Digital Humanities Summer School

This year’s iteration of the Digital Humanities Summer School at the University of Oxford starts next week.  I attended the week-long summer school last year, participating in the “Introduction to Digital Humanities” workshop.  Other workshops were centered on much more specific areas within the digital humanities, including crowd-sourcing, musicology, text encoding, linked data, and digital humanities for medieval and renaissance studies.

Based out of St. Anne’s College, my workshop provided an overview of the avenues of possibility within the digital humanities.  Along with a variety of practical applications and examples in different areas, we were also exposed to more philosophical issues regarding the digital humanities as a whole.  Several themes and questions emerged throughout the week:

  • How does digital technology fit in with traditional ways in which humanists conduct research and teach? On the one hand, humanists work in similar ways while using digital technology as an enhancement.  On the other hand, we must confront how our traditional methods are to be revised in these new contexts.
  • In what sense can we do things now that we couldn’t do before? Here we have questions of big data and the potentials of having so much data that we as scholars are forced to change our methods (but also have the opportunity to dream up new projects with analytical capacities that were never before available).  We have using crowd-sourcing and citizen science to both process big data and engage the public in new ways.  We have new ways to visualize scale and time – even as a modernist, I am fascinated by thinking about how digital technology can allow us to understand the vast scale of history in new ways and attempt to grasp it.
  • How do the digital humanities fit in with traditional formal disciplinary structures? Digital humanities projects often cross subject and disciplinary boundaries, or require sharing across boundaries.  Is it possible to create structures that will allow for the digital humanities to spread across all disciplines?
  • How do we build infrastructures that allow us to engage with our materials? Digital change is often viewed as short-term and decisions are made quickly for something that needs exploration and thoughtful development for long-term use.  We also must be concerned with the building of infrastructures that will take into account the huge amounts of data accumulation and try not to close off options for the future even if future needs can’t be predicted.
  • Relatedly, how do we protect our current digital technology output to be used as future resources for historians? When thinking about data preservation, we have to consider how to go about archiving internet sources and other related issues with digital archiving, if we need to keep everything, what is important to keep and what isn’t, and who is making these decisions.  It is difficult to predict what is going to be useful in the future, but the volume of information being generated throughout the world is outstripping the ability to store it.  We need to somehow create distance to be able to make decisions that will have a huge impact on future historians.
  • How far along are we in the development of digitization? Changes in the technology of 3D topography, hyperspectral imagery, embedding metadata, etc., will likely greatly change the experience of examining digitized texts and objects in the near future.  The recreation of the physical with digital technology will certainly be impacted and there are questions that go along with that.  How do we go about describing physicality and use to people who are only exposed to an object digitally?  How do you approximate on a screen what it would have been like to read a specific book, for example?  How do you describe something that had multiple uses over time?  How large is something?  Scale on a screen is difficult to communicate and makes a difference to perceived use (such as the difference between a pocket-sized Bible and one that would be kept on a pulpit).  One interesting example we had in our workshop was a medieval anatomy text that had layers of flaps showing layers inside of a person’s skull.  As it stands, it would be very difficult to communicate such a thing digitally.
  • Relatedly, what different considerations should be in play as we move beyond text-based sources?
  • How will accepted editorial principles develop over time? We have questions over who will be able to access digital humanities products, how open academics should be to let other people use data, and infrastructure issues for the product/data owner.
  • What ethical questions must be considered in the sphere of digital humanities? Privacy is the current big issue here.
  • What can academic departments do to integrate digital humanities? And how should digital humanities projects be integrated as part of an academic career?  This challenges traditional departmental and institutional structures, ways in which academics are encouraged to work, and ways in which academic work is evaluated.
  • What does this look like in the classroom? With increased emphasis on gamification and personalized education, can we also maintain focus on skills we already value, like writing, close reading, and critical analysis?

Most important overall was the message of collaboration.  Lone scholars can’t possibly achieve all that is possible in the digital world.  If we are approaching a question from a humanities standpoint, we also have to make it appealing to the people with whom we collaborate who come from a technical background.  How can humanities research questions be interesting to them so that a partnership can be formed rather than a one-way relationship?  Humanists should not be the ones with the questions and the computer science people the ones with the tools, all the time.  And thinking in terms of teamwork and collaboration, allowing each person to bring their different perspectives and skill sets to the table, will open up so much more potential for what the digital humanities can offer.

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