someone had already uploaded. Then I click the “visualize” button and select the first diagram option, “word tree.” From here I can enter any word from the Ballads that I want to explore. The 1800 edition begins with an “old grey stone,” so I enter “old,” which catches 47 hits. A diagram appears illustrating all the instances of “old” and how it connects to the words around it. Now imagine doing this with hundreds or thousands of texts. Many Eyes won’t tell you what all those connections mean; rather, it allows you to see them in the first place.

OLD in LB 2013-05-10 at 5.42.16 PM

For a closer look at this image, click here.

Rather than “new,” the word that best describes the advantage of digital tools is “more.” A Concordance to the Poems of William Wordsworth does something very similar to my word tree above because the book also supplies all the instances of “old” in Wordsworth’s poetry. But with digital tools, I could add the concordances to Virgil, Spenser, and Milton, as well as those writing manuals, law documents, and political pamphlets. Then all of these texts can be incorporated into the same visualization. In a way, these possibilities make me less nervous about the future of scholarship. Now I can see more ways of lengthening the narratives I was already generating, and find more to explore.

Beyond aiding our own scholarship, the visualization helps communicate what we do as scholars to a broader audience. The thing to remember is that the tool is not a justification in itself and it does not make one’s role as a scholar more relevant. But with these tools we can better demonstrate the power of the media we study to others using a medium held in common across discipline lines. Equally important, by working with these tools, we are in a better position to illustrate the necessity of the scholarship that actually makes these images meaningful.

The Demystifying the Digital Humanities seminar ended last week, but I hope that Paige and Sarah are able to continue these valuable workshops in one form or another in the years to come. For my final post in this series, I will discuss how I have attempted to incorporate the digital humanities into the course I am teaching this term, some of my success, as well as my failures.


[i] “Visualizing Millions of Words.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 2012. 402-03. Print.